Race and the Return of the Great Chain of Being, 1800–50

Part of the St Antony’s/Macmillan Series book series


A fundamental question about the history of racism in the first half of the nineteenth century is why it was that, just as the battle against slavery was being won by abolitionists, the war against racism in European thought was being lost. The Negro was legally freed by the Emancipation Act of 1833, but in the British mind he was still mentally, morally and physically a slave.


Eighteenth Century Animal Kingdom Human Race Early Nineteenth Century Comparative Anatomy 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Quotations from J. S. Slotkin (ed.), Readings in Early Anthropology (New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, 1965) pp. 2–3, 16.Google Scholar
  2. The debate on the origin of the Indians of the New World is reviewed in detail by Lee Eldridge Huddleston, in Origins of the American Indians; European Concepts, 1492–1792 (Austin, Texas: Institute of Latin American Studies, 1967)Google Scholar
  3. and by Marcel Bataillon in ‘L’unité du genre humain du P. Acosta au P. Clavigero’, in Mélanges à la mémoire de Jean Sarrailh (Paris: Centre de Recherches de l’Institut d’Etudes Hispaniques, 1966) v. I, pp. 75–95.Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    The literature on monogenism and polygenism is now quite extensive. Among other writings, see Theophile Simar, Etude Critique sur la formation de la doctrine des races au X VIIIesiecle et son expansion au XIXe siecle, Academie Royale de Belgique, Mémoires, Deuxième Série, xvi (Bruxelles: Maurice Lamertin, 1922);Google Scholar
  5. John C. Greene, The Death of Adam (Iowa: Iowa University Press, 1959);Google Scholar
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  7. George W. Stocking, Jr.’s Introductory Essay to James Cowles Pilchard, Researches into the Physical History of Man (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1973) pp. ix–cx. and his ‘What’s in a Name? The Origins of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1837–1871)’, Man 6 (1971) 869–90;Google Scholar
  8. Ronald Rainger, ‘Race, Politics and Science: The Anthropological Society of London in the 1860s’, Victorian Studies 22 (Autumn 1978) 51–70.Google Scholar
  9. American polygenism has been well described by William Stanton, The Leopard’s Spots: Scientific Attitudes Toward Race in America, 1815–1859 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960)Google Scholar
  10. and George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Destiny, 1817–1914 (New York: Harper & Row, 1971);Google Scholar
  11. and is touched on more briefly by John Haller in Outcasts from Evolution: Scientific Attitudes of Racial Inferiority, 1859–1900 (Urbana, Illinois: The University of Illinois Press, 1971).Google Scholar
  12. 3.
    Prichard, Researches, p. 155, and William Lawrence, Lectures on Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man (London: James Smith, 1822) p. 250. Lawrence, however, equivocated about whether being ‘varieties of a single species’ necessarily implied common descent.Google Scholar
  13. 4.
    James Hunt, ‘On the Negro’s Place in Nature’, Anth. Soc. Lond., Memoirs 1 (1863–4) 52.Google Scholar
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    The moral fervour of the abolition movement is brilliantly analysed by David Brion Davis in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1975).Google Scholar
  15. The outstanding example of the genre was Abbé Grégoire’s De la littérature des nègres ou Recherches sur leurs facultés intellectuelles, leurs qualités morales, et leur littérature (Paris: Maradan, 1808). The literary genre was continued by blacks themselves.Google Scholar
  16. See the penetrating essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., ‘Preface to Blackness: Text and Pretext’, in Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto, (eds.), Afro-American Literature. The Reconstruction of an Institution (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1979) pp. 44–69.Google Scholar
  17. 6.
    Robert Knox, The Races of Men: A Fragment (London: Henry Renshaw, 1850) p. 6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 7.
    William F. Bynum, ‘The Great Chain of Being After Forty Years: An Appraisal’, Hist. Sci. XIII (1975) 1–28, and his unpublished dissertation, Time’s Noblest Offspring: The Problem of Man in British Natural Historical Sciences (Ph.D., Cambridge University, England, 1974).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 8.
    Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study o f the History of an Idea (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936).Google Scholar
  20. 9.
    Examples of the use of the great chain include that by Charles Bonnet, The Contemplation of Nature, 2 vols (London: T. Longman, 1766);Google Scholar
  21. Soame Jenyns, ‘Disquisition I: The Chain of Universal Being’, in Works, 4 vols, 2nd ed. (London: T. Cadell, 1793) v. 3, pp. 179–85;Google Scholar
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  24. 12.
    Edward Tyson, Orang-Outang, Sive Homo Sylvestris: or The Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared With that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man (London: T. Bennet and D. Brown, 1699).Google Scholar
  25. 16.
    Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968).Google Scholar
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    See Richard G. Cole, ‘Sixteenth Century Travel Books as a Source of European Attitudes Toward Non-White and Non-Western Culture’, Proc. Amer. Phil. Soc. 116 (1972) 59–67.Google Scholar
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    Charles White, An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man, and in Different Animals and Vegetables (London: C. Dilly, 1799).Google Scholar
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  29. 25.
    Thomas Winterbottom, An Account of the Native Africans in the Neighbourhood of Sierra Leone; To Which is Added An Account of the Present State of Medicine Among Them, 2 vols (London: C. Whittingham, 1803) v. I, p. 201; and Prichard, Researches p. 67.Google Scholar
  30. 26.
    Lawrence, Lectures on Physiology, p. 117. On the controversy surrounding Lawrence’s career, see Kentwood D. Wells, ‘Sir William Lawrence (1783–1867); A Study of Pre-Darwinian Ideas on Heredity and Variation’, J. Hist. Biol. 4 (1971) 319–61;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Oswei Temkin, ‘Basic Science, Medicine and the Romantic Era’, Bull. Hist. Med. 37 (1963) 97–129;Google Scholar
  32. and June Goodfield-Toulmin, ‘Some Aspects of English Physiology, 1780–1840’, J. Hist. Biol. 2 (1969) 283–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. 27.
    Georges Cuvier, The Animal Kingdom Arranged in Conformity with its Organization (New York: G. and C. and H. Carvill, 1831) p. XVII.Google Scholar
  34. 28.
    On Lamarck’s relation to the great chain, see Richard W. Burckhardt, Jr., The Spirit of the System: Lamarck and Evolutionary Biology (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1977) pp. 141–2.Google Scholar
  35. See also J. Schiller, ‘L’Echelle des êtres et la serie chez Lamarck’, in P. P. Grassé et al., Colloque International ‘Lamarck’ (Paris: Librairie Scientifique et Technique, 1971) pp. 87–103.Google Scholar
  36. 29.
    For excellent discussions of the idea of a progressive series in the fossil record, see Martin T. S. Rudwick, The Meaning of Fossils. Episodes in the History of Paleontology (London: MacDonald, 1972)Google Scholar
  37. and Peter J. Bowler, Fossils and Progress: Paleontology and the Idea of Progressive Evolution in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Science History Publications, 1976).Google Scholar
  38. 30.
    Richard Owen, Memoir on the Gorilla (London: Taylor and Taylor, 1865) P. 7.Google Scholar
  39. 31.
    Karl M. Figlio, ‘The Metaphor of Organization: An Historiographical Perspective on the Biomedical Sciences of the Early Nineteenth Century’, Hist. Sci. XIV (1976) 17–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 37.
    Du Chaillu’s sensational career with the gorilla can be glimpsed in Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa (New York: Harper, 1861) and Michel Vaucaire, Paul Du Chaillu: Gorilla Hunter (New York and London: Harper, 1930).Google Scholar
  41. 38.
    The debate between Huxley and Owen is reviewed in Charles E. Blinderman, ‘The Great Bone Case’, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 14 (1971) 370–93. Owen’s ideas on Negroes were mixed. On the one hand, he believed that, as members of a unique species in a unique genera, the distance of Negroes from apes was very great. Yet Owen was ready to admit that in many features Negroes were far more like apes than other races, particularly the European. See, for instance, his Memoir on the Gorilla, n. 29, passim.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. 39.
    Frederick Tiedemann, ‘On the Brain of the Negro, compared with that of the European and the Orang-outang’, Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. 126 (1836) 497–527.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Nancy Stepan 1982

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of HistoryYale UniversityUSA

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