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Why Bushmen are stupid? | 08/03/2008 16:40 |
The 'savages' in Giovanni Canestrini 's anthropology

Paper presented at the international congress "Giovanni Canestrini Zoologist and Darwinist" Padova-Venezia-Trento, 14-17 February 2000. Proceedings published by the Istitituo Veneto di Scienze, Lettere e Arti di Venezia, 2000.
NOTE: Giovanni Canestrini (1835 -1900) translated C.Darwin’s On the Origin of Species for the first time into Italian.

Bushwoman. From Giovanni Canestrini Antropologia (1888, second edition).
Why Bushmen are stupid?
The 'savages' in Giovanni Canestrini 's anthropology
By Duccio Canestrini


Giovanni Canestrini was an 'armchair anthropologist.' Unfortunately, the ethnographic data he used to support his admittedly illuminated anthropology are mostly incorrect.

With respect to the theories of the 18th-century French naturalists and the 19th-century German natural philosophers, Canestrini's contemporaries only confirmed the prejudice regarding the superiority of the Europeans, on both physical and moral grounds. Some of these researchers
practised a kind of ethnoanthropological tourism, handicapped by enormous difficulties in communication: poorly phrased and/or translated questions often received incongruous answers, and the resulting misunderstandings became ethnographic literature.

Linguistic and cognitive problems were flanked by a political one. To declare that an exotic spot on the globe was inhabited by natives incapable of reason and practising absurd customs meant that the natural resources of those same peoples could reasonably and legitimately be exploited, for the benefit of the whole 'civilized' world.

As a pure scientist, Giovanni Canestrini was not interested in Italy's colonial plans, but he did find the declared inferiority of 'savages' convenient. For some time, the evolutionists had
begun a desperate search for the missing link between monkeys and men. Canestrini too was greatly interested in anomalies, abnormal births and atavisms, all phenomena that suggested a link between man and animals. In the lack of paleontological findings which were to become so abundant after his death, Canestrini attempted to postulate the existence of a missing link also on a psychic scale, i.e., the 'savage.'

If the assumption is that there is a continuity between the most highly evolved animal and the most degraded man, the only way of demonstrating it is the invention of an intermediate phase. But this operation required, on one hand, the attribution of extraordinary levels of intelligence and spirituality to some animals, on the other, a lowering of the degree of humanity of some ethnic groups, such as the Bushmen, hence stressing their stupidity and brutal characteristics.

That a positive end justifies the means is a matter for debate in this case. Certainly, Canestrini perceived the threat of  'social Darwinism,' showing concern on the base of an ethic point of view, for which the anthropologist is to be admired.

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