Celebrated by Petrus Camper as “the immortal Buffon,” by Charles Darwin as “the first author who in modern times has treated [evolution] in a scientific spirit,” and by the twentieth-century evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr as the “father of all thought in natural history in the second half of the 18th century,” George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon was a French polymath whose thirty-six volume Natural History, General & Particular (1749-89), (with another eight volumes edited after his death) provided a vast inventory of the natural world including the human species.* He also contributed a number of ideas that, while sometimes inconsistent in their articulation, proved to be immensely influential. While he has been criticized for being insufficiently skeptical of his sources, Buffon was a remarkably industrious gatherer of information, and is often credited with the invention of the field of anthropology.
Buffon was committed for religious reasons to a series of what would come to be called “monogenist” positions: that humanity constituted a single species distinct from animals; that all species were directly created by God and represented divine ideas that could not change despite the “degeneration” that inevitably happened over time; and that fertility between members of different groups proved that all humans belonged to a single species. Buffon is sometimes (mistakenly) credited with introducing the fertility of offspring as a criterion for assigning both parents to the same species, but his most decisive contribution consisted in his introduction of a post-theological understanding of species on which subsequent work could build. Distrusting Linnaean classification and abstraction, Buffon still recognized six broad groupings within the human race: Lapps, Tartars, South Asians, Europeans, Ethiopians, and Americans. The observable differences in skin color and skull shapes were, Buffon argued, not at all biological in origin, but were entirely the result of climate, diet, and “manners,” operating on the human organism over a long period of time, and were in theory (if only in theory) reversible. The idea of divisions in nature seemed to him speculative and scientifically irresponsible. In 1749, he wrote that “Nature proceeds by unknown gradations and consequently does not yield totally to divisions. Species fades into species, and often genus into genus, by imperceptible nuances.”** The introduction of the factor of environmental influences on the species is a precondition of the concept of natural selection and accounts for the “scientific spirit” praised by Darwin and Mayr.
Like others at this time, Buffon did not have a clear or consistent understanding of the term race, which he used interchangeably with species (espèce), a term he applied both to the “human species” and to groups within the human species. His most notable use of the term race came in a supplement to a later edition of his Natural History, where he defended his use of the phrase “the Lapp race” by distinguishing between the “narrow” or genealogical sense of the term and a more “extended” sense in which the term referred to extensive populations linked by climate, geography, and resemblance. This larger sense brings race into alignment with such terms as tribe, nation, class, or kind. Buffon actually preferred the term “variety” to designate the different forms taken by the various human groups, perhaps because of its suggestion of unranked plenitude, or variations within a field of differences to which negative or positive values were not assigned.
Buffon has been attacked in recent years for espousing racialist or racist theory, a charge sometimes supported by his statement that Negroes have “little genius.” But his emphasis on human unity represents a fundamental difference from most forms of what we would call racism. Nor does Buffon, for all his criticisms of various groups, seem to be animated by racial antipathies. He does regard whiteness as the color of the “primary species” and the product of “Nature, in her most perfect exertions,” but he regards all races currently on earth as having “degenerated”—a term that suggests to him no more than progressive change—from that aboriginal form. And while he is manifestly fascinated by blackness, for which he struggles to find an account, he is explicit in defending the humanity of the Negro and in denouncing the “perpetual infamy” of the slave trade. And as the passages below illustrate, stupidity and savagery are, in Buffon’s view, generously distributed among the peoples of the world.
Buffon’s immense work—the first of those in which the subject of race was addressed as part of a vast project encompassing all of natural history—contains an astonishing range of information about the natural world, including its peoples. Completely reliant on traveler’s narratives and other more or less fanciful reports, Buffon depicts a world of immense variety, and while he gives Europeans little reason to abandon their presumption that they are the most advanced and enlightened race on earth, he also makes it impossible for them to feel that they are without flaw or defect especially with respect to their treatment of the “savages” of the world, which he repeatedly condemns.
In sharp contrast to Linnaeus’s categorical representation of groups and subgroups, Buffon’s world is a closely observed (or reported) catalogue of differences, with the peoples of the world representing explorations by Nature of the possibilities of human existence. He is particularly sensitive to cultural and physical variation within the peoples of Africa.
The excerpts reproduced below give some idea of his approach. Most of the passages are taken from Section IX of Volume 3 of The Natural History of Man, titled “Of the Varieties of the Human Species” (1749). (This section follows an extraordinary, at times almost hallucinatory treatment of “the senses of the body” in which Buffon tries to represent the functioning of the nerves of the human body prior to and independent of any thoughts one might have about sensations or feelings, concluding with the astonishment of sexual awakening.) Also included are interesting passages from “The Natural History of the Ass,” from the same volume, in which Buffon argues for deep resemblances among animals, and cites the fertility of horse and ass as evidence that Negroes and white people belong to “one family.”
*Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 330.
**Comte de Buffon, Œuvres philosophiques, ed., Jean Piveteau (Paris: Presses Universaitaires de France, 1954), 10B.
SECT. IX. Of the Varieties of the Human Species
WHAT we have hitherto remarked concerning the generation of man and the structure of his body, constitutes only the history of the individual: That of the species requires a separate detail, the principal facts of which must be collected from the varieties that appear among men in different regions of the earth. These varieties may be reduced to three heads: 1. The colour; 2. The figure and stature; and 3. The dispositions of different people. Each of these heads, if extensively considered, might afford materials for a volume; but we shall confine ourselves to those which are most general and best ascertained.
With this view, we shall survey the surface of the earth, commencing with the northern regions. In Lapland, and on the northern coasts of Tartary, we find a race of men of an uncouth figure, and small stature. Their countenances are equally savage as their manners. These men, who appear to be a degenerated species, are very numerous, and occupy vast regions. The Danish, Swedish, and Muscovite Laplanders, the inhabitants of Nova Zembla, the Borandians, the Samoiedes, the northern Tartars, the Ostiacks of the Old Continent, and the Greenlanders and savages to the north of the Esquimaux Indians in the New Continent, appear to be all the same race, who have extended and multiplied along the coasts of the north sea, in deserts, and under climates which could not be inhabited by other nations. All these people have broad large faces and fiat noses. Their eyes are of a yellowish brown colour, inclining to black; their eye-lids extend towards the temples; their cheek-bones are very prominent; their mouths are large, and their lips thick and reflected; the under part of their face is narrow; they have a squeaking voice; the head is large, the hair black and smooth; and the skin of a tawny or swarthy hue. Their size is diminutive; but, though meagre, their form is squat. Most of them are only four feet high; and their tallest men exceed not four feet and a half. This race is so different from all others, that it seems to constitute a distinct species; for, if there be among them any distinction, it arises only from a greater or less degree of deformity. The Borandians, for example, are still less than the Laplanders. The iris of their eyes is of the same colour; but the white is of a reddish yellow: Their skin is more tawny; and their legs, instead of being slender, like those of the Laplanders, are very thick, and shapeless. The Samoiedes are more squat than the Laplanders; their heads are larger; their noses are broader, and their complexion darker; their legs are shorter; their hair is longer, and their beards are more scanty. The skin of the Greenlander is more tawny than that of the other nations, being of a deep olive colour; and, it is said, that some of them are as black as the Aethiopian. Among all these people, the women are fully as ugly as the men, and resemble them so much, that the distinction is not easily perceived. The women of Greenland are very short; but their bodies are well proportioned. Their hair is blacker, and their skin softer than those of the Samoiede females. Their breasts are so long and pliable, that they can suckle their children over their shoulders. Their nipples are black as jet, and their skin is of a very deep olive colour. Some travellers alledge that these women have no hair but upon their heads, and that they are not subject to the menstrual evacuation. Their visage is large; their eyes small, but black and lively; and their feet and hands are short. In every other respect, they resemble the Samoiede females. The savages north of the Esquimaux, and even in the northern parts of the island of Newfoundland, have a great resemblance to the Greenlanders. Like them, their stature is small, their faces broad, and their noses flat; but their eyes are larger than those of the Laplander.
These people not only resemble each other in deformity, in smallness of stature, and in the colour of their eyes and hair, but also in their dispositions and manners: They are all equally gross, superstitious, and stupid. The Danish Laplanders have a large black cat, to which they communicate their secrets, and consult in all their important affairs; such as, whether this day should be employed in hunting or fishing. Among the Swedish Laplanders, a drum is kept in every family for the purpose of consulting the devil; and, though they are a robust and nimble people, such is their pusillanimity, that they never could be persuaded to face a field of battle. (57-60)
The manners of these abject people serve only to render them despicable. They bathe naked, and promiscuously, boys and girls, mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, without feeling the smallest sense of impropriety. When they come out of the baths, which are extremely warm, they immediately plunge themselves into cold rivers. They offer their wives and daughters to strangers, and esteem it the highest affront if the offer be rejected. This custom is universal among the Samoiedes, the Borandians, the Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Greenland. (62)
The country of Jesso, which lies to the north of Japan, though situated under a climate which ought to be temperate, is, however, cold, barren, and mountainous: Its inhabitants are also totally different from those of China and Japan. They are a gross brutal race, having neither manners nor arts. Their bodies are thick and short; their hair is long and bristly; their eyes are black; their forehead is flat, and their colour yellow, though less so than that of the Japanese. Their faces, as well as their whole body, are very hairy. They live like savages, and their food consists of the fat and oil of whales, and other fishes. They are exceedingly indolent, and slovenly in their dress. Their children go almost naked; and the women have invented no other ornament but that of painting their eye-brows and lips of a blue colour. (77-78)
To the north of Manilla lies the island of Formosa, which is not far distant from the province of Fokien in China. But these islanders have no resemblance to the Chinese. Struys informs us, that the men of this island are of small stature, particularly those who live in the mountains; that they have flat faces; that the women have coarse full breasts, and a beard like the men; that their ears are long, and their length is increased by heavy shells which they employ for pendants; that their hair is black and long, and their complexion of a yellowish black colour; that some of them are of a whitish yellow, and others entirely yellow; that they are extremely indolent, dexterous in managing the bow and the javelin, excellent swimmers, and run with incredible swiftness. Struys expressly declares, that, in this island, he saw a man with a tail more than a foot long, covered with reddish hair, and not unlike that of an ox; and that this tailed man assured him, that the tail was a consequence of the climate, for all the natives of the southern part of the island had tails of the same kind. (88-89)
The Persians, though in general pretty sober, devour vast quantities of fruit. Nothing is more common than to see a man eat 12 pounds of melons; some will devour three or four times that quantity; and many of them fall a sacrifice to this excessive appetite for fruit.
Fine women, of all complexions, are common in Persia; for they are selected by the merchants, from every country, on account of their beauty. The white women are brought from Poland, from Muscovy, from Circassia, from Georgia, and from the frontiers of Great Tartary: The tawny women are transported from the Mogul's dominions, and from the kingdoms of Golconda and Visapore, and the blacks from Melinda and the coasts of the Red Sea. A strange superstition prevails among the inferior class of women. Those who are barren, imagine passing under the dead bodies of suspended criminals, will render them fruitful; they even believe that the influence of a male corpse, though at a distance, is sufficient to impregnate them.
When this absurd remedy does not succeed, they go into the canals of water which run from the baths, when they know that many men are employed in bathing themselves; and, if this specific be equally unsuccessful as the former, their last resource is to swallow that part of the prepuce which is cut off in the operation of circumcision, which they consider as a sovereign remedy against sterility. (107-08)
The Mingrelians, according to the relations of travellers, are as handsome and beautiful as the Georgians or Circassians, and they seem to be the same race of people. “In Mingrelia,” says Chardin, “there are women extremely handsome, of a majestic air, whose form and visage are enchanting, and their aspect attracts every beholder. Those who are less handsome, or advanced in years, daub their eye-brows, cheeks, forehead, nose, and chin, with coarse paint. Others only paint their eye-brows, and bestow much attention to their dress, which is similar to that of the Persians. They wear a veil, which covers only the crown and back part of the head. Though lively, civil, and affectionate, they are extremely perfidious; and there is no wickedness which they will not perpetrate, in order to procure, to preserve, or to get rid of their gallants. The men have likewise many bad qualities. They are all trained to robbery, which they study both as a business and an amusement. . . . Husbands in this country, are not jealous of their wives; and, when a wife is detected in the act of infidelity, he has only a right to demand a pig from the gallant, who generally eats a share of it in company with the husband and wife. To have many wives and concubines, they pretend to be a good and laudable practice, because it enables them to beget the more children, whom they sell for gold, or exchange for wares and provisions.” The Mingrelian slaves are not dear. A man, from 25 to 40 years, may be purchased for 15 crowns; and, when farther advanced, for 8 or 10. The finest girls, from 13 to 18, cost only 20 crowns, a woman about 12 crowns, and children only 3 or 4. (121-22)
The women of Sweden are very prolific. Rudbeck says, that they generally bring forth 8, 10, or 12 children; and that 18, 20, 24, and even 30, are not uncommon. He adds, that the men often exceed the age of 100 years; that some arrive at 140; and that one Swede lived 156, and another 161 years. But this author, it must be allowed, is an enthusiast with regard to his country; and, in his estimation, Sweden is the best country in the world. This extraordinary fertility in the Swedish women implies not an uncommon propensity to love. Mankind are more chaste in cold than in hot climates. Though the women of Sweden are less amorous than those of Spain or Portugal, yet they bring forth more children. The northern nations, it is well known, have over-run all Europe to such a degree, that historians have distinguished the North by the appellation of “Officina Gentium.” (127-28)
Three causes, therefore, must be admitted, as concurring in the production of those varieties which we have remarked among the different nations of this earth: 1. The influence of climate; 2. Food, which has a great dependence on climate; and, 3. Manners, on which climate has, perhaps, a still greater influence. But, before we attempt to establish this opinion by reasoning, it is necessary to give as minute a description of the inhabitants of Africa and America, as we have already given of those of Europe and Asia. (132)
From comparing the testimonies of travellers, it, in the first place, appears, that the varieties among the blacks are equally numerous as those among the whites. The blacks, as well as the whites, have their Tartars and their Circassians. The natives of Guiney are extremely ugly, and have an insufferable odour: Those of Sofala and of Mosambique are beautiful, and have no bad smell. It is, therefore, necessary to divide the blacks into different races; and, I think, they may be reduced to two principal races, that of the Negroes, and that of the Caffres. Under the first I comprehend the blacks of Nubia, of Senegal, of Cape Verd, of Gambia, of Sierra-leona, of the Teeth and Gold Coasts, of that of Juda, Benin, Gabon, Loango, Congo, Angola, and of Benguela, as far as Cape Negro. Under the second, I include all the nations from Cape Negro to the point of Africa, where they assume the name of Hottentots, and all those on the eastern coast, within the same latitude, as the territories of Natal, of Sofala, of Monomotapa, of Mosambique, of Melinda: The blacks of Madagascar and of the neighbouring islands are likewise Caffres, and not Negroes. These two races of men have a greater resemblance to each other in colour than in their features, hair, skin, or smell: Their manners and natural dispositions are likewise very different.
On a closer examination of the different people of which each of these races consist, we shall find as many varieties among the blacks as among the whites, and an equal number of shades from brown to black, as we have found from brown to white in the other race.
We shall begin with the countries to the north of Senegal, and, proceeding along the coasts, we shall consider the different nations which have been recognised and described by travellers. In the first place, it is certain, that the natives of the Canary islands are not Negroes; for we are assured by voyagers, that the antient inhabitants of these islands were tall, well made, and of a vigorous complexion; that the women were beautiful, and had fine hair; and that the inhabitants of the southern parts of each island were more olive than those on the northern parts. Duret, in the history of his voyage to Lima, informs us, that the antient inhabitants of the island of Teneriff were tall and robust, but meagre and tawny, and that most of them had flat noses. These people, we see, had nothing in common with the Negroes, excepting the flat nose. The natives of Africa, in the same latitude with these islands, are Moors, and very tawny; but, like the islanders, they evidently belong to the race of whites. . . .
The Moors are separated from the Negroes by the river Senegal. They are only tawny, and live on the north side of this river; but the Negroes who inhabit the south side of it are absolutely black. The Moors wander through the country; but the Negroes are sedentary, and dwell in villages. The former are free and independent; the latter are the slaves of tyrants, who oppress them. The Moors are small, meagre, and have a pusillanimous aspect; but they are sly and ingenious. The Negroes, on the contrary, are large, plump, and well made; but they are simple and stupid. In fine, the country inhabited by the Moors consists of barren sands, where verdure appears only in very few places. But the Negro country is rich, fertile in pastures, and produces millet, and trees which are always green, but few of them bear fruit fit for food. . . .
The Cape de Verd islands are peopled with Mulattoes, sprung from the Portugueze who first settled there, and the Negroes whom they found on these islands. They are called Copper-colloured Negroes, because, though they resemble the Negroes in their features, they are less black, or rather yellowish. They are handsome and ingenious; but extremely indolent and idle. They live chiefly by hunting and fishing. They train their dogs to kill the wild goats, with which the islands abound. They deliver their wives and daughters to the embraces of strangers, if they chuse to pay for this singular favour. For pins and other trifles, they sell paroquets, porcelain-shells, ambergris &c.
The first genuine Negroes we meet with, are those on the southern banks of the Senegal. These people, as well as those who inhabit the country comprehended between this river and that of Gambia, call themselves Jaloffs. They are very black, handsome, of a fine stature, and their features are not so disagreeable as those of the other Negroes. Some of them, and particularly the women, have very regular features. They have the same ideas of beauty with the Europeans; for they are fond of fine eyes, a small mouth, thin lips, and a well proportioned nose; they differ only with regard to the basis of the picture, a very black shining colour being absolutely necessary to form a beauty: Their skin is very fine and soft; and, abstracting from colour, they have as beautiful women as are to be met with in any other country in the world; their females are generally handsome, gay, active, and extremely amorous: They are peculiarly fond of white men, whom they caress with ardour, both to satisfy themselves, and in hopes of obtaining presents. In their attachment to strangers, they meet with no restraint from their husbands. But, though they offer their wives, daughters, and sisters to strangers, and conceive their honour to be injured by a refusal, their jealousy rises to such a pitch, when their wives transgress with men of their own nation, that they often beat, and even cut themselves with fabres. Those women, notwithstanding, have the tobacco-pipe perpetually in their mouths, and their skin, when they are heated, has a disagreeable smell, though it is not so strong as that of the other Negroes. They love dancing to the sound of the drum and calabash. All their movements in these dances consist of lascivious and indecent postures. They bathe often; and file their teeth, in order to render them more equal. Most of the young girls engrave figures of animals, flowers, &c. on their skin. (137-42)
Though the Guiney Negroes enjoy good health, and have vigorous constitutions, they seldom reach old age. A Negro of 50 years is a very old man. Their premature commerce with the women is, perhaps, the cause of the brevity of their lives. Their children, when very young, are allowed to commit every species of debauchery; and nothing is so rare among these people as to find a girl who can remember the time when she ceased to be a virgin. . . .
The Negroes on the coasts of Juda and Arada, are less black than those of Senegal, Guiney, and Congo. They prefer the flesh of dogs to all other meat, a roasted dog being generally the first dish presented at their feasts. This taste is not peculiar to the Negroes; the savages of North America, and some Tartarian nations are equally fond of dogs flesh. The Tartars are even said to castrate dogs, in order to fatten them and improve their flesh. (146-47)
Father Charlevoix tells us, that the Senegal Negroes are the most handsome, most docile, and best suited for domestic uses; that the Bambaras are larger, but that they are all rogues; that the Aradas are best acquainted with the culture of the earth; that the Congos are the smallest in size, and excellent fishers, but that they are much addicted to desertion; that the Nagos are the most humane, the Mondongos the most cruel, the Mimes the most resolute, most capricious, and most subject to despair; and that the Creole Negroes, from whatever nations they derive their origin, retain nothing of their parents but the colour and the spirit of slavery. They are more ingenious, rational, and dexterous, but more slothful and debauched, than the African Negroes. He adds, that the genius of all the Guiney Negroes is extremely limited; that some of them appear to be perfectly stupid, not being able to count, beyond the number of three; that they never think spontaneously; that they have no memory, the past and the future being equally unknown to them; that the most sprightly of them have some humour, and make tolerable mimics; that they are extremely cunning, and would rather die than tell a secret; that, in general, they are gentle, humane, docile, simple, credulous, and even superstitious; and that they are faithful, and brave, and, if properly disciplined, would make good soldiers..
Though the Negroes have little genius, their feelings are extremely acute. According to the manner they are treated, they are gay or melancholy, laborious or slothful, friends or enemies. When well fed, and not maltreated, they are contented, joyous, ready for every employment, and the satisfaction of their mind is painted in their countenance. But, when oppressed and abused, they grow peevish, and often die of melancholy. Of benefits and of abuse, they are exceedingly sensible, and against those who injure them they bear a mortal hatred. On the other hand, when they contract an affection to a master, there is no office, however hazardous, which they will not boldly execute, to demonstrate their zeal and attachment. They are naturally affectionate, and have an ardent love to their children, friends, and countrymen. The little they possess they freely distribute among the necessitous, without any other motive than that of pure compassion for the indigent.
Upon the whole, it is apparent, that the unfortunate Negroes are endowed with excellent hearts, and possess the seeds of every human virtue. I cannot write their history, without lamenting their miserable condition. Is it not more than enough to reduce men to slavery, and to oblige them to labour perpetually, without the capacity of acquiring property? To these, is it necessary to add cruelty, and blows, and to abuse them worse than brutes? Humanity revolts against those odious oppressions which result from avarice, and which would have been daily renewed, had not the laws given a friendly check to the brutality of masters, and fixed limits to the sufferings of their slaves. They are forced to labour; and yet the coarsest food is dealt out to them with a sparing hand. They support, say their obdurate task-masters, hunger without inconvenience; a single European meal is sufficient provision to a Negro for three days; however little they eat or sleep, they are always equally strong, and equally fit for labour. How can men, in whose breasts a single sentiment of humanity remains unextinguished, adopt such detestable maxims? How dare they, by such barbarous and diabolical arguments, attempt to palliate those oppressions which originate solely from their thirst of gold? But, let us abandon those hardened monsters to perpetual infamy, and return to our subject. (150-153)
The short duration of [Hottentot] lives is unquestionably occasioned by the nastiness in which they perpetually wallow, and the putrid flesh on which they chiefly feed. As most travellers have written fully concerning the manners of this dirty people, I shall only add one fact more, which is related by Tavernier. The Dutch, says he, carried off a Hottentot girl a few days after her birth, brought her up among themselves, and she soon became as white as any European. From this fact, he concludes, that all the Hottentots would be equally fair, if they did not perpetually daub themselves with dirt and black paints. (158)
The origin of black men has, at all times, been an object of inquiry. The antients, who know only those of Nubia, regarded them as the last or terminating shade of the tawny colour, and confounded them with the Ethiopians, and other African nations, who, though extremely brown, belong more to the white than to the black race. They thought that the differences of colour among the human species proceeded solely from the varieties of climate, and that blackness was occasioned by a perpetual exposure to the hot rays of the sun. This opinion, though very probable, was much weakened, after it was discovered that the inhabitants of more southern climates, and even under the Equator itself, as those of Melinda and Mosambique, were not black, but very tawny; and when it was farther discovered, that blacks transported into more temperate climates, lost nothing of their original hue, but communicated it to their descendants. If we attend, however, to the migrations of different people, and to the time necessary to produce a change in their colour, we shall, perhaps, find the opinion of the antients to have been well founded; for the natives of this part of Africa are Nubians, and will preserve their original blackness as long as they continue to live under the same climate, and mix not with the whites. But the Ethiopians, the Abyssinians, and even the natives of Melinda, though they derive their origin from the whites, their religion and customs being the same with those of the Arabians, are, however, more tawny than the inhabitants of the southern parts of Arabia. This circumstance alone evinces, that, even among the same race of men, the different degrees of blackness depend, more or less, upon the heat of the climate. Many ages are, perhaps, necessary to change the white colour into perfect blackness; but it is probable, that, in a succession of generations, a white people, transported from the north to the Equator, would undergo this change, especially if they adopted the manners, and used the food of the new country.
The objection drawn from the difference of features is not unsurmountable; for the features of a Negro, who has not been purposely deformed in his infancy, differ not more from those of an European, than a Tartar differs from a Chinese, or a Circassian from a Greek: And, with regard to the hair, the nature of it depends so much on the quality of the skin, that any differences which take place in it ought to be considered as merely accidental; for, in the same country, and even in the same village, we find every possible variety of hair. (163-65)
[On albinos in nonwhite populations] In the history of the French Academy, we have descriptions of two of these white Negroes. I have seen one of them myself, and I am assured, that they are very frequent among the Negroes of Africa. What I have seen, independent of the relations of voyagers, leaves me no room to doubt concerning the origin of these white Negroes: They are only Negroes who have degenerated from their race, and not a particular and permanent species of men: In a word, they are among the Negroes, what Wafer tells us the white Indians are among the yellow or copper-coloured Indians of Darien, and, probably, what the Chacrelas and Bedas are among the brown Indians of the East. It is singular, that this variation of nature takes place only from black to white, and not from white to black. It is no less singular, that all the people in the East Indies, in Africa, and in America, where these white men appear, lie under the same latitude: The Isthmus of Darien, the Negro country, and the island of Ceylon, are under the very same parallel. Whites, then, appears to be the primitive colour of nature, which may be varied by climate, by food, and by manners, to yellow, brown, and black, and which, in certain circumstances, returns, but so greatly altered, that it has no resemblance to the original whiteness, because it has been adulterated by the causes which have already been assigned.
Upon the whole, the two extremes continually approach each other. Nature, in her most perfect exertions, made men white; and the same Nature, after suffering every possible change, still renders them white: But the natural or specific whiteness is very different from the individual or accidental. Of this we have examples in vegetables, as well as in men and other animals, A white rose is very different, even in the quality of whiteness, from a red rose, which has been rendered white by the autumnal frosts. (180-82)
Thus, the whole continent of America contains but one race of men, who are all more or less tawny: And, if we except the northern regions, where we find men similar to the Laplanders, and likewise men with fair hair, like the inhabitants of the north of Europe, all the rest of this vast territory is peopled with inhabitants, among whom there is little or no diversity. In the Antient Continent, on the other hand, we have found a prodigious variety in different nations. This great uniformity among the natives of America seems to proceed from their living all in the same manner. All the Americans were, or still are savages: The Mexicans and Peruvians were so recently polished, that they ought not to be regarded as an exception. Whatever, therefore, was the origin of these savages, it seems to have been common to the whole. All the Americans have sprung from the same source, and have preserved, with little variation, the characters of their race; for they have all continued in a savage state, and have followed nearly the same mode of life. Their climates are not so unequal, with regard to heat or cold, as those of the Antient Continent, and their establishment in this country has been too recent to allow those causes which produce varieties sufficient time to operate, so as to render their effects conspicuous. (188-89)
Anatomists have inquired into the seat of this black colour. Some of them alledge, that it neither resides in the skin nor scarf-skin, but in the cellular membrane between them; that this membrane, after long maceration in hot water, retains its original blackness; but that the skin and scarf-skin appear to be as white as those of other men. Dr Town, and some others, have maintained, that the blood of the Negroes is black, and that their blackness originates entirely from their blood. I am much inclined to believe this fact; for I have observed, that, among us, the blood of those persons who have tawny, yellowish, or brown complexions, is blacker than that of those who are fairer. M. Barrere, who seems to have examined this subject most minutely, tells us, and M. Winslow agrees with him, that the scarf-skin of Negroes is black; and, though its extreme thinness and transparency may make it appear white, that it is really as black as the blackest horn, when reduced to the same degree of thinness. They also assure us, that the skin of the Negroes is of a reddish brown colour, approaching to black. This colour of the Negroes, according to Barrere, is produced by their bile, which he affirms, from several dissections he made in Cayenne, instead of yellow, to be as black as ink. The bile, when absorbed and dispersed through the body, tinges the skin of white people yellow; and, if it were black, it would probably produce a black colour. But, as soon as the effusion of the bile ceases, the skin resumes its natural whiteness. We must, therefore, suppose, that the bile of the Negroes is perpetually effused, or, as Barrere alledges, that it is so abundant as to be naturally secreted in the scarf-skin, and to tinge it of a black colour. Upon the whole, it is probable, that both the bile and blood of Negroes are browner than those of white people, as their skin is likewise blacker. (201-03)
The most temperate climate lies between the 40th and 50th degree of latitude, and it produces the most handsome and beautiful men. It is from this climate that the ideas of the genuine colour of mankind, and of the various degrees of beauty, ought to be derived. The two extremes are equally remote from truth and from beauty. The civilized countries, situated under this Zone, are Georgia, Circassia, the Ukraine, Turkey in Europe, Hungary, the south of Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France, and the northern part of Spain. The natives of these territories are the most handsome and most beautiful people in the world.
The climate may be regarded as the chief cause of the different colours of men. But food, though it has less influence upon colour, greatly affects the form of our bodies. Coarse, unwholesome, and ill-prepared food makes the human species degenerate. All those people who live miserably, are ugly and ill-made. . . .
Upon the whole, every circumstance concurs in proving, that mankind are not composed of species essentially different from each other; that, on the contrary, there was originally but one species, who, after multiplying and spreading over the whole surface of the earth, have undergone various changes by the influence of climate, food, mode of living, epidemic diseases, and the mixture of dissimilar individuals; that, at first, these changes were not so conspicuous, and produced only individual varieties; that these varieties became afterwards specific, because they were rendered more general, more strongly marked, and more permanent, by the continual action of the same causes; that they are transmitted from generation to generation, as deformities or diseases pass from parents to children; and that, lastly, as they were originally produced by a train of external and accidental causes, and have only been perpetuated by time and the constant operation of these causes, it is probable that they will gradually disappear, or, at least, that they will differ from what they are at present, if the causes which produced them should cease, or if their operation should be varied by other circumstances and combinations. (205-07)
The ass . . . differs materially from the horse, in smallness of stature, thickness of the head, length of the ears, hardness of the skin, nakedness of the tail, the form of the buttocks, and the dimensions of the adjacent parts, the voice, the appetite, the manner of drinking, &c. Is it possible that animals so essentially different, should spring from the same original stock? Are they, to use the language of nomenclators, of the same family? Or rather, are they not, and have they not always been, distinct animals?
Philosophers will perceive the extent, the difficulties, and the importance of this question, which we shall here discuss, only because it for the first time occurs. It relates to the production of beings, and, for its illustration, requires that we should consider Nature under a new point of view. If, from the immense number of animated beings which people the universe, we select a single animal, or even the human body, as a standard, and compare all other organized beings with it, we shall find that each enjoys an independent existence, and that the whole are distinguished by an almost infinite variety of gradations. There exists, at the same time, a primitive and general design, which may be traced to a great distance, and whose degradations are still slower than those of figure or other external relations: For, not to mention the organs of digestion, of circulation, or of generation, without which animals could neither subsist nor reproduce, there is, even among the parts that contribute most to variety in external form, such an amazing resemblance as necessarily conveys the idea of an original plan upon which the whole has been conceived and executed. When, for example, the parts constituting the body of a horse, which seems to differ so widely from that of man, are compared in detail with the human frame, instead of being struck with the difference, we are astonished at the singular and almost perfect resemblance. In a word, take the skeleton of a man, incline the bones of the pelvis, shorten those of the thighs, legs, and arms, lengthen the bones of the feet and hands, join the phalanges of the fingers and toes, lengthen the jaws by shortening the frontal bone, and, lastly, extend the spine of the back: This skeleton would no longer represent that of a man, but would be the skeleton of a horse; for, by lengthening the back-bone and the jaws, the number of vertebrae, ribs, and teeth, would likewise be augmented; and it is only by the number of these bones, which may be regarded as accessory, and by the prolonging, contracting, or junction of others, that the skeleton of a horse differs from the skeleton of a man. But, to trace these relations more minutely, let us examine separately some parts which are essential to the figure of animals, as the ribs: These we find in man, in all quadrupeds, in birds, in fishes, and the vestiges of them are apparent even in the shell of the turtle: Let us next consider, that the foot of a horse, so seemingly different from the hand of a man, is, however, composed of the same bones, and that, at the extremity of each finger, we have the same small bone, resembling a horse-shoe, which bounds the foot of that animal. From these facts we may judge, whether this hidden resemblance is not more wonderful than the apparent differences; whether this constant uniformity of design, to be traced from men to quadrupeds, from quadrupeds to the cetaceous animals, from the cetaceous animals to birds, from birds to reptiles, from reptiles to fishes, &c. in which the essential parts, as the heart, the intestines, the spine, the senses, &c. are always included, does not indicate, that the Supreme Being, in creating animals, employed only one idea, and, at the same time, diversified it in every possible manner, to give men an opportunity of admiring equally the magnificence of the execution and the simplicity of the design?
In this view, not only the horse and ass, but man, monkeys, quadrupeds, and every species of animal, may be considered as one family. But from this are we warranted to conclude, that, in this great and numerous family, which were brought into existence by the Almighty alone, there are lesser families conceived by Nature, and produced by time, of which some should only consist of two individuals, as the horse and ass, others of several individuals, as the weasel, the ferret, the martin, the pole-cat, &c; and, at the same time, that, among vegetables, there are families consisting of ten, twenty, thirty, &c. plants? If these families really existed, they could only be produced by the mixture and successive variation and degeneration of the primary species: And, if it be once admitted that there are families among plants and animals, that the ass belongs to the family of the horse, and differs from him only by degeneration; with equal propriety may it be concluded, that the monkey belongs to the family of man; that the monkey is a man degenerated; that man and the monkey have sprung from a common stock, like the horse and ass; that each family, either among animals or vegetables, has been derived from the same origin; and even that all animated beings have proceeded from a single species, which, in the course of ages, has produced, by improving and degenerating, all the different races that now exist. (401-03)
It should likewise be considered, that, though Nature proceeds with gradual, and often imperceptible steps; yet the intervals or marks of distinction are not always equal. The more dignified the species, they are always the less numerous, and separated by more conspicuous shades. The diminutive species, on the contrary, are very numerous, and make nearer approaches towards each other. For this reason, we are often tempted to erect them into families. But it should never be forgotten, that these families are of our own creation; that we have contrived them to ease our memories, and to aid our imagination; that, if we cannot comprehend the real relations of all beings, it is our own fault, not that of Nature, who knows none of those spurious families, and contains, in fact, nothing but individuals. (404-05)
If the Negro and the White could not propagate, or if their productions remained barren, they would form two distinct species; the Negro would be to man what the ass is to the horse; or, rather, if the White were man, the Negro would be a separate animal, like the monkey; and we would be entitled to pronounce that the White and the Negro had not a common origin. But this supposition is contradicted by experience; for, as all the varieties of men are capable of mixing together, and of transmitting the kind, they must necessarily have sprung from the same stock or family. (409)
Claude Blanckaert, “Of Monstrous Métis? Hybridity, Fear of Miscegenation, and Patriotism from Buffon to Paul Broca,” in Sue Peabody and Tyler Stovall, eds., The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 42-70.
Claude-Olivier Doron, “Race and Genealogy: Buffon and the Formation of the Concept of ‘Race,’” Humana Mente Journal of Philosophical Studies 22 (2012): 75–109.
Devin Vartija, “Revisiting Enlightenment Racial Classification: Time and the Question of Human Diversity,” Intellectual History Review 31 (2021) 4: 603-625.
Devin J. Vartija, The Color of Equality: Race and Common Humanity in Enlightenment Thought (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021).