Degeneration, Race, & the Rise of Sociology
(reposted from the Until Darwin blog)
The work of writing the follow-up to Until Darwin has begun. Below is a little bit about the manuscript. I'll be posting more here over the next few months as I hope to complete it during my sabbatical this coming spring semester. In hindsight, my approach in Until Darwin had an important silence because it was focused on the importance of Darwin's encounters with slavery on his thinking about nature. Of course, Darwin is a towering figure across many disciplines whose work simply can not be ignored if we want to understand how we got to the place we find ourselves. However, Darwin's shadow obscures just how difficult it was for even him to end the monogenic/ploygenic debates. Most importantly, it obscures the continuities joining the concepts of polygenism, degeneracy, and race before and after the publication of the Origin, as well as their place in the emerging fields of sociology and biology.
The persistence of the concepts of degeneracy and race, as well as polygenism, is a problem confronting not only Darwin scholars, but one to be found in the pages of any history of degeneracy or racialism. How is it that theories of race and degeneracy predate the Darwinian revolution and move from a relatively minor position within Natural History to a dominant position within the new sciences of life? By investigating this question, we are led to consider how polygenism, race, and degeneracy were reinterpreted after the collapse of Natural History. To do so is to reveal how the fields of biology and sociology relied on each other for validation and legitimacy through shared scientific ideologies of race and degeneracy. In my previous work, one gets the impression that Darwin's Origin of Species was an epistemological break, but it was an error to have left that impression. It is the persistence, and actual centrality, of these scientific ideologies that raise questions about the extent of the "revolution" initiated by the publication of the Origin. Degeneracy, race, and polygenism were not discarded as out-date scientific ideologies. If anything, what was witnessed in the wake of the Origin of Species was an intensification of the scientific exploration of race and degeneracy as dynamic social forces in modern life, at times with an undercurrent of polygenic theory. Of course, one must admit that Darwinism produces its own theories of race and degeneracy, but equally true is that these most accommodating of Natural History's ideologies found their place with the new sciences of life. They remain powerful scientific ideologies that gave legitimacy and social relevance to biology and sociology. It is almost impossible to imagine biology and sociology as disciplines apart from their relevance to government and to the health of the governed.
Thomas Huxley wrote that Naturalists like himself – for the term “biologist” was only just coming into use – had been too humble to simply and honestly lay their rightful claim to the domain of life, and so for the sake of convenience ceded the study of modern human life to sociology. Huxley was quick to point out that with the inevitable advance of knowledge, biology will one day no longer need to be so humble and so will take its place as the central organizing science of social and natural life. Until then, at the very least, “...one should not be surprised if it occasionally happens that you see a biologist trespassing upon questions of philosophy or politics; or meddling with human education; because, after all, that is part of his kingdom which he has only voluntarily forsaken” (Huxley. 1876 (1902) “Study of Biology” in Scientific Memoirs IV: 252-253). As told by this foremost of the new scientists, confining themselves to one domain of life acknowledged the formation of what his contemporary William Sumner called “the sciences of life in society" in which "....biology and sociology touch. Sociology is a science which deals with one range of phenomena produced by the struggle for existence, while biology deals with another. The forces are the same... the sciences are cognate” (1881:173). (from “Sociology” in War and Other Essays: 165-194).
So the question that we will attempt to examine in this manuscript is a deceptively simple one: how is it that notions of polygenism, degeneracy and race survived the end of Natural History and were so easily incorporated into, and transformed by, the new sciences of life? It should be admitted that this question demands a more complex answer than this manuscript will provide. We can only point out an avenue of critique that has not been fully accessible until recently. These pages will focus on one crucial aspect of this critique: the place of degeneracy and race in the emerging disciplines of biology and sociology, with special attention being given to their place in the emergence and legitimization of sociology in the United States. We can justify this focus on the United States, if indeed it need be justified, because it is where the polygenic theory reached its zenith and where slavery made questions of race and degeneracy matters of everyday life and politics. The sciences of life and society have always given a special place to degeneracy and race. Broadly speaking, the social was always biological and the biological has always been social, at least since that time when we began to speak of sociology and biology.
NGRAM (just for fun) Biology,Sociology,Biologist,Sociologist,biologist,sociologist,degenerate,degeneration,eugenics: 1800-1939