Dr John Waller, Michigan State University: 'How much do ideas matter? The role of biological myths in the creation of social and ethnic hierarchies'

Historians of science have provided innumerable examples of the use of biological concepts to glorify certain people and to dehumanize others. For some, biological conceptions of human difference are tightly linked to the economic interests of dominant groups, while others lay greater stress on the power of ideas, acting at least somewhat autonomously, to shape social and ethnic hierarchies. This paper is informed by a quasi-empirical research project which, by drawing on scores of examples from ancient Greece to modern America, seeks to understand (a) the degree to which certain ways of talking about imagined human differences do relate to the interests of dominant groups and (b) the extent to which ideas about allegedly inherent difference have been necessary for the creation and maintenance of systems of social, political and economic inequality.