From the Inbox: Did Stephen Jay Gould fabricate evidence of Louis Agassiz’s racism?

This one is from an e-mail sent to me via my neglected website over at commondescent.net regarding a page I have there that is mostly a bunch of quote from Charles Darwin on the subject of race and slavery. The point of the page (that I originally created over a decade ago) was to counterbalance creationists’ never-ending demonization of Darwin as some sort of rabid racist—who was somehow responsible for racism and genocide—by the use of selective quotation of his writings (for example, Bergman 1997).

Anyway, someone going by “ML” writes:

ML: Why do Atheists get so upset when a Theist speaks about Darwin being Racist?

Atheism or theism does not enter into this, at least not inherently. I would think that anyone, theist or atheist, who interested in science and history would be upset by how professional creationists use invalid reasoning and false or misleading historical narratives to attack both evolutionary theory and historical figures involved in its development.

In the case of the claims that Darwin was somehow particularly racist, creationists are attempting to poison the well against evolution by claiming that the founder of evolutionary biology had some objectionable and/or erroneous views. They are arguing, in essence, that since Darwin was a racist evolutionary theory is suspect.  This is form of an ad hominem fallacy*.

Whether or not Darwin was a racist is completely irrelevant to the question of evolutionary theory’s validity. It stands or falls on its own merits regardless of what Darwin thought—for example, Isaac Newton believed in alchemy but this in and of itself does nothing to cast doubt on his laws of motion.

Logical fallacies aside the creationists’ treatment of Darwin on the subject it is also simplistic and disingenuous in both the way they exaggerate Darwin’s supposed racism relative to his peers—well-to-do white men of the early to mid-nineteenth century—and in how they conveniently ignore clear cases of racism in their own camp (more on this shortly).  

[*Side note: creationists typically go further and attempt to argue that evolutionary theory itself is inherently racist or must logically lead to racism. That however that topic is for another time.]

ML: Racism is simply thinking you are superior to another race. One does not have to wish another race harm to be a Racist.

Why don’t you stop confusing the issue and trying to downplay the reality that Darwin was in fact racist.  He thought that whites were superior in many ways to blacks. That is RACISM.

I am not attempting to downplay the reality of anything. I am trying to be both factually and historically accurate. My personal opinion is that from a modern perspective Darwin probably was somewhat racist; however this is judgment that has to be inferred from a number of conflicting things he wrote on the subject. Some things he wrote—especially if they are taken out context of both history and his larger writings—seem to be racist in nature. However, he also wrote many things about race that was very egalitarian particularly in comparison with views of many of his contemporaries.

Given this, I think it is unfair and dishonest to single Darwin out for special criticism in this regard, especially if those doing so leave out evidence of more clear-cut racism on the part of their own intellectual predecessors.

ML: One also does not have to believe slavery is right or wrong to be a Racist.

That is true, one would have to look at the reasons an individual gives for why they condemned slavery. Some opposed slavery on the basis that the institution of slavery had negative effects on slave owners and white society in general. Others did so out of a concern for those enslaved (and of course many opposed slavery for both reasons).

I think it is fair to say that while someone who opposed slavery largely out of concern for those enslaved might still be a racist, they are probably not as racist as someone who either opposed it primarily out of concern for slaver owners or who did not oppose it at all (even arguing its favor).

ML: Your article is so biased its pathetic.

Insults, that’s nice. You are going to have to do better than that ML. However, I will admit that the page could probably do with some expansion and updating.

ML: Quoting Louis Agassiz in a letter to his mother (1846), quoted in Gould, Stephen The Mismeasure of Man (1981) p. 44-45,

Stephen Gould IS AN EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGIST AND AN ATHEIST!! What a source you got there!

A Letter that no one knows it really existed because it just so happens the only person who ever heard of it happens to be an ATHEIST.

Here we have yet another ad hominem fallacy, i.e., the source is an evolutionary biologist and an atheist, therefore it cannot be trusted.

Sorry but the fact that someone has delusional beliefs regarding the relative honesty of either evolutionary biologists (a category that includes a number of Christians btw) or atheists, does not constitute Prima facie evidence that there is any reason to doubt the veracity of the quote as given by Gould.

What’s more, while many—including myself—have taken issue with Gould on any number of subjects, I am unaware of any serious critic ever having suggested that Gould fabricated evidence whole cloth to support his views.  So even on an individual level, there is no reason to take seriously the suggestion that Gould was in the habit of perpetrating fraud.

Of course, anyone who knows me knows that I cannot leave it at that (let’s see, where did I leave my BFG 9000).

These accusations of fraud ML is making regard a quote from the 19th century paleontologist Louis Agassiz that I gave as an example of unambiguous racism on the part of one of Darwin’s creationist contemporaries. Here is the quote in question, which comes from a letter Agassiz wrote to his mother:

It was in Philadelphia that I first found myself in prolonged contact with Negroes; all the domestics in my hotel were men of color. I can scarcely express to you the painful impression that I received, especially since the feeling that they inspired in me is contrary to all our ideas about the confraternity of the human type (genre) and the unique origin of our species. But truth before all. Nevertheless, I experienced pity at the sight of this degraded and degenerate race, and their lot inspired compassion in me in thinking that they were really men. Nonetheless, it is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us. In seeing their black faces with their thick lips and grimacing teeth, the wool on their head, their bent knees, their elongated hands, I could not take my eyes off their face in order to tell them to stay far away. And when they advanced that hideous hand towards my plate in order to serve me, I wished I were able to depart in order to eat a piece of bread elsewhere, rather than dine with such service. What unhappiness for the white race ―to have tied their existence so closely with that of Negroes in certain countries! God preserve us from such a contact.” (Agassiz, 1846, Emphasis mine)

ML states that no one knows if the letter Gould claims to be quoting from even exists, implying that Gould may have made this quote up. Is there anyway for us to discern whether or not this might be the case, or are we forever lost in perpetual doubt?

Well we could start by seeing what Gould says about the source of this quote:

Agassiz had never seen a black person in Europe. When he first met blacks as servants at his Philadelphia hotel in 1846, he experienced a pronounced visceral revulsion. This jarring experience, coupled with his sexual fears about miscegenation, apparently established his conviction that blacks are a separate species. In a remarkably candid passage, he wrote to his mother from America: [...quote given above - TB...] The standard Life and Letters, compiled by Agassiz wife, omits these lines in presenting an expurgated version of this famous letter. Other historians have paraphrased them or passed them by. I recovered this passage from the original manuscript in Harvard’s Houghton Library and have translated it, verbatim, for the first time so far as I know. (Gould 1981, p. 44-45)

Uh oh, “other historians”, “original manuscripts” at Harvard; it is starting to look bad for ML’s fraud hypothesis.

OK, let’s take a look at what historian Edward Lurie’s biography of Agassiz might contain:

After observing Negroes for the first time during a visit to Philadelphia late in 1846, Agassiz confided to his mother:

I hardly dare to tell you the painful impression I received, so much are the feelings they [Negroes] gave me contrary to all our ideas of the brotherhood of man and unique origin of our species. But truth before all. The more pity I felt at the sight of this degraded and degenerate race, the more . . . impossible it becomes for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as we are. (Lurie 1960, pp. 256-257)

While not identical, it seems clear that this quote, by Lurie given in 1960, is from the same source as Gould’s twenty-one years later.

Lurie give as a source as: “Agassiz to Rose Agassiz, December 2, 1846, Agassiz Papers, Houghton Library”, which means that both he and Gould claim their source is an 1846 letter from Agassiz to his mother.

Now at this point I figured I would have to stop and argue that this was sufficient evidence to refute ML’s insinuation since I do not live in the vicinity of Harvard and so could not go there and check their collection for the letter.

However, this is the age of the internet and after some poking around I discovered that Harvard’s Houghton Library not only lists the material in their Agassiz collection they also have scans of the original documents including…

 Wait for it…

 The letter from Agassiz to his mother dated December 2 1846.

Now the scans aren’t great and the letter is in French (differing interpretations of which accounts for the minor differences between Lurie and Gould’s quotations) but they are there for anyone, ML included, to read for themselves.

I did, and despite the fact that my French is extremely limited I was able to find the passage in question starting bottom third or so of page 13 and ending on page 14 (you gotta love the interwebs).

Given this, I am sure we can expect a retraction from ML regarding this libel against Gould.

References

Agassiz, Louis (1846) A letter to Rose M. Agassiz, quoted in Gould, Stephen (1981) The Mismeasure of Man, W.W. Norton & Company, NY,  p. 44-45

Bergman, Jerry (1997) “Evolution and the Origins of the Biological Race Theory“, Journal of Creation, 7(2):155–168

Gould, Stephen Jay (1981) The Mismeasure of Man, W.W. Norton & Company, NY

Lurie, Edward (1960) Louis Agassiz: A life in science, Johns Hopkins University Press (1988)

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One thought on “From the Inbox: Did Stephen Jay Gould fabricate evidence of Louis Agassiz’s racism?

  1. I read Origin of species, the only mention of “race” in the sense we use today to refer to people I remember was in the first chapter where darwin is describing the other views of his contemporaries to contrast them with his theory and quotes someone else talking about “races” of people. The next mention of “race” refers to different races of cabbage, and darwin goes on endlessly about pigeons and plants and seeds and such for most of the book, saying nothing of different groups of people.

    I like how the ben stein movie fabricated a darwin quote to claim darwin inspired the holocaust btw – classy.

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