Victor Nuovo: Racism and science
Editor’s note: This is the 58th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.
Racism is a prejudice, and prejudices are antithetical to truth. Therefore, the expression “scientific racism” is a contradiction of terms. This should be self-evident. Hence, it is disheartening to learn that scientific racism flourished in the United States, at Harvard University. In 1847 the university created the Lawrence School of Science with a gift of $50,000 — at the time a very substantial amount, and named it after its donor, Abbott Lawrence, a wealthy industrialist and philanthropist. It was the first institution in the nation dedicated to pure research, to pure science, the search for truth for truth’s sake. Louis Agassiz (1807-73) was appointed its first head.
Agassiz was a native of Switzerland, the son of a Protestant minister and a descendent of French Protestants, who, led by John Calvin, took refuge in Switzerland during the Reformation. He was richly gifted, physically, intellectually, socially and economically. He was an imposing figure, his manner imperious, his energy enormous, his learning vast, his memory prodigious; he was outgoing and engaging, and wondrously articulate. In addition to all these advantages, he was a tireless self-promoter, and he used all his gifts in pursuit of this end.
As a student, he took advanced degrees in Germany in Medicine and Zoology. He also studied Geology, and from his research, he hypothesized that the earth had undergone a great ice age that caused the extinction of all life; it won him international fame. His interest in the ancient history of the earth led him into paleontology, the study of the most ancient forms of life, and in this endeavor he was constantly in search of fossils and acquired a vast collection.
When Agassiz first came to the United States, he travelled to Philadelphia to confer with Samuel Morton, a physician and natural historian. Morton had acquired a large collection of human skulls, and from these and other human remains (he travelled to Egypt to inspect mummies) he concluded that there is more than one kind of human species. Therefore, God must have created mankind not once but several times; four to be precise, based on fossil evidence. His theory became known as Polygenism.
He was condemned for contradicting the Bible, but he stood steadfast because of what he judged to be incontrovertible evidence. A comparative study of skulls led him to conclude that the races differed in intellectual capacity. He based this on the different size of the skulls, and therefore, he inferred, of the brains they once contained. The brain, after all, is the seat of intelligence. He became convinced that God did not create all men equal. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were mistaken.
Agassiz embraced Morton’s theory, and brought it with him to Harvard. Polygenism acquired the status of a dogma. It should be noted that Agassiz, like Morton, was a creationist. This was before Darwin published “The Origin of Species” (1859). When it appeared, Agassiz dismissed it with contempt. He remained to the end a creationist. It was as though his mind became fossilized.
There was another side of Agassiz’s racism. Until he arrived in America he had never seen a person of African descent. In a letter to his mother, he described his first impression.
“I experienced pity at the sight of this degraded and degenerate race. … It is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us. In seeing their black faces with their thick lips and grimacing teeth, the wool on their head, their bent knees, their elongated hands, their curved nails, and especially the livid color of the palms of their hands, I could not take my eyes off their faces in order to tell them to stay far away. And when they advanced that hideous hand towards my plate in order to serve me, I wished I were able to depart in order to eat a piece of bread elsewhere, rather than to dine with such service. What unhappiness for the white race — to have tied their existence so closely with that of Negroes in certain countries! God preserve us from such a contact!”
In any case, when Agassiz arrived at Harvard, armed with Morton’s Polygenism, he brought his racism with him. He did not feel out of place. Nor did he hear any objections from his colleagues or students. To his credit, he expressed his hatred of the institution of slavery, and became an abolitionist, and, although his theory was well received in the South, he took no pride in that. He continued to modify his theory, doubling Morton’s number of races to include Caucasian, Arctic, Mongol, American Indian, Negro, Hottentot, Malay and Australian. He remained a tireless collector of fossils, and founded the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology to house his collection.
He was a popular teacher. William James (1842-1910), who studied with him, concluded early on that most of what he said was humbug, yet he found him irresistible and his classes memorable by force of personality.
In fact, Agassiz’s theory of natural history was more theology than science, with a large amount of ideology thrown into the mixture, the fossil evidence notwithstanding. Why God would have wanted to create mankind several times is puzzling. Although for Agassiz and Morton, and a host of other Europeans, statesmen and philosophers, the meaning was clear. God intended that among the races, there was one, endowed with superior intelligence and manliness, a super race of mortals, created to rule the rest. It fit well with European colonialism and with delusions of White supremacism.
Agassiz’s legacy consists of lessons that must be unlearned.
Postscript: It is important to distinguish Social Darwinism from Darwin’s theory of evolution. The former is a racist doctrine rooted in ideology and myth; the latter is a biological theory based on empirical research. Darwin summarized his theory with the expression “descent with modification;” it concerns heredity and the origin of species, not of races, and it involves a process driven not by intelligent design but by chance and necessity. Darwin was a biologist, not a social philosopher. Like most of his contemporaries, he was afflicted with racial prejudice, but this did not cause him to confuse private opinion with impartial science.
There are some local annual events that are so important they can’t be hyped enough.
We hear community members calling for us to do better and to respond. We want to share wit … (read more)
In July, I traveled to Mongolia again, hoping to interview the various protagonists in my … (read more)