The philosopher John Gray, in his review of my book The Quest for a Moral Compass, claimed that I ‘airbrush, Soviet-style’ all ‘repugnant and troubling elements of rationalism’ that I ‘prefer not to know’ about ‘sleazy side of rationalism’, such as racial science or the history of slavery. It is a strange claim given that the thread that runs through virtually all my work has been the paradoxes of modernity, and the contradictions within rationalism and liberalism. Hence two books of the history of the idea of race and another on the difficulties faced by science in making sense of the human. (My response to the Gray review is here.)

The difference between my view of rationalism and modernity and that of John Gray is not that one recognizes the ‘dark side of modernity’ and the other airbrushes it away. It rests, rather, on how we view the roots of the problem. For Gray, and for thinkers like him, the problem lies in human nature. Humans, he  argues in his book Straw Dogs, ‘cannot be other than irrational’ but delude themselves into thinking that they possess self-consciousness or agency and that they can use reason to better the world. The rationalist tradition is ‘doomed’, in his view, because ‘the human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth’; and ‘in the struggle for life’, the ‘desire for truth is a ‘disability’. That is why ‘The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he as chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose.’

For me, on the other hand, the problem lies not so much in human nature as in the character of intellectual and moral debate and in the structures of society. As I wrote in my very first book, The Meaning of Race, ‘The particular forms of modern society… undermined the emancipatory potential of Enlightenment ideology’ and that

The idea of “race” developed a way of explaining the persistence of social divisions in a society that had proclaimed in the abstract its belief in equality… as social divisions persisted and acquired the stamp of permanence, so differences presented themselves as natural, not social. The social constraints on equality began to appear as natural ones. In this process the ideas of natural difference that held sway in the post-Enlightenment world were recast into a discourse of race.

Similarly in The Quest for a Moral Compass, I suggest that morality in the modern world requires ‘faith in humans being capable of acting rationally and morally without guidance from beyond’ and that the social and economic developments of the post-Enlightenment world, and in particular ‘The history of the twentieth century – two world wars, the Depression and Holocaust, Auschwitz and the Gulags, climate change and ethnic cleansing’ has ‘helped gnaw away’ at such faith. Hence, ‘The real problem with contemporary morality, the reason it appears fractious and fractured, is, paradoxically, not moral but social.’

I thought it might be useful, therefore, to publish a series of extracts from my books that set out my argument about the paradoxes of modernity and about the social and intellectual roots of modern ideas of race, of human nature and of morality. This first essay is an edited extract from chapter 3 of Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate, pp 68-85. It tells the story of how the foundations were laid for eighteenth and nineteenth century debates about racial differences and of how scientific ideas about human classification developed in the pre-Enlightenment world. The next extract will go on the explore Enlightenment debates about human differences.


Edited extract from Strange Fruit,
Chapter 3: There Be Monsters

There was in the first half of the last millennium a complex and often confused view of human nature and human differences. Christian theology still saw all humans as belonging to a single stock; as St Augustine had written of strangers in the City of God, ‘No matter what unusual appearance he presents in colour, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in power, part or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from one protoplast.’ But medieval Europe was also 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. The scala naturae was an ancient idea that stretched back at least to the Greeks and was central to Christian theology. It described a ladder of ascent from the inorganic world to the Supreme Being as Milton describes in Paradise Lost:

The scale of nature set
From centre to circumference, whereon
In contemplation of created things
By steps we may ascend to God.

Just as Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel contained all the books that could have been written, so God’s mind contained all the living forms imaginable, with no perceptible gaps. Every type of difference existed. But in communities that were ethnically homogenous, geographically isolated, technologically backward and socially conservative, prejudice and superstition were often the response to the strange and the unknown. It was an age in which even educated Europeans believed fabulous tales about monsters who lived in the nether regions of the known world and in the interstices between Man and beast in the Chain of Being. The cynocephali, for instance, were dog-headed giants, said to be highly intelligent, savage warriors who ate raw flesh and engaged in cannibalism. St Augustine wrote of them as being the monstrous children of God and descendants of Adam. Marco Polo insisted that ‘men with heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes like dogs’ were to be found on the island of Andaman in the Indian Ocean. A number of saints, most notably St Christopher, were regarded as cynocephali who had converted to Christianity.

Other monstrous races included sciapods, people who hopped around on one giant leg. When relaxing, they lay on their backs and used their foot as a parasol to shield their body from the intense heat of the sun. Blemmyes were people lacking heads, but with faces on their chests. They were considered fearsome but also a more cultured race than the sciapodae or cynocephali. The abarimon were thought to live in the north and had feet turned backwards. The amyctyrae had a lower lip so large that it could be turned up over their heads and used as a protection against the sun. Atomi were people without mouths who could not eat but lived on smells; a bad smell could cause their death.


While the medieval imagination was peopled by a bestiary of monsters, real non-European peoples were rarely viewed as monstrosities. In part, this was because, like the Greeks, 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? Are they governed by a monarch? Do they grow crops and tend animals? Do they believe in God?’ And so on. In part, too, it was because Europeans had little contact with the rest of the world. Until the sixteenth century, few Europeans had ever seen a black person in real life. The most common image of a black man was as one of the kings in the depiction of the Adoration of the Magi. As a result, the historian Felipe Fernández Armesto observes, ‘Negritude carried associations of regality, wisdom and the privilege of one of the earliest of divine revelations about the nature of Christ.’ The maps of the late medieval period ‘gleam with Europeans’ high expectations of the black world and the civilised habits of its people. Black Africa appears dotted with gilded cities and richly arrayed monarchs.’

As exploration increased Europeans’ knowledge of the world, the technological and social backwardness of Africa, especially as compared with Europe, became increasingly apparent. There was a growing temptation to place Africans, rather than monsters, in the space between Man and beast in the scala naturae. The discovery in Africa of beasts – the Great Apes – that seemed half-human encouraged the idea that Africans might be part beastly. Travellers, such as the seventeenth century English writer Sir Thomas Herbert, were led to wild speculation about the relationship between Africans and apes. Herbert believed that baboons ‘kept frequent company with the Women’ and Africans ‘may be said to be descendants of Satyrs’.

Yet, while views such as Herbert’s became increasingly common through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europeans by and large resisted the temptation to depict Africans as beasts or monsters, at least until the eighteenth century. 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. What defined a person was his relationship to law and to faith. ‘The human body’, as the historian Ivan Hannaford has put it, ‘could not be detached from ideas of polis and ecclesia.’ It was a view rooted in the great texts of antiquity and Christendom – in particular, Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics and Augustine’s City of God. 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.

When Europeans embarked on the voyages of discovery in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, they were struck by the distinct skin colour and physiognomy of Africans. But what really set Africans apart in European eyes was their ‘savagery’ and heathenism, the contrast between known public ways of governance and what appeared to be the barbarity, brutishness and viciousness of African societies. Above all, African societies seemed to lack a public realm, the basis, in European eyes, for any form of civilisation. The debate about non-European peoples was not about whether they were biologically distinct, but about whether they possessed the capacities to be civilised and potentially to be Christians.

bosch adoration of the magi

It was the emergence of modernity that provided both the scientific concepts and the political language underlying the idea of race. 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 came in the eighteenth century Enlightenment which marked in historian Jonathan Israel’s words ‘the most dramatic step towards secularisation and rationalisation in Europe’s history… [and], arguably, of the entire world’:

During the later Middle Ages and the early modern age down to around 1650, western civilisation was based on a largely shared core of faith, tradition and authority… By contrast, after 1650, a general process of rationalisation and secularisation set in which rapidly overthrew theology’s age-old hegemony in the world of study, slowly but surely eradicated magic and belief in the supernatural from Europe’s intellectual culture and led a few openly to challenge everything inherited from the past – not just commonly received assumptions about mankind, society, politics and the cosmos but also the veracity of the Bible and the Christian faith or indeed any faith.

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. Evidence lay in texts – primarily the Bible, but also in the works of the Ancients, particularly Aristotle. Knowledge came through the correct interpretation of texts, and hence through a process of textual disputation. Worldly phenomena counted as evidence only insofar as they accorded with the authority of the books.

The ‘new philosophy’ that developed between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries reversed this relationship between observation and authority. The role of scholars was not simply to argue over books but to open their eyes – and their minds – to the natural world. As the English philosopher, politician and courtier Francis Bacon (1561-1621) put it, from now on ‘Books must follow science, not science follow books.’ At the heart of the new science was the belief that knowledge came through a combination of observation, experiment and reason. By applying reason to observation, the new philosophers argued, it was possible to establish the laws by which the world was governed. During the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Aristotelian view of the universe that had long held sway was replaced by new vision that modelled nature on the characteristics of a machine – what came to be called the mechanical philosophy. It was a philosophy in which the view of nature as a machine opened up entirely new questions (and answers) about the Earth and its inhabitants – not least human beings.

rembrandt anatomy lesson

Humans were now seen as part of the natural order. As the eighteenth century French naturalist Buffon (1707-1788) put it,

The first truth that issues from this serious examination of nature is a truth that perhaps humbles man. The truth is that he should classify himself with the animals, to who his whole material being connects him.

The question now arose: how do humans fit into the clockwork universe? Natural philosophers had begun classifying all of nature. How should humans be classified as part of this project? There were in fact two questions that needed to be answered here. What was the relationship between humans and other animals that seemed to resemble them, especially primates? And what was the relationship between different groups of humans that seemed dissimilar to each other? The first broached fundamental questions about human nature and the place of humans in nature, the second about the meaning of human differences. The mechanical philosophy had rendered animals as machines. Were humans also machines, or were they special? How were we to understand language, morality, reason – things that seemed to separate humans from the rest of the natural world? Did all humans possess these qualities and to the same degree? Or were some individuals – and some groups – better endowed than others? Did physical differences denote mental differences? Were the physical differences between human groups of the same kind as differences between animal species? And so on. As we shall see throughout this book the two questions – What is the place of humans in nature? And what is the meaning of differences between human groups? – are closely related. How one understands the relationship between humans and the rest of nature also shapes the way one understands the relationships between different groups of humans.

As explorations brought Europeans into contact with new animals and new peoples, the question, both of humanity’s relationship to other animals and of the meaning of differences within the human family, became increasingly pertinent. Perhaps no discovery made these questions more immediate than that of the Great Apes. The first proper description of an ape was provided in 1641 by the Dutch anatomist Nicolaas Tulp (immortalised in Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp). The ape cadaver that Tulp dissected resembled a human body so closely that he commented that it would be hard to find two eggs that looked more alike. Tulp thought that the specimen had come from Angola but nevertheless baptized it an ‘Indian satyr’, adding that local people called it ‘orang-outan’ (Malay for ‘man of the forest’). Tulp also gave the ape a Latin name: sive Homo Sylvestris, or ‘man of the woods’.

Half a century later, Edward Tyson, the leading anatomist in England, borrowed Tulp’s nomenclature when he published a monograph entitled Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris: Or the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and an Ape. Tyson’s specimen was, in fact, neither an orang-utan nor a pygmy, but an infant male chimpanzee that had died while being transported from West Africa to England. Like Tulp, Tyson was struck by the similarity between ape and Man. When he tallied up similarities and differences, he found 48 ways in which the ‘pygmie’ more resembled a human rather than it did a monkey, but only 34 ways in which it more resembled a monkey. According to Tyson’s biographer Ashley Montagu, Tyson’s monograph was the first scientific acknowledgement ‘that a creature of the ape-kind was structurally more closely related to man than was any other known animal.’

People had known about monkeys since antiquity, and the resemblance between monkeys and humans was well established. Nevertheless, no one could doubt that a monkey was a dumb brute. Not so with apes. Tyson’s ‘pygmie’ appeared so human-like and yet seemed to lack the cognitive functions of a human being. It was, Tyson wrote, ‘a Brute, tho’ in the formation of the Body, and in the Sensitive or Brutal Soul, it may be more resembling a Man than any other animal.’ He was particularly struck by the fact that the ape possessed a voice box but yet was incapable of speech. In ‘the Chain of Creation’, Tyson concluded, the ‘Pygmie’ was ‘an intermediate Link between Ape and Man.’ The Pygmie was the missing link that tied humans to the rest of creation in the Great Chain of Being.

Tyson homo sylvestris

In the seventeenth century, the Great Chain of Being was central to the way Europeans understood the natural world. Over the following century, however, it became discredited, at least in the traditional sense. The diversity of living forms, it had become clear, was too complex to be encompassed by a linear scale. In its place emerged a new way of classifying animals and plants, derived from the work of the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus. Born in 1707, the son of a rural clergyman, Linnaeus trained as a doctor. His real love, however, was botany, and he eventually became professor of botany at Uppsala University. He was obsessed by the question of classification. Like many eighteenth century thinkers, Linnaeus believed that nature could be expressed in simple formulae, and that all living forms could be fitted into a rational pattern. Referring to himself as the ‘second Adam’, who, by giving true names to God’s creatures, would ensure a faithful representation of the natural order, Linnaeus argued that the task of natural history was to establish a hierarchy of species based on eternal, intrinsic characteristics. He never fully shook off the influence of the Chain of Being, believing that ‘all living things, plants, animals, and even mankind themselves, form one chain of universal being from the beginning to the end of the world.’ However, 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.

Under Linnaeus’ scheme, every individual organism had to be assigned to a species, and every species had to be assigned in turn to a genus. The concepts of genera and species originate in Aristotle’s work, and were linked to his notion of essences, the unobservable qualities that made all things what they were. Aristotle’s term for essence in Greek literally means ‘what-it-was-to-be-that-thing’. The English naturalist John Ray, often regarded as the father of taxonomy, and upon whose work Linnaeus drew, suggested that the species should be regarded as the fundamental unit of life, the individual links in the Chain of Being. A species was a ‘group of individuals that breed among themselves’, so that ‘one species does not grow from the seed of another species’.

Linnaeus’ great work was the Systema Naturae, which described and classified animals and plants for the first time in a distinctly modern fashion. The first edition, published in 1735, consisted of ten folio pages. It went numerous revisions and 12 further editions, ending up as a multivolume work; Linnaeus eventually catalogued some 7700 plants and 4400 animals, virtually everything that was known to Europeans of that time. The binomial system – the system of defining every organism was defined by a double name, its species and genus – was introduced in the tenth edition, published in 1758, which is regarded as the origin of modern systematics.

Through the various editions and revisions, Linnaeus developed a complex classification system for humans. In the first edition, Linnaeus placed humans, apes, monkeys and lemurs within the order ‘Anthropomorpha’, a word meaning ‘formed like humans’ that Linnaeus had borrowed from Ray. Each belonged to its own genus: Homo (humans), Simia (apes and monkeys), and Lemur. By the tenth edition, the term ‘anthropomorpha’ had transmuted to ‘primate’. Linnaeus found it almost impossible to distinguish between humans and apes. ‘As a natural historian’, he wrote in his book Fauna Svecica, ‘I have yet to find any characteristics which enable man to be distinguished on scientific principles from an ape.’ His difficulty was not eased by the fact that he had to rely on few descriptions of the Great Apes, and most of these came from anecdotal evidence, travellers tales and natural history works such as Conrad Gesner’s Historia animalium (1551) and Jacob Bontius’s Historia naturalis (1658) that mixed fact and fable. He eventually divided the descriptions of apes into two sorts: those that appeared more anthropomorphic and those that seemed less so. The latter he deposited in the genus Simia. The more anthropomorphic apes – such as Tyson’s ‘Pygmie’ – he placed in a special sub-genera of Homo which he called Homo nocturnes (‘night-dwelling Man’, though he sometimes also referred to it as Homo troglodytes – ‘cave-dwelling Man’). A second sub-genera, Homo diurnus (or ‘daylight Man’) was reserved for creatures that appeared to be human.

Hoppius Anthropomorpha

Homo diurnus was, in turn, divided into three species: Homo sapiens, Homo monstrosus and Homo ferus. Homo sapiens – a term that Linnaeus introduced into the famous tenth edition of Systema Naturae – were humans proper. He subdivided Homo sapiens into four ‘varieties’ (though Linnaeus never called them ‘races’), americanus, europaeus, asiaticus and afar, each defined by a mix of observation and prejudice.   Homo sapiens americanus was ‘red, ill-tempered, subjugated. Hair black, straight, thick. Nostrils wide. Face harsh, Beard scanty. Obstinate, contented, free. Paints himself with red lines. Ruled by custom.’ Europaeus was ‘white, serious, strong. Hair blond, flowing. Eyes blue. Active, very smart, inventive. Covered by tight clothing. Ruled by laws.’ Asiaticus was ‘yellow, melancholy, greedy. Hair black. Eyes dark. Severe, haughty, desirous. Covered by loose garments. Ruled by opinion.’ Afer 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.’

The other two humans species were ‘monsters’ of various sorts. Homo monstrosus embraced a number of hotly debated human anomalies, such as the Patagonian giant, the dwarf of the Alps, cone-headed Chinese and flat-headed Canadians. Homo ferus, or ‘feral man’, covered a number of unfortunate individuals whose existence had been well documented. Distinguished by bestial traits such as muteness, hairiness, and walking on all fours, the Homines feri listed by Linnaeus include the wolf-boy of Hesse (juvenis lupinus hessensis), Peter of Hanover (Juvenis hannoveranus), and the wild girl of Champagne (Puella campanica).

The Systema Naturae is one of the landmarks of scientific thought, out of which modern biological taxonomy grew. But the work 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 mentions as a member of Anthropomorpha a bizarre creature called ‘paradoxon’, a ’tailed satyr, hairy, bearded, with a human body, gesticulating much, very lascivious’. Elsewhere he depicts the satyr as a chimpanzee drinking a cup of tea; Linnaeus stresses her good manners, noting that she drank daintily, wiping her mouth with her hand, and slept quietly like ‘a respectful matron’. Through the creatures that make up genus Homo Linnaeus’ weaves new myths from the remnants of the old.

Eighteenth century biologists celebrated Linnaeus for his astonishing feat in cataloguing all of nature. God created nature, it was said, but Linnaeus arranged it. But the details of his arrangements were not always to everyone’s liking. The two most important critics were the Frenchman Comte de Buffon and the German Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Buffon disagreed with Linnaeus’ attempt to capture nature within a single classification system. Science, he argued, was not about certitude but about probability derived from the immense variety to be found in nature. Indeed, Buffon rejected classification as the goal of the scientific study of nature. Neither species nor races, he believed, could be sharply distinguished from each other. Rather than force nature into a small number of categories, it was better to describe diversity and the complex patterns that such diversity created. Particularly in the study of human diversity, Buffon stressed continuity between groups and the absence of discrete boundaries.

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) is often considered the founder of anthropology. Born in Gotha, Blumenbach studied medicine at Jena and, in 1775, published his MD thesis De generis humani varietate nativa (‘On the Natural Varieties of Humankind’), one of the most influential works in the history of race. Though he considered Linnaeus his mentor, he rejected much of his classification. Linnaeus had made a ‘great mistake’ in the Systema Naturae, Blumenbach wrote, in ‘that the attributes of apes are mixed up with those of men.’

Blumenbach's five races

Blumenbach rejected the idea of human monsters. His researches told him that the various creatures that made up Linnaeus’ Homo monstrosus were either apes or myths. He studied the reports on the various individuals that Linnaeus had classified as Homo ferus and concluded that all were normal humans. He rejected, too, travellers’ tales about satyrs and other ape-like creatures mating with humans. Both the evidence of his own dissections and his philosophical inclinations convinced him that the Great Apes were not as similar to humans as Linnaeus had suggested. Humans, Blumenbach believed, were devoid of instinct, whereas animals were devoid of reason. Reason and speech, he argued, took Homo sapiens out of the realm of bestiality and into the realm of humanity.

Blumenbach’s most lasting legacy was his attempt to clarify Linnaeus’ classification of human varieties. The distinction between human varieties had to be understood, he insisted, in strictly physical terms, without the cultural baggage that accompanied Linnaeus’ categories. He built up a large collection of skulls from around the world (he possessed some 300 by the time of his death), and used the skull shape and size as the primary means of differentiating between human groups. In the first edition of De generis humani, Blumenbach adopted Linnaeus’ four geographical races: Americans, Europeans, Asians and Africans. In the second edition (1781), Blumenbach refined his categories to form five varieties, though he did not give names to them until the third edition in 1795: Caucasians, consisting of the peoples of the Europe, west Asia and north Africa; Mongolians, the peoples of East Asia; Ethiopians, the peoples 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 a taxonomy of race. This has led many recent scholars to argue that modernity itself, and in particular the Enlightenment, give rise to the idea of race and to the practice of racism. The historian George Mosse, for instance, argues that ‘Eighteenth century Europe was the cradle of racism’ because ‘racism has its foundations’ in the Enlightenment ‘preoccupation with a rational universe, nature and aesthetics.’ Similarly, the philosopher Emmanuel Chuckwude Eze, in the introduction to a series of readings on Race and the Enlightenment claims that ‘Enlightenment philosophy was instrumental in codifying and institutionalising both the scientific and popular European perceptions of the human race’ and helped articulate ‘Europe’s sense not only of its cultural but also racial superiority.’ In Enlightenment writings on race, he points out, ‘ “reason” and “civilisation” became almost synonymous with “white” people and northern Europe, while unreason and savagery were conveniently located among the non-whites, the “black”, the “red”, the “yellow”, outside Europe.’

types of mankind

The philosopher David Theo Goldberg suggests not just that the outlook of the Enlightenment but that the very method of science lends itself to a racial view of the world:

Empiricism encouraged the tabulation of perceivable differences between peoples and from this it deduced their natural differences. Rationalism proposed initial innate distinctions (especially mental ones) to explain the perceived behavioural disparities.

The very means that the Enlightenment philosophes developed for understanding the world, in other words, caused them 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.’ For such thinkers the concept of reason and the scientific methods of observation and categorisation gave birth to the monster of race. It is an argument that 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. As we shall see, Enlightenment views on the significance of human differences were very different from those of nineteenth century racial scientists – or of race realists today.


The images are, from top down, a 17th century Russian icon depicting St Christopher as a cynocephalus; ‘Alexander the Great’s battle with the Blemmyae’, a painting from a 15th century French manuscript;  the ‘Adoration of the Magi’ by Hieronymus Bosch; Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp’; Edward Tyson’s depiction of ‘sive homo sylvestris’; Anthropomorpha depicted in Christian Emmanuel Hoppius’ 1763 work ‘Amoenitates Academicae’; Blumenbach’s five races from his 1795 treatise ‘De generis humani variegate native’; an illustration from Josiah Clark Nott and George Robbins Gliddon’s ‘Types of Mankind’, a classic work of scientific racism from 1854.


  1. As to whether “the problem lies … in human nature [or] in the character of intellectual and moral debate and in the structures of society”, this seems to me as tangled as any other nature-nurture debate. Gray’s claim that “the human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth” is reminiscent of Plantinga’s argument, which he misattributes to Darwin himself (see ), that the evolved mind is unreliable even in matters of science or, for Gray if I understand how you present him here, morality.

  2. Evolutionary success and truth aren’t mutually incompatible. It matters whether or not there’s a tiger hiding in the grass. You have a brain built to detect patterns and it will tend to err on the side of caution; on the other hand if you never go into the long grass you may starve to death and you might never find a mate. We learned to weigh up the risks.

    The capacity to reason isn’t something that transcends our nature, it is our nature. If Grey believed half the shit he writes he wouldn’t be arguing his points in magazines, he’d be clubbing women over the head and dragging them back to his cave.

  3. John

    I have had the misfortune to inadvertently listen to John Gray’s musings on Radio 4.
    His mutterings have always struck me as completely stupid.
    It is my belief that – like a lot of other hack “academics” – he sets out to be a contrarian controversialist.
    He will say anything to draw attention to himself, regardless of how ridiculous it is, as a way of boosting his public profile.
    This childish desire for attention presumably pays off when he negotiates speaking fees, I suppose? Money always talks….
    Take his statement ‘The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he as chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose.’ One who never has to choose will not, therefore, know whether or not he – or she, John Gray? – is actually free, whereas the one who chooses does actually know how free or unfree they are.
    Indeed, can Gray even consider someone who has never chosen or considered freedom to be a real person?
    Freedom is a matter of degree, of course, but instead of blindly staying inside Gray’s Cave of Unreason, a real person will leave Gray’s artificial world behind and go out and seek persons who are also equally rational and intelligent.
    Gray’s manifesto strikes me as redolent of the theme on the fear of freedom.
    It IS all part and parcel of a fascist and authoritarian manifesto, from what I can make of his childish mutterings.
    Gray is advocating a Hobbesian existence in which the life of a human is nasty, poor, solitary, brutish – and short!
    It is a pity that his natural hypocrisy and mendacity has prevented him from adopting such a lifestyle for himself.

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