I’ve commented several times in these essays about the way that Americans in particular, and people throughout the industrial world more generally, like to pretend that history has nothing to teach them. It’s a remarkably odd habit, not least because the lessons of history keep whacking them upside the head with an assortment of well-aged and sturdy timbers, without ever breaking through the trance.
The major source of opposition to all these claims was the unwillingness to apply the same morphological principles to human beings. Goethe’s researches into the skull, like Darwin’s studies of natural selection, both ran into heated challenges from those who were unwilling to see themselves included in the same category as other animals: to notice, for example, that the same bone patterns found in the bat’s wing, the porpoise’s flipper, and the cat’s foreleg are also present in your hand. Even so, the morphological approach triumphed, because even the opponents of evolutionary theory ended up using it. Georges Cuvier, a famous biologist of the generation before Darwin, was a fierce opponent of theories of evolution; he was still able to take a few bones from an extinct creature, sketch out what the rest of the animal would have looked like—and get it right.