Theories of Race


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Race as an Object of Knowledge

By Geoffrey Galt Harpham

To call forth a concept, a word is needed.
Antoine Lavoisier, Elementary Treatise on Chemistry (1789)

This book contains many of the texts in which the concept of race was developed as an object of philosophical and scientific knowledge by European and American writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Whether these writers understood racial categories to be determined by cultural, religious, linguistic, geographical, morphological, or intellectual factors, they all understood themselves to be making serious contributions to knowledge. In nearly all cases, they behaved as responsible intellectuals according to their lights, citing evidence, crediting or disputing previous research, appealing to generally accepted protocols of argumentation, and in general trying to advance the understanding of a difficult, demanding, and supremely important subject.1

Understanding was elusive because while the inquiry may have begun with the simple perception of difference, it invariably reached into the dimmer and more turbulent regions of thought where questions about the nature, purpose, and destiny of humankind were inescapable. The fact that many of the premises informing the study of race are now considered tainted, many of the methods used to study it unsound, and many of its conclusions erroneous does not invalidate the attempt or relegate the entirety to the ignominious domain of “pseudo-science.” The history of science is strewn with and indeed defined by such failures. Science demonstrates its integrity by its willingness to abandon once-promising lines of inquiry if the evidence for abandonment becomes compelling, as it did in the case of race.

This is not to say that the inquiry into race chronicled here was altogether orderly, progressive, or systematic. In most of the texts written prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the term is used loosely and often interchangeably with species, stock, group, variety, or type to mention only the terms in English. In many of these texts, the race concept is evident only in retrospect because the term itself was not used. Immanuel Kant, whom some now credit with inventing the concept of race, used the term interchangeably with several others, including species; and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who is generally accounted the founder of a properly scientific concept of race, never used the term at all in his major work. In the majority of texts written during this period, race is treated as something for which evidence is sought rather than as a conclusion fully established. In many, the proposition being explored is whether race is a closer synonym to species on the one hand or variety or type on the other. A note of skepticism about the reality of race sounds throughout the entire period, beginning with Johann Gottfried von Herder, who put the matter in the simplest terms: “I see no reason for this appellation.”2

Texts generally not included in this volume are any of the very great number of ethnographic and cultural accounts or investigations undertaken particularly in the second half of the nineteenth century, or any texts in which race is taken as an undisputed fact and deployed as part of a political or ideological argument. Such texts, in which either unproven or unexamined concepts are cited in political diatribes, social grand-theorizing, sweeping historical generalizations, or studies of racial psychology, circulated freely in the Western discourse on race before and especially after the turn of the twentieth century—the approximate point at which scientific discussions of race had diminished both in quantity and self-assurance to the point where the most responsible intellectuals and scientists were calling for the abandonment of race as an object of scientific or empirical knowledge. It is not always easy to draw a bright line between thinkers trying in good faith to discover the truth about race and those who used the concept for non-scientific or non-philosophical ends, and indeed the very possibility of drawing such a line has been disputed. But that distinction has in almost all cases guided the choice of texts included here, the exceptions being those whose absence would create a substantial gap in the history of the race concept.3

It has become conventional in recent years to assert that the inquiry into race was from the very beginning a corrupt enterprise undertaken for political or ideological purposes, a motivated blunder that should be denounced on moral as well as intellectual grounds. The accusation most often heard is that science lent its growing prestige to promoting a vicious fantasy of fixed biological categories, thereby encouraging and supporting the belief that the inferior status or condition of various non-European populations was a consequence of nature not history. This belief in turn supported the conviction that the claims and consequences of racial superiority were justified and even necessary in light of the facts. In a recent book, Joseph L. Graves, Jr. and Alan H. Goodman boil this case down to its essence, describing the race concept bluntly as “a myth that provides cover for racism.”4 The prominence, both early and late, of German philosophers and intellectuals in the discourse on race, a prominence sufficient to support an entire volume of scholarly essays on the “German invention of race,” does not discourage this understanding of the history of the concept. Whatever their role in this invention or its hideous application may have been, however, German thinkers are now taking the lead in its discrediting. As the 2019 “Jena Declaration” issued by the German Zoological Society proclaims, “the concept of race is the result of racism, not its prerequisite.” In other words, race was invented by racists.

The reader may judge how well the documents collected here support such claims. But it is interesting to compare the exploratory and questioning spirit that dominates so many of the earlier discussions of race, as well as the sense of futility and surrender that characterizes so many of the later texts, with the unshakeable certitude displayed by many recent writers. The contemporary consensus on race is often stated as a commonsense truism, a fact long denied but now plainly evident: race is not a biological category or a fact of nature but a “social construction”—the term most frequently encountered in popular or journalistic accounts to describe a psycho-social reality—or an “invention”—the term favored by scholars to describe how the concept was conjured into being by scientists and theorists.6

These formulations are presented as indisputable, but, interestingly, they do not agree. Both “social construction” and “invention” carry the implication that race is a conceptual artifact created through discursive and representational practices rather than a fact of nature that merely has to be recognized, but two very different kinds of artifact are implied. A social construct arises spontaneously from processes over which the individual has no control. Effects can be attributed to a social construct, but not intentions or purposes. An invention, by contrast, is the result of a deliberate effort by someone to create something. The two terms are not, then, variant phrasings of a single idea. Nor do they necessarily represent enlightened alternatives to the biological essentialism they claim to displace. So powerful and ubiquitous is the concept of race in the social, political, and legal arenas, and in the lived experience of many people, including some indigenous peoples who have appropriated the term as part of their lexicon of identity, that some have argued that the terms social construction and invention are themselves racist tropes that deny and trivialize the reality of race by treating it as a mere idea in people’s heads.7

There seems, in short, to be no unequivocally good concept of race: depending on one’s perspective or interests, biology, social construction, and invention are all deeply and destructively misleading—not just misstatements of the truth but acts of verbal or conceptual aggression. How can this be? And what did those who first explored and developed the concept think about their subject and their work?

We must begin by acknowledging the truth of the charge that the race concept was instrumental in justifying projects of disenfranchisement, domination, and violence carried out by some Western powers against populations who could be represented as being so fundamentally different from them that they neither possessed nor deserved rights comparable to their own. The establishment of categories of human beings as part of the system of nature entailed the possibility of assessment and ranking according to various criteria, and such rankings were used to justify a range of exploitative policies and practices. By the mid-19th century in Europe and America, the race concept was figuring in debates around slavery, the imperial conquest of indigenous peoples, and political revolution. Especially from the perspective of the twenty-first century, it is easy to see how the discourse on race made explicit or implicit accommodations with the premise of racial inequality used to justify these projects, and possible to understand that some would regard the defense of that premise as the point of the entire undertaking.

On the other hand, inter-group violence has a history as long as that of humanity, and behavior we now call racist has never required philosophical or scientific support. American slavery was a tremendous stimulant to racial theorizing, but the New World slave trade flourished for two centuries without a developed theory of race. While a number of writers represented here (e.g., Edward Long, Julien-Joseph Virey, James Hunt, Christoph Meiners, Robert Knox, Thomas Henry Huxley, Samuel George Morton, William Lawrence, Josiah C. Nott, Ernst Haeckel, Paul Broca) were convinced both of the reality and the inequality of races, and the inferiority of the Negro in particular—and while, as Frederick Douglass noted at the time, some of their work was cited by supporters of modern slavery—the institution of slavery received almost no support from the writers represented in this volume, with pro-slavery arguments made only by Long, Meiners, Nott, and George Gliddon. The virulent pro-slavery advocate Hunt could only endorse the practice on the grounds that slaves were better off in America than they had been in Africa.

Even those who felt that the differences between races could be described, evaluated, and considered unalterable did not necessarily feel that such evaluations justified acts of violence and expropriation, of which they were highly aware. Some felt that any inequalities or even differences could be eliminated over time, given equal conditions and opportunities; others believed that inequality was an argument against rather than for domination. The overwhelming majority (e.g., Samuel Stanhope Smith, Robert Knox, Thomas Henry Huxley, Ernest Renan, William Lawrence, Carl Vogt) rejected on both intellectual and moral grounds any attempts to use their work to justify the domination of one race over another.

It is also misleading to suggest that those who developed the race concept had clear ideas about their subject. The term itself was used in a very loose way by the writers who conscripted it in the service of their efforts to describe human difference. It may in fact have been adopted for that purpose precisely because of its prior career as a free-floating term for general relatedness, a career ably summarized by the distinguished Australian anthropologist Bronwen Douglas.8

According to the Oxford English Dictionary . . . the etymology of the English term “race” and its European cognates is “uncertain and disputed.” The OED derives race ultimately from Italian razza, via French race, and the semantic history of the English term is entangled with continental meanings. . . . The OED’s earliest citations date from the sixteenth century when, with reference to man, the concrete noun race signified a family, a kindred, or the posterity of a common ancestor, as in the “race & stocke of Abraham” (1570). More generally, it meant a “tribe, nation, or people regarded as of common stock,” as in “the Englishe race” (1572), or served as a synecdoche for humanity, as in “the humane race” (1580).

The primary connotations of consanguinity and shared origin or descent are patent in the several translations of une race, “a race,” in an early French-Latin dictionary — they include familia (“house,” “family”); gentilitas (“kindred”); genus (“birth”); sanguis (“blood,” “descendant”); and stirps (“stock,” “stem,” “root,” “offspring”). The first French dictionary (Nicot 1606:533-4) explains that race “signifies origin [extraction],” as in “man, horse, dog, and other animal of good or bad race” or “a noble race and house.” The OED cites parallel English usages from half a century earlier. This semantic conflation of a race with family breeding served to fortify the prerogatives of nobility over populace. The first edition of Le dictionnaire de l'Académie françoise (1694, II:364) defines race as “progeny [lignée], lineage [lignage], origin, all those who come from a single [noble] family.” . . . But race/race were minor words in French and English before the late eighteenth century while their German equivalent Race or Rasse was a recent borrowing from French and rarely used.

Importantly, however, the sixth edition of the Dictionnaire de l'Académie (1835, II: 553) also gives an extended signified for race: “a multitude of men who originate from the same country, and resemble each other by facial traits, by external form. The Caucasian race. The Mongol race. The Malay race.” The OED likewise cites late eighteenth-century and subsequent uses of race to mean “any of the major groupings of mankind, having in common distinct physical features or having a similar ethnic background.” These emergent meanings are lexical confirmation of a series of important shifts in the linguistic and ideological significance of race in western Europe from the mid-eighteenth century as naturalists appropriated the term to serve novel taxonomic ends.9

It is entirely possible that the deep ambiguity of the term actually stimulated thought inasmuch as an inquiry into human difference proceeding under the sign of race could assume the character of a study, as theoretical as it was empirical, of the origin, depth, character, purpose, consequences, and implications of difference as such, rather than a mere gathering of information about human groups. In a great many of the texts collected here, including some of the most declamatory, a persistent sense of uncertainty can be detected in the form of qualifications, equivocations, complications, contradictions, or concessions that impede the progress of the argument. Indeed, one of the rationales for reproducing in this volume extended passages rather than the individual sentences or phrases generally picked out in secondary works as statements of an author’s “position” or “argument” is that the internal dialogues enacted within a long text can be more telling indicators of the mind of the author, and the consensus of the intellectual community, than any single statement. In many of these texts, it is the drama of the uncertain mind, both individual and collective, in confrontation with a suggestive but deeply resistant subject that has continuing value as a source of historical and even psychological insight, not the conclusions ventured that are now known to be false on subjects now known to be nonexistent.

One of the more striking features of the recent history of the race concept is the apparent eagerness of some historians to claim for earlier periods the “invention” of race and even of racism. Disputing Douglas’s claim that “important shifts” in the mid-eighteenth century brought race suddenly into focus, scholars have argued that the classical era, the Middle Ages, and the Early Modern era also demonstrated a “racial” awareness of difference.10 In their introduction to a volume of readings on Race in Early Modern England, for example, Ania Loomba and Jonathan Burton grant that the Early Modern era lacked the biology or zoology specific to the race concept, but insist that the Early Modern notion of difference was still a notion of race, lacking only the word.

The replacement of philosophy and theology by biology as the master-discourse for understanding the human condition does not, however, represent a minor tweaking in human self-understanding. And as the readings in Loomba and Burton’s volume themselves suggest, it was not only the word that was lacking. Also absent from the Early Modern mindset—and a fortiori from the classical and medieval mindsets—were other entailments peculiar to race, including the notions that groups whose distinctive features were apparent to the naked eye also had other less visible differences including fixed suites of capabilities that determined the limits of their potential, that certain groups marked by color were intrinsically unworthy or despicable, or that nature was organized in a formal hierarchy of categories.

Nor did Europeans require these concepts in order to legitimate their growing power. When Europeans were beginning the exploration and conquest of much of the rest of the world, they did so out of a mixture of private and national motives, and relied for conceptual support and warrant not on any sense of biological differences among populations, but rather on what Colin Kidd describes as “the Christian imperative to spread the Word of God through missions,” or on “theories of natural law concerning the connection between proper use of the land and rights to its ownership.” “Whites,” Kidd argues, “conquered the world without any overt ideology of white superiority,” and indeed without any understanding of themselves as “white” (54).

Imperial conquest or exploitation did not require a theory of race, but according to Ivan Hannaford, modernity did.11 Hannaford claims that race represented not just a new vocabulary of difference but a fundamentally new way of conceiving generation, descent, and ordering. Over the course of the nineteenth century, this new understanding became a scientific obsession, encroaching on and eventually displacing politics, and producing as one of its consequences the possibility—not, however, Hannaford insists, the necessity or inevitability—of a “race-state.” While ancient Greeks and Romans noted differences in appearance and behavior between themselves and others, they did so, he says, without antipathy or stereotyping. The Greek sense of their superiority when compared to, for example, the Ethiopians “had nothing to do with the phenomenon of race” and was based rather on the “Homeric ideal of excellence,” which the Greeks honored and the Ethiopians did not (51). To those who would argue for continuity and gradualism in the European understanding of difference, Hannaford responds that “the idea of race does not lie dormant in every society on all occasions and at all times, simply waiting to be discovered. . . . race is not everywhere” (8-9).Race, he insists, is an Enlightenment notion, “an attractive and powerful modern idea” that was “inimical to Western civilization in the strict political sense of that word as it was understood before the Reformation (6).12

The most compelling instance of the ordering of nature, and one of the signal achievements of the modern ethos Hannaford refers to, is Linnaeus’s A General System of Nature. Appearing in ten editions during his lifetime, the last appearing in two volumes in 1758-59, this treatise provided a dazzling, if continuously evolving, model for understanding the complexity of the natural world. By including humanity in the “system” of nature, Linnaeus implied that human beings were part of a rational order whose classes, subclasses, and overall organizational logic could be determined. Race—a concept not available to Linnaeus—would become an important category in that system as others tried to improve on his impressive but idiosyncratic effort.

The successors to Linnaeus were aided in their efforts by an accumulating mass of information about distant populations that was pouring into Europe from travelers, missionaries, explorers, and commercial or colonial officials, information that could be treated as evidence that might be assembled into a comprehensive scientific taxonomy. The accounts themselves tended to dwell not on categories but on particularities, leaving to the philosopher or scientist (the distinction not always being sharply drawn) the task of extracting regularities and patterns from nature’s profusion. Constructing a full and accurate account of the place of humanity within the natural order represented not only a challenge to the scientific mind but—given Linnaeus’s binomial definition of humanity as Homo sapiens—a species imperative, a consequence of the injunction to Know Thyself. A term that suggested distinctions between human groups whose markers, depth, purpose, and effects might be determined by research, race was one way of meeting that imperative.

When, in the course of the nineteenth century, the vast quantities of information being developed about the rest of the world made it clear that the peoples of the world blended into each other, the race concept was able to survive by becoming a system of types, ideal essences that did not imply discrete human populations. The concept of types, announced in unmistakable terms by Josiah C. Nott and George Gliddon’s influential pro-slavery treatise Types of Mankind (1854) seemed to promise a certain kind of clarity, but as debates on race proceeded over the course of the nineteenth century it became apparent that the concept of type was itself unclear because while it appeared to suggest a norm from which deviations could be marked, the norm was impossible to locate. Debates about race often became debates about the site of the norm, whether it was in the qualities of a group, the average member of the group, or the ancestors of the group. None of these had any authoritative claim, and none could in any event be determined with any precision.13

The typological conception of race may not have settled the many issues surrounding the subject, but it did generate a remarkably durable feature of racial science that has come to seem dubious and even sinister, a preoccupation with quantification and classification, as individuals were measured in various ways in an effort to determine the data set for the type.14 The dehumanizing potential implicit in these reductive processes was not apparent from the first. What was apparent was the dramatic increase in conceptual power enabled by a double emphasis on the empirical and the categorical. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the collective project of gathering, observing, measuring, and classifying human bodies and human populations would become an accepted activity whose statistical and objective character bespoke a scientific rigor. Many such efforts today seem outlandish, like the British scientist John Beddoe’s attempts at the end of the nineteenth century to devise an “index of negriscence,” an algebraic equation ostensibly measuring the precise degree of darkness of the skin, or the effort to assess the degree of “nostrility” characteristic of Jews.15 But they did not necessarily seem so at the time, and the combined if uncoordinated efforts of various methods and approaches had the cumulative effect of creating the race concept as not just a speculative abstraction but a highly plausible and even imposingly rational way of thinking about human populations.

The topic of race presented the intellectual culture of the nineteenth century with a magnificent opportunity to establish the ability of empirical research and scientific method to engage with issues whose interest and importance could be immediately grasped by the public. Those engaged in the study of race experienced the excitement of developing a new field of research, the satisfaction of contributing to a mighty and growing archive of fact, and the privilege of making potentially definitive scientific contributions to questions of enduring interest that might otherwise remain unanswerable. Phrases such as “the ladder of existence,” the “great chain of being,” and the “order of creation” had been part of the European vocabulary for centuries; the study of race, sometimes framed as a scientific inquiry into the “scale of nature,” promised to yield the hidden logic or principle of order behind these phrases, making them newly relevant to a modern scientific culture.

Most of those who undertook a serious study of race believed that they were addressing problems of great social or philosophical significance. It was, for example, widely believed that racial science could address the mysterious origins of the differences between human populations, and could even identify the role of geography, climate, language, and culture in creating, consolidating, or aggravating those differences. If the origins or causes of difference could be determined, light could be shed on the even more mysterious purpose of those differences. By distinguishing the superficial from the truly significant differences, racial science might even be able to identify the character of race itself, determining whether it was in the body or the mind, or whether the difference was of another kind altogether—cultural forms, perhaps, or the intellectual or moral capacities those forms suggested.

If the enigma of race could be solved, it might be possible to determine whether all humans possessed the same or different capacities, and thus whether the differences among groups represented alternative realizations of a common human potentiality or the full expression of different potentialities. It would become possible to say once and for all whether humanity was one, as both the Church and classical cosmogony taught, or many, as scientific opinion increasingly held. Consequences concerning the future of the Americas, the role of European states in the tropics, the fate of indigenous peoples, and even political relations between nation-states would follow.

Such worldly implications were beyond the reach of philosophy, whose preeminence in the intellectual culture of the late eighteenth century was now directly challenged by the scientific discourse on race. Race may be, as Hannaford says, an Enlightenment concept, but the critical premises of that ethos—cosmopolitanism, universalism, an orientation to reason, a tendency to abstraction and generalization, and an implied belief in an inevitable progress toward perfection—were all put into question by the existence of potentially resistant units of racial particularity. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt identifies the race principle with “the exclusion in principle of the ideal of humanity . . . not the beginning of humanity but its end.”16 Kant, Herder, and Hume seemed to sense the threat, with Hume responding to the challenge in a particularly awkward and self-indicting way. Matters of vast philosophical import seemed at times to hang on almost technical issues or nuances of scientific nomenclature. If various groups—“races”—were more like varieties, the Enlightenment might hold; but if they were more like species—another term whose meaning was (and is) crucially unclear—then a different philosophy and even a different politics and a different morality had to be developed that were based on principles other than human reason, human understanding, or human rights.17

The consequence of the uncertainty about the race concept was visible to the naked eye in the United States, which was, as its official documents proclaimed, founded on a commitment to an Enlightenment-based concept of human equality. If all men are created equal, then the races are varieties or types. But if some men can be enslaved by others, then races are more like species, and humans of one race had no greater bonds or ties or obligations to other racial groups than they did to the animals they hunted or domesticated. The fact that the concept of race had not yet been decisively defined made it possible for race to function in both ways. In one construction of race, we were living in a modern, scientific world with humanitarian values; in another, we were living among strange and mysterious beings with whom we shared nothing other than that we were diurnal and walked on two feet.

The emergence of an increasingly sophisticated racial science also presented a veiled but potentially serious challenge to theology and Biblical faith. By inquiring into the origin of human differences, secular science asserted itself as a source of authority on human origins as such, a rival imperium that could, initially at least, represent itself as a modern supplement or complement to the Old Testament account in which many people still believed.

This rivalry was at first carefully denied. Until the mid-nineteenth century, many of those who wrote about race—e.g., Mitchell, Jones, Camper, and Morton—labored to accommodate their findings to the terms and limits of established religion, with present human populations either being credited with a genealogy that extended back to Eden or adduced as evidence of the mysteriousness of God’s ways or the inscrutability of His intentions. Until the mid-nineteenth century, debates about race characteristically took the form of clashing interpretations of Genesis that preserved the authority of the Bible even as they contested traditional understandings. The “monogenists” who held that the human species was various but essentially unitary pointed to the Biblical account of a single act of creation, and a single primal pair, while “polygenists” who believed in separate creations and therefore in a deep division between groups that would account for observable differences in the present noted that the Bible contained unaccounted-for others such as the wife of Cain. Both positions could, with determination and ingenuity, be reconciled with a belief in the authority of the Bible as a source of authority on human origins.

For some, however, serious thinking about race required either a concession that the Bible was not a source of scientific information or a rejection of the Biblical account altogether. Josiah Nott’s sneering dismissal of the notion of a “primal pair” of each species—“a pair of bees, locusts, herrings, buffaloes”—suggests a scientific exasperation with the constraints on science placed by the conviction that the Bible was a source of historical truth. For believers and non-believers alike, race was the point at which traditional religious convictions were tested by the understanding of the world being developed by science. To think of race in the nineteenth century was to be forced to reassess the terms of established religion, and even if Biblical faith survived the encounter, it could be thought to have lost status by having to engage in the secular and social process of making arguments.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, a Bible-based monogenism consistent with the Enlightenment emphasis on universality and the potential for progress gradually lost ground to a harsher, biology-based polygenism predicated on racial fixity. Still, the authority of the Bible was so durable that as late as 1943, the anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Eugene Weltfish assured readers of their pamphlet “The Races of Mankind” that the result of deep scientific research into race was that science and Christian faith were in agreement, and that “the Bible story of Adam and Eve, father and mother of the whole human race, told centuries ago the same truth that science has shown today: that all the peoples of the earth are a single family and have a common origin.”18

Race also served as a particularly acute angle of approach to the increasingly urgent issue of national identity, a concept that, like race, is often said to be “invented.” As they assumed their modern forms over the course of the nineteenth century, nations were often defined as the secular and political expression of peoples and their traditions. The concept of race could be understood to support such a liberal anti-monarchical perspective, providing a way to deepen and naturalize the nation by defining it in terms of indigeneity or even something like autochthony, with the people having as ancient and as unalterable a character as the land. Arendt notes that pre-racist “organic naturalistic definitions of peoples” arose in Germany after 1814 out of a frustrated nationalism, taking the form of a substitute for national emancipation and a weapon of internal national unity set against foreign domination that would, a century later, be turned into a weapon of war. In France, by contrast, race-thinking during the same period would be the preoccupation of a declining aristocracy that distinguished between the Frankish nobility and the Gauls and Celts who made up the rest of the population—ultimately, Arendt says, “a weapon for civil war” (Origins 166).

If in some cases the race concept could serve as a brake on monarchical claims, it could also complicate the concept of the nation by making it difficult to draw clear boundary lines between rival nations. In virtually no case did the geography of race correspond to the political map, with such groups as Celts, Germanics, and Slavs being both highly racialized and conspicuously transnational. Nowhere was the mismatch between race and nation more acutely felt than in England, a fact exploited by Daniel Defoe in his 1701 “The True-Born Englishman,” which satirizes nativist or essentialized conceptions of national identity by rehearsing over the course of a thousand exuberant and even manic lines the history of the nation.

That het’rogeneous thing, an Englishman:
In eager rapes, and furious lust begot,
Betwixt a painted Britain and a Scot.
Whose gend’ring off-spring quickly learn’d to bow,
And yoke their heifers to the Roman plough:
From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,
With neither name, nor nation, speech nor fame.
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infus’d betwixt a Saxon and a Dane.
While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
Receiv’d all nations with promiscuous lust.
This nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted blood of Englishmen. . . .
We have been Europe’s sink, the jakes where she
Voids all her offal outcast progeny.19

To be sure, Britain gave voice to some of the most un-nuanced racial thinking of the nineteenth century. A character in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel 1847 Tancred insists that, “All is race; there is no other truth”; and Robert Knox, speaking in his own voice in 1850, declared that “Race is everything.”20 But the race concept did not, in Britain, support chauvinism. British citizens thought of themselves as white, Caucasian, Anglo-Saxon, or Europeans, racialized categories shared with millions of others including some with whom they went to war. It was widely acknowledged that various indigenous groups such as English, Celts, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish had been thoroughly mixed over time, with further admixtures coming from Denmark and France. In an 1870 essay on “The Forefathers and Forerunners of the English People,” Thomas Henry Huxley declared his firm belief in “the immense influence of that fixed hereditary transmission which constitutes a race,” but added that “the arguments about the difference between Anglo-Saxons and Celts are a mere sham and delusion.”21 British national identity was grounded not in race but in the monarchy, geography, speech, politics, and cultural and intellectual traditions.

After 1848, France, too, was able to construct a national identity on non-racial principles, taking pride in the presence within the national borders of Franks, Normans, Bretons, Celts, and Galls, all of which were sometimes represented as races. Even in a country that harbored an area that became known as “la France profonde,” the French national polity has been generally understood to be multi-racial, and plural in other ways. At the beginning of his eighteen-volume History of France, Jules Michelet described his nation as being composed of “race upon race, people upon people”; and in a famous sentence, Ernest Renan wrote in 1883 that France was “Roman by language, Greek by civilization and Jewish by religion.”22

In recent years a counter-argument has taken the form of a “replacement theory” of immigration in which differences that the political left construes as merely cultural and a manifest of the ability of the nation to absorb variations are represented by the right as racial, unassimilable, and a threat to the identity and security of the nation.23 Similar arguments about national identity have arisen in other countries, including the United States, a “nation of immigrants,” where many have held and indeed still hold to a view of national or local identity with unmistakably racial overtones.

In such arguments, race has often given a hard biological edge to assertions of identity, providing a vocabulary for describing certain people—Jews, Muslims, Chinese, black Africans, Uyghurs—as aliens in an otherwise homogeneous species-polity. The extreme instance in this respect is of course Germany, where, in the twentieth century, the race concept provided a way of transforming a nineteenth century romantic nationalism into an explicitly racialized account of national identity. While British, French, and German writers have been primarily responsible for exploring the relations between racial and political identities, the concept of race lends itself in a variety of ways to reflections on national identity, and, as Richard McMahon demonstrates in his invaluable study of the history of racial theorizing, continues to play a role in “discourses of northern superiority and eastern inferiority that still infuse Euroskepticism and discussion of EU enlargement.24

The temptation to derive identity narratives from the drama of international relations has always been strong; indeed, so close has been the connection between a certain kind of racial theorizing and national identity that George Frederickson was able to assert, in his 2015 Racism: A Short History, that “Racism is always nationally specific.”25

In addition to the roles it played in debates about science, philosophy, religion, and national identity, the race concept made another kind of contribution to the world we now take for granted: the formation of academic disciplines, specialized ways of knowing with their own methods, assumptions, evidence, procedures, and goals.

Before the mid-nineteenth century, the various discourses now accounted part of the history of the race concept were subsumed in expansive and comprehensive treatises on such subjects as the natural history of mankind, the philosophy of the history of man, the theory of the earth, human physiology, the physical history of man, or the order of creation.

From today’s perspective, such sprawling explanations-of-everything, with their charts, graphs, illustrations, and tables, lack the kind of consistent methodology or clearly specified aims that could produce results that command respect as statements of falsifiable fact. The disciplines into which modern knowledge has been divided had not yet crystallized, so a single text might include materials that would now be distributed across a wide range of fields—anatomy, zoology, geography, dermatology, linguistics, biology, anthropology, ethnology, paleontology, phrenology, and craniology—along with firsthand reports of peoples from around the world. In many instances, race was one element in a discourse that aspired to comprehensiveness with no sense that disciplinary borders were being crossed or that a necessary precision was being sacrificed. Race was typically a sub-topic rather than a clearly defined object of study, one term among many used to describe aspects or attributes of the large forces or overall organization of an immense field, and was only rarely engaged directly. As such, it was presumed, inferred, or deployed by people who were not obsessed with the subject or even necessarily convinced of its existence, but found it useful to think about, or with.

Toward mid-century, race began to command attention as a separate subject, to be approached by specialized methods. Samuel George Morton’s Crania Americana (1839) is an early monument to such specialization, a nearly three-hundred-page treatise devoted to the cranial measurements of a specific population. Craniology did not survive long into the twentieth century, but the larger fields of biological and physical anthropology of which it was a part have been far more durable, and the origins of many of them can be traced back to early efforts to understand race.

Facial goniometer illustration from Paul Topinard
Facial goniometer, from Paul Topinard, Anthropology, trans. Robert T. H. Bartley (London: Chapman and Hall, 1878).

Beginning in 1838, societies in ethnology and anthropology were founded in Paris, Berlin, New York, and London.26 At first, these societies had a philanthropic dimension; indeed, the London group had incubated in the Aborigines’ Protection Society that had been headed by James Cowles Prichard, author of the immensely influential Researches into the Physical History of Mankind, the first edition of which had appeared in 1813. But they rapidly became professional organizations, sponsoring lectures, debates, meetings, and publications. A number of the writers whose work is reproduced in this volume were associated in some way with these organizations, including Prichard, William-Frédéric Edwards, James Hunt, Robert Knox, Alfred Russel Wallace, Jean-Louis-Armand de Quatrefages de Bréau, Carl Vogt, Paul Broca, Paul Topinard, Rudolf Virchow, and Thomas Henry Huxley.

After 1859, these societies led the debates about the implications of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, which placed the study of race on an entirely new, and predominantly anthropological, footing. If race was, as George W. Stocking, Jr. has written, “the central theoretical concern of pre-Darwinian anthropology,” it was also a primary concern of post-Darwinian thinking, which assumed a more modern and professional aspect.27 The disciplinary ethos these organizations promoted can be seen in the titles of sections or articles on the subject. While Ernst Haeckel might deal with race in the course of a massive History of Creation (1868), a more professional approach is signaled by titles such as “Des phénomènes d’hybridité dans le genre humain” (Paul Broca, 1860); “Formation of Human Races under the Sole Influence of Conditions of Life and Heredity” (Quatrefages de Bréau, from The Human Species, 1877); and “Heredity and the Formation of Races” (Rudolf Virchow,1896). Such titles announce a segmented approach to knowledge that renounces any grand holistic or synthetic ambitions in favor of an empirical research-based approach to a limited set of questions.

The premise of the discipline is that focused studies of carefully delimited problems will contribute their mite to a growing archive of information that could one day constitute a comprehensive understanding that would, however and by design, always remain beyond the reach of the discipline. Modern knowledge is conceived, gathered, and organized in this provisional way, as notes toward a final synthesis. The emergence of disciplines was facilitated and accelerated by the subject of race which, having never received a satisfactory definition, could not be studied frontally, in itself, but could be broken down into manageable bits—not just negriscence and nostrility, but skeletal measurements, the “cephalic index,” the “facial angle,” the influence of geography or culture or language, and numerous other determinate factors—that could sustain a program of research. In this way, more general questions about the origin, depth, or purpose of human differences could be suspended while secondary information could be gathered in the expectation that the accumulation of many different forms of data would eventually confirm the existence of the thing being studied.

The power of the disciplinary approach is that it can proceed in a systematic and empirical way even before larger and more speculative questions receive an answer. The weakness of the disciplinary approach is that it can churn out data and information about nonexistent objects. The history of the race concept exemplifies and dramatizes both.

By the end of the nineteenth century, faith that the material being accumulated would turn out to be information about something real was rapidly waning, and the entire project was in a shambles. An immense number of facts and statistics had been amassed, including, according to one calculation, many millions of cranial and other measurements that had been earnestly gathered and duly submitted to learned societies and medical journals by hundreds of physicians and others convinced that they were making contributions to knowledge.28 And yet, despite this massive collective effort, racial science had been unable even to settle on a satisfactory definition of the word itself, much less to illuminate other issues of greater consequence. As Darwin had pointed out, no consensus had ever been established on the number of races—learned authorities had argued for numbers ranging from one (the human) to sixty-three, and Huxley himself had abruptly revised his list on reflection from eleven to four. At one time or another, Franks, Gauls, Caucasians, Americans, Lapps, Celts, Negroes, Teutons, Aryans, Border-Scots, Nordics, Irish, Jews, Scythians, Tartars, Hottentots, Malays, Slavs, and Europeans had been described as separate races. The site of race—skin, hair, bones, blood, brain tissue, culture, language, geography, skull size, skull shape, souls, or semen—remained a matter of dispute.

The doubts or hesitations about the concept of race that were first apparent in Blumenbach and Herder had grown into a chorus of skepticism whose members included Paul Broca, Joseph Deniker, Jean-Louis-Armand de Quatrefages de Bréau, Rudolf Virchow, Anténor Firmin, and Paul Topinard, men now largely forgotten but eminent in their time who, after years of painstaking study were coming to the conclusion that race, a compelling reality to the naked eye and common experience, could not be discovered by science and was in the end no more than a statistics-rich muddle that had become embedded in the language—“only a subjective notion,” as Topinard put it, “a conception within our minds.”29 While theories of race would continue to be advanced, the investment of those with genuine scientific aspirations or credentials was essentially over.

In retrospect, it is apparent that the subject of race was always a proxy for other subjects, a pretext for discussions of complex issues that had no focal point, a battleground on which philosophy, religion, and science met, an ostensibly rational and orderly way of thinking about issues of great consequence and depth that would otherwise resist reduction to clarity or empirical verification but that could never be seen in itself. Race has no predicates exclusive to itself. Those who had sought, and found, evidence for race now stand accused of finding only what they had sought, their conclusions seen as the expression of desire, or perhaps multiple desires, for a sense of order in nature and for confirmation of various nonscientific assessments of racial groups, rather than the consequence of discovery. Reflecting on a century of earnest scientific labor, Henry Adams wrote in 1906 that “History offered a feeble and delusive smile at the sound of the word [race] . . . evolutionists and ethnologists dispute its very existence; no one knew what to make of it; yet, without the clue, history was a fairy tale.”30

As the century’s end approached, it had become possible to think that if science had discredited the notion of race, then a continued inquiry into race would discredit science. Among those making this argument was the flamboyant, dashing, and extraordinarily industrious young anthropologist Franz Boas, who was just then beginning what would be a long campaign to get his fellow anthropologists simply to abandon the whole subject, for the brutally simple reason that, as he said in 1940, “nobody can tell us what a race is.”31

Boas’s work spoke to many who had concluded that the study of race was not only a failed but a corrupted enterprise, a taxonomic convenience proposed in the eighteenth century that, having been misconstrued as a fact of nature, had become a source of evil: an unresisting and often willing accomplice to projects of imperial domination or exploitation, an ideological prop for American slavery and persecution, and a source of scientific authority in the formation of such forms of racist bio-politics as Jim Crow laws in the United States, eugenics programs in Britain, and the fascistic German “race-state.” Having taken up common-man questions—How many races are there? Are races equal? Are there any pure races? Do some races have more intellect/sensuality/courage than others? Are pure races superior to mixed races? Where did races come from? Are humans variations on a single type, or several types?—scientists found that an increasingly professionalized science was not only unable to address them but that it raised them at the cost of its status as knowledge.

By the early twentieth century, it was becoming apparent that the support for the race concept was now coming not from scientists but from ideologues and polemicists of various kinds, including Houston Stewart Chamberlain, James Bryce, G. Stanley Hall, H. H. Goddard, Madison Grant, and Lothrop Stoddard, to mention only a few of those working in the Anglo-American context. Ignoring the growing scientific consensus on the non-reality of race, these and many others took race as a settled biological fact that could be deployed in the service of political or social ends. Observing this development with grave alarm, many scientists, led by anthropologists, marshaled their forces to denounce not just the perversions of the concept of race but the concept itself, which Ashley Montagu called “man’s most dangerous myth.”32

In the end, science vindicated itself not by producing positive knowledge but by acknowledging its failure to do so, and, more to the point, its success in producing positive knowledge of a nonexistent object. Boas, Montagu, and others advanced their arguments against the race concept as scientific conclusions. The Jena Declaration cited at the beginning (“race was invented by racists”) had attributed to “scientific research on genetic variation” the recognition that race was “a typological construct” with no transcendental significance, but the suspicion that race was a phantom of the mind was present from the beginning of the inquiry into race, and became a scientific consensus before Mendel’s work became widely known. The word had called forth a concept, but the concept had failed to summon a reality, and it was racial scientists who said so.

If we owe to science the invention of race, then, we also owe to science the discovery that race is an invention, or to be more precise, that there is nothing in the physical constitution of human beings that answers to the concept of race. Many recent commentators charge the scientists and intellectuals who took up the inquiry with bad faith, and regard every deviation from the humanistic monogenesis of the Prichard-Blumenbach-Herder variety as a precursor to Nazism. But the recognition that race is invented, constructed, or mythical, which had been strongly suspected from the very beginning by people for whom the term was, after all, something of a novelty, might never have been established by non-scientific means as anything more than a suspicion or at most a dubious assertion that contradicted plain observation and everyday experience. This recognition was, and remains, the most decisive and incontrovertible result of the entire project, and the one that has become part of received wisdom, even of common sense—which, however, credits itself with the discovery and holds science responsible for the error that science in fact exposed. It is only as a result of the scientific inquiry into race that we have become able to think of race as an unreal reality, a socially constructed or invented phantasm—a heuristic, a convenience, an artifact, a “mental tool,” a part of the “built information environment.”33

The career of the race concept from its ambitious and humanistic beginnings to its deflated and humbled conclusion might, for the sake of efficiency, be telescoped into two individual trajectories, those of James Cowles Prichard and Paul Topinard. A disciple of Blumenbach, Prichard was a monogenist, a liberal humanist, and as noted earlier a founding member of the Aborigines’ Protection Society. He began to publish on the subject of “human varieties” at the beginning of the nineteenth century, proposing formulations that anticipated Darwin and arguing that all humanity came from Africa, with different groups being formed by environment and isolation. He actually resisted the use of the term race because it encouraged a confusion with species, an equivalence he rejected in the strongest terms. His book Researches into the Physical History of Mankind was a lifelong project, appearing in four editions, each with substantive revisions.34 These revisions deepened his accounts but they also registered the increasing force of polygenist and innatist arguments that sought to elevate racial categories to the rank of species distinctions. In later editions, Prichard dropped the “out of Africa” assertion, and included far more sympathetic and detailed accounts of work on crania that suggested that the Negro skull displayed “an approximation to the lower animals.” Also peppering the later editions were harsh judgments on the “squalid” or “disgusting” habits of indigenous peoples.

Paul Topinard began his career at mid-century as a disciple of the great French physician and anthropologist Paul Broca, a rigidly physicalist polygenist who had devised a “stereograph” for the accurate measurement of skulls, a practice he was convinced provided hard information about the mental capacities of the various races, which could be ranked on this basis. Over the course of the next three decades, however, Topinard gradually worked himself free of Broca’s influence, ultimately rejecting the entire project of craniology and the faith in the race concept that it bespoke, and coming very close to embracing a monogenetic account of what he described with a term worthy of the early Prichard as “THE HUMAN FAMILY.”35 In an essay written in 1892, Topinard not only repeated his suggestion, made some years earlier, that race was “a conception within our minds,” but explicitly rejected the idea of racial ranking, dismissed the polygenetic belief in the permanence of races, and closed with a call to reject the very term race as unscientific. Like Herder, he saw no reason for this appellation.

With this gesture of renunciation, and the star of Boas rising in the east, the career of race as an object of scientific inquiry was effectively over. Having invented the concept of race, scientists explored it, found it wanting, and abandoned it.

In fact, however, they were the only ones who did. The race concept did not vanish when a few scientists lost faith. As the center of gravity of the discourse on race shifted from science to society, the debates became broader, deeper, and more socially and politically urgent, if just as intractable. Here, too, the most salient issue in the post-scientific career of the race concept can be telescoped, this time by focusing on a single dialectical exchange.

In 1897, the young W. E. B. Du Bois delivered an address to the American Negro Academy titled “The Conservation of Races,” in which he called for the abandonment not of race but of science. Dismayed by the prospect that the Negro race with which he identified (both parents were mixed-race), and even race itself might be declared by science to be mere mirages, Du Bois called for a reactivation of a vernacular view of race as the product of “common blood, descent and physical peculiarities.”36 Other groups had made their mark—the English nation had contributed constitutional liberty, the Germans had contributed science and philosophy, and so forth—but the Negro had not yet given to the world “the full, complete Negro message of the whole Negro race” (820). It was, Du Bois argued, therefore the duty of American Negroes to “maintain their race identity until this mission of the Negro people is accomplished, and the ideal of human brotherhood has become a practical possibility” (825). In the context of this worldly demand, he raised the crucial theoretical question: “What, then, is a race?”

Du Bois’ answer was that race was a principle of elective affinity that was still grounded in reality—a “vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language, always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life” (817). The “real distinctions” on which race was based were, he said, not merely the “grosser physical differences” evident to the eye, but “spiritual, psychical, differences—undoubtedly based on the physical, but infinitely transcending them” (816). Inaccessible to science, these distinctions, Du Bois said, were nevertheless crucial to the identity, and thus to the advancement, of the Negro people.

In a widely-read 1986 essay called “The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race,” Kwame Anthony Appiah—son of the Ghanaian patriot and member of the Ashanti imperial aristocracy Joe Appiah and the grandson of Sir Stafford Cripps—argued that Du Bois’ conception of race, with its confusion of the biological and the cultural—“common blood” on the one hand and common “impulses and strivings” on the other—could not survive hard scrutiny.37 The insistently familial metaphors Du Bois used to describe racial identity such as “descent,” “heritage,” “kinship,” and “ancestors,” not to mention “fatherland” and “motherland” simply make no sense, Appiah said, when applied to vast numbers of genetically unrelated people with vastly different experiences. Indeed, Appiah pointed out, Du Bois himself revised his answer to the question of race several times over the following half century, emphasizing now the biological, now the political or national, or now the spiritual, but never settling on a single comprehensive definition. The history of Du Bois’ equivocations demonstrates, Appiah concluded, the incoherence and unworkability of the concept of race, the case against which could be stated plainly: “The truth is that there are no races; there is nothing in the world that can do all we ask ‘race’ to do for us.” (134).

When he wrote this, Appiah was already aware that his confident assertion of the truth would not be persuasive to all, and concluded his essay on a note of evident vexation at the fact that Du Bois “is followed . . . by many in our culture today.” Indeed, some of those followers immediately attacked Appiah, who over time—buckled. He rethought his position and decided that if there is nothing, or nothing else, in the world that can do what we ask “race” to do, then there is equal reason to say that the word is indispensable. This was in fact Du Bois’ position, that race represents a principle of grounded identity or belongingness that was necessary but otherwise unachievable. And so, delivering the Du Bois Lectures at Harvard nearly thirty years after the publication of his essay, a chastened Appiah joined the ranks of his critics, giving a highly sympathetic reading of Du Bois on race. “Notice,” he said in a sly footnote to the published version of the lecture, “that I part ways here . . . with the author of ‘The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race.’”38

The imprecision and equivocation on display in this dialogue between two exceptionally commanding intellects suggests a paradoxical truth about the race concept that helps explain both its appeal and its durability: the value of the race concept depends on the non-existence of race itself.

The thought of uncrossable biological boundaries between categories of human beings may be clarifying and empowering in some ways, but it is bleak and mysterious in others. The nonexistence of race enables us to choose the positive sense without having to suffer the consequences of the negative sense. This is in any event the effect of such phrases as “social construction” and “invention.” We can say that race is real, and can form communities and policies and understandings on that basis, while still insisting that race is just an idea and that universal principles of justice, dignity, and rights apply equally to all.

The inescapable fact is that whatever we say about race reveals us—our worldview, our desires or fears, our understanding of the human condition. In that respect, race joins the ranks of other powerfully suggestive but elusive mega-concepts that have dominated the intellectual history of the West—God, Reason, Nature, Justice, Language—to similar effect.


Much of the work on this volume was done during a pandemic which, however, deserves no thanks and gets no credit, although it did provide me with a great deal of time and freedom from distractions. It was brought to completion at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study, which deserves both thanks and credit. In particular, the director, Edward Kirumira, and the superb staff have my gratitude and appreciation for the noble work they do and the generosity and kindness with which they do it. Thanks also to the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University for support.

1As Nancy Stepan says in her history of British racial thought, “though many of the scientists who studied race were indeed guilty of bias in the collection and interpretation of their data, of failing to consider contrary evidence, and of making hasty or facile generalisations, few of them knowingly broke the accepted canons of scientific procedure of their day. Most of them were not consciously racist. Many were instead people of humane outlook, opponents of slavery, decent individuals who would have been shocked by any charge that they were racists.” Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain 1800-1960 (Houndsmills: Macmillan, 1982), xiv.

2Johann Gottfried von Herder, Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man (Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menscheit), trans. T. Churchill (New York: Bergman Publishers, 1966; orig. pub. 1800), 166.

3This volume contains none of the vast literature on Jews for the reason that while some discussions of Jews and race appeared during the time covered by this collection, Jews were generally not considered a separate race, and those who wrote on Jews and race did not seek to make a contribution to the understanding of race as such. The “racialization” of Jews was driven largely by political forces in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For early statements, see Eugen Dühring, The Jewish Question as a Problem of Racial Character (1880), and Wilhelm Marr, Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthum (The Way to Victory of Germanism over Judaism [1879]).

4Joseph L. Graves and Alan H. Goodman, Racism Not Race: Answers to the Most Frequently Asked Questions (New York: Columbia University Press, 2022), 9. The science of the race concept is dealt with briefly, in “How Did Race Become Biological?,” 21-41.

5See The argument that the study of race as a whole is itself racist in the modern sense is not uncommon. Introducing a collection of documents—primarily contemporary reviews of texts excerpted in this volume—Hannah Franziska Augstein defines nineteenth-century racial theory bluntly as “the biologically founded racial theory . . . culminating in the racial ideology of the German National Socialists.” H. F. Augstein, “Introduction,” Race: The Origins of an Idea, 1760-1850 (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1996), ix-x. In a similar vein, Robert Bernasconi describes his collection of recent critical essays as a series of attempts to address “Continental Philosophy’s racism,” beginning with “Kant’s racism,” Hume’s racism, and the racism implicit in “cosmopolitanism” generally. Robert Bernasconi, “Introduction” to Robert Bernasconi and Sybol Cook, eds., Race and Racism in Continental Philosophy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 1-7, 2. Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, says in his introduction that his first intention was to title his book “Racist Enlightenment,” but abandoned this on further reflection. Eze, Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997), 1. The case is made without apology in C. Loring Brace, “Race” is a Four-Letter Word: The Genesis of the Concept (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

6Perhaps the most influential form of “racial formation theory” is that of Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2015). A partial list of the works devoted to the proposition that race is an invented category includes: Sara Eigen and Mark Larrimore, eds., The German Invention of Race (Albany NY: State University of New York Press, 2006); Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race, 2 vols. (London, Verso, 1994, 1997); Tommy L. Lott, The Invention of Race: Black Culture and the Politics of Representation (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999); Colin Kidd, The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Bruce Baum, The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race: A Political History of Racial Identity (New York: NYU Press, 2008); Nell Irvin Painter, The Invention of White People (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010); Lucia Re, “Italians and the Invention of Race: The Poetics and Politics of Difference in the Struggle over Libya, 1890-1913,” California Italian Studies 9 (2010) 1:; Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention: How Race Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century (New York: New Press, 2012); Nicolas Bancel, Thomas David, and Dominic Thomas, eds., The Invention of Race: Scientific and Popular Representations (London and New York: Routledge, 2014); Robert Wald Sussman, The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014); Ta-Nehisi Coates, “How Racism Invented Race in America,” The Atlantic 23 June 2014; online at; Tracy Teslow, Constructing Race: The Science of Bodies and Cultures in American Anthropology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Nicholas Guyatt, Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation (New York: Basic Books, 2016); “The Invention of Race,” a series organized by the Center for Documentary Studies, Department of History, Princeton University, at:; Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Andrew S. Curran, eds., Who’s Black and Why? A Hidden Chapter from the Eighteenth-Century Invention of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2022).

7On the phenomenon of “race without biology,” see Walter Benn Michaels, “The No-Drop Rule,” Critical Inquiry (Summer, 1994): 758-69.

8As Thomas F. Gossett has written, “The importance of Negro slavery in generating race theories in [the United States] can hardly be overestimated.” Gossett, Race: The History of an Idea in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997; orig. pub., 1963), 29. In Man’s Most Dangerous Myth, Ashley Montagu produced a monumental three-page footnote listing publications in which a connection was drawn between slavery and Negro inferiority. See Montagu, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (New York: Harper, 1942), 87-89.

9Bronwen Douglas, “Climate to Crania: Science and the Racialization of Human Difference,” in Bronwen Douglas and Chris Ballard, eds., Foreign Bodies: Oceania and the Science of Race 1750-1940 (Canberra: Australian National University E Press, 2008): 33-98, 34-35.

10See Benjamin Isaacs, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Scott Pearce, “The Inquisitor and the Moseret: The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages and the New English Colonialism in Jewish Historiography,” Semantic Scholar, 25 August 2020:; Ania Loomba and Jonathan Burton, eds., Introduction to Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Companion (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). The term “racism” in its modern sense did not appear until the late 1930s, its use accelerated by Ruth Benedict’s widely-disseminated 1940 book Race: Science and Politics, which begins with a chapter entitled “Racism: the ‘ism’ of the Modern World.” See also William Chester Jordan, “Why ‘Race’?” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 31 (winter 2001) 1: 165-73.

11Ivan Hannaford, Race: The History of an Idea in the West (Washington, DC: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1996). This formidable book, the author’s only major scholarly contribution, appeared very shortly after his death.

12Among the most useful meditations on the modernity or non-modernity of race are: Adam Hochman, “Is “Race’ Modern? Disambiguating the Question,” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 1 (2020), 1-19; David Nirenberg, “Was There Race before Modernity? The Example of ‘Jewish’ Blood in Late Medieval Spain,” in Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac, and Joseph Ziegler (Eds.), The Origins of Racism in the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 232-64; Asa S. Mittman, “Are the ‘Monstrous Races’ Races?”  Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies, 6(1) 2015, 36–51; and Thomas Hahn, “The Difference the Middle Ages Makes: Color and Race before the Modern World,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 31 (winter 2001)1: 1–37.

13See Herbert H. Odom, “Generalizations on Race in Nineteenth-Century Physical Anthropology,” Isis 58 (Spring, 1967) 1: 4-18, 6-7. 

14In the 1920s, Lancelot Hogben described the vast proliferation of such measurements as an instance of the “stupendous persistence in fruitless and trivial exploits of repetitive mensuration” in racial science. Hogben, quoted in Stepan, Idea of Race in Science, xviii. Before he sets out on his voyage into the heart of darkness, Joseph Conrad’s hero Marlow has his skull measured “as a simple formality” by a doctor who “produced a thing like calipers and got the dimensions back and front and every way, taking notes carefully,” saying, “I always ask leave, in the interests of science, to measure the crania of those going out there.” The doctor had, he said, “a little theory which you Messiers who go out there must help me prove.” Craniology was part of the imperial project; as the doctor tells Marlow, “This is my share in the advantages my country shall reap from the possession of such a magnificent dependency.” Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, ed., Paul B. Armstrong (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006), 11-12.

15Beddoe was president of the Royal Anthropological Institute and Fellow of the Royal Society. The author of The Races of Britain (1885), a county-by-county record of Britain’s physical anthropology undertaken before the railroad could further confuse older settled populations, Beddoe was celebrated throughout Europe. For “nostrility,” see Joseph Jacobs, “Are Jews Jews?” Popular Science Monthly 55 (August 1899), 502-11, 510. Online at:

16Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Orlando: Harvest Book, 1976; orig. pub., 1948), 157.

17As Bronwyn Douglas summarizes the situation with respect to the meaning of species: “Before the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), the concept of species was given diverse, often ambiguous meanings depending on a shifting constellation of relative emphases: on reproductive or morphological criteria; history or taxonomy; environment or heredity; hybridization or racial purity; and transmutation or fixity.” Douglas, “Climate to Crania,” 58.

18Ruth Benedict and Eugene Weltfish, “The Races of Mankind” (1943), in Ruth Benedict, Race: Science and Politics (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019; orig. pub. 1940), 171.

19Defoe, Daniel. The True-Born Englishman: A SATYR. A True Collection of The Writings of the Author of the True Born English-man. Corrected By Himself (London, 1703); spelling and punctuation modernized.

20Benjamin Disraeli. Tancred: or, The New Crusade, vol. 1 (London: Henry Colburn, 1847), 303; Robert Knox, The Races of Men (Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1850), 7.

21Thomas 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.

22Jules Michelet, History of France, vol. 1, trans. G. H. Smith (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1882), 67. Ernest Renan, “Islam and Science,” in What is a Nation? And Other Political Writings, trans. and ed., M. F. N. Giglioli (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 264-80, 265. For accounts of French racial science, see Claude Blanckaert, “On the Origins of French Ethnology: William Edwards and the Doctrine of Race,” in George W. Stocking, Jr., ed., Bones, Bodies, Behavior: Essays on Biological Anthropology (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), pp. 18-55; Martin S. Staum, Labeling People: French Scholars on Society, Race, and Empire 1815-1848 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003); Ian B. Stewart, “William Frédéric Edwards and the Study of Human Races in France, from the Restoration to the July Monarchy,” History of Science: an Annual Review of Literature, Research and Teaching (December 2019); and Alice Conklin, In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France,1850-1950 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013).

23See Emmanuelle Saada, “Un racisme de l’expansion. Les discriminations raciales au regard des situations coloniales,” in Didier Fassin and Eric Fassin, eds., De la question sociale à la question raciale ?, Paris: La Découverte, 2006, 55-71. Jean Raspail’s 1975 novel The Camp of the Saints, trans. Norman Shapiro (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), has been widely seen as an influential text in the development of replacement theory.

24Richard McMahon, The Races of Europe: Construction of National Identities in the Social Sciences, 1839-1939 (London: Palgrave, 2016), 4. McMahon’s book is a remarkably rich trove of statistical information, including a database of quantitative bibliographic citation indexes and a series of case studies. Particularly useful are those of Ireland and Poland. See also Richard McMahon, ed., National Races: Transnational Power Struggles in the Sciences and Politics of Human Diversity, 1840-1945 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019).

25George M. Frederickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 75. See also Nicholas Hudson, “From ‘Nation’ to ‘Race’: The Origin of Racial Classification in Eighteenth-Century Thought,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 29(3): 247-64. For one among many discussions of race and nation in American political thinking, see Gary Gerstle, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

26The first ethnolographical society of which there is any record is the Société des Observateurs de l’Homme, founded in Paris in 1800.

27George W. Stocking, Jr., Victorian Anthropology (New York: Free Press, 1987): 301.

28In 1899, William Z. Ripley estimated that over one million adults and ten million children in the United States and Europe had been measured with the intention to determine their racial identity. Ripley, The Races of Europe: A Sociological Study (New York: D. Appleton, 1899), 58-77.

29Paul Topinard, “On ‘Race’ in Anthropology” (De la race en anthropologie), Congrés international d’archeologie préhistorique et d’anthropologie, 11th session, Moscow, 1892, I: 161-70, trans. in Earl W. Count, ed., This is Race: An Anthology Selected from the International Literature on the Races of Man (New York: Henry Schuman, 1950), 171-77, 171. Topinard was far from the first to state this opinion directly. In 1850, Robert Gordon Latham wrote that “a race is a class of individuals concerning which there are doubts as to whether they constitute a separate species or a variety of a recognized one. Hence the term is subjective.” Robert Gordon Latham, The Natural History of the Varieties of Man (London: Van Voorst, 1850), 564.

30Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (New York: Modern Library, 1931), 411-12. Such skepticism had been voiced throughout the century. Anthropologists were abandoning the subject of race just as the entire subject was being placed on a new footing by the rediscovery and verification in 1900 of some of the experimental findings of Gregor Mendel several decades earlier in a little-understood field that was baptized genetics by William Bateson in 1905. Working with mice, bees, and plants, Mendel described heredity as a function not of the blending or averaging of the characteristics of the two parents, but of the independent and discontinuous assortment and recombination of genetic units that were common to all humans. “Racial” features such as skin color, hair texture, or skull shapes were not genetic in the Mendelian sense at all, but rather morphological features, reliably transmitted in geographically or socially isolated populations but rapidly diluted in mixed or mobile populations.

31Franz Boas, “History and Science in Anthropology: A Reply,” American Anthropologist 38 (1936) 1: 137-41, 140. In Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants, Boas established a striking fact, that the various measurements of body and skull that continued to be respected as objective evidence of racial identity were not fixed but were influenced by cultural and environmental factors of health and nutrition. He carried out a very extensive series of measurements on the heads of immigrants to America that demonstrated that skulls could change shape in response to environmental factors, producing measurements closer to those in the immigrants’ new homes than in their ancestral homes. This result could be seen in a very short time: “The longer the parents have been here, the greater is the divergence of the descendants from the European type.” Boas, Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants (Boston: Adamant Media Corporation, 2006; orig. pub., 1912), 7. Boas did not question the existence of race, but by insisting on culture or environment rather than biology, he reoriented and professionalized the field of anthropology. In the judgment of Thomas F. Gossett, “it is possible that Boas did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history.” Gossett, Race, 418. On Boas and the approach to race within the discipline of anthropology, see Rachel Caspari, “Race, Then and Now: 1918 Revisited,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 165 (2018): 924–938; online at: https://doi. org/10.1002/ajpa.23417. See also George W. Stocking, Jr., ed., A Franz Boas Reader: The Shaping of American Anthropology, 1883-1911 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974). Even more striking, perhaps, than Boas’s discovery about skull measurements of immigrants is the fact that this possibility was raised by the craniological measurements of Samuel George Morton and was being seriously proposed in the mid-nineteenth century by Charles Hamilton Smith and James Hunt. See James Hunt, “The Negro’s Place in Nature: a Paper Read Before the London Anthropological Society” (New York: Democratic Publication House. Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1866), 32. More generally, it was widely recognized in the scientific and plantation communities that over time, Negro slaves were steadily traversing the distance that had at first separated the races, even to the point of losing their distinctive odor. See the entry on Quatrefages de Bréau.

32See Ashley Montagu, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, op. cit. In a later statement, Montagu described race as “the phlogiston of our time.” Montagu, “Introduction,” The Concept of Race, ed., Ashley Montagu (New York: Free Press, 1964), xii. Montagu was one of the ten scientists invited to serve on a UNESCO panel that produced a widely circulated and controversial statement in 1950 on the subject of race, the first of four that would ultimately be issued. See Unesco, The Race Concept: Results of an Inquiry (Unesco: Paris, 1952). This publication included an initial five-page statement composed by Montague and others that affirmed principles of equality and the brotherhood of man—and eighty pages of comments, criticisms, and objections to the statement by others. Montague later produced his own Statement on Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972). As a young man, Montagu changed his name from Israel Ehrenberg to Montague Francis Ashley-Montagu, simplifying it to Ashley Montagu shortly after relocating from London to the United States in 1931, where he became a student of Ruth Benedict at Columbia University.

33On race as “mental tool,” see Staffan Müller-Wille, “Race and History: Comments from an Epistemological Point of View,” Science, Technology, and Human Values 39 (2014) 4: 597-606. On “built information environment,” see Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star, Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, (Cambridge:  The MIT Press, 1999), 5. In 2020, Adam Hochman, a young Australian anthropologist, described race as “a biological concept which fails to refer,” and proposed as an alternative an “interactive constructionism” that, unlike “social constructionism,” rejects any biological component to race. The premise of interactive constructionism is that “there are no races, only racialized groups—groups mistakenly believed to be races.” Hochman, “Replacing Race: Interactive Constructionism about Racialized Groups,” at:

34The first edition appeared in 1813; the fourth in 1841-47.

35Paul Topinard, Anthropology, with preface by Paul Broca, trans. Robert T. H. Bartley (London: Chapman and Hall, 1878), 511.

36W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Conservation of Races,” in Nathan Huggins, ed., W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1986), 815-26, 820, 817.

37Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race,” in Henry Louis Gates and Kwame Anthony Appiah, eds., “Race,” Writing, and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 21-37, 36.

38Kwame Anthony Appiah, Lines of Descent: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 200n7. In Du Bois’s equivocations, and in the exchange between Du Bois and Appiah, we can see a condensed version of the debates surrounding “essentialism,” “anti-essentialism,” and “anti-anti-essentialism” that dominated much academic discourse surrounding race (and feminism as well), beginning in the 1980s. See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), especially Chapter Four, which centers on Du Bois. The dialectic enacted between Du Bois and Appiah about race was provocatively reframed by Walter Benn Michaels in The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (New York: Metropolitan, 2015).