ARTICLE: Darwin and the Ethnologists: Liberal Racialism and the Geological Analogy

New in Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences:

Darwin and the Ethnologists: Liberal Racialism and the Geological Analogy

Suman Seth

Abstract Toward the end of The Descent of Man, Darwin made a striking assertion. “I would as soon be descended,” he claimed, from a “heroic little monkey” than from a “savage” who practiced torture and infanticide, treated “wives like slaves,” and was indecent and superstitious. These lines have been often quoted but rarely analyzed. I argue here that they provide a means for following Darwin’s thought as he grappled with contemporary ethnological evidence that seemed—if today’s “savages” were to be taken as models for primeval humans—to work against his theory of sexual selection as it applied to humankind. In addition to explicating what I suggest is a crucial element of Descent, this paper has three aims, all of which help us better understand the relationships between ethnology and Darwinian thought. First, to offer a selective intellectual history of British ethnology between 1864 and 1871, focusing on those texts that Darwin deemed most problematic for his arguments. Second, and as a result, to better specify Darwin’s views on race by comparing him not to his opponents, but to his like-minded peers, a group I term “liberal racialists.” Third, to explore the utility of what I term the “geological analogy,” a mid-nineteenth-century version of the comparative method (which substituted study of “less developed” peoples today for humans in much earlier periods). Where liberal ethnologists deployed the geological analogy consistently, Darwin would be much more selective, denying its application at times in favor of analogies to lower animals. He would thus save his theoretical suppositions by denying that contemporary “lower” races, with their depraved morality, could serve as appropriate models for our apparently more decent, yet more animalistic forebears.

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