Swans Commentary » swans.com February 13, 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)

Working under the guidance of American paleontologist, Edward Drinker Cope, who went on to become his good friend, Osborn "began writing evolutionary articles in the late 1880s." Cope, like many members of the ruling class, was concerned about immigration and race-mixing, and his writings on these matters "help[ed] draw Osborn to the dark side of anthropology." (3) In the meantime Osborn's career moved from strength to strength, and in 1891 he left Princeton to accept two jobs in New York, the first at Columbia College, where he was to set up a new biology department, and the second at the American Museum of Natural History, where he became head of the mammalian palaeontology department. (4)

Both institutions wanted Osborn for his political connections as much as for his scientific acumen. The tribal elders of New York society, who were the prime benefactors of museum and cultural life there, felt comfortable with such a man as Osborn since he would understand their desires for social order and stability and be willing to fulfill and promote them. (p.71)

By 1908 Osborn had demonstrated his value to maintaining the capitalist social order, and he was suitably rewarded by being made the president of the American Museum of Natural History. Like many members of the ruling class, Osborn was a racist and anti-Semite, and so was very disturbed by the waves of immigrants reaching America's shores. (5) Regal, however, argues that it is too simplistic to just consider that Osborn's "thinking on science and evolution was colored by his racism"; instead, Regal suggests, "his views on race were a result of a complex interaction between his science and his religion." Based on his paleontological studies Osborn believed that "as mammals became more specialized in their adaptation to specific environments they lost their ability to overcome environmental change: they lost the ability to struggle for advancement." For this reason, Osborn considered highly specialized mammals inferior with regards to their potential for evolutionary progress. Extrapolating his hypothesis from mammals to humans, and believing that humans could be separated into different species: "He saw Nordics as a more generalized species than Africans or Asians." By which he meant that Nordics were "closer to the original point of human radiation" and so had a greater evolutionary potential relative to those "species" further from the area he considered to the home of the human race -- that is, the alleged cradle of origin for mammals and humans -- Central Asia. (6) On this point, Regal observes:

Henry Fairfield Osborn's Central Asia hypothesis, and his search for the origins of man, must be understood as part of a fascination with the idea of identifying the original home of the human race and using that knowledge to promote social, nationalistic, and personal salvation agendas which flourished from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. Human-origin theories could be used to further views on race relations and the status of non-white European peoples, as well as justification for nationalism, colonialism, and European economic and cultural domination. It also served 'pseudo-scientific' ideas like eugenics, polygenesis, racial anthropology, and even occultism. While Osborn shared affinities with many of the movements and individuals that dealt with human-origin questions, he is not their direct intellectual descendant. He was not attempting to fulfill their programs or carry on their legacy. His work sometimes runs parallel to theirs because his own research led him to similar places and sometimes similar conclusions. (p.1)

This, however, is not to say that he did not participate in developing ideas to oppress humanity: indeed, Osborn played an important role in attacking the working class through both his anti-immigration activism and promotion of eugenics. In keeping with his anti-democratic aspirations it is perhaps appropriate that Osborn's "closest and most zealous eugenicist friend was the New York lawyer and amateur naturalist, Madison Grant, the author of two of the most outrageously racist works in American letters." (7) Grant's putrid polemics were unfortunately well received by elite institutions, and despite his lack of "formal training in science":

In 1894 Grant's enthusiasm for zoology led him to take a leading role in the creation of the New York Zoological Society Park (the Bronx Zoo) with Osborn, Theodore Roosevelt, future Nobel Peace Prize winner Elihu Root, and the grand old man of New York politics, Andrew H. Green (a longtime friend of Osborn's father William Henry). (p.110)

Osborn had also secured Grant a place on the executive committee of the American Museum of Natural History enabling them to become "close friends, dining and meeting on a regular basis." (8) With respect to the creation of the Bronx Zoo -- the idea for which "was hatched at the exclusive Boone and Crockett Club" -- the park ("the founders hated it being referred to as the Bronx Zoo") was intended to have "great cultural and political meaning" and was always "intended to become a vehicle by which Grant and his associates could promote the ideals of their elite group." (9)

Showing the flair and agility of a politician, Grant involved himself in the New York mayoral campaign of William Lafayette Strong, behind the leadership of Republican boss Tom Platt. The reformers wanted to rebuild the largely Irish police and fire departments as well as to undermine Democratic power, which was built on poor and immigrant constituents. Upon Strong's 1894 victory, he gave Grant the authorization to build the park. Since the zoo was in a then inaccessible part of the Bronx, Grant suggested a highway be built, and used his connection with Theodore Roosevelt (by then commissioner of police) to get himself on the planning board. The resulting Bronx River Parkway became the first major parkway in the United States. (p.111)

In his position as chairman of the New York Zoological Society, Grant "was deeply involved in the park's operation as well as conservation issues in general"; and though "usually only acknowledged as such by historians, Grant was one of the founders of the modem conservation movement." (10) Indeed, in 1918, Grant along with Osborn and fellow eugenicist John C. Merriam -- a man who would go on to serve as the president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington -- co-founded Save the Redwoods League, a conservative and controversial organization which from the 1920s onwards became a long-term favourite of the Rockefeller philanthropies. (11)

Working-class immigrants were considered to be a particularly vexing problem for Grant and his elite conservation friends, and he "advanced his status in the world of racial activism in 1909 when he became vice president of the Immigration Restriction League (Osborn was also later a member)." (12) Grant's book The Passing of the Great Race, which was first published in 1916 was "a retelling of Western history along racial lines with Nordic supremacy as its central thread" and it served as the "central work of the immigration restriction cause" in the 1920s. (13)

Osborn's Central Asia hypothesis [which proposed that Central Asia was the home of the human race] gave Grant a starting point for his history of the Nordics, the foundation of The Passing of the Great Race. Working closely with Osborn on the zoological park, Grant imbibed Osborn's theory of human evolution. He also found theoretical support for his beliefs in the works of Arthur de Gobineau as well as in those of William Zebina Ripley. With these works as 'authorities,' Grant was able to dress his racism and anti-Semitism in a cloak of anthropological respectability. (p.117)

Osborn penned the introduction for Grant's book and "consciously or not," was influenced by "Grant's hard, angry racism." As Regal adds: "Osborn had already adopted a basic Nordicist outlook, but he saw the issue in terms of neutral science -- at least that is what he told himself." (14) Consequently, in 1918, Osborn, Grant, and Charles Davenport (the founder of the Eugenics Record Office) formed the Galton Society "to study human anthropology, evolution and eugenics." The formation of this Society was undertaken in large measure to present an organized challenge to the threat posed by influential nonbelievers like Franz Boas, whose "work was a direct assault on everything Grant and his eugenicist cronies held dear." (15)

Admittedly these were trying times for Osborn, because:

If biology counted for little [in the development of human society and potential], as Boas claimed, then Osborn's Nordic heritage and race plasm meant nothing. If they didn't, then his entire theory of evolution, the thing he built his career around and based his chances for salvation on, also meant nothing. (p.122)

That said, compared to Grant, who was calling for more forceful measures to eliminate "degenerate blood" from the American system, Osborn was slightly more flexible in his tactics, and in 1924 he actually "opposed blanket restrictions based upon race only." He still fully supported Grant on the issue of the dangers of race mixing, but, inspired by more pragmatic concerns, Osborn acknowledged that "there are very good and desirable emigrants to be found in every country." Here he was referring to the rising numbers of economically useful immigrants who were in the process of leaving the United States. (16) Osborn evidently favoured a more refined approach to engineering social change.

He did not like all the "exploding, shrieking, pounding [and] raging" that characterized much of the movement's pronouncements. He wanted a quieter, more reasoned tone. He even suggested that the Immigration Restriction League should change its name to Immigration Selection League as a way to make it a more respectable institution. (p.129)

In spite of his best efforts, Osborn was ineffective in his calls for rhetorical temperance in an otherwise rabid movement. Moreover, just as the anti-immigration movement climaxed in the passing of the racist immigration restriction law of 1924, he became entwined in yet another controversy. This time the latest hot button issue revolved around the opposition, by the leaders of a growing Christian fundamentalist movement, to the teaching of evolutionary biology in schools. (17)


[Continue to the second part of this essay.]


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1.  Brian Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn: Race and the Search for the Origins of Man (Ashgate, 2002), p.xii. For an earlier biographical study that focuses on "Osborn the administrator," see Ronald Rainger's An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890-1935 (University of Alabama Press, 1991).  (back)

2.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.28, p.29, p.41.  (back)

3.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.65, p.108. "Cope's metaphysics was surprisingly like that of several philosophers of the era, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Madame Blavatsky. Cope argued, as they did, that there was a great universal mind of which all lesser minds are a part. Therefore the great mind of God can influence the course of all the others. Cope believed evolution was progressive: from simple to complex; lower to higher; imperfect to perfect. The end result of this was an enlightened spiritual consciousness epitomized by man. Peter Bowler argues that Cope did not want to be ousted from the scientific community and so played down the supernatural elements in his work for fear of being ridiculed." (pp.64-5)

"Among his voluminous writings Edward Drinker Cope addressed issues of race and gender, issues he felt had a direct impact on American society because they were spinning out of control. Cope saw increased immigration of 'lower orders,' and the increasing freedom and political power of women and Blacks as undermining social order and stability." (pp.106-7)  (back)

4.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.71.  (back)

5.  "Opened in 1892, by 1900 Ellis Island hit its stride as a key entry point for new arrivals. Between 1880 and 1919, seventeen million immigrants came through New York. As many spent every penny they had just getting that far, they tended to crowd into the city unable to go further. Those who stayed doubled the city's population. By 1907, for example, almost 300,000 Eastern European Jews were living in the city. This increase led to an upsurge in anti-Semitism. Whereas Catholics had been the bogeymen of nineteenth-century American politics, now the Jews took center stage in nativist nightmares." Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.103.  (back)

6.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.xvi, p.136. Central Asia's appeal owed much to the fact that its "mystery provided a tabula rasa on to which [Westerners] could write any history they wanted. As the birthplace of the human race, Central Asia became a substitute for the Garden of Eden because it seemed to solve many of the problems associated with human origins without demanding too much in return in the form of verifiable facts and realities. Asia and its culture offered complex and sometimes contradictory solutions to the intellectual and spiritual problems some felt were inadequately served by Western ideologies." (p.2)  (back)

7.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.108. "Grant believed three things: that white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, Nordic males (himself included) were the ultimate expression of human evolution; that the United States was under biological attack by racial inferiors; and that something had to be done to stop the onslaught. He used eugenic arguments to support his openly supremacist ideology in an attempt to rouse the Nordic population of the New World to the danger, and rally them to take action." (p.108)  (back)

8.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.110. Andrew H. Green -- the "man called the father of Greater New York" -- "disliked Grant as much as Grant disliked foreigners, and resisted his installation on both the park's and museum's boards. In response, Osborn and Grant engineered Green's ouster from the park's development apparatus." (p.111) For a liberal examination of Green's role in the politics of New York, see Thomas Kessner, Capital City: New York City and the Men behind America's Rise to Economic Dominance, 1860-1900 (Simon & Schuster, 2003); also of interest is Michael Kennedy's study "Philanthropy and Science in New York City: the American Museum of Natural History, 1868-1968," Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1968.  (back)

9.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.111. The Boone and Crockett Club had been formed in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinell as a watering hole and meeting place for the city's elite big-game hunters." Regal adds that Roosevelt "would later voice concerns over 'race suicide' as living his 'strenuous life,' Roosevelt embodied the popular form of Osborn's struggle hypothesis." (p.111) "Though not really a hunter, Osborn was made an honorary Boone and Crockett Club member in 1899." (p.112)  (back)

10.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.112, p.113. "For more on conservatism, the eugenics movement and conservation" Regal refers his readers to Gray Brechin's excellent article "Conserving the Race: Natural Aristocracies, Eugenics, and the U.S. Conservation Movement," Antipode, 28 (3), 1996. On the same page (p.132) Regal cited Jonathan Spiro's doctoral study, Patrician Racist: The Evolution of Madison Grant, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California at Berkeley, 2000; this useful study was recently published as Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant (University of Vermont Press, 2008).  (back)

11.  Michael Barker, "Laurance Rockefeller and Capitalist Conservation," Swans Commentary, October 19, 2009; Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (University of California Press, 2005).  (back)

12.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.113. The Immigration Restriction League was founded in 1894 by Prescott Hall and Robert DeCourcy Ward; and with Henry Cabot Lodge "as a spokesman, they lobbied for mandatory intelligence tests for incoming immigrants." (p.113) Interesting members of the IRL's national committee in 1913 included John R. Commons and David Starr Jordan, the President of Stanford University. For further details see, John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (Rutgers University Press, 1955); Barbara Solomon, Ancestors and Immigrants: A Changing New England Tradition (Harvard University Press, 1956), p.123.  (back)

13.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.116.  (back)

14.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.117. "Both of Osborn's sons -- Perry, now a lawyer and Fairfield Jr., an oil company executive -- developed an interest in eugenics. Fairfield Jr. was the more vocal of the two: he once scolded his father for being a committee member of the American Indian Defense Association, and told him to quit because it did not look good for a man like him to be a part of such an organization. Fairfield went on to write several eugenics books of his own and become an active member of the movement." (p.119) Fairfield Osborn Jr. (1887-1969) was most famous for being the author of Our Plundered Planet (1948), and becoming the founding president of the Rockefeller-backed Conservation Foundation.

Henry Fairfield Osborn's "younger brother, William Church Osborn, became a Democrat," and "went into politics at the urging of his older brother." Regal adds that Willie "ran for governor of New York in 1922, but lost to his friend [Al] Smith." Willie subsequently "became part of the intimate circle growing around the future president of the United States, but then Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt, and worked closely with Woodrow Wilson. He married Alice Dodge, and his son Frederick Osborn went on to a career in eugenics and population studies, joining his uncle's Galton Society and American Eugenics Society, as well as serving as an American Museum trustee." (pp.127-8)  (back)

15.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.121, p.122. Osborn served as the president of the Second International Eugenics Congress which was held at the American Museum of Natural History in 1921.  (back)

16.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.124. Initially, "Support for [Grant's] work came primarily from amateurs obsessed with race and the breakdown of American order, and he was happy to have it. He was bewildered, however, that few professional scientists rallied to his cause. He seethed in paranoid anger that the scientific community either ignored or rejected him because they all 'seem to be either afraid of Boas or else impregnated with Socialism.'" (p.125) With time this resistance began to change, and "Eventually, the journal Science favorably reviewed The Passing of the Great Race, calling it an 'interesting and valuable pioneer attempt at an interpretation of history in terms of race,' while the journal Man also spoke of its 'refreshing' tone and importance for spreading eugenics concepts to the general public. The popular press also found good things to say." (p.126)  (back)

17.  Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, p.154. Christian fundamentalism is often thought to have emerged in the early twentieth century as part of an "anti-intellectual backlash against the rise of Christian modernism and liberalism"; but instead Regal points out that it developed "out of revivalism which originated in the early twentieth century, not over political or social concerns, but over what was considered the growth of false Christian doctrine." Here Regal refers to two books: Ernest Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930 (University of Chicago Press, 1970); and George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of the Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (Oxford University Press, 1980).  (back)


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Published February 13, 2012