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From the Archives: David N. Livingstone

Science, Southern-Style

Editor's note: Science in Focus is on vacation in July, so we're going to archives for science-related pieces from the pages of Books & Culture. This week we're featuring a piece by David Livingstone from the September/October 2000 issue.

The idea that science displays regional characteristics runs against the grain of much conventional wisdom. Science, so the standard story goes, is a transcendental undertaking, devoid of parochial particulars. It stands above the messiness of social life and objectively pursues truth unsullied by the murky affairs of this world. After all, science is carried out in much the same way everywhere from Boston to Beijing; experimentalists replicate each other's results in Moscow and Melbourne; scientific conferences bring together researchers from Paris and Prague. The same depictions of the geological column and the periodic table of elements are to be found in London, Lima, and Lisbon. Besides, the very existence of such cultural merchandise as the Nobel Prize plainly attests to some sense of shared criteria of excellence. Of all the human projects devoted to getting at the truth of how things are, to laying aside prejudices and presuppositions, or to putting in place mechanisms to guarantee objectivity, has that venture we call science not been the most assiduous in prosecuting its ideals?

And yet. In a myriad different ways scientific inquiry does bear the stamp of local circumstance, so much so that it makes sense to append historical and geographical modifiers when speaking of that "imagined singularity" called "Science." Indeed the very idea that there is some unified entity called "Science" is the product of an Enlightenment project to present "Science" as standing transcendent and incorporeal above the untidy clutter of human affairs. But science is not above culture; it is part of culture. Science does not transcend our particularities; it discloses them. Science is not a disembodied entity; it is incarnated in human beings. Science, therefore, is always an ancient Chinese, a medieval Islamic, a Renaissance French, a Jeffersonian American, an Enlightenment Scottish, a Victorian English thing—or some other modifying variant. For all the Enlightenment-inspired rhetoric that science is independent of class, gender, race, region, religion, and much else, we are now discovering the extent to which science has borne the marks of these very particularities. A scientist does not shed his ethnicity when he en gages in botanical fieldwork; a scientist does not shed her gender when she walks into a bio technology lab. As Nick Wolterstorff puts it, "Science is not an eternal form slowly manifested in history"; rather it is a social practice earthed in concrete historical circumstances.1

In Science, Race, and Religion in the American South, Lester D. Stephens succeeds in demonstrating the extent to which scientific inquiry in nineteenth-century Charleston was domesticated to the needs of the Old South. By this I do not mean to imply that he considers scientific knowledge a mere epiphenomenon of social conditions, a sort of cognitive regional reflex. As we shall presently see, he is careful to avoid that kind of topographical reductionism. But what does become clear is that, just as it makes sense to speak, say, of Edinburgh science during the Scottish Enlightenment, or London science in the early Victorian period, it is no less coherent to make reference to the scientific culture of Charleston in the Civil War era.

Stephens, of course, is extraordinarily well equipped to undertake this task. Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Georgia, he has already provided us with an authoritative scientific biography of Joseph Le Conte, and published numerous studies of natural history in the American South. Here he turns specifically to Charleston and particularly, though certainly not exclusively, to the contributions of the Lutheran clergyman-naturalist, the Rev. John Bachman.

Stephens's first task is to establish that the South had a bona fide scientific culture throughout the nineteenth century. To do so he must challenge the conventional historiography that dismisses the South's scientific accomplishments as either meager or amateurish on account of a regional romanticism more in keeping with medievalism than modernity. So intent is Stephens on retrieving southern science from the obscurity of the archive or the biases of scholarship that he goes so far as to claim that by mid-century only Philadelphia, Boston, and New York outstripped Charleston in excellence for research on natural history. Indeed a distinctive "circle" of scientific practitioners—comprising John Bachman, Edmund Ravenel, John Edwards Holbrook, Lewis Gibbes, Francis Holmes, and John McCrady—rotated around the Charleston museum of natural history. Convinced that nature disclosed the attributes of the Creator, members of this circle by and large restricted themselves to descriptive natural history rather than to pursuing experimental inquiries or mathematical applications.

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.

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.

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.

It is crystal clear from Lester Stephens's careful exposition that science has always been about more than disclosing the facts of nature. For the Charleston circle of naturalists, scientific language became the bearer of a good deal of ideological freight. The same is true of many contemporary apologists for scientific naturalism. How else can we make sense of Richard Dawkins's charge that religious faith is "a kind of mental illness" and "one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate"? Or of Michael Ruse's insistence that "morality is a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes"?

Science, it turns out, is not disengaged from the murkiness of the mundane or the imperatives of ideology. To the contrary. Science is always touched by our particularity. And because scientific knowledge is incarnated in human agents, it also displays human fallenness. Seen in this light the baptism of science as the ultimate source of moral authority only serves to confirm John Calvin's conviction that the human heart is, and remains, a perpetual forge of idols.

David N. Livingstone is Professor of Geography and Intellectual History at the Queen's University of Belfast. He is the author of several books, including Nathaniel Southgate Shaler and the Culture of American Science, Darwin's Forgotten Defenders, The Geographical Tradition, and (with R.A. Wells) Ulster-American Religion.


1. Nicholas Wolterstorff, The Project of a Christian University in a Postmodern Culture (Vrije Universiteit te Amsterdam, 1988), p. 10.

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