Tag Archives: Darwin

Gould – The Mismeasure of Man

The Mismeasure of Man: American Polygeny and Craniometry Before Darwin (Chapter 2)

by Stephen Jay Gould

[Gould, Stephen Jay. 1996. “Chapter 2” of The Mismeasure of Man. W.W. Norton & Company. New York. pp 62-104]

Points & Quotes:

“Racial prejudice may be as old as recorded human history t but its biological justification imposed the additional burden of intrinsic inferiority upon despised groups, and precluded redemption by conversion or assimilation. The ‘scientific’ argument has formed a primary line of attack for more than a century .” (62)

A Shared Context of Culture

“In assessing the impact of science upon eighteenth- and nineteenth-century views of race, we must first recognize the cultural milieu of a society whose leaders and intellectuals did not doubt the propriety of racial ranking—with Indians below whites, and blacks below everybody else. Under this universal umbrella, arguments did not contrast equality with inequality.” (63)

“There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Douglas debates (pg 66)

“I do not cite these statements in order to release skeletons from ancient closets. Rather, I quote the men who have justly earned our highest respect in order to show that white leaders of Western nations did not question the propriety of racial ranking during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” (66)

“Charles Darwin , the kindly liberal and passionate abolitionist,* wrote about a future time when the gap between human and ape will increase by the anticipated extinction of such intermediates as chimpanzees and Hottentots” (69):

The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, than the Causasian, and some ape as low as a babon, instead of as at preent between the negro or Australian and the gorilla”

Charles Darwin, in Descent of Man, 1871, p. 201.

“Preevolutionary justifications for racial ranking proceeded in two modes. The “softer” argument—again using inappropriate definitions from modern perspectives—upheld the scriptural unity of all peoples in the single creation of Adam and Eve. This view was called monogenism—or origin from a single source. Human races are a product of degeneration from Eden’s perfection. Races have declined to different degrees, whites least and blacks most. […]
The “harder” argument abandoned scripture as allegorical and held that human races were separate biological species, the descendants of different Adams. As another form of life, blacks need not participate in the “equality of man.” Proponents of this argument were called ‘polygenists.” (71)

Etienne Serres (famous Fench medical anatomist, 1860) “settled on the theory of recapitulation—the idea that higher creatures repeat the adult stages of lower animals during their own growth. Adult blacks, he argued, should be like white children, adult Mongolians like white adolescents. He searched diligently but devised nothing much better than the distance between navel and penis—’that ineffaceable sign of embryonic life in man.’ This distance is small relative to body height in babies of all races. The navel migrates upward during growth, but attains greater heights in whites than in yellows, and never gets very far at all in blacks . Blacks remain perpetually like white children and announce their inferiority thereby.”

Charles White, an English surgeon, wrote the strongest defense of polygeny in 1799—Account of the Regular Gradation in Man […]
White’s criteria of ranking tended toward the aesthetic, and his argument included the following gem, often quoted. Where else but among Caucasians, he argued, can we find:

. . . that nobly arched head, containing such a quantity of brain . . . Where that variety of features, and fulness of expression; those long, flowing, graceful ring-lets; that majestic beard, those rosy cheeks and coral lips? Where that . . . noble gait? In what other quarter of the globe shall we find the blush that overspreads the soft features of the beautiful women of Europe, that emblem of modesty, of delicate feelings . . . where, except on the bosom of the European woman, two such plump and snowy white hemispheres, tipt with vermillion.

Charles White, 1799

Louis Agassiz—America’s Theorist of Polygeny

“In the early to mid-nineteenth century, the budding profession of American science … a collection of eclectic amateurs, bowing before the prestige of European theorists, became a group of professionals with indigenous ideas and an internal dynamic that did not require constant fueling from Europe. The doctrine of polygeny acted as an important agent in this transformation; for it was one of the first theories of largely American origin that won the attention and respect of European scientists—so much so that Europeans referred to polygeny as the ‘American school’ of anthropology.” (74)

Louis Agassiz’s (1807-1873) immigration to the US in the 1840s immediately elevated the status of American natural history. He also became the leading spokesman for polygeny in America.

Agassiz published his major statement on human races in the Christian Examiner for 1850. […] his argument : The theory of polygeny does not constitute an attack upon the scriptural doctrine of human unity. Men are bound by a common structure and sympathy, even though races were created as separate species. The Bible does not speak about parts of the world unknown to the ancients; the tale of Adam refers only to .the origin of Caucasians. Negroes and Caucasians are as distinct in the mummified remains of Egypt as they are today. […] approaching the end of his article, Agassiz abruptly shifts his ground and announces a moral imperative:

There are upon earth different races of men, inhabiting different parts of its surface, which have different physical characters; and this fact . .. presses upon us the obligation to settle the relative rank among these races, the relative value of the characters peculiar to each, in a scientific point of view.. . . As philosophers it is our duty to look it in the face (p . 142).

Louis Agassiz

“Agassiz’s world collapsed during the last decade of his life. His students rebelled; his supporters defected. He remained a hero to the public , but scientists began to regard him as a rigid and aging dogmatist, standing firm in his antiquated beliefs before the Darwinian tide. But his social preferences for racial segregation prevailed—all the more because his fanciful hope for voluntary geographic separation did not.” (82)

The American School and Slavery

“…the polygenist argument did not occupy a primary place in the ideology of slavery in mid-nineteenth-century America—and for a good reason. For most Southerners, this excellent argument entailed too high a price . The polygenists had railed against ideologues as barriers to their pure search for truth, but their targets were parsons more often than abolitionists. Their the- ory, in asserting a plurality of human creations , contradicted the doctrine of a single Adam and contravened the literal truth of scripture.” (101-102)

“The polygenists forced defenders of slavery into a quandary: Should they accept a strong argument from science at the cost of limiting religion’s sphere? In resolving this dilemma, the Bible usually won. After all, scriptural arguments for supporting slavery were not wanting. Degeneration of blacks under the curse of Ham was an old and eminently functional standby. Moreover, polygeny was not the only quasi-scientific defense available.” (102)

“The defenders of slavery did not need polygeny. Religion still stood above science as a primary source for the rationalization ·of social order. But the American debate on polygeny may represent the last time that arguments in the scientific mode did not form a first line of defense for the status quo and the unalterable quality of human differences. The Civil War lay just around the corner, but so did 1859 and Darwin’s Origin of Species. Subsequent arguments for slavery, colonialism, racial differences, class structures, and sex roles would go forth primarily under the banner of science.” (103-104)


monogenism—the belief that all human peoples share the same genetic origin

polygenism—the belief that different human races come from different genetic sources, and are thus different species

Continue reading Gould – The Mismeasure of Man

Baker – Anthropology & Social Darwinism (selections)

The “American School” of Anthropology &
The Ascension of Anthropology as Social Darwinism

by Lee D. Baker

[Baker, Lee D. 1998. “The ‘American School’ of Anthropology” and “The Ascension of Anthropology as Social Darwinism” in From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896–1954. University of California Press. Pg. 14-17 & 26-31.]

Points & Quotes:

in The “American School” of Anthropology (Ch 1.)

“Until the mid-nineteenth century most scientists explained racial inferiority in terms of the “savages'” fall from grace or of their position in the “Great Chain of Being.” The idea of monogenesis — that Negroes were fully human — was integral to both paradigms. U.S. scientists, however, revived earlier ideas of polygenesis — multiple origins of the human species — in the wake of the growing antislavery forces and slave revolts.”

“Science successfully eclipsed religious and folk beliefs about racial inferiority once the physicians and naturalists established the so-called scientific fact of Negro inferiority. From the mid-nineteenth century on, science provided the bases for the ideological elements of a comprehensive worldview summed up in the term race.”

“There has always been a social construct of race in the United States, at the least since theConstitution was ratified. …
“People experience every day the ways in which categories of race are signified and reified socially, structurally, and culturally (symbolically), in terms that range from the intrapersonal to the supranational. The way people are forced to negotiate racial categories, and the terms by which racial categories form, however, change over time …
“Although I argue that early ethnologists helped to solidify the construct of race during the 1890s, I also argue that the appropriation of the Boasian discourse on race by the NAACP during the litigation that culminated in Brown helped to construct a different meaning for racial categories.”

in The Ascension of Anthropology as Social Darwinism (Ch. 2)

“Although expansion created wealth and prosperity for some, it contributed to conditions that fostered rampant child labor, infectious disease, and desperate poverty …
“The daily experience of squalid conditions and sheer terror made many Americans realize the contradictions between industrial capitalism and the democratic ideals of equality, freedom, and justice for all. Legislators, university boards, and magazine moguls found it useful to explain this ideological crisis in terms of a natural hierarchy of class and race caused by a struggle for existence wherein the fittest individuals or races advanced while the inferior became eclipsed.”

“Although ideas of racial inferiority and social evolution were not new to the United States, Social Darwinist ideas became increasingly dominant because they were viewed as scientific in an era when science reigned supreme.”

“The principal tenet of Spencer’s synthetic philosophy was the organic analogy, an analogy drawn between biological organisms and society. The principles of biology, he argued, could be applied to society. …
“Even before Darwin’s Origin of Species, Spencer had worked out the basic elements for evolution. It was Spencer, not Darwin, who furnished the two famous phrases that became associated with the notion of evolution: “survival of the fittest” and “the struggle for existence.”

“Spencer .. suggested, “Intellectual evolution, as it goes on in the human race [goes] along with social evolution, of which it is at once a cause and a consequence.” Within this evolutionary hierarchy, the most inferior were the savages; the next up the ladder were the semi-civilized, and finally we reached the civilized men.”


monogenesis—humans all come from a single species (prevailing scientific consensus)

polygenesis—multiple origins of the human species (e.g. superior & inferior races, etc.)

Continue reading Baker – Anthropology & Social Darwinism (selections)

Young—The Harmony of Illusions

The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

by Allan Young

[Young, Allan. 1997. The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Princeton University Press.]


  • Young argues that the concept of traumatic memory, which is seen by some as having roots hundreds of years ago, is actually quite a recent invention
  • He argues that: “this generally accepted picture of PTSD, and the traumatic memory that underlies it, is mistaken. The disorder is not timeless, nor does it possess an intrinsic unity. Rather, it is glued together by the practices, technologies, and narratives with which it is diagnosed, studied,treated, and represented and by the various interests, institutions, and moral arguments that mobilized these efforts and resources” (5).

He does not deny that the suffering accompanying a PTSD diagnosis is not real:

  • “My job as an ethnographer of PTSD is not to deny its reality but to explain how it and its traumatic memory have been made real, to describe the mechanisms through which these phenomena penetrate people’s life worlds, acquire facticity, and shape the self-knowledge of patients, clinicians, and researchers” (5-6).

The book is broken into threes sections:

  1. an historical overview of trauma theories up to the beginning of WWI
    • Erichsen—”railway spine” in the 1860s—to deal with railway insurance
      • fear is the body’s memory of pain—memories come form physical stimulus, not images or words
      • So the traumatic event itself causes the continued anxiety
    • Janet & Freud
      • Repression and dissociation—horrible buried memory
      • The memory of the trauma (rather than the event) is the cause of the anxiety
    • Rivers, WWI & “shell shock”
      • Although seen by many scholars as the precursor to PTSD, Rivers is “observing that, in most cases, it is not the traumatic memory that produces the physical and emotional symptoms of the war neuroses (anxiety disorder) but rather the reverse: the symptoms account for the memory” (83).
  2. The DSM III revolution
    • 1940s pre and post WWII war neuroses
      • Kardiner—The Traumatic Neuroses of War, based on post WWI studies from the 1920s
      • Grinker & Spiegel—War Neuroses, based on field studies during WWII
      • no matching diagnostic categories between the two, so the War Department makes one…
    • The DSMs
      • DSM I—1952, nomenclature not universal, listed on spectrum from “Mental Illness, to Mental Health”
      • DSM II—1968, better, but still involved “neuroses”
      • DSM III—1980, built from scratch on completely positivist basis, that is, it was all descriptive, some critiqued this “cook book approach … making mental disorder equivalent to their aggregate of their symptomatic parts” (100).
    • PTSD
      • in DSM III, a person “gas experienced an event that is outside the range of usual human experience and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone (124).
      • system worked like this:
        1. first order feature (PTSD) is defined by
        2. second order feature (an event outside the range of usual human experience),
        3. but then what is the third order (usual human experience)? Unlike the anecdotal research of Rivers, Freud, or Kardiner, the DSM relies on analogical comparison, which has no bounds.
    • so throughout all this time:
      • “What counts as a reasonable question, a satisfactory answer, a significant difference, an anomalous finding, or even an outcome—the criteria for each of these changed during this period. What did not change was the belief in the solidity of scientific facts and the conviction that psychiatry’s facts, being scientific, are essentially timeless” (9).
  3. PTSD in Practice
    • This section is based off of fieldwork in a U.S. Veterans Administration unit for the diagnosis and treatment of Viet Nam veterans suffering from PTSD in 1986-87
    • There is a long section that includes case studies of four different Vietnam War veterans being considered for PTSD diagnosis.
      • The four men all present psychometric and standardized diagnostic results consistent with a PTSD diagnosis
      • The case studies consist of transcripts of narratives from the men, which are significantly different
      • Following the narratives, transcripts of meetings between professionals at the center show how they rationalize these differences back into the requisite parameters using the open ended language of the DSM designation
    • the centers espouse an ideology of PTSD that allows the patients to talk about their own experiences using specific terminology that feeds back into the center, and back into the diagnosis.
      • The seventh chapter has a lot of group therapy transcripts where you can see this happening.

In the end, the book basically shows how the social creation and maintenance of PTSD (like Scott with blindness) can work in the process of creating a “kind” of people (like Hacking with MPD).

Continue reading Young—The Harmony of Illusions