In my last post, on The Enlightenment’s “Race Problem”, I questioned the idea that the modern roots of the idea of race lie in the Enlightenment. The  relationship between race and the Enlightenment is, I argued, far more complex than much contemporary discussion allows for. 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. This is the story of that transformation.


In March 1800, Captain Nicholas Baudin proposed to the French Institut National a journey of scientific exploration to New Holland (as Australia was then known). The Institut agreed to sponsor the expedition and asked the newly-formed Société des Observateurs de l’Homme for help in preparing instructions for the study of the ‘physical, intellectual and moral’ bearing of the indigenous peoples.

The Société provided two memoirs of instruction for Baudin’s voyage.  The first, Considerations on the Diverse Methods to Follow in the Observation of Savage Peoples was written by the philosopher and educator Joseph-Marie Degerando. The second, An Instructive Note on the Researches to be Carried out Relative to the Anatomical Differences between the Diverse Races of Men, was penned by Georges Cuvier. Cuvier was one of the founders of the science of palaeontology and would become France’s most distinguished scientist of the early nineteenth century. Where Degerando was a child of the French Revolution, and a great believer in education as a motor of social change, Cuvier was deeply conservative in both his politics and his science, a lifelong opponent not just of revolution, but also of evolution. In the space between the respective views of Degerando and Cuvier emerged the nineteenth century concept of race.

Degerando’s memoir is infused with the optimism and scientific open-mindedness that characterised much of eighteenth-century thought. Its aim was to establish a scientific basis for the study of non-European peoples. Scientists, he wrote, must begin by learning the language of the people under study. This would allow them to investigate the kinds of ideas, beliefs and values they possess. After studying the individual, the scientist must investigate ‘the savage in society’, including observations of domestic, political, civil, economic and religious life.

What is striking is that in a methodological memoir on anthropological research the word ‘race’ appears just once. There is no concept here of permanent hereditary differences between human groups. Degerando considered it essential to establish a scientific understanding of the differences between ‘civilized’ and ‘savage’ people.  But he did not for a moment doubt that there existed a commonality that bound both together. Like most of his contemporaries, Degerando believed that the highest form of civilisation was European culture. But civilisation, for Degerando, did not belong to Europeans: all humanity could aspire to reach the summit of social development.  What more ‘touching purpose’ could there be, Degerando asked, than ‘to re-establish the holy knots of universal society, than to meet again these ancient parents separated by a long exile from the rest of the common family, than to extend the hand by which they raise themselves to a more happy state.’

Cuvier’s Instructive note was much shorter than Degerando’s memoir.  It also belonged to a different world. Cuvier gave precise instructions on how to make scientific portraits of any local people they might encounter.  But more important than portraits, he insisted, was the collection of actual specimens, especially skulls. When the voyagers witnessed or took part in battles involving ‘savages’, they must not fail to ‘visit the places where the dead are deposited’ to collect bones. The skeletons must be properly prepared. The bones had to be boiled for several hours in a ‘solution of soda or of caustic potash’ in order to ‘rid them of their flesh’. Once prepared, the bones were to be put in bags, labelled and sent to Europe where they might be reassembled. It would also be useful to bring back some skulls with flesh attached. These had to be soaked in a corrosive sublimate and set out to dry, a process that would render the heads as tough as wood and with the facial forms perfectly preserved.


Degerando did not think it necessary to discuss the issue of race; the very title of Cuvier’s note proclaimed its central importance. Degerando thought that human beings were best understood through a study of their thoughts, beliefs, history and society; Cuvier was transfixed by their anatomy. Degerando’s memoir looked back to what the eighteenth century had promised; Cuvier’s note looked forward to what the nineteenth century was to proclaim.

Sixty years after Baudin’s journey to New Holland, Thomas Huxley published his essay Emancipation: Black and White.  Huxley was a leading liberal of his age, a staunch rationalist and the foremost champion of Darwinism.  His essay was an attack on slavery and a defence of women’s rights. But in his understanding of racial differences Huxley was heir to the conservative Cuvier rather than to the radical Degerando. ‘It is simply incredible’ to suppose, he wrote, that even when an African might have  ‘a fair field and no favour, as well as no oppressor, he will be able to compete successfully with his bigger-brained and smaller-jawed rival, in a contest that is to be carried out by thoughts and not by bites.’ Huxley added 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.’

At the time that Degerando and Cuvier wrote their respective memoirs, Degerando’s view held sway. By the time that Huxley penned his polemic against slavery, Cuvier’s insistence that racial differences were permanent had displaced the belief that all humans could equally partake of civilization.

Enlightenment philosophes, such as Degerando, 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. The historian Eugene Weber has shown, for instance, the extraordinary modernising effort that was required to unify France and her rural populations, and the traumatic and lengthy process of cultural, educational, political and economic ‘self-colonisation’ that this entailed. These developments created the modern French nation and allowed for notions of French (and European) superiority over non-European cultures.  But it also reinforced a sense of how socially and anthropologically alien was the mass of the rural, and indeed urban, population.


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 the 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.

The Enlightenment had not simply been an intellectual movement. The belief in equality and a common humanity was the ideological embodiment of a wider set of social and political movements through which the feudal order crumbled and a new society – capitalism – emerged. Out of the complex interaction between the ideology of equality and developing capitalist social relations emerged the discourse of race. Capitalism destroyed the parochialism of feudal society but it created divisions anew; divisions which, moreover, seemed as permanent as the old feudal ones. From the racial viewpoint, inequality was ineradicable because society was by nature unequal. The destiny of different social groups was shaped, at least in part, by their intrinsic properties. I am not suggesting that the concept of race was consciously created or invented to meet a particular social need. Rather, as social inequalities persisted, and acquired the stamp of permanence, so these inequalities began to present themselves as if they were natural, not social. The social constraints on inequality began to appear as natural ones. Racial ideology was the product of the persistence of differences of rank, class and people in a society that had a deep-seated belief in the concept of equality.

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.  For opponents of the Enlightenment, the altar and the throne, rather parliament and the ballot box, had always been the twin pillars of a healthy society. This belief now found an echo within the ranks of Enlightenment believers. So did the conviction that prejudice, rather than reason, was the best inoculation against revolution.  ‘The bulk of mankind’, the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke argued, ‘have neither leisure nor knowledge sufficient to reason right; why should they be taught to reason at all? Will not honest instinct prompt and wholesome prejudices guide them much better than half reasoning?’

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 which rational investigation could discover. He maintained, rather, that every activity, situation, historical period or civilisation possessed a unique character of its own.  David Hume had suggested that ‘Mankind are so much the same at all times and in all places that history informs us of nothing new or strange.’  Man, Voltaire declared, ‘was, generally speaking, always what he is now.’ Herder, on the contrary, insisted that history (and anthropology) reveals many things new and strange. Mankind was not the same at all times and in all places. He was not always what he is now.  Different cultures and ages differed tremendously in their beliefs and concepts, perceptions and emotions.

For Herder 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. A volk, for Herder,  expressed both a bond between contemporaries and a dialogue between generations. To be a member of a group was to think and act in a certain ways, the ways that were given by the group or volk. Artificial, polyglot entities like the Hapsburg Empire were absurd monsters contrary to nature – ‘a lion’s head with a dragon’s tail, an eagle’s wing, a bear’s paw [sewn together] in one unpatriotic symbol of state.’  For Herder, ‘the most natural state’ was ‘one nation, with one national character’.

For the philosophes, the existence of universal laws of human nature suggested that, through the use of reason, one could derive a set of values and beliefs that best promoted human flourishing in whatever context. For Herder, each volk was a self-contained entity, with an individuality and character of its own. The values, beliefs and histories of different peoples were, he suggested, incommensurate. Every culture was authentic in its own terms, each adapted to its local environment. ‘Let us follow our own path’, Herder beseeched, ‘let men speak of our nation, our literature, our language: they are ours, they are ourselves, let that be enough.’

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.’  He was particularly harsh on the degradation brought about by colonialism. ‘If there were such a thing as a European collective spirit’, he wrote, ‘it must feel ashamed of the crimes committed by us, after having insulted humankind in a way that hardly any other group of nations had done.’

Herder occupies an ambiguous role in modern political thought.  In the eighteenth century, Herder saw himself as part of the Enlightenment tradition, but also as someone forced to challenge some of the basic precepts of the philosophes – such as their stress on universal law and on the universal validity of reason – in order to defend the cherished ideals of equality.  In the twentieth century, his pluralism, and his celebration of what we now call particularist identities, would become the root of much antiracist thinking.  In between, in the nineteenth century, Herder’s impact 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. Once it was accepted that different peoples were motivated by different sentiments, it was not a great step to view these sentiments as racial. Over time, Herder’s volksgeist became transformed into racial make-up.

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.’ Thanks to positivism, Harriet Martineau wrote in her introduction to the English translation of Comte’s Positive Philosophy, ‘we find ourselves not under capricious and arbitrary conditions… but under great, general invariable laws’.

Positivism united order and progress by subsuming society to the laws 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’, Nott and Gliddon 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. Herder, the great believer in emancipation and equality, the great scourge of racism and colonialism,  would have been horrified at the arguments of Morton, Nott and Gliddon. Yet, 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. In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment philosophes judged people largely according to their moral capacities. By the second half of the nineteenth century, 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.’


The images are, from top down, a lithograph from Samuel Morton’s Crania Americana; Georges Cuvier; the science of anthropometry being exhibited at a eugenics conference; Petrus Camper’s illustration of race and facial angle; Johann Gottfried Herder; Harriet Martineau; an illustration from Nott and Gliddon’s Types of Mankind.

For a discussion of both the history and science of race, see my book:

Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate (Oneworld, 2008)


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  1. John MacKenzie

    Reblogged this on Mumbling Jack and commented:
    An exposition on how the myth of race arose, just a great look at how ideas shape societies and attitudes. A must read.

  2. Graham Richards

    This is extremely interesting – do you know my book ‘Race’, Racism and Psychology (2012 2nd ed) which obviously touches on the history of the race concept – though has little on the 18th/19th century French period?
    Cheers, Graham Richards

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