Professor Huxley on the Negro Question

Ladies London Emancipation Society 1864
Mrs. P. A. Taylor

[3] The following extracts have been selected as bearing especial reference to the Negro, from the Reader‘s report of the last two lectures given by Professor Huxley, on "The Structure and Classification of the Mammalia," delivered at the Royal College of Surgeons.

In the eighth lecture, on Feb. 18tb, Professor Huxley commenced a sketch of the principal variations in form and proportion which are met with in the human body under the different circumstances which have given rise to the various races of men. This interesting and fertile subject, he observed, has unfortunately been cultivated hitherto to a very small extent, and with very little of the precision which its importance demands. From the best series of the measurements of skeletons of the two races extant, that made by Dr. Humphry, it appears that the average height of the negro is less than that of the European; the arms are proportionately longer, particularly the fore-arm and hand, and, in the lower extremity, while the femur retains nearly the same relative length as in the European, the tibia and foot are considerably increased. In these deviations from the European standard, the Australian and other low races agree with the negro. There is no real evidence to show [4] that the hallux, or great toe, is differently constructed, or more movable, among the lower than the higher races of men, though in the latter the practice of wearing tight and hard shoes rarely allows its proper development. The alleged uniformly greater flatness of foot, and increased length of heel of the negro, are equally hypothetical. The modifications of the colour of the skin in different races are well known; we speak of white or black people, but in reality there are various shades of brown, darker or lighter; a true black skin, according to Professor Huxley‘s observations, scarcely exists. In the character as well as the colour of the hair, men vary much. The transverse section of the hair of certain races is flattened, in others it is oval, and, again, in others it is nearly circular. It has been asserted, but not on sufficient evidence, that the first form is characteristic of the negro, the second of the Aryan, and the third of the Mongolian races. In some hair of the first form, the long axis of the diameter gradually changes its position in the length of the hair, causing a crisp curl, or spiral twist.

In the ninth lecture, on Feb. 20th, Professor Huxley continued the description of the principal variations of the human structure. It was first shown that the position of the occipital foramen, and of the condyles by which the skull rests upon the first vertebrae of the neck, varies greatly both in individuals and races; but as a general rule they are placed further back in the lower than the higher races. The different planes in the interior of the skull, such as the tentorial, ethmoid, &c., are [5] also liable to variation, and so, particularly, is the plane of the squama occipitis, which slopes sometimes backwards and sometimes forward from the superior curved line on the occiput, in accordance with the greater or less magnitude of the posterior lobe of the brain.

The development of the face and jaws in proportion to that of the cranium varies greatly in different races of men. This can only be estimated accurately upon skulls which have been vertically bisected. It will then be seen that two causes may operate in producing a prominent jaw. 1. The actual size of the bones constituting the condition called "macrognathism;" 2. The enlargement of the cranio-facial angle, by which the face undergoes a kind of upward and forward rotation on the skull, producing "prognathism." This jugal arch differs very greatly in strength and lateral projection; in some cases it can be seen projecting beyond the sides of the cranium when the skull is held at arm’s length with the vertex towards the observer; such skulls Mr. Busk proposes to call "phoaenozygous." In well-formed European skulls the chin is straight, or projects slightly beyond the level of the incisor teeth; it is less prominent in the lower races, but never to any marked extent. The arch formed by the teeth in the European and short-headed races is wide and evenly rounded; in some of the lower forms it becomes prolonged and narrow, the sides being nearly parallel. In these also the posterior molars are not so disproportionately smaller than the others, as in the higher groups.

[6] After enumerating some variations which have been observed in the distribution of the muscles of the hands and feet, which are not, however, at present known to be characteristic of race (as definite information on this subject can be scarcely said to exist), Professor Huxley passed to the brain, which, he said, varies greatly in size, weight, and form, and perhaps no part of it so much as the posterior lobe, as may be seen in the collection of casts of the interior of crania lately added to the College Museum. There seems to be no relation between the projection of this lobe and the position of the individual in the scale of human beings; on the whole, it seems as great, or greater among the lower than in the higher races. The posterior cornu and the hippocampus minor, among the internal structures, are the most variable; as the former is merely a relic of the great original cavity, its greater magnitude would indicate a low rather than a high condition. The hippocampus minor, in as far as its relation to the calcarine fissure is concerned, is constant, but its appearance in the ventricle, being entirely dependent upon the form and size of the cavity, varies greatly. A considerable range may be observed in the complexity of the convolutions in different brains. On the whole, the convolutions in the lower have a greater simplicity and symmetry than in the higher races. Gratiolet showed this in his description and figures of the brain of the Bosjeswoman called the "Hottentot Venus;" and though it has recently been asserted that this person was an idiot, there is the best possible evidence on record, that such was [7] not the case. Moreover, Gratiolet‘s conclusions have been fully borne out by the description of the brain of another female of the same race, lately communicated to the Royal Society by Mr. Marshall.

The important question now remains–What is the value of the differences which have been shown to exist in the structure of human beings? This question resolves itself into two others. 1. Are these differences sufficient to justify us in supposing them to indicate distinct species of men? 2. Can any of the deviations be considered as transitional towards the lower forms of animals? In respect to the first, it is certain that well-defined types occur in different geographical localities, so distinct that any zoologist, taking a single example of each, without any other evidence, would probably pronounce them to be distinct species; but the fact that every intermediate form can be found between the most typical, and the absence of any proof of their infertility inter se, conclusively show that there is no sufficient ground for the doctrine of the diversity of species among men. As to the second question, it can be answered equally positively. Although in the lower races of men now upon earth, and in the skeleton found in the cavern in the Neanderthal, the human characters vary a little in some particulars in a pithecoid direction, the extent of this variation is very slight indeed when compared with the whole difference which separates them; and it may be safely affirmed that there is at present no evidence of any transitional [8] form or intermediate link between man and the next succeeding form in the vertebrate scale.

Professor Huxley concluded the lecture in the following words:–"Up to this moment, Mr. President and gentlemen, I have treated of this question of the differences between the various modifications of the human species as if it were a matter of pure science. But you must have felt, as I have felt that there loomed behind this veil of abstract argumentation the shadow of the ‘irrepressible negro,’ and of that great problem which is being fought out on the other side of the Atlantic. I have no desire, and, indeed, no right, to discuss the vast and difficult question of slavery here; but to set myself free from the suspicion of unreasoning partisanship, I may be permitted to say this much: that I am unable to understand how any man of warm heart can fail to sympathise with the indomitable courage, the warlike skill, the self-denying persistence of the Southerner; while I can as little comprehend how any man of clear head can doubt that the South is playing a losing game, and that the North is justified in any expenditure of blood or of money, which shall eradicate a system hopelessly inconsistent with the moral elevation, the political freedom, or the economical progress of the American people. As a man of science, however, my concern is not with the merits or demerits of slavery, but with the scientific arguments by which both sides have striven to support their cause.

"The fanatical abolitionists do not scruple to affirm that the negro is the equal of the white man–nay, some go so far as to tell us that the Ameri[9]can stock would be the better for the infusion of a little black blood; while the milder sort maintain, at least, the indefinite modifiability of the negro, urge that he is capable of being improved into such equality or something like it, and therefore conclude that the attempt to improve him is a great duty. The two former propositions are so hopelessly absurd as to be unworthy of serious discussion. The third is fairly open to discussion; but anything like good evidence of its truth seems to me to be wanting; while, if it be true, the conclusion drawn from it is not indisputable. But I must freely admit that the aberrations from scientific fact or fair speculation, on the anti-slavery side, are as nothing compared with the preposterous ignorance, exaggeration, and misstatement in which the slave-holding interest indulges. I hold in my hand an address to a scientific body of this country which has recently been published,1 and has, I doubt not, been read by many as an authoritative expression of the results of scientific: and you shall judge for yourselves whether it does or does not merit the stigma of public condemnation, which I think it my duty to take this opportunity of affixing to it.

"‘The skeleton of the negro can never be placed upright. There is always a slight angle in the leg, a greater in the thigh bones, and still more in the body, until in some instances it curves backwards.’

"‘The blood is vastly dissimilar–-the molecular [10] movement within the discs differs in every respect, and, when tried with a solution of potass, the protrusions from the cell-walls take every intermediate form, reverting with great rapidity to the normal condition.’

"‘The hair is very peculiar–three hairs, springing from different orifices, will unite into one.’

"Many among you are histologists, and will appreciate the value and practical applicability of the tests of species described in the two last paragraphs I have cited. A male negro skeleton is before you, and all can see how far it is or is not capable of the erect posture: and yet the author of the address in question can write thus:

"‘The above intelligent remarks, although they contain nothing new, are chiefly valuable from the fact that ladies in the Confederate States seem to be better informed on the subject than many men of science in this country’ !!

"This quotation is from the preface; gems of a purer water are to be found in the body of the address–‘Vrolik has asserted that the pelvis of the male negro bears a great resemblance to that of the lower mammalia.’

"Vrolik was far too truthful a man and too good an anatomist to say anything of the kind. What he really says in speaking of the male negro is:–‘The pelvis also presents many indications of the greater animality of the negroes;’ and further:–‘Had this pelvis been taken from a wild beast, its substance could not have been denser, nor its bones stronger.’

Again, the author of the address affirms that, [11] in the negro, ‘The pia mater contains brown spots, which are never found in the brain of a European.’ This is in the teeth of M. Gubler‘s paper, published in the memoirs of the French Anthropological Society three years ago, and distinctly proving the existence of a similar coloration in Europeans of dark complexion. ‘Not only,’ says this writer, ‘does the brain, enveloped in its membranes, present a bistre tint, but a layer of black matter, altogether comparable to that of the negro, covers the pons varolii, the medulla oblongata, and some other parts of the nervous centres.’ What makes the matter worse is, that M. Gabler‘s paper is mentioned in a note of the address to which I refer, as if it confirmed, instead of diametrically contradicting, the statement in the text.

"Again, we are told–‘The inferior molars sometimes present in the negro race five tubercled; and this anomaly is sporadically found in other races. It has been noticed in the European and the Esquimaux, but it is affirmed by my friend Mr. Carter Blake to be more frequent in the negro, and Australian than any other race.’"

Truly this is a notable discovery. We shall hear next that the scapula and the femur are ‘more frequent in the negro and Australian than any other race!’ In my previous lecture, when speaking of the dentition of man, I demonstrated to you the elementary fact, of which, up to this time, I did not imagine the merest tyro could be ignorant, that the lower molars of man are always typically five tubercled; the hindermost alone, [12] from its imperfect development, occasionally breaking the rule. A normal human lower jaw, with the first and second molar devoid of five tubercles would be a rare and interesting anomaly. But the author of the address is far surpassed by an American writer, whom he quotes apparently with entire approbation:–‘The negro,’ says this wonderful Anthropologist, ‘is incapable of an erect and direct perpendicular posture. The general structure of his limbs, the pelvis, the spine, the way the head is set on the shoulders–in short, the tout ensemble of the anatomical formation–forbids an erect position!’ I need only refer you to the excellent cast of a negro in our museum to enable you to judge of the veraciousness of this statement. Nothing, indeed, can surpass its scandalous absurdity, except the reasoning by which it is supported. ‘With the broad forehead and small cerebellum of the white man it is perfectly obvious that the negro would no longer possess a centre of gravity.’ This brief paragraph contains the most remarkable result of a modification of anatomical structure I have ever heard of. And the faculty for evolving nonsense displayed by its author will prepare you for my first citation, which I forbear to characterise, because the only appropriate phraseology would not be becoming for me to utter or you to hear. ‘Thus, an anatomist, with the negro and ourang-outang before him, after a careful comparison, would deem, perhaps, that nature herself had been puzzled where to place them, and had finally compromised the matter by giving them an exactly equal inclination to the form and alti[13]tude of each other.’ And this is put before the unsuspecting public, without comment or qualification, as the verdict of science touching ‘The Negro‘s Place in Nature!’"

After commenting upon these lectures of Professor Huxley, the editor of the Reader, says :–

"Clearly the high scientific authority of Professor Huxley is against the favourite notion of the partisans of slavery that there are signs about the negro that he has a place of his own in nature inferior to that of the normal man, and against the desired inference that he may fairly have a treatment corresponding to that place, and be excluded from rights and franchises that are agreed upon amongst men. Professor Huxley might have stopped here–for it was not necessary for him to say, as a man of science, what be might consider these rights and franchises to be. He might have vindicated the title of the Negro physiologically to whatever treatment is proper for human beings as such, and yet he might have believed in the necessity and expediency of slavery within that common society of human beings in which he had declared the Negro to be included. But be steps beyond the circle of the physiologist, and speaks strongly and generously his faith as a man. He believes in the doctrine of freedom, or equal personal rights for all men, and he pronounces the system of slavery to be root and branch an abomination–thus making his physiological definition of the ‘Negro‘s place among men equivalent to an earnest plea for Negro emancipation. Nay, as will have been noted, be goes farther, and, in [14] virtue of the strength of his feeling with respect to slavery, avows a state of opinion regarding the American War in which many who share his feeling with respect to slavery will refuse to go along with him."

1 These remarks refer to a paper entitled "The Negro‘s Place in Nature," by James Hunt, Ph.D., President of the Anthropological Society of London.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University