Groovier than Cuvier

Pretty much all journalism displays this confirmation bias. No news article is long enough to investigate complex social issues in the depth that they require. No reader would tolerate it. So, the standard procedure is to quote a single source to back up an assertion, no matter how general and complex that claim is, and move on.

Even an in-depth investigation, covering pages of a broadsheet or an hour of radio or television airtime, might only contain, say, a couple of personal experiences, a couple of expert witnesses and a couple of bits of raw, decontextualized data. Each of these is assumed to have a direct, causal and monopolistic relationship with the writer’s thesis. She can pursue a meandering and tenuous line of argument, hopping from topic to topic with only the slightest links between them, until she reaches whatever conclusion she wishes, in a parody of good scientific investigative practice. This is particularly common in sociological or social history investigations, because it is impossible to control variables in your data sets: the subjects are multifaceted and autonomous human beings, with the right not to stay within your research’s parameters.  

In these disciplines, and the journalism that popularises them, studies resemble stories. The events and objects described are joined by a hypothetical or possible narrative. This is presented for discussion. Everyone concerned knows that the hypothesis hasn’t been substantiated, but it’s an interesting construct and there may be some truth in it. As such, they are more entertainment than instruction. 

Here’s an example: Ekow Eshun, presenting the second episode of his fascinating documentary White Mischief on BBC radio 4, was trying to get to grips with the insubstantial and protean[1] concept of “whiteness.” He started by pointing out that the scientist George Cuvier had dissected the body of Saartjie Baartman, an African woman known as “the Venus Hottentot” who was exhibited around Europe as a sort of Circus Freak. Cuvier examined her when she was being kept in appalling squalor, and dissected her after her death. He compared some of her features to those of a monkey. Yet Cuvier, Ekow Eshun points out, was “A highly respected French naturalist, one of the great men of European Science. His statue stands outside the Royal Academy in London.” Mr Eshun is “interested in the way whiteness is bound up with ideas of knowledge and scientific advancement, and ideas of what, and who, represents progress, and who does not.” Cuvier gives the “scientific rational” “that it was acceptable to study this woman… to see her as something not quite human, not quite the same as the white normal.”  His statue reminds Ekow Eshun of “how these ideas of superiority are embedded in the world we live in now.”

This is an interesting hypothesis presented humbly and without rancour, for us to discuss. He seems genuinely curious and eager to explore these issues. They are very important issues and demand to be confronted. It’s a brilliant series and I thank him for it.

But, I don’t think Cuvier’s racist behaviour is evidence that our society is founded on racist principles or continues to promulgate them. Our society may, or may not, be foundationally racist, but the respect shown to Cuvier’s memory is not evidence of this, because he is not revered for his racism. 

Cuvier is renowned for his pioneering work in palaeontology and comparative anatomy, comparing the anatomy of fossils to those of living specimens. He is considered “The founding father of Palaeontology” and named Mastadon and Megatherium, among others. Much of his work was on Molluscs and fish. Not hottentots. 

His treatment of Saartjie Baartman was ghastly and his attitudes were common for his day. They seemed to justify the exploitation of the colonies that many were keen to pursue.  But these attitudes were not universal. In fact, one of the reasons Ms Baartman is still remembered is because her treatment caused outrage when she was exhibited in Britain. The African Association brought a legal case against her exhibitors to get her released. (Significantly, it was defeated because she testified, probably under duress, that she was exhibited voluntarily.) 

Perhaps, therefore, Cuvier’s statue should be removed. However, it is not a testament or a support of racism, but a celebration of scientific progress. His racist thought did not take root in British culture to the same extent as the liberal humanist ideas have. And these  ideas, of universal equality and valuing the human spirit in all its forms, stand in direct opposition to our tribal, exclusionary tendencies. 

So, our refusal to confront Cuvier’s eye-watering racism seems to come primarily from our neglect not of people of colour, but of Cuvier himself. Most people are completely ignorant about him. Those that do know his work and are reluctant to condemn him, are presumably doing so precisely because they abhor racism and do not want to admit their hero had anything to do with it. And, in this case, removing the statue seems a further attempt to dodge confronting our racist and colonialist past. 

[1] “Protean (Adjective): Tending or able to change frequently or easily” Good word, no?!

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