From the Curse of Ham to the Curse of Nature

From the Curse of Ham to the Curse of Nature

The British Journal for the History of Science
Volume 40, Issue 3 (2007)
pages 367-388
DOI: 10.1017/S0007087407009788

Robert Kenny, ARC Research Fellow
The Australian Centre, School of Historical Studies
La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

This paper examines the debate engendered in ethnological and anthropological circles by Darwin’s Origin of Species and its effects. The debate was more about the nature of human diversity than about transmutation. By 1859 many polygenists thought monogenism had been clearly shown to be an antiquated and essentially religious concept. Yet the doctrine of natural selection gave rise to a ‘new monogenism‘. Proponents of polygenism such as James Hunt claimed natural selection had finally excluded monogenism, but Thomas Huxley, the most prominent exponent of the new monogenism, claimed it amalgamated the ‘best’ of both polygenism and monogenism. What it did provide was an explanation for the irreversible inequality of races, while it maintained that all humans were of one species. This bolstered belief in the innate superiority of the Caucasians over other peoples. The effect was finally to sever British ethnology from its evangelical monogenist roots. More subtly and surprisingly, it provided support in Church circles for a move away from the ideal of the ‘Native Church’.

It is well known that Darwin’s Origin of Species avoided applying the mechanism of natural selection to the development of the human species. Darwin waited twelve years before publishing his Descent of Man in 1871. Others were not so reticent. Natural selection provoked debate in British ethnological and anthropological circles through the 1860s, debates enacted in the shadow of the American war over slavery and British colonial expansion. Just as much as they were prompted by the transmutation theory, the debates had their antecedents in competing views of human diversity: did the variety of human races represent a single species descended from a common ancestor, or did the variety indicate separate species of humans descended from uncommon ancestors? Before 1859 the monogenist camp was seen, particularly by its opponents, as having based its arguments on religious conviction as much as on science, while many polygenists also saw their position as at least as much in harmony with Christian Scripture. But, to the surprise of many polygenists, after 1859 many of the most famous Darwinians, who had little truck with religion as a source of scientific knowledge, proclaimed themselves monogenists.

In the standard historiography, particularly in the writings of George Stocking, these debates are characterized as involving a conflict between a ‘Darwinian’ camp, ensconced in the Ethnological Society of London, and the ‘Anti-Darwinians’ of the Anthropological Society of London.1 Such histories, aiming to elucidate the progress of the ‘Darwinian revolution’ within anthropology, have underplayed the fundamental shift that occurred in the predominant attitude of the Ethnological Society under the influence of the Darwinians. This shift turned a monogenism of practical equality of races into a monogenism that accepted an irrevocable inequality of races and was politically little different from the polygenism advocated by the leaders of the Anthropological Society. Such histories have also overplayed polygenists’ antagonism to Darwin’s theory—for many polygenists transmutation was a means to understand the plurality of races as a plurality of species. The aim here is to examine the mechanics of the shift in monogenism and to show that natural selection, at least as then perceived by many, challenged and fatally undermined both polygenism and orthodox monogenism at their foundations. In so doing it established a new ‘scientific’ argument for human inequality that was to have far-reaching and surprising effects…


Despite his monogenism, Hodgkin was a long-time friend of the most vocal polygenists of the time, Robert Knox and the American Samuel Morton. They were all Edinburgh students together. Notoriously implicated in the Edinburgh scandals of Burke and Hare, Knox enthusiastically argued that the mulatto offspring of a European-native coupling were non-productive in the same way as a mule. He held that even in Ireland there had been ‘no amalgamation of the Celtic and Saxon blood’. This was not a novel position, as the term implies—’mulatto’ is from the Spanish for young mule. It was commonly held by settlers in Australia that Aboriginal women who had once borne a child to a European were thenceforward unable to conceive with an Aboriginal man. This supposed fact was used by Samuel Morton to support his polygenist doctrines in America, where polygenism had a greater following because it could so easily be used to support slavery. It had enough currency that Darwin felt the need to mention its disproof as late as 1871 in his Descent of Man.

Morton was famous for collecting and measuring skulls to demonstrate the moral and intellectual differences between races. His work was well known on both sides of the Atlantic. As Stephen Jay Gould demonstrated in his Mismeasure of Man, Morton fudged the measurements to ‘prove’ the Caucasian brain was bigger. This proof became a commonplace—in the decades that followed many writers used the term ‘ larger-brained European’. Friendship notwithstanding, Hodgkin was unimpressed by this science of skulls. In 1849 he wrote, ‘Having myself paid some attention to the ethnological grouping of skulls, I must confess that I have found considerable difficulty in adopting points of characteristic difference; and in this difficulty I find an argument in favour of the unity of species. ‘ He found greater variety of cranial capacity, Morton’s measure of cognitive ability, between individuals within a local group than between distant groups…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , ,