Historical race concepts

Historical race concepts

Historical race concepts have varied across cultures and over time, and have been controversial for social, political and scientific reasons. Until the 19th century, race was thought by many to constitute an immutable and distinct type or species which shared particular racial characteristics, such as body constitution, temperament and mental capacities.

One concept, that of Christian Western Europe, conceived of the races as constituting a hierarchical chain of life known as the Great Chain of Being, which was believed to have been created by God, in which the people thought the Christian European races were closest to God in perfection.



The word "race", interpreted to mean common descent, was introduced into English in about 1580, from the Old French rasse (1512), from Italian razza, which may have been derived from the Arabic Word "ras" "رأس" meaning the head of someone or something. In this context, "ras" points to the root or the head of selected species. The etymology can be further traced back to Latin gens or Arabic "genat" "جينات" meaning clan, stock or people and genus meaning birth, descent, origin, race, stock, or family, and cognate with Greek genos (γένος) "race, kind," and gonos "birth, offspring, stock [...]."[1] This late origin for the English and French terms is consistent with the thesis that the concept of "race" as defining a small number of groups of human beings based on lineage dates from the time of Christopher Columbus. Older concepts, which were also based at least partly on common descent, such as nation and tribe entail a much larger number of groupings.

During the Age of Enlightenment, Europeans tried to define race as a biological concept, in keeping with their scientific ideas. In the centuries that followed, scholars made attempts to classify and define racial types, and to determine racial origins and correlates. As forensic anthropologists, biomedical researchers, and other scholars have collected and analyzed data on individuals and populations, some maintain that race denotes scientifically practical distinctions.

Earliest views on ethnic differences

In many ancient civilizations, individuals with widely varying physical appearances became full members of a society by growing up within that society or by adopting that society's cultural norms. (Snowden 1983; Lewis 1990).

When the lighter ancient Egyptians were in power, they called the darker group "the evil race of Ish". When the darker ancient Egyptians were in power, they called the lighter group "the pale, degraded race of Arvad".[2] These differences also related to different cultural groups who competed for power. For example, the Ancient Egyptian sacred text called Book of Gates identifies four ethnic categories that are now conventionally labeled "Egyptians", "Asiatics", "Libyans", and "Nubians" (see Ancient Egypt and race), but such distinctions tended to conflate differences as defined by physical features such as skin tone, with tribal and national identity.

Classical civilizations from Rome to China tended to invest the most importance in familial or tribal affiliation than an individual's physical appearance (Dikötter 1992; Goldenberg 2003). Societies still tended to equate physical characteristics, such as hair and eye colour, with psychological and moral qualities, usually assigning the highest qualities to their own people and lower qualities to the "Other", either lower classes or outsiders to their society. For example, an historian of the 3rd century Han Dynasty in the territory of present-day China describes barbarians of blond hair and green eyes as resembling "the monkeys from which they are descended."[2] (Gossett, pp. 4).

Dominant in ancient Greek and Roman conceptions of human diversity was the thesis that physical differences between different populations could be attributed to environmental factors. Though ancient peoples likely had no knowledge of evolutionary theory or genetic variability, their concepts of race could be described as malleable. Chief among environmental causes for physical difference in the ancient period were climate and geography. Though thinkers in ancient civilizations recognized differences in physical characteristics between different populations, the general consensus was that all non-Greeks were barbarians. This barbarian status, however, was not thought to be fixed; rather, one could shed the ‘barbarian’ status simply by adopting Greek culture. (Graves 2001)

Ancient Greek theories

Hippocrates of Cos.

Hippocrates believed, as many thinkers throughout early history did, that factors such as geography and climate played a significant role in the physical appearance of different peoples. He writes that, “ the forms and dispositions of mankind correspond with the nature of the country.” He attributed physical and temperamental differences among different peoples to environmental factors such as climate, water sources, elevation and terrain. He noted that temperate climates created peoples who were “sluggish” and “not apt for labor”, while extreme climates led to peoples who were “sharp”, “industrious” and vigilant”. He also noted that peoples of “mountainous, rugged, elevated, and well-watered” countries displayed “enterprising” and “warlike” characteristics, while peoples of “level, windy, and well-watered” countries were “unmanly” and “gentle”.[3]

The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that climate played the most crucial factor in determining differences in physical characteristics, most notably the mixture of heat and cold. He is widely credited with devising the concept of the great chain of being, in De partibus animalium, in which animals of the earth exist on a fixed and unchanging ladder of perfection depending on the mixture of fundamental elements within the animal (Graves 2001). Though Aristotle did not explicitly delineate the variety of the human species on this scale, later scientists would re-invent the scale, using explicit divisions of human races.

Ancient Roman theories

Julian the Apostate, a Roman emperor in the 4th century, stereotyped characteristics of various ethnic groups, which he attributed to Divine Providence:

"Come, tell me why it is that the Celts and the Germans are fierce, while the Hellenes and Romans are, generally speaking, inclined to political life and humane, though at the same time unyielding and warlike? Why the Egyptians are more intelligent and more given to crafts, and the Syrians unwarlike and effeminate, but at the same time intelligent, hot-tempered, vain and quick to learn? For if there is anyone who does not discern a reason for these differences among the nations, but rather declaims that all this so befell spontaneously, how, I ask, can he still believe that the universe is administered by a providence?"[4]

Medieval theories

European medieval models of race generally mixed Classical ideas with the notion that humanity as a whole was descended from Shem, Ham and Japheth, the three sons of Noah, producing distinct Semitic (Asiatic), Hamitic (African), and Japhetic (Indo-European) peoples. This theory dates back to the Judeo-Christian tradition, as described in the Babylonian Talmud, which states that "the descendants of Ham are cursed by being black, and [it] depicts Ham as a sinful man and his progeny as degenerates."

In the 9th century, Al-Jahiz, an Afro-Arab Islamic philosopher attempted to explain the origins of different human skin colors, particularly black skin, which he believed to be the result of the environment. He cited a stony region of black basalt in the northern Najd as evidence for his theory:[5]

In the 14th century, the Islamic sociologist Ibn Khaldun, a proponent dispelled the Judeo-Christian account of peoples and their characteristics as a myth. He wrote that black skin was due to the hot climate of sub-Saharan Africa and not due to the descendants of Ham being cursed.[6] Such Arabic writings were generally not accessible to many Europeans at this time.

Later, during the European colonial era, Ibn Khaldun's work was translated into French, especially for use in Algeria, but in the process, the work was transformed from local knowledge to colonial categories of knowledge.[7] The historian William Desborough Cooley's The Negro Land of the Arabs Examined and Explained (1841) has excerpts of translations of Khaldun's work that were not affected by French colonial ideas.[8] For example, Cooley quotes Khaldun's describing the great African civilization of Ghana (in Cooley's translation):

"When the conquest of the West (by the Arabs) was completed, and merchants began to penetrate into the interior, they saw no nation of the Blacks so mighty as Ghánah, the dominions of which extended westward as far as the Ocean. The King's court was kept in the city of Ghánah, which, according to the author of the 'Book of Roger' (El Idrisi), and the author of the 'Book of Roads and Realms' (El Bekri), is divided into two parts, standing on both banks of the Nile, and ranks among the largest and most populous cities of the world.
The people of Ghánah had for neighbours, on the east, a nation, which, according to historians, was called Súsú; after which came another named Máli; and after that another known by the name of Kaǘkaǘ; although some people prefer a different orthography, and write this name Kághó. The last-named nation was followed by a people called Tekrúr. The people of Ghánah declined in course of time, being overwhelmed or absorbed by the Molaththemún (or muffled people; that is, the Morabites), who, adjoining them on the north towards the Berber country, attacked them, and, taking possession of their territory, compelled them to embrace the Mohammedan religion. The people of Ghánah, being invaded at a later period by the Súsú, a nation of Blacks in their neighbourhood, were exterminated, or mixed with other Black nations." [8]

Ibn Khaldun suggests a link between the rise of the Almoravids and the decline of Ghana. But, historians have found virtually no evidence for an Almoravid conquest of Ghana.[9][10]

Early Modern period

The word "race," along with many of the ideas now associated with the term were products of European imperialism and colonization during the age of exploration. (Smedley 1999) As Europeans encountered people from different parts of the world, they speculated about the physical, social, and cultural differences among various human groups, which marked the early stages of the development of science. Scientists who were interested in natural history, including biological and geological scientists, were known as “naturalists”. They would collect, examine, describe, and arrange data from their explorations into categories according to certain criteria. People who were particularly skilled at organizing specific sets of data in a logically and comprehensive fashion were known as classifiers and systematists. This process was a new trend in science that served to help answer fundamental questions by collecting and organizing materials for systematic study, also known as taxonomy.[11]

As the study of natural history grew, so did society’s effort to classify human groups. Some zoologists and scientists wondered what made humans different than animals in the primate family. Furthermore, they contemplated whether homo sapiens should be classified as one species with multiple varieties or separate species.

In the 16th and 17th century, scientists attempted to classify Homo sapiens based on a geographic arrangement of human populations based on skin color, others simply on geographic location, shape, stature, food habits, and other distinguishing characteristics. Occasionally the term “race” was used but most of the early taxonomist used classificatory terms such as “peoples,” “nations,” “types,” “varieties,” and “species.”

Giordano Bruno and Jean Bodin

Italian scientist Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) and Jean Bodin (1530–1596), French scientist, attempted a rudimentary geographic arrangement of known human populations based on skin color. Bodin’s color classifications were purely descriptive, including neutral terms such as “duskish colour, like roasted quinze,” “black,” “chestnut,” and “farish white.” [11]

Bernhard Varen and John Ray

German and English scientists, Bernhard Varen (1622–1650) and John Ray (1627–1705) classified human populations into categories according to stature, shape, food habits, and skin color, along with any other distinguishing characteristics.[11]

Ray was also the first person to produce a biological definition of species.

François Bernier

François Bernier (1625–1688) is believed to have developed the first comprehensive classification of humans into distinct races which was published in a French journal article in 1684, Nouvelle division de la terre par les différents espèces ou races qui l'habitant, New division of Earth by the different species or races which inhabit it. (Gossett, 1997:32-33). Bernier advocated using the “four quarters” of the globe as the basis for providing labels for human differences.[11] The four subgroups that Bernier used were Europeans, Far Easterners, Negroes (blacks), and Lapps.[12]

Age of Enlightenment

As noted earlier, scientists attempted to classify Homo sapiens based on a geographic arrangement of human populations based on skin color, others simply on geographic location, shape, stature, food habits, and other distinguishing characteristics. In the 18th century, scientists began to include behavioral or psychological traits in their reported observations- which often had derogatory or demeaning implications – and often assumed that those behavioral or psychological traits were related to their race, and therefore, innate and unchangeable. Other areas of interest were to determine the exact number of races, categorize and name them, and examine the primary and secondary causes of variation between groups.

The Great Chain of Being, a medieval idea that there was a hierarchical structure of life from the most fundamental elements to the most perfect, began to encroach upon the idea of race. As taxonomy grew, scientists began to assume that the human species could be divided into distinct subgroups. One’s “race” necessarily implied that one group had certain character qualities and physical dispositions that differentiated it from other human populations. Society gave different values to those differentiations, which essentially created a gap between races by deeming one race superior or inferior to another race, thus a hierarchy of races. In this way, science was used as justification for unfair treatment of different human populations.

The Enlightenment period saw the rise of both monogenism and polygenism, these are both theories of racial origins, monogenism is the idea that all races have a single origin, while polygenism is the idea that all races have a separate origin.

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

Johan Friedrich Blumenbach
Blumenbach's five races.

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach divided the human species into five races in 1779, later founded on crania research (description of human skulls), and called them (1793/1795):

(See also color terminology for race.)

These five groupings together with two other additional groupings called the Australoid race (1940s) and the Capoid race (early 1960s), making a total of seven groupings in all, are today known as the traditional racial classifications or the historical definition of race. These groupings are still used today in historical anthropology that describes human migration and in forensics.

His classification of the Mongolian race included all East Asians and some Central Asians. Blumenbach excluded peoples of Southeast Asian islands and Pacific Islanders from his definition in 1779, as he considered them to be part of the Malay race. He considered American Indians to be part of the American (Indigenous peoples) race. He did not think they were inferior to the Caucasian race, and were potentially good members of society. He included the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa in the Negro or black race.

Blumenbach argued that physical characteristics like skin color, cranial profile, etc., were depended on geography and nutrition and custom.

Blumenbach's work included his description of sixty human crania (skulls) published originally in fascicules as Decas craniorum (Göttingen, 1790–1828). This was a founding work for other scientists in the field of craniometry.

Further anatomical study led him to the conclusion that 'individual Africans differ as much, or even more, from other individual Africans as Europeans differ from Europeans'. Furthermore he concluded that Africans were not inferior to the rest of mankind 'concerning healthy faculties of understanding, excellent natural talents and mental capacities'.[13]

"Finally, I am of opinion that after all these numerous instances I have brought together of negroes of capacity, it would not be difficult to mention entire well-known provinces of Europe, from out of which you would not easily expect to obtain off-hand such good authors, poets, philosophers, and correspondents of the Paris Academy; and on the other hand, there is no so-called savage nation known under the sun which has so much distinguished itself by such examples of perfectibility and original capacity for scientific culture, and thereby attached itself so closely to the most civilized nations of the earth, as the Negro."[14]

Racial anthropology (1850-1930)

Among the 19th century naturalists who defined the field were Georges Cuvier, James Cowles Pritchard, Louis Agassiz, Charles Pickering (Races of Man and Their Geographical Distribution, 1848). Cuvier enumerated three races, Pritchard seven, Agassiz twelve, and Pickering eleven.

The 19th century saw attempts to change race from a taxonomic to a biological concept. For example, using anthropometrics, invented by Francis Galton and Alphonse Bertillon, they measured the shapes and sizes of skulls and related the results to group differences in intelligence or other attributes (Lieberman 2001).

These scientists made three claims about race: first, that races are objective, naturally occurring divisions of humanity; second, that there is a strong relationship between biological races and other human phenomena (such as forms of activity and interpersonal relations and culture, and by extension the relative material success of cultures), thus biologizing the notion of "race", as Foucault demonstrated in his historical analysis; third, that race is therefore a valid scientific category that can be used to explain and predict individual and group behavior. Races were distinguished by skin color, facial type, cranial profile and size, texture and color of hair. Moreover, races were almost universally considered to reflect group differences in moral character and intelligence.

The eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, inspired by Arthur Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853–1855) and Vacher de Lapouge's "anthroposociology", asserted as self-evident the biological inferiority of particular groups (Kevles 1985). In many parts of the world, the idea of race became a way of rigidly dividing groups by culture as well as by physical appearances (Hannaford 1996). Campaigns of oppression and genocide were often motivated by supposed racial differences (Horowitz 2001[citation needed]).

During the late 19th century and early 20th century, the tension between the social conservatives, who believed in hierarchy and innate superiority, and the social liberals, who believed in social change and human equality, was at a paramount. The social conservatives continued to exacerbate the belief that certain races were innately inferior by examining their shortcomings, namely by examining and testing intelligence between groups. Some scientists claimed that there was a biological determinant of race by evaluating one’s genes and DNA. Different methods of eugenics, the study and practice of human selective breeding often with a race as a primary concentration, was still widely accepted in Britain, Germany, and the United States.[15] On the other hand, many scientists understood race as a social construct. They believed that the phenotypical expression of an individual were determined by one’s genes that are inherited through reproduction but there were certain social constructs, such as culture, environment, and language that were primary in shaping behavioral characteristics. Some advocated that race ‘should centre not on what race explains about society, but rather on the questions of who, why and with what effect social significance is attached to racial attributes that are constructed in particular political and socio-economic contexts,’ and thus, addressing the “folk” or “mythological representations” of race.[16]

Although there was a strong notion of race as cultural instead of biological, there were still scientists such as Egon Freiherr von Eickstedt, Stanley Marion Garn, and Jan Czekanowski who continued in their taxonomic endeavor to count the number of races and to name them.

Louis Agassiz's racial definitions

After Louis Agassiz came to the United States he became a prolific writer in what has been later termed the genre of scientific racism. Agassiz was specifically a believer and advocate in polygenism, that races came from separate origins (specifically separate creations), were endowed with unequal attributes, and could be classified into specific climatic zones, in the same way he felt other animals and plants could be classified.

These included Western American Temperate (the indigenous peoples west of the Rockies); Eastern American Temperate (east of the Rockies); Tropical Asiatic (south of the Himalayas); Temperate Asiatic (east of the Urals and north of the Himalayas); South American Temperate (South America); New Holland (Australia); Arctic (Alaska and Arctic Canada); Cape of Good Hope (South Africa); and American Tropical (Central America and the West Indies).

Agassiz denied that species originated in single pairs, whether at a single location or at many. He argued instead multiple individuals in each species were created at the same time and then distributed throughout the continents where God meant for them to dwell. His lectures on polygenism were popular among the slaveholders in the South, for many this opinion legitimized the belief in a lower standard of the Negro.

Interestingly, his stance in this case was considered to be quite radical in its time, because it went against the more orthodox and standard reading of the Bible in his time which implied all human stock descended from a single couple (Adam and Eve), and in his defense Agassiz often used what now sounds like a very "modern" argument about the need for independence between science and religion; though Agassiz, unlike many polygeneticists, maintained his religious beliefs and was not anti-Biblical in general.

In the context of ethnology and anthropology of the mid-19th century, Agassiz's polygenetic views became explicitly seen as opposing Darwin's views on race, which sought to show the common origin of all human races and the superficiality of racial differences. Darwin's second book on evolution, The Descent of Man, features extensive argumentation addressing the single origin of the races, at times explicitly opposing Agassiz's theories.

Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau

Arthur de Gobineau was a successful diplomat for the French Second Empire. Initially he was posted to Persia, before working in Brazil and other countries. He came to believe that race created culture, arguing that distinctions between the three "black", "white", and "yellow" races were natural barriers, and that "race-mixing" breaks those barriers and leads to chaos. He classified the Middle East, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, North Africa and southern France as racially mixed.

Gobineau believed the white race was superior to the others. He thought it corresponded to the ancient Indo-European culture, also known as "Aryan". Gobineau originally wrote that white race miscegenation was inevitable. He attributed much of the economic turmoils in France to pollution of races. Later on in his life, he altered his opinion to believe that the white race could be saved.

To Gobineau, the development of empires was ultimately destructive to the "superior races" that created them, since they led to the mixing of distinct races. This he saw as a degenerative process.

According to his definitions, the people of Spain, most of France, most of Germany, southern and western Iran as well as Switzerland, Austria, northern Italy and a large part of Britain, consisted of a degenerative race arising from miscegenation. Also according to him, the whole of north India consisted of a yellow race.

Thomas Huxley's racial definitions

Huxley's map of racial categories from On the Geographical Distribution of the Chief Modifications of Mankind (1870).
  1: Bushmen
  2: Negroes
  3: Negritoes
  9: Esquimaux
Huxley states: 'It is to the Xanthochroi and Melanochroi, taken together, that the absurd denomination of "Caucasian" is usually applied'.[17]

Thomas Huxley wrote one paper, "On the Geographical Distribution of the Chief Modifications of Mankind" (1870), in which he proposed a distinction within the human species, 'races', and their distribution across the earth.

Huxley's paper was rejected by the Royal Society and this became one of the many theories to be advanced and dropped by the early exponents of evolution.

Despite rejection by Huxley and the science community, the paper is sometimes cited in support of racialism.[18] Along with Darwin, Huxley was a monogenist, the belief that all humans are part of the same species, with morphological variations emerging out of an initial uniforminity. (Stepan, p. 44). This view contrasts polygenism, the theory that each race is actually a separate species with separate sites of origin.

Despite Huxley's monogenism and his abolitionism on ethical grounds, Huxley assumed a hierarchy of innate abilities, a stance evinced in papers such as "Emancipation Black and White" and his most famous paper, "Evolution and Ethics."

In the former, he writes that the "highest places in the hierarchy of civilization will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins, though it is by no means necessary that they should be restricted to the lowest." (Stepan, p. 79-80). (see also:)

Charles Darwin and Race

Though Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory was set forth in 1859 upon publication of On the Origin of Species, this work was largely absent of explicit reference to Darwin’s theory applied to man. This application by Darwin would not become explicit until the publication of his second great book on evolution, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, in 1871.

Darwin’s publication of this book occurred within the heated debates between advocates of monogeny, who held that all races came from a common ancestor, and advocates of polygeny, who held that the races were separately created. Darwin, who had come from a family with strong abolitionist ties, had experienced and was disturbed by cultures of slavery during his voyage on the Beagle years earlier. Noted Darwin biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore argue that Darwin’s writings on evolution were not only influenced by his abolitionist tendencies, but also his belief that non-white races were equal in regard to their intellectual capacity as white races, a belief which had been strongly disputed by scientists such as Morton, Agassiz and Broca, all noted polygenists.

By the late 1860s, however, Darwin’s theory of evolution had been thought to be compatible with the polygenist thesis (Stepan 1982). Darwin thus used Descent of Man to disprove the polygenist thesis and end the debate between polygeny and monogeny once and for all. Darwin also used it to disprove other hypotheses about racial difference that had persisted since the time of ancient Greece, for example, that differences in skin color and body constitution occurred because of differences of geography and climate.

Darwin concluded, for example, that the biological similarities between the different races were “too great” for the polygenist thesis to be plausible. He also used the idea of races to argue for the continuity between humans and animals, noting that it would be highly implausible that man should, by mere accident acquire characteristics shared by many apes.

Darwin sought to demonstrate that the physical characteristics that were being used to define race for centuries (i.e. skin color and facial features) were superficial and had no utility for survival. Because, according to Darwin, any characteristic that did not have survival value could not have been naturally selected, he devised another hypothesis for the development and persistence of these characteristics. The mechanism Darwin developed is known as sexual selection.

Though the idea of sexual selection had appeared in earlier works by Darwin, it was not until the late 1860s when it received full consideration (Stepan 1982). Furthermore, it was not until 1914 that sexual selection received serious consideration as a racial theory by naturalist thinkers.

Darwin defined sexual selection as the “struggle between individuals of one sex, generally the males, for the possession of the other sex”. Sexual selection consisted of two types for Darwin: 1.) The physical struggle for a mate, and 2.) The preference for some color or another, typically by females of a given species. Darwin asserted that the differing human races (insofar as race was conceived phenotypically) had arbitrary standards of ideal beauty, and that these standards reflected important physical characteristics sought in mates.

Broadly speaking, Darwin’s attitudes of what race was and how it developed in the human species are attributable to two assertions, 1.)That all human beings, regardless of race share a single, common ancestor and 2.) Phenotypic racial differences are superficially selected, and have no survival value. Given these two beliefs, some believe Darwin to have established monogenism as the dominant paradigm for racial ancestry, and to have defeated the scientific racism practiced by Morton, Knott, Agassiz et. Al, as well as notions that there existed a natural racial hierarchy that reflected inborn differences and measures of value between the different human races. Nevertheless he stated: : “The various races, when carefully compared and measured, differ much from each other - as in the texture of hair, the relative proportions of all parts of the body, the capacity of the lungs, the form and capacity of the skull, and even the convolutions of the brain. But it would be an endless task to specify the numerous points of difference. The races differ also in constitution, in acclimatization and in liability to certain diseases. Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct; chiefly as it would appear in their emotion, but partly in their intellectual faculties” (The Descent of Man, chapter VII).

In The Descent of Man, Darwin noted the great difficulty naturalists had in trying to decide how many "races" there actually were:

Man has been studied more carefully than any other animal, and yet there is the greatest possible diversity amongst capable judges whether he should be classed as a single species or race, or as two (Virey), as three (Jacquinot), as four (Kant), five (Blumenbach), six (Buffon), seven (Hunter), eight (Agassiz), eleven (Pickering), fifteen (Bory St. Vincent), sixteen (Desmoulins), twenty-two (Morton), sixty (Crawfurd), or as sixty-three, according to Burke. This diversity of judgment does not prove that the races ought not to be ranked as species, but it shews that they graduate into each other, and that it is hardly possible to discover clear distinctive characters between them.

Decline of racial studies after 1930

Several social and political developments that occurred at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century led to the transformation in the discourse of race. Three movements that historians have considered are: the coming of mass democracy, the age of imperialist expansion, and the impact of Nazism.[19] More than any other, the violence of Nazi rule, the Holocaust, and World War II transformed the whole discussion of race. Nazism made an argument for racial superiority based on a biological basis. This led to the idea that people could be divided into discrete groups and based on the divisions, there would be severe, tortuous, and often fatal consequence. The exposition of racial theory beginning in the Third Reich, up to the Final Solution, created a popular moral revolution against racism.[19]

Consequently, studies of human variation focused more on actual patterns of variation and evolutionary patterns among populations and less about classification. Some scientists point to three discoveries. Firstly, African populations exhibit greater genetic diversity and less linkage disequilibrium because of their long history. Secondly, genetic similarity is directly correlated with geographic proximity. Lastly, some loci reflect selection in response to environmental gradients. Therefore, some argue, human racial groups do not appear to be distinct ethnic groups.[20] Other scientists instead argue that new findings from research on race and genetics, such as "Human genetic diversity: Lewontin's fallacy", validate the significance of racial groups.

Franz Boas

Franz Boas (1858–1942) was a German American anthropologist and has been called the “Father of American Anthropology.” Boas made significant contributions within anthropology, more specifically, physical anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, and cultural anthropology. His work put an emphasis on cultural and environmental effects on people to explain their development into adulthood and evaluated them in concert with human biology and evolution. This led encouraged academics to break away from static taxonomical classifications of race. It is said that before Boas, anthropology was the study of race, and after Boas, anthropology was the study of culture.

Julian Huxley and A.C. Haddon

Sir Julian Sorell Huxley (1887–1975) was an English evolutionary biologist, humanist and internationalist. After returning to England from a tour of the United States in 1924, Huxley wrote a series of articles for the Spectator which he expressed his belief in the drastic differences between “negros” and “whites.” [21] He believed that the color of “blood” – percentage of ‘white’ and ‘black’ blood - that a person had would determine a person’s mental capacity, moral probity, and social behavior. “Blood” also determined how individuals should be treated by society. He was a proponent of racial inequality and segregation.[19]

By 1930, Huxley’s ideas on race and inherited intellectual capacity of human groups became more liberal. By the mid 1930s, Huxley was considered one of the leading antiracist and committed much of his time and efforts into publicizing the fight against Nazism.[21]

Alfred Cort Haddon (1855–1940) was a British anthropologist and ethnologist.

In 1935, Huxley and A.C. Haddon wrote, We Europeans, which greatly popularized the struggle against racial science and attacked the Nazis’ abuse of science to promote their racial theories. Although they argued that ‘any biological arrangement of the types of European man is still largely a subjective process,’ they proposed that humankind could be divided up into “major” and “minor subspecies.” They believed that races were a classification based on hereditary traits but should not by nature be used to condemn or deem inferior to another group. Like most of their peers, they continued to maintain a distinction between the social meaning of race and the scientific study of race. From a scientific stand point, they were willing to accept that concepts of superiority and inferiority did not exist, but from a social stand point, they continued to believe that racial differences were significant. For example, they argued that genetic differences between groups were functionally important for certain jobs or tasks.[19]

Ashley Montagu vs. Carleton Coon

Montague Francis Ashley Montagu (1905–1999) was a British-American anthropologist. In 1942, Montague made a strong effort to have the word “race” replaced with “ethnic group” by publishing his book, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. Montagu was also selected to draft the initial 1950 UNESCO Statement on Race.[15]

Carleton Stevens Coon (1904–1981) was an American physical anthropologist. One of Coon’s most important books is The Origin of Races, which was published in 1962, and was highly controversial. In it, Coon offered a definitive statement of the polygenist view. He also argued that human fossils could be assigned a date, a race, and an evolutionary grade. Coon divided humanity into five races and believed that each race had ascended the ladder of human evolution at different rates.[15]


The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was established November 16, 1945, in the wake of the genocide of Nazism.[22] The UNESCO 1945 constitution declared that, “The great and terrible war which now has ended was made possible by the denial of the democratic principles of the dignity, equality and mutual respect of men, and by the propagation, in their place, through ignorance and prejudice, of the doctrine of the inequality of men and races.” [23] Between 1950 and 1978 the UNESCO issued five statements on the issue of race.

The first of the UNESCO statements on race was titled "The Race Question" and was issued on July 18, 1950. The statement included both a rejection of a scientific basis for theories of racial hierarchies and a moral condemnation of racism. It's first statement suggested in particular to "drop the term 'race' altogether and speak of "ethnic groups", which proved to be controversial.[24] The 1950 statement was most concerned with dispelling the notion of race as species, and it did not reject the idea of a biological basis to racial categories.[25] Instead it defined the concept of race in terms as a population defined by certain anatomical and physiological characteristics as being divergent from other populations, it gives the examples of the Caucasian, Negroid and Mongoloid race. The statements maintain that there are no "pure races" and that biological variability was as great within any race as between races. It argued that there is no scientific basis for believing that there are any innate differences in intellectual, psychological or emotional potential among races.

The statement was drafted by Ashley Montagu and endorsed by some of the leading researchers of the time, in the fields of psychology, biology, cultural anthropology and ethnology. The statement was endorsed by Ernest Beaglehole, Juan Comas, L. A. Costa Pinto, Franklin Frazier, sociologist specialised in race relations studies, Morris Ginsberg, founding chairperson of the British Sociological Association, Humayun Kabir, writer, philosopher and Education Minister of India twice, Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of the founders of ethnology and leading theorist of cultural relativism, and Ashley Montagu, anthropologist and author of The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, who was the rapporteur.

As a result of a lack of representation of physical anthropologists in the drafing committee the 1950 publication was criticized by biologicists and physical anthropologists for confusing the biological and social senses of race, and for going beyond the scientific facts, although there was a general agreement about the statements conclusions.[26] UNESCO assembled a new committee with better representation of the physical sciences and drafted a new statement released in 1951. The 1951 statement, published as "The Race Concept", focused on race as a biological heuristic that could serve as the basis for evolutionary studies of human populations. It considered the existing races to be the result of such evolutionary processes throughout human history. It also maintained that "equality of opportunity and equality in law in no way depend, as ethical principles, upon the assertion that human beings are in fact equal in endowment."

As the 1950 and 1951 statements generated considerable attention and in 1964 a new commission was formed to draft a third statement titled "Proposals on the Biological Aspects of Race". According to Michael Banton (2008), this statement broke more clearly with the notion of race-as-species than the previous two statements, declaring that almost any genetically differentiated population could be defined as a race.[27] The statement stated that "Different classifications of mankind into major stocks, and of those into more restricted categories (races, which are groups of populations, or single populations) have been proposed on the basis of hereditary physical traits. Nearly all classifications recognise at least three major stocks." and "There is no national, religious, geographic, linguistic or cultural group which constitutes a race ipso facto; the concept of race is purely biological." It concluded by: "The biological data given above stand in open contradiction to the tenets of racism. Racist theories can in no way pretend to have any scientific foundation."

The 1950, '51 and '64 statements focused on the dispelling the scientific foundations for racism, but didn't consider other factors contributing to racism. For this reason in 1967 a new committee was assembled, including representatives of the social sciences (sociologists, lawyers, ethnographers and geneticists), to draft a statement "covering the social, ethical and philosophical aspects of the problem". This statement was the first to provide a definition of racism: "antisocial beliefs and acts which are based upon the fallacy that discriminatory intergroup relations are justifiable on biological grounds". The statement continued to denounce the many negative social affects of racism.[27]

In 1978 the general assembly of the UNESCO considered the four previous statements and published a collective "[[Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice]]".[28] This declaration included Apartheid as one of the examples of racism, an inclusion which caused South Africa to step out of the assembly. It declared that a number of public policies and laws needed to be implemented. It stated that:

  • "All human beings belong to a single species."
  • "All peoples of the world possess equal faculties for attaining the highest level in intellectual, technical, social, economic, cultural and political development."
  • "The differences between the achievements of the different peoples are entirely attributable to geographical, historical, political, economic, social and cultural factors."
  • "Any theory which involves the claim that racial or ethnic groups are inherently superior or inferior, thus implying that somewould be entitled to dominate and eliminate others, presumed to be inferior, or which bases value judgements on racial differentiation, has no scientific foundation and is contrary to the moral and ethical principles of humanity."

Genetics and medicine

Historically, scientists have tried to prove that there were distinct mental and physical differences between races through craniometry, phrenology, and physiognomy. Certain racial groups are more susceptible to certain diseases, such as sickle-cell anemia, hypertension, and high blood pressure. Only recently have scientists been able to use molecular methods of autosomal DNA, mitochondrial DNA, and Y-chromosome DNA to prove the origin of races as a monogenist viewpoint. Learning about animal and human ancestry can be done by analyzing and comparing nucleic acid patterns in a sample of DNA through electrophoresis. The idea was, that based on the genetic markers of race in one’s DNA, medical practitioners and researchers could more efficiently engineer certain drugs to treat disease within a given racial group. Despite the UNESCO statement and other claims that argue that there is no biological determinant of race, scientists today argue that they can reliably classify a person using genetic markers to groups that correspond almost exactly with self-reported race.

Criticism racial studies (1930s-1980s)

Criticism of race often accompanied the development of racial theories. In Society Must Be Defended (1978–79), Michel Foucault argued that, from a historical and political discourse of "race struggle", the notion of "race" was discussed in scientific terms in the 19th century by racist biologists and eugenicists. Psychoanalysis, he argues, was instrumental in opposing this dangerous form of essentialism, which would lead eventually to the Nazi "state racism".

Many significant criticisms also came from the school of Franz Boas beginning in the 1920s. During the mid-1930s, with the rise of Nazi Germany and its prominent espousing of racist ideologies, there was an outpouring of popular works by scientists criticizing the use of race to justify the politics of "superiority" and "inferiority".

An influential work in this regard was the publication of" We Europeans: A Survey of "Racial" Problems by Julian Huxley and A. C. Haddon in 1935, which sought to show that population genetics allowed for only a highly limited definition of race at best. Another popular work during this period, "The Races of Mankind" by Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish, argued that though there were some extreme racial differences, they were primarily superficial, and in any case did not justify political action.

Claude Lévi-Strauss' Race and History (UNESCO, 1952) was another critique of the biological "race" notion, arguing in favor of cultural relativism through a metaphor of cultures as different trains crossing each others in various directions and speed, thus each one seeming to progress to himself while others supposedly kept immobile. This, in his view, clearly showed that "race" was no longer a useful indicator of cultural superiority.

In his 1984 article in Essence magazine, "On Being ‘White’…and Other Lies," James Baldwin reads the history of racialization in America as both figuratively and literally violent, remarking that "race" only exists as a social construction within a network of force relations: "America became white—the people who, as they claim, "settled" the country became white—because of the necessity of denying the Black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation. No community can be based on such a principle—or, in other words, no community can be established on so genocidal a lie. White men from Norway, for example, where they were Norwegians—became white: by slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the well, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, raping Black women. . . Because they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers."

Apart from its function as a vernacular term, the term "race"—as Nancy Stepan notes in her 1982 book, The Idea of Race in Science, Great Britain 1800-1960—varied widely in its usage, even in science, from the 18th century through the 20th; the term referred "at one time or another" to "cultural, religious, national, linguistic, ethnic and geographical groups of human beings"—everything from "Celts" to "Spanish Americans" to "Hottentots" to "Europeans" (p. xvii).

In the 1979 preface to Blackness: Text and Pretext, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. describes the elusive element of "blackness" in Afro-American literature as lacking an "essence," defined instead "by a network of relations that form a particular aesthetic unity" (p. 162). Continuing his poststructuralist-inflected negation of blackness as an essence, in his 1985 introduction to a special issue of the journal Critical Inquiry, Gates goes even further, calling race itself a "dangerous trope" (p. 5). He argues that "race has become a trope of the ultimate, irreducible difference between cultures, linguistic groups, or adherents of specific believe systems which…also have fundamentally opposed economic interests" (p. 5).

Linda Gottfredson, on the other hand, has argued that denying or trying to conceal real biological differences between groups on average IQ instead cause people to seek something to blame for the differing average group achievements, causing resentment and hostility. She argues that "virtually all the victim groups of genocide in the Twentieth Century had relatively high average levels of achievement (e.g., German Jews, educated Cambodians, Russian Kulaks, Armenians in Turkey, Ibos in Nigeria; Gordon, 1980)."[29]

Views of hereditarian race researchers

Current researchers investing racial differences and arguing that they are biological are often accused of racism and that their research may harm society. Steven Pinker has stated that it is "a conventional wisdom among left-leaning academics that genes imply genocide." He has responded to this "conventional wisdom" by comparing the history of Marxism, which had the opposite position on genes to that of Nazism:

But the 20th century suffered "two" ideologies that led to genocides. The other one, Marxism, had no use for race, didn't believe in genes and denied that human nature was a meaningful concept. Clearly, it's not an emphasis on genes or evolution that is dangerous. It's the desire to remake humanity by coercive means (eugenics or social engineering) and the belief that humanity advances through a struggle in which superior groups (race or classes) triumph over inferior ones.[30]

Jensen and Rushton point out that research has shown that also in a group with a lower average some individuals will be above the average of other groups. They also argue that when society is blamed for disparities in average group achievements that instead result from biological differences, the result is demands for compensation from the less successful group which the more successful group feel is unjustified, causing mutual resentment.[31] Linda Gottfredson similarly argues that denying real biological differences instead cause people to seek something to blame causing hostility between groups. In the US, examples being the views that whites are racist or blacks are lazy. She furthermore argues that "virtually all the victim groups of genocide in the Twentieth Century had relatively high average levels of achievement (e.g., German Jews, educated Cambodians, Russian Kulaks, Armenians in Turkey, Ibos in Nigeria; Gordon, 1980)."[29] Gottfredson has also disputed that a lower achieving group gains from denying or concealing real biological differences. An increasingly complex society built on the assumption than everyone can do equally well means that they who do not have this ability have increasing trouble functioning in most areas of life. They need various forms of special assistance which is not possible as long as the need is denied to exist.[29][32]

See also



  1. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". genus. Douglas Harper. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=genus. Retrieved March 31, 2008. 
  2. ^ a b Gossett, Thomas F. New Edition, Race: The History of an Idea in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-19-509778-5
  3. ^ On Airs, Waters and Places, trans. by Francis Adams
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ Lawrence I. Conrad (1982), "Taun and Waba: Conceptions of Plague and Pestilence in Early Islam", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 25 (3): 268-307 [278]:"[It] is so unusual that its gazelles and ostriches, its insects and flies, its foxes, sheep and asses, its horses and its birds are all black. Blackness and whiteness are in fact caused by the properties of the region, as well as by the God-given nature of water and soil and by the proximity or remoteness of the sun and the intensity or mildness of its heat."
  6. ^ El Hamel, Chouki (2002). "'Race', slavery and Islam in Maghribi Mediterranean thought: the question of the Haratin in Morocco". The Journal of North African Studies 7 (3): 29–52 [39–42]. 
  7. ^ Abdelmajid Hannoum, "Translation and the Colonial Imaginary: Ibn Khaldun Orientalist", History and Theory, Vol. 42, Feb 2003
  8. ^ a b William Desborough Cooley, The Negro Land of the Arabs Examined and Explained, London: J. Arrowsmith, pp. 61-62
  9. ^ Pekka Masonen, Not Quite Venus from the Waves: The Almoravid Conquest of Ghana in the Modern Historiography of Western Africa, Humphrey J. Fisher, 1996
  10. ^ David Conrad and Humphrey Fisher, "The Conquest That Never Was: Ghana and the Almoravids, 1076, Vol. I: The External Arabic Sources", History of Africa, Vol. 9 (1982), African Studies Association
  11. ^ a b c d Smedley, Audrey. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. Boulder: Westview Press, 1999.
  12. ^ C. Loring, Brace. "Race" is a Four-Letter Word: the Genesis of the Concept. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  13. ^ Jack Hitt, "Mighty White of You: Racial Preferences Color America’s Oldest Skulls and Bones," Harper’s, July 2005, pp. 39–55
  14. ^ The anthropological treatises of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach
  15. ^ a b c Sarich, Vincent, and Miele Frank. Race: the Reality of Human Differences. Boulder: Westview Press, 2004.
  16. ^ Black, Les, and Solomos John. Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2000.
  17. ^ Huxley, T. H. "On the Geographical Distribution of the Chief Modifications of Mankind" (1870) Journal of the Ethnological Society of London
  18. ^ Di Gregorio, Mario A (1984). T.H. Huxley's place in natural science. New Haven. 
  19. ^ a b c d Malik, Kenan. The Meaning of Race. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
  20. ^ Koenig, Barbara A., Lee Sandra Soo-Jin, and Richardson Sarah S. Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press, 2008.
  21. ^ a b Barkan, Elazar. The Retreat of Scientific Racism. New York: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1992.
  22. ^ Richard Sack (1986) Unesco: From Inherent Contradictions to Open Crisis Comparative Education Review Vol. 30, No. 1 (Feb., 1986), pp. 112-119
  23. ^ http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=15244&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html
  24. ^ Barkan, Elazar. The politics of the science of Race: Ashley Montagu and UNESCO's antiracist declarations. Chapter 6 in Larry T. Reynolds, Leonard Lieberman (1996) Race and other misadventures: essays in honor of Ashley Montagu in his ninetieth year. Rowman & Littlefield [2]
  25. ^ Banton. Michael (2008). "Race, Unesco statements on". In Schaefer, Richard T. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Society. Sage. p. 1098. ISBN 9781412926942. "The statement was primarily concerned with the use of race in the sense of species, but in referring to “the biological fact of race,” it touched on the use of the word to signify inheritance." 
  26. ^ Banton. Michael (2008). "Race, Unesco statements on". In Schaefer, Richard T. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Society. Sage. p. 1098. ISBN 9781412926942. "Because of last-minute withdrawals, biological science was not adequately represented in the committee. Many biologists, though not rejecting the statement’s general spirit or its main conclusions, believed that it went beyond the scientific facts (e.g., in the reference to “drives towards co-operation”) and that it confused the biological and social uses of the word race." 
  27. ^ a b Banton. Michael (2008). "Race, Unesco statements on". In Schaefer, Richard T. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Society. Sage. p. 1099. ISBN 9781412926942. 
  28. ^ http://www.unesco.org/webworld/peace_library/UNESCO/HRIGHTS/107-116.HTM
  29. ^ a b c What if the Hereditarian Hypothesis Is True? Linda S. Gottfredson, Psychology, Public Policy, and Law Volume 11, Issue 2, June 2005, Pages 311-319
  30. ^ "United Press International: Q&A: Steven Pinker of 'Blank Slate". http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/books/tbs/media_articles/2002_10_30_upi.html. Retrieved 2006-08-26. 
  31. ^ Jensen, A.R.; Rushton, J.P. (2005). "Thirty Years of Research on Race Differences in Cognitive Ability". Psychology, Public Policy and Law 11: 246 248. doi:10.1037/1076-8971.11.2.235. http://psychology.uwo.ca/faculty/rushtonpdfs/PPPL1.pdf


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