Plato Meets Polygeny

Louis Agassiz's Peculiar Defense of Southern Medicine, Race, and the Road not Taken.

  • Michael A. Flannery UAB
Keywords: Louis Agassiz, Thomas Henry Huxley, Richard Owen, Platonism, Polygeny

Abstract

This essay reviews Louis Agassiz's advocacy of polygeny (the theory of multiple creations or "many Adams") and how this was woven into States' Right Medicine and used as a "scientific" apologetic for slavery. It also examines Agassiz's and Richard Owen's Platonism, and how each was expressed very differently between the two. It further juxtaposes the anti-evolutionist stance of Agassiz and the evolutionary theory expressed in Darwin's monogenism (common descent) and shows that the rivalry between monogenist Darwinists and polygenists like Agassiz and Southern physicians really made little difference in the end. Only a very few contemporaries advocated for racial equality on a scientific basis; one of those was Platonist Richard Owen, whose structuralist approach to evolution was quite different from Darwin's functionalism. In the end Owen represents a road not taken in the discussion of science and race in Anglo-America.

Published
2020-03-04
Section
Articles