Theories of Race

Lord Kames (Henry Home)

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    Lord Kames (Henry Home)



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Henry Home, or Lord Kames as he became known, was a Scottish jurist, historian, and moral philosopher, with connections to David Hume, James Boswell, Thomas Reid, Adam Smith, and other leading figures in the Scottish Enlightenment, not all of whom held him in high esteem. Like them, he was an exceptionally industrious and variously-talented man with wide-ranging interests, many of which he explored in his magnum opus. This massive text ultimately became the four volumes of Sketches of the History of Man, which Kames described in a letter as the first comprehensive history of the human race “in its gradual progress toward maturity.”* In this work, Kames deployed an immense number of examples and instances in support of the general ideas that virtue was natural to man and that human history was a chronicle of progress from savagery to civilization. Kames divided his work into three sections: “Progress of Men Independent of Society,” “Progress of Men in Society,” and “Progress of Sciences,” to which he added a fourth volume on the “Principles and Progress of Morality.”

In Kames’ view, human history proceeded through four stages, beginning with hunting and gathering, proceeding to the domestication of animals and the cultivation of crops, and concluding with the establishment of villages, towns, seaports, and markets, with each phase requiring a greater level of cooperation and regulation. Kames’ work can be read as a vast counter to Buffon’s concept of declension or “degeneration” as the master-metaphor for human history, as well as a rejection of arguments made by Buffon and Hunter that fertility was a criterion of species identity. Although daunting in its size and scope, and containing but a few basic ideas generously illustrated, Kames’ work had multiple editions and a wide readership, perhaps because, as Kames said in a note “To the Reader,” he had, “chiefly with a view to the female sex, subjoined an English translation of all the quotations from other languages.” Indeed, Kames gallantly devoted an entire section in volume 2 to “Progress of the Female Sex.”

Kames begins his largely descriptive work with a “Preliminary Discourse concerning the Origin of Men and of Languages,” a speculative account of human origins characterized by what he describes in the Preface as “probable reasoning, which is not a little slippery.” In this discourse, Kames advances the controversial notion that the various tribes or groups of mankind were divergent descendants of Adam and Eve, and constituted distinct groups or races that had been deposited in their various environments by “the Deity” or “Providence.” Where Buffon, Montesquieu and others had attributed human differences primarily to climate, Kames argues the reverse, that the various groups had been placed in different climates by divine agency and endowed with the attributes needed to flourish there. The task, Kames said, was one “of describing every animal according to its kind, as Adam our first parent did.”**

Since such a disposition was not recorded in the Bible, Kames could only reconcile it with the Christian faith by referring to the scattering of peoples after the catastrophe of the Tower of Babel. In so doing, Kames nicely split the difference between monogenesis and polygenesis by making the various races the result of divine punishment rather than separate creation (although Kames did use the phrase “local creation” to describe Australians and American Indians). According to Kames, the races once deposited in their environments and effectively re-created began their particular ascents up the ladder of progress.

Kames notes differences in these ascents, but refuses to rank races, explaining an apparent inferiority of the Negro in “understanding” as an effect of their “condition,” and making a greater allowance for an equality of innate capacity than some others, including Thomas Jefferson. Kames’ ingenious preservation of Christian doctrine notwithstanding the challenges presented by human diversity did not protect him from the complaints of those who insisted on an original pair, or who felt that his account of an original state of savagery was inconsistent with divine beneficence. He was severely castigated by, among others, Samuel Stanhope Smith for expressing infidel opinions. In Kames, as in Edward Long, we can see a theological controversy being translated into a scientific dispute about the origins of racial difference.

Kames’ use of the term “race” is, like that of others at this time, inconsistent. Sometimes he uses it to indicate a “pure” God-created group (e.g., “Europeans,” “Negroes,” “Laplanders”); at other times, the word is either synonymous with species or describes a subgroup within a species.

At the end of his discourse, Kames introduces the issue of language and race, and while he dismisses the possibility of a connection between the two, the possibility of such a link would be taken up with greater sophistication by others including Sir William Jones in subsequent years.

The selections below are taken from a 1788 posthumous edition that reflects Kames’ final revisions.

*Letter to Elizabeth Montagu, 1769, quoted in Helen Whitcomb Randall, The Critical Theory of Lord Kames (Northampton, Mass.: Department of Modern Languages of Smith College, 1944), 110.

**Lord Kames, Sketches of the History of Man, vol. I, 8.

Sketches of the History of Man


“Preliminary Discourse concerning the Origin of Men and of Languages,” Progress of Men Independent of Society, vol. 1

Whether there are different races of men, or whether all men be of one race without any difference but what proceeds from climate or other external cause, is a question which philosophers differ widely about. As the question is of moment in tracing the history of man, I purpose to contribute my mite. And, in order to admit all the light possible, a view of brute animals as divided into different races or kinds, will make a proper introduction.

As many animals contribute to our well-being, and as many are noxious, man would be a being not a little imperfect, were he provided with no means but experience for distinguishing the one sort from the other. Did every animal make a species by itself (indulging the expression) differing from all others, a man would finish his course without acquiring as much knowledge of animals as is necessary even for self-preservation: he would be absolutely at a loss with respect to unknown individuals. The Deity has left none of his works imperfect. Animals are formed of different kinds; resemblance prevailing among animals of the same kind, dissimilitude among animals of different kinds. And, to prevent confusion, kinds are distinguished externally by figure, air, manner, so clearly as not to escape even a child. Nor does Divine Wisdom stop here: to complete the system, we are endued with an innate conviction, that each kind has properties peculiar to itself; and that these properties belong to every individual of the kind. Our road to the knowledge of animals is thus wonderfully shortened: the experience we have of the disposition and properties of any animal, is applied without hesitation to every one of the kind. By that conviction, a child, familiar with one dog, is fond of others that resemble it: An European, upon the first sight of a cow in Africa, strokes it as gentle and innocent: and an African avoids a tiger in Hindostan as at home. . . .

To preserve the different kinds or species of animals entire, as far as necessary, Providence is careful to prevent a mixed breed. Few animals of different species copulate together. Some may be brought to copulate, but without effect; and some produce a mongrel, a mule for example, which seldom procreates, if at all. In some few instances, where a mixture of species is harmless, procreation goes on without limitation. All the different species of the dog-kind copulate together; and the mongrels produced generate others without end.

M. Buffon, in his natural history, borrows from Ray [John Ray, The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation, 1691] a very artificial rule for ascertaining the different species of animals: “Any two animals that can procreate together, and whose issue can also procreate, are of the same species.” A horse and an ass can procreate together; but they are not, says he, of the same species, because their issue, a mule, cannot procreate. He applies that rule to man; holding all men to be of the same species, because a man and a woman, however different in size, in shape, in complexion, can procreate together without end. And by the same rule he holds all dogs to be of the same species. With respect to other animals, the author should peaceably be indulged in his fancy; but as it comprehends also man, I cannot pass it without examination. Providence, to prevent confusion, hath in many instances withheld from animals of different species a power of procreating together: but as our author has not attempted to prove that such restraint is universal without a single exception, his rule is evidently a petitio principii. Why may not two animals different in species produce a mixed breed? M. Buffon must say, that it is contrary to a law of nature. But has he given any evidence of this supposed law of nature? On the contrary, he proves it by various instances not to be a law of nature. He admits the sheep and the goat to be of different species; and yet we have his authority for affirming, that a he-goat and a ewe produce a mixed breed which generate for ever. The camel and the dromedary, though nearly related, are however no less distinct than the horse and the ass. The dromedary is less than the camel, more slender, and remarkably more swift of foot: it has but one bunch on its back, the camel has two: the race is more numerous than that of the camel, and more widely spread. One would not desire distinguishing marks more satisfying; and yet these two species propagate together, no less freely than the different races of men and of dogs. M. Buffon indeed, with respect to the camel and dromedary, endeavours to save his credit by a distinction without a difference. . . . Did it never once enter into the mind of this author, that the human race would be strangely imperfect, if they were unable to distinguish a man from a monkey, or a hare from a hedge-hog, till it were known whether they can procreate together? . . .

There are mongrels, it is true, among dogs, from want of choice, or from a depraved appetite: but as all animals prefer their own kind, mongrels are few compared with animals of a true breed. There are mongrels also among men: the several kinds however continue distinct; and probably will so continue for ever. . . .

Certain it is, that all men are not fitted equally for every climate. Is there not then reason to conclude, that as there are different climates, so there are different species of men fitted for these different climates? The inhabitants of the frozen regions of the north, men, birds, beasts, fish, are all provided with a quantity of fat which guards them against cold. Even the trees are full of rosin. The island St. Thomas, under the line, is extremely foggy; and the natives are fitted for that sort of weather, by the rigidity of their fibres. The fog is dispelled in July and August by dry winds; which give vigour to Europeans, whose fibres are relaxed by a moist atmosphere as by a warm bath. The natives, on the contrary, who are not fitted for a dry air, have more diseases in July and August than during the other ten months. On the other hand, instances are without number of men degenerating in a climate to which they are not fitted by nature; and I know not of a single instance where in such a climate people have retained their original vigour. . . .

M. Buffon, from the rule, That animals which can procreate together, and whose progeny can also procreate, are of one species, concludes, that all men are of one race or species; and endeavours to support that favourite opinion, by ascribing to the climate, to food, or to other accidental causes, all the varieties that are found among men. But is he seriously of opinion, that any operation of climate, or of other accidental cause, can account for the copper colour and smooth chin universal among the Americans, the prominence of the pudenda universal among Hottentot women, or the black nipple no less universal among female Samoides? The thick fogs of the island St. Thomas may relax the fibres of the natives, but cannot make them more rigid than they are naturally. Whence, then, the difference with respect to rigidity of fibres between them and Europeans, but from original nature? Can one hope for belief in ascribing to climate the low stature of the Esquimaux, the smallness of their feet, or the overgrown size of their head; or in ascribing to climate the low stature of the Laplanders, and their ugly visage. Lapland is indeed piercingly cold; but so is Finland, and the northern parts of Norway, the inhabitants of which are tall, comely, and well proportioned. The black colour of negroes, thick lips, flat nose, crisped woolly hair, and rank smell, distinguish them from every other race of men. The Abyssinians, on the contrary, are tall and well made, their complexion a brown olive, features well proportioned, eyes large, and of a sparkling black, lips thin, a nose rather high than flat. There is no such difference of climate between Abyssinia and Negroland as to produce these striking differences. At any rate, there must be a considerable mixture both of soil and climate in these extensive regions; and yet not the least mixture is perceived in the people.

If the climate have any commanding influence, it must be displayed upon the complexion chiefly; and in that article, accordingly, our author exults. “Man,” says he, “white in Europe, black in Africa, yellow in Asia, and red in America, is still the same animal, tinged only with the colour of the climate. Where the heat is excessive, as in Guinea and Senegal, the people are perfectly black; where less excessive, as in Abyssinia, the people are less black; where it is more temperate, as in Barbary and in Arabia, they are brown; and where mild, as in Europe and Lesser Asia, they are fair.” But here he triumphs without a victory: he is forced to acknowledge, that the Samoides, Laplanders, and Greenlanders, are of a sallow complexion; for which he has the following salvo, that the extremities of heat and of cold produce nearly the same effects on the skin. But he is totally silent upon a fact that alone overturns his whole system of colour, viz. that all Americans, without exception, are of a copper colour, though in that vast continent there is every variety of climate. The southern Chinese are white, though in the neighbourhood of the torrid zone; and women of fashion in the island Otaheite, who cover themselves from the sun, have the European complexion. Neither doth the black colour of some Africans, nor the brown colour of others, correspond to the climate. The people of the desert of Zaara, commonly termed Lower Ethiopia, though exposed to the vertical rays of the sun in a burning sand yielding not in heat even to Guinea, are of a tawny colour, far from being jet-black like negroes. The natives of Monomotapa are perfectly black, with crisped wooly hair, though the southern parts of that extensive kingdom are in a temperate climate. And the Caffres, even those who live near the Cape of Good Hope, are the same sort of people. The heat of Abyssinia approacheth nearer to that of Guinea; and yet, as mentioned above, the inhabitants are not black. . . .

Kames asserts that “Different tribes are distinguishable no less by internal disposition than by external figure.” He follows this assertion with several pages detailing widely different patterns of behavior and response among different groups, concluding that such differences cannot be caused by chance.

The same doctrine is strongly confirmed upon finding courage or cowardice to be a national character. Individuals differ widely as to these; but a national character of courage or cowardice must depend on a permanent and invariable cause. I therefore proceed to instances of national courage and cowardice, that the reader may judge for himself, whether he can discover any other cause for such steady uniformity but diversity of race. . . .

But if the Americans abound not with active courage, their passive courage is beyond conception. Every writer expatiates on the torments they endure, not only patiently, but with singular fortitude; deriding their tormentors, and braving their utmost cruelty. North-American savages differ indeed so widely from those formerly in Europe, as to render it highly improbable that they are of the same race. Passive courage they have even to a wonder; but abound not in active courage: our European forefathers, on the contrary, were much more remarkable for the latter than for the former. The Kamskatkans in every article resemble the North-Americans. In war they are full of stratagem, but never attack openly if they can avoid it. When victorious, they murder without mercy, burn their prisoners alive, or tear out their bowels. If they be surrounded and cannot escape, they turn desperate, cut the throats of their wives and children, and throw themselves into the midst of their enemies. And yet these people are abundantly free. Their want of active courage is the more surprising, because they make no difficulty of suicide when they fall into any distress. But their passive courage is equal to that of the Americans: when tortured in order to extort a confession, they show the utmost firmness; and seldom discover more than what they freely confess at their first examination. . . .

The Samoides and Laplanders are living instances of uncommon pusillanimity in the inhabitants of a cold climate; and instances, not few in number, have been mentioned of warlike people in a hot climate. To these I add the Hindows, whom our author will not admit to have any degree of courage; though he acknowledges, that, prompted by religion, the men voluntarily submit to dreadful tortures, and that even women are ambitious to burn themselves alive with their deceased husbands. In vain does he endeavour to account for such extraordinary exertions of fortitude, active as well as passive, from the power of imagination; as if imagination could operate more forcibly in a woman to burn herself alive, than on a man to meet his enemy in battle. The Malayans and Scandinavians live in opposite climates, and yet are equally courageous. Providence has placed these nations, each of them, in its proper climate: cold would benumb a Malayan in Sweden, heat would enervate a Swede in Malacca; and both would be rendered cowards. I stop here; for to enter the lists against an antagonist of so great fame, gives me a feeling as if I were treading on forbidden ground. . . .

The colour of the Negroes, as above observed, affords a strong presumption of their being a different species from the Whites; and I once thought, that the presumption was supported by inferiority of understanding in the former. But it appears to me doubtful, upon second thoughts, whether that inferiority may not be occasioned by their condition. A man never ripens in judgment nor in prudence but by exercising these powers. At home, the negroes have little occasion to exercise either: they live upon fruits and roots, which grow without culture: they need little clothing: and they erect houses without trouble or art. Abroad, they are miserable slaves, having no encouragement either to think or to act. Who can say how far they might improve in a state of freedom, were they obliged, like Europeans, to procure bread with the sweat of their brows? Some nations in Negroland, particularly that of Whidah, have made great improvements in government, in police, and in manners. The negroes on the Gold coast are naturally gay: they apprehend readily what is said to them, have a good judgment, are equitable in their dealings, and accommodate themselves readily to the manners of strangers. And yet, after all, there seems to be some original difference between the Negroes and Hindows. In no country are food and raiment procured with less labour than in the southern parts of Hindostan, where the heat is great: and yet no people are more industrious than the Hindows. . . .

Thus, upon an extensive survey of the inhabited parts of our globe, many nations are found differing so widely from each other, not only in complexion, features, shape, and other external circumstances, but in temper and disposition, particularly in two capital articles, courage, and behaviour to strangers, that even the certainty of different races could not make one expect more striking varieties. Doth M. Buffon think it sufficient to say dryly, that such varieties may possibly be the effect of climate, or of other accidental causes? The presumption is, that the varieties subsisting at present have always subsisted; which ought to be held as true, till positive evidence be brought of the contrary: instead of which we are put off with mere suppositions and possibilities.

But not to rest entirely upon presumptive evidence, to me it appears clear from the very frame of the human body, that there must be different races of men fitted for different climates. Few animals are more affected than men generally are, not only with change of seasons in the same climate, but with change of weather in the same season. Can such a being be fitted for all climates equally? Impossible. . . .

But the argument I chiefly rely on is, That were all men of one species, there never could have existed, without a miracle, different kinds, such as exist at present. Giving allowance for every supposable variation of climate, or of other natural causes, what can follow, as observed about the dog-kind, but endless varieties among individuals, as among tulips in a garden, so as that no individual shall resemble another? Instead of which, we find men of different kinds, the individuals of each kind remarkably uniform, and differing no less remarkably from the individuals of every other kind. Uniformity without variation is the offspring of nature, never of chance.

There is another argument that appears also to have weight. Horses, with respect to size, shape, and spirit, differ widely in different climates. But let a male and a female of whatever climate be carried to a country where horses are in perfection, their progeny will improve gradually, and will acquire in time the perfection of their kind. Is not this a proof, that all horses are of one kind? If so, men are not all of one kind; for if a White mix with a Black in whatever climate, or a Hottentot with a Samoide, the result will not be either an improvement of the kind, or the contrary, but a mongrel breed differing from both parents.

It is thus ascertained beyond any rational doubt, that there are different races or kinds of men, and that these races or kinds are naturally fitted for different climates: whence we have reason to conclude, that originally each kind was placed in its proper climate, whatever change may have happened in later times by war or commerce.

There is a remarkable fact that confirms the foregoing conjectures. As far back as history goes, or tradition kept alive by history, the earth was inhabited by savages divided into many small tribes, each tribe having a language peculiar to itself. Is it not natural to suppose, that these original tribes were different races of men, placed in proper climates, and left to form their own language?

Upon summing up the whole particulars mentioned above, would one hesitate a moment to adopt the following opinion, were there no counterbalancing evidence, namely, “That God created many pairs of the human race, differing from each other both externally and internally; that he fitted these pairs for different climates, and placed each pair in its proper climate; that the peculiarities of the original pairs were preserved entire in their descendents; who, having no assistance but their natural talents, were left to gather knowledge from experience, and in particular were left (each tribe) to form a language for itself; that signs were sufficient for the original pairs, without any language but what nature suggests; and that a language was formed gradually, as a tribe increased in numbers and in different occupations, to make speech necessary”? But this opinion, however plausible, we are not permitted to adopt; being taught a different lesson by revelation, namely, That God created but a single pair of the human species. Though we cannot doubt of the authority of Moses, yet his account of the creation of man is not a little puzzling, as it seems to contradict every one of the facts mentioned above. According to that account, different races of men were not created, nor were men framed originally for different climates. All men must have spoken the same language, that of our first parents. And what of all seems the most contradictory to that account, is the savage state: Adam, as Moses informs us, was endued by his Maker with an eminent degree of knowledge; and he certainly must have been an excellent preceptor to his children and their progeny, among whom he lived many generations. Whence then the degeneracy of all men into the savage state? To account for that dismal catastrophe, mankind must have suffered some terrible convulsion.

That terrible convulsion is revealed to us in the history of the tower of Babel, contained in the 11th chapter of Genesis, which is, “That for many centuries after the deluge, the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech; that they united to build a city on a plain in the land of Shinar, with a tower whose top might reach into heaven; that the Lord beholding the people to be one, and to have all one language, and that nothing would be restrained from them which they imagined to do, confounded their language, that they might not understand one another; and scattered them abroad upon the face of all the earth.” Here light breaks forth in the midst of darkness. By confounding the language of men, and scattering them abroad upon the face of all the earth, they were rendered savages. And to harden them for their new habitations, it was necessary that they should be divided into different kinds, fitted for different climates. Without an immediate change of bodily constitution, the builders of Babel could not possibly have subsisted in the burning region of Guinea, nor in the frozen region of Lapland; especially without houses, or any other convenience to protect them against a destructive climate. Against this history it has indeed been urged, “That the circumstances mentioned evince it to be purely an allegory; that men never were so frantic as to think of building a tower whose top might reach to heaven; and that it is grossly absurd, taking the matter literally, that the Almighty was afraid of men, and reduced to the necessity of saving himself by a miracle.” But that this is a real history, must necessarily be admitted, as the confusion of Babel is the only known fact that can reconcile sacred and profane history.

And this leads us to consider the diversity of languages. If the common language of men had not been confounded upon their undertaking the tower of Babel, I affirm, that there never could have been but one language. Antiquaries constantly suppose a migrating spirit in the original inhabitants of this earth; not only without evidence, but contrary to all probability. Men never desert their connections nor their country without necessity: fear of enemies and of wild beasts, as well as the attraction of society, are more than sufficient to restrain them from wandering; not to mention, that savages are peculiarly fond of their natal soil. The first migrations were probably occasioned by factions and civil wars; the next by commerce. . . .

If men had not been scattered every where upon the confusion of Babel, another particular must have occurred, differing no less from what has really happened than that now mentioned. As paradise is conjectured to have been situated in the heart of Asia, the surrounding regions, for the reason above given, must have been first peopled; and the civilization and improvements of the mother-country were undoubtedly carried along to every new settlement. In particular, the colonies planted in America, the South Sea islands, and the Terra Australis incognita, must have been highly polished; because, being at the greatest distance, they probably were the latest. And yet these and other remote people, the Mexicans and Peruvians excepted, remain to this day in the original savage state of hunting and fishing.

Thus, had not men wildly attempted to build a tower whose top might reach to heaven, all men would not only have spoken the same language, but would have made the same progress toward maturity of knowledge and civilization. That deplorable event reversed all nature: by scattering men over the face of all the earth, it deprived them of society, and rendered them savages. From that state of degeneracy, they have been emerging gradually. Some nations, stimulated by their own nature, or by their climate, have made a rapid progress; some have proceeded more slowly; and some continue savages. To trace out that progress toward maturity in different nations, is the subject of the present undertaking.

Sketches of the History of Man

“Origin and Progress of American Nations,” Progress of Men in Society, vol. 2

If we can rely on the conjectures of an eminent writer [Buffon], America emerged from the sea later than any other part of the known world: and supposing the human race to have been planted in America by the hand of God later than the days of Moses, Adam and Eve might have been the first parents of mankind, i.e. of all who at that time existed, without being the first parents of the Americans. The Terra Australis incognita is separated from the rest of the world by a wide ocean, which carries a ship round the earth without interruption. How has that continent been peopled? There is not the slightest probability, that it ever has been joined to any other land. Here a local creation, if it may be termed so, appears unavoidable; and if we must admit more than one act of creation, even the appearance of difficulty, from reiteration of acts, totally vanisheth. M. Buffon in his natural history affirms, that not a single American quadruped of a hot climate is found in any other part of the earth: with respect to these we must unavoidably admit a local creation; and nothing seems more natural, than under the same act to comprehend the first parents of the American people.

John H. Zammito, “Policing Polygeneticism in Germany, 1775: (Kames,) Kant, and Blumenbach,” The German Invention of Race, ed. Sara Eigen and Mark Larrimore (Albany: SUNY Press, 2006), 35–54.