Beginning with a discussion about Black Lives Matter may seem like an unlikely place to start a book about nineteenth century science and culture....

Beginning with a discussion about Black Lives Matter may seem like an unlikely place to start a book about nineteenth century science and culture. However, by contrasting Black lives with White feelings, Kyla Schuller sets up the central conflict of her book. The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century (Duke University Press, 2017) interrogates the role of sexual difference in the management of racialized populations, making this book a necessary read for understanding the history of such current social movements as Black Lives Matter and the trans* exclusionary “Pussy hat” feminism.

From the very beginning of the book, our conceptions of nineteenth-century science are challenged. For much of the century,  many US scientists championed Jean-Baptiste Lamarck over Charles Darwin as their most prominent influence. In their quest to refute determinist theories of heredity, the neo-Lamarckians of the American School of Evolution advocated for a self-directed version of evolution. These scientists argued that Anglo-Saxons  have the most adaptable features and impressionable heredity. This impressionability was what made Whites more sentimental and civilized than other races, who were not as impressionable and seen as largely stuck in a prior stage of progressivist evolution, according to E.D. Cope and the American School of Evolution. Whites were also seen as having greater sexual dimorphism than other races, while women of color were not seen as achieving true womanhood. Kyla therefore finds the origin of binary sex enveloped in racialized difference.

Beyond the subject of evolutionary science, this book introduces us to the Black uplift project of Frances Harper, the vagina politics of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and Dr. Mary Walker, the biophilanthropy of Charles Loring Brace, and the assemblage theories of W.E.B. DuBois. The Biopolitics of Feeling is packed with interesting, and sometimes shocking, historical anecdotes, such as Walker’s sex advice book to men in 1878, E.D. Cope’s sometimes destructive and violent rivalry with O.C. Marsh, and the “orphan trains” that took two hundred thousand kids out West for educational and labor purposes. The breadth of this book shouldd be of interest to a number of scholars interested in the history of science, literature, and medicine. Meanwhile, Kyla’s engagement and challenge to New Materialist theories is likely to be canonical for future Feminist STS scholars.


Chad J. Valasek is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology & Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego. His research interests includes the history of the human sciences, the influence of the behavioral sciences on medical practice and health policy, and political activism around science and the arts. You can follow him on Twitter @chadjvalasek.

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial