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A Southern Minister Against “Scientific Moonshine”

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 4, 2011

John Bachman

There are plenty of reasons to admire John Bachman, a minister and naturalist  born 180 years ago today.  When he wasn’t tending his multi-racial flock at St. John’s Lutheran in Charleston, South Carolina, he published studies in botany, ornithology, and mammalogy.

Among the many new species he discovered were the Swainson’s warbler, Helinaia swainsonii, and Bachman’s warbler, Helminthophila bachmani.

He and John James Audubon collaborated on a book, Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, and published detailed descriptions of dozens of mammal species, making taxonomic distinctions of a high standard for the day. The families also collaborated in their personal lives, with two Audubon sons marrying two Bachman daughters.

But I like Bachman most because he also stood up against some of the most dunderheaded and determined racists of his day.  It was the primetime for scientific racism–”scientific moonshine,” as Frederick Douglass put it–the theory put forward by some white scientists that other human races were actually separate species.

Bachman neatly sliced this argument to shreds, using simple anatomical evidence from Homo sapiens and other species.  (You can read more about it in Chapter  12 of The Species Seekers.) In making the case that humans are in fact a single species, he was defending scientific truth and (for once) religion, too.

The most rabid voice of scientific racism in the 1850s was an Alabamba physician named Josiah Nott.  His Hippocratic oath did not keep  Nott from voicing his wish to “kill of{f} Bachman,” to “skin Bachman,” to see  him “cut up into sausage meat.”  After what he deemed a particularly effective riposte, he wrote of Bachman, “I really feel as if a viper had been killed in the fair garden of science, and I hope his death will be a warning to all such blasphemies against God’s laws”–the laws, that is, that made blacks a separate, inferior species, and keeping them as slaves the work of righteousness.

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3 Responses to “A Southern Minister Against “Scientific Moonshine””

  1. Good to read/hear this! Bachman seemed like someone even (formerly devout) Muir could have stomached in his rambles. Thank you for calling attention to someone who took the unpopular stand in the cold face of the dunderheads!

  2. What a wonderful post. And thanks for introducing me to someone who stood against the racist tide.

  3. Can we have him back now? We rather need him.

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