[Marxism] The Life And Controversies Of Henry Fairfield Osborn

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon May 28 08:06:36 MDT 2012

The Life And Controversies Of Henry Fairfield Osborn
Part I of II

by Michael Barker

(Swans - February 13, 2012)   In common parlance Henry Fairfield 
Osborn's racial legacy (1857-1935) remains largely unknown, but as the 
president of the American Museum of Natural History (1908-33) and 
president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science 
(1928), Osborn was, in his day, "second only to Albert Einstein as the 
most popular and well-known scientist in America." Moreover, as an 
outspoken scientist closely allied to the American ruling class, 
Osborn's "role in immigration legislation and the eugenics movement, 
science education, and controversies surrounding questions of human 
evolution and its impact upon America, make it essential that the 
intellectual basis of his work be examined." (1) It is to this end that 
this article will draw upon the arguments made in Brian Regal's 
invaluable biographical study Henry Fairfield Osborn: Race and the 
Search for the Origins of Man (Ashgate, 2002) in an attempt to shed more 
light on Osborn's place in American history.

To start with it is useful to observe that the privileged upbringing 
that Osborn obtained played an integral role in developing his ruling 
class pedigree: Osborn's uncle was the infamous financier, J.P. Morgan, 
while his boyhood friends included the future president of the United 
States, Theodore Roosevelt. In 1877, Osborn graduated with the 
gilded-age elites from the College of New Jersey (which later became 
known as Princeton University), and with a handful of his fellow 
graduates soon embarked on an old-fashioned imperial adventure to the 
Catskill Mountains in the "Wild West." Dressed as cowboys, the elite 
adventurers set off on what was to be the first Princeton Scientific 
Expedition, and while Osborn had initially considered the trip to be a 
last bid for freedom (prior to adulthood and corporate servitude), his 
passion for palaeontology was sharpened and he began to seriously 
consider embarking upon a scientific career. (2)

full: http://swans.com/library/art18/barker99.html


And yet, the whole book is kind of an essay on race. The safaris were 
only an extension of the madness of the museum’s scientific agenda. The 
primary purpose of the safaris was to collect (that is, kill) these 
creatures, to create time capsules of the doomed so that the educated 
people of the future would be able to see what had been lost in the name 
of progress. But ironically, the American Museum of Natural History was 
complicit in this progress: it’s no coincidence that it was building new 
halls during an era in which American interests were expanding overseas. 
The museum had initially filled up with specimens (not to mention 
ethnological curios from exterminated native tribes) from the expanding 
Western frontier. Then, as the United States sought new markets 
worldwide and became more of an imperial contender, the museum had built 
halls to accommodate artifacts from newly explored corners of the globe. 
During Teddy Roosevelt’s second term alone, the museum sent expeditions 
to the East Indies, the Arctic Ocean, Alaska, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, 
Nicaragua, Tahiti, the Philippines, Samoa, Trinidad, Venezuela, Egypt, 
and Hawaii. Akeley’s boss, Henry Fairfield Osborn, the president of the 
museum, often referred to his acquisitions as “conquests.”

Osborn was also a leading, outspoken eugenicist who believed that the 
discreet and neat divisions between species that his dioramas 
demonstrated could serve as a moral lesson to the immigrants crowding 
the Lower East Side, whom he (along with a lot of his fellow 
aristocrats) feared would violate Nature by committing the noxious act 
of miscegenation and commingling their defective “race plasm” with his 
own Nordic stock. “Put three races together,” he liked to say, “and you 
are as likely to unite the vices as the virtues.” He actually hosted at 
least one major international eugenics conference in the twenties at the 
AMNH. He was a big fan of Hitler.

full: http://www.harpers.org/archive/2011/12/hbc-90008352

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