Saturday, December 12, 2009


Which of our most cherished beliefs will be thought risible a century and a half from now?

I was reading recently of Paul Broca’s attempts to get his study of “human hybrids” – the offspring of interracial marriage – accepted in France in 1858. Broca found that such hybrids – we would call them people today – were fertile. (Any casual observer in a metropolis or port town or island in a world that was already distinctly global could have told you this, of course, but Boca made it scientific.) This was notable because the traditional way of defining a species was that its members could only successfully reproduce amongst themselves; at the time what we would call the human races were considered different species. Like horses and donkeys, the races were supposed to produce infertile children, or other monsters. Broca was suggesting that the races were rather variations within a single species. The reigning association of bigwigs, the Societe de Biologie, was having none of this. Boca had to start his own society, the Societe d’Anthropologie de Paris, to get a hearing, but so radical were his notions that he could only get permission to meet if he accepted personal responsibility for any (anti-clerical, anti-state) radicalism expressed by the members, and if a plainclothes policeman attended each meeting to take notes on the potentially revolutionary goings-on. His first meeting was a few months before On the Origin of Species was published.

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