Anthropologists and the ‘Depopulation’ Problem

Anthropologists and the ‘Depopulation’ Problem

A familiar trope in both American and European anthropology at the turn of the twentieth century was the discussion of the ‘extinction’ of the savage tribes.  It was taken as a kind of gospel  that while civilized races in the modern world would increase, “savage” and “primitive” races would diminish and decline over time. Of course, there were those who believed that modernity was not beneficial to modern man, but even though who considered modern conditions to be degenerate, also underscored that “savage” tribes were quickly declining. For the emerging social sciences,  the true problem in the early years of the 20th century was not the existence of the decline, but its causes.

In the early 20th century, the decline of savage peoples was bound in theories of population generally, which, as with most turn of the century anthropology, has not invited critical commentary. Everyone had a theory concerning the decline of “savages” “primitives” or “natives.” Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904), to take one example, was a German geographer.  He is known today if at all for influencing the Nazi expansionist ideology of lebensraum.   Ratzel underscored that civilization advanced and progressed as population increased, as societies neared each other, they  would benefit from the commerce of ideas, the commerce of commerce and increased competition. This means that somewhat paradoxically, Ratzel was both a proponent of modernization and an advocate “free space” for ethnic development.  As societies grew in complexity and refinement, those societies would too have their populations increase.  As importantly, Ratzel addressed the nearly ancient problem of the interconnection  between luxury, commerce and the vitality and nations.  Unlike a number of early modern and enlightenment theorists, Raztel underscored that the advancement of society away from a kind of agrarian, marital virtue and social structure, would not be the death of that society, but the reason for its flourishing.

If, in the minds of many anthropologists, modern societies could benefit from the increase in population, modernity was however not treating “savages” well.  As Ratzel explained (in a translated excerpt in the Source Book for Social Origins, an early and important compendium of anthropological texts for students), savage peoples “offer examples of shrinkage and retrogression” (pg. 46.)  These populations were the victims of famine and warfare.  Ratzel continued that the thinness of the population itself was the reason behind its decline: “their smaller numbers are more readily brought to the point of dwindling or vanishing,” with each individual in these small communities rapidly depleting his energies.  An individual at a “lower stage of civilization” did not have the advantages of a diversified economy; he was frugal and often visited by dearth.  Thus, it was no accident that primitive peoples were disappearing.  It was not simply contact with “superior races” which lead to the extinction of barbarous peoples.  More specifically, Ratzel detailed, it was a combination of warfare and self-destruction.  The two were often connected: warfare, murder and kidnappings lead to imbalances between the sexes, with individuals in the state of nature not having any of the benefits of modern sanitation, leading to a constant diminution of their numbers (pg. 46-7.)

This discussion achieved a new urgency with the disappearance and the diminution of the populations of primitive peoples in the south Pacific and elsewhere.  William Fremont Blackman (who became an American university president) bemoaned that among the indigenous Hawaiians the laws of Malthusian population did not hold.  Even with a plentiful food supply, the numbers of indigenous still decreased (The Making of Hawaii: A Study in Social Evolution) due to war and infanticide, cannibalism and human sacrifice (210-11.)  Important too were the birth and death rates, with the birth rate low and the death rate high among the Hawaiians, with many indigenous having few or now children (212.)

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Herbert Spencer on Instinct and Intelligence: The Background of the “Cambridge Mind”

Herbert Spencer on Instinct and Intelligence: The Background of the “Cambridge Mind”

Simon Cook previously described the novel account of the human mind which emerged before the First World War- the Cambridge Mind.  He considers the development of this conception of brain and behavior to be a critical moment in the early history of the social sciences in Britain, informing the views of both Alfred Marshall and W.H.R. Rivers, but to very different effects. From my vantage point of American intellectual history and history of science, I find a number elements of “the Cambridge Mind” interesting.

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Alexander M. Carr-Saunders and the “Cambridge Mind” (Part 1)

Alexander M. Carr-Saunders and the “Cambridge Mind” (Part 1)

Alexander Carr-Saunders (1886 to 1966) has been the topic of numerous posts at EWP. He was Director of the London School of Economics from 1937 to 1956, initially reading zoology. Carr-Saunders studied bio-metrics under Karl Pearson, was involved in the Eugenics Education Society as its Secretary, and in 1922 published, The Population Problem (PP). PP is among the most dense of texts and does not make for easy reading, particularly for contemporary readers. Nor does it really engender feelings of worthiness among historians of the 20th century social and behavioral sciences as it is (among other things) an account of the social evolution of primitive and civil peoples (or as Simon has pointed out in many other contexts- Carr-Saunders narrates in a text on quantity and quality the historical transition from races and peoples to nations, blending many, many approaches and disciplinary tools.

In this essay, I will do some work, continued in parts II and III, to illustrate the importance of the “Cambridge Mind” to Carr-Saunders’ landmark Population Problem, a work still viewed by historians and social scientists as foundational to the development of modern demographic science and population research.  In Part I, I will spend some time detailing first, how to re-conceptualize the PP as a textual product of a number of overlapping narratives and second, how PP’s arguments about the psychology and physiology of reproduction are best understood as an outgrowth of the “Cambridge Mind.”

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The Grote Club and Beyond

The Grote Club and Beyond

Welcome to our first Grote Club posting.

In future posts John Gibbins will be writing about all aspects of the mid-Victorian philosopher John Grote. John regards Grote as the most overlooked thinker of the last few centuries; and I suspect he has a point. But my own concern is with Grote’s institutional and intellectual legacy.

Grote took over the newly instituted Moral Sciences Tripos in 1855. This was a new venture at the University of Cambridge, at which a liberal education had traditionally consisted of Classics and Mathematics (Oxford did not even have Mathematics). In its first few years the new tripos had been under the guidance of the great Victorian polymath and conservative William Whewell, who had sought to bring moral philosophy into harmony with history and law in order to present a systematic refutation of what he took to be the godless and industrial radicalism of metropolitan moralists like J.S. Mill.

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