Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 41, Issue 1, pp 37–80 | Cite as

Freud’s Lamarckism’ and the Politics of Racial Science

  • Eliza Slavet


This article re-contextualizes Sigmund Freud’s interest in the idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics in terms of the socio-political connotations of Lamarckism and Darwinism in the 1930s and 1950s. Many scholars have speculated as to why Freud continued to insist on a supposedly outmoded theory of evolution in the 1930s even as he was aware that it was no longer tenable. While Freud’s initial interest in the inheritance of phylogenetic memory was not necessarily politically motivated, his refusal to abandon this theory in the 1930s must be understood in terms of wider debates, especially regarding the position of the Jewish people in Germany and Austria. Freud became uneasy about the inheritance of memory not because it was scientifically disproven, but because it had become politically charged and suspiciously regarded by the Nazis as Bolshevik and Jewish. Where Freud seemed to use the idea of inherited memory as a way of universalizing his theory beyond the individual cultural milieu of his mostly Jewish patients, such a notion of universal science itself became politically charged and identified as particularly Jewish. The vexed and speculative interpretations of Freud’s Lamarckism are situated as part of a larger post-War cultural reaction against Communism on the one hand (particularly in the 1950s when Lamarckism was associated with the failures of Lysenko), and on the other hand, against any scientific concepts of race in the wake of World War II.


Sigmund Freud Moses and Monotheism psychoanalysis Lamarckism evolution heredity racial science Jewish identity Nazis Bolshevism Ernest Jones August Weismann Paul Kammerer 


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The author is very grateful to Geoffrey Bowker, Sander Gliboff, Brigid Hains, Marcel Hénaff, Cheryl Logan, Hillel Schwartz and JHB’s anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of California, San Diego (UCSD)La JollaUSA
  2. 2.BrooklynUSA

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