Darwin’s Mischief, Through Antebellum Eyes

In 1860, botanist Asa Gray reviewed the brand new book, On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, for the Atlantic Monthly, and it is a fascinating read. Not least of all for what about it induces cringing to modern liberal eyes:

The prospect of the future, accordingly, is on the whole pleasant and encouraging. It is only the backward glance, the gaze up the long vista of the past, that reveals anything alarming. Here the lines converge as they recede into the geological ages, and point to conclusions which, upon the theory, are inevitable, but by no means welcome. The very first step backwards makes the Negro and the Hottentot our blood-relations; — not that reason or Scripture objects to that, though pride may.

At the very least, Gray is willing to accept, if grudgingly, that those of African descent are actually the same species as he. Indeed, Gray only concedes that they share a “blood relation,” as if they are as closely related to, say, species of bird are to each other. And note the use of the anarchic “Hottentot,” a derogatory term for a particular tribe of African, the Khoikhoi (as though “Negro” was not itself derogatory, or, for that matter, the whole passage).

Gray’s antebellum racism is not all that causes wincing, particularly when one considers that he is reviewing for an educated audience the book that serves as the cornerstone for modern biology and (one could argue) modern cultural atheism.

The next [step backward] suggests a closer association of our ancestors of the olden time with “our poor relations” of the quadrumanous [“four-handed,” meaning primates with hand-like feet] family than we like to acknowledge. Fortunately, however,— even if we must account for him scientifically,-man with his two feet stands upon a foundation of his own. Intermediate links between the Bimana and the Quadrumana are lacking altogether; so that, put the genealogy of the brutes upon what footing you will, the four-handed races will not serve for our forerunners;— at least, not until some monkey, live or fossil, is producible with great-toes, instead of thumbs, upon his nether extremities; or until some lucky ‘geologist turns up the bones of his ancestor and prototype in France or England … and until these men of the olden time are shown to have worn their great-toes in a divergent and thumblike fashion. That would be evidence indeed: but until some testimony of the sort is produced, we must needs believe in the separate and special creation of man, however it may have been with the lower animals and with plants.

Don’t you just love how he only allows for the scientific accounting of human origins — as opposed to the supernatural account — for the sake of argument, as though it’s something that could only be done in a weird hypothetical fantasy?

Gray is eager throughout his review to brush aside the notion that humans are themselves a product of the evolutionary processes Darwin describes. While he does true to give Darwin his due for his far-reaching and thorough theory, the mainly goes to great pains to explain that it makes perfect sense that humans would be unique among animals to appear out of nothing. He chidingly declares, “the author speaks disrespectfully of spontaneous generation” and posits:

Several features of the theory have an uncanny look. They may prove to be innocent: but their first aspect is suspicious, and high authorities pronounce the whole thing to be positively mischievous.

Well, that’s one way to look at it.

Even more fascinating, Gray was instrumental in getting Darwin’s book published in the U.S. — which, of course, makes one question the ethics of the folks at the 1860 Atlantic for allowing him to review a book he had such a personal stake in. Isn’t history amazing?

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