Monday, February 11, 2013


My OU course, AA100, is uncovering various interesting things.

It's possible to look at a wiki based on the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica online, here. Interestingly, an article that was included for reference in one of our course books is omitted from the online version. It's on "Negro" - and its absence can be spotted if you scroll to the end of the article on "Ethnology". Look at where it says:
 For a detailed discussion of the branches of these three main divisions of Man the reader must refer to articles under race headings, and to Negro; NegritosMongolsMalaysNorth American IndiansAustraliaAfrica; &C., &C.
 "Negro" could have hyperlinked to the relevant article, were it present in the wiki. But it doesn't.

This is understandable. Here are some quotes from the article on "Negro":
In certain of the characteristics mentioned ... the negro would appear to stand on a lower evolutionary plane than the white man ...
Mentally the negro is inferior to the white ... it is not fair to judge of his mental capacity by tests in mental arithmetic; skill in reckoning is necessary to the white man, and it has cultivated this faculty; but it is not necessary to the negro.
Offensive nonsense. There are parts of the article which aren't quite so offensive, but plenty that is. It's understandable that this should not be given any disk space.

However, in some ways, it's not a good thing that these shameful ideas should be omitted from the text. Not because they are or ever were true, but because it reveals something about the intellectual mindset of the time. How on earth could the Encyclopaedia Britannica, of all publications regarded as the ultimate repository of knowledge at the time, have included this sort of stuff? The answer is - can only be - that such attitudes genuinely represented an uncontroversial consensus opinion. It was derived from the naturalistic presupposition that humanity represented the end point of the evolutionary process, and "white men" represented a point closer to the end than "black men". It is (or should be!) unnecessary to say that such an understanding of Darwinistic processes has been completely discredited and is no longer given the time of day.

In the course, this ethnological perspective is contrasted to an anthropological one - but it is interesting to note that the basis on which the British Museum was established was ethnological, and assumed the cultural superiority of Britain and Western Europe, and that "more primitive" cultures were ones which were either stalled, or should be moving towards them - and the intellectual understanding was that this view was bolstered by Darwinism. The course talks about how the bronzes from Benin (here be pictures) unsettled this idea. It also talks about how "primitivism" in art, a reaction to modernism, still reinforced the idea that other non-European cultures were actually more primitive.

I've talked in other contexts about how other naturalistic assumptions turned out to be false - the idea that the universe was infinitely old ("Big Bang" was originally a dismissive term for the idea that the universe may have had a starting point); the idea that life in its lowest form was simple; the idea that there was nothing remarkable about the earth as an environment in which life could appear; and so on. To this we can add another - the idea that "white" people are superior to "black" people. Of course, naturalism has moved on, and accommodated the fact that reality didn't turn out as expected. But it's interesting the way in which beliefs based on presuppositions can so seriously misdirect people. Who knows what we might have learnt anthropologically about cultures we squashed in the imperial/colonial era had we regarded them all along as our equivalent rather than our inferior?

Now, let's reflect for a moment on our own culture. Just like the Victorians/Edwardians, we are thoroughly convinced of our own absolute rightness. Is it possible that any of our presuppositions are leading us to beliefs about the world that in thirty years time will cause people to gasp as much as that 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica article makes us gasp?

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