Anthropology and Ethnology
ANTHROPOLOGY AND ETHNOLOGY
ANTHROPOLOGY AND ETHNOLOGY. The history of the terms "anthropology" and "ethnology" tells much about the changing scope of the field and central debates within it. Today we assume that they are closely related—"ethnology" is the study of culture, a dominant part of the enterprise of "anthropology," the study of humankind—but this was not always the case. The two terms once had different, even opposed, meanings. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, "anthropology" meant the science of the whole nature of man and emphasized the classification of physical characteristics, often to prove the fundamental differences among humans. "Ethnology" was the science of human races and included linguistics, physical measurements, and culture as evidence of human commonalities. That we now use the term "ethnic" to describe cultural difference and particularity indicates the sea change that has occurred. One central part of the history of anthropology, therefore, concerns a shift in emphasis from race to culture as a way to understand humanity. Although the answers have differed, the central questions of anthropology involve the unity and diversity of humankind: Are people alike? Are they different? Are commonalities more important than differences? Before the Enlightenment launched the scientific study of the human and natural world, the age of exploration and conquest provided the intellectual and political challenge for it. How to describe, explain, and control the peoples that Europeans encountered in the Americas, Africa, and Asia? Anthropology emerged as, and has largely remained, an enterprise in which "civilized" European and American observers study "primitive" non-European others. The changing scope of anthropology follows the history of European conquest of North America and the emerging national identity of the United States. The importation of slaves from Africa and the immigration of peoples from Europe and Asia intensified and complicated the process.
The Age of Exploration and Conquest
In the seventeenth century, European travelers, missionaries, colonizers, and naturalists asked questions about the peoples they encountered. Although not an organized endeavor with the name "anthropology," observers' efforts resembled those of later anthropologists. They too tried to explain the origin of native populations and their differences from Europeans. American "Indians," taking their name from Columbus's journey, already played a role in the colonial imagination of self and others, well before they would become the central focus of anthropology in the United States. Assuming a common origin, or monogenism, some speculated about the presence of the ten lost tribes who had wandered into this new Israel. Biblical references further explained the differences among Indian peoples and their differences from Europeans as the effects of the Tower of Babel and the proliferation of incommensurate dialects and ways of life. Environmental, especially climatic, theories were also thought to explain this offshoot of the human race, conveniently and increasingly seen as degenerate forms, destined for disappearance. As early as 1609, Richard Johnson's Nova Brittania described the strange and savage to the civilized as part of the self-defining process of conquest and settlement. One hundred years later, Robert Beverly's 1705 History of the Present State of Virginia provided the first descriptions of Indian religion, law, customs, dress, and family, to explain both native inhabitants and the condition of English settlement. Without a self-consciousness about an anthropological endeavor as such, these efforts demonstrated the foundational importance of the encounter of European colonizers with native peoples in the making of an American identity.
The eighteenth-century Enlightenment systematically analyzed what already existed through the necessity of conquest. Emphasizing scientific study of all of nature and a belief in progress, Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau and Carolus Linnaeus defined the early anthropological tradition. This included Rousseau's use of travel accounts to query human similarities and differences and Linnaeus's classifications of species and varieties. Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson compiled Indian word lists for a larger linguistic classification project. As Jefferson embarked on unprecedented territorial acquisition, he asked Lewis and Clark to collect information on the natural and human life they encountered.
While the formation of the United States furnished both a laboratory and a political testing ground for knowledge about humanity, Enlightenment faith in progress also limited egalitarianism. The idea of the uncivilized savage, who could be "improved," was replaced by the primitive, a survivor of the past, whom progress had missed. Enlightenment efforts to classify varieties were certain of one thing: Indians were a vanishing species, outside of the progress of history. These studies also defined a central part of anthropology that would remain a source of controversy: the search for universal laws and the fact of human diversity.
Romanticism and Pre-Darwinian Developmentalism
Territorial expansion and the debates over slavery fueled arguments about racial differences in the pre-Darwinian period. In this context, developmentalism coexisted with the emerging Romantic view of the particularity of peoples, contributing to the early institutionalization of broad-based anthropological and ethnological endeavors and to the emergence of polygenist arguments stressing racial particularism and degeneracy. At the same time, ambitious efforts to institutionalize the knowledge of American peoples were under way.
From the 1830s into the 1850s, the Indian agent Henry Rowe Schoolcraft studied and published his findings on Indian myths and ways of life, with particular interest in what he called "savage mentality." Albert Gallatin and John Russell Bartlett founded the American Ethnological Society in 1842 to pursue linguistic and historical work, defining "ethnology" broadly. Similarly, the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846 formalized ambitious work on natural history and human and animal life.
In contrast to this catholic approach, another thread of research stressed comparative anatomy and polygenist arguments. This "American school" included Samuel George Morton, who published Crania Americana in 1839, Josiah Clark Nott, who co-authored Types of Mankind: or, Ethnological Researches, Based upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races with George R. Gliddon in 1854, and the Swiss-born zoologist Louis Agassiz, who defended common human origins before he arrived in the United States, where black slaves and Indians and the arguments of polygenists convinced him otherwise. Instrumental in pro-slavery arguments in the antebellum period, this branch of work was one of the antecedents of the scientific racism popularized in the later nineteenth century. Anthropology in its various formations in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century was part of a broader Euro-American enterprise that took the question of human diversity and unity as its central problem and the confrontation of "civilized" and "primitive" as its central context.
The response to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in On the Origin of Species (1859) brought together earlier concerns with developmentalism, variation, and common origins with anatomical studies of racial difference and typologies. The idea of the common origin of humankind was compatible with human variation and stages and hierarchies of development. Using travelers' and naturalists' accounts and archaeological evidence to support theories of social evolution, Edward Burnett Tylor and John Lubbock in England and Lewis Henry Morgan, John Wesley Powell, and Daniel Garrison Brinton in the United States institutionalized an anthropology that focused broadly on human societies and cultures, defining an emerging "concept of culture" as something holistic and ranked in progressive hierarchies of development. Tylor is usually credited with developing these ideas in his 1871 Primitive Culture. Morgan's important studies—League of the Iroquois (1851) and Ancient Society (1877), which influenced Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels—provided detailed descriptions of governmental structures, property relations, and technological development to trace their relative place in the evolution from savagery to barbarism to civilization. These ambitious projects came to define "anthropology" and "ethnology" in Anglo-America. John Wesley Powell, the nominal "discoverer" of the Grand Canyon and an ardent evolutionist, headed the Bureau of Ethnology, a single institution founded in 1879 to organize "anthropologic" research in the United States. The doctor, linguist, and folklorist Daniel Brinton, who was the first professor of anthropology (with a chair in archaeology and linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1886), published Races and Peoples in 1890, demonstrating the concerns of the emerging field. Scientific work in new government agencies and universities was compatible with wider endeavors that supported scientific racism. The world's fairs of 1893 and 1904, in Chicago and St. Louis respectively, included anthropological exhibits that became parts of museum collections and provided public, scientific, and popular support for ethnological work on polygenism and evolutionary anthropology. This was the time, after all, of legalized segregation and disfranchisement of African Americans, immigration restriction legislation, and removal of Indians to reservations.
Franz Boas and the American Historical School, 1890–1940
While he shared the commitment to salvage work among vanishing peoples, the German immigrant Franz Boas substantially challenged the reigning wisdom of anthropology in the United States. Conducting work among Indians, immigrants, and African Americans, Boas tried to alter the mandate of the Bureau of Ethnology to include all three groups. From his arrival in the 1880s until his death in 1942, he relentlessly criticized social evolutionism and scientific racism, arguing that race, language, and culture were separate, that historical diffusion, not evolutionary stages, accounted for similarities among peoples, that anthropometric evidence did not prove racial inferiority, and that cultures, in the plural, should be understood from the inside. The roots of cultural relativism were twofold: peoples were related (that is, connected), and values were dependent on the culture that produced them. This cultural approach was very different from the classificatory emphases that still dominated anthropological work. Anthropology, as Boas saw it, was the science of humankind, positioned to study connections and variations. Early in his career, Boas put forth his controversial views on cultural diffusion and contextualism. He argued that museum exhibits should not focus on objects ranked in evolutionary sequence but on "the phenomena called ethnological and anthropological in the widest sense of those words," in historical, geographical, physiological, and psychological contexts (Stocking, Franz Boas Reader, p. 63). The purpose was to study "each ethnological specimen individually in its history and in its medium" (Franz Boas Reader, p. 62). Boas combined the projects of anthropology and ethnology in ways consistent with some earlier Anglo-American scholars, but he imported a German idea of culture as holistic, particularistic, and historical, without the German connotations of "anthropology" as concerned primarily with physical differences. Instead, he defined the four-fields approach to anthropology—linguistics, ethnology, biology, and archaeology—and looked to a time when they would be separate endeavors, "when anthropology pure and simple will deal with the customs and beliefs of the less civilized people only" (Franz Boas Reader, p. 35).
Boas was targeted because of his controversial views. He was censured by the American Anthropological Association for criticizing scientists who cooperated with the World War I effort, a move that was also a struggle between evolutionist, Washington-based anthropologists and antievolutionist, antiracialist New York Boasians. His vision succeeded because he peopled most of the emerging academic departments of anthropology with his students (Alfred Kroeber, Robert Lowie, Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Melville J. Herskovits among them) and because he succeeded in disseminating his views beyond the academy. The Mind of Primitive Man (1911) and Anthropology and Modern Life (1928) were popular renditions of his arguments against social evolutionism and scientific racism. All of his students continued work among Indian peoples and broadened the sphere of anthropological inquiry into regions of U.S. territorial domination. Margaret Mead's 1928 bestseller, Coming of Age in Samoa, disseminated the Boasian idea that culture dominated biology and that unique insight came from viewing a culture "from the inside." Ruth Benedict's popular Patterns of Culture (1934) advanced the ideas of cultural wholes and patterning, culture and personality, and cultural difference. The dominant meaning of anthropology in the United States was the broad-based endeavor focusing on culture rather than race as definitive of human life. By the beginning of World War II, when Boas died, his challenges to scientific racism were poised for broader acceptance, while the ideas of cultural relativism, advanced most forcefully by his students, generated new criticisms.
Cold War Anthropology
After World War II, the relativistic tolerance of the Boasian concept of culture seemed unsatisfactory, even dangerous, to those who saw the twin threats of Nazi fascism and Soviet totalitarianism. Did understanding cultures require acceptance? Were there no independent standards of judgment? Although the Boasians, Boas himself included, did not necessarily endorse such moral relativism, the consensus of the Cold War era increasingly characterized its work in this way. For instance, Ruth Benedict, who had worked for the Office of War Information and written The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946) about
Japan, was criticized by Clyde Kluckhohn for suggesting that any and all cultural formations—slavery, cannibalism, Nazism, Communism—were immune from criticism.
If differences could not be uncritically celebrated, they were also no longer necessarily the primary focus of anthropological inquiry. In the wake of the war, and with the rise of anticommunism, universalism and a new scientism emerged as successful challengers to ideas of relativism and culture dominance. Scholars such as Ralph Linton at Columbia and Kluckhohn at Harvard pronounced the uniformity underlying diversity. This shift did not challenge some of the functionalism of the Boasian idea of culture and worked well with that orientation in other social scientific disciplines such as sociology. A renewed interest in biology and physical anthropology also redirected attention away from culture and toward the foundations of human nature that made people alike. Comparative studies of human and animal behavior sought to determine the uniformity of human need for survival, adaptation, and perpetuation of the species. From a different vantage point, Marvin Harris's The Rise of Anthropological Theory, originally published in 1968, argued against what he saw as the preoccupation with the idiosyncratic and irrational in favor of "cultural materialism"—adaptation to environmental, technological, and economic necessity—and the search for scientific laws. Another variant of the interest in biological over cultural determinism returned to the earlier thread of anthropology as the study of human differences and hierarchies. E. O. Wilson's 1975 Sociobiology and Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray's 1994 The Bell Curve, about intelligence testing, generated controversy while refashioning arguments about biological and cultural differences. It was an example of the backlash against the egalitarianism of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Similarly, Derek Freeman's 1983 exposé, Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, took on the most public figure of the old, cultural school to argue that her research had been flawed and her conclusions about the power of culture erroneous.
Crisis in Anthropology: Interpretive Anthropology and Post-Colonialism
Challenges also came from within the field of cultural anthropology. Interpretive anthropology developed as a rebuttal to both the universalism of sociocultural anthropology of the 1950s and 1960s and the biologism of the Darwinian revival. Clifford Geertz refocused attention on the particularities of individual cultures, combining the priorities of the Boasians with the functionalism of the sociologist Talcott Parsons. In Geertz's words, culture was "the webs of significance he [man] himself has spun" (Interpretation of Cultures, p. 5), and the task of the anthropologist was to untangle them and understand them from "the native's point of view" (Local Knowledge, p. 56). Geertz criticized the critics of relativism and reasserted the foundational significance of diversity to the anthropologist's charge.
Others read this fact of difference differently. The colonial struggles of the post–World War II era raised new questions about anthropology as the study of primitive "natives" by civilized "outsiders." Anthropology became deeply implicated as an imperialist project, a problem broached in the 1973 collection edited by Talal Asad, Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. The criticisms were both epistemological—how can an outsider really "know" a native's point of view?—and political—what justified Euro-Americans' forays into Pueblo, Samoan, or Balinese societies? Fieldwork, required for anthropologists after Boas, became a fraught activity. Unlike the Boasians who used anthropology as a form of cultural critique of modern America, more recent scholars drew on feminism and post-colonialism to criticize anthropology itself.
One response to this criticism was the development of self-reflexive anthropology. Rather than assume a position of objectivity or authority, the anthropologist became the object of inquiry. James Clifford, George Marcus, and Clifford Geertz focused on the process of writing, constructing ethnographic knowledge through texts. George W. Stocking Jr., George Marcus, Michael Fischer, and Thomas Trautmann focused on the history of anthropology to understand the discipline itself. In both instances, anthropologists studied anthropologists. (Al-though by training a historian, Stocking was a member of the University of Chicago anthropology department and received the Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology from the American Anthropological Association in 1998.) Anthropology is probably unique among the social sciences for having developed a history of the discipline as a subfield. Retreating from the exotic as a locus of study, some directed the lens of anthropological understanding onto the complex, modern world to which they belonged. David M. Schneider studied American kin-ship, Michael Moffatt, college students. These works continued the tradition of cultural critique within twentieth-century anthropology, but they also reoriented the field away from its primitivist origins.
Another response to the dilemma of anthropology was to re-center it around "native ethnography." Related to the anthropology of modernity, this approach inverted the objects and their observers; "natives" could anthropologize themselves, avoiding the privileging of outsiders and providing superior understandings "from the inside." However, in a global world, where scholars are educated, work, and live away from their place of origin, in which cultural and other boundaries are permeable, the distinction between "native" and "non-native" is not always clear or fixed. Scholars such as Arjun Appadurai, Akhil Gupta, and James Ferguson have challenged the idea of culture as a bounded entity and called attention to globalization and diasporas.
Crisis and Reconfiguration: Anthropology in the Early Twenty-First Century
While the central questions of anthropology remain how to define and understand human unities and diversities, institutionally, a crisis persists. The problems that have divided and united anthropologists over the years—the relative significance of biology and culture, the centrality of culture to human experience—now extend well beyond the discipline. Boas's four-field program founders. Some major universities have abandoned it, and cultural and biological anthropologists occupy separate departments. How culture and biology interrelate no longer seems to be a live question. At the same time, "adjectival anthropologies"—the fragmentation into separate entities such as psychological, linguistic, economic, urban, or feminist anthropology—represent not only the specialization that has occurred throughout academic disciplines, but also particular debates within anthropology that challenge the coherence of the field. While anthropology's strength still comes from its history of studying and defining culture, it is no longer the sole way to approach the problem. Contemporary interest in postmodernism, globalism, and the cultural turn in a variety of fields, including cultural studies, have been influenced by, and have in turn influenced, anthropology's concern with ethnographic authority, the unity and diversity of cultures, and the very meaning of "culture." A pessimistic view is that the professional identity and purpose of anthropology are now much harder to define. An optimistic view is that the "blurring" of lines of intellectual inquiry shows anthropology's contribution and promise of future vitality.
Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York: Knopf, 1978.
Clifford, James, and George E. Marcus, eds. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.
———. Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
Harris, Marvin. The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture, updated ed. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Alta-Mira Press, 2001. The original edition was published in 1968.
Hinsley, Curtis M., Jr. The Smithsonian and the American Indian: Making a Moral Anthroplogy in Victorian America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.
Pearce, Roy Harvey. Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1965.
Stocking, George W., Jr. Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. New York: Free Press, 1968. Re-print, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
———. Victorian Anthropology. New York: Free Press, 1987.
———. The Ethnographer's Magic and Other Essays in the History of Anthropology. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.
Stocking, George W., Jr., ed. The Franz Boas Reader: The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883–1911. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
Anthropology and Ethnology
Anthropology and Ethnology
Beginnings of Anthropology. Western imperialism of the nineteenth century brought Americans and Europeans into contact with a diverse array of global cultures, all with varying social systems and levels of technology. While few whites at the time questioned their “superiority” over other peoples, they nonetheless approached the nonindustrialized world with immense curiosity. In the United States constant warfare with Western tribes over land rights accompanied a nearly carnivalistic fascination with Native Americans. Some hoped that by studying indigenous societies whites could find evidence that supported the progress of their own culture. Thus, though missionaries and government agents who worked most closely with Indians encouraged natives to abandon ancestral ways and to dress, work, and behave like Euro-Americans, some natural scientists wondered if such as-similationist strategies destroyed valuable components of traditional Indian cultures. American anthropology emerged in the mid nineteenth century from an effort to observe and record the cultural practices of societies in danger of extinction. Many early anthropologists depended heavily on the cooperation of Native Americans. For example, Lewis Henry Morgan, one of the founders of anthropology in the United States, relied on the collaboration of Ely S. Parker, a Tonawanda Seneca who acquainted Morgan with the history and structure of the Iroquois League.
Anthropological Museums. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many Americans of European descent collected Indian artifacts for private museums. Thomas Jefferson’s collection at Monticello became one of the largest in the country. In time anthropological museums became a venue for documenting the artistic and technological activities of specific cultures in contrast to libraries and archives that preserved their written past. However, museums alone did not satisfy the intellectual curiosity of many Americans. Distressed by the changes wrought by urbanization and industrialization, the first anthropologists turned westward to understand the lessons of nonliterate and nontechnological peoples who shared the continent.
Ohio and Mississippi Civilizations. Scientists had long been fascinated with the archaeological evidence of the mound-building societies that flourished in the Eastern woodlands. Contemporary archaeologists date this civilization, centered along the Mississippi River’s banks from the Gulf of Mexico to Minnesota, from about A.D. 700 to 1500. Reports from travelers and military men excited scholars as early as the 1790s, raising the possibility
of an earlier civilization with elaborate agriculture and political systems that preceded the Indians. Some nineteenth-century antiquarians believed the mounds to be constructed by ancient Toltecs who later migrated south to Mexico and founded the Aztec Empire. Others asserted an Asian origin, pointing to similarities with Hindu artifacts. Nearly all believed the Mound Builders’ sophistication indicated they could not have been related to contemporary Indians. However, that conclusion raised the question about how this mysterious race became extinct. Had barbarous, warlike tribes annihilated a superior culture, and if so, could a similar feat be repeated, thereby justifying government warfare against Indians? These questions of science influenced decisions about public policy and raised further speculation about the origins of native peoples themselves.
Gallatin and Environmental Theory. Albert Gallatin, who had served as secretary of the treasury under Thomas Jefferson, became one of the United States’s leading ethnologists. A staunch nationalist, Gallatin welcomed the opening of Western lands to American settlers but maintained that Indians’ land claims must be evaluated and understood from their own respective cultures. His A Table of Indian Languages of the United States, published in 1826, was the first philological attempt to classify Indian tribes by language. Gallatin subsequently tried to determine the ancestral origins of native groups. By the 1830s evidence unearthed from the mound civilizations caused many ethnologists to conclude that Native Americans had somehow degenerated in their development. The finding encouraged scientists to explain Indians’ history as an example of racial decline. Gallatin resisted this trend, claiming that environment, not race, proved more important. Gallatin compared North American tribes to Aztec and Mayan peoples in Central America, pointing out that several factors such as climate, soil, and availability of game encouraged some societies to continue hunting and gathering while others practiced agriculture. These latter groups developed specialized labor and elaborate political systems out of necessity, eventually forming what Europeans recognized as “civilization.” Several decades later Franz Boas, a pioneer in the discipline of anthropology, affirmed many of Gallatin’s conclusions. Nevertheless, in Gallatin’s own day his emphasis on environmental adaptation received little attention compared to the majority of scientists who argued that racial differences alone explained cultural differences among disparate peoples.
As ethnologists sought to understand indigenous cultures during the early nineteenth century, they increasingly employed linguistic analysis—the study of language and its construction—to comprehend natives’ cosmological view of the universe. In the process some such as Henry Rowe Schoolcraft discovered that these differences in speech represented deeper, more fundamental differences in whites’ and Indian’s conceptual understandings of nature, creating a barrier to effective communication:
It has been remarked that the distinction of words into animates and inanimates, is a principle intimately interwoven throughout the structure of the language…. For the origin of the principle itself, we need look only to nature, which endows animate bodies with animate properties and qualities, and vice versa. But it is due to the tribes who speak this language, to have invented one set of adjective symbols to express the ideas peculiarly appropriate to the former, and another set applicable, exclusively, to the latter…. In giving anything like the spirit of the original, much greater deviations, in the written forms, must appear. And in fact, not only the structure of the language, but the mode and order of thought of the Indians is so essentially different, that any attempts to preserve the English idiom—to give letter for letter, and word for word, must go far to render the translation pure nonsense.
While he remained optimistic that Indian concepts might eventually be translated into English terms, Schoolcraft preceded by more than a century a school of postmodern literary scholars who assert that culture remains inextricably bound with language and that the cultural intricacies from which language emerges may create problems in communication between various peoples.
Source: Henry R. Schoolcraft, The American Indians, Their History, Condition and Prospects (Buffalo: George H. Denby, 1851).
Lewis Henry Morgan, like many educated people of his time, held ethnocentric views of native cultures as barbaric even though his anthropological works helped to advance understanding of Indian ways. Yet Morgan proved to be exceptional for how he advocated intermarriage between whites and Indians:
I think an amalgamation with the Indians by the white race, or the absorption of the best blood of their race into our own is destined to take place… Hitherto the lowest and basest whites have been the fathers of the half breeds. Now we are to see respectable white people marry the daughters of wealthy and respectable Indians and bring up their children with the advantages of education, Christianity, and wealth, and these half breeds will again intermarry respectably with the whites. Our race, I think, will be toughened physically by the intermixture and without any doubt will be benefitted intellectually.
For Morgan, whites and Indians would advance only when “the best” from both sides recognized their common interests and decided to amalgamate. His disdain for the lower classes resembles the bias that many ethnologists had for dark-skinned people as well as poor whites. Nevertheless, his hope for cooperation and union between the races placed him at odds with many scientific thinkers who taught the values of racial purity.
Source: Lewis Henry Morgan, The Indian Journals, 1859-62, edited by Leslie A. White (New York: Dover, 1993), pp. 46-47.
Racial Thought. Gallatin represented an earlier Enlightenment tradition that taught the universality of humankind. However, in the first half of the nineteenth century intellectuals began to speak of the “races” of man, claiming that certain peoples carried a natural disposition toward progress while others would degenerate and become extinct. Racial theorists built on the writings of Georges Louis Leclerc, Count de Buffon, a French naturalist. Buffon claimed that on the scale of geologic time America’s life-forms were relatively young, having just emerged from the primordial sea. As a result native groups remained primitive in comparison to European societies. Racial theories rested on the notion that human beings descended from separate origins, a departure from Judeo-Christian teachings that advocated a single creation. Many scientists’ deistic beliefs caused them to reject the biblical, creationist explanation of man’s origins and to adopt a polygenic view that humans descended from multiple lineages. Known as polygenesis, this new view encouraged the notion of racial differences as fixed and essential. The concept found a receptive audience in a nation struggling with the ethical dimensions of African slavery and Indian dispossession. Josiah Nott, a Southern physician, employed zoological studies and phrenology (the study of the cranium) to justify slavery as an institution that allowed “inferior” blacks to reach their full potential under the white man’s guidance. According to Nott, since Indians did not enjoy the same benefits of slavery, they would eventually recede and become extinct. Strengthened by Charles Darwin’s theories relating to evolution, “scientific racism” emerged as a justification for conquest during westward expansion.
American Ethnological Society. Although whites used the concept of race to justify a variety of atrocities, racism itself actually emerged from a long attempt to reconcile the existence of blacks and Indians with Western scientists’ view of the world. The geological and geographic discoveries about the Western part of North America in the early nineteenth century attracted scientists to new fields such as ethnology, anthropology, and archaeology. In 1842 Gallatin helped to found the American Ethnological Society in New York. Although other organizations such as the American Antiquarian Society and the American Philosophical Society had funded ethnological research, many anthropologists felt the need for an exclusive organization. Gallatin held most of the meetings at his home in New York City, where members presented and discussed books, maps, and artifacts from leading Western explorers and scientists. The society provided a network of communication for specialists in the burgeoning new field and developed a prestigious reputation, providing panels of experts to the newly formed Smithsonian Institution for its ethnological manuscripts. Gallatin, however, tended to recruit only members who shared his environmentalist, or monogenist, views. After Gallatin’s death in 1849, the society’s membership declined, partly because of its avoidance of the race question and its growing alienation from physical anthropology and the study of Western North America.
Robert E. Bieder, Science Encounters the Indian, 1820–1880: The Early Years of American Ethnology (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986);
Brian W. Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1982);
Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).