Saturday, December 27, 2014


There are so many ways voices can be suppressed. In the case of Georg Gerland, it’s easy. Just don’t translate him. His book Über das Aussterben der Naturvölker (On the Extinction of Primitive Peoples) was published in 1868. As far as I know, it has never been translated into English. There is a French edition which has helped me, but I’ve consulted the German too. It ought to be considered a classic of humanitarianism. Instead, hardly anyone knows about it.
Gerland was a German professor of geography, anthropology, and more. Darwin mentions his book a bunch of times in The Descent of Man. He read it very carefully in preparation for Descent, making a running translation in the margins as he went along and also keeping a few pages of notes. His interest in it, at least as far as the references in Descent go, was quite limited. He extracted some information about infanticide among savages and notes some points about dwindling numbers of a group leading to extinction, but he never tells his readers how rich Gerland’s book is and how sympathetic he was towards the plight of savages (which is how Darwin translates Naturvölker).
Darwin and Gerland together provide a good example of how two authors might agree on some general points yet interpret those points quite differently. Thus, both find that there are multiple causes threatening the existence of native peoples, but they do not arrange them in the same order of importance. For Darwin, the infertility of the women was a major cause. He also looked at infanticide and the susceptibility of savages to new diseases. He emphasizes what might be called biological causes.
Gerland looked at these causes too, but he also paid considerable attention to the bloodthirstiness and violence of Europeans towards natives. Besides overt violence, he made a big issue of what we would call culture shock. In the best of circumstances, if Europe had approached indigenous peoples in a friendly manner, adapting to another culture would be extremely difficult. It is mentally and spiritually exhausting. And savages never had the advantage of amicable relations with European invaders. Trying to assimilate a conquering culture has depressed the hell out of natives. Gerland was very sensitive to this. He also knew this was aggravated because of the racism of Europeans. Gerland usually refers to racism as arrogance and even racial arrogance. He singles out the English and the Dutch for their arrogance and hatred towards all people of color.
None of this enters into Darwin’s own examination of causes and he never tells the full story of what Gerland really thinks.
Both Darwin and Gerland believed that man was a part of nature, but here again they are so far apart from each other. Gerland looked at things from the point of view of the whole. He did not think that Europe was the center of the universe. Every human race is a part of the whole of nature and each part makes some contribution to the whole. Europeans have no right to decide when some part’s contribution has come to an end. Gerland believed that nature wants each of its components to thrive and progress. Savages must somehow play a role in this too. Europeans should not be cavalier about the extinction of any group and certainly should not be helping any group along to its demise. If Europe does that, it will be sinking back into savagery.
Darwin knew all this about Gerland because he translated many of these points in the margins of his copy of Gerland’s book, but he is silent about it in Descent. Compared to Gerland, Darwin’s approach to the impending extinction of savages is incredibly arrogant. Their extermination for Darwin was inevitable precisely because, in his view, savages are inferior and Europe superior. For Gerland, it is not inevitable unless Europe makes it so and that would be a barbaric thing to do.
As I said, Gerland’s book is a classic, combining science and humanitarianism. It has been suppressed primarily, I think, because it is such a contrast to Darwin’s work. It is yet another 19th century book that identified racism as a major cultural problem for Europe that can be ignored only at its own peril. He was the far more prescient thinker.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer