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  • Polygenist Ecosystems:Robert Knox's The Races of Man (1850)
  • Kathy Alexis Psomiades (bio)

In 1864, Alfred Russel Wallace gave a talk to the polygenist Anthropological Society of London entitled "The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of 'Natural Selection.'" Polygenists argued that the different races had separate origins, either from separate creations or in the same way that different kinds of birds and plants emerged in different environments. Monogenists argued that all men were descended from a single set of ancestors and that differences in their culture and appearance were the result of their diffusion across the globe. Wallace, who was a monogenist, argued that racial difference had been produced by the power of natural selection, as the body's form and structure changed in response to environmental challenges. Once the brain had developed sufficiently to allow human beings to use technology to meet nature's challenges, however, they were no longer physically subject to natural selection. Technology replaced racial difference, enabling those who wielded it not only to escape the forces of natural selection but also to exercise their own power over nature. Wallace concluded with a vision of a mono-racial future, in which the "inferior" races had obligingly become extinct and a homogenous race, perfectly adapted to the "social state" (Wallace clxix) and in almost complete control of nature, regained paradise. His audience, which included the society's president, James Hunt, author of the rabidly racist The Negro's Place in Nature, was not convinced. A Mr. T. Bendyshe reminded his colleagues of the "one thing ... proved more than another" about man: that the inhabitants of temperate climates could not live in tropical or polar climates. This, he argued, is "not a question of natural selection ..., this is a struggle of an animal with climate" (Wallace, clxxiii).

I begin with Wallace and his vision of global white supremacy because I want to suggest that polygenist ideas about race as a biological tie to a specific climate could be less compatible with that vision than Wallace's monogenist evolutionism. Although the polygenist Anthropological Society of London supported the South in the American Civil War and Governor Eyre in the Jamaica uprisings, and although Hunt himself wrote that slavery "improved" the people on whom it was inflicted, Robert Knox, whose follower Hunt claimed to be, came to rather different political conclusions from Hunt's in his 1850 The Races of Man: A Fragment. More referenced than read, Knox's collection of loosely connected lectures shows that the idea of biological fit between man and environment could lead to radically anti-imperialist, anti-nationalist conclusions. Knox denigrates what he calls "the dark races" and, for the most part, views them as physically and mentally weaker than Europeans. He is a polygenist, seeing the races as distinct and separate—they can crossbreed, but mixed-race offspring are less fertile with each successive [End Page 32] generation. He uses the fact that white people get sick in the tropics as the basis for the theory that the races cannot survive long-term outside the climates in which they originally, separately, emerged. He refers to the depictions of distinct races in Egyptian paintings as proof that the races have been distinct throughout historical time. And yet none of this adds up to as much of a justification of white supremacy, slavery, colonization, or imperial violence as Wallace's evolutionary monogenism does. Furthermore, Knox explicitly addresses the ways in which the monogenism of his day (famously propounded by James Cowles Prichard) is disturbingly compatible with a cynical, self-congratulatory, liberal, progressive narrative that is inherently expansionist.

To understand how Knox came to these conclusions, we need to understand how the biology of climate intersects in his work with an older discourse that connects bodies to places. In lectures he gave at the College de France in 1976, Michel Foucault addressed the problem of war and with it the question of the development of racism and ideas about race in the nineteenth century. In so doing, he told the story of the emergence, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of the discourse of race war, which he...


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