University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Reading modern hands: identity and human types from palmistry to genetics

Reading modern hands: identity and human types from palmistry to genetics

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This paper tracks a twentieth-century trajectory of hand-reading in modern diagnostics: of disease and syndrome, of personality and singular identity, and of human types and ‘race’. Not only for fortune-telling palmists was identity laid bare in the hand, but for all kinds of other experts in bodies and minds as well. The paper analyses twentieth-century knowers-of-hands across an unlikely range of disciplines that have stronger and stranger crossovers than we might expect, connecting palmistry with a range of emerging ‘psy’ disciplines, with comparative anatomy, evolutionary biology, primatology, and with human and medical genetics. Over the twentieth century, the human hand proved to be enduringly ‘eloquent’, as anatomist and natural theologian Charles Bell had put it long before in his canonical 1833 treatise, The Hand. The paper argues for a plain disenchantment of chiromancy, qualifying historians’ common commitment to theses of re-enchantment. One strand of palm-reading’s recent past turns out to be part of the history of scientific naturalism, not super-naturalism at all.

Alison Bashford FBA is Scientia Professor of History, University of New South Wales. Previously she was Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial and Naval History at the University of Cambridge. Her most recent monograph is An Intimate History of Evolution: The Story of the Huxley Family (Random House, 2022). Her most recent co-edited book is New Earth Histories: Geo-cosmologies and the Making of the Modern World (University of Chicago Press, 2023), with Emily Kern and Adam Bobbette. She is currently writing The Strange History of the Hand (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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