Theories of Race

Thomas Henry Huxley

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    Thomas Henry Huxley



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The British biologist and comparative anatomist T. H. Huxley was an early adapter and zealous proponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution. A self-taught scientist, Huxley sought to extend the reach of science by developing a naturalistic approach based on the premise that evolution provided the most compelling and comprehensive explanation of the interconnectedness of animal species. The struggle for survival provided Huxley with a model for the process by which smaller and simpler forms slowly evolved into stronger and fitter forms, eventually occupying a sustainable niche in creation. The idea of a “niche” in a determined series derived from Linnaeus, but Huxley drew more direct inspiration and scientific support from Blumenbach’s division of humanity into five categories, with Caucasians, partly because of their “beauty,” installed in “first place” as the original or least “degenerate” race.

The large idea governing Huxley’s thinking was drawn from Darwin’s assertion that nature exhibited a “great progression, from the formless to the formed—from the inorganic to the organic—from blind force to conscious intellect.” By comparing skulls, feet, hands, brains, hair, and skin, Huxley was able to establish to his satisfaction precise points of resemblance and difference, concluding on that basis that, of the human races, the Negro represented the closest approach to the great apes. Huxley used the materials and metrics being developed by other natural scientists, including Camper and Morton, to demonstrate that human races, while constituting a single species, exhibited a gradation of increasing animality the farther down in the progression one went such that the lowest humans approached the higher anthropoids. The largest gap between forms—the “one true structural break” in the series—was not between man and ape, however, but between “the lower and the lowest Simians; or, in other words, between the old and new world apes and monkeys, and the Lemurs.”

Huxley became famous for an 1860 debate on evolution with Bishop Wilberforce, but more consequential were a series of thrilling exchanges with Robert Owen at meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford, Cambridge, and Manchester in 1860-61. Owen took an extreme view on the uniqueness of the human—one that was unacceptable to Darwin among others—focusing in particular on the hippocampus, which Huxley, with his superior anatomical expertise, was able to show was present in apes, albeit diminished in size compared to the same structure in humans. Huxley was generally conceded to have emerged triumphant. Two years later, he published what became his most famous work, the prescient Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature, appending to his lectures an account of these debates, an instance of history being written by the winners. “Professor Owen repeated these assertions in my presence,” he wrote, “and of course I immediately gave them a direct and unqualified contradiction” (134). Selections from the second and most controversial of the three lectures in that book, “On the Relations of Man to the Lower Animals,” are reproduced below.

In the course of these events, Huxley established what Nicolaas Rupke has called “Huxley’s Rule,” that states that “anatomically speaking, the difference between the purportedly highest human race and the supposedly lowest is larger than the difference between the lowest human race and the highest ape.”* (Huxley makes the same claim about the difference between the lower apes and the gorilla compared to the difference between the gorilla and lowest humans.). According to Rupke, it was in this principle that the science of race began to take a decisive turn toward a racist science, a turn completed, Rupke argues, in the work of Haeckel and even more decisively by his successors in the twentieth century. That said, it is striking how little pressure Huxley places on the question of race in this work. He speaks very casually of the “human race,” “different races,” “barbarous races,” or the “wild races of North-western Europe,” but does not emphasize, scrutinize, or interrogate the term. The potential for a racist science of race is established rather in the scientific framing of the quite traditional contention that nature exhibits a scale or a chain of beings, which Charles White had described as a “gradation of forms” extending from humans to the lowest forms of nature, with a margin separating but also linking “man-like apes,” discussed in the long opening section, and “ape-like men.”

In “Emancipation—Black and White” (1865), Huxley takes what was at the time a liberal position, comparing the case for the “emancipation” of Negroes with that for women. He argues that while both are constrained or limited in various ways by nature, which prevents them from competing on equal terms with whites or men, they are both deserving of every opportunity to advance themselves. The “sweet girl graduates,” he averred, would be “none the less sweet for a little wisdom,” and the men would hardly be threatened. Nor would white preeminence in “the hierarchy of civilization” be jeopardized by any advance made by “our dusky cousins.”

Five years later, Huxley took another liberal position based on his understanding of race, arguing, against James Hunt, Robert Knox and many others that racial distinctions should not be used to justify political positions. In an important address, “The Forefathers and Forerunners of the English People” (1870), Huxley debunked any “racial” account of British identity, saying that while “physical, mental, and moral peculiarities go with blood,” the peoples now living in England and Ireland—English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish—had become so thoroughly mixed that nothing definite could be said of them. “I say again that I believe in the immense influence of that fixed hereditary transmission which constitutes a race,” he said, but added that, “the arguments about the difference between Anglo-Saxons and Celts are a mere sham and delusion.”**

As the historian of science Nancy Stepan comments, the “founding fathers of evolution were faced with deep scientific and moral puzzles when it came to the subject of man and race.”*** The adaptive significance of racial traits was unclear, and the animal origins of humankind posited by evolution did not account for man’s special traits or unique powers. Like Wallace and Darwin, Huxley never achieved a settled account of race; indeed he could never even compute the number of races. In 1865, he published “Methods and Results of Ethnology,” in which he identified eleven groups, which he called not races but “easily distinguishable persistent modifications of mankind,” each restricted until recent centuries to a certain part of the earth. The map reproduced below was published in 1870 but reflects his 1865 view, showing the primitive distribution of the eleven primordial races or modifications. By combining categories, Huxley had by 1870 reduced the number to four.

The Journal of the Ethnological Society of London (New Series, vol. ii, 1870), 368.

*Nicolaas Rupke, “The Origins of Scientific Racism and Huxley’s Rule,” in Nicolaas Rupke and Gerhard Lauer, eds., Johann Friedrich Blumenbach:  Race and Natural History, 1750-1850 (London:  Routledge, 2019), 233-47, 241.  

**Thomas Huxley, “The Forefathers and Forerunners of the English People,” Pall Mall Gazette (10 January 1870), 8-9; reprinted in Michael D. Biddiss, Images of Race (New York:  Holmes & Meier, 1979), 159-69, 160, 168. 

* Nancy Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science:  Great Britain 1800-1960 (Houndsmills:  Macmillan, 1982), 82.

Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature


II. On the Relations of Man to the Lower Animals

The question of questions for mankind—the problem which underlies all others, and is more deeply interesting than any other—is the ascertainment of the place which Man occupies in nature and of his relations to the universe of things. When our race has come; what are the limits of our power of nature, and of nature’s power over us; to what goal we are tending; are the problems which present themselves anew and with undiminished interest to every man born into the world.

. . . it will be admitted that some knowledge of man’s position in the animate world is an indispensable preliminary to the proper understanding of his relations to the universe—and this again resolves itself, in the long run, into an inquiry into the nature and the closeness of the ties which connect him with those singular creatures whose history has been sketched in the preceding pages.

The importance of such an inquiry is indeed intuitively manifest. Brought face to face with these blurred copies of himself, the least thoughtful of men is conscious of a certain shock, due, perhaps, not so much to disgust at the aspect of what looks like an insulting caricature, as to the awakening of a sudden and profound mistrust of time-honoured theories and strongly-rooted prejudices regarding his own position in nature, and his relations to the under-world of life; while that which remains a dim suspicion for the unthinking, becomes a vast argument, fraught with the deepest consequences, for all who are acquainted with the recent progress of the anatomical and physiological sciences.

I now propose briefly to unfold that argument, and to set forth, in a form intelligible to those who possess no special acquaintance with anatomical science, the chief facts upon which all conclusions respecting the nature and the extent of the bonds which connect man with the brute world must be based: I shall then indicate the one immediate conclusion which, in my judgment, is justified by those facts, and I shall finally discuss the bearing of that conclusion upon the hypotheses which have been entertained respecting the Origin of Man. (71-74)

But now let us turn to a nobler and more characteristic organ [than the pelvis]—that by which the human frame seems to be, and indeed is, so strongly distinguished from all others,—I mean the skull. The differences between a Gorilla’s skull and a Man’s are truly immense. In the former, the face, formed largely by the massive jaw-bones, predominates over the brain case, or cranium proper: in the latter, the proportions of the two are reversed. In the Man, the occipital foramen, through which passes the great nervous cord connecting the brain with the nerves of the body, is placed just behind the centre of the base of the skull, which thus becomes evenly balanced in the erect posture; in the Gorilla it lies in the posterior third of that base. In the Man, the surface of the skull is comparatively smooth, and the supraciliary ridges or brow prominences usually project but little—while, in the Gorilla, vast crests are developed upon the skull, and the brow ridges overhang the cavernous orbits, like great penthouses.

Sections of the skulls, however, show that some of the apparent defects of the Gorilla’s cranium arise, in fact, not so much from deficiency of brain case as from excessive development of the parts of the face. The cranial cavity is not ill-shaped, and the forehead is not truly flattened or very retreating, its really well-formed curve being simply disguised by the mass of bone which is built up against it.

But the roofs of the orbits rise more obliquely into the cranial cavity, thus diminishing the space for the lower part of the anterior lobes of the brain, and the absolute capacity of the cranium is far less than that of Man. So far as I am aware, no human cranium belonging to an adult man has yet been observed with a less cubical capacity than 62 cubic inches, the smallest cranium observed in any race of men by Morton, measuring 63 cubic inches; while, on the other hand, the most capacious Gorilla skull yet measured has a content of not more than 34½ cubic inches. Let us assume, for simplicity’s sake, that the lowest Man’s skull has twice the capacity of the highest Gorilla.

No doubt, this is a very striking difference, but it loses much of its apparent systematic value, when viewed by the light of certain other equally indubitable facts respecting cranial capacities.

The first of these is, that the difference in the volume of the cranial cavity of different races of mankind is far greater, absolutely, than that between the lowest Man and the highest Ape, while, relatively, it is about the same. For the largest human skull measured by Morton, contained 114 cubic inches, that is to say, had very nearly double the capacity of the smallest; while its absolute preponderance, of 52 cubic inches—is far greater than that by which the lowest adult male human cranium sur passes the largest of the Gorillas (62-34½ = 27½). Secondly, the adult crania of Gorillas which have as yet been measured differ among themselves by nearly one-third, the maximum capacity being 34.5 cubic inches, the minimum 24 cubic inches; and, thirdly, after making all due allowance for difference of size, the cranial capacities of some of the lower apes fall nearly as much, relatively, below those of the higher Apes as the latter fall below Man.

Thus, even in the important matter of cranial capacity, Men differ more widely from one another than they do from the Apes; while the lowest Apes differ as much, in proportion, from the highest, as the latter does from Man. (92-95)

Whatever part of the animal fabric—whatever series of muscles, whatever viscera might be selected for comparison—the result would be the same—the lower Apes and the Gorilla would differ more than the Gorilla and the Man. (101).

As if to demonstrate, by a striking example, the impossibility of erecting any cerebral barrier between man and the apes, Nature has provided us, in the latter animals, with an almost complete series of gradations from brains little higher than that of a Rodent, to brains little lower than that of Man. And it is a remarkable circumstance, that though, so far as our present knowledge extends, there is one true structural break in the series of forms of Simian brains, this hiatus does not lie between Man and the man-like apes, but between the lower and the lowest Simians; or, in other words, between the old and new world apes and monkeys, and the Lemurs. Every Lemur which has yet been examined, in fact, has its cerebellum partially visible from above, and its posterior lobe, with the contained posterior cornu and hippocampus minor, more or less rudimentary. Every Marmoset, American monkey, old world monkey, Baboon, or Man-like ape, on the contrary, has its cerebellum entirely hidden, posteriorly, by the cerebral lobes, and possesses a large posterior cornu, with a well developed hippocampus minor. (115)

So far as cerebral structure goes, therefore, it is clear that Man differs less from the Chimpanzee or the Orang, than these do even from the Monkeys, and that the difference between the brains of the Chimpanzee and of Man is almost insignificant, when compared with that between the Chimpanzee brain and that of a Lemur.

It must not be overlooked, however, that there is a very striking difference in absolute mass and weight between the lowest human brain and that of the highest ape—a difference which is all the more remarkable when we recollect that a full grown Gorilla is probably pretty nearly twice as heavy as a Bosjes man, or as many an European woman. It may be doubted whether a healthy human adult brain ever weighed less than thirty-one or -two ounces, or that the heaviest Gorilla brain has exceeded twenty ounces.

This is a very noteworthy circumstance, and doubtless will one day help to furnish an explanation of the great gulf which intervenes between the lowest man and the highest ape in intellectual power; but it has little systematic value, for the simple reason that, as may be concluded from what has been already said respecting cranial capacity, the difference in weight of brain between the highest and the lowest men is far greater, both relatively and absolutely, than that between the lowest man and the highest ape. The latter, as has been seen, is represented by, say twelve, ounces of cerebral substance absolutely, or by 32: 20 relatively; but as the largest recorded human brain weighed between 65 and 66 ounces, the former difference is represented by more than 33 ounces absolutely, or by 65: 32 relatively. Regarded systematically, the cerebral differences, of man and apes, are not of more than generic value—his Family distinction resting chiefly on his dentition, his pelvis, and his lower limbs.


Thus, whatever system of organs be studied, the comparison of their modifications in the ape series leads to one and the same result—that the structural differences which separate Man from the Gorilla and the Chimpanzee are not so great as those which separate the Gorilla from the lower apes.

But in enunciating this important truth I must guard myself against a form of misunderstanding, which is very prevalent. I find, in fact, that those who endeavour to teach what nature so clearly shows us in this matter, are liable to have their opinions misrepresented and their phraseology garbled, until they seem to say that the structural differences between man and even the highest apes are small and insignificant. Let me take this opportunity then of distinctly asserting, on the contrary, that they are great and significant; that every bone of a Gorilla bears marks by which it might be distinguished from the corresponding bone of a Man; and that, in the present creation, at any rate, no intermediate link bridges over the gap between Homo and Troglodytes.

It would be no less wrong than absurd to deny the existence of this chasm; but it is at least equally wrong and absurd to exaggerate its magnitude, and, resting on the admitted fact of its existence, to refuse to inquire whether it is wide or narrow. Remember, if you will, that there is no existing link between Man and the Gorilla, but do not forget that there is a no less sharp line of demarcation, a no less complete absence of any transitional form, between the Gorilla and the Orang, or the Orang and the Gibbon. I say, not less sharp, though it is somewhat narrower. The structural differences between Man and the Man-like apes certainly justify our regarding him as constituting a family apart from them; though, inasmuch as he differs less from them than they do from other families of the same order, there can be no justification for placing him in a distinct order. . . .

Perhaps no order of mammals presents us with so extraordinary a series of gradations as this—leading us insensibly from the crown and summit of the animal creation down to creatures, from which there is but a step, as it seems, to the lowest, smallest, and least intelligent of the placental Mammalia. It is as if nature herself had foreseen the arrogance of man, and with Roman severity had provided that his intellect, by its very triumphs, should call into prominence the slaves, admonishing the conqueror that he is but dust. . . .

But if Man be separated by no greater structural barrier from the brutes than they are from one another—then it seems to follow that if any process of physical causation can be discovered by which the genera and families of ordinary animals have been produced, that process of causation is amply sufficient to account for the origin of Man. In other words, if it could be shown that the Marmosets, for example, have arisen by gradual modification of the ordinary Platyrhini, or that both Marmosets and Platyrhini are modified ramifications of a primitive stock—then, there would be no rational ground for doubting that man might have originated, in the one case, by the gradual modification of a man-like ape; or, in the other case, as a ramification of the same primitive stock as those apes.

At the present moment, but one such process of physical causation has any evidence in its favour; or, in other words, there is but one hypothesis regarding the origin of species of animals in general which has any scientific existence—that propounded by Mr. Darwin. For Lamarck, sagacious as many of his views were, mingled them with so much that was crude and even absurd, as to neutralize the benefit which his originality might have effected, had he been a more sober and cautious thinker; and though I have heard of the announcement of a formula touching “the ordained continuous becoming of organic forms,” it is obvious that it is the first duty of a hypothesis to be intelligible, and that a qua-quâ-versal proposition of this kind, which may be read backwards, or forwards, or sideways, with exactly the same amount of signification, does not really exist, though it may seem to do so.

At the present moment, therefore, the question of the relation of man to the lower animals resolves itself, in the end, into the larger question of the tenability or untenability of Mr. Darwin’s views. But here we enter upon difficult ground, and it behoves us to define our exact position with the greatest care. (120-26)

But even leaving Mr. Darwin’s views aside, the whole analogy of natural operations furnishes so complete and crushing an argument against the intervention of any but what are termed secondary causes, in the production of all the phenomena of the universe; that, in view of the intimate relations between Man and the rest of the living world; and between the forces exerted by the latter and all other forces, I can see no excuse for doubting that all are co-ordinated terms of Nature’s great progression, from the formless to the formed—from the inorganic to the organic—from blind force to conscious intellect and will. . . .

On all sides I shall hear the cry—“We are men and women, and not a mere better sort of apes, a little longer in the leg, more compact in the foot, and bigger in brain than your brutal Chimpanzees and Gorillas. The power of knowledge—the conscience of good and evil—the pitiful tenderness of human affections, raise us out of all real fellowship with the brutes, however closely they may seem to approximate us.”

To this I can only reply that the exclamation would be most just and would have my own entire sympathy, if it were only relevant. But it is not I who seek to base Man’s dignity upon his great toe, or insinuate that we are lost if an Ape has a hippocampus minor. On the contrary, I have done my best to sweep away this vanity. I have endeavoured to show that no absolute structural line of demarcation, wider than that between the animals which immediately succeed us in the scale, can be drawn between the animal world and ourselves; and I may add the expression of my belief that the attempt to draw a physical distinction is equally futile, and that even the highest faculties of feeling and of intellect begin to germinate in lower forms of life. At the same time no one is more strongly convinced than I am of the vastness of the gulf between civilized man and the brutes; or is more certain that whether from them or not, he is assuredly not of them. (128-30)

“Emancipation—Black and White”


It may be quite true that some negroes are better than some white men; but no rational man, cognisant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man. And, if this be true, it is simply incredible that, when all his disabilities are removed, and our prognathous relative has a fair field and no favour, as well as no oppressor, he will be able to compete successfully with his bigger-brained and smaller-jawed rival, in a contest which is to be carried on by thoughts and not by bites. The highest places in the hierarchy of civilisation will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins, though it is by no means necessary that they should be restricted to the lowest.

But whatever the position of stable equilibrium into which the laws of social gravitation may bring the negro, all responsibility for the result will henceforward lie between nature and him. The white man may wash his hands of it, and the Caucasian conscience be void of reproach for evermore. And this, if we look to the bottom of the matter, is the real justification for the abolition policy.

The doctrine of equal natural rights may be an illogical delusion; emancipation may convert the slave from a well-fed animal into a pauperised man; mankind may even have to do without cotton-shirts; but all these evils must be faced if the moral law, that no human being can arbitrarily dominate over another without grievous damage to his own nature, be, as many think, as readily demonstrable by experiment as any physical truth. If this be true, no slavery can be abolished without a double emancipation, and the master will benefit by freedom more than the freed-man.

The like considerations apply to all the other questions of emancipation which are at present stirring the world—the multifarious demands that classes of mankind shall be relieved from restrictions imposed by the artifice of man, and not by the necessities of nature. One of the most important, if not the most important, of all these, is that which daily threatens to become the “irrepressible” woman question. What social and political rights have women? What ought they to be allowed, or not allowed, to do, be, and suffer? And, as involved in and underlying all these questions, how ought they to be educated?

There are philogynists as fanatical as any “miscegynists” who, reversing our antiquated notions, bid the man look upon the woman as the higher type of humanity; who ask us to regard the female intellect as the clearer and the quicker, if not the stronger; who desire us to look up to the feminine moral sense as the purer and the nobler; and bid man abdicate his usurped sovereignty over nature in favour of the female line. On the other hand, there are persons not to be outdone in all loyalty and just respect for womankind, but by nature hard of head and haters of delusion, however charming, who not only repudiate the new woman-worship which so many sentimentalists and some philosophers are desirous of setting up, but, carrying their audacity further, deny even the natural equality of the sexes. They assert, on the contrary, that in every excellent character, whether mental or physical, the average woman is inferior to the average man, in the sense of having that character less in quantity and lower in quality. . . .

Supposing, however, that all these arguments have a certain foundation; admitting, for a moment, that they are comparable to those by which the inferiority of the negro to the white man may be demonstrated, are they of any value as against woman-emancipation? Do they afford us the smallest ground for refusing to educate women as well as men—to give women the same civil and political rights as men? No mistake is so commonly made by clever people as that of assuming a cause to be bad because the arguments of its supporters are, to a great extent, nonsensical. And we conceive that those who may laugh at the arguments of the extreme philogynists, may yet feel bound to work heart and soul towards the attainment of their practical ends.

As regards education, for example. Granting the alleged defects of women, is it not somewhat absurd to sanction and maintain a system of education which would seem to have been specially contrived to exaggerate all these defects? . . .

If the present system of female education stands self-condemned, as inherently absurd; and if that which we have just indicated is the true position of woman, what is the first step towards a better state of things? We reply, emancipate girls. Recognise the fact that they share the senses, perceptions, feelings, reasoning powers, emotions, of boys, and that the mind of the average girl is less different from that of the average boy, than the mind of one boy is from that of another; so that whatever argument justifies a given education for all boys justifies its application to girls as well. . . .

The duty of man is to see that not a grain is piled upon that load beyond what nature imposes; that injustice is not added to inequality.

Arthur Keith, “The Evolution of the Human Races,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 58 (Jul.-Dec., 1928): 305-21.  At:

Joshua Olivier-Mason, “‘These Blurred Copies of Himself’:  T. H. Huxley, Paul du Chaillu, and the Reader’s Place among the Apes,” Victorian Literature and Culture, 42 (March 2014) 1: 99-122.