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Biologie der Juden: Jüdische Wissenschaftler über “Rasse” und Vererbung, 1900–1935, by Veronika Lipphardt. Berlin: Vandenhoeck & Rupecht, 2008. 360 pp. $35.15.
Thoroughly documented and written in clear prose, Veronika Lipphardt’s Biology of the Jews: Jewish Scientists on "Race" and Inheritance, 1900–1935 offers a comprehensive, detailed, and nuanced history of writers of Jewish descent who wrote on race in the German language from the turn of the 1890s into the early Nazi period.
The book comprises an introduction, four main sections, and a conclusion. The introduction sets out the main questions of the book, its theoretical approach, and a short overview of existing research on the topic. The first, relatively short, section provides the wider context of the biologization of Jews within the massive biologization of society, culture, and history in the latter third of the nineteenth century, mapping out the disciplinary terrain of biological sciences around 1900, and addressing the question of the role of antisemitism in the academy at the time. The second section deals with the controversies over the existence of “Jewish biology,” split into two major phases, from 1900 to 1915 and from 1916 to 1933. The third section addresses the cases of several writers through analyzing questions of identity in their work, and the fourth section offers an analysis of institutional dimensions in the scientific discussion of Jewish biology.
Rather than attempt to summarize the historical account, I wish to draw attention to two important facets of Lipphardt’s book: first, authors of Jewish descent as a historical subject, a “thought community,” and, second, institutions that never came into being.
While focusing on writers of Jewish descent, reviewing scientific publications as well as archival correspondences, the book’s methodology is derived from the history of science. Yet Lipphardt’s starting point is the biographical background of the authors whose works she examines, rather than their respective versions of science or disciplinary preferences. Indeed, Lipphardt’s approach is based on several historical-methodological assumptions which she discusses rather briefly. Maybe the most important one, based on sociological conjecture, is that as authors of Jewish descent belonged to a stigmatized minority, they can be grouped together. Most of Lipphardt’s account is a historical interpretation of the works of such writers. Interestingly, many times the account centers on “couples” made up of Jewish and non-Jewish authors—Elias Auerbach and Felix von Luschan; Richard Semon and August Weismann; Franz Boas and Eugen Fischer. These couples stood in close cooperation, controversy, or dispute, operating in biological or anthropological discourses that were themselves dynamic and undergoing deep transformations. The result of the premise, however, is that Lipphardt groups together writers who differed sharply in their views on science, biology, culture, or Jews. Lipphardt’s “twist,” in a certain sense, which the reader only grasps at the end of the book, is that she disproves, in a certain sense, her own premise.
Following the cases of different writers— including Ignaz Zollschan, Franz Weidenreich, Willhelm Nußbaum, Franz Boas, and Arthur Ruppin as well as numerous prominent or less prominent others—Lipphardt shows that apart from their shared Jewish descent (which, too, she emphasizes, comprises of a spectrum of identities and forms of religious, national, or ethnic identification or affiliation), these writers in fact shared no common scientific denominator, differing in their views on biology, race, or Jews. Authors of Jewish descent could be found across a wide spectrum of disciplines, theories, and assumptions concerning biology, race, and the biological or the racial identity of Jews.
Lipphardt employs Ludwig Fleck’s notions of scientific style and Denkkollektiv, concluding that at least until 1918 authors of Jewish descent did not constitute a Denkkollektiv, as they did not share a specific scientific style, a common strategy, or a set of views on biology, race, or Jews. This, in a certain sense, is a significant historical conclusion. Individual writers of Jewish descent are integrated in different ways in the whole natural science research community (p. 303). Lipphardt strengthens the conclusion with the observation that the most prominent writers of Jewish descent in the field, such as Paul Ehrlich and August von Wassermann (p. 309), in fact hardly related to anything Jewish throughout their career and the topic was of no special interest for them. This changed in the 1920s, as against the background of German nationalistic and racist discourses the scientific atmosphere became tense and aggressive and authors of Jewish descent increasingly were forced to take a much more defensive stance.
One might contrast this conclusion with Pierre Birnbaum’s very different interpretation. If Birnbaum, who focused on the works of scholars in the humanities and social sciences, sought to demonstrate the existence of subterranean Jewish traditions in science or scholarship, Lipphardt ultimately analyzes the works of authors of Jewish descent as a heuristic device to map out the terrain of discussions on the biology of the Jews in anthropology and the natural sciences in German up to the Nazi period.
In methodological terms the most innovative and original part of the book is its last section, which deals with failed plans by authors of Jewish descent to establish programs or institutes for the study of the biology of the Jews. Lipphardt’s intriguing perspective on abortive attempts, failed beginnings, projects that never materialized for lack of funding or other reasons, shows that in the 1920s and 1930s authors of Jewish descent attempted numerous projects for the biological or racial study of Jews. The wider context of these attempts is not, however, a spontaneous interest in the biology of the Jews but the radicalization of the antisemitic and racist discourses in Germany and Austria in which Jews were stigmatized and the legitimacy of their science questioned. Lipphardt uses these mostly forgotten or unknown attempts to study processes of what she terms “Othering” and “Selfing” (p. 244) within scientific work. Closely examining plans that did not materialize as well as the correspondences between initiators of these plans and persons and institutions with whom they corresponded, Lipphardt demonstrates a great increase in these efforts in the 1920s and 1930s. While these individuals were at different stages of their career, were guided by different scientific assumptions and different ideological goals, and envisioned and planned greatly different projects (in scope and in aims), they all operated within a scientific and social environment that was becoming increasingly unstable and which increasingly found no place for them.
Lipphardt’s book is a major contribution to the growing literature on the intersection of modern European history, modern Jewish history, and history of science.
University of Haifa