B. Ricardo Brown, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Cultural Studies
Department of Social Science & Cultural Studies
A Celebration of Darwin's Legacy Across Academic Disciplines
March 14, 2009
It is a pleasure to be here with you today.
At a conference such as this, so much has already been said about Darwin's work that it is difficult to not repeat some of the points already raised by so many of the speakers over the last three days. It is difficult to imagine though how one could overstate how much Darwin's voyage and his later writings transformed our understanding of natural and human history. Finally, humans found a real place in nature and what we mean by human nature was fundamentally altered. Because of this break, Natural history and political philosophy could become what we know today as Biology and Sociology.
So, one thing is certain..... Darwin represents a break in our understanding of the world that was so dramatic that scholars and causal readers alike often fail to pause and consider what was supposedly left behind....... and what fragments of this earlier scientific consensus remain with us today in both our theoretical and our everyday understanding of human variety.
Even when we repeat the oft-heard phrase that Darwin's ideas were “in the air,” we seldom go further and ask exactly what ideas and theories were “in the air” of his time......... i.e., what was the social and scientific --- and for me, those two domains are the same---
What was the social and scientific context of Darwin's answer to the species question? Darwin's singular achievement too often obscures this context by making it seem irrelevant. The fact that the Voyage is often seen as a period when Darwin was isolated from his follow naturalists contributes to making his work appear less related to that of his contemporaries in Europe and in the United States than was the case. No doubt, his late addition of his essay on his historical and theoretical sources, and the many pictures of him in old age, have also added to Darwin's Promethean stature.
I will argue that Darwin's achievement can only be enhanced by placing his work within its social context. It is in this context that we see how it, and how science itself, can have such far reaching social effects. It is in the social context that we can most easily understand Darwin's lasting achievement as more than simply a new theory of nature. Darwin abolished the then current scientific understanding of human variety, the Polygenic theory, which held that the different varieties of humans constituted separate species that had emerged at different times and in distinct regions of the earth. That the races were, in the view of the naturalists of the day, separate species. It is the dispute over the scientific validity of this theory that Darwin writes of 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.That the era of polygenic theories was also the one in which the domination of slavery was a reality is hardly coincidental, as the polygenic theory cloaked slavery in the aegis of scientific respectability. The South did not have to look only to Greek and Roman slavery for its ideological justification. Now for many Natural History itself underwrote the rationality of slavery.
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).
So what I would like to talk about today is the period just before the publication of the Origin, a period that is dominated by polygenic theories of human origins, especially championed by American naturalists and physicians. That this period was also dominated by the reality of slavery, a reality that was underwritten by the scientific respectability of polygenism. The crowning work of the American School, Types of Mankind, by Josiah Nott and George Gliddon, with a chapter by Darwin's nemisis, Louis Agassiz, set the tone for much of the thinking regarding human origins.
Darwin's answer to the species question was made in response to those of other noted naturalists and natural philosophers, some of whom we still acknowledge today for their fundamental contributions to our own sciences of life and society.
Carl Linne, who classified 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.”
Blumenbach, who gave us what we recognize as our conventional classification of human variety into the now familiar Five Races, separated by continent, and each with its own color and temperment. Blumenbach, I should note believed in a common origin of all human varieties, and was quite progressive for his day, so it is somewhat ironic that his legacy is most profound in our continuation of his scheme of racial classification.
We have Cuvier, who gave us so much, from his Animal Kingdom, to his theory of revolutions of the Earth and extinction. We also owe to him the best arguments for the fixity of species. Comparing the specimen of the Sacred Ibis with remains found in tombs and temple drawings, Cuvier concluded that the bird 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 depictions of Negroes found in some of the same ancient drawings were recognizable. The Ibis had not changed and neither had the Negro. The evidence of fixity was evident, even if it was not actually so.
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. He had read the work of the Philadelphia physician Samuel George Morton on craniology and set to work while in Egypt robbing graves for Morton's collection of crania, eventually the worlds largest with over 900 skulls.
A decade before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), Samuel G. Morton stated flatly that “the question of the origin of species is [ a question or the origin] of the human species.” In the years between 1830 and 1859 the scientific theory known as polygenesis―which held that humans were divided into races, each with a separate origin and with fixed characteristics―had come to dominate the understanding of human history. Advocated most vigorously by a group of naturalists and doctors which came to be known as the American School, the polygenic theory of human origins was openly acknowledged by some of its proponents as a scientific justification for slavery. It used against the abolitionists, who often turned to the biblical account of humans having one single origin, or monogenesis, to support their cause.
The American School, associated with such naturalists and doctors as Morton, Josiah Nott, George Gliddon, and Louis Agassiz, were perhaps the first American scientists to be fully recognized by their European peers.
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 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 biblical account with Cuvier's work and with the obvious differences in the races. God had not created men equal, nor in the terms of his scientific ideology, had nature.
By 1850 the American School’s polygenic theory 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 human origins. The proponents of the American School elaborated the polygenic theory with such rigor that it was taken as the accepted scientific truth in the two decades before the publication of The Origin of Species.
The debate between the monogenists and polygenists was between two powerful explanations for human variety. Although it 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. The Reverend John Bachman of Charleston, co-author [( Audubon, John James, and John,Bachman. The Quadrupeds of North America, 3 vols. New York: V. G. Audubon, 1851-54. Bachman's wife Maria painted many of the backgrounds, insects, and plants in Audubon's works. Their daughters married Audubon's sons.)] James Audubon, was a monogenist who supported slavery, while those opposed to slavery included the polygenist George Squire, who founded the short lived but significant New York Anthropological Society.
It is often uncritically accepted that the ideas and concepts Darwin brought together so masterfully in The Origin of Species were in the air and already being discussed as part of the spirit of the age. But was everything already neatly in place and pointing to the same inevitable conclusion? 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. If a puzzle was before Darwin, it had been laid before him by the polygenists. Darwin,it was the general view of naturalists that each species was created in its place and did not change over time. Moreover, the variation that we find in nature was enerally to be the work of a Creator. If species are fixed, then a comprehensive classification of species would be possible. Indeed, natural historians sought in this classification the rational plan of nature. The polygenists and simminded naturalists thrthese ideas into disarr.
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 to be the norm: individuals, even those classified as belonging to the same species, vary across time and space. Variation is the central theme and the essential product of the struggle for life, and is at the same time generated by the struggle. Natural selection, among other forces, is the basis of this law of variability. In the struggle for existence, life maintains itself through variation.
In part, The Origin of Species anticipates objections to the theory it introduces. , Darwin raises the objections himself in the chapter “Instinct,” where his discussion of the behavior of slave-making ants is important in his theory and view of human slavery.
(Some believed that because ants practice slavery, that slavery was natural. A stronger argument at the time than the classical authority of Aristotle on the master-slave relationship being natural.)
Hybridity―with its implicit reference to human “hybrids”―had been seen by many naturalists as a violation of the fixity of species. Darwin argues instead that hybridity in plants and animals demonstrates nature’permanent production of variety. problems of the geological record (fossils, catastrophe, and extinction), the succession of organic beings (preformism and teleology), and geographic distribution (design and special creation) are addressed as possible areas from which objections will be heard. spite of these difficulties, or perhaps because of them, Darwin proposes 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 reveals Darwin’s belief in the transvaluation of natural history into the science of life. to other naturalists of his time, he sees all living things only by descent, but also as being transformed over time. Classification,then,is not about finding the order of the creator but in 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 by the HMS Beagle. It was not known at the time what caused his chronic illness and bouts of intense pain, but it is now speculated that he contracted a disease akin to sleeping sickness while on his excursions inland. Much of Darwin’s work was shaped by his Beagle. As we all know, he had begun the voyage a believer in fixity and creation, and by the end, he had already begun to sketch the outlines of the theory.
Darwin was not the ship'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 in 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.
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 that slavery might have any redeeming value. Those who thought so, Darwin wrote, had never put themselves in the position of the slave. When his friend and mentor Charles Lyell wrote to Darwin about the forced separation of a slave family, Darwin’s response was brutal, though once he realized that Lyell was only relating the views of another, he excused himself by saying that the subject of slavery made his emotions get the better of him. He had begun the voyage as an ardent opponent of slavery and related how he was often told that experiences in the slave countries would prove to him the inferiority of the Negro. He wrote to his sister that his experiences in Brazil in particular only hardened his opposition to slavery.
During the period 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 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 [there is a specific reason to use “Man” as an object of Enlightenment Reason, but there is no reason to go into that stuff.] as the apex of creation. In this regard The Origin of Species is a profound argument for human humility. The history of the earth could no longer be thought of as identical with the history of humans. “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 Tree of Life was transformed into the tree of genealogical affinities: “I believe this simile largely speaks the truth,” Darwin stated. The Tree of Life, as well as his evocation in the concluding paragraph concerning the “tangled bank” (contained in The Origin of Species) describes both as teeming with life and the remains of past lives, and represented a dynamic and indeterminate Nature.
Darwin executed more than just a rhetorical maneuver with the naming of The Origin of Species. 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 always be seen at work in even the smallest of organisms. Darwin shifted man from a central place in the understanding of variety in nature, and so produced a break with the polygenic/monogenic debate. If humans could tell us so much about the variety of nature, then there was no reason to privilege humans as the special key to knowledge for so too could any species tell us about the origins of humans. ’s opponents began their studies in evolution with humans and worked downward. Darwin did the opposite, asserting that 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 plasticity of descent with modification, a plasticity that is due in large part, he believes,to the workings of chance. Most simply put, Darwin made the question of human origins a matter of the origin of any species. Humans were no longer at the center. Linnaeus may have placed humans in the chart of classification and as the measure and explanation for its origins, 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 opens humans to the infinity of nature and makes them just one of many species joined in life’s great 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 forms of knowledge such as degeneracy (the view that social problems such as crime and madness stem from the hereditary taint or atavistic traits of individuals) and eugenics (a science dealing with the so-called improvement of hereditary qualities of a race through careful breeding), as well as new forms of control that relied on new systems of classification that never quite left behind those of the past. These were not new forms of unreason, and neither was polygenesis merely a false perversion of reason. It constituted scientific reason in relation to humanity. Our present everyday knowledge of race owes much to it, but so too to the same degree do the sciences of life such as biology and sociology insofar as they came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to buttress the eugenics movement.
Life and its struggle now occupied the center, and the displacement of man could not be sustained under the guise of so-called natural history. New fields such as biology, sociology, and ecology began to supplant natural history. The end of its study 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, among other conditions of life.
(It is interesting to note that Darwin did not directly refer to polygenism until ten years later in The Descent of Man,and by that time the polygenists had already been eclipsed by the combined forces of Darwin’s critique and the American Civil War, which shut down much scientific communication and led to the destruction of Charleston, the scattering of naturalists, and the loss of collections.)
That the monogenic/polygenic debate has largely faded from history is what Darwin hoped would be one of his most notable achievements. That it has not been completely disappeared would no doubt disappoint him. Perhaps he would adopt a similar stance as the one he took when Wallace insisted that he use the phrase “survival of the fittest” rather than “natural selection” in 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”.
Darwin agrees to use the phrase “survival of the fittest”, but he will consistently couple it with Natural Selection. He will also consistently refer to survival of the fittest 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 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”.