Victorian anthropology

[Reading George W. Stocking, Victorian Anthropology (Free Press, 1987)]

faustin_betbeder_the_london_sketch-book_1874_prof-_darwinStocking’s book is most centrally about how 19th-century upper-class British males managed to combine their sense of superiority with an emerging awareness of Darwinian evolution. Many loose threads needed to be woven together: there was the Bible, with its story of Adam and Eve and the Flood; there was a growing awareness of the deep differences among humans around the globe; there were the beginnings of modern linguistics, physiology, genetics, and psychology; and, finally, there were the established practices of subjugation, both abroad (in colonies) and at home (women, children, the poor). Some argued for polygenesis, or the theory that different sorts of humans originated independently. Some argued for degeneration, or the claim that humans began in some elevated condition, and while some lapsed into a long, downward trajectory, others managed to flourish thanks to good physiology and moral character. And some, finally, argued that the Bible shouldn’t be read as history, and humans started off as apelike creatures and evolved in different ways, with the proper Victorian gentleman serving as an exemplar of just how far a species can go, when blessed with opportunity and grit.

What these various approaches shared was the familiar human predicament of trying to put together a plausible, scientific view of human beings while living under the skewed optics of some domineering cultural paradigm. The stories they ended up telling were no different than the self-serving myths any group develops in advertizing its own origins. These stories were then employed to justify the ways in which power was allocated in their society –  

Living is a society which was, and saw itself, in rapid transition, Victorian intellectuals managed to live with paradox, and even to savor it. But this paradox was one for which evolutionary thinking in fact provided a resolution. If there were still residual inequalities based on gender, class, or race in mid-Victorian society, this was a reflection of the inevitable unevenness of the process of development, whether individual, civilizational, or biological. If those whose status was unequal were also those whose mental development had not yet achieved the rational self-control and foresight on which individual freedom ought to be premised, then there was no paradox in denying them full participation in civilized society, until such time as (if ever) their mental development justified such participation. (p. 230)

The “white man’s burden” was to take on the project of civilizing those unfortunate beings who for whatever reason had not climbed as high up the evolutionary tree. This meant tearing them away from their pre-industrial conditions, teaching them manners, and fast-tracking them to the workhouses. In the case of women, it meant responding sympathetically to their weakened physiological condition, and trying to help them resist the degenerate, erotic lunacy into which they lapsed without a man to rule over them. A Darwin-esque worldview became the rationale for truly horrific practices and policies.

We can see now more fully what they were up to, and we know now that Darwinian evolution, properly apprehended, does not in any way legislate these attitudes. (That’s not to say, of course, that we’re not still up to the same monkey business, as the inequalities around the globe are chalked up to market forces, local inefficiencies, and irrational resistance to liberal capitalism.) But when you’re in the thick of things, it is extremely difficult to see the ways you’re being played – by others and by yourself.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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One Response to Victorian anthropology

  1. Dennis Hermanson says:

    I enjoyed your current essay on the inequities of social evolution (time/place/opportunity) in light of several immediate mirrors.
    1. Indian Summers – A fine tragic historical romance series offering of the BBC currently featured on PBS stations in the USA. India in the turmoil of British Imperial rule, religious and caste opportunism, while individuals struggle to fulfill ambition, desire, upward mobility and frustrated personal self-esteem. “then there was no paradox in denying them full participation in civilized society”
    In effect – all that each of us faces with our family, our opportunities and our national situation. Or international situation. It’s a fact that jobs were taken from us by the same corporations that give them to us in the first place, since we were only workers in a larger system that has now moved not locally, but internationally.
    2. Trump and the rise of the underclass, via social media. “The stories they ended up telling were no different than the self-serving myths any group develops in advertizing its own origins. ”
    3. Suffragette (2015) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3077214/
    “A drama that tracks the story of the foot soldiers of the early feminist movement, women who were forced underground to pursue a dangerous game of cat and mouse with an increasingly brutal State. These women were not primarily from the genteel educated classes, they were working women who had seen peaceful protest achieve nothing. Radicalized and turning to violence as the only route to change, they were willing to lose everything in their fight for equality – their jobs, their homes, their children and their lives.” “The “white man’s burden” was to take on the project of civilizing those unfortunate beings who for whatever reason had not climbed as high up the evolutionary tree. ” Read the burden of social order requires that “the law” maintains the understanding that those who are controlled must understand that social order requires them to stay in their place, and allow and maintain what is deemed best for them.

    Nature seems to follow the social order requirement, but thankfully, Darwin and ultimately those who control the law, will realize that “the mutation” “the idea” “the sport” (and by that, I am not talking about the ultra-controlled US sports of baseball and football) – the change that is adaptation, is both evolutional and social. Perhaps even, some day with more education, intellectual. Not in just finches, as Darwin and current scientists study. Nature is nurture.

    https://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S42/36/79O60/index.xml?section=topstories

    “This is an interesting example where mild mutations in a gene that is critical for normal development leads to phenotypic [observable] evolution,” said lead researcher Leif Andersson, a professor of functional genomics at Uppsala University, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and Texas A&M University.

    But the most exciting and interesting finding of the study, Andersson said, was that the gene also varied among individuals from the same species. For example, the medium ground finch (G. fortis) species includes some birds with blunt beaks and others with pointed ones.

    This finding is significant because it shows how evolution can happen, Peter Grant said. Within a species, when some individuals have a trait that aids their survival — such as a blunt beak that allows them to crack open tough seed coverings — they will pass on the genes for that trait to their offspring, whereas individuals with pointed beaks will have died. “This is the genetic variation upon which natural selection can work,” he said.

    Perhaps we struggle with life, as Marshall McLuhan said, “We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” But more importantly, in the sense of intellectual genetics (education and time = civilization) McLuhan says, “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.”
    So, as you began,
    “the proper Victorian gentleman serving as an exemplar of just how far a species can go, when blessed with opportunity and grit.” Just as our President Elect.

    I would simply want to finish with…
    cuing the rock song “You don’t own me” by Leslie Gore.

    Time and tide. And the great philosophical question remains, Professor, are we humans nature or unnatural? Life or cancer? Evolution or Devo? Are we not men? We are……

    Like

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