Darwin's Hunch: Science, Race and the Search for Human Origins

Kuljian, Christa

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Annotated by:
Olagun-Samuel, Christine
  • Date of entry: Feb-14-2022
  • Last revised: Feb-14-2022


Inspired by Stephen J. Gould’s study of Samuel Morton in The Mismeasure of Man, Christa Kuljian’s Darwin’s Hunch traces the story of the search for human origins while apartheid was taking hold of South Africa in the mid 20th century. Following the work of Charles Darwin, biologists and anthropologists of the 19th and 20th centuries were captivated by comparative anatomy, human classification, and the origins of mankind. Kuljian begins her book with the very origin of racialized thought in science: the distinction between monogenism and polygenism. These two schools of thought in the 18th and 19th centuries sought to explain the existence of human difference; the former arguing that all races stemmed from a single ancestor and the latter arguing that different races emanated from different species. Physicians and scientists were at the center of this discourse, creating names for different racial categories while debating whether races were different species in and of themselves. Eventually, well-known physicians and anthropologists created tools to measure anatomical differences between racial groups. Kuljian centers her book on the studies of the physicians and scientists who contributed to academic discourse, including Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, Robert Bloom, Raymond Dart, Hertha DeVilliers, and Phillip Tobias among others.   

In the search for the “missing link” between man and animal, South Africa became a living laboratory. Paleontologists, physicians, anthropologists and the like began a search for living fossils after the discovery of the Taung Skull by Raymond Dart. This discovery birthed the search for human origins in South Africa. For many scientists at the time, the living fossil was not only physical evidence of human evolution, but also supporting evidence for presupposed ideas about racial difference, and so “the most interesting specimens [became] the natives”. South African researchers like Robert Broom, Raymond Dart, and Phillip Tobias, among many others, began projects to study the anatomies of the Bantu, Khoikhoi, and other native people of South Africa. Some researchers embarked on expeditions to Bantustans, reserves that segregated the native population, and measured living native communities, others studied “skeletons from graves”, and still others examined “unclaimed bodies from South African hospitals”. 

The focus of this work in many ways was also a search for a pure racial type. These studies aimed to quantify racial differences by measuring the “brain size, skull shape, facial features, skin colour, hair texture and bone length” of native people. Other studies were reminiscent of previous investigations of difference, such as the objectification of Sarah Baartman, in that “Dart gave special attention to the external genitalia… and the accumulation of fat on many of the females’ buttocks”.  

Kuljian also traces the political history that coincides with this race for human origins by discussing the progression of the apartheid state of South Africa. Jan Smuts, who would later become Prime Minister of South Africa during the time of Dart’s early investigations, was also the president of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science which institutionally funded and supported the search for human origins. He continued supporting this research into his prime ministry, as increasingly “race [became] a national neurosis in South Africa”. 

In this captivating look at the personal stories of researchers, their sociopolitical context, as well as the stories of the people they studied, Kuljian dives into the tension between personal beliefs and scientific practice. She examines how bias, politics, and institutions shaped investigations into the search for human origins. 


Kuljian begins her book with a brief history of the origins of evolutionary thought, more specifically, their ties with racial thought. In this exploration, she interestingly suggests that South Africa and the United States share similarities in their histories, each country’s tale inextricably connected to the other in a time of explicit racialized thought. By noting the American training and racialized ideas of some of the scientists based in South Africa, like Raymond Dart, she alludes to the international pervasiveness of eugenic thought. Such beliefs were a major driver of the research conducted on the African continent. As a result, South Africa became a laboratory of sorts, and research done there, in many ways, fed the presupposed theories of difference that came from Europe and the United States. Kuljian brilliantly explores the connected histories of colonialism and modern anthropology. Though she recounts these stories in the context of South Africa, specifically tracking Raymond Dart’s ventures, similar stories can be found on the North American continent as well as in other countries that had a colonial past. Kuljian also sheds light on the more unsavory aspects of Dart’s character, highlighting his personal life. As a man filled with contradictions, he struggled to reconcile his beliefs in Ernest Haeckel’s recapitulation theory, which claimed that during development children undergo stages that resemble different evolutionary phases, with his perception towards his son, who had learning disabilities. His belief in this theory led him to conclude that his son “had not evolved sufficiently”.

In many ways, ideas about racial differences were rooted in biased research conducted by the academic and medical community. In Kuljian’s text, we begin to see this as the bodies of the native Khoikhoi and Bantu people were perceived by the academic public as means to an end. The question as to whether they were considered human, too, shaped the perception of the scientific community towards the native population. There was an apparent fascination with this native community as the “missing link” between man and ape.  Yet in the quest to find the missing link, Dart undertook a racialized investigation, and his research interests could not be separated from the social and political context of his time or his peers. He began to mesh unsound ideas, confusing his exploration of ancient artifacts with individuals that were living. The field of comparative anatomy, once used to compare the anatomies of different species, was used to justify the delineation of races as different species in his work. Kuljian highlights that in creating racial classes and names of specimens, the academic community wielded institutional power. She notes that “the matter of who does the naming indicates who holds the power”.  In creating “scientific categories” for racial groups by naming them as four distinct classes of Homo sapiens, Carl Linnaeus, as part of the academic community, assigned authority and legitimacy to the idea of biological racial classes. 

Just as her mentor Stephen J. Gould, explored the complexities of Samuel Morton, a physician at the University of Pennsylvania who undertook a similar task in seeking difference in anatomy between races through his collection of skulls, Kuljian highlights the importance of the social context of scientific investigations. “They go together; the goal of the colonial project and scientific racism fed each other”, she noted.  However, the consequences of racial typology and the colonial project are still evident today. In conversation, Kuljian pointed out that “Both Hertha de Villiers and Phillip Tobias were students of Dart and they really idolized Dart, so they both embraced race typology… [and] continued to teach students who are still doctors today.”

The book has utmost relevance today, as we continue to understand how vestiges of racial thought, bias and discrimination may still live on in medicine albeit in a more insidious manner. We must not forget that just as medicine played a role in propagating these ideas, it must also play a role in dismantling them. By recognizing how society and preconceived notions may cloud scientific studies, we must engage in a rigorous assessment of our work, and ensure that data, conclusions, and scientific questions are as devoid of these biases as possible. 


Jacana Media



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