Sunday, June 28, 2009

Darwinism, Racism, and Victorian Anthropology

Contemporary critics of Darwinian evolution (e.g. over at Uncommon Descent) are often also interested in criticizing Darwin himself, as well as making connections between Darwinism and racism, eugenics, and the view of social progress known as Social Darwinism. There are indeed connections between these ideas, but neither those who would demonize Darwin nor those who hold him up as a sort of saint have got the full picture. The truth is, of course, more complicated.

The idea of evolution undoubtedly had a strong effect on Victorian beliefs and attitudes. An evolutionary idea of progress permeated Victorian culture; one might say it was the zeitgeist of the 19th century and even the beginning of the twentieth. Europeans saw themselves as the pinnacle of progress, while nonwhite peoples were seen as inferior and less intelligent, with the primates just below them, and so on. But, this cultural bias towards other races existed before Darwin and his theory of evolution. As early as the 17th century (Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859) naturalists were studying human skulls from various cultures and concluding that whites were the superior race. Louis Agassiz, Samuel Morton, and Robert Knox were prominent 19th century writers/scientists who, before Darwin, concluded that blacks were an inferior race, even the “lowest grade of humanity.”

While we certainly cannot blame Charles Darwin for these prejudices, his theory was seen to provide scientific support for them. His specific theory of evolution, suggested that all life forms compete in the struggle for existence. The more fit will survive while the less fit die out. It was clear, then, that European culture, having survived and progressed far beyond any others, was superior to other cultures. In other words, Darwin’s mechanism could explain, scientifically, how some races could come to be superior to others. It was also used to validate slavery. For example, it was argued that if blacks were set free that they would inevitably go extinct. Blacks, being inferior to other races, would lose in the struggle for existence; it was therefore charitable to keep them as slaves and preserve their race (besides, it was also well-known that blacks became vicious when given freedom and an education). We must remind ourselves again, though, that the idea of evolution did not originate with Darwin and was already quite well-known by the time Darwin published his book. The idea of a struggle for existence, both biological and social, had also already been made popular by Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer. In other words, Darwin’s theory was built upon, and was in some sense a product of, preexisting Victorian values.

Victorian anthropologists, before Darwin, were ethnocentric: Europeans were seen as the highest, most advanced race, while other races were viewed as lower and inferior. However, these anthropologists were largely monogenist, meaning they viewed all races as being part of the same human species. In the late 19th century, after Darwin published The Origin of Species, many physical anthropologists became polygenist, viewing other races as separate species from Europeans. Eventually a developmental view of society emerged. In short, this developmental viewpoint saw native peoples as relics of our evolutionary past; people who had not evolved much higher than the apes, and whose adults had intelligences similar to that of European children (a side note: many Victorians also saw European women as having intelligences similar to a child’s). This evolutionary, developmental view of culture did not exactly encourage an equitable view of races and cultures.

It is safe to say that Darwin’s theory was used to support the ethnocentric and racist Victorian view of other races. It also perhaps tilted physical anthropology into a slightly more racist mode (it also eliminated previously strong ties with missionary work). But we cannot place too much blame on Darwin. Racism was a general prejudice of the time, and cannot be linked solely to Darwinism (even the general idea of evolution cannot take all the blame: Louis Agassiz, mentioned above, was a creationist who viewed blacks as having been separately created and inferior to whites). Darwin's theory may be responsible for adding scientific credibility to racism, but not its genesis.

Darwin himself, on the other hand, was an abolitionist and was convinced that the differences between races was one of education and upbringing, not inherent natures. This was made clear to him through his experiences with "civilized savages," men from primitive cultures who had been raised in England and whose behavior and intellect were indistinguishable from Europeans.

12 comments:

pastorerik said...

Yes, I thank the post-Enlightenment ethnocentrists for so many of the biases that warp and deform our thinking today.

afarensis, FCD said...

No, this is incorrect. Morton, Nott, Gliddon, and Agassiz, among others, were polygenists and used that to support slavery. A good example of that is Nott and Glidden's Types of Mankind, published in 1855, and James Hunt's The Negro's Place in Nature, published 1864. Darwin was a monogenist, something he clearly indicates in the Descent of Man. Polygenism, with it's emphasis on "races" being different species, and according to quite a few polygenists, separate creations, is wildly inconsistent with the idea of common descent from a common ancestor.

Jeff L said...

"Morton, Nott, Gliddon, and Agassiz, among others, were polygenists and used that to support slavery."

I didn't say these particular folks used Darwin's theory to support slavery. I actually said that Agassiz and Morton had formed their views before and without Darwin's theory. I was very clear that Darwin's theory was not the cause of 19th century racism. It is true though that Darwin's theory was seen as lending support to slavery (I did not say only Darwin's theory was used to support slavery).

"Darwin was a monogenist"

I have not yet said anything about Darwin himself. That will be in the follow-up.

"Polygenism...is wildly inconsistent with the idea of common descent from a common ancestor."

Is it? If so, then most of the late 19th century and early 20th century polygenist anthropologists who accepted evolution must not have noticed. But I don't see how it is. According to evolutionary theory, all life descended from a common ancestor, yet no one would deny that different species exist. Why couldn't the first humans have evolved into separate species over time?

afarensis, FCD said...

The point about Nott, Glidden, etc, is that polygenism existed long before Darwin. An yes polygenis is inconsistent with common descent since it requires separate acts of creation. Evolutionary theory indicates that all humans are the same species (unlike in polygenism) and arose from a common ancestor (unlike in polygenism). Polygenism hung around after say, The Origin of Species, and The Descent of Man, but was largely defunct by the early 1900's. To adress another point, what lent scientific credibility to racism was the work, previously mentioned, of Nott, Glidden, Morton, and others among the monogenist such as James Cowles Pritchard.

Jeff L said...

"The point about Nott, Glidden, etc, is that polygenism existed long before Darwin."

Agreed. I made practically the same point in my original post. Did you read it?

"An yes polygenis is inconsistent with common descent since it requires separate acts of creation."

This is simply false. Being a polygenist does not entail believing in separate acts of creation. Many 19th century anthropologists accepted evolution and were polygenist.

"Evolutionary theory indicates that all humans are the same species (unlike in polygenism) and arose from a common ancestor (unlike in polygenism)."

See above. And sharing common ancestry does not necessarily imply that organisms are the same species. Can you please explain how this is possibly the case?

"Polygenism hung around after say, The Origin of Species, and The Descent of Man, but was largely defunct by the early 1900's."

You seem to be implying that polygenism stuck around despite Darwin's theory. This is simply not the case. According to science historian Chandak Sengoopta, more physical anthropologists were polygenist after Darwin, not before.


"To adress another point, what lent scientific credibility to racism was the work, previously mentioned, of Nott, Glidden, Morton, and others among the monogenist such as James Cowles Pritchard."

Indeed, Darwinism was not alone in lending scientific credibility to racism, as I made reference to in both my original post and previous comment.

afarensis, FCD said...

Polygenism requires separate creations for races - that is what the word means, and was so used by the polygenists. For further proof yopu can consult the works of some of the polygenists I have mentioned in previous comments. Take Agassiz's contribution to Types of Mankind, for example. Agassiz felt that each race was created, separately, in it's own geographic region. Monogenism,on the other hand posited one orgin for all humans. This is what the whole Monogenism vs Polygenism debate was about - not about how many species there are. Darwin, and contemporary evolutionary theory, argued for a single origin for all humans. Furthermore, he used an arguement very similar to Mayr's species concept to buttress that claim. For darwin all humans were capable of interbreeding without suffering deleterious affects such as hybrid sterility.
In terms of how many anthropologist were polygenists, I will follow the works of George Stocking, Jr and Wolpoff and Capari's book. All of which indicate that Polygenism went into a decline after Darwin, lingering the longest in cultural anthropology (Morgan and Maine being good examples).

John Lynch said...

According to science historian Chandak Sengoopta, more physical anthropologists were polygenist after Darwin, not before.

That most certainly is not true and Sengoopta is mistaken. See, for example, David Livingstone's "Adam's Ancestors" for a complete history of polygenism, monogenism and their interactions with Darwin's ideas.

Jeff L said...

Alfred Russel Wallace was an evolutionist and a polygenist; he believed that human races had evolved into separate species, yet believed in a common origin. So, one need not be a creationist to be a polygenist.

As for whether Sengoopta is mistaken, I will have to look into it further. Thanks for your comments.

afarensis, FCD said...

That still makes him a monogenist. If Wallace thought that different races had different origins, then he would be a polygenist. The fact that Wallace believed that humans evolved into separate species is irrelevant to the polygenism vs. monogenism debate. As I mentioned before, and you seem to be having difficulty grasping the concept, monogism (which means one creation) and polygenism (which means separate creations) was about the origins of races not how how many species of humans there are. Polygenists believed that each race was created separately, monogenists believed that god created one race which subsequently changed into many (hmm, Wallace thought that one race evolved into more than one...that makes him a monogenist). From Wikipedia:
In nineteenth-century anthropology, the term was used to refer to the theory that all human beings descend from a single, recent pair of ancestors and are therefore closely related to one another. In contrast, polygenists argued that the different races of mankind had arisen separately in different parts of the world. This dispute later evolved into the debate over the single-origin hypothesis. The term is still used in discussions of Catholic theology over the same issue.

Jeff L said...

OK, so I read some more on the topic, from Stocking's Race, Culture, and Evolution.

First, as to the definition of polygenism and monogenism: at first these terms referred simply to whether the races of humans had one origin or multiple origins. Over time, however these terms were used more broadly to discuss whether races were "separate" and constituted separate species or not. It is this broader use which I encountered in Sengoopta's lecture.

As for Darwin's influence on anthropology...Stocking says that people often assume that polygenist thinking ended with Darwin's work. However, Stocking goes on to say that "Darwin’s own position on the question of human races was equally congenial to polygenist thinking." Post-Darwin, polygenist rhetoric actually ramped up, along with a sudden surge of European physical anthropology. The acceptance of evolution did not settle the long running monogenist vs polygenist debate. Indeed, European physical anthropology, post-Darwin, had numerous polygenist elements, and its major figures, such as Broca and Topinard were polygenist. Topinard considered the monogenists to be old-fashioned (indeed, monogenists had historically been orthodox believers, holding that all human races had descended from adam and eve) and polygenists to be scientific and progressive. Stocking again: "By calling into question the uniqueness of [Adam's] creation and robbing him of the paternity of most of mankind, polygenism had been an important accessory to Adam’s demise."

Late 19th century American anthropologists were also mostly polygenist, either due to the influence of the older polygenist school, the European physical anthropologists, or perhaps just the racist spirit of the times.

So, what can we conclude? That post-Darwin anthropology was indeed, either in America or Europe, largely polygenist. The acceptance of evolution did not necessarily entail being monogenist, at least in the broader sense of all humans being the same species. Stocking was careful to say that Darwinism did not necessarily cause the upswing in polygenism, but neither did it cause polygenism to die out. Racism couched in scientific terminology was hard to give up.

Anonymous said...

I think it's clear Jeff L.'s definition of Polygenism is different than the one I am familiar with from my history of race class, which is that polygenism means multiple geneses. Using this definition, clearly there were lest polygenists after Origins. However, Darwin's ideas were adapted by those insisting on inherent inequality between people groups, which may have increased. I believe that is Jeff L.'s argument, which I see as plausible. I just don't like the use of the term polygenism here. It is worth mentioning that, while Darwin's ideas were certainly adapted to support biological determinism, the idea that people's genes or race determine their ranking among people of the world, Darwin was an ardent abolitionist and did not make any such claims.

Annie said...

So, if the definition of polygenism shifted from races with different origins to races as different species, when did that change happen? Does anyone know if Morton and co called themselves polygenists?