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13.2: The History of "Race" Concepts

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    • Michael B. C. Rivera

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    “Race” in the Classical Era

    The earliest classification systems used to understand human variation are evidenced by ancient manuscripts, scrolls, and stone tablets recovered through archaeological, historical, and literary research. The Ancient Egyptians had the Book of Gates, dated to the New Kingdom between 1550 B.C.E. and 1077 B.C.E (Figure 13.3). In one part of this tome dedicated to depictions of the underworld, scribes used pictures and hieroglyphics to illustrate a division of Egyptian people into the four categories known to them at the time: the Aamu (Asiatics), the Nehesu (Nubians), the Reth (Egyptians), and the Themehu (Libyans). Though not rooted in any scientific basis like our current understandings of human variation today, the Ancient Egyptians believed that each of these groups were made of a distinctive category of people, distinguishable by their skin color, place of origin, and even behavioral traits.

    Painting of four individuals with varied skin colors, head hair, facial hair, and clothing styles.
    Figure 13.3: (From left to right) Depicting a Berber (Libyan), a Nubian, an Asiatic (Levantine), and an Egyptian, copied from a mural on the tomb of Seti I. Credit: Egyptian races drawing by Heinrich von Minutoli (1820) of a mural by an unknown artist from the tomb of Seti I is in the public domain.

    Another well-known early document is the Bible, where it is written that all humankind descends from one of three sons of Noah: Shem (the ancestor to all olive-skinned Asians), Japheth (the ancestor to pale-skinned Europeans), and Ham (the ancestor to darker-skinned Africans). Similar to the Ancient Egyptians, these distinctions were based on behavioral traits and skin color. More recent work in historiography and linguistics suggest that the branches of “Hamites,” “Japhethites,” and “Shemites” may also relate to the formation of three independent language groups some time between 1000 and 3000 B.C.E. With the continued proliferation of Christianity, this concept of approximately three racial groupings lasted until the Middle Ages and spread as far across Eurasia as crusaders and missionaries ventured at the time.

    Rows of organisms, with plants and animals at the bottom and humans, angels, and God at top.
    Figure 13.4: The Great Chain of Being from the Rhetorica Christiana by Fray Diego de Valades (1579). Credit: Great Chain of Being by Didacus Valades (Diego Valades 1579), print from Rhetorica Christiana (via Getty Research), is in the public domain.

    There is also the “Great Chain of Being,” conceived by ancient Greek philosophers like Plato (427‒348 B.C.E.) and Aristotle (384‒322 B.C.E.). They played a key role in laying the foundations of empirical science, whereby observations of everything from animals to humans were noted with the aim of creating taxonomic categories. Aristotle describes the Great Chain of Being as a ladder along which all objects, plants, animals, humans, and celestial bodies can be mapped in an overall hierarchy (in the order of existential importance, with humans placed near the top, just beneath divine beings; see Figure 13.4). When he writes about humans, Aristotle expressed the belief that certain people are inherently (or genetically) more instinctive rulers, while others are more natural fits for the life of a worker or enslaved person. Based on research by biological anthropologists, we currently recognize that these early systems of classification and hierarchization are unhelpful in studying human biological variation. Both behavioral traits and physical traits are coded for by multiple genes each, and how we exhibit those traits based on our genetics can vary significantly even between individuals of the same population.

    “Race” during the Scientific Revolution

    The 1400s to 1600s saw the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution in Western societies, with thinkers like Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Leonardo Da Vinci publishing some of their most important findings. While by no means the first or only scholars globally to use observation and experimentation to understand the world around them, early scientists living at the end of the medieval period in Europe increasingly employed more experimentation, quantification, and rational thought in their work. This is the main difference between the work of the ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks and that of later scientists such as Isaac Newton and Carl Linnaeus in the 1600s and 1700s.

    Historic painting of a man in 18th-century wig and garments.
    Figure 13.5: Carl Linnaeus. Credit: Carl von Linné by Alexander Roslin (1718-1793) is in the public domain.

    Linnaeus is the author of Systema Naturae (1758), in which he classified all plants and animals under the formalized naming system known as binomial nomenclature (Figure 13.5). This system is typological, in that organisms are placed into groups according to how they are similar or different to others under study. What was most anthropologically notable about Linnaeus’s typological system was that he was one of the first to group humans with apes and monkeys, based on the anatomical similarities between humans and nonhuman primates. However, Linnaeus viewed the world in line with essentialism, a problematic concept that dictates that there are a unique set of characteristics that organisms of a specific kind must have and that would remove organisms from taxonomic categorizations if they lacked any of the required criteria.

    Linnaeus subdivided the human species into four varieties, with overtly racist categories based on skin color and “inherent” behaviors. Some European scientists during this period were not aware of their own biases skewing their interpretations of biological variation, while others deliberately worked to shape public perceptions of human variation in ways that established “otherness” and enforced European domination and the subordination of non-European people. The conclusions and claims at which they arrived, consciously or subconsciously, often fit the times they were living through—the so-called Age of Discovery, when the superiority of European cultures over others was a pervasive idea throughout people’s social and political lives. Although much of Eurasia was linked by spice- and silk-trading routes, the European colonial period between the 1400s and 1700s was marked by many new and unfortunately violent encounters overseas (Figure 13.6). When Europeans arrived by ship on the shores of continents that were already inhabited, it was their first meeting with the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australasia, who looked, spoke, and behaved differently from peoples with whom they were familiar. Building on the idea of species and “subspecies,” natural historians of this time invented the term race, from the French rasse meaning “local strain.”

    Spanish explorers with their military and religious gear surrounding indigenous people.
    Figure 13.6: A painting depicting the colonization of the Mississippi River environs by Spaniard Hernando DeSoto in 1541 (painted in 1853 by William H. Powell). Credit: Discovery of the Mississippi by William Henry Powell (photograph courtesy of Architect of the Capitol) is in the public domain.

    Another scientist of the times, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752‒1840), classified humans into five races based on his observations of cranial form variation as well as skin color. He thus dubbed the “original” form of the human cranium the “Caucasian” form, with the idea that the ideal climate conditions for early humans would have been in the Caucasus region near the Caspian Sea. The key insight Blumenbach presented was that human variation in any particular trait should be more accurately viewed as falling along a gradation (Figure 13.7). While some of his theories were correct according to what we observe today with more knowledge in genetics, they erroneously believed that human “subspecies” were “degenerated” or “transformed” varieties of an ancestral Caucasian or European race. According to them, the Caucasian cranial dimensions were the least changed over human evolutionary time, while the other skull forms represented geographic variants of this “original.” As will be discussed in greater detail later in this chapter, we have genetic and craniometric evidence for sub-Saharan Africa being the origin of the human species instead (see Chapter 12 on the fossil record that places the origins of modern Homo sapiens in north and east Africa). Based on work that shows how most biological characteristics are coded for by nonassociated genes, it is not reasonable to draw links between individuals’ personalities and their skull shapes.

    Historic drawing of five skulls.
    Figure 13.7: Five skull drawings representing specimens for Blumenbach’s “Mongolian,” “American,” “Caucasian,” “Malayan,” and “Aethiopian” races. Credit: Blumenbach’s five races by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach is in the public domain. Original in the 1795 Treatise on “De generis humani varietate nativa,” unnumbered page at the end of the book titled “Tab II”.

    “Race” and the Dawn of Scientific Racism

    Between the 1800s and mid-1900s, and contrary to what you might expect, an increased use of scientific methods to justify racial schemes developed in scholarship. Differing from earlier views, which saw all humans as environmentally deviated from one “original” humankind, classification systems after 1800 became more polygenetic (viewing all people as having separate origins) rather than monogenetic (viewing all people as having a single origin). Instead of moving closer to our modern-day understandings of human variation, there was increased support for the notion that each race was created separately and with different attributes (intelligence, temperament, and appearance).

    The 1800s were an important precursor to modern biological anthropology as we know it, given that this was when the scientific measurement of human physical features (anthropometry) truly became popularized. However, empirical studies in the 1800s pushed even further the idea that Europeans were culturally and biologically superior to others. While considered one of the pioneers of American “physical” anthropology, Samuel George Morton (1799‒1851) was a scholar who had a large role in perpetuating 1800s scientific racism. By measuring cranial size and shape, he calculated that “Caucasians,” on average, have greater cranial volumes than other groups, such as the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and peoples Morton referred to collectively as “Negros.” Today, we know that cranial size variation depends on such factors as Allen’s and Bergmann’s rules, which give a more likely explanation: in colder environments, it is advantageous for those living there to have larger and rounder heads because they conserve heat more effectively than more slender heads (Beals et al. 1984). The leading figures in craniometry during the 1800s instead were linked heavily with powerful individuals and wealthy sociopolitical institutions and financial bodies. Theories in support of hierarchical racial schemes using “scientific” bases certainly helped continue the exploitative and unethical trafficking and enslavement of Africans between the 1500s and 1800s.

    Morton went on to write in his publication Crania Americana (1839) a number of views that fit with a concept called biological determinism. The idea behind biological determinism is that an association exists between people’s physical characteristics and their behavior, intelligence, ability, values, and morals. If the idea is that some groups of people are essentially superior to others in cognitive ability and temperament, then it is easier to justify the unequal treatment of certain groups based on outward appearances. Another such problematic thinker was Paul Broca (1824‒1880), after whom a region of the frontal lobe related to language use is named (Broca’s area). Influenced by Morton, Broca likewise claimed that internal skull capacities could be linked with skin color and cognitive ability. He went on to justify the European colonization of other global territories by purporting it was noble for a biologically more “civilized” population to improve the “humanity” of more “barbaric” populations. Today, these theories of Morton, Broca, and others like them are known to have no scientific basis. If we could speak with them today, they would likely try to emphasize that their conclusions were based on empirical evidence and not a priori reasoning. However, we now can clearly see that their reasoning was biased and affected by prevailing societal views at the time.

    “Race” and the Beginnings of Physical Anthropology

    In the early 20th century, we saw a number of new figures coming into the science of human variation and shifting the theoretical focus within. Most notably, these included Aleš Hrdlička and Franz Boas.

    Historic photo of a middle-aged person in suit and bowtie.
    Figure 13.8: Aleš Hrdlička (1869­‒1943), a Czech anthropologist who founded the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Credit: (Ales Hrdlicka) SIA2009-4246 (1903) by an unknown photographer is used for educational and non-commercial purposes as outlined by the Smithsonian.. [Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9521, Box 1, T. Dale Stewart Oral History Interview; and Record Unit 9528, Box 1, Henry B. Collins Oral History Interview.]

    Aleš Hrdlička (1869­‒1943) was a Czech anthropologist who moved to the United States. In 1903, he established the physical anthropology section of the National Museum of Natural History (Figure 13.8). In 1918, he founded the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, which remains one of the foremost scientific journals disseminating bioanthropological research. As part of his work and the scope of the journal, he differentiated “physical anthropology” from other kinds of anthropology: he wrote that physical anthropology is “the study of racial anatomy, physiology, and pathology” and “the study of man’s variation” (Hrdlička 1918). In some ways, although the scope and technological capabilities of biological anthropologists have changed significantly, Hrdlička established an area of inquiry that has continued and prospered for over a hundred years.

    Franz Boas (1858‒1942) was a German American anthropologist who established the four-field anthropology system in the United States and founded the American Anthropological Association in 1902. He argued that the scientific method should be used in the study of human cultures and the comparative method for looking at human biology worldwide. One of Boas’s significant contributions to biological anthropology was the study of skull dimensions with respect to race. After a long-term research project, he demonstrated how cranial form was highly dependent on cultural and environmental factors and that human behaviors were influenced primarily not by genes but by social learning. He wrote in one essay for the journal Science: “While individuals differ, biological differences between races are small. There is no reason to believe that one race is by nature so much more intelligent, endowed with great willpower, or emotionally more stable than another, that the difference would materially influence its culture” (Boas 1931:6). This conclusion directly contrasted with the theories of the past that relied on biological determinism. Biological anthropologists today have found evidence that corroborates Boas’s explanations: societies do not exist on a hierarchy or gradation of “civilizedness” but instead are shaped by the world around them, their demographic histories, and the interactions they have with other groups.

    Black-and-white sketch of tree labeled “Eugenics.”
    Figure 13.9: Logo of the Second International Exhibition of Eugenics, held in 1921. The text of the logo states: “Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution. Like a tree, eugenics draws its materials from many sources and organizes them into an harmonious entity.” Credit: Eugenics congress logo scanned from Harry H. Laughlin, The Second International Exhibition of Eugenics held September 22 to October 22, 1921, is in the public domain.

    The first half of the 1900s still involved some research that was essentialist and focused on proving racial determinism. Anthropologists like Francis Galton (1822‒1911) and Earnest A. Hooton (1887‒1954) created the field of eugenics as an attempt to formalize the social scientific study of “fitness” and “superiority” among members of 19th-century Europe. As a way of “dealing with” criminals, diseased individuals, and “uncivilized” people, eugenicists recommended prohibiting parts of the population from being married or sterilizing these members of society so they could no longer procreate (Figure 13.9). They instead encouraged “reproduction in individual families with sound physiques, good mental endowments, and demonstrable social and economic capability” (Hooton 1936). In the 1930s, Nazi Germany used this false idea of there being “pure races” to highly destructive effect. The need to be protected against admixture from “unfit” groups was their justification for their blatant racism and purging of citizens that fell under their subjective criteria.

    It should be noted that eugenicist ideas were popularly discussed and debated in many non-European contexts, as in the U.S., China, and South Africa, too. The Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 was passed in the United States, with the explicit aim of reducing the country’s “burden” of people considered inferior by restricting immigration of eastern European Jews, Italians, Africans, Arabs, and Asians. In the early 1900s, Chinese scientists and politicians showed great interest in eugenic ideologies, which came to dictate decisions in law-making, family life, and the medical field. Noted American anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote extensively on Japanese culture and society during and after World War II. Her essentialist portrayals of Japanese people were heavily cited in popular discourse at the time. In 1950s South Africa, interracial marriages and sexual relations were banned by law; antimiscegenation became one of the huge focuses of apartheid resistance activists in later years. We still see the continuation of eugenics-based logic today around the world—in exclusionary immigration laws, cases of incarcerated prison inmates being forcibly sterilized, and the persistence of intelligence testing as a form of measuring people’s “fitness” in a society.

    Shortly after World War II and the Nazi Holocaust, the full extent of essentialist, eugenicist thinking became clear. Social constructions of race, and the notion that one can predict psychological or behavioral traits based on external appearance, had become unpopular both within and outside the discipline. It was up to those in the field of physical anthropology at the time to separate physical anthropology from race concepts that supported unscientific and socially damaging agendas. This does not mean that there are no physiological or behavioral differences between different members of the human species. However, going forward, a number of physical anthropologists saw human biological variation as more complicated than simple typologies could describe.

    “The New Physical Anthropology”

    Black-and-white photo of a person with short hair in a white shirt and tie.
    Figure 13.10: Theodosius Dobzhansky, an important scientist who formulated the 20th-century “modern synthesis” reconciling Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and Gregor Mendel’s ideas on heredity. Credit: Dobzhansky no Brasil em 1943 by unknown photographer via Flickr user Cely Carmo is in the public domain.

    After 1950, focus steered away from the concept of “race” as a unit of variation and toward understanding why variation exists in populations from an evolutionary perspective. This was outlined by those pioneering the “new physical anthropology,” such as Sherwood Washburn, Theodosius Dobzhansky (Figure 13.10), and Julian Huxley, who borrowed this approach from contemporary population geneticists. Whether using genetic or phenotypic markers as the units of study, “groups” or “clusters” of humans differentiated by these became defined as populations that differ in the frequency of some gene or genes. Anthropologists consider what “makes” a population—a group of individuals potentially capable of or actually interbreeding due to shared geographic proximity, language, ethnicity, culture, and/or values. Put another way, a population is a local interbreeding group with reduced gene flow between themselves and other groups of humans. Members of the same population may be expected to share many genetic traits (and, as a result, many phenotypic traits that may or may not be visible outwardly).

    Black-and-white photo of smiling person in a suit and tie in front of a building.
    Figure 13.11: Julian Huxley (1942). Credit: Julian Huxley 1-2 by unknown photographer is in the public domain.

    Thinking of humans in terms of populations was part of Julian Huxley’s (1942) “Modern Synthesis”—so named because it helped to reconcile two fundamental principles about evolution that had not been made sense of together before (Figure 13.11). As discussed in Chapter 3, Gregor Mendel (1822‒1884) was able to show that inheritance was mediated by discrete particles (or genes) and not blended in the offspring. However, it was difficult for some 19th-century scientists to accept this model of genetic inheritance at the time because much of biological variation appeared to be continuous and not particulate (take skin color or height as examples). In the 1930s, it was demonstrated that traits could be polygenic and that multiple alleles could be responsible for any one phenotypic trait, thus producing the continuous variation in traits such as eye color that we see today. Thus, Huxley’s “Modern Synthesis” outlines not only how human populations are capable of exchanging genes at the microevolutionary level but also how multiple alleles for one trait (polygenic exchanges) can cause gradual macroevolutionary changes.

    This page titled 13.2: The History of "Race" Concepts is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Michael B. C. Rivera (Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.