“You are Here”—A Special Exhibition on Maps

Haverford College’s Special Collections is about to open a new exhibition titled “You Are Here: Exploring the Contours of Our Academic Community Through Maps” (more information is here). I was asked to write a caption for James C. Prichard’s ethnographic maps that accompanied his Natural History of Man (1843). Here is the draft of my caption. The exhibition will also feature some student work from my Introduction to the History of Science course, see here.

Mapping Racial Variations

Prichard’s ethnographic map of Asia (Source: Quaker and Special Collections, Haverford College)

Throughout his career James Prichard returned again and again to a single problem: How to account for the variations in humans. In particular, he tried to account for racial variation through environmental forces and cultural preferences rather than inherent differences in people. His Natural History of Man (1843) represents his extended effort to defend his conviction that every race of humans descended from a single, “Adamite family.” The ethnographic maps that accompanied his Natural History of Man illustrated the distribution of races over the earth.

Detail of Korea from Prichard’s map of Asia (Source: Quaker and Special Collections, Haverford College)

James C. Prichard was born in 1786 into a well-connected Quaker family in Hereford, England. His private education focused almost entirely on languages. Then, after introductory studies in anatomy and medical pharmacy, in Prichard studied medicine. In 1808 he received his M.D. from Edinburgh University. He chose the varieties of mankind as the subject of his dissertation, which appeared in 1813 as his Researches into the Physical History of Man.

Prichard’s illustration of Koreans from his Natural History of Man (Source: Quaker and Special Collections, Haverford College)

In the opening pages of his Natural History of Man, Prichard laid out clearly his theory of variation and, at the same time, defended the anthropology he found in Genesis. Human races were caused, according to Prichard, by prolonged exposure to different environmental forces. These variations, however, were not hereditary unless they became “connate.” Connate traits were those characteristics that culture, customs, and living standards preferred. This is why, according to Prichard, “the primitive stock of men were Negroes” who gradually turned white as the process of civilization inclined subsequent generations to prefer lighter-skinned mates. Grounded in ethnography, historical linguistics, bio-geography, and philology, his Natural History of Man was an elaborate effort to show how different races were all part of a single species.

Prichard’s efforts to distinguish the Koreans from other Asian peoples reveals his eclectic approach. On the one hand, he asserts that the Koreans are more closely related, linguistically, to Tartars or “Siberian races.” They originated from some country north of the Chinese. Nevertheless, they resemble physically the Chinese and along with the Japanese belonged at some point “to the same type of human species as the nations of High Asia” (Natural History of Man, 231). He then describes cultural preferences, especially the ideal of beauty, that have contributed to Korean physical characteristics.

Prichard’s argument seems to be an early form of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. However, other than vague gestures toward cultural customs and preferences, he never explained how characteristics introduced through environmental forces could become connate traits, and thus could become hereditary.

[Originally posted at the PACHS blog.]