Degeneration, Race, & the Rise of Sociology
The work of writing the follow-up to Until Darwin has begun. Below is a little bit about the manuscript and more will be posted here over the next few months as another project draws closer to completion . The motivation for this return is that, in hindsight, my approach in Until Darwin perpetuated a certain silence through its focus on the place of Darwin's encounters with slavery in his thinking about nature, natural selection, and the tangled bank of life. Of course, Darwin is a towering figure across many disciplines whose work simply can not be ignored if we want to understand how we got to the place we find ourselves. However, Darwin's long shadow obscures just how difficult it was for even him to bring an end to the monogenic/ploygenic debates that permeated Enlightenment attempts to understand human variety. Most importantly, in Until Darwin it obscured the continuities of polygenism, degeneracy, and race before and after the publication of the Origin, as well as their place in the emerging fields (systems of knowledge) of sociology and biology.
The persistence of the concepts of degeneracy, race, and to a lesser degree polygenism, is a problem confronting the study of Darwin and Darwinism, but is also one found in the pages of any study of degeneracy or racialism. This begs the so far unanswered question: How is it that theories of race and degeneracy predate the Darwinian revolution and move from a relatively minor position within Natural History to a dominant position within the new sciences of life? By investigating this question, we are led to consider how polygenism, race, and degeneracy were reinterpreted after the collapse of Natural History. If these continuities exist, this investigation should reveal how the fields of biology and sociology relied on each other for validation and legitimacy through their deployment of shared scientific ideologies of race and degeneracy. In Until Darwin, one gets the impression that Darwin's Origin of Species was an epistemological break, but it was an error to have left that impression. It is the persistence of these scientific ideologies that raise questions about the extent of the "revolution" initiated by the publication of the Origin. Degeneracy, race, and polygenism were not discarded as out-date scientific ideologies. In the wake of the Origin of Species, race and degeneracy – at times with an undercurrent of polygenic theory – became objects of scientific study, and their use as dynamic social forces in modern life only intensified. Of course, one must admit that Darwinism in its broad meaning produces its own theories of race and degeneracy, but this only supports the assertion that these notions once comfortably housed within Natural History soon found their place with the new sciences of life. These scientific ideologies gave legitimacy and social relevance to biology and sociology. It is almost impossible to imagine biology and sociology as disciplines apart from their relevance to government and to the health of the governed.
Thomas Huxley wrote that Naturalists like himself – for the term “biologist” was only just coming into use – had been too humble to simply and honestly lay their rightful claim to the entire domain of life, and so for mere convenience the study of modern human life had been ceded to sociology. Huxley was quick to point out that with the inevitable advance of knowledge, biology will one day no longer need to be so humble and will inevitably take its place as the organizing science of social and natural life. Until that day, “...one should not be surprised if it occasionally happens that you see a biologist trespassing upon questions of philosophy or politics; or meddling with human education; because, after all, that is part of his kingdom which he has only voluntarily forsaken” (Huxley. 1876 (1902) “Study of Biology” in Scientific Memoirs IV: 252-253). As told by this foremost of the new scientists, confining themselves to one domain of life contributed to the formation a new system of knowledge that his contemporary William Sumner called “the sciences of life in society” within which “....biology and sociology touch. Sociology is a science which deals with one range of phenomena produced by the struggle for existence, while biology deals with another. The forces are the same... the sciences are cognate” (1881:173; from “Sociology” in War and Other Essays: 165-194).
The question that we will attempt to examine in this manuscript is a deceptively simple one: how is it that notions of polygenism, degeneracy and race survived the end of Natural History and were so easily incorporated into, and transformed by, the new sciences of life? It should be admitted that this question demands a more complex answer than this single – if any work is really singular – manuscript will provide. We can only point out an avenue of critique that has not been fully accessible until recently. These pages will focus on the place of degeneracy and race in the emerging disciplines of biology and sociology, with special attention being given to their place in the emergence and legitimization of sociology in the United States. We can justify this focus on the United States, if indeed it need be justified, because it is here that the polygenic theory reached its zenith and where slavery made questions of human variety and the replies of race and degeneracy aspects of everyday life and politics. The sciences of life and society have always given a special place to degeneracy and race. Broadly speaking, the goal is to demonstrate that the social was always biological and the biological has always been social, at least since the moment when we began to speak of sociology and biology as the sciences of life.
NGRAM (just for fun)