Darwin sought to not only to produce a new scientific truth, but also to put an end to polygenism, the current scientific discourse on human origins that gave tacit and at times explicit support for slavery: ‘... when the principle of evolution is generally accepted, as it surely will be before long, the dispute between the monogenists and polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death.’ (Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, p. 235)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

BOOK REVIEW Wailoo, Keith, Alondra Nelson, and Catherine Lee, eds. Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History.

Wailoo, Keith, Alondra Nelson, and Catherine Lee, eds. 2012. Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. ISBN: 978-0-8135-5255-2.

[Another short review of this work will appear in Contemporary Sociology]

What a pleasure to review a timely, serious, and yet accessible critique of what one editor refers to as “the social life of DNA” - a life that has only broadened and intensified since the decoding of the human genome was coupled to the marketing of DNA analysis. Such analysis have given us unique insights into human evolution, medical treatments, and for many consumers, genealogies establishing ethnic, racial and personal identities.

The three introductory essays by the editors each present a different perspective – or better, an avenue of approach – to the constellation of knowledge that unites DNA, genealogy, history, the authority of science, the scientific ideologies of race, and the all too frequent effacement of gender in the search for origins and identity. This “social life of DNA” is clearly not meant as a simple rhetorical flourish or mere abstraction. Instead, it is used here as a description of the multiple social positions which derive authority from genetic data, on the one hand, while on the other hand, the phrase describes the varied knowledges that can be derived from the collection of genetic material: personal and familial history; differences and affinities with others, groups, and populations; and the means to construct a vision of our own past lives as embedded in the history of human migration and variation.

The editors’ essays nicely frame the important themes of the collection. What is for some – i.e., those few with the capital to access to the technologies and not the vast multitudes who are instead put to use as mere components of populations – the genomic era is one in which genealogical connections are simultaneously essential while also deeply ambiguous in their complexity. This is especially true for those who can claim multiple ancestries, as Wailoo demonstrates in “ Who Am I? Genes and the Problem of Historical Identity”.

Any one of us has multiple pathways for building a strong historical sense of self. Genetic analysis offers its own multiple pathways of self-knowledge. In some ways, the social logic of ancestry if not so different from the logic of genetic ancestry, for both depend on selective data that require us to make deliberate human choices in reconstructing the past. Both also depend upon complicated social machinery that makes the past available to us in the present. Finally, both depend upon assemblages of arbitrary databases, mixed with suppositions and memories.... (Wailoo, 20).

In circumstances of intense social conflict, genomic knowledge promises to provide a basis for recognition and reconciliation (Nelson). In such circumstances, genetic knowledge might very well serve to undermine or shatter illusions of racial/national/ethnic superiority or exclusivity – a perspective which may have been at the bottom of Bill Clinton’s declaration that the decoding of the genome had shown race to be an outmoded concept. Genomic knowledge offers itself up as a positive social force, promoting inclusion and recognition along with the possibility for reconciliation and reparations for past injustices:

With reconciliation projects, the insights of genetic science are applied to the discovery or confirmation of ancestry in the hopes of securing social inclusion, including rights and reparation. But to what extent can DNA identification be efficacious for African diasporic and/or racial reconciliation? What might be the consequences of the genetic mediation of African diasporic cultural politics that have historically involved social movement tactics and civil rights organizations? ....reconciliation projects also raise interesting and fraught contradictions: they threaten to reify race in the pursuit of repair for injury; they suggest how justice pursuits can be uneasily intertwined with commercial enterprises; they may substitute genetic data for the just outcomes that are sought, and indeed, they demonstrate well that facts may not, in and of themselves, secure justice” (Nelson, 29)

So, not all is bleak nor are we heading irresistibly towards a velvet neo-eugenics, but neither do we have any assurance that another bar is not about to be welded to the Iron Cage.

Catherine Lee’s essay “The Unspoken Significance of Gender in Constructing Kinship, Race, and Nation” reminds the reader that while the meaning and use of race is central in the unsettled genomic era; categories and assumptions about gender are called into question, but left unresolved and under-examined. For example, in the tracing of genealogical descent by male linage, a practice where women appear as breaks or gaps in the genealogical line of descent. The effacement of gender in genealogical practice brings claims of descent into question these are, finally, claims about the descent and distribution of property as they are about genetics.

People conceive of nations as imagined communities, wherein members can conceptualize links to one another across time or generations or space that are preternatural.... We can also see the ways in which DNA testing, in the context of the family, can literally transform the family into a microcosm of the nation.... Genetic genealogy that ignores complex gendered processes is not unlike other nation-building activities, which rely on the symbolic and physical work of men and women’s bodies while denying the existence of such efforts” (Lee, 36-38).

After the introductory pieces, the second section provides more involved descriptions of the methods of sample collection and the science of genetic analysis. As such, the essays in this section are very goods examples of making complex genetic knowledge accessible to a wide range of readers. The various authors raise the question: What are the effects of genetic science in the courtroom, medical research, in the production of knowledge, for identity claims, and perhaps just as important, as commercial ventures? These essays also highlight the pitfalls and limitations of using genetics to make historical claims about personal ancestry, racial origins, and human history. Using as one example the recent work of the International HapMap Consortium, Peter Chow-White’s “The Informationalization of Race” discusses the creation of populations and paradox that the genome’s destruction of the concept of race brings with it an “informationalization of race” that sorts humans into new categories while also inviting the reconstruction of scientific ideologies with a veneer of respectability offered by new information technologies.

This concern for classification is found in Lundy Braun and Evelynn Hammond’s essay “The Dilemma of Classification”. Bruan and Hammond do not attempt a general critique of classification (and unfortunately do not situate theirs in relation to earlier critiques). Rather than being a critique of classification, it is an attempt to trace the political ramifications of the construction of populations. To do so they “focus on Africa to historicize conceptual problems that plague the notions of populations and groups, whether macro or micro, and their use in genetic research.... Once named and studied in depth, knowledge of African societies was further flattened as anthropologists in the United States, notably Georges Peter Murdock, constructed internationally accessible atlases and databases, thereby making natural the existence of populations as bounded entities” (Bruan and Hammonds, 68).

Also deserving of special mention is the essay by the biologist Abram Gabriel on how the limitations, gaps, and biases in the collection and analysis of genetic material have often ignored in the rush to expand a genomic and genetic genealogy industry. As it is, the “concerns of this essay are how race has become part of our current discussions of genomics and whether it belongs there” (44). Gabriel’s essay will enlighten many readers who have had, as I have, a genetic sample analyzed for genealogical research.

The reviewer's origins map, according to one DNA genealogy company.

“As a molecular biologist, I realize that my field has entered the limelight and that knowledge about DNA is no longer the esoteric province of academic researchers. I take pride in the fact that the study of DNA and genomics has progressed so far so fast, and that the science is being recognized as a powerful tool for fundamental advances in disciplines as disparate as bio-medicine and human history. But I feel trepidation, too, that the transitional process is moving faster than the science itself, potentially leading to public misconceptions, oversimplifications, and unverifiable claims about the power of these discoveries, with consequent lowering of society’s trust in its scientists” (43-44).

Given this concern, the two chapters that remind us of the close connection between forensics and racial classification will many in a time when forensic detective dramas and reality shows remain quite popular. The contradictions between eyewitness descriptions, assumptions about race, and genetic analysis in forensics comes under critical review by Jonathan Khan in an effort to understand biases within the past 20 years of work in the field of criminal forensics. “In effect, forensic scientists have simply adopted the broad categories of race and ethnicity used in the U. S. Census in order to organize their genetic data.... Taken together, the persistent conceptualization of race as genetic, the confusion of statistical with forensic significance, and the deep-seated American identification of violent crime and race may be understood to frame and facilitate the inertial power of race to perpetuate itself as a salient category of forensic DNA analysis long after its practical legal utility has passed” (Khan, 130, 136-137). Pamela Sankar takes a critical look using the British Night Stalker – whose identification as a “light-skinned black man” seemed “at odds with the image” (Sankar, 110-111) distributed by the authorities – as a means to explore the supposed promise of DNA to allow forensic phenotyping of suspects.

"Police artist sketch of British serial rapist, dubbed the Night Stalker.  The sketch was accompanied by the statement that the subject was probably a 'light-skinned black man,' a description that some observers thought was at odds with the image" (Sankar,110)

Delroy Easton Grant, who was convicted of the Night Stalker rapes in a mug shot (remember where those originate!) and in an earlier surveillance video image.

The essay by Rajagopalan and Fujimura is a bookend to Gabriel’s piece. Going further than either Gabriel or Bruan and Hammond, they attempt to
untangle the relationships between continental ancestry, geography, history, population, and race in the practices, technologies, research designs, and research analyses/results of some admixture mapping studies in U.S. biomedical research.... Discourses of race and ancestry are deeply entangled in the constitution of genetic histories in contemporary bio-medicine, in ways that are contingent and mutually reinforcing. These discourses as embedded in the technologies of admixture mapping, have consequences for how disease studies, medical practices, public health policies, and popular culture use and interpret genetics to construct categories of difference” (Rajagopalan and Fujimura, 160).

The section “Stories Told in Blood” brings together a number of thoughtful and provocative essays that bring together notions of history, genealogy and identity. These essays range from a critique of the attempt to mark the genetic differences between French Canadians and native peoples, to the use of genetics to foster the process of reconciliation in South Africa, to argue for slavery reparations, or in for the control of historical knowledge and cultural artifacts such as the Kenniwick Man.

Several themes crisscross the essays that might be summarized as (in my words and not theirs): the social coding of DNA, which first consists of the commercialization and commodification of genetic data; second in the return of the repressed; and thirdly in the assertion of yet another new end of history. The social coding of DNA itself takes two ultimately intersecting paths: the first around issues of identity, genealogy, origin(s), nation and race; and the second around the actual coding of DNA in informatics and medicine. Both paths may well converge in their classifications of populations that re-inscribe and naturalize conceptions of “original stocks” that mingle only at the margins.

The discussions of the commercialization of DNA also take two broad approaches. In the first, medicine and pharmaceuticals are obviously important emerging markets, while paralleling this is the second route where forensics and judicial power increasingly rely upon genetic science to establish the guilt or innocence of the accused. Perhaps one of the most popular success in commercializing genetic analysis has been the use of genetics in personal genealogical research. All too often, the genetic analysis is marketed in such a way as to assist in the production of exclusive identities through the demarcation of populations, admixture mapping, and charting the degree of deviation from one of the parent populations. Spencer Wells, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., National Geographic, 23 and Me, Ancestry.com, and have profited from the rapid expansion of an industry that promise the consumer access to hidden, lost, diagnostic, or even forbidden knowledge of their own past. Several contributors point out that although the consumer may desire knowledge of their identity, the level of commercial genetic analysis can not actually provide it with any real certainty.

Another theme suggests a return of the repressed behind the use of genetic knowledge in promoting processes of repatriation and reconciliation to resolve historical social conflicts. Conversely, always lurking nearby are eugenics, degeneracy, and a watered-down polygenism. The practitioners and funders of the new genomics have conveniently repressed the notion that they represent the apparent survival of these earlier wretched knowledges raise for the sociological understanding of contemporary science.

The third theme of the collection is related to this refusal and repression of the past: the notion of living in the genomic era announces a new end of history In response, these essays critique the view that DNA is a kind of indestructible link to the past that supersedes History. Genetic history is made to appear as a seemingly apolitical narrative imbued with an aura of scientific authority. DNA analysis brings the notion of pre-history into the present and makes all of human existence “historical” at the very moment it abolishes from consideration – except as mere superstructure – the social forces that produce human history. The potential to reduce social life to the ebbs and flows, migrations and admixtures of genetic populations is clearly present. Reanne Frank’s essay on “the forbidden knowledge argument” addresses best the reluctance by geneticists and biologists to discuss the issues raised so well in this volume. Those who wish to avoid these questions often respond that they are heroically pursuing scientific knowledge. The very fact that their work is being criticized or even rejected by most of their peers is presented as the best evidence that they are being punished for revealing to us the “true” meaning of race. In deploying such arguments, Frank notes ironically, these self-declared martyrs for Science are placing their work outside of the history of science. Though Genetics and the Unsettled Past went to press before the most recent book by Nicholas Wade, it serves as a pre-critique of his use of genetic knowledge. Although he is mentioned only twice, reading this work in the context of the current controversy over Wade’s book speaks directly to the concerns raised by the continued publication of scientific ideologies packaged as popular scientific communication.

Many thoughts come to the reader upon reaching the conclusion of this collection. One, and it is purely speculative, is that the social construction of race may not be synonymous with the social life of DNA. They may constitute different modes of thinking about human variation, although it is certainly true that at times they seem to be the same coin struck in different years. Perhaps this similarity is an indication that both stand in similar relation to the reproduction of everyday life, i.e., to the practices of domination and authority that are stitched into the repetitions that structure everyday life in the modern world. As a result, the complexity of everyday life causes the social construction of race and the social life of DNA to diverge as critiques only to converge as explanations of social conflict.

As the object created through social construction, race refers to the social reproduction of a supposed essential quality that is manifested by the human body and though a corresponding ensemble of social relations. It carries with it a form of alienation, of something natural to each person that comes to stand apart and against them. In this instance, human variety as developed through the scientific ideology of race and its deployment in social policy. In the social life of DNA, we are confronted with the possibility that DNA represents the materiality of this essential quality and the visible manifestations are therefore secondary to the demarcations and exclusions of humans according to what Kant called our lineal stem stocks. At most, the visible differences in the skin simply serve as confirmation of the genetic material. And this is exactly the point where the social life of DNA meets the social construction of race. It is at this moment of convergence that both use race to confirm the meaning of human variety. Slipping back and forth between the two each to explain the other, because both express the scientific ideology of race in everyday life through the attempts to prove the value of race for understanding human difference. We find ourselves confronting a central problem that is not a return of the repressed because it was never repressed, and this problem now takes the form of the admixture of populations. Lurking in the nearby rubble dwells the figure of the Hybrid, a frequent object of earlier 17th-19th century attempts to understand race as the essential difference between humans. Rather than the genome finally allowing us to be done with race, one must ask to what degree might we be constantly speaking about the identification of homogeneous parent populations against which the deviations and degeneracy of the Hybrid can be measured?

The editors are to be commended not only for their own contributions, but in the selection of essays and the organization of the collection. Genetics and the Unsettled Past is a work that deserves a wide reading by sociologists and historians of science, medicine and technology, health policy analysts and ethicists, geneticists, genealogists and by students of related fields. The scholarly and critical depth of this volume is not at all compromised by its accessibility, making it a valuable source for students, scholars, and for those interested in the social implications of recent advances in the science of human genetics.

B. Ricardo Brown, Ph.D
Professor of Social Science & Cultural Studies
Department of Social Science & Cultural Studies
Pratt Institute


Monday, June 30, 2014

Louis Agassiz and the Bridgewater Treatises


  Louis Agassiz's note on the importance of the Bridgewater Treatises, taken from his Essay on Classification, 1962[1857].

“The argument for the existence of an intelligent Creator is generally drawn from the adaptation of means to ends, upon which the Bridgewater treatises, for example, have been based.  But this does not appear to me to cover the whole ground; for we can conceive that the natural action of objects upon each other should result in a final fitness of the universe, and thus produce an harmonious whole"*


*[Essay Editor’s note: Named for Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater, who left 8,000 pounds for the writing of treatises on the ‘Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as Manifested in the Creation.’ They included the first eight titles in Agassiz's note and the Fragment by Babbage.]

[Agassiz's note:]

Thomas Chambers, The Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man (2 vols., Glasgow, 1989);

John Kidd, The Adaption of External Nature to the Physical Condition of Man (London, 1833);

William Whewell, Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology; (London, 1839);

Charles Bell, The Hand, its Mechanism and Vital Endowments, as Evincing Design (London, 1833);

Peter M. Roget, Animal and Vegetable Physiology Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (2 vols., London, 1834);

William Buckand, Geology and Mineralogy considered with Reference to Natural Theology (2 vols., London, 1836, 2d ed., 1837);

William Kirby, The History, Habits, and Instincts of Animals... [On the power, wisdom and goodness of God, as manifested in the creation of animals, and in their history, habits and instincts] (2 vols., London, 1835);

William Prout, Chemistry, Meteorology, and the Function of Digestion Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (London, 1834).

Compare also,
Hercule Strauss-Durkheim, Theologie de la Nature (3 vols., Paris 1852);

Hugh Miller, Footprints of the Creator (Edinburgh 1849; 3d ed. with a Memoir of the Author by Louis Agassiz, Boston 1853);

Charles Babbage, The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, a Fragment (2d ed., London, 1838).
Essay on Classification, 1962[1857]:11.

 From Nott and Gliddon, Types of Mankind (1852).

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Darwin, Slavery, the HMS Black Joke, and Seaman Morgan.

I decided to repeat this story each year in honor of Charles Darwin.
HMS Beagle

During the same stay in Brazil that brought Darwin face to face with the horrors of slavery, he was for a time left behind in Rio while Captain Fitz-Roy and the HMS Beagle retraced the previous months voyage down the Brazilian coast. Capt. Fitz-Roy wanted to confirm that Bahia was to the east of Rio and remap that portion of the Brazilian coast. Upon the return of the HMS Beagle, Darwin was so overjoyed that he later wrote an unusually long entry in his Diary. The night before, he met one of his shipmates, King, who had come ahead. Darwin learned from King
"...the calamitous news of the death of three of our ship-mates. — They were the three of the Macacù party who were ill with fever when the Beagle sailed from Rio. — 1st Morgan, an extra-ordinary powerful man & excellent seaman; he was a very brave man & had performed some curious feats, he put a whole party of Portugeese to flight, who had molested the party; he pitched an armed sentinel into the sea at St Jago; & formerly he was one of the boarders in that most gallant action against the Slaver the Black Joke. — 2nd Boy Jones one of the most promising boys in the ship & had been promised but the day before his illness, promotion. — These were the only two of the sailors who were with the Cutter, & picked for their excellence. — And lastly, poor little Musters; who three days before his illness heard of his Mothers death. Morgan was taken ill 4 days after arriving on board & died near the Abrolhos, where he was lowered into the sea after divisions on Sunday — for several days he was violently delirious & talked about the party. — Boy Jones died two days after arriving at Bahia, & Musters two days after that.— They were both for a long time insensible or nearly so.— They were both buried in the English burial ground at Bahia; where in the lonely spot are also two other midshipmen" (1).
Darwin was obviously taken with this Morgan, especially given the contrast with Captain Fitz-Roy's support for slavery as a "civilizing" institution. The story of the HMS Black Joke is a little different, though. The British navy's frigates could not match the speed of the average slaver, and "the smaller ships were mostly Sepping brigs (2), which everyone agreed sailed like haystacks, compared with the clean lines of the slaving schooners." So said Christopher Lloyd in his The Navy and the Slave Trade (1949). When it happened that the slaver Henriquetta was captured, it was bought by the Royal Navy in 1828 and renamed the HMS Black Joke. Until it was scrapped in 1832, with a crew of 34 and just one 18-pound gun, the HMS Black Joke, whose name can not help but make possible all sorts of puns, captured nine slavers, including the 18 gun El Almirante after a 31 hour chase and battle. In their 16 months of active duty against the slave trade, the crew of the HMS Black Joke freed 466 enslaved Africans from those nine ships.

Later, Darwin relates the discovery of a Mate on another ship, the Unicorn:
May 28th & 29th Captain FitzRoy hired a small Schooner to go to the Rio Negro to bring Mr Wickham in order that he might take command of our Schooner. She arrived yesterday, & to day Mr King, who came with Mr Wickham paid me a visit. — They are heartily tired of their little vessels & are again as glad to see the Beagle as every one in her is to see them. —

30th, July 1st & 2nd Have been employed in arranging & writing notes about all my treasures from Maldonado. — The Captain informs me that he hopes next summer to double the Horn. — My heart exults whenever I think of all the glorious prospects of the future.

3rd–7th All hands of the Beagle continue to be employed in working at the Schooner (for the future the Unicorn). My occupations likewise are the same & I do not stir out of the Ship.

8th It was discovered to day that one of the Mates, belonging to the Unicorn, had formerly been in the President, a vessel supposed to be piratical & which brought the English man of war, the Black Joke, to action. It has, since the Trial, been suspected that this same ship took & murdered every soul on board the Packet Redpole. — Captain Fitz-Roy has determined to take the man a prisoner, to the Consul at M. Video. I have just been astonished to hear the order, "to reeve the running rigging, & bend sails". And we now a little before 12 at night have weighed anchor & are under sail (3).
According to Nora Barlow's note: “The 'Black Joke' was sent out by the Admiralty in 1829 to intercept slavers in West Africa” (4). There are a couple of explanations for why Darwin would get elements of the story reversed or wrong. It is clear that he enjoyed some familiarity with the crew of the Beagle. He mentions in his accounts arguing with Fitz-Roy over slavery and as a result being banished by him from the cabin, only to be invited to eat with the crew. Perfect opportunities to hear tales told by an experienced crew like the Beagle's, who knew him well enough to nickname him “Philosopher.” Darwin does seem to have the story correct by the time of the incident with the Mate of the Unicorn, though. A painting of the Black Joke attacking the slaver El Almirante comes from the Royal Naval Museum.

It is little wonder that someone who hated slavery as much as Darwin would mention the passing of Morgan. It says something about History that all we have of Morgan is this brief mention. Perhaps, too, it was people such as Morgan who prompted Darwin to write that contrary to the claims of some Darwinists and followers of Spencer:
“I felt that I was walking on a path unknown to me and full of pitfalls; but I had the advantage of previous discussions by able men. I tried to say most emphatically that a great philosopher, law-giver, etc., did far more for the progress of mankind by his writings or his example than by leaving a numerous offspring. I have endeavored to show how the struggle for existence between tribe and tribe depends on an advance in the moral and intellectual qualities of the members, and not merely on their capacity of obtaining food”(5).
In the Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin brought into the open all of the events he witnessed in the slave countries, but also reveals how he still continued to suffered from the horrors of what he had seen there. His son's statement that even decades later his father endured nightmares of Brazil has a more than adequate foundation in Darwin's own writings. Here is a writer who noted every detail, who centered his work upon his own observations and those of others, who even notes the sound of the sands near Rio Madre when trodden upon by his horse, but who at times leaves out details of his own experiences because the memory so easily enrages and horrifies him. The contrast between the Brazil of infinite tangled banks and the horrific land of slavery found its way into Darwin's work. Even if he could never leave behind the Brazil of his nightmares, he was glad to sail away, never to return.
On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean; I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master's eye. These latter cruelties were witnessed by me in a Spanish colony, in which it has always been said, that slaves are better treated than by the Portuguese, English, or other European nations. I have seen at Rio de Janeiro a powerful negro afraid to ward off a blow directed, as he thought, at his face. I was present when a kind-hearted man was on the point of separating forever the men, women, and little children of a large number of families who had long lived together. I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of; -- nor would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the negro as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil. Such people have generally visited at the houses of the upper classes, where the domestic slaves are usually well treated, and they have not, like myself, lived amongst the lower classes. Such inquirers will ask slaves about their condition; they forget that the slave must indeed be dull, who does not calculate on the chance of his answer reaching his master's ears.
In this final passage, Darwin refers not very approvingly to Malthus and Spencer while reaffirming his own repudiation of slavery. The final sentence is often quoted, but it is rarely rendered in its full context. The possible reasons for this omission are numerous, and like similar omissions, it is not often noticed. History is made of omissions and the fragments of everyday human life.
“It is argued that self-interest will prevent excessive cruelty; as if self-interest protected our domestic animals, which are far less likely than degraded slaves, to stir up the rage of their savage masters. It is an argument long since protested against with noble feeling, and strikingly exemplified, by the ever-illustrious Humboldt. It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease. Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter; what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! Picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children -- those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own -- being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty: but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin”(6).
Darwin writes of witnessing just such events as the selling off of family members while in Brazil. It was Darwin's own blow that the slave mentioned in the previous passage was afraid to defend himself against, but Darwin said he had not raised his hand to hit the person, but in frustration because of their arguing about passage across the river. The encounter profoundly effected Darwin. He was shocked to find himself in the position of being seen as a slaver in the eyes of an actual slave. Slavery, he notes, can quickly make anyone, no matter how civilized or progressive, into the most brutal and inhuman master. Moreover, no matter one's personal view of slavery, the institution itself taints everyone in such a society, slaver and abolitionist alike.

During the voyage, Darwin also gave up hunting, which had been a favorite past time before the expedition.

This year is the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth. He and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day, February 12, 1809. November will mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Darwin's Origin of Species sold only 50,000 copies during his life. In comparison, George Combe’s Constitution of Man (1827), a phrenological guide to life and conduct, sold 350,000 copies and remained in print from 1828 until 1899.

1 Darwin, Diary, June 4, 1832.
2 “Sir Robert's important improvement in giving to line-of-battle ships a circular bow, we have already slightly touched upon his ingenuity has since produced a more surprising, and an equally important, change at the opposite extremity of the ship, a circular instead of a square stern. ... It having occurred to the philosophic mind of this ingenious architect, that, by not removing the solid bow in the wake of the second deck, in order to substitute the usual flimsy fabric, called the beak-head, the ship would acquire additional strength. in that part of her frame, as well as afford some protection to her crew when going end-on upon an enemy, the circular bow of the Namur was allowed to remain. The advantages of this important alteration struck every one who saw the ship when finished ; and subsequently, as we shall hereafter have occasion more fully to relate, every ship in the British navy was ordered to be constructed with a solid circular bow instead of a beak-head.” James, William. 1837. The Naval History of Great Britain. Apparently, though, this improvement made the ships slower than the slave schooners, who had to deliver their “cargos” before too many of them died. The best that one could hope for in terms of the self-interest of the slavers moderating their treatment of their captives was to be delivered into the hands of the master quickly before dying at sea. It was no doubt unclear to many below decks which alternative was preferable.

3 Keynes, R. D. ed. 2001. Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
4 Charles Darwin's Diary of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. Edited from the MS by Nora Barlow. 1933. New York: MacMillan Company.
5 Letter 241. To John Morley. Down, March 24th, 1871.
6 Darwin, Charles R. 1839. Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle's circumnavigation of the globe. Journal and remarks. 1832-1836. London: Henry Colburn.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Carnivalesque 96: the Pre-modern Blog Carnival for July, 2013

The July 2013 Pre-modern Blog Carnival



 Welcome to CESQUE 96,  the July 2013 edition of Carnivalesque, the Pre-modern blog carnival.  It is a great pleasure to host the carnival this month, and an equally great pleasure to get the chance to read so many interesting and notable writings. Of course, I hope you enjoy these selections and look for the next edition of the Carnival to be hosted by The Sloane Letters Blog, September 2013.

 On Digital Archives and Manuscripts

Jacqueline Werimont and Daniel Powell have been writing about the four-day NEH forum Early Modern Digital Agenda:

Daniel Powell has posted four Dispatches so far on his experiences and thoughts about the meeting:
Dispatches from Capitol Hill: #1
Dispatches from Capitol Hill: #2, or EEBO and the Infinite Weirdness
Dispatches from Capitol Hill: #3, or XML and TEI are Scary
Dispatches from Capitol Hill: #4, or What is transcription, really?

Jacqueline Wernimont is prompted to consider, from her position as a historian, "the history of Early English Books Online and I have been struck by the centrality of remediation to the history of the resource and the long lines of corporate control" - Alternate EEBOs?

In this vein, Sarah Werner's keynote address at the Digital Preservation 2013 conference, “Disembodying the past to preserve it” raises a number of important questions regarding our experience of digitized archival materials. The text and some slides are posted at Wynken de Worde. There is also a video of the talk and a pdf of the slides.


And Jenneka Janzen considers what in another context Otto Neugebauer referred to as the bias against the study of "wretched knowledges" and the people who produced them: The Boring, Ugly, and Unimportant –Biases in Manuscript Research.
....I’ve spent some time thinking about the role aesthetics play in which manuscripts are studied, and which ones are deemed too boring, unimportant, or ugly to attract interest. Certainly, it depends on your field of study. But where do some of these research biases come from?" - Jenneka Janzen

 Early Modern Science and Philosophy
Taking off from E.P. Thompson's work but looking forward in contemplating its implications for the next decades, The Many-headed Monster hosted The future of ‘history from below’: an online symposium

The Renaissance Mathematicus brings our attention and reminds us to consider what does not get preserved:
....Mathematician, cartographer, navigator, anthropologist, linguist, astronomer, optical physicist, natural philosopher Thomas Harriot was a polymath of astounding breadth and in almost all that he attempted of significant depth. However, for reasons that are still not clear today he chose to publish next to nothing of a life’s work devoted to science.
In Defining early modern experimental philosophy Alberto Vanzo writes: "I tend to think of early modern experimental philosophy as a movement. We can identify the members of this movement based on at least three features which do not involve the commitment to specific philosophical claims... Self-descriptions... Friends and foes... Rhetoric...."

Gender, Slavery, and Law

At @GeorgianGent Mike Rendell begins a series on Sugar and Slavery, starting with the boycott of 1791: 'Slave sugar'and the boycott of 1791 
....In the 18th Century sugar meant one thing: slavery, or at least it did until 1791 when a campaign was launched to boycott sugar from the West Indies. Parliament was dragging its feet over abolition, having failed to pass a Bill in that year outlawing the slave trade. The response: hundreds and thousands of households up and down the country ‘did their bit’ by giving up sugar altogether, or opting for more expensive sugar from the East Indies, produced by free labour.
Did women produce seed? Were men necessary for reproduction? A fascinating post at Early Modern Medicine: Baby in the Bathwater
....The suggestion that women could conceive without engaging in sexual activity may seem bizarre to a modern audience, but it came out of the medical uncertainty about whether or not sex was necessary for conception. One treatise on chemical medicine for example noted that ‘we see many Plants grow without precedent seeds, and many Animals produced without copulation of Male with Female’.3 In particular it was noted that fish could generate without recourse to copulation, which suggested that sex was not always necessary.

The English Legal History blog features a post by Riona Doolan on the arson as a crime in medieval Ireland and mentions having produced translations of the oldest commentaries on arson, which date to the 14th Century: Arson in Medieval Ireland
....Arson was treated as a serious crime in the medieval period. Buildings were mostly made of wood, and fires could spread easily. It was a crime that had the potential to impact not just the victim but also the entire community, with disastrous consequences if the fire got out of control. I have recently completed a translation of the oldest of the five commentaries on arson dating to the fourteenth century

Hygiene, Food, Disease, Coffin Births
and the 
New Morbid Terminology
The Recipes Project gives us a good starting point for a reading through a number of posts this month that intersect quite nicely.  In Dipping Your Toes in the Water: Reconsidering Renaissance England’s Attitudes Toward Bathing, Colleen Kennedy reflects on modern prejudices about bathing, cleaning and hygiene in the history.
Tara Hamling at Material Histories provides a second update to her on decoration in Early Modern Britain: Decorating the Godly Household:Postscript (2) - Another David and Goliath
....This post concerns another lost depiction of David and Goliath, which once formed part of a painted scheme in a house on the High Street of Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire. The building was demolished in 1938 and it appears that no official attempt was made to record or salvage its remarkable scheme of early seventeenth-century domestic decoration.
Another post from The Recipes Project that falls nicely with their first:  Learning to cook in Early Modern England  http://recipes.hypotheses.org/1546 
From cleanliness and food to illness, Alun Withey gives us Polite Sickness: Illness narratives in 18th-century letters
Depending on the writer though, some sickness narratives take an almost humorous view of their symptoms, treating the reader to a light-hearted walk through what were almost certainly unpleasant episodes. To me these are the most engaging. One set of letters I came across in my research for my PhD fits into this category. They are letters from a Breconshire attorney, Roger Jones of Talgarth. I haven’t researched much about the man himself (maybe I will one day) but he was clearly a ‘man about town’ – in eighteenth-century parlance, a Beau Monde. One particular run of letters were fired off in rapid succession following an abortive trip to Hay on Wye. In February 1769 he wrote to his brother, clearly in some distress.
Katy Meyers at the blog Bones Don't Lie gives us the rather chilling account of "Coffin Birth" in both the present day and the 1600s in New Morbid Terminology: Coffin Birth
...coffin birth is what it sounds like- the occurrence of a fetus being birthed by the mother after her death.When I started researching the term more closely I discovered that this wasn’t actually that uncommon in the past, and its only recently that this doesn’t occur.

  Heresy, Eroticism, Dreams, and the Demonic

Jennifer Evans, of the always engaging and interesting Early Modern Medicine blog provides us with Crime, Sex and the Spanish Fly

....Spanish Fly, or Cantharides, are, as the name suggests, small emerald-green flies (above is a 13th century illustration of one). Crushed or powdered these flies were used throughout the early modern period as a medicinal substance.... - Jennifer Evans
A Foucault inspired account of Erotic Dreams and Nightmares from Antiquity to the Present by Charles Stewart from The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 
Andrew Zurcher on Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, heresy, sodomy and a squeamish modern editor: Material Witness
....These days, those suspected of planning hate crimes are likely to lose their USB memory sticks or their laptops; in 1593, the authorities went straight for Kyd's looseleaf papers, the material witnesses of his ideas, his prejudices, his intentions. These were quickly shown to contain heretical writings apparently questioning Christ's godhead, and Kyd was immediately arrested and probably tortured.

Mike Rendell, @GeorgianGent, on how an 18th century exorcism in Bristol spurred the debate on truth of demoniacal possession: 13th June 1778: the exorcism of George Lukins, “the Yatton demoniac”
....a George Lukins from the nearby village of Yatton..... claimed to be possessed by the Devil (well, not just one devil but seven devils, and he insisted that it would therefore take seven clergymen to exorcise him).

And it is always good to end on a note of Satanic Seduction.  Sort of brings the section full circle and connects it to the earlier one on gender, science, and Pre-modern medicine.  Again from the Early Modern blog's Jennifer Evans comes this tale of fertility and domination:
....the idea of witches copulating with the devil, or demons, was widely discussed in early modern Europe, and caused consternation and anxiety for writers at the time. This blog post will consider this phenomenon and show that medical understanding of sex and reproduction were central to these discussions. In particular demonology writers were concerned about whether sex with the devil could ever result in pregnancy and progeny.

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Next Carnival to be hosted by The Sloane Letters Blog, September 2013.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Note: Louis Agassiz "Against the Transmutation Theory" from Methods of Study in Natural History (1886)

Louis Agassiz
"Against the Transmutation Theory"
from Methods of Study in Natural History. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1886. [Updated]

"...the resources of the Deity cannot be so meager, that, in order to create a 
 human being endowed with reason, he must change a monkey into a man..." Preface, iv.

A brief excerpt from Agassiz's Methods of Study in Natural History, which begins with his restatement of his opposition to Darwin's work, materialism in general, and to the Darwinian theories that had already, he writes, become generally accepted.  One of the last of the great 19th century naturalists to defend creationism and polygenism, which he did to the bitter end.

"The series of papers collected in this volume may be considered as a complement ... to my 'Essay on classification'....I have also wished to avail myself of this opportunity to enter my earnest protest against the transmutation theory, revived of late with so much ability, and so generally received. It is my belief that naturalists are chasing a phantom, in their search after some material gradation among created beings, by which the whole Animal Kingdom may have been derived by successive development from a single germ, or from a few germs.  It would seem, from the frequency with which this notion is revived, — ever returning upon us with hydra- headed tenacity of life, and presenting itself under a new form as soon as the preceding one has been exploded and set aside, — that it has a certain fascination for the human mind. This arises, perhaps, from the desire to explain the secret of our own existence; to have some simple and easy solution of the fact that we live....These chapters were first embodied in a course of lectures delivered at the Lowell Institute in Boston."(Preface, p. iii-vi.)
Agassiz begins the work with this note expressing his understanding of the progress of Natural History... at the very moment when Natural History and not coincidentally political economy were being swept away by new fields of knowledge: biology, ecology, sociology, economics, political science, etc.
 It is my intention, in this series of papers, to give the history of the progress in Natural History from the beginning, — to show how men first approached Nature, — how the facts of Natural History have been accumulated, and how these facts have been converted into science. In so doing, I shall present the methods followed in Natural History on a wider scale and with broader generalizations than if I limited myself to the study as it exists to-day. (p.1.)