The Invention of Race

Justin E. H. Smith

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Works consulted for this essay:

Robert Bernasconi (Ed.), Race (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 2001).

Emmanuel Eze, Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997).

Eldridge Huddleston, Origins of the American Indians: European Concepts, 1492-1729 (Austin, Texas, 1967).

Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man: the American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

William Poole, “Seventeenth-century Preadamism, and an Anonymous English Preadamist,” The Seventeenth Century 19 (2004), pp. 1-35.

Richard H. Popkin, Isaac La Peyrère (1596-1676): His Life, Work, and Influence (Leiden: Brill, 1987).


We tend to imagine that our racial classifications map onto natural kinds in the world, that in carving humanity up into ‘Caucasoid’, ‘Negroid’, etc., we are, so to speak, carving nature at its joints. In fact, these categories are recent inventions.

In an important sense it is the 17th-century French writer François Bernier who may be considered the founder of the modern science of race.  He is the first to use the term ‘race’ to designate different groups of humans with shared, distinguishing traits.  He describes his innovation in the Journal des Sçavans of 1684 as follows: “So far, Geographers did not use any other criterion when mapping out the earth but that of the different countries or regions to be found on it.  What I noticed in men in the course of my long and frequent travels gave me the idea to divide the Earth otherwise.” 

Bernier identifies “four or five Species or Races of men.”  The first, he says, “includes France and generally all of Europe, except a part of Russia.  A small part of Africa, from the Kingdoms of Fez and Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, to the Nile; as well as an important part of Asia, namely the Empire of the ‘Grand Turk’ with the three Arabias, all of Persia, the States of the Great Mogul… may be included in the first Species.”  In contrast, Bernier identifies sub-Saharan Africa as inhabited by a different race or species: “I regard the whole African continent except the North African coast as previously described as the second Species.”  Significantly, he does not see Native Americans, in contrast with Africans, as sufficiently different to warrant placing them in a distinct race: “As for Americans, in fact most of them have an olive complexion and their features differ from ours, but not enough to justify their belonging in a different species.”

The third ‘species’ for Bernier are ‘Asians’, which includes for him the inhabitants of “part of the kingdoms of Aracan and Siam, Sumatra and Borneo, the Philippines, Japan, China, Georgia and Muscovy, the Usbek, Turkistan, Zaquetay, a small part of Muscovy”; and finally the fourth species are the Saami or Lapps, about whom he writes they are “very ugly and partaking much of the bear.”  He acknowledges: “I have only seen two of them at Dantzic; but, judging from the pictures I have seen, and the account which I have received of them from many persons who have been in the country, they are wretched animals.”  The ranking of Lapps at the bottom of the scale of humanity would remain a commonplace throughout the 18th century, in Buffon, Maupertuis, Kant, and others. 

What, though, did Bernier mean by ‘species’?  Surely he could not have intended the meaning commonly attached to this term today, namely, that each race is an isolated reproductive group, for he was as aware of the possibility of ‘miscegenation’ as his contemporaries.  Though Bernier himself was not a defender of the doctrine, some of his contemporaries would come to hold the view that different races constitute different ‘species’ in the sense that, while capable of yielding offspring, they nonetheless had separate creations and, therefore, arose from separate lines of descent. 

While it was, for theological reasons, imperative to deny that there could be shared lineage between humans and apes, it was equally imperative for the same reasons to insist upon the shared lineage of all humans.  But just as new evidence, resulting from increased exposure to the world beyond Europe forced European science to contend with the possibility that humans are in fact but another species of primate, it also inspired many thinkers to reconsider the biblical account of all humanity as traceable back to the same shared ancestors.  Both the global extremities at which human beings were found, as well, likely, as the immense cultural and physical difference between the various groups, stimulated a reconsideration of the old Augustinian commitment to a monogenetic account of human ancestry.

If one is an evolutionist, and accepts that there have been hundreds of thousands of years for different ethnic groups to emerge and to spread about the globe, the monogenetic hypothesis is not hard to maintain.  The same is true if, conversely, one believes that the world is only a few thousand years old, but is operating with a geographical scope that does not extend much beyond one’s own region.  But for creationists in the 17th century, monogenesis effectively required that the new anthropological data from around the globe be somehow rendered compatible with the view that all human beings are descended from two ancestors, presumed to have lived somewhere in the Near East roughly six thousand years before the era of the scientific revolution.

Fortunately, there were rich conceptual resources that far predated the modern period available to those who sought to argue that all humans descend from the ancestors identified in the Hebrew bible.  Some in the 17th century continued to be influenced by the tradition of prisca theologia, a vestige of Renaissance humanism according to which all wisdom must flow from the same source, namely, the prophets of the Old Testament, who eventually passed it on to the Greek philosophers.  Because the events of the Gospels were prefigured or intimated by way of typologies in the Old Testament, moreover, it was often thought that the Hebrew prophets were able to share in the good news of the New Testament, and in this way Judaism was effectively elided with Christianity.  As an apologetic project, this tradition effectively baptized any would-be pagan or infidel one might wish to admire or emulate by positing a hidden connection to revealed truth. Many in the 17th century who did not subscribe explicitly to this doctrine nonetheless believed that in some way or other different intellectual traditions are all, in the end, informed by the same truth.

Separate origins for different human groups, in contrast, would threaten both the moral and the intellectual status of the group that is presumed to have a separate creation.  Because it is the man of the bible who is created in the image of God, if men on the other side of the world had a separate creation, then they could not but be seen as unequal, in terms of relative likeness to God, to those in the Christian world.  And thus monogenesis ensures both the appropriateness of missionary work at all corners of the globe, as well, at least from the point of view of the missionaries, as the full equality –again, in terms of relative proximity to God– of all ethnic groups.  In the 17th century, to deny the shared origins of all ethnic groups was to deny the universality of scripture, and was thus heretical.  Thus, for example, in 1616 Lucilio Vanini denounces the “atheists” who believe that Ethiopians, unlike other ethnic groups, are descended from monkeys.


White2a If there were some suggestions of separate origins for human beings, this is not necessarily because Native Americans or Africans were perceived to be sub-human (which, for the most part, in the 17th century they were not, in so far as they were all seen as equally worthy of salvation), but also because accumulating evidence made it increasingly difficult to account for (i) the dispersion of people so far from the Near Eastern region presumed to have hosted the original Garden of Eden; (ii) the evident fact that a number of pagan civilizations –notably, the Egyptians, the Chaldaeans, and now the Aztecs– had records extending back well before the 6000 years presumed to have elapsed since the creation; and (iii) finally, the tremendous differences in physical traits of human beings from different parts of the world.  If one did not believe—as many did not—that environments could transform organisms, then it was difficult to see why people in all parts of the world did not look like those in the Near East.  And if one did believe that environments could transform organisms, then it still seemed implausible that the tremendous diversity of human types could have emerged so quickly following the dispersion of people to different parts of the globe– a dispersion that would have come some time after the original creation. 

The evident difficulty of accounting for the emergence of such tremendous differences between various human groups in the very short amount of time thought to have elapsed since Adam and Eve caused some to argue that human beings had in fact existed before the first parents, and that some current humans are descended from these ‘pre-Adamites’.  Isaac La Peyrère argued for this position in his Prae-Adamitae of 1655, though within a year of publication he was forced to recant.  In this work, La Peyrère cites Romans (5:12-14) as support for the Pre-Adamite hypothesis, which holds that until “the time of Law sin was in the world,” i.e., that there were sinful people until, with Adam, law came into the world.  The author was pressured into retracting the views exposited in this work, but not soon enough to prevent his argument from making a profound impact.  William Poole notes that there were at least a dozen important treatises in the latter half of the 17th century seeking to refute La Peyrère’s thesis.   Matthew Hale, in his 1677 work The Primitive Origination of Mankind, Considered and Examined According to the Light of Nature, treats La Peyrère’s hypothesis critically, yet far from dismissively.  Still another important refutation is Edward Stillingfleet’s Origines sacrae of 1661.

Richard Popkin writes that “[p]ractically nobody in the seventeenth century was willing, publicly, to accept the pre-Adamite theory or any form of polygenesis.  The irreligious implications were too great for the theory to be given much credence prior to the Enlightenment… The explanatory value of a polygenetic theory was great, but the danger of holding to it was, perhaps, greater.”   The circles in which the theory came up in the 17th century indicate just how marginal it remained: either it was picked up by a very radical religious sect, such as the Levellers, the Ranters, and the Diggers; or it was propagated in anonymous, semi-anonymous, or pseudonymous literature. Poole, in contrast with Popkin, identifies a number of different sources of 17th-century pre-Adamism, not all of which were anonymous.  Paracelsus is sometimes cited as the first to propose that Native Americans could not have descended from Adam.  He observes that “we are all descended from Adam.  And I cannot refrain from making a brief mention of those who have been found in hidden Islands and are still little known.  To believe they have descended from Adam is difficult to conceive– that Adam’s children have gone to the hidden islands.  But one should well consider, that these people are from a different Adam.  It will be difficult to maintain, that they are related on the basis of flesh and blood.”   It is thus credible that they “were born there after the Deluge,” and also that “they have no souls.”  Giordano Bruno too suggests that denying that Native Americans have souls would be one way of accommodating new evidence (e.g., from the Aztec calendar, from Chaldaean and Egyptian astrology) for the great length of time people had been in the New World, while at the same time adhering to the biblical chronology of descent from Adam. 

Thomas Herbert writes in 1638 of the problematic antiquity of Chinese history: “They say the World is aboue a hundred thousand yeares old after their Chronologies, and accordingly deriue a Pedigree and tell of wonders done ninetie thousand yeares before Adams creation.”  As Poole notes, it was the Jesuit Martino Martini’s Sinicae Historiae Decas Prima of 1658 that called attention to Chinese chronology’s incompatibility with that of the Old Testament,  and on this basis explicitly to question Biblical universality.  Martini asserts: “I hold it as certain that the extremity of Asia was populated before the flood.”  Francis Lodwick, to cite just one more example, in his essay on the “Originall of Mankind,” also provides reasons for the pre-Adamite thesis based in anthropological and linguistic, as opposed to historical and scriptural evidence: namely, what he takes to be the fundamental difference between Africans and Europeans, and the improbability of migration of one ethnic group into a habitat to which it is not suited.  He also speculates that if all groups were descended from the same two parents, their languages would have some common features, which he does not take to be the case.

What has not been emphasized in most discussions of pre-Adamism is evidence of the sort that Lodwick adduces– from the observation of different human groups, rather than the much more common evidence from biblical hermeneutics and from the encounter with non-European chronologies.   But the more evidence that was adduced that would seem to militate in favor of it, the more environmental adaptation, and rapid adaptation at that, needed to be adduced in order to account for the emergence of human variety within the short period of time that had elapsed since Adam.  In order for the case for separate creations to be effectively laid to rest, the possibility of rapid mutation as a result of migration into new environments had to be defended.


Of course, environmental influence on moral and physical character is not entirely new in the modern period.  As early as Hippocrates ideas about the environment’s role in human variation. He gives, for example, a lengthy account of differences in skin pigmentation and moral temperament in different parts of the world, describing the differences between Asians and Europeans in a manner favorable to the former.  Asians are gentle, Europeans bellicose (the exact opposite of the early modern stereotype), and this because of the way each group is influenced by climate and wind. 

Nicolas Malebranche, writing in the 1670s, thinks that the different qualities of air in different places bring about differences in natural character.  He notes that “it is certain that the most refined air particles we breathe enter our hearts,” and believes that this process is corroborated empirically from our daily observation of the “various humors and mental characteristics of persons of different countries.  The Gascons, for example, have a much more lively imagination than the Normans.  The people of Rouen, Dieppe, and Picardy, are all different from each other: and they all differ even more from the Low Normans, although they are all quite similar to one another.  But if we consider the people of more remote lands, we shall encounter even stranger differences, as between an Italian and a Fleming or a Dutchman.” 

But what happens when human beings begin, in massive numbers, to abandon the places to which they are ‘assigned’ for other climes?  In ancient accounts of racial difference, when this difference is conceived as having a history it is generally one of mythological character, involving a curse or a cataclysm that brought about the difference. Thus the scorching of Africans –a one-time event, generally associated with a curse or misfortune, as in the Old Testament myth of the curse of Ham,  or the Greek myth of Phaeton, who rode his burning chariot too close to the surface of the earth– is communicated to future generations, perhaps by some physically comprehensible channel, but what is emphasized is the miasmic and dynastic character of the differentiating traits.  If similitude for the ancients is accounted for in terms of intelligent design, difference within a species is generally written off to cataclysm or curse. This view, we should note, is very different from full-fledged modern scientific racism, which takes it that differences between ethnic groups are, somehow, rooted in essential differences that are not susceptible to environmental influence. Joseph Chamberlain gives a very pure statement of the view in the 19th century: “I believe in this race, the greatest governing race the world has ever seen; in this Anglo-Saxon race, so proud, so tenacious, self-confident and determined, this race which neither climate nor change can degenerate, which will infallibly be the predominant force of future history and universal civilisation.”


While this short outline of some of the developments in early modern ethnography is too preliminary to draw any general conclusions about intellectual trends in thinking about human difference in the period, we may nonetheless draw some tentative conclusions.  The reflections of thinkers as diverse as Edward Tyson, John Wallis, John Locke, and Malebranche suggest that a view of the relationship of the influence of the environment on human variation is beginning to emerge in the late 17th century that emphasizes: (i) The demise of cataclysmic accounts of diversification.  Environmental influence would begin to be seen as ongoing; it would be widely believed that human beings –and, most relevantly, Europeans– could be transformed through transplantation into new environments.  In the 17th century, the cataclysmic account begins to give way to a more naturalized picture of similitude and variation within a species. With the shift from a conception of cataclysmic change to one of ongoing change, we also observe a shift, broadly speaking, from a mythical conception of origins to a truly historical one.  (ii) A conception of the different traits of different ethnic groups as truly adaptive rather than degenerative, that is, as serving some genuine purpose under particular environmental circumstances, rather than resulting from the harmful effects of a ‘savage’ lifestyle, e.g., exposing one’s flesh to the elements rather than wearing clothes.   

At the same time, of course, there was the trend in thinking about human variation that may be seen as extending from Bernier through Chamberlain that emphasizes the fundamental or essential difference between different human groups and that, while certainly not denying the possibility of cross-group reproduction (and thus not denying that Europeans and Africans belong to the same ‘species’ in today’s sense), nonetheless would see this as somehow against nature’s grain, since nature has humanity carved up into real and neatly bounded races.  One of the great ironies of early modern ethnography is that it was the religious and creationist world-view that spoke in favor of common origins for all humanity, while the abandonment of the need to interpret human diversity in scriptural terms easily led to polygenesis. 

Polygenesis, and the corollary belief in the essential difference between different groups, would enjoy its most widespread success in the context of 19th century slavery and the hardening of a global institution that relied on racism for its legitimacy, and would present itself as the account of human origins most in keeping with the best scientific evidence.  The fact that this account of human diversity remains controversial in the 17th century may be traced in part to the enduring imperative in the period to stay faithful in speaking of origins to the inherited scriptural account.

There has likely always been some conception of the way in which organisms fit their environment, whether this fit is seen as one fixed from time immemorial by God for each organism in the place ‘appropriate’ to it, or whether this is conceived as a gradual change in the organism to better accommodate the vicissitudes of its habitat.  For the most part, the latter view prevails prior to the early modern period.  Nowhere does Hippocrates say that the people who are now Europeans arrived in Europe and became bellicose as a result of environmental conditions; he only says that Europeans are bellicose.  It would not be unreasonable to suppose that the new concern with change over time as a result of change of habitat, whether this is conceived as adaptation or as generation, was a response to the increasing dispersion of Europeans throughout the globe in the early modern period, and to the increasing concern about the long term effects on European populations of this dispersion.  Racial essentialism may, in turn, be seen as a way of securing the stability of the population through change in habitat by positing traits that are, somehow, resistant to any environmental influence.   

The claim that there are separate lines of descent for different human groups was perceived as heretical and atheistic in the 17th century, while a shared line of descent for different but related species was likewise perceived as heretical and atheistic.  In both cases, moreover, the denunciation of these views serves as a clear indication of their growing importance in the 17th century.  As with atheism itself, there are vastly more denouncers than defenders, and we have to wait until the following century to find the ideas being defended for the first time as serious hypotheses.  One might almost conclude that denunciations of ideas function in history as anticipations of these ideas’ ascendancy.

The view the denouncers were looking to secure was precisely that all and only human beings are related to other human beings.  Corollaries of this view are that all and only human beings are the earthly likeness of God, are capable of salvation and damnation, and are capable of higher cognition and moral agency.  But scientific evidence appeared to be mounting against this exclusive position of human beings in nature.  By the 18th century, ironically, at the same time as species boundaries were becoming more fluid with the rise of pre-Darwinian evolutionary thought, ‘racial’ boundaries were becoming more rigid.  Mainstream 17th-century thought, while largely failing or refusing to acknowledge the kinship of humans and apes, was certainly more clear-sighted about the kinship of humans to one another than much purportedly scientific thought of the following two and a half centuries would be. 

Los Angeles, May 23, 2008

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