Let me begin by taking you back to the famous Tennessee ‘Monkey trial’ of 1925 in which the teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for propagating the theory of evolution in the classroom. Leading the prosecution was America’s most famous anti-Darwinist William Jennings Bryan, whose campaigning had persuaded Tennessee to pass a law outlawing the teaching of Darwin’s theory.
The Scopes trial is usually seen as a a straightforward clash between Darwinism and Creationism. And Bryan is usually portrayed as an ignorant, Bible-thumping, reactionary buffoon. If fact there was more to the trial than simply a confrontation between science and religion. And Bryan himself was far from ignorant and anything but a reactionary.
He was a radical of national renown who three times ran as the Democratic presidential candidate (and three times lost). What shaped his opposition to Darwinism was not his religious literalism but his search for social justice. ‘Darwinian theory’, Bryan wrote, ‘represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate – the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak.’
In his closing speech in Scopes trial, he suggested that ‘by paralysing the hope of reform’, Darwinism ‘discourages those who labor for the improvement of man’s conditions.’ Its ‘only program for man is scientific breeding, a system under which a few supposedly superior intellects, self-appointed, would direct the mating and movements of the mass of mankind.’ There was, for Bryan, no way of challenging social iniquities without confronting Darwinism itself, and indeed without challenging scientific rationality.
The Scopes trial is a useful place from which to start a discussion of the relationship between science and race because the fears and anxieties expressed by Bryan are today widespread. Creationists, of course, still cynically use race as a stick with which to beat Darwinism.
But many progressive thinkers too have come to accept that there exists an inherent connection between science and race. The problem in their eyes is not just Darwinism itself, but the very nature of modernity and the very character of the scientific method. ‘Empiricism', the philosopher David Theo Goldberg suggests, ‘encouraged the tabulation of perceivable differences between peoples and from this it deduced their natural differences. Rationalism proposed initial innate distinctions… to explain the perceived behavioural disparities.’
The very means that science developed for understanding the world, in other words, caused scientists to divide humanity along racial lines. ‘Race’, Goldberg concludes, ‘emerged with and has served to define modernity’ by ‘working itself into the threads of liberalism’s cloth just as that cloth was being woven.’
The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues it was ‘the rational world of modern civilisation that made the Holocaust thinkable.’ For the philosopher John Gray, ‘Progress and mass murder run in tandem… As the hope for a better world has grown, so has mass murder.’ Western science, the historian Robert Young writes, ‘articulates a philosophical structure that uncannily simulates the project of nineteenth-century imperialism.’
I want to challenge such arguments tonight by rethinking the history of the idea of race and in doing so thinking again about the relationship between race, science and the Enlightenment. My starting point, however, is, paradoxically perhaps, the same as those who see an inherent connection between science and race: that it was the emergence of modernity that provided both the scientific concepts and the political language underlying the idea of race. Not because racial thinking is woven into the fabric of modernity or of the scientific method, but rather because before the modern concept of race could develop, the modern concepts of equality and humanity had to develop too. Racial difference and inequality can only have meaning in a world that has accepted the possibility of social equality and a common humanity. It was through the Enlightenment, in particular, that such ideas became firmly established in the modern imagination.
For most of human history, the concept of race simply did not exist. The Ancient Greeks, for instance, certainly possessed slaves and classified the peoples of the world according to skin colour, believing such differences to be the result of living in diverse climates. Yet they were resistant to any notion such as race, largely because, as the historian Ivan Hannaford observed, the Greek concepts of ‘politics’ and of ‘the civic’ which ‘involved a disposition to see people not in terms of where they came from and what they looked like, but in terms of membership of a public arena.’ The key distinction in Greek society was between those who were civilised and those who were barbarians – and race played no part in establishing this distinction.
Europe in the Middle Ages was a world of fixed relations and limited experiences. Difference and inequality was an integral part of the medieval consciousness of the social and natural world. The serf, the slave, the peasant, the artisan, the lord, the king – all were allotted their place in the world by divine sanction. Not just human office but natural order was preordained. Until the eighteenth century, Christendom ordered nature according to the scala naturae or Great Chain of Being that described a ladder of ascent from the inorganic world to the Supreme Being.
But as with the Ancients, the critical distinction for premodern Europeans was not physical but social. ‘Are they like us?’ meant not ‘Do they look like us?’ but ‘Do they act like us? Do they possess a rule of law? Do they believe in God?’ And so on. There existed in premodern Europe no sense that personal identity or group membership was rooted in one’s biology, nor that such identity was immutable. For Europeans, up until the eighteenth century, a people was bound together and assumed its identity through law and faith, and not through biology or history.
Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries Europe underwent a series of intellectual and social transformations that laid the basis of the modern world. It was the period in which the modern idea of the self, and of the individual as a rational agent, began to develop; in which the authority of custom and tradition weakened, while the role of reason in explaining the natural and social world was vastly expanded; in which nature became regarded not as chaotic but as lawful, and hence amenable to reason; and in which humans became part of the natural order, and knowledge became secularised. The culmination of this process came in the Enlightenment.
Traditionally, European scholars had looked to the past as the source of knowledge. From the Christian point of view, the Fall had corrupted the public stock of knowledge. The role of scholars was not to discover new facts about the world, but to restore an uncorrupted view through a correct interpretation of the Bible, and of the works of the Ancients, particularly Aristotle.
The ‘new philosophy’ reversed this relationship between observation and authority. From now on, as Francis Bacon put it, ‘Books must follow science, not science follow books.’ By applying reason to observation, the new philosophers argued, it was possible to establish the laws by which the world was governed.
Through this process, the magical, vitalistic cosmos of old gave way to an inert universe composed of purposeless particles each pursuing its course mindless of others. Humans were now seen as part of the natural order. So the question arose: how did humans fit into that order? Natural philosophers had begun classifying all of nature. How should humans be classified as part of this project?
It was through the work of the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus that the first steps were taken in attempting to answer this question. Linnaeus’ great study, the Systema Naturae, described and classified animals and plants for the first time in a distinctly modern fashion. He never fully shook off the influence of the Chain of Being. But he replaced the linear view of nature embodied in the scala naturae with a nested hierarchy of species, genera, families, orders, classes, phyla and kingdoms, a system we still use today.
Through the various editions the Systema Naturae, Linnaeus developed a complex classification system for humans. He created the genus Homo which he subdivided into two sub-genera. In one, Homo nocturnes, he placed those apes that appeared to be anthropomorphic. The second, Homo diurnus (or ‘daylight Man’), was reserved for creatures that appeared to be more human.
Homo diurnus was, in turn, divided into three species. Homo sapiens were humans proper. The other two species - Homo monstrosus and Homo ferus - were ‘monsters’ of various sorts: monstrous peoples such as Patagonian giants and Alpine dwarves, and monstrous individuals such as the wolf-boy of Hesse and the wild girl of Champagne. Finally, Linnaeus subdivided Homo sapiens into four ‘varieties’: americanus, europaeus, asiaticus and afer.
The Systema Naturae is one of the landmarks of scientific thought, out of which modern biological taxonomy grew. But it is still peopled by monstrous creatures that staked out the ambiguous frontier between fable and fact. In the first edition of Systema Naturae, for instance, Linnaeus catalogues a bizarre creature called ‘paradoxon’, a ‘tailed satyr, hairy, bearded, with a human body, gesticulating much, very lascivious’. It is in this sense a work that bridges the medieval and the modern consciousness.
Eighteenth century biologists celebrated Linnaeus for his astonishing feat in cataloguing all of nature. God created nature, it was said, but Linnaeus arranged it. Many, however, were also critical of the details of that arrangement. None more so than the German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, often considered the founder of anthropology. In the Systema Naturae, he complained, ‘the attributes of apes are mixed up with those of men’, travelers fables are recycled as human monstrosities, and Linnaues’ categories are rooted in cultural prejudices as well as physical distinctions. Europaeus, for instance, was described by Linnauaeus as ‘white, serious, strong. Hair blond, flowing. Eyes blue. Active, very smart, inventive. Covered by tight clothing. Ruled by laws’. Afer, on the other hand, was ‘black, impassive, lazy. Hair kinked. Skin silky. Nose flat. Lips thick. Women with genital flap, breasts large. Crafty, slow, foolish. Anoints himself with grease. Ruled by caprice.’
Blumenbach refined Linnaeus’ classification of humans by rejecting all idea of human monsters. And to remove Linaneus’ cultural baggage, he insisted that skull shape and size should be used as the primary means of differentiating between human groups. He eventually reordered Linnaeus’ four human categories to form five varieties, naming them Caucasians, the peoples of the Europe, west Asia and north Africa; Mongolians, the peoples of East Asia; Ethiopians of sub-Saharan Africa; Americans, the native peoples of New World; and Malays, the peoples of Oceania.
Over the next two centuries, anthropologists put forward various racial taxonomies in which the number of races varied from three to several dozen. Blumenbach’s five-fold taxonomy, however, and his terminology – in particular the expression ‘Caucasian’ – became firmly established in both popular and scientific thinking about race – and remain so to this day.
By the end of the eighteenth century, then, scientists had constructed a taxonomy of nature into which humans could be fitted and out of which emerged the categories of race. This seems to lend credibility to the view that it is modernity itself, and in particular the Enlightenment, that give rise both to the idea of race and to the practice of racism. ‘Eighteenth century Europe was the cradle of racism’, the historian George Mosse, argues because ‘racism has its foundations’ in the Enlightenment ‘preoccupation with a rational universe, nature and aesthetics.’
To see why this is not the case, we need to look more closely at how Enlightenment thinkers viewed the concept of human differences.
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The Enlightenment was the intellectual wind of change that swept through eighteenth century Europe. It was the harbinger of intellectual modernity. The philosophes of the Enlightenment saw their job as sweeping aside the ignorance and prejudice that had characterised the medieval world. For the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, Irving Zeitlin writes, ‘philosophising became something different from what it was before’. Philosophy was ‘now no longer merely a matter of abstract thinking; it acquired the practical function of criticising existing institutions to show they were unreasonable and unnatural. It demanded that such institutions and the entire old order be replaced by a new one that was more reasonable, natural and hence necessary.’
The Enlightenment, in historian Jonathan Israel’s words, ‘not only attacked and severed the roots of traditional European culture in the sacred, magic, kingship, and hierarchy, secularising all institutions and ideas, but (intellectually and to a degree in practice) effectively demolished all legitimation of monarchy, aristocracy, woman’s subordination to man, ecclesiastical authority, and slavery, replacing these with the principles of universality, equality and democracy.’
There were, in fact, two Enlightenments, as Israel points out in his wonderful two-part history of the period, Radical Enlightenment and Enlightenment Contested. The mainstream Enlightenment of Kant, Locke, Voltaire and Hume is the one of which we know and which provides the public face of the Enlightenment. But it was the Radical Enlightenment, shaped by lesser-known figures such as d’Holbach, Diderot, Condorcet and Spinoza that provided the Enlightenment’s heart and soul.
The two divided on the question of whether reason reigned supreme in human affairs, as the radicals insisted, or whether reason had to be limited by faith and tradition – the view of the mainstream. This distinction was to shape the attitudes of the two sides to a whole host of social and political issues such as equality, democracy and colonialism.
The attempt of the mainstream to marry traditional theology to the new philosophy, Israel suggests, constrained its critique of old social forms and beliefs. The Radicals, on the other hand, were driven to pursue their ideas of equality and democracy to their logical conclusions because, having broken with traditional concepts of a God-ordained order, there was no ‘meaningful alternative to grounding morality, politicas and social theory on a systematic, generalised radical egalitarianism extending across all frontiers, class barriers and horizons.’
The starting point for the philosophes, radical and mainstream, was the belief in a common human nature. ‘It is universally acknowledged’, David Hume wrote, ‘that there is a great uniformity among the acts of men, in all nations and ages, and that human nature remains the same in its principles and operations.’
But if human nature was so uniform, why did humans differ so markedly across the globe? This was a critical question for eighteenth century thinkers. The answer, for most philosophes, was ‘climate’, by which they meant not simply the weather (though they considered this an important aspect) but more generally a people’s environment, including their history.
In his Histoire Naturelle, the French naturalist Buffon described the lives of many human groups and tried to demonstrate the material basis for the differences. ‘Every circumstance’, he wrote, ‘concurs in proving, that mankind are not composed of species essentially different from each other’. On the contrary, ‘there was originally but one species, who, after multiplying and spreading over the whole surface of the earth, have undergone various changes by the influence of climate, food, mode of living, epidemic diseases, and the mixture of dissimilar individuals’.
The motif that ran through the Enlightenment was an acceptance of the superiority of European civilisation coupled with a belief in a common human nature and the plasticity of human varieties. In 1793 the English Captain Watkin Tench published A Complete Account of the Settlement of Port Jackson, which provided a detailed account of the Aborigines of New South Wales. ‘Considered as a nation’, he wrote, Aborigines ‘certainly rank very low even in the scale of savages.’ Yet he was certain that they possessed ‘a considerable portion of that acumen, or sharpness of intellect, which bespeaks genius.’ Aborigines were separated from Europeans not by innate differences but by an accident of history. ‘By the fortuitous advantage of birth alone’, he wrote, ‘do Europeans ‘possess superiority’. And ‘untaught, unaccommodated man, is the same in Pall Mall, as in the wilderness of New South Wales.’
Today, of course, talk about 'savages' sounds deeply racist. For eighteenth century philosophes, however, to speak of a sociaty as 'savage' was less a moral condemnation than an empirical description. Savagery was a state through which all societies passed. What motivated most Enlightenment thinkers, especially the radicals, was not the belief that non-Europeans were innately or irrevocably backward but a desire to understand the material causes of the human variety, including cultural, social and political variety. The question that mesmerised them was why, if all humans possessed a common nature, they appeared so different, not just physically but socially, culturally and intellectually too? The answer was rarely that human groups were racially distinct, but rather than environmental differences and accidents of history had shaped their societies in different ways.
Diderot probably echoed the views of many eighteenth century thinkers when he pointed out that habits ‘are not African or Asiatic or European. They are good or bad.’ There are slaves ‘under the Pole where it is very cold’ and slaves ‘in Constantinople where it is very hot’. But, Diderot wrote, ‘everywhere a people should be educated, free and virtuous.’
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The Enlightenment was marked, then, both by a passion for classification, and for bringing order to the seeming chaos of the world, and by a belief in the universality of human nature and in the power of progress. These two key aspects of Enlightenment thought seemed to pull in different directions in the debate about the nature of human differences. On the one hand was the urge to create a racial taxonomy of humankind, evident in the work of Linnaeus and Blumenbach, on the other the insistence on the plasticity of human varieties and the possibility of a common civilisation. For much of the eighteenth century, though, most thinkers did not perceive a contradiction. In large part this was because of the way Enlightenment thinkers understood the meaning of classification.
In the Linnaean system, the concept of species was defined by four attributes, all rooted in a pre-modern Aristotelian view of the world. First, species consisted of similar individuals sharing in the same essence; each individual embodied the essence of the species. Taxonomy was the science of arranging beings with respect to the essence. Second, each species was separated from all others by a sharp discontinuity; there were no gradations between species and no doubt as to which species any individual belonged. Third, each species remained constant through time. Every organism was created by God, and remained unchanged since Creation. And finally, Linnaean taxonomy imposed severe limitations in the possible variation of any species. Since each species was defined by its essence, it could not wander too far from its predetermined form.
In the nineteenth century these four attributes came to define the concept of a ‘racial type’ – a race as a fixed and immutable group. In the eighteenth century, though, many objected to the very idea of a system of classification rooted in Aristotelian philosophy.
In his influential Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke argued that it was not possible to have knowledge of ‘real essences’. All we can know are the qualities or appearances that present themselves to our senses – what Locke called the ‘nominal essence’ of an object. From these we use our powers of abstraction to create categories. Such categories, Locke wrote, ‘are made by the mind and not by nature’. Nominal essences, in other words, are not in things, as real essences, but are characteristics chosen by us, on the basis of social needs and systems of meanings, to help us define objects we wish to classify. Classification was simply a means of arranging nature for human convenience.
Locke’s argument could be read in different ways in debates about human differences. The idea that there is no common human essence could, in principle, provide support for the claim that certain groups are not fully human. This is one of the reasons that contemporary postmodern rejection of any and all ‘essentialism’ has potentially dangerous consequences.
In the Enlightenment, however, Locke’s argument was taken to mean something very different: that the delineation of human varieties represented not a reflection of natural classes, but a matter of human convention. Blumenbach’s classification of humans into five races remains widely accepted to this day. Yet Blumenbach himself was ambivalent about the meaning of such a taxonomy:
Although there seems to be so great a distance between widely separate nations, that you might easily take the inhabitants of the Cape of Good Hope, the Greenlanders and the Circassians for so many different species of man, yet when the matter is thoroughly considered, you see that all do so run into one another, that one variety of mankind does so sensibly pass into another, that you cannot mark out the limits between them.
Blumenbach added that ‘There is no single character so peculiar and so universal among the Ethiopians, but what it may be observed on the one hand everywhere in other varieties of men’.
Blumenbach thought it important to divide humanity into distinct categories for the purposes of scholarship, but did not believe that such categories were fixed or immutable. It was an argument widely accepted in the Enlightenment. As Samuel Stanhope, the best known of early American writers on anthropology, put it in his Essay on the Causes of the variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species, ‘The conclusion to be drawn from all this variety of opinion is, perhaps, that it is impossible to draw the line precisely between the various races of men, or even to enumerate them with certainty; and that it is itself a useless labor to attempt it.’
Nineteenth century thinkers, especially in the second half of the century, took for granted that humans could be divided into a number of essentially distinct groups. Eighteenth century thinkers, on the other hand, took as their starting point the belief in a universal human nature. Difference was something to be explained, not, as nineteenth racial scientists came to believe, something that explained everything else.
The Enlightenment belief in the plasticity of human varieties was rooted partly in an attitude: a fervent belief in progress as the mark of humanity. For most Enlightenment philosophes, the radicals in particular, progress was akin to a law of nature and no people were deprived of the possibilities of self-improvement.
It was also rooted in the conviction that empirical data would back up the political attitude. Increasingly, though, cultural and intellectual differences seemed ineradicable. David Hume, despite arguing that ‘there is great uniformity among the acts of men among all nations and ages’ was nevertheless ‘apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites’:
There scarcely was a civilised nation of that complexion, nor even an individual, eminent in either thought or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an initial distinction between these breeds of men.
What we see here are the first intimations of a contradiction that was to become a key motor of nineteenth century social and political thinking – a contradiction between the intellectual categories thrown up Enlightenment philosophy and the social relations of the emerging capitalist society, between an abstract belief in equality, on the one hand, and the concrete reality of an unequal society. It was out of this contradiction, as we shall see, that the idea of race emerges.
It is true that in the eighteenth century, a number of thinkers within the mainstream of the Enlightenment, Hume, Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson among them, dabbled with ideas of innate differences between human groups, including ideas of polygenism – the belief that different races had different origins and were akin to distinct species. Yet, with one or two exceptions, they did so only diffidently or in passing. Hume’s comment about the innate inferiority of blacks appeared in a footnote. Thomas Jefferson conceded that ‘the opinion that [negroes] are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination must be hazarded with great diffidence’ particularly so ‘when our conclusion would degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them.’ Twenty years later, he wrote to a French correspondent that he had expressed his opinions about the inferiority of negroes ‘with great hesitation’. He added that ‘whatever their degree of talents, it is no measure of their rights’.
In some ways, then, the roots of the racial ideas that would flourish in the nineteenth century lay in Enlightenment writing, or rather in the equivocations of the mainstream. Yet, eighteenth century thinkers remained highly resistant to the idea of race. This was partly because the empirical case for a racial view of human differences did not seem sufficiently compelling. More importantly, political attitudes towards progress and human unity left little room for race. It was the transformation of Enlightenment attitudes through the course of the nineteenth century that helped mutate the eighteenth century discussion of human variety into the nineteenth century obsession with racial difference.
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Enlightenment philosophes had believed that social progress would heal the divisions between social groups. Nineteenth century thinkers discovered that in reality progress seemed to exacerbate such differences, revealing even more sharply the vast gulf that existed not just between Europe and America and the rest of the world but also within Europe itself. The nineteenth century was the great age of nation-building in which countries such as France, Italy and Germany emerged as fully-fledged nations. But the very process by which nationhood was constructed was also the process through which was revealed the deep divisions within each nation.
In an address to the Medico-Psychological Society of Paris in 1857, the Christian socialist Phillipe Buchez considered the meaning of social differentiation within France:
Consider a population like ours, placed in the most favourable circumstances; possessed of a powerful civilisation; amongst the highest ranking nations in science, the arts and industry. Our task now, I maintain, is to find out how it can happen that within a population such as ours, races may form – not merely one but several races – so miserable, inferior and bastardised that they may be classes below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure.
The dilemma faced by a man like Buchez was this. He, like many of his class and generation, had a deep belief in equality, a belief that had descended from the Enlightenment philosophes. Like eighteenth-century philosophes, Buchez trusted in progress and assumed that potentially all human beings could develop into a state of civilisation. In practice, however, social divisions seemed so deep and unforgiving that they appeared permanent, as if rooted in the very soil of the nation. How could one rationally explain this?
As they wrestled with this dilemma, many thinkers came to the conclusion that certain types of people were by nature incapable of progressing beyond barbarism. They were naturally inferior. This idea, tentatively suggested by men like Hume, Jefferson and Voltaire in the eighteenth century, become by the end of the nineteenth the principal means of making sense of the world.
The idea of race developed as a way of explaining the persistence of social divisions in a society that had proclaimed a belief in equality. From the racial viewpoint, inequality persisted because society was by nature unequal. The destiny of different social groups was shaped, at least in part, by their intrinsic properties. And science, many came to believe, would both elucidate and explain those intrinsic properties.
It is worth noting that the idea of race, which today we see exclusively as about skin colour or ethnicity, developed initially as an way of explaining social differences of all kinds: social differences within Europe as well as between Europe and Africa and Asia, class as much as colour. The working class and the rural poor were as racially distinct, to Victorian eyes, as Africans or Native Americans, and often more so.
The process by which Enlightenment humanism was degraded to a racial view of the world was hastened both by increasing pessimism about the possibilities of social change and by a growing fear of such change. These changing attitudes to social transformation were framed by two revolutions: the French Revolution of 1789 and the revolutions of 1848 that swept across much of Europe.
For radicals the overthrow of the ancien regime in 1789 represented the practical embodiment of reason and of equality, and a concrete expression of social progress. For more conservative thinkers, however, the French Revolution was an illustration of the darker side of reason and of the dangers of social progress. The disorder and anarchy observed after 1789 led many to decry change and progress and to stress order and stability, tradition and authority, status and hierarchy. They longed for the safe anchor of ancient traditions, of a personal faith and a universe that spoke to them through its myths and symbols.
If the French Revolution had catalysed a conservative reaction against the Enlightenment, the revolutions of 1848 had a similar impact on liberal opinion. In that year a series of revolts and insurrections swept through the length and breadth of Europe, largely in response to political tyranny and economic immiseration. The revolutions were quickly crushed, often brutally. Liberals, who had initially helped man the barricades, were shocked by the violence and instability the uprisings unleashed, and many turned their back on the very idea of radical change. Pessimism, as the historian Daniel Pick puts it, ‘began to colonise liberalism’.
The growth of social pessimism expressed itself through the nineteenth century in many ways. Two responses are particularly important in the discussion of the emergence of the idea of race: Romanticism and positivism.
Romanticism is one of those concepts that cultural historians find invaluable but which is almost impossible to define. It took many political forms – it lies at the root both of modern conservatism and many strands of radicalism – and appeared in different national versions. Romanticism was not a specific political or cultural view but rather described a cluster of attitudes and preferences: for the concrete over the abstract; the unique over the universal; nature over culture; the organic over the mechanical; emotion over reason; intuition over intellect; particular communities over abstract humanity. These attitudes came to the fore towards the end of the eighteenth century largely in reaction to the predominant views of the Enlightenment.
Whereas Enlightenment philosophes had seen progress as civilisation overcoming the resistance of traditional cultures with their peculiar superstitions, irrational prejudices and outmoded institutions, for the Romantics the steamroller of progress and modernity was precisely what they feared. Enlightenment philosophes tended to see civilisation in the singular. Romantics understood culture in the plural. Distinct cultures were not aberrant forms to be destroyed but a precious inheritance to be cherished and protected.
The philosopher who perhaps best articulated the Romantic notion of culture was the German Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder rejected the Enlightenment idea that reality was ordered in terms of universal, timeless, objective, unalterable laws that rational investigation could discover. He maintained, rather, that every activity, situation, historical period or civilisation possessed a unique character of its own. What made each people or nation – or volk - unique was its Kultur: its particular language, literature, history and modes of living. The unique nature of each volk was expressed through its volksgeist – the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history. Every culture was authentic in its own terms, each adapted to its local environment.
Critical he may have been of many Enlightenment beliefs. But at the heart of Herder’s philosophy remained a deep-seated belief in equality and in universal human capacities. ‘A monkey is not your brother’, he protested, ‘but a negro is, and you should not rob and oppress him.’ Nevertheless the impact of Herder’s Romanticism was to encourage, albeit unwittingly, a racial viewpoint. In insisting that the key differences between humans were cultural rather than political, and in arguing for the incommensurability of cultures, Herder discarded the common yardstick by which to gauge humanity. The consequence of his belief in difference as the motivating force was to undermine the idea of equality and unity. The consequence of his insistence on the importance of tradition was to undermine the grip of reason. Taken together, they helped encourage a racial view of human differences.
A second response to the social pessimism developed through what came to be called positivism (a philosophy distinct from twentieth century positivism). Many liberals rejected the backward-looking anti-Enlightenment tendencies of Romanticism. They were nevertheless deeply concerned about what they saw as a crisis of authority.
‘The supreme dread’, Harriet Martineau wrote, ‘is that men should be adrift for want of anchorage for their convictions.’ Martineau was an English journalist and novelist, the daughter of a textile manufacturer, a friend of Charles Darwin, and a tireless propagandist for liberal and scientific causes. She was very much a picture of the middle class liberal of the mid-nineteenth century, and her anxieties spoke for a whole class and a whole generation. The old sources of authority – the Bible, the Church, the gentry – were in disarray, and no new source had emerged to replace them. The result was intellectual turmoil – and the fear that intellectual turmoil could lead to social disorder. As the historian John Burrow has observed, ‘Anarchy – social anarchy as a fear, intellectual anarchy as a fact – is a word that constantly occurs [in intellectual debates] in the eighteen-forties and eighteen-fifties.’
How could society reconcile its belief in social progress with its desire for social stability and fear of social anarchy? That was the question that liberal intellectuals began to ask themselves. Increasingly the answer seemed to be to look to science to legitimate social order. Science would replace religion and Nature God as the guarantors of intellectual truth, moral fulfilment and social peace. To tame science in this fashion, nineteenth century thinkers stripped Enlightenment thought of its negative, critical aspects. Postivism became the credo of nineteenth century liberalism.
The French thinker Auguste Comte, with whom nineteenth century positivism is most associated, was contemptuous of both what he called the metaphysicians of the Enlightenment and the conservatives who railed against them, the former for believing that progress and order were opposing principles, the latter for wishing to return to a pre-Enlightenment order. Instead, he argued, order and progress could be united in a science that sought to make society as rational as possible. ‘True liberty’, wrote Comte, ‘is nothing else than a rational submission to the preponderance of the laws of nature.’
Positivism united order and progress by subsuming society to the slaws of nature. Since society was governed by natural laws, positivists claimed, it could not be any other way. Social inequality was the inevitable product of natural development. ‘Independently of all political institutions’, as the naturalist William Smellie put it, ‘nature herself has formed the human species into castes and ranks.’
The Romantic notion of human difference and the positivist view of the natural order fused into the concept of racial type. A type came to mean a group of beings, linked by a set of fundamental characteristics and which differed from other types by virtue of those characteristics. Each type was separated from others by a sharp discontinuity; there was rarely any doubt as to which type an individual belonged. Each type remained constant through time. And there were severe limits to how much any member of a type could vary from the fundamental ground plan by which the type was constituted. Biologists came to think of human types, in other words, as fixed, unchanging entities, each defined by its special essence.
As the American physician Samuel Morton, the leading polygenist and the most celebrated scientist of his day, put it ‘From remote ages, the inhabitants of every extended locality have been marked by certain physical and moral peculiarities, common among themselves and serving to distinguish them from all other people.’ The human family, his fellow polygenists, Josiah Clark Nott and George Robbins Gliddon argued, offers no exception to this general law, but fully conforms to it: Mankind being divided into several groups of Races, each of which constitutes a primitive element in the fauna of its peculiar province.’ ‘History’, they believed, ‘affords no evidence of the transformation of one Type into another, nor of the origination of a new and Permanent Type.’
The echoes of Herder’s concept of volksgeist are unmistakeable. Through the concept of type, Herder’s cultural essence took on biological garb, and in doing so became an argument not for a plurality of cultures but for a natural hierarchy within society.
The journey from volksgeist to race captured a significant shift in perceptions of human beings. Humans were no longer evaluated in terms of their moral or political qualities, but were appraised principally according to their physical characteristics. For the Greeks the key division in the world was between civilised people and barbarians. For pre-modern Europe, what defined a people was its relationship to law and to faith. In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment philosophes judged people largely according to their moral capacities. By the second half of the nineteenth century, however, biology determined identity and fate. It was, in the words of historian Nancy Stepan, ‘a move away from an eighteenth century optimism about man, and faith in the adaptability of man’s universal “nature”, towards a nineteenth century biological pessimism.’ And such biological pessimism marked a shift ‘from an emphasis on the fundamental physical and moral homogeneity of man, despite superficial differences, to an emphasis on the essential heterogeneity of mankind, despite superficial similarities.’
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How does Darwinism fit into this picture? The Origin of Species was a milestone of modern biology. The theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the past 200 years and has played an immense role in shaping the modern view of the world. It helped challenge theological dogma and allowed us to imagine a world designed without a designer.
The traditional view of species presented them as creations of God, each adapted to its particular role in the order of creation and each defined by its essence. To Darwin, on the contrary, species were not fixed but were instead continually changing by a natural process of variation, struggle and the selection of traits favourable for survival. As a consequence, species were constantly adapting to changing circumstances and new species forever forming out of old. Species were not fixed, essential entities but a group of interbreeding forms defined by a certain set of characteristics. With Darwin, the typological view of species finally gave way to a populational view.
In theory, then, Darwinism should have fatally undermined the idea of race. It was a theory of continual change that rejected the notion of species as fixed types. Racial scientists, on the other hand, were committed to a science of fixed and unchanging essences, to racial types whose stability allowed them to divide humanity into distinct racial groups.
Yet, far from undermining the idea of race, in practice Darwinism helped buttress it further. Racial scientists were among the most enthusiastic of Darwinists, adapting the theory for their own purposes and often in highly contradictory fashion. When the President of the Royal Anthropological Society, John Beddoe, gave a series of lectures in 1891 on race, he finished with two conclusions. ‘Under normal circumstances’, he wrote, ‘the physical characteristics of well defined races of men… are absolutely permanent.’ He also believed that ‘Natural selection may alter the type’.
The two conclusions clearly contradict each other. If natural selection can alter the type then the physical characteristics of racial types cannot be permanent. Yet, the contradiction did not seem to bother Beddoe or any other racial scientist of the time. That is because racial science had come to develop a ‘two-stage’ theory of human evolution. Natural selection operated on early humans to establish racial types. But beyond a certain point, the human body was no longer subject to evolutionary forces. Hence racial characteristics became fixed. Racial scientists could therefore both commit themselves to Darwin’s theory of evolution and also view racial types as ancient and permanent.
What of Darwin himself? Adrian Desmond and James Moore, in their recent book Darwin’s Sacred Cause, suggest that Darwin’s righteous anger about slavery – his ‘sacred cause’ – instilled in him a deep moral belief in human unity that shaped his entire view of creation. . ‘I cannot help thinking’ Darwin wrote in his notebook in 1838, ‘good analogy might be traced between relationship of all men now living & the classification of animals’. Darwin’s heresy, Desmond and Moore observe, was not to apply to humans ideas about the origins of non-human species, but on the contrary, ‘to extend human racial relationships to all the branches of creation’.
Darwin’s Sacred Cause makes a strong and plausible case for the importance of anti-slavery not just to Darwin’s moral temper but also to his scientific work and in shaping his views about human origins and human differences. Yet, Darwin, too, developed his own version of the two-stage theory of race formation, defined by sexual selection, on the one hand, and natural selection, on the other. Sexual selection, Darwin argued, ensured that racial traits arose very early in human history, were not adaptive and were relatively fixed. As the original stock of humans spread out across the globe in small bands, each group developed new physical traits through spontaneous variation. In each group, some of these traits – say, white skin or black skin, curly hair or straight hair - would have seemed particularly attractive to members of the opposite sex. As a result such traits would have spread through the population and become its defining racial features.
Natural selection continued to operate on both the human body and the human mind, making the different races morally and intellectually distinct and continually in conflict. ‘When two races of men meet’, Darwin wrote in his notebook, ‘they act precisely like two species of animals’ in that ‘they fight, eat each other, bring diseases to each other, etc.’ And then, Darwin added, ‘comes the more deadly struggle, namely which have the best fitted organisation or instinct (ie intellect in man) to gain the day?’ There is, in other words,an inevitable moral and intellectual conflict between races. And one race always triumphs over another. It was an argument that in other people’s hands was to become a justification of capitalist exploitation, racial savagery and even genocide – the very beliefs against which William Jennings Bryan railed.
Darwin’s own theory of evolution by natural selection mortally undermined the idea of race. His own political and philosophical instincts had instilled in him a deep belief in human unity and revulsion of slavery and polygenist arguments. And yet so deep were racial ideas embedded in nineteenth century consciousness, so difficult was it for liberals to understand the contradiction between their abstract belief in equality and the concrete reality of an unequal society, that even for Darwin not just racial difference, but racial struggle too, was a reality.
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So where does all this leave the question at the heart of this talk: what is the relationship between race and science? As biology became a science, so did race. The ‘transition to racial science’, the historian Nancy Stepan observes, ‘was part of the transition to modern biology itself.’ The paradox of nineteenth century thought, she writes, is that while ‘racial science was more “scientific” by the 1850s, racial science was also more “racist” – in its insistence on the permanency of racial types, and in the existence of a scale of racial worth.’
This intimate relationship between the emergence of biological science, on the one hand, and of racial science, on the other, seems to lend currency to the view that the very act of categorising the world, of applying reason to it, and of viewing it through a scientific lens inevitably leads to a racial perspective. Science, from this perspective, bears the guilt of racial science because without science there could have been no racial science. The birth of science made race possible, indeed inescapable.
The relationship between race and science was, however, far more contingent than this. What gave shape to that relationship was not the intrinsic character of science but the wider intellectual climate of the late nineteenth century. Science became racial science, not because science itself was racist, but because in a particular social and political context, the facts of human differences could be read – and indeed, to many people, it seemed could only be read – in a racial fashion.
Take, for instance, the idea of the ‘facial angle’, a concept introduced by the eighteenth century Dutch painter and anatomist Peter Camper. Camper was interested in developing a system of accurately portraying human diversity. He realized that the angle between a line drawn horizontally from the lower part of the ear to the lips, and one drawn vertically through the most prominent part of the forehead varied according to race. It was greatest among Europeans and smallest for Africans, and smaller still for apes.
Nineteenth century racial scientists drew deeply on the concept of the facial angle. Anthropologists distinguished between prognathous and orthognathous people, the former with protruding jaws, the latter with jaws less prominent, and established an evolutionary ladder with Europeans at the top and Africans at the bottom, most closely resembling apes. In his influential book The Races of Man, published in 1862, John Beddoe, the future president of the Royal Anthropological Society, emphasized that the Irish, Welsh, and the lower classes, were all prognathous, while all men of genius were orthognathous.
All this has led modern historians to view Camper as one of the true founders of racial science and strengthened the belief that the roots of racism lie in Enlightenment rationalism. In fact Camper’s aim in deriving the facial angle was to demonstrate the very opposite - not the inferiority of Africans, but their true humanity. Africans, he insisted, were fundamentally different to apes and should not be seen as the missing link on the evolutionary chain. ‘Hold out a fraternal hand to the Negroes’, Camper exhorted his fellow-Europeans, ‘and recognize them as the descendants of the first man to whom we all look to as a common father’.
In any case, even in the eighteenth century, many recognised the concept of the facial angle to be shoddy science. ‘Not much is to be deduced’ from Camper’s theory, Blumenbach wrote, because he ‘has so arbitrarily and inconstantly used his two normal lines’. But bad science does not mean racial science.
In the eighteenth century Camper’s shoddy science aimed to establish the humanity of Africans and to deny their closeness to apes. A century later, in a different political context, the same shoddy science was used to establish a racial hierarchy and to prove notions of racial superiority and inferiority. The question of whether a scientific argument is right or wrong, in other words, is distinct from the question of how it is used and how its results interpreted.
The idea that science bears the guilt of race because the very act of categorising the world, of applying reason to it, inevitably leads to a racial perspective, confuses the process of categorising human differences with the creation of a racial taxonomy. The act of categorising is not of itself racial. There are clearly differences between individuals and populations. Science potentially allows us to have a rational view of human diversity. What is important is not that scientists seek to classify human variety but the ways in which they do so and the meaning that they read into such categories.
And that meaning emerges not out of the scientific method but out of the social and political culture in which scientific debates are situated, a culture that often uses the authority of science to buttress political, social and moral claims. The contradiction between an abstract belief in equality and the reality of an unequal society; the growing, and seemingly unbridgeable gulf, between peoples, both those within Europe and between European and non-European peoples; the emergence of capitalism and the expansion of imperialism; pessimism about, and fear of, social change; dread of social and intellectual anarchy; the desire to utilise science to legitimate social order; the need to justify exploitation at home and savagery abroad – these were the developments shaped the way that human differences came to be viewed in the nineteenth century, and that catalysed a shift from, in Nancy Stepan’s words, ‘from an emphasis on the fundamental physical and moral homogeneity of man, despite superficial differences, to an emphasis on the essential heterogeneity of mankind, despite superficial similarities.’
And just as a particular social and political context allowed, say, Peter Camper’s arguments about the facial angle to be seen as buttressing a racial view of the world, so it is a particular social and political context that leads many historians today to view Camper as standing in the tradition of racial science – and to place the guilt for racial science upon the scientific method.
We live in an age in which we have grown wary of the claims of science and reason. No age has been more penetrated by science, nor more dependant upon it. Yet no age has been more uneasy about it, nor felt more that the relationship with scientific knowledge is a Faustian pact. Many today are likely to sympathise with John Donne’s sixteenth century response to the new science of Gallileo, Bacon and Boyle, that the ‘New Philosophy call all in doubt’, leaving ‘…all in pieces, all coherence gone / All just supply, all Relation.’ Science and reason, which the philosophes saw as the solutions to humanity’s problems, are now more often viewed as their cause.
It is against this background, that many have come to accept that the roots of racial science lie within the scientific method itself. The view that there is an intrinsic relationship between race and science is as much a product of a particular political and social culture as was the view that science legitimated a racial hierarchy. And in some ways it is as dangerous.
Peter Eisenman is the American architect who designed Berlin’s extraordinary Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It consists of 2,711 concrete pillars ranging in height from a few centimeters to almost five meters and forming a dense, undulating grid pattern through which visitors can wander.
For Eisenman, the field of concrete is a metaphor for the Nazi regime and the mad, ordered nature of its genocide. ‘The field looks like it’s reasonable, lined up’, he said. ‘Then you find the stones are not perfectly horizontal or vertical. There is a warping sensation. It’s unsettling. It seems reasonable from the outside but when you get into it it’s out of control.’ The memorial, Eisenman said, ‘is a warning against reason. When reason gets turned to excess, when there is too much reason, you get madness.’
‘Too much reason’. The very idea that there could be an excess of reason would for much of the past 200 years have struck progressive thinkers as close to madness. Even more so the idea that too much reason was a condition to be feared. But strangest of all would have seemed the notion that the madness of the Final Solution was engineered by a surfeit of reason. If any event could demonstrate the folly of giving into unreason, it is surely Nazism and the Holocaust. Yet now it is regarded as an expression of too much reason.
There is no intrinsic link between the idea of race and a rational or scientific view of the world. On the contrary: what made ideas of race plausible were the growth of political sentiments hostile to both the rationalism and the humanism of the Enlightenment. It is true that many in the nineteenth century looked to science to legitimate their political and moral claims about human differences. That is a warning about the need always to be on guard against the illegitimate use of science to give authority to political and moral claims. But that is a warning against a political culture that exploits science in such a fashion, not against the scientific method itself.
The idea of race developed out of the space between an abstract belief in equality and the concrete reality of an unequal society. And it developed through a fusion of Romanticism and positivism - the one a reaction against Enlightenment rationalism, the other an attempt to strip away the negative, critical qualities of Enlightenment thinking. If the history of race tells us anything, it is the necessity of holding on to both a rational, scientific view of the world and to a critical politics.