Practical Fallacies

Nature (August 1878)

[479] Mr. A. L. Lewis read a paper On the Evils arising from the Use of Historical National Names and Scientific Terms.–The propositions endeavoured to be established by Mr. Lewis were: (1) That there were at the first population of Europe certain primitive races, of which three are particularly described; (2) that these races are so mixed at the present day that representatives of them appear not only in most European nations, but in the same families, and among children of the same parents; (3) that notwithstanding this mixture, and the effects which it must permanently have, racial character displays an astonishing permanence; (4) that this mixture, being so slow in its effects, and yet having become so general, has probably been at work, and for a very great length of time, so great that the peoples to whom the earliest history of Europe introduces us were probably nearly as much mixed as those of the present day; (5) that it is desirable to discontinue the use of the political names of those people as ethnic names, and to employ others based on the physical characteristics of the individuals; (6) that while physical characteristics are the only basis for a true division into races, yet in any practical application of this division, we must consider the influence upon individuals of different races of a community of language, whose history or tradition must not be lost sight of, although these things do not prove community of race, but only the contact at some time or other of the races to whom they are now common.

Professor Huxley said the subject of the paper was one of importance, not merely on ethnological or scientific grounds, but because it was unfortunately the source of a great many practical fallacies which have had, and in fact still have, a very important political influence. He doubted very much whether there was any deliberate system of misnomer which was working more mischief in this world than the preposterous talk about the national qualities of the Celt and the Saxon. He had taken the liberty a number of years ago of getting himself into hot water by trying to awaken people's attention to what was the effect with regard to the use of these terms, and to the sort of mischief that was [480] being done by using them in the exceedingly inappropriate manner in which they were naturally used by political writers.  His conclusions then were entirely in accordance with those which Mr. Lewis had just now brought before them. He (Prof. Huxley) believed that if there was a proposition in ethnology which was capable of historical proof it was that, so far as physical characteristics were concerned, the ancient Gauls–as was the opinion of the Roman and Greek historians–were persons of precisely the same physical peculiarities as the ancient Teutons known to the same historians. In fact, there was a most extraordinary correspondence to the phraseology in which the Teutons are described by a well-known writer, and those in which the earlier historians described the Gaulish invaders of the Roman Empire and the Greek Kingdom. That he believed to be beyond all question, and so far as physical characteristics went, he did not believe that there was a shred of evidence to show that the persons who spoke Celtic dialects at the time they made their appearance in Western Europe were in any physical respect different from those who spoke the older Teutonic dialect, and not only that there was no difference, but there was a most extraordinary resemblance, inasmuch as those stocks when they came into contact with the civilised world were described in the same terms–as sturdy, fair-haired people, with fair skins, and what he thought without any exaggeration may be described as a remarkable shortness of temper. He would not enter now into the interesting questions which Mr. Lewis had raised. The deliberate conclusions which were drawn from this subject with regard to the real distinction of race in our islands were, that the people of some particular race were marked by a tendency to certain social organizations and certain peculiar mental constitutions. Now he dared say that might be so. He could not–no person who was a professional zoologist could–fail to entertain the most exalted ideas of the influence of race, and he had no doubt there was great influence; but what he did very much doubt was whether they had the smallest means of knowing what at the same time was the amount of influence exerted on the people of this country by the different ethnological elements which compose it. Let any one who listened to the talk about national characteristics, and what was said about particular institutions being impossible for some of the people of these islands and possible for others–let him carry his mind back for the last twenty years and think what was at that time said about the German people. Great writers of public opinion at that time were never tired of enlarging on the saying of one great German, that while the empire of France was on the land, and that of the British on the sea, the Germans had the empire of the air; but they proved themselves during the last fifteen years to be about as practical and hard-fisted a people as any that existed at the present time in the universe; and we did not hear anything of the Teutonic dreamers since the battle of Sedan. He believed that we knew so little about the races that it was impossible to disentangle what any particular nation was. We did on the other hand, know that there was a great deal of human nature in all kinds of men, and of social conditions which exercise an enormous influence. He thought he would endeavour to make out what in any given race at the present time was due to the pre-existing social and political relations–and when he had sifted that he would have some reason to talk of residuum as being the consequence of race influence. He himself did not believe, taking any one section of the British empire–whether Scotch or English or Irish–he did not believe that race has any appreciable influence upon their social and political condition of the present day. That was to say, his impression was that if the south-eastern parts of the British empire, the county of Kent for instance, had been subject to just the same sort of conditions for 400 or 500 years as he would say, Connemara and Galway, he should expect the results to be as nearly as possible the same; and it was a curious fact of ethnological study that those parts of Ireland, which are supposed to exhibit in the most marked manner these characteristics, sometimes complimentary and sometimes uncomplimentary, were those in which it could be proved to demonstration that the Norman and English elements were most predominant.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University