Framing Deep Pasts: Atavisms, Retrogressions, and Race Science in the Making of Neuroscientific and Genetic Medicine, c. 1880–1980

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 4:10 PM
Madison Room A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Stephen T. Casper, Clarkson University
Over the last two centuries, certain scientists and clinicians examined degenerative diseases to better understand humankind’s evolutionary past. This labor, as much rhetorical as investigative, constructed patients as living fossils, either in a decontextualized historical sense or, by contrast, in a deep historical position. Patients with lesions fell in the first of these categories, and clinicians argued these infirm represented a retrogression of past forms of functioning. Patients with hereditary diseases were instead seen to embody atavisms, uncommon survivals of evolved past forms. The construction of this semiology of such patients went far beyond reading, diagnosing, and theorizing of a disease. These physicians and scientists reframed patients as specimens through which a reading of the natural history of the human became possible. These theories were fueled by and contributed to race science, constructing theoretical and empirical bridges from the biology of the nervous system to putative “spiritual states of grace” associated with tropes of civilization and denied to their opposite, savagery.
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