Theories of Race

Soames Jenyns

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    Soames Jenyns



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A London-born politician, man of wealth, and writer, Soames Jenyns was not an original thinker, but for that reason his writings are often excellent guides to the received wisdom of the time. The author of The Art of Dancing and Miscellanies, Jenyns occasionally addressed weightier subjects such as the taxation without representation of the American colonies (which he favored) and the origin of evil, this last effort producing a contemptuous rebuke from Samuel Johnson.

In a collection called Disquisitions on Several Subjects, Jenyns undertook an explanation and defense of the concept of the “universal chain of being,” a remarkably adaptable concept with roots in the thinking of Plato and Aristotle that was repurposed during the Middle Ages as an explanation of the divine order of the universe. As Winthrop D. Jordan describes the post-classical applications of the concept, it “served to dramatize the Christian view of man as a creature with a divine soul; it served to formulate men’s vague sense of the beast within themselves and their capacity for rising above bestiality; it served to satisfy the eighteenth century’s ravenous appetite for hierarchical principles in the face of social upheaval; and it served as a powerful means of organizing the facts of the natural world.”* As Jordan points out, the Chain of Being acquired a new pertinence in many discussions of race—a subject that was coming to encompass virtually all of the above considerations—where it served to naturalize and justify a hierarchy of races, as Jenyns does here with an almost casual introduction of the Hottentot as the opposite end of the human spectrum that extends from that nadir all the way up to Bacon and Newton and beyond, into the heavens. [See also Voltaire, Linnaeus, Kames, White, Cuvier.] Like Long, Jenyns regards the Hottentot as such a low and compromised instance of humanity that the difference between them and the highest primates is not easily discerned or described.

*Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1968, 220. See passim., 216-34.

“On the Chain of Universal Being”


The farther we inquire into the works of our great Creator, the more evident marks we shall discover of his infinite wisdom and power, and perhaps in none more remarkable, than in that wonderful chain of Beings, with which this terrestrial globe is furnished; rising above each other, from the senseless clod, to the brightest genius of human kind, in which, tho’ the chain itself is sufficiently visible, the links, which compose it, are so minute, and so finely wrought, that they are quite imperceptible to our eyes. The various qualities, with which these various Beings are endued, we perceive without difficulty, but the boundaries of those qualities, which form this chain of subordination, are so mixed, that where one ends, and the next begins, we are unable to discover. The manner by which this is performed, is a subject well worthy of our consideration, tho’ I do not remember to have seen it much considered; but on an accurate examination appears to be this.

In order to diffuse all possible happiness, God has been pleased to fill this earth with innumerable orders of Beings, superior to each other in proportion to the qualities, and faculties which he has thought proper to bestow upon them: to mere matter he has given extension, solidity, and gravity; to plants, vegetation; to animals, life and instinct; and to man, reason, each of which superior qualities augments the excellence, and dignity of the possessor, and places him higher in the scale of universal existence. (1-3)

The manner by which the consummate wisdom of the divine Artificer has formed this gradation, so extensive in the whole, and so imperceptible in the parts, is this:—He constantly unites the highest degree of the qualities of each inferior order to the lowest degree of the same qualities, belonging to the order next above it; by which means, like the colours of a skilful painter, they are so blended together, and shaded off into each other, that no line of distinction is any where to be seen. Thus, for instance, solidity, extension, and gravity, the qualities of mere matter, being united with the lowest degree of vegetation, compose a stone; from whence this vegetative power, ascending thro’ an infinite variety of herbs, flowers, plants, and trees to its greatest perfection in the sensitive plant, joins there the lowest degree of animal life in the shell-fish, which adheres to the rock; and it is difficult to distinguish which possesses the greatest share, as the one shews it only by shrinking from the finger, and the other by opening to receive the water, which surrounds it. In the same manner this animal life rises from this low beginning in the shell-fish, thro’ innumerable species of insects, fishes, birds, and beasts to the confines of reason, where, in the dog, the monkey, and the chimpanzè, it unites so closely with the lowest degree of that quality in man, that they cannot easily be distinguished from each other. From this lowest degree in the brutal Hottentot, reason, with the assistance of learning and science, advances, thro’ the various stages of human understanding, ‘till in a Bacon, or a Newton it attains the summit. (8-10)

Here we must stop, being unable to pursue the progress of this astonishing chain beyond the limits of this terrestrial globe with the naked eye, but thro’ the perspective of analogy, and conjecture we may perceive that it ascends a great deal higher, to the inhabitants of other planets, to angels, and archangels.

Robert Gordon, “The Venal Hottentot Venus and the Great Chain of Being,” African Studies 51 (1992). 2: 185-202.  

A.O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936). 

Nancy Stepan, “Race and the Return of the Great Chain of Being, 1800-50,” in The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain, 1800-1960 (London: Macmillan, 1982), 1-19.