Book Review: Until Darwin

Until Darwin, Science, Human Variety and the Origins of Race
Author: B. Ricardo Brown
Published: 22nd September 2010
Publisher: Pickering & Chatto
Summary: A fascinating insight into the early nineteenth century scientific consensus which Darwin’s Origin utterly transformed.

The history of science is the history of forgetting. That is the beauty and the utility of science, a theory is no longer supported by evidence is left behind to die an obscure death. Except when it doesn’t. The theory that has refused to die is the idea that Homo sapiens can be divided into races.

B. Ricardo Brown is Professor of Social Science and Cultural Studies at the Pratt Institute in New York and in his acknowledgements explained he “never wanted to write on the subject of ‘race’”. The idea of race as an objective division of humankind has been comprehensively debunked, recently with two books published in 2011, for example, Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth by Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle and Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, and Culture, edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Kathleen Sloan.

What has not been done is to give the history of the concept of race as a scientific ideology. When you do that, as Brown has done, you see that the concept was blown out of the water by the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. Much has been written to the effect that the Origin was not that revolutionary and that Darwin built on and brought together the work of others. Brown challenges this historical interpretation by building up a picture of the development of scientific thought in natural history in the century or so before Darwin published.

What he makes clear is that natural historians were all striving to come to a definition of what a species is. It is still a tricky subject and there are no hard and fast rules about what makes a species, though the inability of two individuals to mate and produce fertile offspring is usually where the line is drawn. Of course, the nuance of the early modern world view coloured the idea of a species with a specific act of creation by God, and forever fixed as at creation.

The natural historians of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, such as Blumenbach and Cuvier, were all thinking of one thing, the classification of Homo sapiens. Were we one species or many? Were we created all at once and some degenerated or were there several instances of creation? Linnaeus had classified humans into four varieties, rather than species: European, (Native) American, Asian and African in 1740. Blumenbach added Malayan (a Pacific variety) in 1781. Buffon, in 1792, stressed that we are all one species evidenced by the obvious interfertility of the varieties.

What is so interesting is what, in their fumbling, the early natural historians got right without knowing, for instance, that there is less genetic variability in seven billion humans than in the population of around 200,000 chimpanzees left in the wild. What they got wrong was assuming a single point of creation, monogenism. This led to the idea that certain groups of humans had degenerated and were only fit for lower ways of living, thereby giving justification for the slavery of Africans.

But there was another theory raising its head across the pond. The “American School” of natural history had a vigour and freshness that Europe envied. Leading lights of the American School, such as Morton, pioneered another theory, that of several instances of creation, or polygenism. In this account, the obvious antiquity of the earth, and massive (though as we know, superficial) differences between human groups, were the main foundations of the theory that “the species of a given locale were created only for that ‘peculiar local situation’”. How close they were to the very simple idea of species adapted to their ‘peculiar local situation’, and yet how far.

Although the American School maintained separate acts of creation for each group of humans, they did not afford each group equality with the others. Samuel Morton became the arch-priest of the cult of polygenism with his collection of 900 skulls and flawed measurements of the cranial capacity of each human “species”, concluding that all non-European species had lesser mental capacity, with Africans right down at the bottom, also justifying slavery.

While religious groups eventually saw that slavery was wrong and started campaigning against it, science was supporting it. No wonder this episode is written out of history of science books. And this is the milieu that Darwin was formulating his theory in during his voyage round the world and then his time back in England. He first wrote an abstract of his theory in 1842, the year Morton decided that Africans were fit for slavery.

It is well known that Darwin was an opponent of slavery, but Brown suggests that even though Darwin does not mention slavery or the vexed question of human variety in the Origin, it would have been clear to all informed readers at the time that his new theory “cut through the current discourse on European supremacy.” It is telling, though, that racists managed to subvert Darwin’s theory too.

This book assumes a certain amount of background knowledge but contains many surprises about the history of the process of science and scientific thought.

Until Darwin is available from Pickering & Chatto.


Have you read Until Darwin? Do you agree with the review? Let us know in the comments section below.

Kim Biddulph

Kim is a humanities graduate who realised, after working in museums for ten years, that she should have studied science. She has converted to biology, mainly through the medium of spiders. Like most people, Kim was scared of spiders, but after having a child has decided not to be and to learn all about them instead. Kim has also had the great honour of working on the education programme for local schools at Darwin's family home, Down House in Kent.

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