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, October 9, 2012

Notes on Royal Society’s “Types of Mankind” post

Marginal Notes on Royal Society’s “Types of Mankind”: science and race in the 18th and 19th centuries 

Of course it is always important to remember that the errors of the past as well as the triumphs (or heroes, which has been the subject of a series of recent blog posts elsewhere: see, e.g., posts by  and  Rebekah Higgitt @beckyfh  "Why whiggish won't do" ) often do not in hindsight seem so triumphal or heroic.  The Royal Society’s post coincided with the death of J. P. Rushton and so serves to remind us that the errors of the past do not simply “go way”.  So it is good that the Royal Society blog chose to bring attention to Josiah Nott and George R. Gliddon’s 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 and the polygenist scientific ideology which like that of the eugenicists still haunt us.

And this is a good reason to spend a few moments adding some marginal notes to the Royal Society’s post because it is difficult to address such issues, especially when the prompt is Black History Month(*) with its competing audiences and demands.

Perhaps it is a result of competing demands and audiences – as  is so often the case! – that some aspects of polygenism are not always so obvious in the post.  It is easy to overemphasize either the discontinuities and continuities of the polygenic theory when we try to make sense of its place in classical Natural History and later Biology (and Sociology, too).  There are aspects of Natural History that are very familiar to us and yet are also indicative of fundamentally different ways of understanding the world.  Though it is tempting to simply project categories such as biology and figures such as the scientist into the past, classical Natural History was not the study of life and the figure of the scientist as we know it did not exist.  The scientist as a term appears at the highpoint of classical Natural History, but it is not until we have the study of life that we can finally recognize the scientist as we know it.(**)  Instead of the conflation of time and perspectives found in the initial paragraph, it would be better to go further and understand the “study of race” and the catalogs of differences generated by such studies as having more than simply fascinated the 18th and 19th centuries: it was a central object of Natural History.  The “study of race” consolidated race as a object of rational scientific analysis within the confines of classical Natural History just as it does today in the case of race and biology.  The authority of Natural History as a science derived in part from its offer of satisfactory “systematic rules to describe and explain the differences” European nation-states found during their global expansion.  “Race and racial differences” became the means to systematically understand human variety, and provide an answer the Species Question. 

Forgetting this is one reason why it appears to us that “discussions of race have always been tied up with perceptions of morality, intelligence, and civilization” because race has been used since the 17th-18th centuries as the means to make sense of differences and to legitimize moralities and scientific ideologies.  So it is only correct to say that race has “always been tied up with perceptions of morality, intelligence, and civilization” precisely because it appears alongside and within those “perceptions” (i. e., social relations).  After all, race is itself a scientific ideology in Canguilhem’s sense of the term: 
“For many scholars the notion of scientific ideology is still controversial.  By it I mean a discourse that parallels the development of a science and that, under the pressure of pragmatic needs, makes statements that go beyond what has actually been proved by research.  In relation to science itself it is both presumptuous and misplaced.  Presumptuous because it believes that the end has been reached when research in fact stands at the beginning.  Misplaced because when the achievements of science actually do come, they are not in the areas where the ideology thought they would be, nor are they achieved in the manner predicted by the ideology” (Canguilhem Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences, pp. 57-58).
So it is more correct to say that race has “always” played its present role only if one takes as one’s historical era the  c.17th - 20th centuries.

Often the discussion of human variety is taken out of this historical and social context so as to be seen as a choice between a “purely biological concept’ and “at least in part – a social and cultural construction”.  Rather than this simple binary relation, Nature and Society are dialectically related, i. e., they are mutually constitutive.  The one would be impossible without the other, and in our time the fields of biology, anthropology, psychology, and sociology mark this relation through their incessant search for human nature.  Understanding this is key to understanding how race so fascinating to Naturalists and why it seemed to hold the answer to the Species Question.

It was consistent with the work the tendencies of the preceding work in natural History and medicine that Nott and Gliddon asserted that “the difficulties respecting the races of men are not peculiar to the question of man, but involve the investigation of the whole animal kingdom”.  If we could understand the mechanism and meaning of human variety, it was believed, then we could understand variety in nature as a whole.  The polygenic theory – that the races represented five different species with separate origins and with fixed characteristics – was already the accepted view when Nott and Gliddon wrote Indigenous Races. They had in fact contributed greatly to the success of the polygenic theory with their Types of Mankind as had Samuel Morton with his Crania Americana and Crania Aegyptica

This was the accepted approach to the Species Question in the years before the Origin of Species that species are fixed and that races constitute separate species with separate origins in either nature or creation. 
It may be of interest that Indigenous Races was the follow up to Types of Mankind,  which was a monumental work in terms of its contributors, scope, and dedication to Samuel G. Morton.  It ws the pinnacle of the work of the American School and the summation of the polygenic theory of human origins and the fixity of species.  It would only be pushed aside by Darwin’s Origin of Species,  a “capital dig at the parsons” Nott wrote in 1861.  As Darwin would later admit in the Descent of Man,  the polygenic theory had been the target of his on monogenic argument for descent with modification:  ‘... 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)  Indigenous Races came at the end of the polygenic era rather than at the beginning, which is an impression that the section might leave with a casual reader.  In fact, the following reference to Long’s 1774 History of Jamaica itself indicates that Nott and Gliddon came at the end of a long period of rational and scientific investigations.  It is between the publication of Types of Mankind and Indigenous Races that we discover Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inegalite des races humaines. 
Indigenous Races was for the most part the work of George Gliddon.  Nott was not interested in revisiting what he considered to be the established scientific fact of the multiple origins of the races, while  Gliddon was less a naturalist than a showman, popularizer, and former diplomat who idolized Samuel G. Morton to the point of robbing Egyptian tombs and graves for crania to send to Morton.  He died not long after the publication of Indigenous Races from fever having sought his fortune in Central America where he had gone frustrated that he had not been selected to implement one of his projects: a camel corp for the US army to deploy in the deserts of the Southwest.

From William Stanton’s The Leopard’s Spots, still one of the best works on the American School, on Indigenous Races ***

Nott blamed unfavorable reviews of Types of Mankind on Gliddon’s ‘very impolitic & undignified tone [in attacking religion],’ and expressed the wish that [George] Squire instead of Gliddon had been his collaborator.... Nott and Gliddon’s new book, Indigenous Races of the Earth, appeared in early 1857.  Nott was disgusted that ‘in spite of all sorts of pledges,’ Gliddon had ‘pitched into the Bible and [the] Parsons again,’ and hoped ‘most devoutly’ that he would ‘never hear the words Mono- & Polygenist again.  ‘I have no longer any doubt about his insanity on this subject,’ he wrote Squire.  Although hardly more sane on the subject himself, Nott was justified in his criticism of Indigenous Races – nearly all of which was written by Gliddon – as all ‘folly & confusion.”  The book is a great conglomeration of discourses and diatribes strung out with long and irrelevant digression and written in Gliddon’s style of ponderous ostentation.  Agassiz contributed a brief letter on geographical distribution; Joseph Leidy, who had no desire to become embroiled in the controversy, sent a short letter on paleontology; Alfred Maury, librarian of the French Institute, wrote a chapter on the philological evidence for diversity [of species]; Francis Pulszky, fellow of the Hungarian Academy and personal secretary to Loius Kossuth, contributed a letter on archeology; Dr. James Aitken Meigs, now curator of Morton’s collection, wrote a chapter on craniology; and Nott,complaining that he had exhausted his fund of information in Types of Mankind, contributed only one chapter, despite the fact that he was listed as co-author.  Gliddon wrote the rest.” (Stanton, pp.175-76.)

Nott’s attention had been drawn to the publication of Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inegalite just 2 years after Types of Mankind.  Nott sensed that the polygenic theory had so won the day that the dispute with religion would soon end in favor of the polygenists.  There was no reason to continue arguing with John Bachman (see related posts below) and others. 

...Nott was busy with another enterprise.  In 1856 he had a new acquaintance, a young Swiss immigrant named Henry Hotz, sometime Mobile [Alabama] newspaperman, secretary to the United States legation in Belgium, and later to be Confederate propogandist extraordinary in England and France.  Together they brought out a one-volume American edition of Arthur de Gobineau’s four-volume  Essai sur l’inegalite des races humaines, the bible of nineteenth-century racists.  While Hotz translated, Nott evidently selected those passages which gave most support to his own position.  The book was dedicated ‘to the Statesmen of America,’ for Hotz thought instruction in ethnology especially important in America, which had long been the abode of three races and was rapidly becoming that of a fourth – the Chinese, who were streaming into California. (Stanton, pp.174-75.)

Like Types of Mankind, Gorbineau’s  Essai sur l’inegalite drew on Morton’s cranial studies and the appearance of these works and many others like them is an indication of the importance of the problem of human variety.  However, Gobineau and Nott disagreed about Morton’s work.  Gobineau may have  hierarchically arranged the races, but he, according to Nott, seriously misread Morton.  Gobineau relied on second hand accounts of Morton’s work and would not abandon his religious convictions, Nott pointed out, and did not have sufficient knowledge of Natural History.  Nott and Hotz together published their one volume abridgment of Gobineau’s  Essai sur l’inegalite with Nott adding an appendix correcting what he saw as Gobineau’s misunderstanding of Morton, Natural History, and polygenism.

Count Gobineau, therefore, accepts the existing diversity of races as at least an accomplished fact and draws lessons of wisdom from the plain teachings of history. Man with him ceases to be an abstraction; each race, each nation, is made a separate study, and a fertile but unexplored field is opened to our view.
Our author leans strongly towards a belief in the original diversity of races, but has evidently been much embarrassed in arriving at conclusions by religious scruples and by the want of accurate knowledge in that part of natural history which treats of the designation of species and the laws of hybridity; he has been taught to believe that two distinct species cannot produce perfectly prolific offspring, and therefore concludes that all races of men must be of one origin, because they are prolific inter se. My appendix will therefore be devoted mainly to this question of species....

Our author has taken the facts of Dr. Morton at second hand, and, moreover, had not before him Dr. Morton's later tables and more matured deductions....

Just as important to observe is Nott’s advocacy of free scientific inquiry:

Mr. Gobineau remarks (p. 361), that he has very serious doubts as to the unity of origin. “These doubts, however,” he continues, “I am compelled to repress, because they are in contradiction to a scientific fact, which I cannot refute—the prolificness of halfbreeds ; and secondly, what is of much greater weight with me, they impugn a religious interpretation sanctioned by the church.”

....I shall venture on a few remarks upon this last scruple of the author, which is shared by many investigators of this interesting subject.

‘The strict rule of scientific scrutiny,’ says the most learned and formidable opponent in the adversary's camp, ‘exacts, according to modern philosophers, in matters of inductive reasoning, an exclusive homage. It requires that we should close our eyes against all presumptive and exterior evidence, and abstract our minds from all considerations not derived from the matters of fact which bear immediately on the question. The maxim we have to follow in such controversies is  ‘fiat justitia, ruat coelum.’ [“Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”] In fact, what is actually true, it is always desirous to know, whatever consequences may arise from its admission" (citing Prichard, Nat. Hist. of Man, p. 8. London, 1843)

To this sentiment I cheerfully subscribe: it has always been my maxim. Yet I find it necessary, in treating of this subject, to touch on its biblical connections, for although "we have great reason to rejoice at the improved tone of toleration, or even liberality which prevails in this country, the day has not come when science can be severed from theology, and the student of nature can calmly follow her truths, no matter whither they may lead. What a mortifying picture do we behold in the histories of astronomy, geology, chronology, cosmogony, geographical distribution of animals, &c.; they have been compelled to fight their way, step by step, through human passion and prejudice, from their supposed contradiction to Holy Writ. But science has been vindicated—their great truths hare been established, and the Bible stands as firmly as it did before. The last great struggle between science and theology is the one we are now engaged in—the natural history of man—it has now, for the first time, a fair hearing before Christendom, and all any question should ask is "daylight and fair play."

The Bible should not be regarded as a text-book of natural history. On the contrary, it must be admitted that none of the writers of the Old or New Testament give the slightest evidence of knowledge in any department of science beyond that of their profane contemporaries; and we hold that the natural history of man is a department of science which should be placed upon the same footing with others, and its facts dispassionately investigated. What we require for our guidance in this world is truth, and the history of science shows how long it has been stifled by bigotry and error. (Nott in Hotz/Gobineau, pp.505-6)

The study of race and the demand for “free scientific inquiry” are not easily disentangled and Nott’s call sounds at times suspiciously like the chants of scientists like Rushton, although Nott directed his demand towards tradition and religious authority while Rushton directed his towards rational inquiry itself.

Works such as Types of Mankind and Indigenous Races are just some of the many texts, institutions, and social relations that were important for defining race and its use as the basis for the classifications of human variety.  We find the Species Question permeating the great and minor works of Natural History, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries just as we find slavery and domination.

(*)  Black History Month – which for our purposes we should take to mean not only the history of Black people, but also the retrieval of the former truths that we would repress or forget.  Certainly this should be a consistent activity, just as Black history should not be ghettoized to one month a year.  At least, it is not, as in the United States, observed during the shortest month of the year.

(**) Some are attempting to reform Natural History and take it away from the Natural/travel log/memoirist writers, but this will be a fundamentally different Natural History, one whose practitioners will already be aware of the variability of species, natural & sexual selection, descent with modification, the expanded fossil record, genetics, the germ theory of disease, the unity of humans as one species, etc.  The list could be extended further, but that should suffice to note that these efforts will, if successful, be a very different Natural History.

(***) Stephen Jay Gould based the historical aspects of his Mismeasure of Man chapter on Morton on Stanton’s text.  Stanton provided a wealth of information and insights, but his purposes were not the same as Gould’s and Gould could have benefited from reading Morton, Nott, et al. in more detail. 

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

Cussins, Jessica. "Race and Medicine guidelines Using Race in Medicine? Seven Guidelines for Doing so Responsibly"

Gobineau, Arthur, comte de. 1853.  Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines (1884 ed.).  Paris : Firmin-Didot

Gobineau, Arthur, comte de.  1856.  The moral and intellectual diversity of races, with particular reference to their respective influence in the civil and political history of mankind / from the French by Count A. De Gobineau; with an analytical introduction and copious historical notes by H. Hotz; to which is added an appendix containing a summary of the latest scientific facts bearing upon the question of unity or plurality of species by J. C. Nott (1856). J. B. Lippincott.

Long, Edward. 1774. The history of Jamaica or, General survey of the antient and modern state of the island: with reflections on its situation settlements, inhabitants, climate, products, commerce, laws, and government. London : T. Lownudes

Morton, Samuel George and George Combe.  1839.  Crania americana; or, A comparative view of the skulls of various aboriginal nations of North and South America. To which is prefixed an essay on the varieties of the human species. Philadelphia, J. Dobson; London, Simpkin, Marshall & co.

Morton, Samuel George. 1844. Crania Aegyptiaca: Or, Observations on Egyptian Ethnography.  J. Penington

Morton, Samuel George. 1840.  Catalogue of skulls of man and the inferior animals in the collection of Samuel George Morton.  Philadelphia : Printed by Turner & Fisher for the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

Nott, Josiah Clark, 1804-1873; Gliddon, George R. (George Robins); Morton, Samuel George; Agassiz, Louis; Usher, William; Patterson, Henry S. (Henry Stuart). 1851.  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.
Philadelphia : J.B. Lippincott

Nott, Josiah Clark, 1804-1873; Gliddon, George R. 1857.  Indigenous races of the earth; or, New chapters of ethnological inquiry; including monographs on special departments. Philadelphia : J.B. Lippincott & Co.; [etc., etc.]

Prichard, James Cowles and Edwin Norris. 1855.  The Natural History of Man: Comprising Inquiries Into the Modifying Influence of Physical and Moral Agencies of the Different Tribes of the Human Family.  Paris: H. Baillière.

Stanton, William.  1960.  The Leopard’s Spots: Scientific Attitudes Toward Race in America, 1815-1859.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Related posts from this blog:

A Short Biography of John Bachman (1790-1874)

On Josiah Nott

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

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

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

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

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