1856 - Africa, The Dark Continent

Western Africa: Its History, Condition, and Prospects J. Leighton (John Leighton) Wilson Harper & Brothers New York 1856. (EX LIBRIS Google Books Library Project)

In the middle nineteenth century, Africa was called the Dark Continent - not because of the complexion of many of its people, but because knowledge of its interior was so very limited. (The words vision and wisdom are cognates.)

As the modern eye reads the excerpt above, the heavy imprint of religious tradition is perhaps the very first thing that gains attention. The origins of peoples are related to Scripture and the mystery of destiny is apprehended via divine teleology. A different perspective on the genesis and development of man was just bubbling to the surface in 1856.

A naturalist who had taken a degree to prepare for the clergy when his squeamishness at primitive surgeries prevented him from following his upper-class physician-father's trade, Charles Darwin began in 1856 to coalesce on paper long-held suppositions arising from extensive empirical study.

On 14 May 1856, he wrote in his journal that he "Began by Lyell's advice writing species sketch." For the next two years and more, his working life was completely dominated by the preparation of this manuscript... He had been pondering the question of species for nearly twenty years, gathering vast quantities of information, pursuing his own experiments in a variety of different areas, analysing and altering his arguments in the light of recent results across the spectrum of nineteenth-century natural history, but never relinquishing the belief that his theory of natural selection could explain the structure of the living world. The moment had come, he accepted, to marshall his facts and put his theory before the public. His book was to be called "Natural selection". - source

The book as originally conceived would not appear, but 1859 saw the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, to be followed in 1871 by The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. These works would forever seal Charles Darwin's reputation as a biological peer of physicist Isaac Newton.

Meanwhile, 1856 also saw the start of critical experiments by a very unlikely scientific superhero. The son of a Bohemian peasant farmer, Gregor Mendel, a Roman Catholic religious, had proved unsuitable as a parish priest, suffering a nervous breakdown from the attempt. So, instead, he had been encouraged to follow intellectual vocations.

Around 1856, at [the] suggestion [of his father superior, Abbot Napp] Mendel undertook some scientific experiments on heredity. He chose to study a number of characteristics of the pea plants he grew in his own patch of the monastery garden. [Ten years later he published his results] ...in the ...journal [of the local natural history society]. The work was a tour de force: the experiments were brilliantly designed and painstakingly executed, and his analysis of the results was insightful and deft. It seems that his training in physics contributed to his breakthrough because, unlike other biologists of that time, he approached the problem quantitatively... [His paper was] ignored by the scientific community for another thirty-four years... Why did it take so long [to unravel the science of genetics?] ...One simple reason is that genetic mechanisms turn out to be complicated. ...Gregor Mendel was the one who got it right. - source

Less than a century after 1856, Watson and Crick had unraveled the mystery of DNA and provided a microscopic biochemical basis for genetics, as well as thereby making possible quantitative (albeit incomplete) statistical methods of studying genealogical relatedness from the scale of phylogeny all the way down to subtle differentiation within a single species.

It turns out 1856 was also the beginning of paleoanthropology, with discovery of the bones of Neanderthal Man in Europe during August. Genetic studies early in this century have persuaded many that humanity is not descended from Neanderthal Man, but does share with him common ancestors from about a half-million years ago.

Very recent DNA studies of human populations have greatly illuminated the study of human prehistory. A very good short account for the intelligent layman is the volume Genes, Peoples, and Languages by Stanford Professor Emeritus of Genetics Luigi Luca Cavallli-Sforza. (The only pity is that not one American in ten knows enough math to understand things like Principal Components Analysis, to truly grasp the significance and limitations of the statements made within the book.) Something of a watered-down digest is the book Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through Our Genes by science writer Steve Olson. By the way, Cavallli-Sforza's seminal work on "genetic drift" was the flower of interaction with one of his students, a Roman Catholic priest who suggested use might be made of centuries of church marriage records, which betray how far apart marriage partners were born.

A good supplementary volume, which in a less scientific way explores the development of technology, culture and the political ramifications of same, is the celebrated Guns, Germs, and Steel by Professor Jared Diamond. Among other things, it is a paean to the advantages of cosmopolitan contacts: societies drawing on progress anywhere grew in wealth and power, and when they eventually encountered unfortunate others, could (and often did) deal with them merely as they chose.

For some time, the upshot of modern geneaology via group genetics was that it appears all humans now alive on earth are descendents of a common pool of about 50,000 individuals all living in east Africa about 100,000 years ago (round numbers). So every last American, is, technically, an African-American. The so-called "multiregional" hypothesis, embraced by the old guard in China, is rejected.

More remarkable yet is how even very small, plausible, amounts of hypothetical migration and "out-breeding" allow all humans now alive to share ancestors over historical time intervals. In Nature 431, 518-519, a recent (30 Sep 2004) commentary by Jotun Hein titled Human evolution: Pedigrees for all humanity suggests we all share a common ancestor as recently as 2,000 to 5,000 years ago, and we all share all of our ancestors (albeit not each as many times) as recently as 5,000 to 7,000 years ago. So in an indirect way, perhaps Bishop Ussher gets the last laugh! And I guess even if you don't count our universal African ancestry of a thousand centuries ago, under the "one-drop" rule we all still would belong in "the back of the bus".

As for the "most adverse influences" in Africa of which the 1856 text above writes, Columbia economist Jeffery Sachs, best known for his so-called "shock therapy" advice to post-Communist eastern block nations, now argues that infusions of capital, modest on a global scale, can in a short time, permanently lift tropical Africans out of "poverty traps" they cannot escape through their own efforts, however heroic. His ideas are layed out in the recent book The End of Poverty.