Racial Hierarchy: Overview

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Racial Hierarchy: Overview

Racial hierarchy refers to the idea that races can be usefully categorized as being higher or lower on a given dimension. Historically, the dimensions of hierarchy have been intelligence and behavior, with behavior falling into the realm of “civilized” versus “uncivilized.” Because race is seen as a fixed characteristic, linking race to a hierarchy of intelligence or behavior essentially fixes the capabilities of whole groups of people. There can be no “civilized” Africans if all Africans are categorized as “uncivilized” in a racial hierarchy. The utility of such hierarchies was in conquest and exploitation, since they made it both logical and necessary to control the “uncivilized” and “unintelligent” races.

Distinguishing one’s own social group from others has been part of human life from its beginnings, and the earliest written records describe others in what are often unflattering terms. The Greek historian Herodotus (484– 425 BCE), for example, describes the non-Greek peoples living around the Black Sea as “barbarians” and “primitive” because they lacked things that to Herodotus made civil life possible—stable communities with clear legal structures. However, Herodotus does not define a racial hierarchy. It is their lifestyle and not their biology that makes them barbarians, and they are, at least in theory, transformable into civilized people.

The classification of plants and animals into distinct biological groups began in the Enlightenment, and the first universal taxonomy was by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linneaus (1707–1778). In his groundbreaking work of taxonomy, Systema Natura (1758), Linneaus classified humans into four distinct races (American, European, Asiatic, and African), each defined not only by physical characteristics but also by emotional and behavioral ones. Similarly, Johann Blumenbach (1752–1840), a founder of the field of physical anthropology, divided humans into five races (Caucasian, Mongolian, Malayan, Ethiopian, and American) and is credited with coining the term Caucasian in his doctoral dissertation On the Natural Varieties of Mankind (1755). It is interesting that each of his races relates to peoples of recently colonized areas, and Blumenbach makes clear that the purpose of his division of humanity is to help classify the variety of humans that were being encountered by European colonists at the time.

A hierarchy of behavior is implicit in the work of Linneaus and Blumenbach, but neither scholar focused on behavior. Samuel Morton (1799–1851), a Philadelphia physician, was the first to explicitly link race with behavior and intelligence. Morton collected and measured the skulls of American Indians and in Crania Americana (1839) concluded that not only were American Indians a separate race but their behavioral differences from European Americas was rooted in the physical structures of their brains. Expanding his study, he examined skulls of ancient Egyptians, and in Crania Aegyptiaca (1844) concluded that race differences were ancient and unchanging.

Morton’s work became important in establishing the alleged inherent inferiority of American Indians and Africans, and influenced a generation of scholars. His work had profound implications, for as Morton’s acolytes Josiah Nott and George Glidden argue in a volume dedicated to Morton, “It is the primitive organization of races, their mental instincts, which determine their characteristics and destinies, and not blind hazard. All history, as well as anatomy and physiology, prove this” (Types of Mankind 1854, p. 460). Or, to reverse the stated causality, history proves that anatomical differences explain why some peoples are the victims of conquest, others the victors.

Fixity of these racial differences was essential, not only to maintain the exploitive relationships of colonialism and slavery but also to fight against the idea of evolution put forward by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species (1859). If God created the world in a fixed and stable form, then racial hierarchy should be fixed as well. Thus, it is not surprising that one of the nineteenth century’s strongest critics of evolution, Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), was also one of the century’most outspoken supporters of racial hierarchy. From 1863 to 1865 Agassiz measured thousands of Civil War soldiers and used the data he collected to argue that significant and stable differences existed between blacks and whites. He implied that these differences illustrated God’s purposeful creation of racial hierarchy.

The concept of racial hierarchy also led some to suggest allegedly profound links between race and society. In his Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853–1855), French novelist Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882) argued that miscegeny (particularly between members of the allegedly superior “Aryan” race and other races) caused social unrest. Gobineau’s ideas were widely discussed, and later became central in Nazi efforts to create a pure “Aryan” society. Eminent British scientist Francis Galton (1822–1911) promoted a social and political movement aimed at manipulating racial hierarchy by selectively breeding humans with desirable characteristics and preventing those with undesirable ones from having offspring. Eugenics, as this movement was called, was widely accepted in Europe and had strong supporters in the United States. The eugenics movement was a direct inspiration for the genocidal policies of the Nazis and continues to influence public thought through works such as Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s 1994 book, The Bell Curve.

The scholarly use of racial hierarchy declined precipitously following World War II, when Nazi genocide against races they viewed as inferior exposed the idea’s dangerous potential. At the same time, advances in physical anthropology began to demonstrate that race itself was an analytical concept with very little utility. By the 1970s biologists were able to show that genetic races of humans did not exist. Still, the idea of racial hierarchy has not disappeared completely.

Canadian psychologist J. Philippe Rushton (b. 1943) argued in Race, Evolution, and Behavior (1995) that there are three distinct races of humans (Mongoloid, Caucasoid, and Negroid), each of which retains a reproductive strategy adapted to the unique environmental conditions under which it evolved. Rushton’s ideas are erroneous, in terms of both the evolutionary theory he adopts and the data he employs to support them, yet Rushton has supporters and is widely published. The persistence of arguments based on racial hierarchy in the face of more than a half century of unambiguous refutation suggests that this outmoded concept has a powerful ideological attraction and is not likely to disappear from public debate.

SEE ALSO Colonialism, Internal; Facial Angle; Genetic Distance; Genetic Variation Among Populations; Great Chain of Being; Human Genetics; Morton, Samuel George; Nott, Josiah; Racialization.


Brace, C. Loring. 2005. “Race” Is a Four-Letter Word: The Genesis of the Concept. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gould, Stephen J. 1996. The Mismeasure of Man, rev. ed. New York: Norton.

Lieberman, Leonard. 2001. “How‘Caucasoids’ Got Such Big Crania and How They Shrank: From Morton to Rushton.” Current Anthropology 42 (1): 69–95.

Montague, Ashley. 1997. Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, 6th ed. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Nott, J. C., and George R. Glidden. 1854. Types of Mankind; or, Ethnological Researches Based Upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo.

Rushton, J. Philippe. 1995. Race, Evolution, and Behavior. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Peter N. Peregrine