"The Caucasian Race is characterized by a naturally fair skin, susceptible of every tint; hair fine, long and curling, and of various colors. The skull is large and oval, and its anterior portion full and elevated. The face is small in proportion to the head, of an oval form, with well-proportioned features. . . . This race is distinguished for the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments. . . . The spontaneous fertility of [the Caucasus] has rendered it the hive of many nations, which extending their migrations in every direction, have peopled the finest portions of the earth, and given birth to its fairest inhabitants. . . ."
The Negroes are proverbially fond of their amusements, in which they engage with great exuberance of spirit; and a day of toil is with them no bar to a night of revelry. Like most other barbarous nations their institutions are not infrequently characterized by superstition and cruelty. They appear to be fond of warlike enterprises, and are not deficient in personal courage; but, once overcome, they yield to their destiny, and accommodate themselves with amazing facility to every change of circumstance.
Samuel George Morton
In the early nineteenth century science, not religion was becoming the highest authority on matters of racial origins. Edinburgh University became the centre of a new science which aimed to clearly define the races of the world and establish which ones were inferior. This new discipline was based on phrenology, the ‘science’ of determining the character of people by looking at the shape of their skulls. The phrenologists claimed that the brain was the organ of the mind and consisted of individual faculties which controlled personality, thought and moral action. The strength of these different features could be gathered by feeling the protuberances on the skill and each race manifested its particular traits through the shape of the cranium.
Followers of this technique quickly assembled a large collection of skulls from around the world and began making pronouncements such as that the ‘Hindoos’ had been conquered by Britain because of their ‘small organs of destructiveness and combativeness’. Scientific racism was born and quickly spawned a number of societies including the Anthropological Society of London which brought meetings to order with a mace topped by a ‘negro’s head gnawing a human thigh bone’ and preached that the white man’s duty was to enslave, control and denigrate inferior races.
A debate had been raging in the early decades of the 19th century between the monogenists, those who argued for one single origin for racial descent, and the polygenists, those who believed that whites and blacks were separate biological species. The polygenist thesis was taken up by slave traders and owners to argue that blacks were an intermediate species somewhere between apes and humans. This argument was also conducted between theologians, those who pointed to a common descent from Adam and Eve, and those who pointed to biblical passages arguing that humans had multiple origins. Of the two theories, the monogenist theory had the most support from the Bible due to the Genesis narrative, although some would still argue that despite the common origin, the darker races had fallen into sin, degenerated and lost civilisation. With the rise in the authority of science, the monogenist position became increasingly embattled as influential biologists began to argue for separate origins. In the earlier view derived from the work of Buffon each plant and animal represented a different species (each could be seen as having been created by a separate act of God). The species constituted archetypes from which variation would be permitted, therefore the various races of man were variations of the same species. This view began to crumble because of the introduction of the concept of ‘type’ which categorised human races according to mental and physical traits and arranged them hierarchically (from inferior to superior) with established differences between them. It followed from this that they had been created separately.
In the antebellum period the US became home to a flourishing, southern planter-friendly anthropology which emphasised a scientifically grounded pluralist view of human origins. One of the chief proponents was the Swiss-American Louis Agassiz who argued that different races had been created for specific climactic zones. Agassiz had found blacks disgusting on his encounters with them in the U.S. In 1850, in the slave city of Charleston, he affirmed that the human races were different species - which, like all other species, did not adapt or evolve. When his position came into conflict with his fellow Christians who insisted on descent from Adam and Eve, Agassiz argued for the independence between science and religion.
Another famous contributor was the Philadelphia physician Samuel George Morton, who managed to assemble the largest collection of crania in the United States. Raised a Quaker, Morton retained his religious faith and viewed God as having fitted the peoples of the world to their circumstances of climate and locality. In doing so the dark races had been ‘retarded’ and therefore the deity’s wise purposes included giving the white race an unquestionable superiority over all the nations. As Morton wrote, demonstrating a heady mixture of divine intent, racial superiority and nationalism:
‘Was it not for this same mental superiority, these happy climes which we now inhabit would yet be possessed by the wild and untutored Indian, and that soil which now rejoices the hearts of millions of freeman would yet be overrun by lawless tribe of contending barbarians'.
Yet Morton was all too aware that the less enlightened religious faithful would not be so enamoured with this. In a letter to he wrote that:
‘I avow my belief in a plurality of origins for the human species..when I took this ground four years ago, (and with some misgivings, not because I doubted the truth of my opinions, but because they would lead to some controversy with the clergy)’
Armed with an impressive array of data, Morton and the other polygenists proclaimed that the monogensits were deluding themselves. It seemed improbable that all races could have changed their skin colour and their mental and physical characteristics through environmental factors of degeneration from the time of the deluge to the rise of Egyptian civilisation. With polygenism established those who sought to justify the suppression of non-whites eagerly embraced the new science.
In 1839 Morton published the infamous ‘Crania Americana’ which divided humanity neatly into four separate races, Europeans, Asians, Native Americans and Africans. While the Caucasian race was ‘distinguished for the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments’ and had ‘peopled the finest portions of the earth, and given birth to its fairest inhabitants’, the Africans were ‘joyous, flexible, and indolent’ and ‘not infrequently characterized by superstition and cruelty’; they had ‘little invention’ but ‘a great talent for music’. The Native Americans fared little better, being classified by Morton as:
‘averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war.... crafty, sensual, ungrateful, obstinate and unfeeling, and much of their affection for their children may be traced to purely selfish motives... their mental faculties, from infancy to old age, present a continued childhood’.
He did have some good things to say about the Asian race but considered them to be best ‘compared to the monkey race, whose attention is perpetually changing from one object to another’
Another key figure was a man trained by Morton, Josiah Nott a physician from Alabama. Nott desperately believed that Negroes and White were separate species and promulgated this theory in leaflets, publications and letters in an attempt to fend off the abolitionist movement. He began earnestly producing treatises on anthropology, a subject he referred to as ‘niggerology’. One of these included ‘Types of Mankind’, a book which argued through ‘qualitative data’ and tables that the Negroes were like children who needed direction and better off enslaved. He wrote:
'Dr Morton, quoted in another chapter, has proven that the Negro races possess about nine cubic inches less of brain that the Teuton; and, unless there were really some facts in history, something beyond bare hypothesis, to teach us how these deficient inches could be artificially added, it would seem that the Negroes in Africa must remain substantially in that same benighted state wherein Nature has placed them'
The religious rhetoric of the abolitionists which was marshalled against these 'scientific' observations irritated Nott. In a letter to Morton he said:
‘You have not gone far enough...to blow up all the chronologies although it may not be very politic to say so in these days of Christian intolerance. The Bible, if of divine origin, was clearly not intended to include in it’s code of beautiful morals, the whole range of natural science, for it knows no knowledge beyond human knowledge of the day and its great ends did not require any other – even the septeaguit account is far too short to take in the events of Egypt, to say nothing of geological formations which are now placed before the beginning of Moses’.
Neither Morton, Agassiz or Nott were atheists and they all maintained their belief in a divine creation. Their writings reveal them to be free-thinking Christians seeking to put dogma aside in the search for scientific ‘truth’. However their theory of origins increasingly came into bitter conflict with the views of theologians who were stating that all people were descended from Adam and Eve. Yet the biblical view of monogenist origins appeared antiquated next to the ‘American School’ of anthropologists. As Nott wrote:
‘My main object...is to cut loose the natural history of mankind from the Bible and place it upon it’s own foundation where it may remain without collision or molestation....The scientific facts...cannot be explained in my humble opinion, without doing violence to the mosaic account’.
Some years later he became more direct in his approach, stating that:
‘The unity of races...can only be deduced from forced construction of the Old and New Testaments...where is the evidence of the descent of black and red races from Adam, so clear as to upset the whole physical history of man?’
In response to this, Monogenesists such as M. M. Noah reminded their readers that:
‘God that made man in his own image gave to the Indians an origin and parentage like unto the rest of the great family of mankind, the work of his own almighty hand’
His contemporary Dr Forry concluded his review of natural history stating that:
‘On the one hand he has the conclusions of Dr Morton...and, on the other, he has the authoritative declaration of Moses that all human kind has descended from a single pair’
Another monogenesist, James Southall wrote that ‘there must be a trial of strength between the Bible and science’
And yet the pluralist view of origins would be dealt a fatal blow, not by scripture, but by a new theory from the British naturalist Charles Darwin. This was not fatal to scientific racism which became stronger than ever in the late 19th century and reformulated in Darwinian terms (Ernst Haeckel for example argued that the human genus had evolved into nine separate species). The common ancestry of mankind had been given greater plausibility but the battle would rage on.
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