History Within: The Science, Culture, and Politics of Bones, Organisms, and Molecules

History Within: The Science, Culture, and Politics of Bones, Organisms, and Molecules

by Marianne Sommer

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Personal genomics services such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com now offer what once was science fiction: the ability to sequence and analyze an individual’s entire genetic code—promising, in some cases, facts about that individual’s ancestry that may have remained otherwise lost. Such services draw on and contribute to the science of human population genetics that attempts to reconstruct the history of humankind, including the origin and movement of specific populations. Is it true, though, that who we are and where we come from is written into the sequence of our genomes? Are genes better documents for determining our histories and identities than fossils or other historical sources?
Our interpretation of gene sequences, like our interpretation of other historical evidence, inevitably tells a story laden with political and moral values. Focusing on the work of Henry Fairfield Osborn, Julian Sorell Huxley, and Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza in paleoanthropology, evolutionary biology, and human population genetics, History Within asks how the sciences of human origins, whether through the museum, the zoo, or the genetics lab, have shaped our idea of what it means to be human. How have these biologically based histories influenced our ideas about nature, society, and culture? As Marianne Sommer shows, the stories we tell about bones, organisms, and molecules often change the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226349879
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/27/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 496
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Marianne Sommer is professor in the Department of Cultural and Science Studies at the University of Lucerne. She is the author of Bones and Ochre: The Curious Afterlife of the Red Lady of Paviland.

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History Within

The Science, Culture, and Politics of Bones, Organisms, and Molecules

By Marianne Sommer

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-34987-9


From Visual Memory to "Racial Soul"

During his education and later as professor at Princeton, Osborn engaged in embryology, comparative anatomy, neuroanatomy, geology, and increasingly paleontology. He came under the influence of James McCosh — president of the university and among those religious leaders who publicly endorsed Darwinism, reconciling it with the Presbyterian faith. Osborn was also among his students in psychology, including aspects of mental imagery and visualization. On the matter of psychology, Osborn further studied and conversed with the British polymath Francis Galton. Osborn stated that "nearly a year devoted to research in visualization and imagery, as American colleague of Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, was of inestimable aid in the art of picturing past conditions and forms of life, as well as in the art of reconstruction and restoration of mammalian forms" (Osborn 1930b, 55–56). This year of research promises insights into Osborn's practice of reconstructing evolutionary history in image, text, and exhibition. It also offers valuable clues to his understanding of how these reconstructions would affect the observer and reader.

In 1884, Osborn published three papers on visual psychology, for one of which he collaborated with McCosh in "A Study of the Mind's Chamber of Imagery" (1884). McCosh defined memory as the recognition of an object or event perceived in the past. All senses could imprint themselves on the mind through the stimulus of touch, sound, and image, with the most vivid memories stimulated from the sense of sight. Well-defined shapes "leave a photograph of themselves on our souls" (Osborn and McCosh 1884, 52), producing a store of images or photographs of objects in the mind's chamber of imagery. The more dramatic the event experienced, the more vivid would be the memory of it, including the thoughts and feelings it evoked. Besides the state of the brain (conceived of as a certain disposition of the molecules in the gray matter), the attention given to an object or event played a role for the strength of a memory and the power of its recollection.

To elaborate on the factors that impacted on the ability of forming images in the mind's eye, Osborn and McCosh carried out a survey of Princeton and Vassar College students, through the distribution of Galton's "Questions on Visualising and Other Allied Faculties" in 1881. The circa sixty questionnaires also found their way into Galton's Inquiries into the Human Faculty (1883). Osborn subsequently changed the questionnaire to better suit his purposes and distributed it among Princeton and Harvard Medical School students with the help of the psychologist and educator G. Stanley Hall. One of the results was that direct experience was often impossible to distinguish from mediated experience. Even written accounts, such as "a word-painting of the scene and of the man or woman" (Osborn and McCosh 1884, 55) given by travelers, biographers, and historians, might be turned into personal remembrance once their true source was forgotten. It seemed of paramount importance that the mind was imprinted with the right kind of images — be they direct perceptions or reproductions of such in speech, text, or image: "Nothing tends more to degrade the mind and sink it in the mire than low and sensual images rolled as a sweet morsel under the tongue. On the other hand, images of duty, of self-sacrifice, of courage, of honor, of beauty, of love, elevate and ennoble the soul" (ibid., 56).

Despite their description of memory in terms of photographic impressions, the knowledge of the physiology of vision was advanced enough for Osborn to know that it was not an image, but a signal that traveled from the retina through nerve fibers to the visual area of the brain. Thus, in order for a person to recall an image, the signal had to be repeated. Nonetheless, in the paper he wrote on visual memory, Osborn used the metaphor of the tablet of wax or of steel to clarify the different degrees to which visual impressions imprinted themselves on human minds. Osborn agreed with Galton that the faculty of visualization was inherited, with a keener expression in women than in men, in children than in adults, and in "savages" than in civilized people. This apparent presence of onto- and phylogenetic gradations strongly supported the claim for the visual memory's naturalness, but did not preclude an aspect of nurture. On the contrary, the capacity for visual remembrance was seen to be subject to cultivation and improvement as well as to decay under disuse or excessive abstract thinking (Osborn 1884a).

The insights that the visual memory was stronger in "savages" and could weaken through abstract thinking seemed to confirm new tenets in psychology and education such as those held by Osborn's collaborator Hall. It seemed that while the development of abstract thinking was a particular achievement of civilized men, this process, and the concomitant weakening of the visual memory, had proceeded too far. According to Hall and a common notion of the time, education was a public good, but too much education and civilization in general caused neurasthenia, a state of "racial decadence," individual degeneration, and effeminacy. Both Osborn and Hall felt the lack of struggle in education and women as educators had a particularly weakening effect on the growing male. Hall's remedy consisted of an accentuated revival of the stages of human evolution from savagery to civilization in developing and educating the American boy into the American man (Bederman 1995, ch. 3). Certainly, the education of children in evolutionary history through objects and images in and from the AMNH could contribute to that aim. But more knowledge was needed about "the influences of heredity, of race, of cultivation or neglect" (Osborn 1884a, 450) on the visual memory.

This hope for insights into the connection between memory and heredity was expressed at a time when heredity-memory analogies guided many evolutionary theories. As the underlying mechanisms of heredity were unknown, some "Lamarckians" thought of the acquisition of a new character in this light. Cope, Osborn's paragon in paleontology, represented the American "neo-Lamarckian school." The memory analogy supported the assumption of the inheritance of acquired characteristics as well as recapitulation theory (Cope 1896). Characters might be inherited proportional to the intensity and frequency of the producing stimuli, just as in the process of learning, something is retained in memory through repetition over time. Morphology, as it unfolded in the process of ontogeny, therefore amounted to something like the organism's memory of its evolutionary history. Also where behavior was concerned, inferences were drawn from the observation that actions that were initially triggered by conscious thought eventually became automatic with frequent repetition — as in piano playing. Similarly, instincts were understood as the unconscious remembrance of intensely learned behavior and experience. Such behaviors and experiences were stamped on a species' germplasm or germ cells, some speculated by vibrations and wave motions, others by electrical potentials, or chemical changes. The German physiologist Ewald Hering argued that the vibrations of an external stimulus were transferred to the nervous system and from there to all organs. The nervous system could in time reproduce series of vibrations that in the beginning had involved the participation of consciousness. Because the nervous system reached the developing gametes, the vibrations were imprinted on the hereditary material (Hering 1870; Butler, e.g., 1880; Semon 1904; see Gould 1977, 85–100).

Osborn was aware of such theories that rendered it feasible to speculate about the possibility of remembering experiences made by ancestors that had somehow been imprinted in their germplasm. This would suggest that the repetition of stimuli habitually made in the evolutionary past could trigger similar ideas, feelings, and actions in the present human being as they had done in his or her phylogenetic ancestors. Osborn was also acquainted with developmental models of the mind that conceived of it as a hierarchical series of functional levels, with the voluntary functions overlaying and suppressing the more involuntary ones. The higher levels were only acquired later in evolution, so that according to recapitulation theory, children went through, and the insane represented, a stage on the evolutionary pathway that humanity as a whole had once traveled. However, the lower levels of the mind were also still present in healthy adults and were temporarily unleashed during dreaming. Such perceptions opened up the possibility that current humans somehow had access to primeval mental states and even memories.

Osborn was clearly influenced by this knowledge in his understanding of how reconstructions of evolutionary history might work on the recipient's mind. However, he denied a phylogenetic memory of this kind. Recollections were triggered by a perception resembling earlier impressions or through the revival of an association of ideas. But these recollections were restricted to a retrieval of impressions or ideas from earliest childhood. He maintained, nonetheless, that in cases where a partial recollection came with an indefinite sense of when and how it originated, past real and imaginary images might become confused. An incomplete recollection may turn an imaginary image of the past into the vague remembrance of an actual perception of the past (Osborn 1884b). In sum, out of Osborn's research on memory arose the following conclusions for his later reconstruction and exhibition work at the museum: It was important to provide the right kind of strong and vivid impressions — through word and sound, but most of all through images and visual displays. This would prevent degeneration of the capacity of the visual memory through excessive abstract thinking especially in modern men. It would build up a store of "good" images — of duty, of self-sacrifice, of courage, of honor, of beauty — that were favorable to the development of the character; if museum visitors were to appropriate the reconstructions as impressions of their own past, they had to be as true to nature as possible.

Moreover, despite the fact that it was the capacity for remembering that was inherited rather than the memory itself, Osborn thought that our minds were strongly phylogenetically shaped. The combined study of heredity, of prehistoric humans, and of the character of present men had brought him "the increasing conviction that our intellectual, moral, and spiritual reactions are extremely ancient and that they have been built up not in hundreds but in thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of years" (Osborn [1913] 1924, xvii). Osborn regarded the lives of his idols, the men who in his judgment had achieved self-fulfillment, as a particularly illuminating source for the analysis of the human mind. They provided him with insights into the nature of the "racial soul, mind, temperament, and intellect." The lives of the naturalists, explorers, and nature poets Osborn adored became examples for "the best of these racial characteristics." Building on his knowledge of heredity and race, Osborn felt that his work on the biographies of the Scottish-American philosopher, author, naturalist, and conservationist John Muir, of the naturalist and nature writer John Burroughs, of Roosevelt, and others rendered him able to "separate the Scotch from the English and both from the Irish" (ibid., xvi). In Osborn's biographies we thus stumble on sentences such as: "In feature and in spirit of the Nordic stock, with a dash of Celtic temperament, Burroughs was true to his heredity" (ibid., 188).

In fact, Osborn thought that his writings on Burroughs and William Wordsworth were an original contribution not only to anthropology but also to literary theory. He boasted to the Columbia historian William M. Sloane, whom he had already known at Princeton, that "so far as I know, no one before has brought out this idea that the spirit of the poet reflects the past history of the race to which he belongs. Now that we have positive chronology of John Burroughs' people back for no less than twelve thousand years, this generalization is firmly based, not in speculation, but in knowledge." Osborn's notion of the "racial soul" (Osborn [1913] 1924) came very close to a "racial memory." He claimed that Wordsworth's "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" made him realize that he himself had come to the same conclusion by different means, "namely, that the human soul is full of reminiscences and that it responds to conditions and experiences long bygone" (ibid., 183). The racial soul, in Osborn's view, was an adaptation to a particular natural environment that in the course of evolution resulted in race-specific predispositions of morals, of intellect, and of spirit. In "modern man," the soul responded to conditions and experiences that resembled those found and made in the formative phase of human evolution. In the 1880s, Osborn would still have been able to explain this racial soul on the basis of the inheritance of acquired characteristics in terms of a phylogenetic memory such as proposed by Hering. However, when he wrote the above words, the situation had changed.

Osborn's notion of a racial soul rested on the assumption of a racially specific evolutionary history and genetic makeup that was still heir to the American neo-Lamarckian school, for which use-inheritance, recapitulation, and also orthogenesis were core concepts (Bowler 1986, ch. 2). However, Osborn counted among his friends Edward Poulton at Oxford University, who was a strong advocate for Darwinian natural selection and who had translated the work of the German biologist August Weismann into English. Weismann had demonstrated the independence of the germplasm from the soma. As a result, Poulton had not given Osborn's "neo-Lamarckian school more than three years more of life" as early as 1888. Indeed, Osborn began to search for ways to account for the fossil record without a direct influence of the environment on the hereditary material. As if to fulfill Poulton's prophecy, he reacted to Weismann's theory of heredity in Nature and Science in 1890. He defended the American neo-Lamarckian tradition, starting out from the age-old critique of Darwin's theory as unable to explain "the rise of useful structures from their minute embryonic, apparently useless, condition" (Osborn 1890, 110). He discussed traits such as the molars and feet of horses that manifested an evolution with definite direction. He granted that such progressive trends might not be due to the mechanism of use-inheritance. At the same time, he could not follow Weismann and Poulton in their seemingly exclusive reliance on natural selection. Evolutionary trends could not be accounted for by Darwinian randomness. One therefore had to assume some as-yet-unknown evolutionary factor to explain directed variation.

With the rise of genetics at the beginning of the new century, Osborn (1907) sided with the neo-Darwinians such as Weismann and Poulton especially regarding the gradual nature of change. According to the Dutch botanist and geneticist of the first hour Hugo de Vries's influential mutation theory, evolution took place by large mutations that produced reproductive isolation from the parent stock. Selection was a purely negative agent, weeding out those new mutations that were not adaptive. Other influential Mendelians, such as the British geneticist William Bateson and Thomas Hunt Morgan in the United States, too, believed in evolution by mutations that amounted to saltations in evolution through the production of new phenotypic characters. Osborn repeatedly answered this claim by referring to the paleontological record that clearly evidenced gradual evolution. He emphasized that the paleontologists "have the best perspective, for they see the evolution of characters through long ages, without regard to particular organisms or species in which, for the time, they are perhaps being manifested."

In the midst of the controversies about heredity and evolution, Osborn came up with a theory that could account for the trends he recognized in the paleontological record, particularly in the Titanotheres (extinct large-hoofed mammals, often horned) and Proboscidea (truncated mammals). The theory made some use of natural selection without completely surrendering to chance. The solution was a particular brand of orthogenesis, or what Osborn referred to as rectigradation. It stated that the potentials for the expression of evolutionary trends in characters lay latent in the germplasm and were activated by behavioral characteristics that were maintained over long periods of time. Changes in environment and habit would cause changes in ontogeny that kindled the hereditary potential and set in motion gradual evolutionary change along determinate lines. Natural selection thus selected among the end products of evolutionary trends instead of being causal in their formation. While such trends were often adaptive, trends that led to overspecializations such as oversize horns could lead to the extinction of the species (Osborn 1908, 1922b).


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Table of Contents


Part I. History in Bones: Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857–1935) at the American Museum of Natural History

Chapter 1. From Visual Memory to “Racial Soul”
Chapter 2. Paper Ancestors? or “A Word-Painting of the Scene and of the Man or Woman”
Chapter 3. The Hall of the Age of Man: The Politics of Building a Site of Phylogenetic Remembrance
Chapter 4. Creative Evolution, or Man’s Struggle up Mount Parnassus
Chapter 5. History Within between Science and Fiction

Part II. History in Organisms: Julian Sorell Huxley (1887–1975) at the London Zoo and Other Institutions

Chapter 6. If I Were Dictator: The Modern Synthesis, Evolutionary Humanism, and a Superhuman Memory
Chapter 7. Evolution in Action: The Zoo as a Site of Phylogenetic Remembrance
Chapter 8. Scientific Humanism in the Extended Zoo: History Within as the Basis of Democratic Reform
Chapter 9. Evolutionary Humanism: Planned Ecology and World Heritage Management through the Colonial Office, UNESCO, IUCN, and WWF
Chapter 10. The Ascent of Man Defended

Part III. History in Molecules: Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (1922–) and the Genographic Network

Chapter 11. Human History as Brownian Motion, or How Genetic Trees and Gene Maps Draw Things Together
Chapter 12. Cultural Transmission and Progress
Chapter 13. The Geography of “Our Heritage”: From the Human Genome Diversity Project to the Genographic Project
Chapter 14. The Genographic Network: Science, Markets, and Genetic Narratives
Chapter 15. The Genographics of Unity in Diversity


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