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From the Curse of Ham to the curse of nature: the influence of natural selection on the debate on human unity before the publication of The Descent of Man

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 July 2007

The Australian Centre, School of Historical Studies, University of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Email:
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This paper examines the debate engendered in ethnological and anthropological circles by Darwin's Origin of Species and its effects. The debate was more about the nature of human diversity than about transmutation. By 1859 many polygenists thought monogenism had been clearly shown to be an antiquated and essentially religious concept. Yet the doctrine of natural selection gave rise to a ‘new monogenism’. Proponents of polygenism such as James Hunt claimed natural selection had finally excluded monogenism, but Thomas Huxley, the most prominent exponent of the new monogenism, claimed it amalgamated the ‘best’ of both polygenism and monogenism. What it did provide was an explanation for the irreversible inequality of races, while it maintained that all humans were of one species. This bolstered belief in the innate superiority of the Caucasians over other peoples. The effect was finally to sever British ethnology from its evangelical monogenist roots. More subtly and surprisingly, it provided support in Church circles for a move away from the ideal of the ‘Native Church’.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2007

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93  Quatrefages, op. cit. (92), 93.

94  Quatrefages, op. cit. (92) 94; original emphasis.

95  Quatrefages, op. cit. (92), 95 ff.

96  Vogt, op. cit. (64), 448.

97  Kass and Kass, op. cit. (3), 507.

98  Kass and Kass, op. cit. (3), 504.

99  Kass and Kass, op. cit. (3), 506.

100  Thirtieth Annual Report of the Aborigines' Protection Society, London, 1867, 3.

101  ‘The British Association and the Negro’, The Aborigines' Friend, the Colonial Intelligencer, November 1867, 1–3. Davy had been a good friend of Hodgkin and his paper seems very similar to that which Hodgkin had wanted to give to the British Association (see above); Kass and Kass, op. cit. (3), 421.

102  Hunt, op. cit. (68), 16.

103  Huxley, op. cit. (82), 561.

104  ‘The British Association and the Negro’, op. cit. (101), 3.

105  See R. M. Young, ‘The impact of Darwin on conventional thought’, in The Victorian Crises of Faith (ed. A. Symondson), London, 1971, 13–35.

106  ‘The British Association and the Negro’, op. cit. (101), 1 ff; emphasis added.

107  Quoted in J. F. Ade Ajayi, Christian Missions in Nigeria 1841–1891: The Making of a New Elite, London 1965, 195.

108  Ade Ajayi, op. cit. (107), 195.

109  D. Hilliard, God's Gentlemen: A History of the Melanesian Mission, 1849–1942, St Lucia, Queensland, 1978, 156.

110  See ‘List of native clergy ordained in connection with the Sierra Leone Church’, Appendix I in T. S. Johnson, The Story of a Mission: The Sierra Leone Church: First Daughter of the C.M.S., London, 1953, 144.

111  Hilliard, op. cit. (109), 153–7.

112  For instance, he is not mentioned in W. Y. Adams, The Philosophical Roots of Anthropology, Stanford, 1998, only cursorily acknowledged in Barnard, op. cit. (50), and given an odd status in M. Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory, London, 1968.

113  Ade Ajayi, op. cit. (107), 79.

114  Hunt ‘did much to place anthropology on a sound basis’ – from entry on Hunt in DNB.

115  Secord, op. cit. (45), 69–76, passim; Van Wyhe, op. cit. (45).

116  Shenk, op. cit. (25), 479–80.

117  L. Sanneh, West African Christianity: The Religious Impact, London, 1983, 168.

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