Theories of Race

Paul Topinard

  • Paul Topinard's portrait

    Paul Topinard



00:00 / 08:21

Desiring to launch a form of inquiry that addressed itself to “learned men of every class,” Paul Broca assigned to his student—and eventual successor at the Anthropological Society of Paris—Paul Topinard the task of describing this new field in terms any learned man could understand. The result was Anthropology (1878), a 535-page tome in which Topinard attempted a vast synthesis of the new field, identifying its key questions, principal methodologies, kinds of evidence, and established results.

Topinard’s Anthropology is in many respects a deeply respectful defense of Broca, whose methodological rigor had made a deep impression on the young scientist. Topinard restates and endorses many of the terms and premises developed by Broca in “The Phenomenon of Hybridity in the Genus Homo” (1864), including the phrase “inferior races” to describe various populations, with indigenous Australians occupying the lowest rung of the human ladder.* He also accepts Broca’s naturalistic, clinical approach to the study of man as part of the animal kingdom, and accepts the priority of craniology in this study even as he extends the domain of the measurable to the skeleton, muscles, teeth, and viscera. In Part II, “Of the Races of Mankind,” he undertakes a defense of the latest methods and instruments of craniology, including a striking illustration showing a wide-awake head in the grip of a “facial goniometer” (see Broca). He concludes that “empirical characteristics derived from craniometry are opposed to the monogenistic creed, inasmuch as they witness in favor of the original plurality of the principal groups” (222). Topinard followed this with Éléments d’Anthropologie Générale (Elements of general anthropology) in 1885, a twelve-hundred-page summa of the history, subjects, and methods of the field, dedicated to Broca and Quatrefages de Bréau.

In both works, Topinard describes the methods and results of anthropometry (the attempt to identify human variations, including racial differences, through bodily measurements, especially the measurement of skulls), but includes a full account of the difficulties, flaws, and errors involved in the attempt to measure crania in particular with any precision, much less to draw any conclusions about races from the results. Most dubious, he says, are efforts to establish racial character traits inasmuch as “the traits of character so judged of are entirely individual in the majority of cases, and their estimate depends upon the mental disposition of the observer, as well as upon the accurate recollection of his latest visual impressions.” From a scientific perspective, he argues, the cancerous tendency of classifications to ramify to infinity rendered the entire exercise futile: “In fact, the majority of classifications go on progressing. We see them commencing timidly, then multiplying their divisions, and then descending to details”; “the tendency to run into minutiae is especially predominant here. . . . It is evident that craniology is an illimitable science” (Anthropology, 203, 224).

In the context of the history of racial science, Topinard’s enumeration of the problems created by craniometry is more significant than his overall endorsement of the practice. For if, as he says, it is not only extremely difficult to measure sizes and angles but impossible to derive any general conclusions from a limited set of measurements, then the effort to determine the physical characteristics of racial groups is deprived of its primary clinical support, and the concept of race itself wobbles. On occasion, Topinard speaks in terms Broca might have supported of “initial races” or “simple general types”—the term “type” itself indicating his doubts about the term race—such as “the White, the Yellow, and the Black with wooly hair,” but he then almost invariably adds a statement to the effect that “in Man, many of these divisions are doubtful, or in a state of transition” (507).

This argument was actually being made more forcefully in Topinard’s Anthropological Society of Paris by a new member. A huge book by a young Haitian serving as a diplomat in Paris, Anténor Firmin’s L’Égalité des races humaines (1885) was primarily intended as a response to Gobineau but also challenged Broca for his commitment to polygenism and Topinard for his continued references to lower and higher races.

Topinard’s contemporary response to Firmin, if any, is not recorded, but whether he was persuaded by Firmin or by his own accumulating doubts, he was beginning to establish an independent position. In a further blow to the Broca doctrine, Topinard rejects the notion that cross-racial hybrids are at all infertile, including as part of his argument Broca’s own dissatisfaction with the term race, which “has many acceptations . . . In current language indeed it has a vague meaning, leaving all the questions sub judice. . . . Have these races the value of species, of varieties, or even of genera? This is the question” (197). Rehearsing the contributions of all the leading theorists of race, Topinard finds fault with all of them for stressing the “exclusive character” of races, a difficult position to hold when so few of the world’s peoples conformed entirely to simple general types. In 1878, Topinard was unable to break with Broca, and concluded Anthropology with a restatement of Broca’s equivocation on the definition of the terms race and species. The conclusion to this essay strikes, however, an entirely different note by introducing a third term, family, that overrides both race and species and provides a principle of unity rather than segmentation: “To sum up, The HUMAN FAMILY, the first of the ORDER of Primates, is composed of SPECIES, or fundamental human races” (510-11).

Topinard was not finished with his apostasy. In 1892, by then sixty-two years old and Broca’s successor to the positions of Secretary-General of the Anthropological Society and director of the École d’Anthropologie, Topinard wrote, or rather rewrote, an 1879 essay that had been published in a journal edited by Broca, called “De la notion de race en anthropologie” (On the notion of race in anthropology) in which he revisited his earlier positions.** No longer compelled to articulate and defend the thinking of other distinguished anthropologists, Topinard, perhaps provoked by the example of Firmin, took a more independent stand.

In the 1879 essay as well as in Anthropology, he had described races as “fixed realities with permanent characteristics,” and the determination of race as the fundamental task of anthropology. He had also mentioned without comment Broca’s conviction that the races could be ranked according to their “position in the human series.” Most intriguingly, however, he had underscored, even more firmly than Broca, the possibility that what are now called races were the consequences only of long isolation and environmental influences, and that race was not an object for scientific research at all, but was “only a subjective notion, a conception within our minds.” In the 1892 essay, Topinard strengthened this suspicion considerably, made no mention of racial ranking, dismissed Broca’s beliefs about the infertility of hybrids, and—the coup de grâce—closed with a strong recommendation to reject the term race and any research program associated with the concept.

Over the course of his career, Topinard spanned the vast distance between the utter confidence of Broca in anthropology as the discipline capable of establishing a scientific basis for racial distinctions and rankings, including a polygenetic account of human origins, and the deep and growing post-Darwinian skepticism of others as exemplified by the work of Franz Boas, who would soon be calling for anthropology to abandon the inquiry into race altogether.

*Paul Broca, “On the Phenomena of Hybridity in the Genus Homo” (London:  Longman, Green, Longman, & Roberts, 1864), published by the Anthropological Society of London, 70-71. 

**Paul Topinard, “De la notion de race en anthropologie,” Revue d’anthropolgie, ser. 2; 2 (1879):  589-660.  

“On ‘Race’ in Anthropology”


[Note: the English translator added the quotation marks around race to underscore Topinard’s skepticism about the term] 

Thirteen years ago, in 1879 . . . I published in the Revue d’Anthropologie a memoire under almost the same title as the present one.

In it I examined the definitions of race given by the zoologists and botanists, by the stockbreeders and horticulturists, by the historians and the linguists, and I brought out the differences between them. The first group (starting from the head of the list) considered races as permanent natural varieties, as the actual divisions of a species. The second group, taking a practical standpoint, admitted no race except where it is demonstrated; that is, as followed through a series of individuals who are descended from a known stock and who compose one and the same family covering more or less of an expanse. As for the historians and linguists, they confused race and people and characterized them together by language.

Then I examined the question itself, and established the following: (1) That nowhere in the world do we find a population completely untouched by intermixture and manifesting a single type. (2) That the anthropological materials which we work with and from which we extract the double notion, first of type then of its temporal continuity, are nothing but peoples; (3) That even if with labor we can get hold of the first factor, type, the second, its temporal permanence, is only a conjecture that cannot be demonstrated; (4). That as a result the notion of race in both factors, especially in the second, is only a subjective notion, a conception within our minds; the peoples and their histories being the sole objective realities.

I added that in the earliest days of mankind things had been different; isolation was frequent, environments must have been more active, mortality and natality that favor adaptation more intense, and races were being formed. Let us imagine an aggregation of humans surrounded by seas and deserts on the equator and not intelligent enough to take shelter from a burning sun. But today everything is different, intelligence has increased, men emigrate in all directions, they bow to all the changes of environment, they have become cosmopolitan and they intermingle everywhere. There is no longer anything but agglomerations, peoples in which engenesis destroys the types that try to form or amalgamates them. Between these two extremes there occur, within the depths of each great division, some types more or less fixed or permanent, which destroy themselves and reproduce themselves unceasingly in new combinations; resembling thus the geological strata of the earth which succeed one another; they are variable, yet they are formed of the same elements as the preceding strata now worked over. When we examine the last stratum, the one pertinent to our investigations, we find the principle of permanence of characters supplanting permanence of types, the principle of mutability replacing that of immobility. . . .

Since 1879 these ideas have become more strongly established in my mind. They have led me to understand a mass of difficulties and obscure points which one stumbles against in anthropological practice.

There are two methods of procedure for studying human races. In the one, we start from their beginnings and pass progressively and analytically down to the present time. In the other, we take hold of the present and then attempt to go back into the past. The results differ. Under the first method we distinguish general types which we designate as European, Asiatic, African, etc., or white, yellow, black, etc.; we divide them into brachycephalic and dolichocephalic, wooly or curly, blond or brown hair, etc. To the naturalist these general types of two orders are those of initial races which by differentiation and intermixture have engendered all the types of third and fourth order which we recognize today in such large numbers and on all sides. Taken thus, the term “race” is very legitimate, as long as we remain in the high sphere of general types. . . .

But there is the rub: our types of the third and fourth order are an artifact—a subjective matter—and their kinship with others is one which in the very nature of race cannot be established. We take the greatest pains possible to determine these types by associating two methods: that of judging from visual examination and that of taking measurements and describing traits with the aid of averages and analysis of series (of specimens). It is an operation that requires feeling, an eye, a caution, an unlimited experience.

We go even further in connecting these types to earlier ones which are based on no more than vague descriptions dealing with two or three general traits, on a few bas-reliefs or on drawings that are always suspect, on some skulls too few in number to yield adequate results.

This produces especially two kinds of confusion. On the one hand we mistake peoples for races; on the other we mistake traits for types.

Civilized peoples, barbarian hordes, even savage tribes that seem to be isolated, are nothing but agglomerations composed of elements of various derivation, which in their turn were peoples having a composition no less heterogeneous. No people, perhaps no human group of any epoch within the scope of our ken, has ever manifested one type only, or even covered in a simplex way, this first factor in the notion of race.

In a word,—what we call constituent elements of peoples are not races, but peoples themselves who merely push back the difficulty. . . .

The final argument I would insist upon should be taken from human engenesis and from the definition of race given by the stock-breeders and horticulturalists.

We find no such definition! The word “race” is hardly used by naturalists when speaking of wild animals and plants. They prefer the term “variety,” which leaves unsettled the question of permanence, the condition sine qua non for race. . . .

Now, man as we know him is exactly in the same situation as the domestic animals and plants. In him, just as in the street-dog, engenesis has free play, all sorts of unions take place and they are always fertile. . . . Hence no races. That once it should have been otherwise, that in some islands there may still be a relative isolation, is possible. But today the rule is that new types no longer are formed and that old types are disintegrating. . . . .

Let me summarize. There are two ways of comprehending human races. According to the first, one considers only the general types common to wide-spread fragments of mankind, and one regards them, rightly or wrongly, as the expressions of more or less primitive races that have disappeared. According to the second way, one pictures races as the constituent elements of peoples; one seeks out the types, and multiplies them and supposes that they have been perpetuated without change throughout the upsets and the mix-ups of history and prehistory. . . . In both cases, but especially in the second, race is only a subjective notion. The only object reality is what we have before our eyes: peoples and tribes.

Under such conditions one questions whether it would not be preferable to be less free with the word race, to save it for the general types which analysis gives us to see in the principal branches of mankind, and to renounce it for all those types of third and fourth order that we create ourselves and look upon as the constituent elements of peoples.

Emmanuelle Sibeud, “A Useless Colonial Science? Practicing Anthropology in the French Colonial Empire, circa 1880–1960,” Current Anthropology, 53. supp. 5 (2012):  583-94.  

George W. Stocking, Jr., “The Persistence of Polygenist Thought in Post-Darwinian Anthropology,” in Race, Culture, and Evolution:  Essays in the History of Anthropology (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1982), 42-68.  

Paul Topinard, Anthropology, with preface by Paul Broca, trans. Robert T. H. Bartley (London:  Chapman and Hall, 1878).  

Paul Topinard, Éléments d’Anthropologie Générale (Paris:  Adrien Delehaye and Émile Lecrosnier, 1885).