Theories of Evolution in Colonial Burma

Historians of natural history have long explored the emergence of evolutionary theory. Most of the studies that I have read on the subject tend to discuss its development and influence within an Imperial framework. The colonized world appears in these histories as a site in which key figures, such as Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin, observed animals and honed their ideas. Other studies have examined how imperial regimes applied evolutionary theory as a lens to view their subject populations, sustaining racist ideologies. Whilst both of these are important avenues for research, neither of them leave much room for uncovering how colonized people engaged with evolution as an idea themselves: how they translated, appropriated or adapted it for their own circumstances.

A few months ago I wrote a short blog about an article in a Burmese magazine from the 1930s that discussed the ‘missing link’. This article attempted to consider the theory of evolution alongside Buddhist origin myths. It presented human evolutionary development as one of ascending stages of civilization. It is what we might call a ‘stadial theory’ of evolution. Differing from this stadial theory was the explanation of evolution offered by Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, whose book on monkeys I wrote about last month. Responding to the blog post, the Burmese cultural historian Phyo Win Latt generously sent me an extract from Thakin Kodaw Hmaing’s 1925 book on dogs, his Khway Htika.

Mr Maung Hmaing, Khway Htika (1925), pp. 358-359
Mr Maung Hmaing, Khway Htika (1925), pp. 358-359

In this passage, Thakin Kodaw Hmaing sets out the European scholarship on the evolution of the modern dog. Rather than there being a single original ancestor that the dog evolved from, he emphasizes the importance of a species’ adaptation to its circumstances. He also identifies four of the modern dog’s relatives—the wolf, the jungle dog, the fox and the Central Asian wild dog—as well as behaviours that were distinctive to the dog, such as digging with the forelegs and circling round and round before sitting. He clearly locates these theories as emanating from the European world. At the same time, he has explained these theories within a book that plays with a distinctively Burmese form, that of a commentary on Buddhist scriptures.

These two contrasting engagements with evolutionary theory—the first stadial and the second more contingent—offer just a glimpse of the diverse ways in which they could be translated. They also hint at some of the differing ways in which it could interact with Burmese religious thought. Focusing on these creative ways in which theories of evolution were changed in colonial contexts might offer an approach to tracing its history without privileging European imperial actors.

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