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)

Monday, February 6, 2012

On Josiah Nott

Josiah Nott (March 31, 1804 - March 31, 1873) was a leading exponent of polygenism and figure in the American School of Ethnology, which dominated the scientific understanding of race in the decades before Charles Darwin. Josiah Nott investigated yellow fever, edited the first translated Arthur de Gorbineau's Essay on the Inequality of Races, and with George Gliddon published Types of Mankind, a tribute to their mentor Samuel G. Morton and summation of their evidence that the races were separate species of Homo sapiens.

Nott was born in Columbia, South Carolina. His father served in the U.S. Congress and on the South Carolina Court of Appeals. He received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and traveled widely in Europe studying Natural History and furthering his medical knowledge. Returning to the United States, he settled in Mobile and into a flourishing practice and a social life noted for its indulgences in horses and dalliances.

Nott argued against the theory that yellow fever, the most serious health threat of his day, was caused by a miasma, suggesting instead that an insect such as the mosquito was the cause. Nott did not, however, venture into the question of human variety until the deeply flawed Census of 1840 suggested that slavery was a protective and civilizing institution.

George Cuvier, who dominated Natural History during Nott's time, argued that inter-fertility, or the ability to produce viable offspring, marked the boundary between a variety and a species. The existence of the mulatto seemed to undermined the notion of separate species. In Nott's first venture into the species question he argued that mulatto were the product of the crossing of “two distinct species --- as a mule from the horse and ass.” Later, Nott added that mulattos proved the polygenist theory by demonstrating the permanence of racial characteristics and were a subject to a morbid “Law of Hybridity” leaving them weak and degenerate.

Nott had good company in pursuing the polygenist theory: Samuel G. Morton, George Squire, John De Bow, and later Louis Agassiz also championed the fixity of species and the multiple origins of human races. They argued for fixity from the evidence derived from the study of hybrids, crania, Egyptology, and philology; they differed only over the origins of the races. Some like Agassiz argued that the fixity of racial types was evidence of Design, while others like Nott were stanch atheists, but all agreed with Nott that scientific inquiry should be freed from the constraints of religious dogma and based solely upon evidence, direct experience, and experiment.

Nott and George R. Gliddon published their summation of polygenist theory in Types of Mankind in 1850. Intended as a memorial to Morton, and with an introductory essay by Agassiz, Types of Mankind was recognized as a definitive statement of current scientific knowledge of human variety, and established race as the explanation for human variety. Nott and Gliddon, whom he had always considered more of a showman than a serious scholar and scientist, then parted ways. Nott later made a limited contribution to a second volume Indigenous Races, but without his full participation, it did not carry the weight of the first. Nott had, however, established polygenism as the generally agreed scientific understanding of human variety.

Nott now turned to scientific debates, lectures, and articles. The only scientific opponent of polygenism ---the abolitionist churches were certainly united against the theory --- was Rev. John Bachman of Charleston, friend and co-author of James Audubon. Nott dismissed Bachman's scientific objections as disguised religious positions from a hypocritical “parson.” After all, Bachman supported slavery as well as he, and did not question the moral superiority of the European type. The proponents of monogenism and polygenism did not question the scientific validity of race, and following from that, the scientific validity of racial hierarchies. Tellingly, Nott published the first translation of Gorbineau's Essay on the Inequality of the Races.

The scientific ideology of race was established in the years before Darwin intervened to finally put an end to the dominance of polygenism (Canguilhem, 1988). Nott immediately recognized Darwin's Origins as finally giving monogenesis an unshakable scientific basis, and he gracefully admitted that Darwin's answer to the species question had settled the matter. He took what solace he could in Darwin's Origins being “a capital dig at the parsons.” Nott did not abandon his views on race even as he acknowledged that, had he had the evidence available to him that Darwin had amassed, he would not have published Types of Mankind.

Having lost two sons in the war, one from wounds at Gettysburg, Nott could not endure a South transformed, he said, into “Negroland.” He settled in New York City, drawn he said to a place “without morals, without scruples, without religion, & without niggers.” There he rebuilt his practice, joined Squire's Anthropological Institute, and flourished until age and health forced his final return to Mobile.

Nott's importance in developing and promoting the theory of polygenism left an enduring legacy of race as a scientific ideology. Darwin believed natural selection would cause polygenism “to die a silent and unobserved death” (Darwin, 188), but its supporters continued to justify using race as a explanation for human variety. Nott and the American School's legacy is not entirely negative. They sought to science to exist within a spirit of free inquiry. That this inquiry would from 1830-1859 give slavery the stamp of scientific approval is more than ironic. Nott's work demonstrates how scientific disciplines constantly produce regimes of truth, and that these are never separate from the social relations of the time and space. Nott and his fellow polygenists constructed a regime of truth around slavery which would reemerge most obviously in the middle of the 20th Century, and endure to the present in our everyday administrative and technical understanding of race. That it has continued down to today as both a scientific ideology and a common sense notion owes much to the work of Josiah Nott.

Canguilhem, Georges. 1988. Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences. Cambridge: MIT Press

Darwin, Charles. 1998 [1874]. The Descent of Man. New York: Prometheus Books.
Nott, Josiah. 1846. “Unity of the Human Race,” Southern Quarterly Review, IX (17): 1-57.

Nott, Josiah. 1848. “Yellow Fever Contrasted with Billious Fever --- Reason for Believing it a Disease of Sui Generis... Probably Insect or Animalcular Origin,” New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, 4, 563-601.

Nott, Josiah. 1850. “Ancient and Scripture Chronology” Southern Quarterly Review II ( 4): 385-426.

Nott, Josiah. 1851. An Essay on the Natural History of Mankind, Viewed in Connection with Negro Slavery delivered before the Southern Rights Association, 14th December, 1850. Mobile: Dade, Thompson, 1851.

Nott, Josiah. 1852. “Geographical Distributions of Animals and the Races of Man” New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, IX.

Nott, Josiah. 1853. “Aboriginal Races of America” Southern Quarterly Review, VIII (3).

Nott, Josiah and George R. Gliddon, 1855. Types of Mankind: or Ethnological Researches, based upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races, and upon their Natural, Geographical, Philological and Biblical history: illustrated by selections from the unedited papers of Samuel George Morton and by additional contributions from Prof. L. Agassiz, LL.D., W. Usher, M.D., and Prof. H. S. Patterson, M.D. Philadelphia, London: Lippincott Gramoo & co., Trubner & co., 1855.

Stanton, William. 1960. The Leopards Spots: Scientific Attitudes toward Race in America, 1815-1859. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1996. The Mismeasure of Man, revised and expanded. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

B. Ricardo Brown, Ph. D.
Associate Professor of Cultural Studies
Pratt Institute
New York

A version of this appeared in The Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. Macmillan Press, 2007.

See also:

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Comment II on “Gould versus Morton”: Morton’s Crania Collection in the Context of the Final Decades of Natural History, Part One.