Selected Minor Works: Early Modern Primitives

Justin E. H. Smith

I have recently come across a delightfully obscure 1658 treatise by the very pious John Bulwer, entitled Antropometamorphosis: or, the Artificial Changling. This may very well be the first study in Western history of piercing, tattooing, scarification, and other forms of bodily modification. It is thus a distant ancestor of such contemporary classics as the 1989 RE/Search volume, Modern Primitives.

But if the Voice Literary Supplement once praised RE/Search for its dispassionateness, today a hallmark of respectable ethnography, Bulwer’s science is at once a moral crusade. In each chapter, Bulwer bemoans a different deplorable practice, including “Nationall monstrosities appearing in the Neck,” “Strange inventive contradictions against Nature, practically maintained by diverse Nations, in the ordering of their Privie parts,” and (my favorite) “Pap-Fashions.”

If Bulwer hates nipple rings and dick bars, he is no less concerned about the now rather innocent habit of shaving. He rails in one chapter against “Beard haters, or the opinion and practice of diverse Nations, concerning the naturall ensigne of Manhood, appearing about the mouth.” For him any bodily modification is but a “Cruell and fantasticall invention of men, practised… in a supposed way of bravery… to alter and deforme the Humane Fabrique.”

Bulwer believes that morally degenerate practices can over time lead to actual physical degeneration within a human population. Thus, for him, phenotypic variation in the species is a consequence of cultural bad habits, rather than teleologically driven progress from lower to higher forms, let alone adaptation by way of natural selection. The ugliness of non-Europeans may be attributed to the rottenness of their souls and consequent savage lifestyles. Indian pinheads and Chinese blockheads, whose skulls are sculpted from birth by malevolent adults, are cited as cases of degeneration in action.

200 years before Darwin, then, there was widespread acceptance of the idea that species could change over time. But for moralists such as Bulwer, change could only ever be change for the worse. In this connection, Bulwer denounces the view of a (regrettably unnamed) libertine philosopher that human beings evolved from other primates: “[I]n discourse,” he writes, “I have heard to fall, somewhat in earnest, from the mouth of a Philosopher that man was a meer Artificial creature, and was at first but a kind of Ape or Baboon, who through his industry by degrees in time had improved his Figure & his Reason up to the perfection of man.”

Bulwer believes that the ‘Philosopher’s’ opinion constitutes a symptom of the moral decline of the modern period. For, he thinks, if mutation of humanity over time can occur, it will not, as the Philosopher thinks, take the character of an ascent from beast to man, but rather the reverse, a descent into ape-likeness: “But by this new History of abused Nature it will appeare a sad truth, that mans indeavours have run so farr from raising himselfe above the pitch of his Originall endowments, that he is muchfallen below himselfe; and in many parts of the world is practically degenerated into the similitude of a Beast.”

Evolutionary thinking, then, opens up the possibility not just of progress out of animality, but of degeneration into it, and this was a possibility that the pious, such as Bulwer, were beginning to fear.

If we move forward a few hundred years, we find that the human species still has technology that beats the reed dipped into the anthole, and that we still exercise our freedom to mate outside of estrus. Indeed, not much of anything has changed since the 17th century, either through degeneration or evolutionary progress. One thing that has remained entirely the same is the art of moralistic ranting: we find that, now as then, precisely those who are most concerned about the moral stain of body piercing and tattoos, who are most active in the movement to make visible thongs in suburban Virginia malls a misdemeanor, are the same people who would have us believe that humans were instantaneously and supernaturally created with no kinship relation to other animal species.

It is worth reflecting on why these two crusades, which prima facie have nothing in common, have proven such a durable pair throughout the centuries. I suspect that human thought is constrained (as a result of the way our minds evolved), to move dialectically between two opposite conceptions of animal kinds: that of the book of Genesis on the one hand, positing eternally fixed and rigid kinds with no overlap, and that of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on the other. In spite of the relatively recent ascent of evolutionism to accepted scientific orthodoxy, there has always been available a conception of species as fluid and dynamic. This conception easily captures the imaginations of social progressives and utopians, that is, of those who believe that change for the better is possible and indeed desirable. The numerous monuments to Darwin throughout the Soviet Union (which I hope have not been scrapped along with those to Lenin) were once a testament to this.

Social conservatives on the other hand see fixity as desirable, and tend to conceive of change in terms of degeneration. A bestiary of eternal, non-overlapping animal species would provide for them a paradigm of stability that could easily be carried over from the natural to the social world, while the loss of this fixed taxonomy of natural kinds would seem equally to threaten the social stasis the conservative seeks.

The prospect of change in species over time, then, –including the human species– will be a more useful way of conceptualizing the natural world in times of heady social upheaval; in political climates such as the current one, it is not surprising to see public figures shying away from the chaotic instability of the Metamorphoses in favor of the clear boundaries of the Old Testament.

I am not saying that evolution is just ideology. I believe it is true. I believe that creationism, in turn, is false, and that it is an ideology. And precisely because it is one, it is a waste of time to do intellectual battle with creationists as though they had a respectable scientific theory. Instead, what we should focus on is the rather remarkable way in which folk cosmology –whether that of the Azande, the ancient Hebrews, or Pat Buchanan– may be seen to embody social values, and indeed may be read as an expression on a grand scale of rather small human concerns.

The small human concerns at the heart of the creationist movement are really just these: that everything is going to hell, that the kids don’t listen to their folks anymore, that those low-cut jeans show far too much. Creationism is but the folk cosmology of a frightened tribe. This is also an ancient tribe, counting the authors of Genesis, Bulwer, and Buchanan among its members, and one that need be shown no tolerance by those of us who recognize that change reigns supreme in nature, and that fairy tales are powerless to stop it.