Review of Into the Heart of the World: A Journey to the Center of the Earth, by David Whitehouse
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
A familiar trope in the Looney Tunes cartoons of my boyhood had Elmer Fudd or some other zany character digging a hole with such vigor and determination that they emerged on the other side of the world in China, greeted by one or more of the stereotypically racist Asian animated figures of the day. In the 1964 Road Runner vehicle “War and Pieces,” Wile E. Coyote goes it one better, riding a rocket clear through the earth—presumably passing through its center—until he appears on the other side dangling upside down, only to then encounter a Chinese Road Runner embellished with a braided pigtail and conical hat who bangs a gong with such force that he is driven back through the tunnel to end up right where he started from. In an added flourish, the Chinese Road Runner then peeps his head out of the hole and beep-beep’s faux Chinese characters that turn into letters that spell “The End.”
There were healthy doses of both hilarious comedy and uncomfortable caricature here, but what really stuck in a kid’s mind was the notion that you could somehow burrow through the earth with a shovel or some explosive force, which it turns out is just as impossible in 2022 as it was in 1964. But if you hypothetically wanted to give it a go, you would have to start at China’s actual antipode in this hemisphere, which lies in Chile or Argentina, and then tunnel some 7,918 miles: twice the distance to the center of the earth you would pass through, which lies at around 3,959 miles (6,371 km) from the surface.
So what about the center of the earth? Could we go there? After all, we did visit the moon, and the average distance there—238,855 miles away—is far more distant. But of course what lies between the earth and its single satellite is mostly empty space, not the crust, mantle, outer core, and inner core of a rocky earth that is a blend of the solid and the molten. Okay, it’s a challenge, you grant, but how far have we actually made it in our effort to explore our inner planet? We must have made some headway, right? Well, it turns out that the answer is: not very much. A long, concerted effort at drilling that began in 1970 by the then Soviet Union resulted in a measly milestone of a mere 7.6 miles (12.3 km) at the Kola Superdeep Borehole near the Russian border with Norway; efforts were abandoned in 1994 because of higher-than-expected temperatures of 356 °F (180 °C). Will new technologies take us deeper one day at this site or another? Undoubtedly. But it likely will not be in the near future. After all, there’s another 3,951.4 miles to go and conditions will only grow more perilous at greater depths.
But we can dream, can’t we? Indeed. And it was Jules Verne who did so most famously when he imagined just such a trip in his classic 1864 science fiction novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth. Astrophysicist and journalist David Whitehouse cleverly models his grand exploration of earth’s interior, Into the Heart of the World: A Journey to the Center of the Earth, on Verne’s tale, a well-written, highly accessible, and occasionally exciting work of popular science that relies on geology rather than fiction to transport the reader beneath the earth’s crust through the layers below and eventually to what we can theoretically conceive based upon the latest research as the inner core that comprises the planet’s center.
It is surprising just how few people today possess a basic understanding of the mechanics that power the forces of the earth. But perhaps even more astonishing is how new—relatively—this science is. When I was a child watching Looney Tunes on our black-and-white television, my school textbooks admitted that although certain hypotheses had been suggested, the causes of sometimes catastrophic events such as earthquakes and volcanoes remained essentially unknown. All that changed effectively overnight—around the time my family got our first color TV—with the widespread acceptance by geologists of the theory of plate tectonics, constructed on the foundation of the much earlier hypothesis of German meteorologist and geophysicist Alfred Wegener, who in 1912 advanced the view of continents in motion known as “continental drift,” which was ridiculed in his time. By 1966, the long-dead Wegener was vindicated, and continental drift was upgraded to the more elegant model of plate tectonics that fully explained not only earthquakes and volcanoes, but mountain-building, seafloor spreading, and the whole host of other processes that power a dynamic earth.
Unlike some disciplines such as astrophysics, the basic concepts that make up earth science are hardly insurmountable to any individual with an average intelligence, so for those who have no idea how plate tectonics work and are curious enough to want to learn, Into the Heart of the World is a wonderful starting point. Whitehouse can be credited with articulating complicated processes in an easy to follow narrative that consistently holds the reader’s interest and remains fully comprehensible to the non-scientist. I came to this book with more than a passing familiarity with plate tectonics, but I nevertheless added to my knowledge base and enjoyed the way the author united disparate topics into this single theme of a journey to the earth’s inner core.
If I have a complaint, and as such it is only a quibble tied to my own preferences, Into the Heart of the World often devotes far more paragraphs to a history of “how we know what we know” rather than a more detailed explanation of the science itself. The author is not to be faulted for what is integral to the structure of the work—after all the cover does boast “A Remarkable Voyage of Scientific Discovery,” but it left me longing for more. Also, some readers may stumble over these backstories of people and events, eager instead to get to the fascinating essence of what drives the forces that shape our planet.
A running gag in more than one Bugs Bunny episode has the whacky rabbit inadvertently tunneling to the other side of the world, then admonishing himself that “I knew I shoulda taken that left turn at Albuquerque!” He doesn’t comment on what turn he took at his juncture with the center of the earth, but many kids who sat cross-legged in front their TVs wondered what that trip might look like. For grownups who still wonder, I recommend Into the Heart of the World as your first stop.
[Note: this book has also been published under the alternate title, Journey to the Centre of the Earth: The Remarkable Voyage of Scientific Discovery into the Heart of Our World.]
[A link to the referenced 1964 Road Runner episode is here: War and Pieces]
Review of Ancient Bones: Unearthing the Astonishing New Story of How We Became Human, by Madelaine Böhme, Rüdiger Braun, and Florian Breier
Reviewed by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog
In southern Greece in 1944, German forces constructing a wartime bunker reportedly unearthed a single mandible that paleontologist Bruno von Freyberg incorrectly identified as an extinct Old-World monkey. A decades-later reexamination by another paleoanthropologist determined that the tooth instead belonged to a 7.2-million-year-old extinct species of great ape which in 1972 was dubbed Graecopithecus freybergi and came to be more popularly known as “El Graeco.” Another tooth was discovered in Bulgaria in 2012. Then, in 2017, an international team led by German paleontologist Madelaine Böhme conducted an analysis that came to the astonishing conclusion that El Graeco in fact represents the oldest hominin—our oldest direct human ancestor! At the same, Böhme challenged the scientific consensus that all humans are “Out-of-Africa” with her competing “North Side Story” that suggests Mediterranean ape ancestry instead. Both of these notions remain widely disputed in the paleontological community.
In Ancient Bones: Unearthing the Astonishing New Story of How We Became Human, Böhme—with coauthors Rüdiger Braun and Florian Breier—advances this North Side Story with a vengeance, scorning the naysayers and intimating the presence of some wider conspiracy in the paleontological community to suppress findings that dispute the status quo. Böhme brings other ammunition to the table, including the so-called “Trachilos footprints,” the 5.7-million-year-old potentially hominin footprints found on Crete, which—if fully substantiated—would make these more than 2.5 million years earlier than the footprints of Australopithecus afarensis found in Tanzania. Perhaps these were made by El Graeco?! And then there’s Böhme’s own discovery of the 11.6-million-year-old Danuvius guggenmosi, an extinct species of great ape she uncovered near the town of Pforzen in southern Germany, which according to the author revolutionizes the origins of bipedalism. Throughout, she positions herself as the lonely voice in the wilderness shouting truth to power.
I lack the scientific credentials to quarrel with Böhme’s assertions, but I have studied paleoanthropology as a layman long enough to both follow her arguments and to understand why accepted authorities would be reluctant to embrace her somewhat outrageous claims that are after all based on rather thin evidence. But for the uninitiated, some background to this discussion is in order:
While human evolution is in itself not controversial (for scientists, at least; Christian evangelicals are another story), the theoretical process of how we ended up as Homo sapiens sapiens, the only living members of genus Homo, based upon both molecular biology and fossil evidence, has long been open to spirited debate in the field, especially because new fossil finds occur with some frequency and the rules of somewhat secretive peer-reviewed scholarship that lead to publication in scientific journals often delays what should otherwise be breaking news.
Paleontologists have long been known to disagree vociferously with one other, sometimes spawning feuds that erupt in the public arena, such as the famous one in the 1970s between the esteemed, pedigreed Richard Leakey and Donald Johanson over Johanson’s discovery and identification of the 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecine “Lucy,” which was eventually accepted by the scientific community over Leakey’s objections. At one time, it was said that all hominin fossils could be placed on one single, large table. Now there are far more than that: Homo, Australopithecine, and many that defy simple categorization. Also at one time human evolution was envisioned as a direct progression from primitive to sophistication, but today it is accepted that rather than a “tree” our own evolution can best be imagined as a bush, with many relatives—and many of those relatives not on a direct path to the humans that walk the earth today.
Another controversary has been between those who favored an “Out-of-Africa” origin for humanity, and those who advanced what used to be called the multi-regional hypothesis. Since all living Homo sapiens sapiens are very, very closely related to each other—even more closely related than chimpanzees that live in different parts of Africa today—multiregionalism smacked a bit of the illogical and has largely fallen out of favor. The scholarly consensus that Böhme takes head on is that humans can clearly trace their ancestry back to Africa. Another point that should be made is that there are loud voices of white supremacist “race science” proponents outside of the scientific community whom without any substantiation vehemently oppose the “Out-of-Africa” origin theory for racist political purposes, as underscored in Angela Saini’s brilliant recent book, Superior: The Return of Race Science. This is not to suggest that Böhme is racist nor that her motives should be suspect—there is zero evidence that is the case—but the reader must be aware of the greater “noise” that circulates around this topic.
My most pointed criticism of Ancient Bones is that it is highly disorganized, meandering between science and polemic and unexpected later chapters that read like a college textbook on human evolution. It is often hard to know what to make of it. And it’s difficult for me to accept that there is a larger conspiracy in the paleoanthropological community to preserve “Out-of-Africa” against better evidence that few beyond Böhme and her allies have turned up. The author also makes a great deal of identifying singular features in both El Graeco and Danuvius that she insists must establish that her hypotheses are the only correct ones, but as those who are familiar with the work of noted paleoanthropologists John Hawks and Lee Berger are well aware, mosaics—primitive and more advanced characteristics occurring in the same hominin—are far more common than once suspected and thus should give pause to those tempted to conclusions that actual evidence does not unambiguously support.
As noted earlier, I am not a paleontologist or even a scientist, and thus I am far from qualified to peer-review Böhme’s arguments or pronounce judgment on her work. But as a layman with some familiarity with the current scholarship, I remain unconvinced. She also left me uncomfortable with what appears to be a lack of respect for rival ideas and for those who fail to find concordance with her conclusions. More significantly, her book is poorly edited and too often lacks focus. Still, for those like myself who want to stay current with the latest twists-and-turns in the ever-developing story of human evolution, at least some portions of Ancient Bones might be worth a read.
[Note: I read an Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) of this book obtained through an early reviewer’s group.]
[Note: I reviewed Superior: The Return of Race Science, by Angela Saini, here: Review of: Superior: The Return of Race Science, by Angela Saini]
[Note: I reviewed Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery that Changed Our Human Story,” by Lee Berger and John Hawks here: Review of: Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery that Changed Our Human Story, by Lee Berger and John Hawks]
Is another biography of George Washington really necessary? A Google search reveals some nine hundred already exist, not to mention more than five thousand journal articles that chronicle some portion of his life. But the answer turns out to be a resounding yes, and David O. Stewart makes that case magnificently with his latest work, George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father, an extremely well-written, insightful, and surprisingly innovative contribution to the historiography.
Many years ago, I recall reading the classic study, Washington: The Indispensable Man, by James Thomas Flexner, which looks beyond his achievements to put emphasis on his most extraordinary contribution, defined not by what he did but what he deliberately did not do: seize power and rule as tyrant. This, of course, is no little thing, as seen in the pages of history from Caesar to Napoleon. When told he would resign his commission and surrender power to a civilian government, King George III—who no doubt would have had him hanged (or worse) had the war gone differently—famously declared that “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Washington demonstrated that greatness again when he voluntarily—you might say eagerly—stepped down after his tenure as President of the United States to retire to private life. Indispensable he was: it is difficult to imagine the course of the American experiment had another served in his place in either of those pivotal roles.
But there is more to Washington than that, and some of it is less than admirable. Notably, there was Washington’s heroic fumble as a young Virginia officer leading colonial forces to warn away the French at what turned into the Battle of Jumonville Glen and helped to spark the French & Indian War. Brash, headstrong, arrogant, thin-skinned, and ever given to an unshakable certitude that his judgment was the sole correct perspective in every matter, the young Washington distinguished himself for his courage and his integrity while at the same time routinely clashing with authority figures, including former mentors that he frequently left exasperated by his demands for recognition.
Biographers tend to visit this period of his life and then fast-forward two decades ahead to the moment when the esteemed if austere middle-aged Washington showed up to the Continental Congress resplendent in his military uniform, the near-unanimous choice to lead the Revolutionary Army in the struggle against Britain. But how did he get here? In most studies, it is not clear. But this is where Stewart shines! The author, whose background is the law rather than academia—he was once a constitutional lawyer who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, Jr.—has proved himself a brilliant historian in several fine works, including his groundbreaking reassessment of a key episode of the early post-Civil War era, Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy. And in Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships that Built America, Stewart’s careful research, analytical skills, and intuitive approach successfully resurrected portions of James Madison’s elusive personality that had been otherwise mostly lost to history.
This talent is on display here, as well, as Stewart adeptly examines and interprets Washington’s evolution from Jumonville Glen to Valley Forge. Washington’s own personality is something of a conundrum for biographers, as he can seem to be simultaneously both selfless and self-centered. The young Washington so frequently in turn infuriated and alienated peers and superiors alike that it may strike us as fully remarkable that this is the same individual who could later harness the talents and loyalty of both rival generals during the war and the outsize egos of fellow Founders as the new Republic took shape. Stewart demonstrates that Washington was the author of his own success in this arena, quietly in touch with his strengths and weaknesses while earning respect and cultivating goodwill over the years as he established himself as a key figure in the Commonwealth. Washington himself was not in this regard a changed man as much as he was a more mature man who taught himself to modify his demeanor and his behavior in the company of others for mutual advantage. This too, is no small thing.
The subtitle of this book—The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father—is thus hardly accidental, the latest contribution to a rapidly expanding genre focused upon politics and power, showcased in such works as Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, and Robert Dallek’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life. Collectively, these studies serve to underscore that politics is ever at the heart of leadership, as well as that great leaders are not born fully formed, but rather evolve and emerge. George Washington perhaps personifies the most salient example of this phenomenon.
The elephant in the room of any examination of Washington—or the other Virginia Founders who championed liberty and equality for that matter—is slavery. Like Jefferson and Madison and a host of others, Washington on various occasions decried the institution of enslaving human beings—while he himself held hundreds as chattel property. Washington is often credited with freeing the enslaved he held direct title to in his will, but that hardly absolves him of the sin of a lifetime of buying, selling, and maintaining an unpaid labor force for nothing less than his own personal gain, especially since he was aware of the moral blemish in doing so. Today’s apologists often caution that is unfair to judge those who walked the earth in the late eighteenth-century by our own contemporary standards, but the reality is that these were Enlightenment-era men that in their own words declared slavery abhorrent while—like Jefferson with his famous “wolf by the ear” cop-out—making excuses to justify participating in and perpetuating a cruel inhumanity that served their own economic self-interests. As biographer, Stewart’s strategy for this dimension of Washington’s life is to treat very little with it in the course of the narrative, while devoting the second to last chapter to a frank and balanced discussion of the ambivalence that governed the thoughts and actions of the master of Mount Vernon. It is neither whitewash nor condemnation.
Stewart’s study is by no means hagiography, but the author clearly admires his subject. Washington gets a pass for his shortcomings at Jumonville, and he is hardly held to strict account for his role as an enslaver. Still, the result of Stewart’s research, analysis, and approach is the most readable and best single-volume account of Washington’s life to date. This is a significant contribution to the scholarship that I suspect will long be deemed required reading.
I reviewed other works by David O. Stewart here:
My review of Dallek’s Franklin D. Roosevelt, referenced above, is here: Review of: Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, by Robert Dallek
Conspicuous in their absence from my 1960s elementary education were African Americans and Native Americans. Enslaved blacks made an appearance in my textbooks, of course, but slavery as an institution was sketched out as little more than a vague and largely benign product of the times. Then there was a Civil War fought over white men’s sectional grievances; there were dates, and battles, and generals, winners and losers. There was Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, then constitutional amendments that ended slavery and guaranteed equality. There was some bitterness but soon there was reconciliation, and we went on to finish building the transcontinental railroad. There were the obligatory walk-on cameos by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and later George Washington Carver, who had something to do with peanuts. For Native Americans, the record was even worse. Our texts featured vignettes of Squanto, Pocahontas, Sacajawea, and Sitting Bull. The millions of Amerindians that once populated the country from coast to coast had been effectively erased.
Alan Taylor, Pulitzer Prize winning author and arguably the foremost living historian of early America, has devoted a lifetime to redressing those twin wrongs while restoring the nuanced complexity of our past that was utterly excised from the standard celebration of our national heritage that for so long dominated our historiography. In the process, in the eleven books he has published to date, he has also dramatically shifted the perspective and widened the lens from the familiar approach that more rigidly defines the boundaries of the geography and the established chapters in the history of the United States—a stunning collective achievement that reveals key peoples, critical elements, and greater themes often obscured by the traditional methodology.
I first encountered Taylor some years ago when I read his magnificent American Colonies: The Settling of North America, which restores the long overlooked multicultural and multinational participants who peopled the landscape, while at the same time enlarging the geographic scope beyond the English colonies that later comprised the United States to encompass the rest of the continent that was destined to become Canada and Mexico, as well as highlighting vital links to the West Indies. Later, in American Revolutions, Taylor identifies a series of social, economic and political revolutions of outsize significance over more than five decades that often go unnoticed in the shadows of the War of Independence, which receives all the attention.
Still, as Taylor underscores, it was the outcome of the latter struggle—in which white, former English colonists established a new nation—that was to have the most lasting and dire consequences for all those in their orbit who were not white, former English colonists, most especially blacks and Native Americans. The defeated British had previously drawn boundaries that served as a brake on westward expansion and left more of that vast territory as a home to the indigenous. That brake was now off. Some decades later, Britain was to abolish slavery throughout its empire, which no longer included its former colonies. Thus the legacy of the American Revolution was the tragic irony that a Republic established to champion liberty and equality for white men would ultimately be constructed upon the backs of blacks doomed to chattel slavery, as well as the banishment or extermination of Native Americans. This theme dominates much of Taylor’s work.
In his latest book, American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850, which roughly spans the period from the Peace of Paris to California statehood, Taylor further explores this grim theme in a brilliant analysis of how the principles of white supremacy—present at the creation—impacted the subsequent course of United States history. Now this is, of course, uncomfortable stuff for many Americans, who might cringe at that very notion amid cries of revisionism that insist contemporary models and morality are being appropriated and unfairly leveraged against the past. But terminology is less important than outcomes: non-whites were not only foreclosed from participating as citizens in the new Republic, but also from enjoying the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness allegedly granted to their white counterparts. At the same time, southern states where slavery thrived wielded outsize political power that frequently plotted the nation’s destiny. As in his other works, Taylor is a master of identifying unintended consequences, and there are more than a few to go around in the insightful, deeply analytical, and well-written narrative that follows.
These days, it is almost de rigueur for historians to decry the failure of the Founders to resolve the contradictions of permitting human chattel slavery to coexist within what was declared to be a Republic based upon freedom and equality. In almost the same breath, however, many in the field still champion the spirit of compromise that has marked the nation’s history. But if there is an original sin to underscore, it is less that slavery was allowed to endure than that it was codified within the very text of the Constitution of the United States by means of the infamous compromise that was the “three-fifths rule,” which for the purposes of representation permitted each state to count enslaved African Americans as three-fifths of a person, thus inflating the political power of each state based upon their enslaved population. This might have benefited all states equally, but since slavery was to rapidly decline and all but disappear above what would be drawn as the Mason-Dixon, all the advantage flowed to the south, where eventually some states saw its enslaved population outnumber its free white citizenry.
This was to prove dramatic, since the slave south claimed a disproportionate share of national political power when it came to advancing legislation or, for that matter, electing a president! Taylor notes that the disputed election of 1824 that went for decision to the House of Representatives would have been far less disputed without the three-fifths clause, since in that case John Quincy Adams would have led Andrew Jackson in the Electoral College 83 to 77 votes, instead of putting Jackson in the lead 99 to 84. [p253] When Jackson prevailed in the next election, it was the south that cemented his victory.
The scholarly consensus has established the centrality of slavery to the Civil War, but Taylor goes further, arguing that its significance extended long before secession: slavery was ever the central issue in American history, representing wealth, power, and political advantage. The revolutionary generation decried slavery on paper—slave masters Washington, Jefferson and Madison all pronounced it one form of abomination or another—but nevertheless failed to act against it, or even part with their own human property. Jefferson famously declared himself helpless, saying of the peculiar institution that “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go,” but as slavery grew less profitable for Virginia in the upper south, Jefferson and his counterparts turned to breeding the enslaved for sale to the lower south, where the demand was great. Taylor points out that “In 1803 a male field hand sold for about $600 in South Carolina compared to $400 in Virginia: a $200 difference enticing to Virginia sellers and Carolina slave traders … Between 1790 and 1860, in one of the largest forced migrations in world history, slave traders and migrants herded over a million slaves from Virginia and Maryland to expand southern society …” [p159] Data and statistics may obscure it, but these were after all living, breathing, sentient human beings who were frequently subjected to great brutalities while enriching those who held them as chattel property.
Jefferson and others of his ilk imagined that slavery would somehow fall out of favor at some distant date, but optimistically kicking the can down the road to future generations proved a fraught strategy: nothing but civil war could ever have ended it. As Taylor notes:
Contrary to the wishful thinking of many Patriots, slavery did not wither away after the American Revolution. Instead, it became more profitable and entrenched as the South expanded westward. From 698,600 in 1790, the number of enslaved people soared to nearly 4 million by 1860, when they comprised a third of the South’s population … In 1860, the monetary value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the nation’s banks, factories, and railroads combined. Masters would never part with so much valuable human property without a fight. [p196]
As bad as it was for enslaved blacks, in the end Native Americans fared far worse. It has been estimated that up to 90% of Amerindians died as a result to exposure to foreign pathogens within a century of the Columbian Experience. The survivors faced a grim future competing for land and resources with rapacious settlers who were better armed and better organized. It may very well be that conflict between colonists and the indigenous was inevitable, but as Taylor emphasizes, the trajectory of the relationship became especially disastrous for the latter after British retreat essentially removed all constraints on territorial expansion.
The stated goal of the American government was peaceful coexistence that emphasized native assimilation to “white civilization.” The Cherokees who once inhabited present-day Georgia actually attempted that, transitioning from hunting and gathering to agriculture, living in wooden houses, learning English, creating a written language. Many practiced Christianity. Some of the wealthiest worked plantations with enslaved human property. It was all for naught. With the discovery of gold in the vicinity, the Cherokees were stripped of their lands in the Indian Removal Act of 1830, championed by President Andrew Jackson, and marched at bayonet point over several months some 1200 miles to the far west. Thousands died in what has been dubbed the “Trail of Tears,” certainly one of the most shameful episodes of United States history. Sadly, rather than an exception, the fate of the Cherokees proved to be indicative of what lay in store for the rest of the indigenous as the new nation grew and the hunger for land exploded.
That hunger, of course, also fueled the Mexican War, launched on a pretext in yet another shameful episode that resulted in an enormous land grab that saw a weaker neighbor forced to cede one-third of its former domains. It was the determination of southern states to transplant plantation-based slavery to these new territories—and the fierce resistance to that by “Free-Soilers” in Lincoln’s Republican Party—that lit the fuse of secession and the bloody Civil War that it spawned.
If there are faults to this fine book, one is that there is simply too much material to capably cover in less than four hundred pages, despite the talented pen and brilliant analytical skills of Alan Taylor. The author devoted an entire volume—The Civil War of 1812—to the events surrounding the War of 1812, a conflict also central to a subsequent effort, The Internal Enemy. This kind of emphasis on a particular event or specific theme is typical of Taylor’s work. In American Republics, he strays from that technique to attempt the kind of grand narrative survey seen by other chroniclers of the Republic, powering through decades of significance at sometimes dizzying speeds, no doubt a delight for some readers but yet disappointing to others long accustomed to the author’s detailed focus on the more narrowly defined.
Characteristic of his remarkable perspicacity, Taylor identifies what other historians overlook, arguing in American Republics that the War of 1812 was only the most well-known struggle in a consequential if neglected era he calls the “Wars of the 1810s” that also saw the British retreat northward, the Spanish forsake Florida, and the dispossession of Native Americans accelerate. [p148] That could be a volume in itself. Likewise, American culture and politics in the twelve years that separate Madison and Jackson is worthy of book-length treatment. There is so much more.
Another issue is balance—or a lack thereof. If the history of my childhood was written solely in the triumphs of white men, such accomplishments are wholly absent in American Republics, which reveals the long-suppressed saga of the once invisible victims of white supremacy. It’s a true story, an important story—but it’s not the only story. Surely there are some achievements of the Republic worthy of recognition here?
As the culture wars heat to volcanic temperatures, such omissions only add tinder to the flames of those dedicated to the whitewash that promotes heritage over history. Already the right has conjured an imaginary bugaboo in Critical Race Theory (CRT), with legislation in place or pending in a string of states that proscribes the teaching of CRT. These laws have nothing to do with Critical Race Theory, of course, but rather give cover to the dog whistles of those who would intimidate educators so they cannot teach the truth about slavery, about Reconstruction, about Civil Rights. These laws put grade-school teachers at a risk of termination for incorporating factual elements of our past into their curriculum, effectively banning from the classroom the content of much of American Republics. This is very serious stuff: Alan Taylor is a distinguished professor at the University of Virginia, a state that saw the governor-elect recently ride to an unlikely victory astride a sort of anti-CRT Trojan Horse. Historians cannot afford any unforced errors in a game that scholars seem to be ceding to dogmatists. If the current trend continues, we may very well witness reprints of my childhood textbooks, with blacks and the indigenous once more consigned to the periphery.
I have read seven of Taylor’s books to date. Like the others, his most recent work represents a critical achievement for historical scholarship, as well as a powerful antidote to the propaganda that formerly tarnished studies of the American Experience. The United States was and remains a nation unique in the family of nations, replete with a fascinating history that is at once complicated, messy, and controversial. American history, at its most basic, is simply a story of how we got from then to now: it can only be properly understood and appreciated in the context of its entirety, warts and all. Anything less is a disservice to the discipline as well as to the audience. To that end, American Republics is required reading.
Note: I have reviewed other works by Alan Taylor here:
In what has to be the most shameful decision rendered in the long and otherwise distinguished career of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in 1927 the Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell to uphold a compulsory sterilization law in Virginia. The case centered on eighteen-year-old Carrie Buck, confined to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, and Holmes wrote the majority opinion in the near unanimous decision, famously concluding that “three generations of idiots is enough.”
Similar laws prevailed in some thirty-two states, resulting in the forced sterilization of more than 60,000 Americans. Had Carrie lived in Massachusetts, she would have avoided this fate, but she likely would have been condemned to the Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded, which—like similar institutions of this era—had its foundation in the eugenics, racism and Social Darwinism of the time that argued that “defectives” with low moral character threatened the very health of the population by breeding others of their kind, raising fears that a kind of contagious degeneracy would permanently damage the otherwise worthy inhabitants of the nation. I have written elsewhere of the horror-show of inhumane conditions and patient abuse at the Belchertown State School, which did not finally close its doors until 1992.
Sterilization was only one chilling byproduct of “eugenics,” a term coined by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin whose misunderstanding of the principles of Darwinian evolution led to his championing of scientific racism. Eugenics was also the driving force behind the 1924 immigration law that dramatically reduced the number of Jews, Italians, and East Europeans admitted to the United States. White supremacy did not only consign blacks and other people of color to the ranks of the “less developed” races, but specifically exalted those of northern and central European origin as the best and the brightest. This was all pseudoscience of course, but it was quite widely accepted and “respectable” in its day.
Then, along came Hitler and the Holocaust, and more than six million Jews and other “undesirables” were systematically murdered in the name of racial purity. Eugenics was respectable no more. Most of us born in the decades that followed the almost unfathomable horror of that Nazi sponsored genocide may have assumed that race science was finally discredited and disappeared forever, relegated to a blood-spattered dustbin of history. But, as Angela Saini reveals in her well-written, deeply researched, and sometimes startling book, Superior: The Return of Race Science, scientific racism not only never really went extinct, but it has returned in our day with a kind of vengeance, fueling the fever for calls to action on the right for anti-immigration legislation.
Saini, a science journalist, broadcaster, and author with a pair of master’s degrees may be uniquely qualified to tell this story. Born in London of Indian parents, in a world seemingly obsessed with racial classification she relates how her background and brown complexion defies categorization; some may consider her Indian, or Asian—or even black. But of course in reality she could not be more British, even if for many her skin color sets her apart. The UK’s legacy of empire and Kipling’s “white man’s burden” still loom large.
But Superior is not a screed and is not about Saini, but rather about how mistaken notions of race and the pseudoscience of scientific racism have not only persisted but are rapidly gaining ground for a new audience and a new era. To achieve this, the author conducted comprehensive research into the origins of eugenics, but even more significantly identified how the ideology of race science that fueled National Socialism and begat Auschwitz and Birkenau quietly if no less adamantly endured post-Nuremberg cloaked in the less fiery rhetoric of pseudoscientific journals grasping at the periphery of legitimacy. Moreover, a modern revolution in paleogenetics and DNA research that should firmly refute such dangerous musings has instead been incorporated for a new generation of acolytes to scientific racism that serve to both undergird and add a false sense of authenticity to dangerous political tendencies on the right that long simmered and now have burst forth in the public arena.
Whatever some may believe, science has long established that race, for all intents and purposes, is a myth, a social construct that advances no important information about any given population. Regardless of superficial characteristics, all living humans—designated homo sapiens sapiens—are biologically the same and by every other critical metric are essentially members of the same closely related population. In fact, various groups of chimpanzees of Central Africa demonstrate greater genetic diversity than all humans across the globe today. Modern humans likely evolved from a common ancestor in Africa, and thus all of humanity is out of Africa. It is just as likely that all humans once had dark skin, and that lighter skin, what we would term “white” or Caucasian, developed later as populations moved north and melanin—a pigment located in the outer skin layer called the epidermis—was reduced as an adaptation to cope with relatively weak solar radiation in far northern latitudes. The latest scholarship reveals that Europeans only developed their fairer complexion as recently as 8500 years ago!
The deepest and most glaring flaw in the race science that was foundational to Nazism is that it is actually a lack of diversity that often results in a less healthy population. This is not only apparent in the hemophilia that plagued the closely related royal houses of the European monarchies, but on a more macro scale with genetic conditions more common to certain ethnic groups, such as sickle cell disease for those of African heritage, and Tay-Sachs disease among Ashkenazi Jews.
Counterintuitively, modern proponents of race science cherry pick DNA data to attempt to promote superiority for whites that concomitantly assigns a lesser status for people of color, and these concepts are then repackaged to champion policies that limit immigration from certain parts of the world. Once anathema for all but those on the very fringes of the political spectrum, this dangerous rebirth of genetic pseudoscience is now given voice on right-wing media. Worse perhaps, the tendency of mainstream media to promote fairness in what has come to be dubbed “bothsiderism” sometimes offers an underserved platform to those spinning racist dogma in the guise of scientific studies. Of course, social media has now transcended television as a messaging vehicle, and it is far better suited to spreading misinformation, especially in an era given to a mistrust of expertise, thus granting a seat at the table to the unsupported on the same platform with credible fact-based reality, urging the audience to do their own research and come to their own conclusions.
The United States was collectively shaken in 2017 when white supremacists wielding tiki torches marched at Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and shaken once more when then-president Donald Trump subsequently asserted that there “were very fine people, on both sides.” But there was far less outrage the following year when Trump both sounded a dog whistle and startled lawmakers as he wondered aloud why we should allow in more immigrants from Haiti and “shithole countries” in Africa instead of from places like Norway. (Unanswered, of course, is why a person would want to abandon the arguably higher quality of life in Norway to come to the U.S. …) But the volume on such dog whistles has been turned up alarmingly as of late by popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who in between fear-mongering messaging that casts the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and Critical Race Theory (CRT) as Marxist conspiracies that threaten the American way of life, openly advocates against the paranoid alt-right terror of the “Great Replacement” theory, a staple of the white supremacist canon, declaring the Biden administration actively engaged in trying “to change the racial mix of the country … to reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here, and dramatically increase the proportion of Americans newly-arrived from the third world.” Translation: people of color are trying to supplant white people. Carlson doesn’t cite race science, but he did recently allow comments to go unchallenged by his guest, the racist extremist social scientist Charles Murray, that the “the cognitive demands” of some occupations mean “a whole lot of more white people qualify than Black people.” Superior was published in 2019 but is chillingly prescient about the dangerous trajectory of both racism and race science on the right.
There is a lot of material between the covers of this book, but because Saini writes so well and speaks to the more arcane matters in language comprehensible to a wide audience, it is not a difficult read. Throughout, the research is impeccable and the analysis spot-on. Still, there are moments Saini strays a bit, at one point seeming to speculate whether we should hold back on paleogenetic research lest this data be further perverted by proponents of scientific racism. That is, of course, the wrong approach: the best weapon against pseudoscience remains science itself. Still, the warning bells she sounds here must be heeded. The twin threats of racism and the rebirth of race science into the mainstream are indeed clear and present dangers that must be confronted and combated at every corner. The author’s message is clear and perhaps more relevant now than at any time since the 1930s, another era when hate and racism served as by-products that informed an angry brand of populism that claimed legitimacy through race science. We all know how that ended.
I have written of the Belchertown State School here: