I’ve often wondered about the Scopes trial, and wanted to read a good account of it.  I was recommended the account by Edward J. Larson in When Science and Christianity Meet, edited by DC Lindberg and RL Numbers (ISBN 0226482162).  .  It’s a very informative book, and wide-ranging too: out of 12 chapters, only one on Galileo and one on Darwin.

The particular aspect that I am writing about now is Polygenism, the hypothesis that different races of humanity are either separate creations, or have evolved from distinct sub-human ancestors.  This is treated in the chapter “Man Before Adam!” by G. Blair Nelson.

Following the history, besides the raw science or pseudoscience, one takes into account the political and religious factors which provide both backdrop and motivation to the proponents and opponents of polygenism. 

The major players in this field start with Isaac La Peyrère, a French polymath who first proposed polygenesis to reconcile the limited number of generations between Adam and Eve and modern days by positing “pre-Adamites” in his Prae-Adamitae, published in Latin in 1655 and in English as Men Before Adam in 1656.  With arguments largely theological, he suggested that Adam was the ancestor only of the Jewish people and their relatives, with early chapters of Genesis refer to Jewish history rather than that of the whole human race.

He was a Protestant, quite likely of Jewish descent, and his theological motive appears to have been to ascribe to the Jews pole position in history.  His thesis was not well received, and he was made to recant and convert to Catholicism.

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By the eighteenth century, discoveries in many field were beginning to render what we would now call a Young Earth Creationist position top-heavy, to say the least.  There were two ways of adapting to this:

Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696 – 1782) believed that God had created different races on earth in separate regions. In his book Sketches on the History of Man in 1734 Home claimed that the environment, climate, or state of society could not account for racial differences, so that the races must have come from distinct, separate stocks.  But in order to maintain orthodoxy, he argued that racial differences were generated when people were scattered at the Tower of Babel.

He was opposed by Samuel Stanhope Smith (1751 –1819)  In his work, Stanhope Smith expressed progressive views on marriage and egalitarian ideas about race and slavery. The second edition of his Essay on the Causes of Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species (1810) became important as a powerful argument against the increasing racism of 19th-century ethnology. . . In this text, his attempt to explain the variety of physical appearances among humans involved a strongly environmental outlook.

The American School of Ethnography.

Samuel George Morton (1799–1851) is often thought of as the originator of “American School” ethnography, a school of thought in antebellum American science that claimed the difference between humans was one of species rather than variety and is seen by some as the origin of scientific racism.

Morton, reared a Quaker but who became Episcopalian in midlife, was a physician and natural scientist.  He claimed that he could define the intellectual ability of a race by the skull capacity.  He used his craniometric evidence in conjunction with his analysis of anthropological literature then available to argue in favor of a racial hierarchy which put Caucasians on the top rung and Africans on the bottom.

In The Mismeasure of Man (1981), Stephen J. Gould challenged Morton’s work, suggesting unconscious bias.  Two later studies somewhat challenged Gould’s challenge, but more recent analysis largely vindicates Gould.

Josiah C. Nott and George Gliddon in their monumental tribute to Morton’s work, Types of Mankind (1854), carried Morton’s ideas further and backed up his findings which supported the notion of polygenism.  Wikipedia defines this as “the premise that the different races were separately created by God”, but both of these men held a hostility to church and religion which makes Richard Dawkins seem tame by comparison..

The final member of this quartet is Louis Agassiz.  Famous for effectively discovering the ice ages, he proved a pain in the neck to Darwin, both because they implied a sort of catastrophism which anathema to Darwin, and also because of his resistance to theories of Darwinian evolution.  He was a Unitarian, a group which both Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the eminent 19th century preacher, and Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, would have had difficulty recognizing as Christian.

The sad thing about Agassiz is that his hostility to black people arose as a result of shock during his first encounter with one in a restaurant, shortly after coming over to the USA from his native Switzerland.

In 1861 came the American Civil War, and in that year The Christian Recorder, a black Methodist newspaper, presented an 18-part review of current ethnological theory, and in 1863 reviewed Darwin’s work positively suggesting that his religious critics had misunderstood him and crediting him undermining the case for polygenism.

Following the American Civil War, two people tried to tried to fit together the Bible and science, both of them with strong motivation towards putting down black people.

Against polygenism was Alexander Winchell (1824 – 1891).  At Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee, his views on evolution, as expressed in his book Adamites and Preadamites: or, A Popular Discussion (1878), were not acceptable because they diverged from Biblical teaching.  Today his views on the “inferiority of the Negro” (quote from his 1878 book) would probably have been the focus of controversy.  In 1880 he published Preadamite; or, a demonstration of The Existence of Men Before Adam, in which he argued that the Negro race was pre-Adamic, and that the Caucasian race was descended from the Negro.  The latter was controversial at the time, but today most of us accept that Eurasians are originally “Out of Africa”.

On the other hand, polygenism was retained by Buckner H. ‘Ariel’ Payne and his book The Negro: what is His Ethnological Status?  This book was generally very poorly received.

However, both of these figures were quite marginal in the field.  Racists were finding evolutionary theory much more suitable for their purposes, and so their activities fall outside the scope of the book.  And anyway, how DOES one derive any theory of African inferiority from the Bible? I certainly can’t.  Meanwhile, efforts to fit together Genesis and geology went quiet until after the First World War.

Although following the book, I have done quite lot of Wikipasting of the actual text,  However, the next bit comes from Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1957) by Martin Gardner.  Although found in the chapter Apologists for Hate, it is included because of the strange polygenetic theory it describes.  Abridging from Gardner’s writing:

«The resemblance of whites to chimps forms an important part of a book which .... first appeared in 1924.  It was called The Mongol in Our Midst, and was written by a physician named Francis G. Crookshank. …. There are three major branches of the human race .... the White branch is closely related to the chimpanzee, the Oriental to the orangutan, and the Negro to the gorilla.»

Although its main emphasis appears to be an attempt to account for Down’s syndrome as a throwback to primitive Mongoloid ancestors, other kinds of imbecility are linked to throwbacks to primitive ancestors of whites or blacks.  However, “the resemblance of whites to chimps” does remind me of one of Jane Goodall’s early books, where one of her chimpanzees did show an extraordinarily striking resemblance to someone I knew when I was much younger.

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I was prompted to finish this article (I started it over three years ago) by an African friend who sent me a link from a “Creationist” source, which incidentally attacked Polygenism but was, as usual, trying to present Darwinism as the root of all modern evil.

I have attempted to reassure him that while Darwin would have held the ‘scientifically’ racially biassed perspective of his time (though moderately so as compared with his “bulldog” T.H.Huxley), the illustrious co-founder of the theory of Natural Selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, was exactly the opposite, and is highly honoured in Indonesia where he did his work.  He held the locals in high esteem, and is still remembered with affection there.