Religion and the Scientific Study of Race in the US: Conflict or Cooperation?

25 Jan 2012
12:00 pm - 1:30 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type

Terence Keel
STSC Visiting Scholar

Western approaches to the study of race have been an obvious, but often forgotten, example of the productive relationship shared between religion and science. This collaboration dates back to at least the 18th century with the emergence of the first human taxonomies in Europe. American polygenist science, which emerged in the 1830’s, provides an unlikely, yet profound, illustration of the creative ground shared between science and religion concerning the study of human differences. American polygenism was a provocative theory premised on the idea that humans did not share a common ancestor. With their attack on the chronology described in the Genesis creation narrative and outright rejection of the biblical Adam, polygenists created a firestorm among American Protestant leaders and the lay public in the decades leading up to the publication of Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871). Inevitably, polygenist claims about distinct human origins played an important role within the history of racial science, pushing monogenists like Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to defend and refine an increasingly naturalistic account of the shared origins of all human groups.

This talk gives specific attention to the largely overlooked religious ideas marshaled by the ethnologist, renowned surgeon, and highly influential polygenist, Josiah Clark Nott (1804-­‐1873) of Mobile, Alabama. My work here is a contribution to the post-­‐ 1970’s shift made by historians to recast the relationship between science and religion in ways that go beyond the “conflict thesis” popularized by the American historians Andrew Dixon White and John Draper at the end of the 19th century. In many respects Nott’s thinking appears to be easily explained by the “conflict thesis” as he looked to establish a secular-­‐scientific view of race that abandoned the Christian notion that humans were the progeny of a single stock. A closer examination of his theory, however, shows that Nott’s thinking remained indebted to key Christian ideas about nature that were integral to the tradition of naturalist’s discussions of living species since the time of the 17th century natural theologian Jon Ray (1628-­‐1705). Nott’s racial theories were a unique but controversial expression of this tradition. Ultimately, American polygenism and its relationship to Christianity was one of deep complexity and oddly enough, cooperation—not simply conflict.

This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  Berkeley Program in Science and Technology Studies

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