MultiSession Ethnography, Ethnology, and Science, 1500-1800, Part 3: Categories of Physical Difference

AHA Session 254
Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Miami Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Michael Leroy Oberg, State University of New York at Geneseo
Felipe Fernández-Armesto, University of Notre Dame

Session Abstract

This is the first of three panels devoted to ‘Ethnography, Ethnology and Science, 1500-1800’. It focuses on the ways in which Europeans conceptualized ethnographic differences and interpreted them within the contexts of natural history and political thought. It reveals how the boundaries between human and animal, self and other were highly porous and contested in the early modern period. 

This panel probes seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writings about animals, monsters and humans in order to better understand the epistemological frameworks within which these concepts were understood. In particular, it focuses on gradations among members of these categories – between wild and European animals, and between Native Americans and white Americans, for example – and on the uncertain boundaries between them – as in the case of monstrous human-animal hybrids. In so doing, the panel highlights the ways in which early modern ideas about human difference emerged in relation to problems of natural history and environment. The papers investigate the categories by which human differences were articulated during an age in which new forms of human civilization and animal life were being brought to the attention of European scholars.

 Anita Guerrini’s paper explores dissections in mid-seventeenth century Paris in order to draw out the links between the study of anatomy and natural history, and the ways in which such categories as wild, domestic, native and exotic functioned. Since one of the goals of dissection was to better understand the form and function of the human form, these Parisian practices highlight the overlaps between the study of humans and animals. Surekha Davies focuses on early modern English notions of monstrosity in order to shed light on the challenges faced by scholars, writers and observers who attempted to analyse natural history and human diversity. The combination of human, animal, European and non-European monsters in James Paris du Plessis’s seventeenth-century manuscript book of monsters shows how physical abnormality was a problem whose students also observed local, exotic and animal others together. Myles Beaupre’s paper highlights the tensions between certain European ethnological arguments about the nature of Native Americans and the political and ideological needs of American intellectuals in the aftermath of the American Revolution. Beaupre shows how these European explanations for human difference were challenged by some Americans in an attempt to develop new models of human difference that reconciled the science of human difference with the political realities of the republic.