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)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Darwin, Slavery, and Science (2009)

Darwin, Slavery, and Science (draft)
for The Civil War and Reconstruction Era: 1850s-1877 in the series Conflicts in American History, edited by Brian L. Johnson and Edward J. Blum. Manly, 2009.

In an era of revolutions, tucked away on the Down House estate, Darwin was the most reclusive of revolutionary figures. His theories were based upon direct observation, rather than philosophical speculation. Yet his views on the origin and variation of species transformed our understanding of natural and human history. While Darwin's work is often seen in terms of its conflict with Christian doctrines on creation and design, this was not the controversy that Darwin sought to engage. The Biblical chronology had been under siege for quite some time. The great naturalists that preceded him--- Linneaus, Cuvier, Blumenbach, and Lamarck--- all placed humans in the natural order, and the wide variety of new species of plants and animals, and new varieties of humans, confronting Europeans on their voyages of discovery and conquest, scientific research came to center on what was referred to as the species question. What could explain the rich variety of species found in the world? Why is there such variety to a divinely created and designed world? If the variety of nature was too great to allow one to answer these questions, then humans could serve as a model. If we could understand why humans vary, then we would have the key to the species question. A decade before the publication of the Origin of Species, the American craniologist Samuel G. Morton stated flatly that “the question of the origin of species is of the human species.” In the years between 1830 and 1859, a new scientific theory of human origins 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 origins. Advocated most vigorously by a group of naturalists and doctors that came to be known as the American School, the polygenic theory of human origins was used by many as scientific justification for slavery and used against the abolitionists who often turned to the Biblical account of humans as having one single origin, or monogenesis, to support their cause. Although Darwin's work is often associated with the challenge it posed to Christian doctrine, this was not the opponent Darwin had in mind when he wrote the Origin of Species. His scientific intervention was against the polygenic theory and its implicit justification of slavery. To do this, Darwin proposed scientific, and not religious, monogenic theory of the origin and variation of species. Although humans are not mentioned at all in the work, its argument led to an unavoidable conclusion that humans are one species. The scientific foundation for slavery was ripped away, much to Darwin's satisfaction.

The American School, associated with such naturalists and doctors such as Morton, Josiah Nott,George Gliddon, and Louis Agassiz were perhaps the first American scientist to be fully recognized by their European peers. 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 was upon us. 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.  

The debate between the monogenists and polygenists was between two powerful explanations human variety. It would be simplistic to think that the polygenic/monogenic debate was between pro and anti-slavery advocates who wanted to wrap themselves in the veneer of scientific respectability. This debate went to the very core of the ethics of scientific inquiry. Supporters of slavery could be found on each side, as could abolitionists. The monogenist and co-author with James Audubon, the Rev. John Bachman of Charleston supported slavery, while those opposed to slavery included George Squire, polygenists and founder of the New York Anthropological Society.  

It is often uncritically accepted that the ideas and concepts Darwin brought together so masterfully in the Origin of Species had been “in the air” 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 purposely avoided the use of the term evolve or evolution until the very last sentence in order to avoid any confusion of his work with the already well know use of the term. Evolution at the time of Origin of Species was most often used in the sense of an inevitable and determined unfolding over time of characteristics already present from the beginning. The homunculus, or the little man  in the head of each sperm, best represented this type of evolutionary view: “all future generations had been created in the ovaries of Eve or testes of Adam, enclosed like Russian dolls, one within the next---a homunculus in each of Eve’s ova, a tinier homunculus in each ovum of the homunculus, and so on.” Darwin redefined evolution to mean indeterminate change over time, i.e., change directed only by the needs of the individual to survive its struggle for existence and its ability of the species to adapt and vary in the course of the struggle for life. Instead of a movement towards an end or a higher stage, the history of nature became the struggle of life to perpetuate itself, in part through “natural selection” ---defined by Darwin as “the preservation of slight changes.”

Darwin put to rest the scientific discourse on the species question, which dominated the study on human origins. Darwin's work was grounded not only in the elements that he carried forward --- the importance of the fossil record, embryology, and rudimentary organs --- but also in the debates and discourses which he would either transform or destroy. The Origin of Species asks the central question of Darwin's time: What explains the origins and variety of species? That variation exists is obvious to any observer, Darwin notes at the beginning of his work. In 1842, a reviewer of recent polygenic works was led to begin by asking “[i]n 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?” Human variety held the key to the species question precisely because the question always referred to human variety,and because Linneaus, Cuvier, and Lamarck had the wisdom to place humans in the animal kingdom.  Variation in one could explain variation in all because the process was at work on all. The struggle for life points to a commonality that is fundamentally genealogical. Darwin's theory, though, was neither eugenic nor teleological; and for him genealogy rather than Spirit connected all life.  

The Origin is structured as an argument for the theory. It begins with an exposition on variation as it exists under domestication, and without the intervention of humans. Instead of fixity, Darwin's takes 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 variation is generated by the struggle. Natural selection, amongst other forces is the basis of this law of variability. At the heart of nature rests variation. Life, embroiled in the struggle for existence, maintains itself through variation.

The remaining portion of the Origin is given over to anticipating objections to the theory.  Instinct, especially discussed in terms of slave-making ants and mutualistic aphid/ant relationships, hybridity approached as the permanent production of variety, and not as a violation of fixity. Other  problems of the geological record (fossils and catastrophe and extinction); the succession of organic beings (preformism, teleology) and geographic distribution (design and special creation) are addressed as possible areas from which objections will be heard. In 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 which reveals the transvaluation of Natural History into the science of life. "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’s  genealogical tree of evolution represents the history of Nature, and that species are an expression of continuity, but also of this discontinuity of past extinctions and adaptations. 

History is not the striving of different species for supremacy, but the conflict within one species in particular as it confronts its own conditions of life. To Darwin, the torments of the rest of nature are rare and brief, only humans have learned to make suffering itself into a way of living. To see this, one needed only to observe, he often remarked, the torment of animals under the whip of the driver, or the knife of the vivisectionist,or the wars and enslavement of humans themselves.

Darwin did not engage in the active defense of his theory, leaving it to his friends Thomas Huxley and Asa Gray to respond to the more heated attacks. There were many reasons for this,including his health, which had been severely compromised during the five year circumnavigation of the H.M.S. 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 voyage. He had begun the voyage a believer in fixity and creation, and by the end had already begun to sketch the outlines of the theory. He had also 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.  
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 ships 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 he was concern, given his interest in craniology, that the shape of Darwin's nose suggested that he was not up to the hardships of the voyage. Reluctantly, Fitz-Roy took Darwin aboard and they shared the cramped quarters of the ship for five years. The smallness of the cabin became even more pronounced when the two discovered their opposing views of slavery. Fitz-Roy shared the common view that slavery was a necessary evil because of the inherent inferiority of the enslaved races. Slavery would ultimately raise the Negro to civilization, he thought. Fitz-Roy was himself returning three captives taken from Tierra del Fuego during the previous voyage to be trained as missionaries and potential colonial agents. The attempt ended in failure and tragedy.

But it was in Brazil that Darwin observed slavery for himself, and his experiences never left him. His son Francis remembered that his father was often awaken by nightmares of his Brazilian experiences, and he would become enraged at the mere suggestion that slavery might have any redeeming value. Those who thought so, he 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 only the subject of slavery made his emotions get the better of him.  During the period between Darwin's return from the Beagle and the publication of his major works, it could not have been lost on anyone at the time ---especially one who like Darwin maintained a voluminous international correspondence--- that they were seeing the transformation of scientific knowledge --- and the “Spirit of the Age” is really only the structure of knowledge and its disciplines.Physics and chemistry were already becoming the province 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 towards 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 Man 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 Man, but it was now possible to assert that it was key to understanding the history of life. 
“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 modestly stated. The Tree of Life, as well as his evocation of the “tangled bank,” represented a dynamic and indeterminate Nature.

Darwin executed more than just a rhetorical maneuver with the naming of The Origin of Species. Darwin choose to avoid the question of human origins, because to do so would have been to play on his opponents board and make 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 organisms, all of which were created by the same processes that could even now be seen at work. Darwin shifts man from a central place in understanding variety in nature, and so produces a break with the polygenic/monogenic debate. If humans can tell us so much about the origins of the vast cacophony of nature, then there was no reason to privilege humans as the special key to knowledge. Any species could answer some or all of the question of origins. Darwin combined the genealogical classification of species with the gradual accumulation of small variations --- “a grain of sand is enough to tip the balance”--- and a theory of  population. With these he destroyed the theory of the fixity of species and the multiple origins of humans. Even Cuvier's theory of a series of creations could no longer be accepted.

Darwin was profoundly materialistic. With his intervention into the monogenic/polygenic controversy, the fixed, closed systems of classification of Natural History could no longer adequately describe the world. Now the Earth could only 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 evolution is used. It is significant that it is used in this passage to juxtapose the fixity of the law of gravity with the plasticity of descent with modification, a plasticity that is due in large part 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. Linneaus may have placed Man 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 shall now explain the origin of man.  Darwin's work opens us to the infinity of nature, and makes humans 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 and eugenics, and new forms of control that relied on new systems of classification which never quite left behind those of the late period of Natural History. These were not new forms of unreason, and neither was polygenesis merely a false and wretched knowledge that was a perversion of reason. It constituted scientific reason in relation to Man. Our present everyday knowledge of race owes much to it, but so too the the same degree do the sciences of life such as biology and sociology insofar as they came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to buttress the eugenic movement.  
Life and its struggle now occupied the center, and the displacement of Man could not be sustained under the guise of Natural History. New fields such as biology, sociology, and ecology would now supplant Natural History with the new study of life. The end of Natural History came along with the end of the dispute between the monogenists and polygenists. 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.

Darwin does not directly refer to polygenism until ten years later in the Descent of Man, and by then the polygenists had already been eclipsed by the combined forces of Darwin's critique and the American Civil War. That we do not remember the monogenic/polygenic debate is what Darwin hoped would be one of his most notable achievements.