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)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Diversity, Culture, Theory, and Data: Science on Human Variety. --- B. Ricardo Brown and Christopher X J. Jensen --- SLAS Faculty Research Seminar.

Diversity, Culture, Theory, and Data: Science on Human Variety. 
B. Ricardo Brown and Christopher X J. Jensen
SLAS Faculty Research Seminar
Monday, November 7, 2011
[CLICK to enlarge any image.]

[Note: my colleague Chris Jensen has posted his presentation from the talk.  Please see http://www.christopherxjjensen.com/community/outreach/#Hum-Diff  
for his slides and discussion. Added February 8, 2013.]

B. Ricardo Brown, Ph. D.
Associate Professor of Cultural Studies
SLAS Faculty Seminar Series
November 7, 2011
While I was preparing for this talk, I ran across a January 1894 letter by Engels. It is nice to come across an earlier text that speaks directly to something you are actively thinking about. This letter is one of many that he wrote attempting --- as he neared his end --- to explain what he understood by the term “economic relations” and their determinations. These determinations comprise, he wrote, “the entire technique of production,” its geographical setting, “and traditions and the remnants of earlier social orders that survive “by force of inertia.”
“Political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc. development is based on economic development. But all these react upon each other and also upon the economic basis. It is not that the economic situation is cause, [or] solely active while everything else is only passive effect. There is, rather interaction on the basis of economic necessity which ultimately always asserts itself... so it is not, as people here and there conveniently imagine, that the economic situation produces an automatic effect.” Engels to W. Borgius (London, January 25, 1894).

 I bring this up because Engels correspondent seems to have asserted that the development of technique was dependent on the state of scientific knowledge rather than social production. Engels disagreed, of course, and presented an approach that resembles the one I have taken in looking into the subject of human variety.
If as you say, technique largely depends on the state of science, science depends far more on the state and the requirements of technique. If a society has a technical need, that helps science forward more than ten universities. The whole of hydrostatics (Torricelli, etc.) was called forth by the necessity for regulating the mountain streams of Italy in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. We have known anything reasonable about electricity only since its technical applicability was discovered. But unfortunately it has become the custom in Germany to write the history of the sciences as if they had fallen from the skies.” Engels, ibid.
I think that this statement, with a few tweaks here and there, resembles my own approach to the critique of what might be called the Sciences of Life, but I came across this letter only recently. 
Instead, I came to this work via my dissertation on the concept of community in sociological theory. While looking into that topic, I noticed intersecting topic: degeneracy and degeneration. Following back from Eugenics to early Natural History, it became clear that degeneracy is one moment in the history of an even more elaborate and complex set of scientific ideologies. Moreover, the ubiquity of degeneracy meant that there were multiple discourses on it as well. However, it did seem that we can mark a divide between degeneracy in the works of Naturalists such as Blumenbach and Buffon, and degeneracy as it later appeared in the work of the Criminal Anthropologists and popular followers of Max Nordau. In the earlier Natural History, degeneracy served as an explanation for variety, including human variety. It marked not so much decay or decline but instead deviation from the norm of an original type. Later, degeneracy became the primary sign of moral, physical, and social decay and disorganization.
It would be convenient to be able to say that this break occurred because of Darwin’s work. This is attractive and seemingly easy because much of the work in Criminal Anthropology aligned with the many emerging interpretations of Darwin. However, almost 15 years before Darwin’s Origin, we find Marx writing in the Holy Family on the increasingly popular view that crime and immorality are caused by degeneracy. Marx is dismissive of this idea and expected that nothing would come of it. In fact, despite Darwin degeneracy became a powerful explanation for social disorder, while before his time, degeneracy was a powerful explanation for variety in nature, i. e., for for the groupings we refer to as species and races.
And so to really understand degeneracy, one needed to examine a closely related area of inquiry usually referred to as “the species question.”
What accounts for the variety of nature? Are species fixed or do they change? The species question animated Natural History until Darwin produced the definitive answer with his Origin of Species. Two aspects were key for today, 1st, the debate over the nature of a species and 2nd the debate on the fixity of species, i. e., if species exist, then have they ever changed? This 2nd concern was in particular prompted by the gradual recognition of the importance and meaning of fossils.

The question that animated Natural History would also be its undoing, relegating Natural History to travel/literary excursions into the wild or to the domain of amateurs such as birders. But even here Natural History’s emphasis on the experienced amateur and the practice of observation continues. If the species question animated Natural History, it is good to remember that this was a time when science looked very different and when the scientific disciplines that we take for granted were either new or had not yet emerged. Science itself was organized very differently, with amateurs and learned societies serving a centers of learning and scientific exchange. In fact, the term “scientist” was at this time a rather new one. Dating from the early 1830s and finally codified as one who “cultivates science in general” in 1840 by Whewell. [who Darwin quotes in the front piece of the Origin]

So remember that unlike Chris’s part of this talk, science as you know it did not really exist during the era I am discussing, not only was a different question animating scientific inquiry, but also there was a very different formation of scientific knowledge and ideologies. Of course, the necessities of social production and the contradictions which followed from these social conflicts were rapidly creating the need and desire for our science.

Looking at the period from which Darwin emerged and from which he was largely cut off during the five year voyage of the Beagle, we find Natural History at its apex, with such luminaries as Linne, Blumenbach, Cuvier, Buffon, Lyell, but also figures like Thomas Jefferson and Samuel G. Morton, James Audubon and John Bachman, and Louis Agassiz. We find that the species question had been largely resolved by the naturalists on both sides of the Atlantic, but that those in the United States, referred to as the American School, dominated the discussion of the species question. In the Natural History of Darwin’s time, humans were thought to hold the key to understanding variety in nature and thus to resolving the species question and disclosing the rational order that Natural History had always sought. A decade before the publication of the Origin of Species, Samuel Morton stated flatly that “the question of the origin of species is [a question of the origin] of the human species.” In the years between 1780 and 1859, the scientific theory known as polygenesis --- which held that humans were divided into races and each race had a separate origin and fixed characteristics --- came to dominate the understanding of human history. Advocated most vigorously by those in the American School, but widely accepted, the Polygenic theory of human origins was acknowledge by proponents and opponents alike as a rational, scientific theory as well as a powerful justification for slavery. It was used against the abolitionists who had of course turned to the Biblical story of creation to stress a single origin, or the monogenesis of humans, in support of their cause.

So let me turn to mention how human variety was addressed within this debate over the species question and how Darwin came to intervene in this debate. In a sense, I am saying Darwin’s Origin should be approached not only as a great work of science and materialism, but also as one of the great abolitionist works. It is in relation to the prevailing Polygenic theory that we see the far reaching social effects of Darwin’s work and understand Darwin's lasting achievement as more than simply a new theory of nature. It is in the dispute over the scientific validity of the Polygenic theory that Darwin places his own work ten years later in The Descent of Man:

Whether primeval man, when he possessed but a few arts, and those of the rudest kind, and when his power of language was extremely imperfect, would have deserved to be called man, must depend on the definition which we employ. In a series of forms graduating insensibly from some ape-like creature to man as he now exists, it would be impossible to fix on any definite point where the term ‘man’ ought to be used. But this is a matter of very little importance. So again, it is almost a matter of indifference whether the so-called races of man are thus designated, or are ranked as species or subspecies; but the latter term appears the more appropriate. Finally, 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.
Source: Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, first edition. London: John Murray, volumes 1 and 2, 1871, pp. 243–248; The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online, Cambridge University <http://darwin-online.org.uk/> (viewed April 9, 2008).

That the era of the Polygenic theory was also the era of slavery was hardly coincidental, as the polygenic theory cloaked slavery in the aegis of scientific respectability. The apologists for Southern slavery did not have to look only to Greek and Roman slavery for ideological justification. Now for many the rationality of Natural History itself underwrote the rationality of slavery.

So for the rest of my talk I want to give you a sketch of the scientific study of human variety in the period before Darwin’s intervention into the species question.. I will have to leave off consideration of a couple of things that I wish I had the time to go over. It would be helpful to be able to say more about ideas of human variety in classical and medieval times. Pliny the Elder is particularly important in this regard, as he had no concept of race and an expansive view of what constituted a human, as befits one in a vast Empire. It is also difficult to find Roman texts wherein any mention is made of the color of a person’s skin. It would be well to note in passing that according to Herodotus and Homer, the Persians and Trojans both drew on allies from as far away as India and Ethiopia. The last great defenders of Troy’s walls were after all an Ethiopian king and his troops. It would also be nice to delve into the contrasts between Aristotle on slavery and the body (a good soul displays a good body, a slave soul displays a slave body) and writers such as Xenophon and Seneca, who found no essential difference between humans or between freemen and slaves, and the radical egalitarianism of the Epicureans.

Also, I can only briefly mention that Darwin’s supposed debt to Spencer and to Malthus is greatly exaggerated. Although the nickname the Beagle’s crew gave him was “Philosopher,” Darwin’s had little interest in such matters. As he noted to Marx in thanking him for a gift of a copy of Capital, he really knew nothing about political economy his copy of Capital ultimately went unread. With Malthus, Darwin takes a idea, the continual increase in population and with it increasing scarcity, and makes it an agent for change in nature, whereas the decidedly anti-Enlightenment Malthus used it to argue that nothing actually changes. Darwin stood Malthus on his head just as he does Herbert Spencer, who wrote to Darwin that he did not recognize his “survival of the fittest” or “evolution” as it appeared in Darwin. Darwin insisted that the phrase was a metaphor and used because of the popularity of Spencer’s work.1*** He does not even use the phrase until the 5th edition of the Origin of Species and even then at the insistence of Wallace that he substitute the phrase “survival of the fittest” for “natural selection” in any later editions of the Origin of Species. Darwin wrote to Wallace of his belief that the term natural selection “was of great advantage to bring into connection natural and artificial selection.” Although Darwin agreed to use the phrase “survival of the fittest,” he would consistently couple it with Natural Selection. He will also consistently refer to survival of the fittest not as “a plain expression of fact,” but as “a metaphor for effect and change. And so, despite his promise to use “survival of the fittest” in the future, he wrote back to Wallace with characteristic irony: “Natural Selection has now been so largely used abroad and at home, that I doubt whether it could be given up, and with all its faults I should be sorry to see the attempt made. Whether it will be rejected must now depend on the survival of the fittest.”

Now, we can move own to the period just before the publication of the Origin, a period that is dominated by polygenic theories of human origins championed by American naturalists and physicians. The crowning work of the American School, Types of Mankind, by Josiah Nott and George Gliddon, with a chapter by Darwin's nemesis, Louis Agassiz, epitomized the thinking regarding human origins in the time. Now for many Natural History itself underwrote the rationality of slavery, but the debate between mongenic and polygenic theories had been a long one, beginning with Linne’s classification of Nature.

The first place to begin in Natural History is with Linne’s System of Nature. As most of you know, Linne is often credited as being the first to classify humans as part of the natural world. Linne's first classification was replaced in his later editions by a far more detailed description of the varieties of human beings.

But the descriptions rely on Medieval ideas of the different “complextions” of Humans. Linne also retained remnants of the earlier prodigious humans described by Pliny the Elder in the 7th book of his Natural History..... and which persisted through the Middle Ages and down to the modern era in our representations of the Monstrous Races.” The Wild Man (Homo ferus) the Conehead’s of China, etc. But the characteristics of each race are elaborately detailed anthropological notes and not only a matter of anatomical comparisons.

Linne might have placed humans in nature, but Blumenbach gave us what we recognize as our conventional classification of human variety: Five Races, distinguished by continent, color and temperament. Blumenbach, I should note was a monogenist He believed in a common origin of all human varieties, and was quite progressive for his day. He owned what was perhaps the largest collection of African and Black literature in Europe, which he used to rebut contemporaries such as a fellow named Hegel, who believed that Africans were not truly human and possessed no sense of self or culture. So it is somewhat ironic that his legacy is most profound in our continuation of his scheme of racial classification, rather than his opposition to the belief in the intellectual inferiority of Africans. Notice two that Blumenbach’s description of Caucasians is quite brief: Beautiful in form.
There is always a aesthetic dimension in these discussions, and Blumenbach’s classification was in opposition to those who would classify humans based purely on aesthetic judgment, especially employing the “facial angle,” and not anatomical and anthropological data.
 Blumenbach also coined the term Caucasian based upon his examination of a skull in is collection from the Caucuses Mountain region.
We can mention Lamarck, who had much influence on Darwin, but Lamarck’s ideas on the transformation of species had at this time been eclipsed by the doctrine of the fixity of species supported by Cuvier and many others.
And Cuvier, gave us much, from his Animal Kingdom and work on fossils to his theory of cataclysmic revolutions of the Earth and the theory of extinction. We also owe to him the strongest arguments for the fixity of species in relation to human variety. Comparing a specimen of the Sacred Ibis with mummified remains found in tombs and depictions of the animal in temple drawings, Cuvier concluded that the species had not changed over the entire period of the present era. Now the implications of Cuvier's research was profound, for it was quickly pointed out that there were recognizable depictions of Negroes in some of the same ancient drawings.
It seemed that the Sacred Ibis had not changed and neither had the Negro. The estimated 6000 years since the Creation or the last revolution of the earth, was not long enough to account for the differences in species or for the general variety of nature. Cuvier argued that whenever one has no physical data, one must turn to the Biblical accounts and to archeology, especially Egyptian archeology. It was not lost on Cuvier and others that the polygenic theory also contradicted the biblical account of creation. The free scientific inquiry that the American School demanded had already set the polygenic theory and religion on a collision course long before Darwin’s Origin.
Egypt was a very popular subject during this time in America. George Gliddon, who had served as an American Consul in Egypt, undertook a series of popular and well attended lectures on Egyptian history and culture, during which an 800 foot long tapestry of scenes from Egyptian life would scroll by behind him. He also unwrapped a mummy at the end of each nights lecture, which cause him some embarrassment when one that he billed as a male prince turned out to be female. But more than just a showman, Gliddon was fascinated by the species question and human origins. While in Egypt he had read Samuel Morton’s the work on craniology and set to robbing Egyptian graves and tombs for Morton's collection of crania, helping Morton amassed the worlds largest collection of human crania, with over 700 skulls. Many of the skull depicted in Morton’s Crania Egyptia were plundered by Gliddon.

Gliddon was a character in real life and in fiction, appearing in Edgar Allen Poe’s “Conversation with a Mummy,” but Morton was perhaps America’s first internationally recognized scientist. When Louis Agassiz came to the U.S., he first went to visit Morton, who he held equal to Cuvier as a naturalist and scientist. With Morton’s stature came also the authority of the polygenic theory and the formation of “The American School.”
In 1842 a reviewer of recent polygenic works asked: “In surveying the globe in reference to the different appearances of mankind, the most extraordinary diversities are apparent to the most superficial observer. . . . Hence arises the question—Have all these diverse races descended from a single stock?

Josiah Nott, who did pioneering work on Yellow Fever, lectured on the species question and wrote on the contradictions inherent in the Biblical account of creation. Either the world is quite a bit older than 6,000 years, giving time for the variation in humans to work itself out into its present races, or one would have to admit that each race was created as it now is. In his estimation, only the polygenic theory could reconcile the history of the Earth with the obvious and fixed differences in the races. Neither God nor Nature had created men equal. Even Mulattoes were not proof that we were the same species, for Mulattos became hybrids doomed to die off from illness, increased sterility, and because mulatto women did not make good mothers.

It is often uncritically accepted that the ideas and concepts Darwin brought together in The Origin of Species were in the air and merely part of the spirit of the age.

Well, yes and no. Was Darwin’s work the mere assembling and making intelligible insights already available? What is certain is that Natural History had reached a crisis amidst the disputes over fixity, variation, and classification. 
In the midst of this crisis, the debate between the monogenists and polygenists was a choice between two powerful explanations for human variety. Although certainly related to the debate over slavery, it would be simplistic to think that the polygenic/monogenic debate was between pro- and antislavery advocates who wanted to wrap themselves in the veneer of scientific respectability. 

The debate of one versus many species went to the very core of the ethics of scientific inquiry. Supporters of slavery could be found on each side, as could abolitionists. Those opposed to slavery included the polygenist George Squire, who founded the short lived but significant New York Anthropological Society. 

Supporters included John Bachman of Charleston, Audubon’s co-author [( Audubon, John James, and John,Bachman. The Quadrupeds of North America, 3 vols. New York: V. G. Audubon, 1851-54..)]
Bachman was the principle scientific opponent of the polygenic theory in America and he and Morton carried on a long public debate. Bachman was an interesting fellow, too. He founded a liberal arts college Newberry College, had a church and school which welcomed both Blacks and Whites, ordained the first three Black Lutheran ministers in America. Bachman's wife Maria painted many of the backgrounds, insects, and plants in Audubon's works. Their daughters married Audubon's sons and Audubon named several species for his friend, such as the now extinct Bachman’s Warbler.
He also owned 5 slaves, gave the prayer for the opening of the Secessionist S. C. legislature, and during the war wrote in the popular press about the need to apply the knowledge of Natural History to support the Southern cause. 
By 1850 the American School had succeeded in challenging the biblical chronology of the history of the earth and its inhabitants. Freed from doctrine, the American School hailed a new era of “free scientific inquiry” into Nature in general, and human origins and racial variation in particular. It is precisely at this moment that Darwin intervenes.
Now if we turn to Darwin, we first note that
The Origin of Species is structured as one continuous argument. It begins with an exposition on variation as it exists under domestication, followed by an examination of variation without the intervention of humans. Instead of focusing on fixity, Darwin took variation and chance to be the norm. They are the central causes and essential products of the struggle for life. Natural selection is one basis of this of variability. In the struggle for existence, life maintains itself through variation.
Darwin argued instead that Nature permanently produces variety. He proposed a new science arising from genealogy, morphology (the comparative study of function, behavior, and environment), embryology, and the study of rudimentary organs. This is the structure of The Origin of Species that reveals Darwin transvaluation of Natural History into the Science of Life. Contrary to other naturalists of his time, he sees all living things not only as being connected by descent, but also as being transformed over time.

Classification, then, is not about finding the order of the creator but about tracing the lines of descent: “All true classification is genealogical, that community of descent is the hidden bond which naturalists have been unconsciously seeking, and not some unknown plan of creation, or the enunciation of general propositions, and the mere putting together and separating objects more or less alike.”


Darwin did not engage in the active defense of his theory, leaving it to friends like Thomas Huxley and Asa Gray to respond to the more heated attacks. There were many reasons for his reticence, including his health, which had been severely compromised during the five-year circumnavigation of the Beagle. It was not known what caused his chronic illness and bouts of intense pain. Still, much of Darwin’s work was shaped by his Beagle voyage. As we all know, he had begun the voyage something of a a believer in fixity and creation, and by the end, he had already begun to sketch the outlines of the theory. But he was always an opponent of slavery.

Darwin was not the Beagle’s naturalist, but more the social companion for Captain Fitz-Roy. British naval commanders were drawn from the upper class, and it was forbidden for them to socialize even with their own junior officers. It was a lonely life for a ship’s captain, made all the more apparent by the suicide of the Beagle’s first captain while sheltering in a harbor near the Straits of Magellan. Fitz-Roy took Darwin, even though the captain was concerned (given his interest in craniology) that the shape of Darwin’s nose suggested that he was not up to the hardships of the voyage. Together they shared the cramped quarters of the ship for five years—the limited size of which became even more pronounced when the two discovered their opposing views on slavery. Fitz-Roy held the common view that slavery was a necessary evil because of the inherent inferiority of the enslaved races. Slavery would ultimately civilize the Negro, he argued, and introduce global trade that would make colonialism and slavery unnecessary.
He later founded the Met Office in the U.K and everyday we repeat a phrase he coined: the weather forecast.

In Brazil in 1832, Darwin observed slavery for himself, and his experiences never left him. His son Francis remembered that his father was often awakened by nightmares of his Brazilian experiences, and that his father would become enraged at the mere suggestion of an apology for slavery. Those who thought so, Darwin wrote, had never put themselves in the position of the slave. He had begun the voyage as an ardent opponent of slavery and related how he was often told by others that experience in the slave countries would prove to him the inferiority of the Negro. From Brazil he wrote to his sister that his experiences in Brazil in particular only hardened his opposition to slavery.

In the years between Darwin’s return from the Beagle voyage and the publication of his major works, a transformation was occurring in scientific knowledge. Physics and chemistry were already becoming the provinces of specialists. The laboratory as well as the field was becoming the locale for organizing the production of scientific knowledge. The rapid foundation of new learned associations and societies reflected both the move toward specialization and the speedier dissemination of results and theories. Science had finally turned to the study life. Just one governing principle remained to be overthrown: the view of humanity as the apex of creation. In this regard, The Origin of Species is a profound argument for human humility.

“As all the organic beings, extinct and recent, which have ever lived on this earth have to be classed together, and as all have been connected by the finest gradations, the best, or indeed, if our collections were nearly perfect, the only possible arrangement, would be genealogical. Descent being on my view the hidden bond of connection which naturalists have been seeking under the term of the natural system.”

The Great Chain of Being was transformed into the tree of genealogical affinities: “I believe this simile largely speaks the truth,” Darwin stated. The concluding paragraph describes a “tangled bank” teeming with life and the remains of past lives, all representing a dynamic and indeterminate Nature.

Darwin executed more than just a rhetorical maneuver with the naming of The Origin of Species or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Darwin chose to avoid the question of human origins because to mention it would have made his work a part of the monogenic-polygenic debate. To make a break with that controversy, Darwin answered the species question by demanding that we consider humans to be just one of an infinite variety of living animals, all of which were created by the same processes that could still be seen at work. There was no reason to privilege humans as the special key to knowledge for any species could answer some or all of the questions of origins.

With Darwin’s intervention into the monogenic/polygenic controversy, the fixed, closed systems of classification of natural history could no longer adequately describe the world. The Earth had to be seen as a planet where life “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.” This, the last sentence of the book, is the only instance in The Origin of Species where Darwin mentions evolution. [It is significant that “evolved” is used in a passage where Darwin juxtaposes the fixity of the law of gravity with the in indeterminate variation of descent with modification. Most simply put, Linnaeus may have placed humans in the fixed chart of classifications, but Darwin placed humans in the genealogical tree of life; that is, directly in nature itself, and allowed that other species could explain the origin of man.] Darwin’s work makes us just one of many species joined in life’s great but indeterminate struggle for existence “whilst this planet has gone cycling according to the fixed law of gravity.”
We should not think of Darwin’s intervention as the triumph of reason over false science, for with the new theory came also new scientific ideologies such as degeneracy as a hereditary taint and eugenics as a means to free us from those taints. New forms of social control which relied on new systems of classification appear but also never quite left behind those of the past. These were not forms of irrationality, and polygenesis was not a mere perversion of reason. In fact, polygenism constituted scientific reason in its era. Our present everyday understanding of race and identity owe much to it in the form of “traditions and remnants” and “by the force of inertia.” And so too do the sciences of life such as biology and sociology insofar as they came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to buttress eugenics.
To conclude, the end of Natural History came with the end of the dispute between the monogenists and polygenists—and the polygenic theory was turned on its head by Darwin’s account of a single common line of descent shaped by natural selection and the conditions of life. Variation and chance became essential aspects of Nature.

That the monogenic/polygenic debate has largely faded from history is what Darwin hoped would be one of his notable achievements. That it has not completely disappeared but is instead constantly invoked not only in the sciences whenever they forget their own history, but also by those who cling to notions of essential differences and unchanging identities --- this sad fact of everyday life would no doubt disappoint him.
1A letter we know about because its contents were preserved by Darwin’s friend and mentor the geologist Charles Lyell in the extensive set of notebooks on the species question he kept between 1855 and 1860.