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J Hist Biol. 2008 Spring;41(1):119-58.

Quantifying characters: polygenist anthropologists and the hardening of heredity.

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  • 1Department of History, University of Dayton, 300 College Park, Dayton, OH 45469-1540, USA.


Scholars studying the history of heredity suggest that during the 19th-century biologists and anthropologists viewed characteristics as a collection of blended qualities passed on from the parents. Many argued that those characteristics could be very much affected by environmental circumstances, which scholars call the inheritance of acquired characteristics or "soft" heredity. According to these accounts, Gregor Mendel reconceived heredity--seeing distinct hereditary units that remain unchanged by the environment. This resulted in particular traits that breed true in succeeding generations, or "hard" heredity. The author argues that polygenist anthropology (an argument that humanity consisted of many species) and anthropometry in general should be seen as a hardening of heredity. Using a debate between Philadelphia anthropologist and physician, Samuel G. Morton, and Charleston naturalist and reverend, John Bachman, as a springboard, the author contends that polygenist anthropologists hardened heredity by conceiving of durable traits that might reappear even after a race has been eliminated. Polygenists saw anthropometry (the measurement of humans) as one method of quantifying hereditary qualities. These statistical ranges were ostensibly characteristics that bred true and that defined racial groups. Further, Morton's interest in hybridity and racial mixing demonstrates that the polygenists focused as much on the transmission and recognition of "amalgamations" of characters as they did on racial categories themselves. The author suggests that seeing race science as the study of heritable, statistical characteristics rather than broad categories helps explain why "race" is such a persistent cultural phenomenon.

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