Nineteenth-Century Biological Theories on Race

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Nineteenth-Century Biological Theories on Race


In 1848 the whole of Europe was plagued by revolution. Fueled by nationalist and ethnic individual interests, these revolutions were a symptom of change in how men viewed the concept of race. Drawing upon biological theories of the day, the European revolutionaries of the mid-nineteenth century formulated a social theory of race that served their nationalist interests. In a mesh of scientific inquiry and political dogma, the terms race and ethnicity were used interchangeably. Although the conflicts brought upon by the transfer, and in most cases misappropriation, of scientific ideas to the social concepts of race were not limited to the nineteenth century, this era spawned many of the modern conceptions and misconceptions concerning race.


As European contact with distant places and different peoples became commonplace, the desire to explain both physical and cultural differences increased. European conquistadors and explorers documented the physical characteristics of native peoples they encountered in the Americas. Centuries later, American slave owners and European colonists in Africa both mentioned in their writings what they perceived as characteristic traits of the native African peoples. Moreover, the era of colonization sparked a general philosophical and theological interest in describing distant groups of people.

It was not, however, until the late-eighteenth century that scientific, or methodological, processes for studying diverse populations emerged. With the introduction of the Linnean binomial system of classification in the latter-half of the 1700s, the question of species variation and race became a highly controversial topic within the fields of biology and medicine.

In the early half of the nineteenth century, theories about the origins of human lineage were dependent upon Linnean models. These groupings defined types of men by outward physical characteristics, with a special emphasis placed on skin pigmentation. The Linnean model of variation, however, was based on two erroneous assumptions. The first of these inaccurate assumptions denied the extinction of species (i.e., there had never been a destruction of species). The second faulty assumption asserted that species were inherently stable and immutable (i.e., not prone to change).

Reconciling the variations among different groups of peoples thus raised the question of whether each race constituted a unique species, or sub-species, of Homo sapiens (i.e., mankind).


In 1800 French anatomist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) introduced a new concept into the accepted model of human typology. Cuvier used the term "hidden agent" in an attempt to mesh popular theological and medical theories. In essence Cuvier and other scientists began to attribute differences in physical appearance among the races to environmental factors. Cuvier noted that "dark men of Africa" were more suited to tropical climates while European colonists in a similar climate were "prone to fevers" and "not of long life." This reliance on climate, geography, and social structure led to the increasing intertwining of the concepts of variety and race.

Environmental influences on development were essentially based upon the work of French anatomist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), who attempted to explain such things as why giraffe had long necks. Lamarck reasoned that a giraffe, by stretching its neck to get leaves, actually made its neck lengthen and that this longer neck was then somehow passed on to offspring. Accordingly, the long-necked giraffe resulted from generation after generation of giraffe stretching their necks to reach higher into trees for food.

It is now well established that Lamarck's theory of evolution by acquired characteristics was simply wrong. Individual traits are, for the most part, determined by an inherited code contained in the DNA of each cell and are not influenced in any meaningful way by use or disuse. Further, Darwinian natural selection—a fundamental part of the theory of evolution—more accurately explains the long necks of the giraffe as a physical adaptation that allowed exploitation of a readily available food supply that, in turn, resulted in enhanced reproductive success for "long necks."

By 1820 the static models of species and race were no longer the accepted scientific norm. Phylogeny, the evolutionary process that produces a certain species, became the focus of biological explanations of variety among humans. While the advancement of physiological theories opened the possibility that biological diversity was the result of an evolutionary process, the theory in its infancy tried to establish a hierarchy of species through which every animal evolved during its gestation period. According to phylogenic theory, ontogeny—the life history of a given individual—repeats phylogeny. In essence this theory proposed that animal embryos had to evolve in the womb through "lower" phylogenic stages—including that of the adult form, of fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals respectively—before taking its final form. More subtle differentiation in species was made once the embryo was "characteristically human." With disastrous social consequences, the erroneous notion of a hierarchy of species was applied to human society as well. Stratification of humans based upon race was made easier by use of justifications drawn from faulty science (e.g., a Caucasoid fetus was thought to have evolved through all of the races of men and was, therefore, the most "evolved").

In his 1828 publication History of the Development of Animals, Estonian biologist Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876) demolished the notion that "ontogeny recapitulates (repeats) phylogeny" with his detailed writings and research in embryology. Von Baer noted that at various stages of development the embryos of any animal species, including man, resembled a primitive form of the adult of the species. The important philosophical and scientific contribution of von Baer's work was to establish that man did not go through primitive evolutionary stages and that, in fact, there was no progression through any species hierarchy of human development. In essence von Baer's work established that there were no "less evolved races" of humans.

Concurrent with emerging phylogical studies, several physicians set out to carefully define variation among peoples in terms of their anatomical differences and commonalties. Nineteenth-century scientific and medical literature became filled with detailed observations of the external appearance of physical differences (e.g., facial features and skull sizes) of the races. Dubious craniological studies dwelled upon not only identifying common traits among members of race groups, but also measured supposed skull capacity and brain size. Equating larger skull size with greater brain capacity, later nineteenth-century adherents of such hypotheses compounded the scientific error by expanding the concept into an explanation of sociological differences (e.g., linking brain size with cultural advancement). Countless anatomical studies turned the uncontrolled and disputed measurements that indicated Caucasoid skulls were larger than those of Africans, Asians, or indigenous Americans into a justification for social dominance based on the mistaken assertion that socalled "species related" factors were the key biological determinant of the cultural worth and potential of various races.

During the nineteenth century men were classified by their race or type and were said to "be of the blood of their race." "Blood," distinct from its more common biological meaning, was the name given to the mysterious medium that carried hereditary materials, or that which defines particular individual attributes. Accordingly "blood theory" held that hereditary materials were infinitely divisible and children were the result of an equal mixing of the genes of the parents. The offspring of two racially similar parents was "whole-blooded," while the child of two racially distinct parents was referred to as a "half-blood." "Whole-bloodedness" was a central concern to race theorists who believed that constant interbreeding between the races could result in the disappearance of certain hereditary materials or even whole races. Despite the formation of more complex models of heredity in the mid-nineteenth century and the advent of the study of genetics, the principle of divisible hereditary materials remained a part of medical race theory until the end of the century. As consequence, blood theory models had a profound influence on legal and social definitions of race—definitions that persist in some forms to the present day.

The latter decades of the nineteenth century cradled infant concepts of evolution, speculation, genetics, and modern twentieth century racism. British naturalist Charles Darwin's publication of The Origin of the Species in 1859 changed both the historical and biological concept of man. While previous models were open to change and evolution within the different species, Darwin's theory traced the biological development of different species from common ancestors through an ongoing evolutionary process hinged on the principle of natural selection, often referred to as "survival of the fittest." Darwinian theory moved away from the blood theory idea of degeneration—the parceling out of hereditary materials until their influence is minute—and formulated an evolutionary scenario in which certain traits were selected by the ability of their carrier to thrive and reproduce. Incorporating the natural, biological, medical, and social sciences, Darwin's work was and remains a seminal scientific, biological, and anthropological text.

Although gaining nearly universal scientific acceptance, Darwinian (i.e., evolutionary) theories of speciation subsequently came into conflict with the Communist social philosophies of Karl Marx, who promoted the idea that man was largely a product of his own will. Incredibly, the outdated theories of race and speciation based on erroneous nineteenth-century Lamarckian concepts actually flourished once again during Stalin's totalitarian Soviet Union of the mid-twentieth century. Ten years after the October 1917 revolution in Russia, an uneducated plant-breeder in the struggling Soviet Union named Trofim Denisovich Lysenko (1898-1976) came to control almost all of Soviet science. Lysenko's suppression of Soviet science was based on discarded Lamarckian concepts of evolution by acquired characteristics (i.e., that organisms evolved through the acquisition of traits that they needed and used). As a puppet of Stalin, Lysenko and his errant scientific ideas found political favor with such force that they nearly destroyed Soviet agriculture.

Twentieth-century evolutionary theory—especially as it applied to race differences—gained acceptance (prior to a detailed understanding of the genetic mechanisms) because it provided an explanation of variation within and among populations. Differences among human populations are small when measured against the wide variation of physical differences within populations. Modern biologists explain these differences as having wide and divergent relationships to genes located on chromosomes. Importantly, this argues that the differences between races in one characteristic (e.g., skin pigmentation) is not likely to be useful for predicting differences in other characteristics (e.g., intelligence) and therefore provides potent scientific argument against racism ( i.e., stereotyping based on race).


Further Reading

Montagu, Ashley. Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. New York: Columbia University Press, 1942.

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Nineteenth-Century Biological Theories on Race

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Nineteenth-Century Biological Theories on Race