Idiots and imbeciles in Scotland

A. W. Howitt and Lorimer Fison’s Kamilaroi and Kurnai: Group marriage and relationship and marriage by elopement  (1880) was an early work on Australian kinship, grounded in a progressivist assumption that human social organisation evolved through incremental and predictable stages from a state of Barbarism to Civilisation.

As it happens,  the kinship evidence brought to light in this work actually contradicted the specifics of evolutionist theory but this didn’t stop Howitt and Fison’s book from generating a great deal of interest. Among other influential works it was cited by James Frazer in The golden bough and in Frederick Engels’ (1891) The origin of the family, private property and the state. It also got a brief guernsey in Sex and society (1907) by the sociologist W. I. Thomas with its sensational chapter names like ‘Sex and Primitive Morality’ and ‘The Adventitious Character of Woman’. It was this book that famously described women as “intermediate between the child and the man”, but men also come in for a bollocking, being statistically more likely to be idiots and imbeciles. Of course, ‘idiot’ and ‘imbecile’ were once serious diagnostic terms without the exclusively pejorative sense they have today, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this little table on page 25:

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(All sources mentioned can be accessed via CACHE.)


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