Cognition & Reality

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Louis Aggasiz & The White Man’s Burden

Filed under: Uncategorized — drtone @ 2:58 pm

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

From “The White Man’s Burden,” by Rudyard Kipling

A few daze ago, I mentioned the former “scientific consensus” around the relative development of the so-called human “races,” placing members of the “White” race on top. At the time this belief was forming and being promulgated, the latter half of the nineteenth century, White men had more or less finished conquering the world, and were naturally looking for justification they needed for the various crimes they had committed in doing so.

And crimes they had committed. The British, for example, fought two wars with the Chinese in order to secure the right to distribute opium in China, and they cruelly put down the so-called Indian Mutiny. Americans were struggling with the role slavery played in the development of the United States, and they were engaged in a decades-long war of extermination against Native Americans. In 1899, Kipling wrote the poem excerpted above to encourage Americans in brutal war they were prosecuting against Filipino guerrillas fighting for their independence. Every major power on the European continent occupied colonies, enslaving the indigenous people and making away with the natural riches in the lands they conquered. Millions of words have been written on the subject, but let us just say that, consciously and unconsciously, Whites looked for a way to frame their greed and killing as other than what it was.

They therefore construed their otherwise inexcusable behavior as a campaign to “civilize” the inferior “colored races.” In order for such a construct to fly, there had to be a way to prove that what they were bringing in the form of “civilization” was indeed higher and better than the cultures they were systematically displacing. Furthermore, they needed to demonstrate to their own satisfaction they they themselves were higher and better than the people they were destroying…er, civilizing.

Enter Louis Aggasiz, the Swiss-American who was perhaps the leading naturalist on this side of the Atlantic. Science as we know it was relatively new in the middle of the nineteenth century, and men of science–they were all men, of course–could achieve a celebrity status that is hard to fathom from our perspective. Aggasiz, who practically invented the study of glaciation and was the foremost ichthyologist of his day, was the chief naturalist at Harvard, and among the most famous, celebrated men in the United States. He was perhaps the most beloved member of a circle that included, among others, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.,, and Charles Sumner, America’s leading abolitionist,among  the brightest lights in the growing nation’s intellectual firmament. Although the political spectrum had a different shape in the 1850s, these  forward-looking, open-minded men might code as “progressive” or “liberal” in today’s terms.

Nevertheless, because his ideas confirmed the role of the While man as conservator and custodian of the Black man, Aggasiz’s lectures on race were popular with slaveholders. Agassiz, who opposed Darwin’s theories, believed that the different races of men were placed on earth separately by God. Through an intellectual move, called “polygenism,” that seems absurd to us, Whites were designated as unrelated to members of the “colored races,”and naturally superior to them. Although the association of Aggasiz with these beliefs has, in more recent times, precipitated the removal of his name from many places and things, it was put there originally because of the great esteem in which he was once held.

The scientific racism typified by Aggasiz’s ideas would resonate for generations. Had a vote been taken among anthropologists and geneticists in, say, 1930 on whether Whites are superior to Blacks, there can be little doubt that the outcome would have been overwhelmingly in favor of White superiority. Although attitudes turned away, after World War II,  from constructs associated with the Nazis, had the same vote been taken in 1950, the majority would probably still have favored White superiority. They would also have been clear in endorsing the intellectual superiority of men over women. Remember, with exactly enough exceptions to prove the rule, all scientists were White men.

Fortunately, neither science nor the truth science seeks is, in the final analysis, subject to a vote. Sadly, when it comes to debate on current issues, such as climate change, this undeniable proposition has become a talking point of the Right. Sometimes, leading scientists, to great acclaim, present ideas that become objects of ridicule, and worse, when measured against the standards of  a later time. Into this category had already fallen, by the time it became the premise of a major motion picture, the projection that the Greenhouse Effect would produce disastrous changes in the course and intensity of the Gulf Stream. Kooky generalizations, based firmly in science, often become the currency of political discourse and popular belief, as was true of scientific racism’s role in controversies regarding slavery, colonialism, and segregation. Whether a current set of scientific constructs is valid or not, it’s bad for science and it’s bad for politics when the two mix.


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