The first three chapters introduce us to the remarkable naturalist, John Bachman, sketching his developing interests in mammalogy as well as his personal life very briefly. Chapters four through eight does the same, in less detail, for his five colleagues. Bachman reenters the story in chapters nine and ten, as he argues for the essential unity of all mankind, based primarily on the scientific knowledge of the day. Even with this argument, he was captive to his culture, holding the slavery of black people as an acceptable, even good, practice. The book describes the arguments in detail, particularly as they conflicted with those of Agassiz and others, who advocated polygenism (the separate origin, and therefore the separate species, of black persons).
Chapter eleven describes the effects the Civil War had on the six scientists, describing the devastating impact it had on Southern science. Chapter twelve ends the book by returning to one of the secondary figures, John McCrady, as the circle of six pass from the scene. McCrady's futile attempts to find alternatives to Darwin's thesis provide insight, I believe, into how Southern culture played a key role in delaying the recovery of science in the region.
What, then, is this book really about? Not about the six naturalists; the biographies are far too short. Not about the culture of the South; too much is missing. It is, primarily, about scientific argumentation. The debate, between polygenism and monogenism, was intense, complete with ad hominems, name calling, disparaging comments and faulty reasoning, with Bachman, according to the the author, holding the high ground. It reminds me of current debates about origins. Most scientists who embraced one or the other position did so, interestingly enough, on scientific, not religious grounds. In these debates both sides, reflecting their culture, held that black persons were still considered inferior. It is interesting to read Stephens' accounts of how the subject of cross-race mating was addressed, although this issue is tangential to the book's theme and gets relatively little attention.
As the book's central figure, John Bachman comes out the "hero," with Audubon, Agassiz and McCrady receiving considerable criticism. It is worth pointing out that William Stanton, in his 1960 book, THE LEOPARD'S SPOTS, is much less convinced that Bachman should be so praised, calling him "half theologian, half scientist." Stephens' claim is, of course, that Bachman was wholly both.
From the perspective of over a century of scientific progress, the arguments depicted in this book seem strangely quaint. They are based, it is apparent, on woefully insufficient data. Perhaps some of the arguments of today will seem similar to our great grandchildren. I suspect that will be the case.
In Acts 17:26 the apostle Paul is recorded as preaching to those on Mars Hill that God had made every nation of humanity from one man. I believe that because Scripture asserts it; I find that the science of today confirms it. It is for that reason that, when the census taker came to my door in April 2000, I answered "human" to the question "What race do you perceive yourself to be?" It was the only honest answer I could give. I highly recommend this book to my ASA colleagues, and to others, looking forward to stirring conversations with John Bachman and his colleagues in the life to come.
John W. Burgeson Stephen Minister First Presbyterian Church Durango, Colorado August, 2000
Press Backspace to return