Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Paris Ethnology and the Perfectibility of "Races"

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Paris Ethnology and the Perfectibility of "Races"

Article excerpt

Paul Broca (1824-80), founder of the Paris Society of Anthropology in 1859, believed the Paris Ethnological Society (active from 1839 to 1848; hereafter abbreviated SEP) a worthy predecessor in studying the "intellectual and moral characteristics" and "role in civilization" of certain "races." Yet he warned that the passions unleashed by the slave emancipation debate intruded "risky speculation" into the objective terrain of science. A scholarly account of the Ethnological Society similarly concludes that the anti-slavery impetus handicapped the Society's contributions to anthropology.(1)

This discussion will question this image of the SEP. First, it will show through a contextualized account of the SEP debates of 1847 about the "appropriate relations between the black and white races" how there is a seamless web of discourse on perfectibility of "races" between the earlier society and the later group of anthropologists. Second, it will show that this discussion included the broader issues Broca considered central to anthropology -- the nature of species, the human differences from the animal kingdom, and the supposed physical indicators of intelligence. The SEP thus merits a more conspicuous place in the history of anthropology, despite its institutional weakness and lack of coherent theoretical model.(2)

The third objective of examining the discourse of the SEP is to demonstrate how the racial theory of its members cannot be aligned on a progressive-conservative political axis. The fourth objective is to illustrate the ambivalent heritage of the Saint-Simonianism of some members.

At least three positions on the spectrum of racial theory may be discerned. At one extreme were believers in a separate creation for each race, conceived as distinct species (a position called polygenism in 1857). This group was an assortment of political conservatives, timid Orleanist liberals, and functionalist and organicist Saint-Simonians. In the middle of the spectrum were naturalists and physicians who supported the unity of the human species (monogenism), though almost all assumed racial hierarchy. At the egalitarian side of the monogenist spectrum were the staunchest opponents of slavery, one Saint-Simonian, one atheist progressive republican, and one provincial author sympathetic to Christianity.(3)

I. The Rise of Polygenist Racial Theory

Polygenist accounts of human diversity certainly became more widespread and systematic in the early nineteenth century. In accounting for their prevalence, Claude Blanckaert has suggested the pessimistic post-Revolutionary rejection of change induced by milieu, even by anti-clericals. There was also the aversion of powerful naturalists such as Georges Cuvier to transformism or excessive variability within species. Cuvier had used both the anatomical definition of species, common descent and morphological resemblance to parents, as well as the physiological definition -- ability to breed continually through the generations. "Hereditary conformations" of varieties produced by "accidental causes" such as climate were of limited impact within an essentially fixed species. And humans had to be one species since all could produce fertile offspring. Blanckaert also notes the decreasing plausibility of climatic influence on skin colour when Pacific explorers found both Polynesians and Melanesians in similar climates.(4)

The vocal minority of polygenist theorists who most affected discussions in the SEP were the physician Julien-Joseph Virey (1775-1846), the military officer and naturalist J.-B.-G.-M. Bory de Saint-Vincent (1778-1846), and Cuvier's disgruntled assistant Antoine Desmoulins (1796-1828). Virey was a center-left liberal deputy in the 1830s, Bory, an atheist republican, and Desmoulins, an anti-clerical opponent of the Bourbons. In the early work of Virey, there was some ambiguity on the notion of species, since he suggested that all varieties produced by adaptation to milieu or the Providential operation of the vital force were equivalent to species. …

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