Friday, April 18, 2008

Friday Dead Racist Blogging: Fuck You, Ben Stein Edition

One of my interests is the war waged against the theory of evolution by ignorant creationist hordes. I don't blog about it much because I'm not a biologist (of course I'm not a historian either, but that doesn't really stop me from bloviating on certain subjects). Demonstrating why creationist caricatures of evolution are, well, just that--caricatures--is somewhat beyond me.

However, creationists do not limit themselves to attacking the theory of evolution on its scientific merits. They often will also (or even solely) attack it for what they consider its implications to be, as in the mockery of a documentary that was released today, Flunked--I mean, Expelled. They will say, for instance, that Darwin was a horrible racist and that the theory of evolution itself is horribly racist (for instance, it leads directly to the Holocaust, says Ben Stein).

Biology I may know little about. But dead racists? Now the ball's in Farnsworth's court!

If we are to consider whether Charles Darwin was a racist, and whether the hypothesis he proposed is also racist, we should examine it not from today's standpoint, but from the standpoint of the mid-nineteenth century. What was the state of science and race back then?

For a long while, people had wondered how the separate races of man had come to be. The ancient Greeks had pondered the issue of what made black men, black, and generally concluded that it was the result of climate:
The story of Phaëton's driving the chariot sun wildly through the heavens apparently served as an explanation for the Ethiopian's blackness even before written records, and traces of this ancient fable were still drifting about during the seventeenth century.
The Æthiopians then were white and fayre,
Though by the worlds combustion since made black
When wanton Phaeton overthrew the Sun.

Less fancifully, Ptolemy had made the important suggestion that the Negro's blackness and woolly hair were caused by exposure to the hot sun and had pointed out that people in northern climates were white and those in temperate areas an intermediate color.1

This idea was perhaps the prevailing scientific opinion on the question of the origin of races even centuries later:
In general, the most satisfactory answer to the problem was some sort of reference to the action of the sun, whether the sun was assumed to have scorched the skin, drawn the bile, or blackened the blood. People living on the Line had obviously been getting too much of it; after all, even Englishmen were darkened by a little exposure. How much more, then, with the Negroes who were "so scorched and vexed with the heat of the sunne, that in many places they cursed it when it riseth." The sun's heat was itself sometimes described as a curse--a not unnatural reaction on the part of those Englishmen who visited the West African coast where the weather was "of such putrifying qualitie, that it rotted the coates of their backs." This association of the Negro's color with the sun became a commonplace in Elizabethan literature; as the Prince of Morocco apologized, "Mislike me not for my complexion,/ The shadow'd livery of the burnish'd sun,/ To whom I am a neighbour and near bred."2

This seemed reasonable, but one ran into a problem when it became apparent that very different races existed in very similar climates across the globe...
Unfortunately this theory ran headlong into a stubborn fact of nature which simply could not be overridden: if the equatorial inhabitants of Africa were blackened by the sun, why not the people living on the same line in America? Logic required them to be the same color. As Ptolemy's formidably authoritative Geographica stated this logic, "Reason herself asserts that all animals, and all plants likewise, have a similarity under the same kind of climate or under similar weather conditions, that is, when under the same parallels, or when situated at the same distance from either pole." Yet by the middle of the sixteenth century it was become perfectly apparent that the Indians living in the hottest regions of the New World could by no stretch of the imagination be described as black. They were "olive" or "tawny," and moreover they had long hair rather than the curious wool of Negroes; clearly they were a different sort of men. ... Clearly the method of accounting for human complexion by latitude just did not work.3

...or that one race could span across many different climates...
We will, therefore, abstain from any further details, in order not to extend these remarks beyond the limits of general statements, and would only add one fact respecting the American Indians; as this race presents a most remarkable feature in the point of view under consideration. It has been satisfactorily established that over the whole continent of America south of the arctic zone (which is inhabited by Esquimaux), all the numerous tribes of Indians have the same physical character; that they belong to the same race, from north to south, and that the primitive inhabitants of the more northern or southern regions. In this case we have the greatest uniformity in the character of the tribes of an entire continent, under the most different climatic influences.4

Further, it was reasoned that if climate or environment effected a change in people, then putting people of one race in the region generally inhabited by people of another, then they or their descendants should gradually change to resemble the natives. That is, whites who lived in Africa should be transformed into blacks, blacks who lived in Europe should become white, and whites who lived in America should become Native Americans. But this was absurd--who had ever heard of such an occurrence?
How can a reasonable man believe that any thing short of a miracle, could, in the temperate parts of Australia or America, change the white race into Australians or Indians. Both reason and fact are opposed to such a supposition. Observation and history alone can settle these points, and we have no record of such changes having occurred, or being now in progress.5

And again,
No one ever saw a Negro, Mongol, or Indian, born from any but his own species. Has any one heard of an Indian child born from white or black parents in America, during more than two centuries that these races have been living here? Is not this brief and simple statement of the case sufficient to satisfy any one, that the diversity of species now seen on the earth, cannot be accounted for on the assumption of congenital or accidental origin?6

No-one had ever heard of anything like a black man turning into a white one, or a white person giving birth to a black person (as an aside, it amuses me how much the above paragraph matches current creationist talking points). And studies had shown that the races existed perfectly unchanged thousands of years ago; Josiah Nott made numerous references to Egyptian monument which he alleged showed the races as they exist today, being just as distinct four thousand years ago. In fact, this image appeared in his book Types of Mankind:

Later on that page he writes "although the effigies we present are small, they portray a specimen of each type with sufficient accuracy to show that four races were very distinct 3300 years ago."7 If the races had remained unchanged for thousands of years--as far back as Bishop Usher had dated the Flood, and even before that! If the earth had only existed for so many thousands of years, how could one possibly think that the races had been diversified into the types present today in the minority of that time, yet remained unchanged for the majority of it? As Louis Agassiz put it, "five thousand years ago the negroes were as different from the white race as they are now, and that, therefore, neither time nor climate nor change of habitation has produced the differences."8

No, the conclusion that scientists came to was that the races had always been distinct:
[I]n 1846 ... [Samuel] Morton sent an account of his collection of crania to the newly formed American Ethnological Society. Emboldened by the work of his colleagues, here for the first time publicly, he clearly set forth his conclusions concerning the origin of races. Although he had already seen enough of the material Squier and Davis had turned up to be convinced that the Mound Builders were of the same race as the modern Indians, he did not believe that the Indians and the Mound Builders were descended from a single pair. On the contrary, he believed "that they have originated from several, perhaps even from many pairs, which were adapted, from the beginning, to the varied localities they were designed to occupy. . . . In other words, I regard the American nations as the true autochthones, the primeval inhabitants of this vast continent; and when I speak of their being of one race or of one origin, I allude only to their indigenous relation to each other, as shown in all those attributes of mind and body which have been so amply illustrated by modern ethnography."9

The human races, they theorized, had been created separately and specially adapted to the areas where they were found, much as they supposed animals were:
The circumstance, that, wherever we find a human race naturally circumscribed, it is connected in its limitation with what we call, in natural history, a zoölogical and botanical province,--that is to say, with the natural limitation of a particular association of animals and plants,--shows most unequivocally the intimate relation existing between mankind and the animal kingdom in their adaptation to the physical world. The arctic race of men, covering the treeless region near the Arctics in Europe, Asia, and America, is circumscribed in the three continents within limits very similar to those occupied by that particular combination of animals which are peculiar to the same tracts of land and sea.

The region inhabited by the Mongolian race is also a natural zoölogical province, covered by a combination of animals naturally circumscribed within the same regions. The Malay race covers also a natural zoölogical province. New Holland, again, constitutes a very peculiar zoölogical province, in which we have another particular race of men. And it is further remarkable, in this connection, that the plants and animals now living on the continent of Africa, south of the Atlas, within the same range within which the negroes are naturally circumscribed, have a character differing widely from that of the plants and animals of the northern shores of Africa and the valley of Egypt; while the Cape of Good Hope, within the limits inhabited by Hottentots, is characterized by a vegetation and a fauna equally peculiar, and differing in its features from that over which the African race is spread.

Such identical circumscriptions between the limits of two series of organized beings so widely differing as man and animals and plants, and so entirely unconnected in point of descent, would, to the mind of a naturalist, amount to a demonstration that they originated together within the districts which they now inhabit. We say that such an accumulation of evidence would amount to demonstration; for how could it, on the contrary, be supposed that man alone would assume new peculiarities, and features so different from his primitive characteristics, whilst the animals and plants circumscribed within the same limits would continue to preserve their natural relations to the fauna and flora of other parts of the world?

If the Creator of one set of these living beings had not been also the Creator of the other, and if we did not trace the same general laws throughout nature, there might be room left for the supposition, that, while men inhabiting different parts of the world originated from a common centre, the plants and animals now associated with them in the same countries originated on the spot. But such inconsistencies do not occur in the laws of nature.

The coincidence of the geographical distribution of the human races with that of animals, the disconnection of the climatic conditions where we have similar races, and the connection of climatic conditions where we have different human races, show, further, that the adaptation of different races of men to different parts of the world must be intentional, as well as that of other beings; that men were primitively located in the various parts of the world they inhabit, and that they arose everywhere in those harmonious numeric proportions with other living beings, which would at once secure their preservation and contribute to their welfare.10

In short, their theory held that "as a question of natural history, the investigation of the human races leads to the idea of a diversity of their origin, rather than to the supposition that they have originated from a common stock."11

But it was more than just that different races had separate origins. The proposition of polygenesis held that they were completely different species, and ought--nay, must--be treated as such. For instance, the races were said to have different brain sizes, and therefore different levels of intelligence12:

That race appeared immutable meant that the characteristics attributed to the races--namely, inferiority, stupidity, laziness, and an incapacity for civilization in blacks--were also unchangeable.
If, then, the negro races stand at the lowest point in the scale of human beings, and we know of no moral or physical agencies which can redeem them from their degradation, it is clear that they are incapable of self-government, and that any attempt to improve their condition is warring against an immutable law of nature.13

This meant, to some at least, that the black man must be kept in slavery:
What disposition God, in his providence, will eventually make of these blacks, cannot be foretold; but it is our duty to provide for our own happiness and theirs, as long as we can. In dealing with this question, it will not do to be guided by abstract notions of liberty and slavery. We can only judge the future by the past; and as experience proves that the negro is better off in slavery at the South, than in freedom elsewhere, it is the part of philanthropy to keep him here, as we keep our children in subjection for their own good.14

And guess what demolished the idea of polygenesis? That's right--Darwin's theory of evolution.
"One good effect is already manifest," [Asa Gray] announced. Darwinism rendered irrelevant "the hypothesis of a multiplicity of human species." So far from providing for plural creations of man, Darwin described a process which made it possible to derive all categories of life from an original one and placed the organic kingdom on a self-sustaining basis. Or, as Gray put it, "the very first step backwards" into the Darwinian past "makes the Negro and Hottentot our blood-relations."15

Darwin himself was a monogenist16, and predicted that as a result of the acceptance of evolution, "the dispute between the monogenists and the polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death."17

One of the most widespread tactics used when setting up a group as something to be discriminated against, to be reviled, to be eliminated--indeed, it may be absolutely necessary to accomplish this--is to dehumanize them. You must ensure that people think of that group as "them" instead of "us", so you must rob them of our shared humanity: refer to them as animals, as a disease, as monsters, as demons, as barbarians, anything that prevents people from accepting them as human. This is key to getting people to go along with your plans for them. Evolution, however, definitively settled that all the races of man are indeed human, and that a man of one race is far more similar to a man of another race than he is different. It is very much anti-racist, especially when compared to the prevailing scientific attitudes of the time in which it was first presented.

1. Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812, pp. 11-12
2. Ibid., p. 13
3. Ibid., pp. 13-14
4. Louis Agassiz, "The Diversity of Origin of the Human Races", The Christian Examiner and Religious Miscellany 44
5. Josiah Nott, "Unity of the Human Race," Southern Quarterly Review, vol. 9, no. 17, January 1846
6. Josiah Nott and George Gliddon, Types of Mankind, p. 58
7. Ibid., p. 85
8. William Stanton, The Leopard's Spots: Scientific Attitudes Toward Race in America 1815-1859, p. 106
9. Ibid, p. 97
10. Agassiz, "The Diversity of Origin of the Human Races"
11. Ibid.
12. Nott and Gliddon, Types of Mankind, p. 450
13. Josiah Nott, "Nature and Destiny of the Negro," De Bow's Review, vol. 10, March 1851. This was originally a lecture by Nott, entitled "Natural History of Man Viewed in Connection with Negro Slavery."
14. Ibid.
15. Stanton, The Leopard's Spots, p. 186
16. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, pp. 181-82
17. Ibid., p. 184


garth2 said...

Belated Comment Department: Great post.

Skemono said...

Why thank you. I'm pleased with it myself.

Anonymous said...

Nicely put. Having just ordered and read Beddoe's and Nott's work - and examined their methods, sources and justifications, which are laughable - it is just totally gob-smacking how such racism could pass for "science." The unfortiunate fact is that much of that thought still forms the sub-strate of modern popular opinion.