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Joseph Deniker, Species, and the “Northern Race” (Part 1) May 4, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Joseph Deniker

Joseph Deniker’s (1852-1915) human geography and ethnography illustrates the eternal persistence of old debates and the various uses of canonical authors, Cuvier and Darwin among them.  There has been in my estimation no satisfactory narrative of the species problem from Cuvier through Prichard, Darwin, and turn of the century anthropologists, ethnologists, and human geographers.  Nor has there been a consistent appraisal of the appropriation of the “canon” of naturalists and ethnologists by late nineteenth and early twentieth century naturalists, ethnologists, and anthropologists.

Historians have generally narrated turn of the century ethnological debates in France, Britain, Germany, and the United States solely in terms of their contributions to eugenics or the rise of statistics.  David Livingston, among others, has written Whiggishly about the development of human geography as a discipline or inquiry.  It is unclear whether any of the authors surveyed at the turn of the century considered themselves as contributing to any kind of discipline. I am certain that any division between a “racial” and “scientific” human geography, emerging in the inter-war period is terribly overdrawn.  Deniker’s work illustrates the live nature of many nineteenth century debates at the turn of the century.  His influence on as diverse figures as Madison Grant, A.C. Haddon, and Julian Huxley, each representative of eugenics, “becoming scientific,” and “post-Boasian” ethnology, respectively, points to the ambiguous uses of turn of the century ethnology and the astonishing breath and depth of the ethnographic canon.


Primer: Félix Vicq d’Azyr and the Rise of Comparative Anatomy July 16, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Grant-writing has been preoccupying me lately, so I’m going to compress what I initially intended to be a straight plug for an excellent article in the latest SiC, and do a Hump-Day History post drawing on some of its contents: Stéphane Schmitt’s “From Physiology to Classification: Comparative Anatomy and Vicq d’Azyr’s Plan of Reform for Life Sciences and Medicine (1774-1794)” Science in Context 22 (2009): 145-193.

Félix Vicq-d'Azyr (1746-1794)

I admire the article because it demonstrates an exemplary sense of historiographical problematics, placing its subject matter within the literature as well as addressing it to a well-defined historiographical question: how did comparative anatomy become a dominant methodology within natural history circa 1800?  The shift has been identified most strongly with the work of Georges Cuvier at the Museum of Natural History in Paris beginning in 1795, but the prior work and advocacy of former Buffon assistant Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (1716-1799) and his protege Félix Vicq d’Azyr has clear importance that was widely recognized at the time, but became subsumed in later histories.

Vicq d’Azyr was born in Normandy and arrived in Paris in 1765 to study medicine.  Around 1770 he attended courses at the Jardin du Roi (King’s Garden), and perhaps met Daubenton at this time.  Daubenton soon became Vicq d’Azyr’s patron, and Vicq d’Azyr married Daubenton’s niece in 1773 (she died 18 months later and Vicq d’Azyr never remarried).  It was around this time that the young physician decided to make the unusual turn to comparative anatomy.  This led him to membership in the Royal Academy of Sciences, and he became a founding figure and permanent secretary of the Royal Society of Medicine, which was founded in 1776.

In the 1770s, French natural history still revolved around the figure of the Comte de Buffon (1707-1788, named comte in 1772), the intendant of the (more…)

Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform January 14, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Book Club.
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Worlds Before Adam (Chicago, 2008) by Martin J.S. Rudwick is the cumulative synthesis of a distinguished career and a prolegomena for the future efforts of historians. Worlds Before Adam (WBA) is a narrative of the “reconstruction…of an eventful geohistory, which is in fact congruent with what geologists in the twenty-first century accept as valid.” Rudwick’s account begins with Baron Cuvier and “culminates” in the formulation of glacial theory, which included the “utterly unexpected inference of an exceptional and drastic Ice Age in the geologically recent past.” This inference, more than any other, Rudwick argues, “forced geologists to recognize the contingent character of geohistory as a whole” (7.) (Page numbers throughout are to WBA.) Rudwick notes that the narrative framework “will convey the strong sense of unity of purpose and scientific progress that participants experienced” (8.)

The narrative presented in WBA is a continuation of Rudwick’s Bursting the Limits of Time, which traced the “gradual development of the practice of geohistory within the sciences of the earth.” In the eighteenth century, Rudwick argued in Bursting the Limits of Time, geohistory was “an infrequent and marginal feature of scientific research.” Within a few decades, geohistory became the “defining element” of the new science of “geology.”  Geology “became the first truly historical natural science”  by “deliberately transposing methods and concepts from the human sciences of history itself.” The hereto obscure, mysterious, and unfathomably deep prehistory of the earth in the late eighteenth century began to be conceived as “reliably knowable” (2.) The scientific research described in Bursting the Limits of Time demonstrated that it was “feasible in principle to gain reliable knowledge of the earth’s history long before the earliest human records” (6.) In the early nineteenth century, the concern of WBA, geologists  took the historical approach “for granted” and were thus able to “reconstruct systematically and in detail what course geohistory had in fact taken….” (6.) WBA takes as its “starting point” the sense among practitioners that the “earth’s deep or prehuman geohistory could in principle be reconstructed almost as reliably as…the history of the ancient Greeks and Romans.” While Bursting the Limits of Time was given to the inquiry of the “sheer historical reality of the deep past, WBA has as its focus both the geohistorical and the causal” (3.) Geologists addressed the causal once they could take the historical reality of geohistory for granted. (more…)

Primer: Georges Cuvier October 8, 2008

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Primer.
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Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) was born on 23 August 1769.After an education at Stuttgart, he accepted a position as a tutor with the family of the Comte d’Hericy.During his time as a tutor, he became friends with the well-regarded agriculturalist Tessier. Cuvier became the protégé of Tessier, and through his correspondence with Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, managed in 1795 to secure an appointment as an assistant professor of comparative anatomy at Museum d’Histoire Naturelle.In 1796, he began a series of lectures at the Ecole Centrale du Pantheon.In that same year, he read his first paper, entitled Memoires sur les especes d’elephants vivants et fossils, which was published in 1800.For Cuvier, 1789 was a pivotal year as it saw the completion of his first systematic work of natural history, entitled Tableau elementaire de l’histoire naturelle des animaux.The period after the publication of this work saw Cuvier devote himself to three broad lines of inquiry: the structure and classification of mollusks, the classification and natural history of fish, and finally, the natural history of fossil mammals and reptiles. (more…)