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From the Archives: David N. Livingstone


Science, Southern-Style

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Charleston science was an unmistakably southern phenomenon mirroring the fixations of its place of origin. But it would be mistaken to consider science in the Old South as nothing but regional prejudices writ in the language of natural history. Crude geographical reductionism fails to do justice to the ironic complexities of history, as Stephens amply demonstrates in his portrayal of the greatest of the southern savants, Rev. John Bachman. For Bachman steadfastly, vigorously, and doggedly opposed the fashionable polygenist anthropology emanating from the pens both of his fellow southern scientists and of the Swiss emigre Louis Agassiz at Harvard. In article after article, Bachman tenaciously assaulted the science that undergirded the pluralist viewpoint, exposing its empirical inadequacies, scholarly oddities, and dubious use of evidence.

Take, for example, the issue of hybrids. In order to sustain their case, scientifically, that different human races were essentially different species, advocates of racial polygenism needed to deliver evidence that a union between different species could produce fertile offspring. In this context, debates over animal hybridity were ideological confrontations. Morton and Agassiz thus devoted considerable effort to supplying relevant empirical data. And with at least as much dedication, Bachman shredded their arguments one by one. Again and again he showed how received opinion, mere authority, dodgy data, and mythological reports masqueraded as hard science. Whether dealing with the size of human brains, the hybridization of roses, the confusion between different varieties of swan, or zoo-geographical distribution of human types, Bachman was sure that all the fuss was ideologically driven. Indeed he went so far as to make the charge that Nott and other advocates of pluralism had never received scientific recognition from serious naturalists.

In his resort to the vocabulary of dismissal, Bachman was not alone. His opponents gave as good as they got. Nott did not hesitate to declare that Bachman wrote like "a blackguard" and not like the gentleman that Agassiz was. Bachman's frankness of style and vigor of expression debarred him from the empire of scientific good taste, though Nott was willing enough to tell Morton that he hoped Bachman would be killed off, "cut into sausage meat," and subject to various other deathly metaphors. All this serves to remind us that in the conduct of scientific disputes, and indeed their resolution, matters of social standing, taste, and polish have had a key role to play.

While Bachman's science is, evidently, not reducible to the peculiarities of the South's racial politics, the story that Stephens has to tell is not without its own instances of irony. On the one hand, however vehement Bachman was in his assault on advocates of polygenist science, however tenacious in his insistence on the unity of the human species, and however insistent on bringing blacks into the fold of his church, Bachman was an unremitting advocate of black inferiority and of slavery as a biblically sanctioned institution. Even though they were God's children no less than members of white races, they had been "stamped with inferiority" by the Creator. On the other hand, the most enthusiastic advocate of special creationism, Louis Agassiz, promulgated such a special doctrine of creation that it flatly contradicted a plain reading of the biblical narrative. Bach man was not slow to point this out. Agassiz's multiple creations only served to undermine the Genesis account of creation.

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