Theories of Race

Georges Cuvier

  • Georges Cuvier's portrait

    Georges Cuvier



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In the work of the widely celebrated French naturalist and zoologist Baron Georges Cuvier we can see the immense conceptual labor involved in the creation of a complete post-Linnaean taxonomy, a “great scaffolding” as he called it, “of genera, tribes, families, orders, classes, and primary divisions, which constitute the entire animal kingdom” (Animal Kingdom, 4). But we can also track the emergence of concepts and arguments that would set the course of racial theory during the nineteenth century in a very different direction from that of the eighteenth century. The hatching, as it were, from a monogenetic egg of a polygenetic account in which races could be considered as stable natural categories occurs in the work of Cuvier, a Protestant who, like Kames, believed that all humans derived from an original pair but had become over time entirely distinct varieties. Unlike Kames, Cuvier had a name for these varieties: they constitute, he said, “what are termed races” sustained by generation and by an instinctive aversion to other species (49). This reconciliation of monogenesis and polygenesis through the concept of race would become a common feature of post-Darwinian thinking.

In his early twenties, Cuvier had seen no reason to question or complicate the Bible’s account of the origin of humanity in a single pair whose descendants, decimated and scattered by various natural catastrophes such as the Biblical Flood, had developed in isolation to the point where they had become distinct from each other. In letters written in 1790 and 1791, he insisted that it was “ridiculous” to explain the “intellectual faculties” of Negroes by reference to differences in anatomy, and positively immoral to justify slavery on the grounds that Negroes were “less intelligent,” when their observable mental powers were likely to be due to “lack of civilization,” in addition to which “we have given them our vices.”* Twenty years later, however, when he composed Essay on the Theory of the Earth (1812), Cuvier, by then an eminent professor at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, had become confident that their common origin notwithstanding, human groups could, like other natural categories, be differentiated and ranked with respect to their level of advancement or “organization” from a primitive state. In that work, Negroes are described as so “degraded” that they must have been separated from the main branch of humans long before the Biblical Flood.

In Cuvier’s mature work the older notion of a divinely-ordained Chain of Being in which all orders of creation are linked in a marvelously connected plenitude is rejected as a fantasy and replaced by the secular and scientific idea of a graded series of complexity, with each order distinct and discontinuous from the others. Like members of all other groups, the races of the world occupied certain positions in the series of humans, the group to which Blumenbach had given the name Bimana, or two-handed, to distinguish them from the quadruped primates. Their particular placement could, Cuvier implies, be determined by an examination of cranial structure, including the facial angle of Camper, and the nervous system, which he considers the most telling indicators of the “degree of animality”—the relative proportion of instinct and intelligence—of the various races (Animal Kingdom, 31). On one occasion, he wrote of the diminished intelligence of the “cranially depressed” races.**

Noting the contributions of Blumenbach, Bory de St.-Vincent, Virey, Soemmering, Camper, and Prichard, Cuvier gives a weak endorsement to the number of seven “species” of man, each containing many subdivisions. The whole system, he notes, is complicated by the blending of races and the possibility, raised by him for the first time, that some races have vanished altogether: “Hence the extreme and apparently insuperable difficulties which, it is probable, will continue to oppose the definitive solution of the intricate and peculiarly interesting problem which we have been considering” (Animal Kingdom, 53). Those difficulties notwithstanding, the publisher’s preface to the 1840 English translation of this volume claims that “until Cuvier’s great work made its appearance, we had no modern systematic arrangement of animals which applied equally to all the Classes, Orders, and Families” (iii.)

The brief section in which Cuvier lays out his conclusions about humanity occupy a small fraction of the lavishly illustrated 660-page entirety of The Animal Kingdom. In that section—a discussion of “Bimana, or Man” leading off an account of Mammalia, within a larger mapping of vertebrates—Cuvier articulates a series of positions that would become characteristic of French anthropology in the early nineteenth century: that the three main races (Caucasian, Mongolian, and Negro) were permanent biological variations; that they had not been produced by climate or any other external circumstance; and that while they could adapt in limited ways, they could not inherit acquired traits or evolve beyond their inherent limitations because of an inhibiting biological factor to which Cuvier alludes in speaking of “certain intrinsic causes which appear to arrest the progress of particular races” (49).

Cuvier’s inclusion of humanity in the “animal kingdom” and his reliance on skull and other measurements testify to the increasing dominance of an empirical natural-history approach to the study of humanity. As part of this approach, various human populations, information about whom was pouring into Europe from all over the world, were conceptualized as natural or biological categories. In Cuvier’s work we can see an emerging consensus that the primary and proper task of anthropology was the partition and classification of humanity into races.

Describing populations as races seemed to place the project of human self-understanding on a solid scientific footing. And yet, Cuvier’s accounts of races contain judgments and evaluations presented as facts of nature that would not be considered admissible in the discipline of biology today. These, in the end, were more influential than his wavering commitment to monogenesis and to the authority of the Bible. Indeed, even as he speaks occasionally of a “human race,” or “the race of men,” his descriptions of specifically racial differences were so stark and his arguments against the possibility of significant adaptation so powerful that subsequent polygenists considered him a predecessor and an ally; and one, Jean-Baptiste-Genevieve-Marcellin Bory de Saint-Vincent, even dedicated his book to him.

That book, L'homme (homo): essai zoologique sur le genre humain (1827) [Man: A zoological essay on the human species] indicates the direction of thinking post-Cuvier. The discovery of the first ape fossils several years after Cuvier’s death opened up new possibilities for thinking about human origins, and Bory, challenging Cuvier’s assertion that the biped humans were altogether distinct from quadruped apes, grouped Orang-utans in the genus homo. He identified fifteen separate human species on the basis of physical characteristics and internal structure, with the beautiful “Japhetic” race “to which we belong” placed in the first rank and the horrid Hottentots at the very bottom, nearest to the Orangs. Bory denied any hierarchical intention and denounced those who might interpret his work as endorsing any such ranking, but it is difficult not to see in the ways he presents the orders of species a non-scientific and even aesthetic approval of the appearance and culture of Europeans and a combination of amazement, disgust, and paternalism in his accounts of the darker-colored species.

 *Georges Cuvier, Lettres de Georges Cuvier à C.M. Pfaff, sur l'histoire naturelle, la politique et la littérature, 1788-1792, tr. [from German] Louis Marchant; quoted in Bronwen Douglas, “Climate to Crania: Science and the Racialization of Human Difference,” in Bronwen Douglas and Chris Ballard, eds., Foreign Bodies: Oceania and the Science of Race, 1750-1940 (Canberra: ANU E Press, 2008), 33-98, 33. 

**Cuvier, quoted in Herbert H. Odom, “Generalizations on Race in Nineteenth-Century Physical Anthropology,” Isis 58 (Spring, 1967) 1: 4-18, 7. 

Essay on the Theory of the Earth


The History of Nations confirms the Newness of the Continents

One nation alone has preserved annals written in prose before the period of Cyrus, namely, the Jewish people. The part of the Old Testament which is known by the name of the Pentateuch, has existed in its present form, at least since the separation of the ten tribes under Jeroboam, since it was received as authentic by the Samaritans equally as the Jews, which assures us that its actual antiquity is upwards of 2800 years. Besides this, we have no reason to doubt the book of Genesis having been composed by Moses himself, which gives it an antiquity of 500 years more, or of thirty-three centuries; and it is only necessary to read it, to perceive that it has in part been composed of fragments of previously existing works. We cannot, therefore, hesitate to admit, that this is the most ancient writing which has been transmitted to modern times in the West.

Now, this work, and all those which have been composed since, whatever strangers their authors might be to Moses and his people, speak of the nations on the shores of the Mediterranean as of recent origin; they represent them as still in a half savage state some ages before. And, further, they all speak of a general catastrophe, an irruption of the waters, which occasioned an almost total regeneration of the human race; and to this epoch they do not assign a very remote antiquity. Those texts of the Pentateuch, which extend this epoch the longest, do not place it farther back than twenty centuries before Moses, and hence not more than 5400 years before the present day. (140-41)

Is it possible that mere chance could have produced so striking a result, as to make the traditional origin of the Assyrian, Indian, and Chinese monarchies agree in being referred to an epoch of nearly 4000 years from the present period? Would the ideas of nations which have had so little communication with each other, and whose language, religion, and laws are altogether different, have corresponded upon this point, had they not been founded upon truth?

We could not expect precise dates from the natives of America, who had no real writings, and whose oldest traditions extended only to a few centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards. And yet, even among them, traces of a deluge are imagined to be found in their rude hieroglyphics. They have their Noah, or Deucalion, as well as the Indians, Babylonians, and Greeks.

The Negroes, the most degraded race among men, whose forms approach the nearest to the brutes, and whose intellect has not yet arrived at the institution of regular governments, or at any thing having the least appearance of systematic knowledge, have preserved no sort of annals or traditions. They cannot, therefore, afford us any information on the subject of our present researches, though all their characters clearly shew us that they have escaped from the great catastrophe, at another point than the Caucasian and Altaic races, from which they had perhaps been separated for a long time previous to the occurrence of that catastrophe. (182-83)

The Animal Kingdom





It is thus that, after being necessarily included among the Mammalia, Man must next range with the other handed animals and the Bats, in a particular subdivision, which Linnaeus has named PRIMATES.

There would appear to be four distinct major groups of Primates:—the Catarrhini, composed of the Apes, Monkeys, and Baboons of the eastern hemisphere; the Platyrrhini, consisting of the anthropoid animals of America; the Strepsirrhini, or Lemurs (including Galceopithecus, and, perhaps, Cheiromys); and the Cheiroptera, or Bats, which last, varying most essentially in their dentition, according as they are frugivorous, sanguivorous, or insectivorous, afford a decisive proof that the dentary system alone, like any other single character considered apart from the rest, fails to supply an invariable indication of the affinities of an animal (as has sometimes been stated). We perceive no sufficient reason why the genus Homo should not range at the head of the Catarrhini, though as a distinct family—Hominidae, as opposed to Simiada; in accordance wherewith, the Primates present a tolerable series, from the summit of the animal kingdom to forms that are rather low in the class of mammalians. . . .

As a general, perhaps universal rule obtaining in consecutive groups when sufficiently extensive, the summit of the inferior displays a higher organization than the terminal members of the superior; and this sometimes in a very remarkable degree. . . .

We prefer to arrange the Ruminantia next to the Pachydermata; then the Edentata, and the Rodentia; and last of all the Marsupiata, including the Monotremata of Cuvier, the formerly doubtful points concerning which are now, with slight reservation, finally set at rest.

It will be perceived that this arrangement is tolerably in accordance with the ordinary cerebral developement, and consequent amount of intelligence, of the eight successive orders. Passing on to the Birds, we commence with a higher intellect (in the Parrots) than is manifested in either of the last three, or, perhaps, four orders . . . . (43-44)



Man forms but one genus, and that genus the only one of its order. As his history is more directly interesting to ourselves, and forms the standard of comparison to which we refer that of other animals, we will treat of it more in detail.

We will rapidly sketch whatever Man offers, that is peculiar in each of his organic systems, amidst all that he has in common with other mammalians; we will describe his principal races and their distinctive characters; and finally point out the natural order of the developement of his faculties, both individual and social.


The foot of Man is very different from that of Apes: it is large; the leg hears vertically upon it; the heel is expanded beneath; his toes are short, and but slightly flexible; the great toe, longer and larger than the rest, is placed on the same line with and cannot be opposed to them. This foot, then, is proper for supporting the body, but cannot be used for seizing or climbing*, and as the hands are unfitted for walking, Man is the only animal truly bimanous and biped.

The whole body of Man is modified for the vertical position. His feet, as we have already seen, furnish him with a larger base than those of other mammalians; the muscles which retain the foot and thigh in the state of extension are more vigorous, whence results the swelling of the calf and buttock; the flexors of the leg are attached higher up, which permits of complete extension of the knee, and renders the calf more apparent. The pelvis is larger, which separates the thighs and feet, and gives to the trunk that pyramidal form favourable to equilibrium: the necks of the thigh-bones form an angle with the body of the bone, which increases still more the separation of the feet, and augments the basis of the body. Finally, the head, in this vertical position, is in equilibrium with the trunk, because its articulation is exactly under the middle of its mass.

Were he to desire it, Man could not, with convenience, walk on all fours: his short and nearly inflexible foot, and his long thigh, would bring the knee to the ground. (44-45)

Enjoying, by means of his industry, uniform supplies of nourishment, Man is at all times inclined to sexual intercourse, without being ever furiously incited. His generative organ is not supported by a bony axis; the prepuce does not retain it attached to the abdomen; but it hangs in front of the pubis: numerous and large veins, which effect a rapid transfer of the blood of his testes to the general circulation, appear to contribute to the moderation of his desires.

The uterus of woman is a simple oval cavity; her mammae, only two in number, are situated on the breast, and correspond with the facility she possesses of supporting her child upon her arm. . . . (47)


. . . Scarcely has the body attained its full growth in height, before it commences to increase in bulk; fat accumulates in the cellular tissue. The different vessels become gradually obstructed; the solids become rigid; and after a life more or less prolonged, more or less agitated, more or less painful, old age arrives, with decrepitude, decay, and death. Man rarely lives beyond a hundred years; and most of the species, either from disease, accidents, or merely old age, perish long before that term.

. . . Man appears to possess nothing resembling instinct, no regular habit of industry produced by innate ideas; all his knowledge is the result of his sensations, his observations, or of those of his predecessors. Transmitted by speech, increased by meditation, applied to his necessities and his enjoyments, they have given rise to all the arts. Language and letters, by preserving acquired knowledge, are a source of indefinite perfection to his species. It is thus that he has acquired ideas, and made all nature contribute to his wants.

There are very different degrees of developement, however, in Man.

The first hordes, compelled to live by hunting and fishing, or on wild fruits, and being obliged to devote all their time to search for the means of subsistence, and not being able to multiply greatly, because that would have destroyed the game, advanced but slowly; their arts were limited to the construction of huts and canoes, to covering themselves with skins, and fabricating arrows and nets; they observed such stars only as served to direct them in their journeys, and some natural objects whose properties were of use to them; they gained the dog for a companion, because he had a natural inclination for the same kind of life. When they had succeeded in taming the herbivorous animals, they found in the possession of numerous flocks a never-failing source of subsistence, and some leisure, which they employed in extending the sphere of their acquirements. Some industry was then employed in the construction of dwellings and the making of clothes; the idea of property was admitted, and, consequently, that of barter, together with wealth and difference of conditions, those fruitful sources of the noblest emulation and the vilest passions; but the necessity of searching for fresh pastures, and of obeying the changes of the seasons, still doomed them to a wandering life, and limited their improvement to a very narrow sphere.

The multiplication of the human species, and its improvement in the arts and sciences, has only been carried to a high degree since the invention of agriculture and the division of the soil into hereditary possessions. By means of agriculture, the manual labour of a portion of society is adequate to the maintenance of the whole, and allows the remainder time for less necessary occupations, at the same time that the hope of acquiring, by industry, a comfortable subsistence for self and posterity, has given a new spring to emulation. The discovery of a representative of property, or a circulating medium, has carried this emulation to the highest degree, by facilitating exchanges, and rendering fortunes more independent and susceptible of being increased; but by a necessary consequence, it has also equally increased the vices of effeminacy and the furies of ambition.

In every stage of the developement of society, the natural propensity to reduce all knowledge to general principles, and to search for the causes of each phenomenon, has produced reflecting men, who have added new ideas to those already accumulated; nearly all of whom, while knowledge was confined to the few, endeavoured to convert their intellectual superiority into the means of domination, exaggerating their merit in the eyes of others, and disguising the poverty of their knowledge by the propagation of superstitious ideas. . . .

Mild climates, soils naturally irrigated and rich in vegetables, are the natural cradle of agriculture and civilization; and when their position is such as to afford shelter from the incursions of barbarians, talents of every kind are mutually excited; such were formerly (the first in Europe,) Italy and Greece; and such is, at present, nearly all that happy portion of the earth’s surface.

There are, however, certain intrinsic causes which appear to arrest the progress of particular races, even though situated amidst the most favourable circumstances.


Although the human species would appear to be single, since the union of any of its members produces individuals capable of propagation, there are, nevertheless, certain hereditary peculiarities of conformation observable, which constitute what are termed races.

Three of these in particular appear eminently distinct: the Caucasian, or white, the Mongolian, or yellow, and the Ethiopian, or negro.

The Caucasian, to which we belong, is distinguished by the beauty of the oval which forms the head; and it is this one which has given rise to the most civilized nations,—to those which have generally held the rest in subjection: it varies in complexion and in the colour of the hair.

The Mongolian is known by his projecting cheek-bones, flat visage, narrow and oblique eyebrows, scanty beard, and olive complexion. Great empires have been established by this race in China and Japan, and its conquests have sometimes extended to this side of the Great Desert; but its civilization has always remained stationary.

The Negro race is confined to the southward of the Atlas chain of mountains: its colour is black, its hair crisped, the cranium compressed, and nose flattened. The projecting muzzle and thick lips evidently approximate it to the Apes: the hordes of which it is composed have always continued barbarous.

The name Caucasian has been affixed to the race from which we descend, because tradition and the filiation of nations seem to refer its origin to that group of mountains situate between the Caspian and Black Seas, whence it has apparently extended by radiating all around. The nations of the Caucasus, or the Circassians and Georgians, are even now considered as the handsomest on earth. The principal ramifications of this race may be distinguished by the analogies of language. The Armenian or Syrian branch, spreading southward, produced the Assyrians, the Chaldeans, the hitherto untameable Arabs, who, after Mahomet, expected to become masters of the world; the Phoenicians, the Jews, the Abyssinians, which were Arabian colonies, and most probably the Egyptians. It is from this branch, always inclined to mysticism, that have sprung the most widely extended forms of religion. Science and literature have sometimes flourished among its nations, but always in a strange disguise and figurative style. (47-50)

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 (Houndsmills: Macmillan, 1982), 1-19. 

George W. Stocking, Jr., Victorian Anthropology (New York: Free Press, 1987).