Theories of Race

Jean-Louis-Armand de Quatrefages de Bréau

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    Jean-Louis-Armand de Quatrefages de Bréau



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A wide-ranging zoologist and anthropologist, Quatrefages was one of the most honored scientists of his time. Respected for his astounding productivity, extraordinary range, and the exquisite order and precision of his descriptions, he was a founder of the Anthropology Society of Paris and became an honorary member of the Royal Society of London and commander of the Legion of Honor.

For much of his career, Quatrefages worked primarily on questions related to tissues and organs of invertebrates, but he also taught anthropology in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, acquiring vast knowledge of the history of human populations. The 1859 publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species presented Quatrefages with a challenge and a stimulus to theorize his knowledge. One of the results was The Human Species, a five-hundred-page account of the place of humanity in the natural world. This place was singular because of mankind’s unique moral and religious faculties, which arose, Quatrefages said, from an “Unknown Cause”—the human mind or spirit (l’âme humaine) (23). Because of his unique intellectual abilities, Quatrefages argued, man was able to influence the course of his evolution in ways the rest of the natural world was not. As he wrote, “Man has been the sole essential agent in the formation of fresh ethnical groupings” which arose, he insisted, under the influence of “conditions of life and heredity” (348). (See also Hunt, Vogt, Haeckel, Michelet.)

Quatrefages laid particular emphasis on the phrase “conditions of life,” which occurs over one hundred times in his book, because the phrase contains the grounds of his argument against Darwin. Like Alfred Russel Wallace, Quatrefages saw the singularity of the human as a challenge for Darwinian theory; unlike Wallace, Quatrefages did not believe the theory of evolution could ever meet the challenge. Agreeing with Darwin with respect to the struggle for existence and natural selection, Quatrefages could not accept Darwin’s contention that this process could account for the emergence of the human out of the ape. An intermediate species was required—something like Haeckel’s “Speechless Man,” a missing link in the chain of transmutation—without which the evidence for evolution remained incomplete. Darwin had been able to avoid confronting this fact, Quatrefages wrote, because he had such ambiguous definitions for species and race that the two terms could be confused, and this confusion was crucial to the Darwinian hypothesis.

For Quatrefages, the difference was entirely clear: different species rarely interbreed and when they do the result is an infertile “hybrid,” whereas races can interbreed to produce freely fertile “mongrels.” Since Darwin’s theory posits the transmutation of one species into another but fails to say how that might occur, it contains at its core nothing more than “a possible accident, and the unknown” (100). Darwin himself had conceded as much in The Descent of Man (1871), where he referred to “a great break in the organic chain between man and his nearest allies, which cannot be bridged over by any extinct or living species,” and to “the absence of fossil remains, serving to connect man with his ape-like progenitors.”* In Book II, “Origin of the Human Species,” Quatrefages seized on such passages, charging Darwin with simply creating a zone of unaccountability in which strange things could happen, and giving himself permission to treat simians as if they were a race rather than a species.

Quatrefages did not commit himself to any account of the origin of humanity. A monogenist, he focused on the process by which the first humans had become racialized, developing distinctive hair, skin color, body odor, intelligence, language, cultural practices, and skull size and shape. (Quatrefages was a distinguished craniologist; see his Crania Ethnica.) All these, he said, were merely the products of ways of life and heredity operating in an isolated population over vast stretches of time and did not indicate any biological uniqueness. “Racial” diversity, as in the case of “the Yankee race” in America, was achieved by the mixing of previously isolated groups in the course of migrations and conquests. Features now considered racial reflect the “acquired nature” that has become “as it were, welded to the original nature of the being” (251).

Quatrefages did not regard human groupings as permanent or rankable, and criticized sharply those of his contemporaries who did, pointing out that over time, ascendancy had passed from one group to another, as groups themselves had changed. Among the evidences for mutability were the “remarkable changes” visible in the Negro in a century and a half of slavery in the United States, including a favorable alteration in the “plasticity” of their blood. [On the question of “improvement,” see Kames, Jefferson, Hunt, Meiners, Morton, Galton, Vogt.] Not only had their color “paled,” but the “odour so characteristic of the race” had become less pungent, and their intelligence had improved.

By discounting and even discrediting previous work in the study of race, Quatrefages, as he was uncomfortably aware, was putting himself at odds with men he admired. The final passages printed below describe anthropology not as the mere accumulation of such data as may be gathered, but as a moral project committed to scientific ascesis, eschewing all subjective or evaluative characterizations of the results.

The arguments developed in The Human Species represent elaborations of statements Quatrefages had made in The Prussian State Ethnologically Considered (1871), when, with the Prussian army bombarding Paris, he argued contra Bismarck that no nation was ethnologically pure, that Prussians were actually Finns or Slavo-Finns, and that Germans were a mixture of Celtic, Gallic, and German blood, a fact that apart from any political differences explained their hatred for France.

*Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, two vols. (New York:  Appleton and Company, 1871) vol. I, 192-93.

The Human Species




I. THE first men who peopled the centre of human appearance must at first have differed from each other only in individual features. At their beginning and during an indefinite lapse of time, mankind could only have been homogeneous, as is every animal and vegetable species which is restricted to an area of small extent.

At the present time, we find mankind composed of numerous groups, which have peculiar characters, and constitute so many distinct races. How have these races originated? and how have they grown and multiplied? . . .

II. The problem of the formation of human races presents two very distinct cases. Man at first was subject to the sole action of natural modifying agents. Under this influence pure races were formed. When these races came in contact, they were crossed; this resulted in the formation of mixed races. (244-45)

VII. [a discussion of attempts by man to improve the stock of domesticated animals]

The chief means which man uses for the attainment of these results, which at times seem to border on the marvellous, is selection. Ever since he has possessed domestic animals he has marked out among them individuals which are better adapted than the rest to his intentions. By some kind of instinct, or unconsciously, as Darwin says, he has chosen them to breed from. By rejecting the types which he considers inferior, and only employing the higher types wherewith to propagate the species, he has directed the action of heredity in a definite direction, and has readily created races. Now, man has acted in this manner since the times spoken of in Genesis and by Chou-King, that is, for thousands of years. Is it then surprising that he should have multiplied around him hereditary forms which are more or less distinct from the primitive types? (250)

X. Man does not subject himself to the selection, which he applies with so much success to animals and plants. In his species, therefore, the extreme variations which are obtained elsewhere are not produced. It is thus easily explained why the limits of variation are not so extensive with man as with domesticated or cultivated races. But if, for some motive or other, he were to apply the process of selection to himself, we should not have to wait long for the result. By marrying the tallest women to the giants of their guard, Frederick William and Frederick II had created at Potsdam a real race distinguished for its tall stature. In Alsace a Duke de Deux- Ponts, who imitated the Prussian sovereigns, obtained the same result.

There is another cause which contributes powerfully to restrict the limits of variation in man, namely, the power which his intelligence gives him of partly escaping from the effects of the conditions of life. He is always struggling, as much as he is able, against the external influences capable of disturbing the equilibrium which constitutes his well-being. In the tropics, he uses contrivances for avoiding the heat; in the polar circle, he perfects his means of heating; if he emigrates, he carries with him, as far as he can, his manners and customs, and struggles with redoubled care against the new conditions of life There is nothing strange in finding him successful in neutralising to a certain extent the modifying influences of the external world.

XI. Nevertheless, the conditions of life do not surrender their rights; although diminished, their action is nonetheless real. This is a fact which can be affirmed by what occurs in our great western colonies. Each great European race is there represented by derived sub-races which vary according to the locality. The islands in the Gulf of Mexico, North and South America, and Australia itself, which has been so recently colonised, have at this time their own peculiar races, some of which are remarkably characterised.

Since I am unable to treat in detail all these facts of transmutation, I will only notice some of the facts which have been established in the United States. We know that the English race was only definitely settled there at the time of the Puritan emigration, about 1620, and from the arrival of Penn in 1681. Two centuries and a half, twelve generations at the most, separate us from this epoch, and nevertheless, the Anglo-American, the Yankee, no longer resembles his ancestors. The fact is so striking that the eminent zoologist, Andrew Murray, when endeavouring to account for the formation of animal races, finds he cannot do better than appeal to the condition of mankind in the United States.

The subject, moreover, is not wanting in precise details, which are vouched for by a number of travellers, by naturalists, and doctors. At the second generation the English Creole in North America, presents, in his features, an alteration which approximates him to the native races. Subsequently the skin dries and loses its rosy colour, the glandular system is reduced to a minimum, the hair darkens and becomes glossy, the neck becomes slender, and the size of the head diminishes. In the face, the temporal fossæ are pronounced, the cheek-bones become prominent, the orbital cavities become hollow, and the lower jaw massive. The bones of the extremities are elongated, while their cavity is diminished, so much so, that in France and England gloves are specially made for the United States with exceptionally long fingers. Lastly, in the woman, the pelvis, in its proportions, approaches to that of the man.

Are these changes signs of a degeneration already accomplished, and of an approaching extinction, as Knox asserts? I think a reply to this assertion is hardly necessary. We are sufficiently acquainted with American men and women to know that, although modified, the physical type is not on that account lowered in the scale of races; and the social grandeur of the United States, the marvels they have accomplished, the energy with which they pass through the rudest crises, prove that from every point of view, the Yankee race has retained its rank. It is simply a new race, formed by the American conditions of life, but which remains worthy of its elder sisters in Europe, and will perhaps some day surpass them.

The Negro transported into the same countries has also undergone remarkable changes. His colour has paled, his features have improved, and his physiognomy is altered. “In the space of 150 years,” says M. Elisée Reclus, “they have passed a good fourth of the distance which separates them from the whites, as far as external appearance goes.” Lyell’s opinion is almost the same. Moreover, when visiting two Negro churches, at Savannah, he remarked that the odour so characteristic of the race was scarcely appreciable. A long medical experience at New Orleans has shown Dr. Visinié that the blood of the Negro Creole has lost the excess of plasticity which it possessed in Africa. With MM. Reiset, de Lisboa, etc., with even Nott and Gliddon, let us add that, while the physical type has undergone modification, the intelligence has improved, and we shall have to recognise that in the United States a sub-Negro race has been formed, derived from the imported race.

XII. Thus the European White and the African Negro, when under the influence of new conditions of life, have both undergone modification. Moreover both, according to M. Reclus, whose statements are confirmed by those of M. L’abbé Brasseur de Bonbourg, approximate to the indigenous races. Both of these authors seem to admit that at the end of a given time, whatever be their origin, all the descendants of Whites or of Negroes who have immigrated to America will become Red-skins.

When two such intelligent observers arrive at an identical and certainly quite unexpected conclusion on such a question, the facts must be very patent. Yet they have forced their meaning, from not having taken sufficient account of the nature of the problem That the Negro and the White should replace some of their features and characters by some of the features and characters belonging to the indigenous races, is quite natural. When subject to the action of the conditions of life which have formed the local races, they could not help being influenced by it to a certain extent. But they will never on that account be confused with the local races nor with each other, any more than the White transported to Africa would ever become a true Negro, or the European descendants of a Negro would ever become true Whites.

This impossibility of one race being transformed into another is often brought forward as an objection against Monogenism. It is nevertheless the natural consequence of the phenomena, of which I have endeavoured to give a short account, and is easily explained. Every race is a resultant whose components are, partly the species itself, partly the sum of the modifying agents which have produced the deviation from the type. We cannot separate those two elements, and races which have run wild show us to what extent the fusion can go. Every race which is fixed, when brought under the conditions of life which have formed another, will doubtless approximate to the latter; but it will partly retain its former impress . . . .

Such is what would take place even among primary races directly detached from the primitive type, and which have only been subject to the action of one fixed condition of life. But with the Negro and the White, the question is much more complex. These two extreme types represent the last product of two series of long-continued actions, whose diversity and multiplicity are indicated by the geographical stations themselves. Europe and tropical Africa have given them, if the expression may be used, the last touches; but their outline was sketched out long before they reached their present habitat. By their transposition, we only submit each of them to a part of the influences which have formed the other, and consequently a complete exchange of characters could never take place. . . .

XIV. In conclusion; like all animal and vegetable species, the human species can vary within certain limits; like plants and animals, man has his varieties and races, which have appeared and been formed by the action of the same causes.

In the human kingdom, as in the two other organic kingdoms, the first causes of variation are, conditions of life and heredity.

In phenomena of this kind, conditions of life act as the supreme ruler. If they vary, they become modifying agents, if they remain constant, agents of stabilisation.

In both cases their result is to harmonise organisms with the conditions of their existence.

Heredity, which is essentially a preserving agent, becomes an agent of variation, when it transmits and accumulates the modifying actions of the conditions of life.

XV. It is now easy to understand, in the general sense, the formation of human races.

Man at first doubtless peopled his centre of appearance and the countries immediately adjoining. He then commenced the immense and varied dispersion which dates from tertiary times and continues to the present day. He has passed through two geological epochs, and is now in his third. He has seen the mammoth and rhinoceros flourishing in Siberia in the midst of a rich fauna; he has at least seen them driven by the cold into the midst of Europe; and he has assisted in their extinction. Later on, he has retaken possession of the barren-lands himself; he has pushed his colonies as far as the neighbourhood of the pole, perhaps to the very pole itself, while at the same time he has invaded the forests and deserts of the tropics, reached the extremity of two great continents, and peopled all the archipelagoes.

For many thousands of years, man has therefore been subject to the action of all the external conditions of life with which we are acquainted, to that of the conditions of life of which we can at the utmost only form an idea. The various kinds of life to which he has been subjected, and the different degrees of civilisation at which he stopped or to which he has reached, have all diversified still more his conditions of existence. Was it possible that he should retain everywhere and for all time his original characters?

Experience and observation lead to an entirely opposite conclusion. When we see the Anglo-Saxon of our days, although protected by all the resources of an advanced civilisation, subjected to the American conditions of life, and changed into a Yankee, we must admit that at each of his great stages, when man is submitted to new conditions of existence, he has had to harmonise himself with them, and in so doing undergo modification. Each of these principal stations has necessarily witnessed the formation of a corresponding race. The original characters, thus successively affected, have become more and more altered, by reason of the length of the journey, and the difference of conditions. When they have reached the end of their journey the grandchildren of the first emigrants would certainly only retain very few of the characters of their ancestors.

The original human type has probably presented, for an indefinite time, its original characters in the tribes which remained fixed to the centre of appearance for our species. When the glacial epoch began, which, according to all appearance, made the earliest country of man uninhabitable, these tribes were forced to emigrate in their turn. Since that time the earth has no longer had autochthones, but has only been peopled by colonists. At the same time the modifying action of the conditions of life was felt by these last comers, who themselves were also transformed.

From this moment, the original type of man has been lost; the human species was only composed of races, all of which differed more or less from the first model. (253-59)


II. If we were familiar with primitive man, we should regard as characterising races, everything which separates them from this type. From want of this natural term of comparison, we have taken the European White as normal, and compared the remaining human groups with him. This leads to a tendency, which must be pointed out at once.

Influenced by certain habits of thought, and by a self-love of race which is easily explained, many anthropologists have thought that they could interpret the physical differences which distinguish men from one another, and consider simple characteristic features as marks of inferiority or superiority. Because the European has a short heel, and some Negroes have a long one, they have wished to consider the latter as a mark of degradation. The remarks which were made upon this subject, with so much justice, by Desmoulins with reference to the Bosjesmans were forgotten. Because the greater number of civilizations have risen among dolichocephalic nations, a head elongated from before backwards has been regarded as a superior form. It was forgotten that the Negroes and the Esquimaux are generally dolichocephali of the most pronounced type, and that European brachycephali are in every case the equals of their dolichocephalic brethren.

All analogous interpretations are absolutely arbitrary. In fact, superiority between human groups depends essentially upon intellectual and social development; it passes from one to another. The Chinese and Egyptians were already civilized, when all Europeans were true savages. If the latter had judged our ancestors as we too frequently judge foreign races, they would have found many signs of inferiority in them, commencing with the white skin of which we are so proud, and which they would have been able to regard as betraying an irremediable degeneration.

Is the fundamental superiority of one race really betrayed outwardly by some material sign? We are still in ignorance upon this point. But when we examine it more closely, we are led to think that it is not so. In expressing myself thus, I know that I am separating myself from the opinions which are generally admitted, and am at variance with men whose works I value most highly. . . .

Differences of every kind nevertheless exist between one human group and another. These must be taken for what they are, for characters of race, for ethnical characters. It is the duty of the anthropologist especially to recognize these differences, to make use of them for defining the groups, then to connect or separate, according to their affinities, the races thus characterized. . . .

I still consider it the right and almost the duty of the anthropologist, to investigate the causes which may have given rise to the appearance of the features which characterise races. The study of the actions of the conditions of life sometimes gives valuable indications on this subject. The evolution of the human being from his appearance in the embryonic state to the adult state, especially furnishes facts of great interest. A simple arrest, a slight excess in the evolutive phenomena, are, it appears to me, the causes of the principal differences which separate races, and particularly the two extremes, the Negro and the White.

I know full well that a wish has been felt to go further back. Under the more or less perceptible influence of transmutationist doctrines, terms of comparison in the estimation of these differences have too often been sought for among animals, and especially among apes. Eminent men, without even adopting these doctrines, frequently use the expressions, simian character, animal character. Why forget the embryo or the human fœtus? Why not remember even the infant? Question their history. It furnishes all the elements of a human evolution theory, certainly much more precise and true than the simian theory. (349-52)

Jean-Louis-Armand Quatrefages de Bréau, Histoire Générale des races humaines, 2 vols. (1886-1889)

---, and E. T. Hamy, Crania Ethnica:  les crânes des races humaines, two vols. (Paris:  Baillière, 1873, 1882).  

---, Histoire générale des races humaines; introduction a l’étude des races humaines, two volumes (Paris:  A. Hennuyer, 1887-89).  

Stephen R. Holtzman, “Continental Anthropologists’ Initial Opposition to Darwinism and the Prospect of Human Evolution,” Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers 51 (1975): 81-89.  At: