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From the Archives: David N. Livingstone


Science, Southern-Style

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With patience, precision, and not a little terminological fussiness, Stephens details the remarkable accomplishments of this suite of Charleston naturalists. Their collective contributions to the study of southern fish and fossils, mammals and minerals, birds and beasts of all kinds are painstakingly reviewed and their scientific niche in such natural history disciplines as ornithology and mammalogy, conchology and icthyology, meteorology and paleontology are specified with ecological exactitude. Along the way, Stephens pauses to sketch in their associations with the leading European and American naturalists of their day—Lyell, von Humboldt, Agassiz; their election to foreign and domestic scientific societies; and from time to time their colorful individualisms. The fertile, if stormy, relationship John Bachman sustained with the great illustrator, J.J. Audubon and his son Victor, for example, is reviewed with telling detail, while the anthropomorphic vocabulary of Holbrook's reptile descriptions does not escape Stephens's eye for detail.

When we stand back from the detail of this audit, a distinctive style of southern science begins to come into focus. Primarily, science southern-style gravitated around matters of natural history rather than experimental philosophy, and remained accessible to the needs of the plantation, the surgery, the market, and the pulpit. Conceptually it was characterized by what might be called an acquisitive Baconianism in which collections took precedence over conjecture, specimens over speculation. Indeed, as Stephens makes plain, Baconian philosophy displayed such a distinctive geographical distribution that even when it "had lost its hold upon the minds of all northern scientists, it continued to carry considerable weight in the mind of the southern scientist." Not surprisingly, the prevailing intellectual context within which natural history was prosecuted was that derived from natural theology. Again and again, even when they flirted with such heresies as the idea of a pre-adamite humanity, southern scientists located their mollusks and their hydrozoans in the framework of divine providence. The intricacies of the natural order attested to the beneficence of the Grand Architect who fitted organisms to their environments. But perhaps most conspicuous, was the tendency of southern scientists to use their research as the vehicle for displaying local fealty. Every member of the Charleston scientific coterie was devoted to southern culture, and committed to promoting their region's identity through scholarly research and the construction of scientific institutions.

It was not just in terms of empirical focus, inductive impulse, explanatory style, or institutional arrangements, however, that Charleston science bore the stamp of its regional personality. After all, while these particulars were unquestionably southern, they were far from exclusively so. Natural history, Baconianism, and natural theology all surfaced in the scientific cultures of other spaces. Far more diagnostic was the extent to which the South's science was shaped on the template of its distinctive political ideology. And nowhere was this more clearly disclosed than in the efforts of southern scientists to seek in natural history scientific justification for their ideas about racial hierarchy, social superiority, and the supremacy of southern civilization.

Of crucial significance here was the matter of racial origins and whether the human species had monogenetic or polygenetic beginnings. The idea that humankind was of multiple, rather than single, origin has a long history, of course. At least since the mid seventeenth century, and, in some isolated cases, a good deal before that, the suspicion that the biblical Adam was not the father of the entire human race had attracted committed defenders. In some cases this conjecture crystallized in the proposal that Adam was only the progenitor of the Jews; in others it was mobilized to contend that Adam's descendants were Caucasians; in still others, it was surmised that God had specially created a range of "Adams" in diverse geographical provinces. Which ever, the polygenist thesis, with all its savor of heresy, declared that the same blood did not flow in the veins of every human race. In the American South such anthropological speculation, when presented in the language of sober scientific judgment, had immense ideological potential. So, in contrast to historians like William Stanton (author of The Leopard's Spots: Scientific Attitudes Towards Race in America, 1815-59) who claim that advocates of the southern slavocracy rejected polygenism as a scientific apologia for the institution grounding their judgments instead on biblical religion, Stephens vigorously argues for the constitutive significance of a scientifically inspired racial pluralism. Thus Ravenel, for example, insisted that the laws of nature could not be obliterated by abolitionists; McCrady—"speaking," writes Stephens, "from a heart pulsating with provincialism"—insisted that scientific inquiry had so definitely confirmed the inferiority of black physical structure that it was simply impossible that the white and black races could have "descended from the same origin"; Holbrook and Gibbes actively connived with Samuel George Morton, the Philadelphia medical practitioner who was secretary of the City's Academy of Natural Sciences for many years, to marginalize monogenist opposition to their thoroughgoing scientific racism. These men all threw their weight be hind Morton, Agassiz, and Josiah Nott, a leading physician in Mobile, Alabama, to put racial polygenism on a firm scientific footing, to confirm that the black and white races were different biological species, and thereby to legitimize anti-abolitionism.

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