Perspectives of a Biologist: A Scientific Critique of Uncle Tom's Cabin

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Big Books Home

2006 Third Web Report

On Serendip

Perspectives of a Biologist: A Scientific Critique of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Angeldeep Kaur

Uncle Tom's Cabin was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1850-51 as an anti-slavery novel. It was written in response to the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850 which forbade any citizen to assist runaway slaves. The argument that forms the basis of Stowe's novel is the idea that slavery is in essence against Christian morals and consequently should be abolished by every true Christian. As a biologist and as a non-Christian reader, the entire idea behind treating one group of humans as fundamentally inferior to another seems preposterous but for reasons entirely different from those Stowe adopts. Using a biologist's perspective, I am examining the arguments Stowe uses and whether or not they are compatible with the biological perspective, while exploring the uses of her and mine while trying to imagine the writing of this book using arguments solely based in the biological sciences.

I am not the first one to use the biological argument to speak against racial and religious prejudice. The most famous example comes from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in which Shylock, a Jewish money lender, argues against his mistreatment because of his religion. His famous speech's basis lies in the biological similarity of all human beings: 'If you prick us do we not bleed?' (Shakespeare, Act III.i.4961)2. This argument is more convincing to a larger group of people, because it speaks to a human understanding that goes beyond religiosity and the specific arguments that arise from one religious outlook.

For Stowe, Christianity was an easily accessible way to get to her target audience northern white women who had lost children. It was a moral and ethical compass that was culturally prevalent in their lives and Stowe's argument appeals to the Christian morals of these women in the north to take a stand against slavery, as black souls are souls too. Biology is another such tool that could be used, though its target audience would be limited to those who were educated in the sciences. If this were written from a scientific perspective, the argument would have to be that there is a biological consistency within the human makeup, so whether you are black or white, you internally remain the same, and your brain structure and ability to think or feel is unaffected by the melanin in your skin. If one was aware of such scientific evidence that proves the basic commonality of the human form, it would be hard to justify oppression of any one group with any logical reasoning. This would be an effective approach if the author was trying to incite the slaves to take action, as they were just as capable of doing so. Stowe however, is asking for the white people to act for the blacks and free them because it's the Christian thing to do.

In addition to reaching her target audience, religion allowed Stowe to create the binary world that she operates within, having clearly demarcated good and evil, absolutes with the potential of being moved from one category to another only through a spiritual revelation. A biological standpoint would not allow for a complete binary. While there would be people who were culturally raised with certain beliefs, each person would have a power of rationality and cognition which could make them capable of choosing between sides when presented with convincing evidence. Additionally, people would have the ability to do good and bad without having to go through a complete reversal from one side to another. While there could be some who remain wholly on the side of the wrong or right, it's impossible to create a biological certainty that the world would be so. In a biological rewriting of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the binary system could not be upheld in the way Stowe has set it up.

The traditional Christian motifs used in the book, especially the references to the kingdom of heaven, the Christ-like figures of Eva and Tom would have to be reworked in order to fit within a biological framework. The Christian argument is compelling in this context because of the aftermath of bad choices made in this life that will be suffered in the next life. Tom was able to bear all the injustices Legree carries out against him through till the very end on his faith that there was a glorious afterlife waiting for him. Scientifically, the existence of an afterlife is disputed in its entirety. This takes away one of the main factors that would be motivating individuals to take a right stand, because if there's no penalty, then the only motivation left to do good is your own set of morals. This implies that being effected by the book and striving to abolish slavery because blacks are the same as whites biologically, rather than doing it to save their and your own soul, is in fact a more unselfish act, as there is no guaranteed payoff in the form of a beautiful afterlife.

Stowe does adopt some level of biological arguments within the book, like in the case of Miss Ophelia, who detests slavery, but is prejudiced against slaves simply because of her inexperience and ignorance. Once she actually interacts with Topsy, a slave girl she tries to tutor, and grows to love her because of Eva's lessons, Ophelia realizes her prejudices and overcomes them. She serves as the model of what Stowe wants her readers to experience, though her revelation is mostly stemming from the Christian faith being awoken within her.

Stowe's main argument lies in the fact that slavery and Christianity are incompatible with each other. This is illustrated by the characters in her novel the more Christian the character, the more opposed he/she is to slavery. She insists that Christianity asks for universal love, and this includes all human beings. In this fashion she attempts to use Christianity to fight slavery. The power of Christian love is apparent in the transformation of Tom Loker, after he is shot by George and healed by the Quakers. Uncle Tom embodies the Christian martyr as he adheres to his values through all the suffering he is subjected to. The entire spirituality of the book comes into question to a certain extent when being examined from a biological outlook. Instances like Eliza's crossing of the ice covered river were thought to be divine in the book, whereas scientifically it probably had some physical explanation.

Another biological incompatibility in the book is Stowe's portrayal of women as more compassionate, more courageous and fundamentally more moral than men. From a molecular standpoint men and women have the same brain structure. While there are differences in the hormones and levels of those present within the two sexes, the gross generalization that all men are less moral women is based on a cultural concept of how men and women are raised. A lot of the differences that were attributed to slaves, such as being more emotional and less capable of thinking and rationality, were also cultural, as slaves were not provided with the same educational resources as white people were. Her assumptions stem from a cultural and social construction rather than any anatomical basis. Thus the reason she chooses her target audience would be inconsistent if this book were to be written from a biological standpoint as not every woman is biologically predisposed to be more moral than every man.

Stowe is not presenting a realistic world, and she isn't trying to. Instead, Uncle Tom's Cabin is clearly a propaganda novel. Can the same effect still be achieved using the biological arguments I've presented? I think it could, if audiences were made familiar with scientific fact like they were familiar with biblical references. There is an undeniable morality attached to human beings as equals when seen on the most basic level. There can be no greater proof of oneness with other fellow men than the biological truth that we are all composed in the exact same manner, irrespective of the amount of melanocytes (cells that produce skin pigmentation) present under our skin cells. While Stowe uses religion and sentimentality to achieve the desired affect in her readers, a biological Stowe would argue for the simple undeniable fact that we are all alike in every molecular way conceivable, so any instances of slavery are inexcusable.

Works Cited:
1. Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. London: Norton. 1994.
2. Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice. Delhi: Oxford University Press. 1996.

| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:38 CDT