In 1889, a well-respected paleontologist named Edward Drinker Cope described “two perils of the Indo-European”: women’s suffrage and the presence of the descendants of Africans in the United States. As gender studies scholar Kyla Schuller writes, this conclusion was the result of a distinct view of evolution, sentiment, and human progress that held great sway among white U.S. intellectuals in the late nineteenth century.
Schuller writes that Cope became involved with a group of like-minded thinkers, who styled themselves the American School of Evolution, in the late 1860s. They rejected Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Instead, they built on the work of French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Unlike Darwin, Lamarck believed that acquired characteristics like strong muscles could be passed on to descendants. He famously argued that straining to reach leaves high in the trees caused giraffes’ necks to grow, and that they then passed this characteristic down to their offspring. In humans, Lamarck argued, sentiment—emotional responses to physical sensations—gradually made physical changes in the body.
The scholars of the American School identified themselves as “neo-Lamarckians.” They linked physical and emotional sensitivity with the ability to advance intellectually. This meant that people could influence their own personal growth, and, thus, the evolution of humanity, by appropriately focusing their energy.
Cope’s ideas about the transmission of adaptations were widely embraced both in late nineteenth-century paleontology and in the broader culture. The Darwinian vision of evolution over generations through a random, amoral process was much less appealing to many people than the hope for fast, intellectually directed, morally focused advancement.
“Many Anglo-Saxons looked forward not just to ongoing biosocial evolution but also to a millennial ascent into perfection,” Schuller writes.
Cope and his colleagues argued that more “civilized” races were more sensitive to stimulation. So white Americans could direct their vital life energy toward racial improvement. African Americans, on the other hand, represented “dead material,” unable “to properly direct the force of animal desire” toward progress. Here lay the danger of Black Americans’ presence in the country, which Cope believed would inevitably lead to race mixing and the dilution of the Anglo-Saxon race.
At the same time, the positive value of sensitivity also had a dangerous side. It could slide into sentimentality, vulnerability, and hysteria.
For Cope, the solution to this problem was heterosexual marriage. He argued that Anglo-Saxons had the greatest physical and mental differentiation between the sexes. An Anglo-Saxon woman was the epitome of sentimental sensitivity, but being protected and ruled by her husband meant she could function as “a being of affections” without causing harm. Her husband, meanwhile, could benefit from the “indirect influence” of her sentimental feelings without having his own rationality damaged.
This explains the danger in women’s suffrage. Cope argued that participating in politics would masculinize women, leading to an erosion of the civilized and beneficial differences between the sexes. Perhaps conveniently for many scientists of the time, the concept of evolution promoted by Cope and his colleagues led seamlessly to a case for white, male dominance.