Darwin sought to not only 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)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A brief additional note to Audubon's Birds and some often Overlooked Contributions of Women to Natural History

Nature has just put online a slide show highlighting some earlier contributions of women to Natural History:
“300 year old Engravings Shed Light on Women in Science”  The slide show focuses on the work of the sisters Anna and Susanna Lister, whose drawings and copper plate engravings for their father, Martin Lister's Historiae Conchyliorum (1685-1692)The historian Anne Marie Roos stumbled upon them while researching a biography of Lister for Oxford's Cultures of Knowledge project.   They are just wonderful illustrations and again do much to illuminate the contributions of women to Natural History before science became the domain of disciplined scientists and exclusive science societies.

When the English naturalist and physician Martin Lister wrote home from France to his wife Hannah in 1681, he explained that he was enclosing a box of oil colours for his oldest two daughters, 11-year-old Susanna and 9-year-old Anna Lister, to paint with. He also asked her to lock away the precious pencils he was sending, "for they know not yet the use of them".
But within a few years, Lister was relying on the teenage Susanna and Anna to illustrate his landmark compendium of all known shells, the Historiae Conchyliorum, which was assembled between 1685 and 1692, and which was later cited by Charles Darwin. Lister was vice-president of the Royal Society, the United Kingdom's academy of sciences, and his daughters were also pressed into service to illustrate a number of letters published in the society's journal, Philosophical Transactions. Historians now believe the pair were the first women to use microscopes to help produce some of their scientific drawings.
Susanna Lister also illustrated Anthony von Leeuwenhoek’s letter “concerning the appearances of several woods and their vessels as observed in a microscope” (A. Leewenhoeck Philosophical Transactions. 13, 197–208; 1683).

It is a great series of 13 slides and well worth the few minutes to view them.
See as well the article by Jean H. Langenheim "Early History and Progress of Women Ecologists: Emphasis Upon Research Contributions" (Ann. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 1996. 27:1-53) covering the period from c.1860-1975.
[Updated May 16, 2016]

Related posts:

Audubon's Birds and some often Overlooked Contributions of Women to Natural History
A Short Biography of John Bachman (1790-1874)
Podcast - Charleston's Women Naturalists: Jennifer Scheetz, Archivist, Charleston Museum
The "American School": A brief timeline of the Monogenist/Polygenist Debate.
Notes on Royal Society’s “Types of Mankind” post
Review of America’s Other Audubon (Brain Pickings Blog)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Audubon's Birds and some often Overlooked Contributions of Women to Natural History

There was one of those interesting coincidences in the past weeks that reminded me of a neglected portion of the all too brief essay that is Until Darwin.  The first was the typically fine broadcast of  Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time on Women and Enlightenment Science.  The second was the record breaking auction sale of Audubon's Birds of America (see Audubon's Birds of America: The world's most expensive book and Birds of America sets £7m sales record at Sotheby's). 

Maria Martin's life is one that is well described by Bragg and his guests.  As with most women of the era, advanced formal education was denied her.  On the other hand, science and research at the time was not something done in universities or laboratories, but in the home.  As the managers of the domestic space and through their relationships with their husbands or lovers, women had access to scientific research, often taking the lead but recieving little or no credit.
Charleston, with the steeple of St. John's Church, forms the backdrop
for Audubon's Long-Billed Curlew
 The same can be found in more recent academic works, particularly those of the mid-century before the days of PCs.  The preface for many books will end with a appreciation for the contribution of the spouse to the completion of the work, from the care of the household to "discussions" about the work to its actual editing and typing.

Here is an excerpt from Until Darwin on the connection of Maria Martin and Audubon.  At some point, it would be nice to write something more extensive on this topic.

Before Darwin, the great adversary of polygenism was John Bachman, although he is perhaps best remembered now for his collaboration and friendship with James Audubon. In the Jeffersonian tradition, he too devoted his effort to education, science, and service. Bachman worked tirelessly on a wide range of activities, all the while keeping up a busy ministry. He founded the small liberal arts Newberry College in Newberry, South Carolina. Clearly Natural History held a special importance for Bachman. Teaching at the College of Charleston, he joined the ‘Circle of Naturalists’. Charleston became one of the centers of Natural History, attracting such notables as Agassiz and Audubon. Bachman's association with Audubon began through an almost chance encounter and grew into a life-long friendship, including the marriage of two of Bachman's daughters to Audubon's sons. They spent a great deal of time together collecting along the coastal plain of South Carolina and disputing their divergent ways of life. Bachman often admonished Audubon for his love of ‘gog and wine and snuff’. Maria Martin Bachman, who had married Bachman after the death of her sister --- Bachman's first wife--- found in Audubon's friendship the opportunity to become a notable Natural History painter and illustrator. Many of the backgrounds and detailed vegetation illustrations which put Audubon's birds in context were painted by Maria Martin. Her contributions included the beautifully and accurately detailed entomological drawings that accompany Audubon's birds. This she learned on her on by studying the abundant specimen available to her as well as the drawings in Say's Entomology of North America. Her work with Audubon was common knowledge. One of her descendants noted in Charleston Receipts that ‘It was she who painted many of the backgrounds for Audubon's famous paintings’.97 All this while she gave birth to 14 children, suffered from tic douloureux, a nerve disease that produces a severe stabbing pain on one side of the face and is often triggered by the slightest touch or movement which causes the sufferer to wince involuntarily and can itself sometimes increase the severity of the attack. It is considered one of the most painful chronic conditions in found in humans. Audubon wrote of her that "Miss Martin with her superior talents, assists us greatly in the way of drawing; the insects she has drawn are, perhaps, the best I've seen."98
97.  Junior League of Charleston. Recipe for Soused Fish, in Charleston Receipts (Charleston, S.C.: Walker Evans & Cogswell Co., 1950), p. 72. . ‘Receipts’ rather than ‘recipes’, they say, ‘to designate time-honored dishes according to ancestral wishes’.
98.  Letter to Victor Audubon, December 24, 1833, in F. H. Herrick, Audubon the Naturalist: A History of his Life and Times, vol. 2 (New York: Appleton, 1917), p. 62. See also Bonta, M.M., Women in the Field: America's Pioneering Women Naturalists (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1991).
And this excerpt as well from my entry on John Bachman in the Dictionary of Early American Philosophers (Thoemmes Continuum, 2010).
The war years were difficult for Bachman. The blockades prevented normal scientific communication and no one could avoid the constant fighting in and around Charleston. In the midst of the war, Bachman published his last major essay, “Characteristics of Genera and Species, as Applicable to the Doctrine of Unity in the Human Race” but Darwin had already brought an end to the polygenic/monogenic dispute. Maria Martin died in 1863, and one of Bachman's sons was mortally wounded fighting for the Confederacy. Now, with Maria dead and Sherman's forces advancing on Charleston, Bachman fully realized his own pre-war warning about “the duties and dangers of the moment.” The new bell of his church was melted down for Confederate ammunition as the city came under attack in the final siege and capture of Charleston that left Bachman's church, school, and library in ruins. With them, much of Bachman's papers and collections, as well as Maria's sketches and paintings, were lost. Bachman attempted to flee to Newberry College, but while journeying there his party was detained by Union troopers. During the encounter, he was badly beaten and left with a paralyzed arm.
With the end of the Civil War, Bachman concentrated his efforts on his role as pastor of St. John's, retiring in 1871. Bachman had signed his essay to war profiteers as “Marcus Curtius,” the Roman hero who rode his horse into the abyss to save Rome from the chasm that had opened in the Forum. An alter was raised over the spot and it is appropriate that John Bachman, who was often called the “Old Roman” by his friends, was himself buried under the alter of his church. In his life and work, he personified many of the contradictions of his educated and religious contemporaries who promoted both social reform and the preservation of archaic institutions.
Of course, we must end by noting that according to the 1860 Charleston Census of Slaves, John and Maria Martin Bachman owned five humans, with John possessing one and Maria Martin listed as owning four.
Because science was a domestic enterprise during the Enlightenment --- and therefore women were provided access to scientific studies despite being barred from formal education --- the administration of slaves in the household would coincide with the production and care of scientific instruments and specimens, the upkeep of gardens, the organization of observations, the parlor meetings of Natural History societies, and all other activities that took place within the domestic space.  Scarlett O'Hara was not only a fictional proto-mainstream feminist, but also the manager/overseer of the large number of slaves working in the productive domestic/industrial space of the plantation house and grounds.

The stain of slavery is permeates in the 19th Century - from the cotton supplying the Engels family' textile mill to the nightmares of Brazilian slavery that Darwin regularly suffered at Down House to the streets of Charleston, where freedmen and slaves wore badges identifying their occupation and the slaver.  It's effects are to be found wherever one looks, and can be found on the pages of Maria Bachman's drawings, which retain a certain aura of authenticity as having been held by her, but they were also no doubt held by the hands of slaves just as certainly as they bear the stains of the Civil War and the destruction of John and Maria Bachman's library, church, and schools.

Here are some of the few works by Maria Martin Bachman that survived the destruction of Charleston and its aftermath. 

The contribution of "Mrs. Gliddon" to Types of Mankind in a later post.

See also:
A Short Biography of John Bachman (1790-1874)

Audubon's Birds and some often Overlooked Contributions of Women to Natural History

A brief additional note to Audubon's Birds and some often Overlooked Contributions of Women to Natural History

Maria Martin Bachman's sketches and paintings for Audubon: On-line Exhibition from the Charleston County Public Library

Review of America’s Other Audubon (Brain Pickings Blog)

Podcast - Charleston's Women Naturalists: Jennifer Scheetz, Archivist, Charleston Museum

(Updated May 15, 2016)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Why this work and this site?

Why this blog? It is intended to be first and foremost a companion to the book Until Darwin: Science, Human Variety and the Origins of Race (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2010).
The purpose of this blog is to occasionally post comments or sections that did not make it into the published version and to provide references to sources consulted but not mentioned in the text. You will also find links to images that could not be included in the book or are simply related to the topics discussed in the book.
Why this book?
This best way to explain this is to reproduce a brief conference paper I did in 2000 at the American Sociological Association annual meeting. It provides a good description of my thoughts as I finished the initial research for Until Darwin, and points to further work. The companion to Until Darwin will be a work on the central role of the scientific ideology of degeneracy in the formation of sociology over the period between 1770 and 1914. The working title is Homo Socius. In some respects, Until Darwin is meant as the background work to that project, while the projected work on degeneracy and the origins of sociology will continue the examination begin with Until Darwin.

So below is a draft of the description of the general project presented as a conference paper. Of course, some of my thinking has changed since then, but overall my perspective has remained the same.

The Life Sciences, the Origins of Race,and the History of Sociology (2000)
B. Ricardo Brown
Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies
Department of Social Science & Cultural Studies
Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York
Prepared for the Section on Marxist Sociology Roundtables, Annual Meeting of
the American Sociology Association, Washington D.C., August 2000


The relationship between sociology and Social Darwinism is often assumed but it is not very well understood. Many simply passed it off as a forgotten dead end. It was Parsons who said that “no one reads Spencer anymore”. And it is Parsons who explains this forgetting of Spencer as an evolutionary triumph of sociology.

Sociology did not emerge from Social Darwinism. Sociology and Social Darwinism share common origins in Spencer, political economy, discourses on government, and scientific disputes, especially the species question and the question that consumed American biology in the 19th century: monogenesis versus polygenesis.

Given this range of origins, I was lead to question the notion of social Darwinism as it relates to Darwin’s intervention into the monogenesis/polygenesis debate. This debate is essential to understanding the scientific ideology of race.

Race was the central problem in the American approach to the species question.

The species question

Slavery was a driving force behind the debate between the mongenists and the polygenists, but the debate over the origins of humans and the classification of their diversity had been well underway in its modern form since the 18th century (which owed earlier descriptions and representations of the Plinian Races). It was not the Civil War that ended the monogenesis/polygenesis debate (as Stanton says in his The Leopard’s Spots, which remains one of the best works on the subject), but Darwin. Only the species question was to later reemerge from its repression with the work of Lombroso and Weissmann.

It is often stated that Darwin broke with Lamarck and Natural History, but the Origin of Species ----modification by descent vs. creation vs. successive creation----was the question of Darwin’s time, and Lamarckism was not the subject of polemics from the pro-evolution side. Darwin to some degree followed Lamarck, most notably in Darwin’s theory of pangenesis.

You might in fact read Darwin’s Origins as an anti-slavery argument. He was opposed to slavery.

(Admiral Fitzroy, an originator of modern meteorological instruments and Captain of the Beagle was a vocal proponent of slavery and the superiority of the European. Darwin, who was hired on not the official naturalist, but rather the dinner and social companion of the Captain, noted in letter to his sister how unbearable it was to be endure these social gatherings with the Captain.

Natural and sexual selection as described in the Origin of Species and the Descent of Man destroyed the polygenic theory. At the same it demolished and replaced religious basis of monogenesis. The central enlightened argument for the abolition of slavery now had a scientific basis in the origin of the human species itself. Darwin is often characterized as apolitical, but politics has no limit in theory. He says in the Descent of Man

...we may conclude that when the principle of evolution is generally accepted, as it surely will be before long, the dispute between the monogenists and the polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death (Descent of Man, 541)

The biology appropriated by sociology was not Darwinism, although it shares certain terminology and concerns.

The discursive formation of sociology and biology was concerned with continuity: progress and degeneration. Darwinism, on the other hand, is concerned with discontinuity: species, extinction, isolation, and selection.

This makes me look at sociology in a new way. Instead of seeing the period before the crisis in Western Sociology as having been one where bad sociology appropriated bad science, I began to see it as a bio-social discourse more or less autonomous from the discourse of Darwinism. This lead me to return to the history of sociology and of race from a different perspective.
Darwin’s was an anti-slavery argument that destroyed the scientific and religious discourses on race. But the history of race appears in the context of a general assumption of bio-social progress and degeneration. It is degeneracy and not natural selection that supported Eugenics, and the linkage between the two sciences of society are profound. In particular, I want to focus on degeneration as it appears in sociology because it has not yet had a thorough treatment .

To understand the relationship of sociology, the life sciences and race in America, you have to trace through the formation and transformations of a scientific ideology that unites;

1) Discourses on nature and life (biology, medicine, Natural History, and ecology)
2) Discourses on the forces of social life, both the rational forces (those which are allied Enlightenment with the universals of Enlightenment Reason, History, Consciousness, and Reason) as well as the irrational forces (e.g., the instincts, the id [e.g., A. Wiessmann as opposed to Freud’s concept,] the mob, the mass) and also rationalized irrationality (e.g., the market and the social anarchy of capitalist production, psychological therapy)
3) Discourses on the stability of society, or inertia (e.g., Parsonian sociology, or more generally, bourgeois morality, the morality of community described by Nietzsche in the second essay of the Genealogy of Morals and by Marx in the Holy Family, the rhetorics of stability, progress, and degeneration)

If you understand how these work, then you can begin to understand the relation between the scientific discourses on race, the sociological ones (sociology in the broadest sense, as the definition of sociology narrows over time in proportion to the need to clean up its pantheon of fallen gods like Sumner, Spencer, Comte, Giddings, Cooley, Sorokin, Lombroso, etc. Feagin in his Presidential Address last night did exactly this, but of course it was only for the best of reasons, as his goal was to remember forgotten sociologists of the left) and together with the media’s re-presentation, we can discern more clearly how the history of this social relation weighs like a nightmare on the mind of the living today.

Before you can discuss race, you must first discuss science, for race does not precede science, rather, science first establishes race --- at least race as we understand it today.
We must ask “What is the bio-social discourse on race and what is the origin of its authority?” rather than “What is race?”

By implication, this raise all sorts of questions for Marxist theory that claims science as its authority. Perhaps this is why the race question (and the woman question too) were deferred for so long by the Parties. It is not that addressing them would have distracted us from our critique of a more fundamental problems, as was so often claimed, but because addressing them would have called into question the scientific authority on which orthodox marxism rests.

Thursday, August 12, 2010