The Species Problem: Nineteenth-Century Concepts of Racial Inferiority in the Origin of Man Controversy

The Species Problem: Nineteenth-Century Concepts of Racial Inferiority in the Origin of Man Controversy

American Anthropologist
Volume 72, Issue 6 (December 1970)
pages 1319–1329
DOI: 10.1525/aa.1970.72.6.02a00060

John S. Haller, Jr., Emeritus Professor of History
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

The species problem and its implications in the origin of man controversy had grown in importance in prewar America owing largely to the question of slavery. Implicit in the problem was the position of the so-called inferior races in society. The monogenists, despite their emphasis on environmentalism, were no more favorable to the Negro, except in their remote theoretical stance. The Civil War—not Darwin—brought the controversy to an end in America, but it continued to rage in Europe. The apparent synthesis of the schools during the 1870s did not disturb the stereotyped ideas of racial inferiority. The “inferior races” remained the basis of evolutionary discussion, leaving them as remote outcasts of the evolutionary struggle.

Though most nineteenth-century anthropologists were busily engaged in the technical aspects of somatometry, a good number of them were also concerned with the more problematic question of man’s origin. Like somatometry, the speculation into origin grew out of the awareness of differences in the broad spectrum of genus Homo. The taxonomic system of Linnaeus not only precipitated an intensive study of comparative structures, but led also to the question of whether the various “races” of man originated in one primitive stock. Were the Negroes, Hottentots, Eskimos, and Australians really men in the full sense of the term, sharing in the intellectual endowments of the European, or were they half-brutes, not belonging to what the French scientist Bory de Saint-Vincent called the “race adamique”? Defined in other terms, the problem concerned whether humanity descended from a monogenetic type, or whether humanity had distinct polygenetic ancestors. If it were true that these peoples were really subspecies, or subraces, then, some argued, they should become subject to the superior races. The subsequent controversy between the monogenists and polygenists became the longest of the internecine battles among the physical scientists of man. Though ostensibly concerned only with origin, the controversy highlighted a major confrontation between science and religion. It also illuminated the peculiar role played by the “inferior races” to the higher categories of man, a role that was fundamentally the same in both schools and remained unchanged during the decades before and after Darwin. The apparent synthesis of the two opposing schools during the 1870s seemed not to disturb the continuity of race stereotypes and the ideas of racial inferiority…

…The early polygenists favored the term “species” in their belief in the diversity of man. In the context of their definition, species were “fixed” and did not naturally cross with other species, except under artificial conditions. Although there was occasional fertility between the separate species, the product of the union was sterile or tending toward sterility, proving the “unnaturalness” of the original union. The concept of species was important to those nineteenth-century scientists who drew their schematization of the universe from the logical and spatial arrangement of the chain of being. For if one hybrid were capable of increase, the divine arrangement of the creator would have been distorted and a destructive imbalance set into the order of the world. All living things formed one chain of universal being from the lowest to the highest. None of the species originally formed were extinct. Nature proceeded according to divine plan and admitted of no improvement. The continuation of this belief into the nineteenth century precipitated an enormous amount of speculation as to whether the mulatto was more or less fertile than either of the two original stocks. The general consensus was that the mulatto was less fertile, and hence, an artificial hybrid tending toward extinction.As the nineteenth-century polygenists turned to the term “race” rather than “species” to define human types, so they borrowed the word “mongrel” in exchange for “hybrid” to identify the offspring of mixing (Vogt 1864: 441; Huxley 1876:412). In doing so, however, they created a confusion in terminology because the monogenist’s criteria for “species,” “race,” “mongrel,” and “hybrid” remained unchanged…

Read the entire article here or here.

Tags: , , ,