This was originally written for my POS439 class ("Minority Group Politics in the U.S.") in Fall 2002. I realize the writing is a bit stiff; this is typical of my class assignments, especially with this professor. When you have a strict formula of what your paper must address, writing creatively becomes difficult. Nonetheless, some may find this interesting.

Node your homework!

    The American revolutionary Ethan Allen wrote,”Those who invalidate reason ought seriously to consider whether they argue against reason with or without reason; if with reason, then they establish the principle they are laboring to dethrone: but if they argue without reason (which, in order to be consistent with themselves they must do), they are out of reach of rational conviction, nor do they deserve a rational argument.” Despite this, though, rational argument can become a vehicle for bad or foolish ideas. Few instances of this are more apparent than the case of polygeny, an anthropological theory which argued that different 'biological races' of humanity have different origins. Polygeny was a powerful theory, one which forced the scientific establishment of the European nations to take their colleagues in the United States seriously; and yet it is mired in the most base and irrational beliefs and prejudices known to man. Its influence had reverbrations in the institution of slavery and in contemporary and future attempts at hierarchical stratification of race. Herein, the author will examine what effects polygeny had in those areas, as well as the nature of the corroborations of polygeny and whether scientific rationality can be made an agent of racism.

    Polygeny's basic premise was this: Different animals with very similar physical traits and behavior exist all around the world. These animals tend not to stray from an instinctive environment in a relatively small area. Therefore, said the polygenists, it stands to reason that these animals each originated separately around their current environments, and their similarities are mere happenstance (alternately, this was simply “God's plan”). From this point of view, it then stood to reason that different human races originated separately as well.

    From a modern evolutionary point of view this is absurd. For one thing, the environments of various regions change on a regular basis: For instance, the Mesopatamian region in the Middle East is now largely desert, but a few thousand years ago it was a verdant and fertile area (hence the name, “Fertile Crescent”). Or, to pick a more drastic example, most of North America was under thick sheets of glacial ice no more than ten thousand years ago. Animals which exist there now often couldn't have existed there at an earlier period unless they went through a series of very unlikely adaptations very quickly. Secondly, for lifeforms with such similarity as between two species of trout (or two 'races' of humans) without being related is ludicrous, an utter impossibility. However, the polygenists were not Darwinists, and many do not appear to have believed the geological evidence of their time that showed that the Earth was at least several millions years old (and not 6000 years old as most Biblical literalists would have it). But despite the apparent absurdity of polygeny, we cannot discount its influence; for instance, its relation to the institution of slavery in America from the 1840s (when the theory was first posited) until the end of the Civil War.

    One would think that polygeny provided the perfect justification of slavery. If the separate races originated and developed independently, and these races vary in intellectual ability (with whites on the top and blacks on the bottom), surely it is only fitting that the Negros are subservient to Caucasians. In fact, the white masters are doing their slaves a favor - for how could members of such a feeble-minded race possibly cope by themselves in a civilized society?

    And yet, polygeny was instead a threat to the institution of slavery. For one, it essentially theorized the existence of multiple Adams and Eves, contrary to the traditionally literalist interpretation of the Bible at the time. This presented two distinct problems for slaveowners: If polygeny was true, then the Bible was at least partially incorrect; therefore the Biblical arguments used to defend slavery may also be wrong. Furthermore, if polygeny was correct, then the Original Sin did not necessarily exist for all humans: Simply because the white Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit doesn't mean the black Adam and Eve did; and what a conundrum to face then - the possibility that blacks are morally superior to whites. Add to this the fact that most polygenists were also abolitionists (though not egalitarians by any stretch of the imagination) (Gould 80) and the theory of polygeny did not appeal to slaveowners at all.

    Certainly, though, the theory of polygeny was in some way instrumental in the hierarchical stratification of race which occurred after the Emancipation of the slaves, often de jure (though where it was not, such stratification existed de facto). However, it would seem that rather than causing this kind of racial class system, polygeny existed more as a justification for it. For instance, Morton's data regarding the relative size of skulls among races exhibited scientifically the superiority of Caucasians over other races (Gould 85). There were obvious holes in the logic and procedure of Morton's measurements, but these errors were not discovered in Morton's time; rather, it was not until Binet's craniometric measurements of schoolchildren (177) and Gould's later reexamination of Morton's data that they were exposed. The author proposes that the reason that the data had not been previously reexamined is because nobody bothered to question it. The scientists and other intellectuals of the day started with the preconception of racial stratification; data such as Morton's merely confirmed what they already 'knew', so why should they check into it? Indeed, long before polygeny became a scientific theory, many otherwise brilliant men (such as statesmen Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, geologist Georges Cuvier, and philosopher David Hume) considered blacks and other races to be intellectually inferior to Caucasians. Thus polygeny effectively rationalized these racial classes, as it confirmed for the majority what was already believed to be true.

    In The Mismeasure of Man, Gould makes a point of saying that, by and large, the data produced by polygenists were the result of unconscious a priori assumptions about the nature of the races, and not conscious fraud. (This is, incidentally, an incorrect usage of the term 'a priori'; such a belief is a posteriori regardless of the fact that it is unconscious.) At least in regards to Morton, this seems to be correct; Morton published everything, even his raw data - this is not the action of someone trying to cover up his lies. It is likely that this is true of most of the polygenists. They did, after all, believe they were pursuing the truth behind differences between the races; it is not a mark of confidence in a theory for a person to think he must falsify records to prove his assertions.

    Taking what has already been said about polygeny into account, it is obvious that rationality, even scientific rationality, can be used to perpetuate racism. But this is not due to anything inherently racist about science or reason, indeed, one can 'prove' to the satisfaction of many a great deal of false doctrines and ideas. All that is necessary is for one to mistake false premises for true. (As a truly ludicrous example, I quote this from a webpage on logical fallacies: “In 1893, the Royal Academy of Science were convinced by Sir Robert Ball that communication with the planet Mars was a physical impossibility, because it would require a flag as large as Ireland, which it would be impossible to wave.” (mathew pp. 10))

    Thus we can conclude the following: that the theory of polygeny weakened the institution of slavery rather than strengthening it, that it helped rationalize racial stratification of intelligence and society by reaffirming beliefs already held by the majority, that those experimenting to prove the validity of polygeny came to their conclusions due to previously held assumptions and not conscious fraud, and that reason can, indeed, promote racism. It is unfortunate, but the latter seems to occur even today, demonstrated best by the arguments of The Bell Curve. We can only hope that in the future, the doctrines of biological determinism and other pseudoscience which promotes prejudice will be eliminated, and that that day is coming soon.

Works Cited

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man (Revised and Expanded). New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1996.

Mathew. The Atheism Web: Logic and Fallacies, "Argumentum ad ignorantiam". Updated 30 June 1997.