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From the Archives: David N. Livingstone


Science, Southern-Style

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Indeed in the case of John McCrady an arsenal of scientific weaponry was deployed to establish the cultural superiority of the South over against its northern counterpart. In his view, the South was "budding off," as he put it, from northern culture to form a higher civilization that transcended both its northern and European antecedents. Through the leadings of Providence the South had segregated itself from the rest of Christendom and evolved a social system that was as necessary as it was righteous. Henceforth the South's social philosophy must benefit from the conjoint succor to be supplied by what he referred to as "Science, Revelation, and Common Sense." Crucial to the South's future civic development was educational transformation; centers of intellectual excellence nourishing independent scientific research untouched by the prejudices of a decadent North would enable the South to achieve runaway cultural triumphs. With a social theory drawing on embryological analogy, von Humboldt's philology, and Arthur de Gobineau's racial politics, McCrady advanced his supremacist account of southern civilization, an account trumpeting the South's Teutonic heritage and relegating to the margins of history southern blacks and Irish northerners. Armed with biblical proclamation and scientific pronouncement he found the abolitionists in "league with hell" and in "covenant with the devil".

It is not surprising, then, that when McCrady moved to Massachusetts to take up an appointment as Agassiz's assistant at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge in the early 1870s, he found it impossible to adjust to the prevailing culture there. He simply refused, for example, to meet a black Episcopal priest when he delivered a lecture series at the Episcopal Theological School in the early months of 1877. Moreover, he pestered Harvard's President Eliot with what one friend described as rather "too spicy" defenses of southern customs. Even when he later returned to take up a professorship at the University of the South in Sewanee, McCrady dashed off an intemperate note to the proprietor of the inn in which he and his family temporarily resided to complain that he would take no meals on the premises if the black servant was permitted to sit at the table. Besides this, he found the widespread espousal of evolution theory around the Harvard Yard uncongenial and embarked on a campaign to strike repeated blows for religious orthodoxy in the face of what he took to be rampant infidelity. Culturally, scientifically, and spiritually the North was an alien place. Such was the experience of the man whom one eminent Harvard geologist de scribed in 1877 as "the ablest philosophical Naturalist now living."

That the racial obsessions of the Old South could secure the benediction of scientific approbation is indicative of the extent to which the most respectable scientific endeavors of the time were implicated in the reproduction of racial ideology. We should re call that sciences from anatomy to zoology—including linguistic paleontology and the germ theory of history—provided ample resources for the task. Recollect too that such Enlightenment philosophes as Kant and Hume championed various schemes of racial hierarchy. Kant, for instance, told his hearers that "humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites," while Hume infamously insisted that "there is some reason to think, that all the nations, which live beyond the polar circles or between the tropics, are inferior to the rest of the species, and are incapable of all the higher attainments of the human mind." As for the South itself, Alexander Winchell lost his job at Vanderbilt because, in advancing his own rendition of the pre-adamite theory, he had gone so far as to suggest that Adam was a late descendant of black forebears. All in all, there were plenty of scientific resources that southern scientists could mobilize in the cause of racial apologetic.

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