Sunday, April 29, 2012

Polygenism versus Darwin

Came across an interesting tidbit as I'm moping through The Metaphysical Club: A History of Ideas in America.  I'm in the middle of the chapters on William James, and it's talking about the impact of Louis Agassiz on his life.  I'd never heard of Agassiz before, but apparently he was hot stuff in the mid-1800s.

He taught deplorable things with a smile and a catchy French accent.  He believed that the skulls of different races corresponded to their relative intelligence and followed the skewed report of a colleague who managed to argue that the European skull was bigger than that of Africans or Mexicans.  Accordingly, he strongly opposed interracial breeding.

He also taught "polygenism."  For him, this meant that God created each of the races in a different part of the globe.  He believed God did this over and over again.  God created animals and then destroyed them with things like floods or, more recently, an Ice Age all over the planet.  Then he created new species all over again.

Of course this doesn't fit with the Adam story either, which implies "monogenism" for the origin of humanity, a single origin.  Of course Agassiz might have thought Adam was only the father of the generally European race.  I'm not sure.

By contrast, Darwin believed that humanity originated from a single point and, in that sense, some Christians in the late 1800s simply believed that Adam was the first human to evolve.  That has been a position theistic evolutionists have taken up to the present.

 But this is all background to what was interesting to me as I read.  The contrast between the two that is of real interest to me is that, for all his peculiarity, Agassiz still thought in terms of "kinds" of animals.  The species came first and variety came within the overarching category.  As Genesis 1 puts it, God created animals and vegetables, "after their own kind."

By contrast, Darwin's approach focused on individuals and built up to species.  Menand quotes Darwin, "I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other" (123).  For Agassiz, the general kind comes first.  The individuals are subsumed within the general category.

Darwin's approach builds the other way.  An individual evolves and we as on-lookers create the category, so to speak.  I suspect I can see where Menand is heading with this analysis, namely, that the late 1800s saw a general shift from the direction of "univerals to particulars" to the direction of "particulars to universals."

No comments: