Racial Hierarchy: Races Ranked by Early Scientists

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Racial Hierarchy: Races Ranked by Early Scientists

Prior to the sixteenth century, human biological variation was not seen as characterized by separate and non-overlapping units, or what have come to be called “races.” Instead, human variation was perceived as a gradual phenomenon with no discernible boundaries between adjacent populations. In his travels, Marco Polo (1254–1324) moved largely over land, onetwenty-five-milesegment after another, and nowhere in the world did he find that the people of adjacent segments differed in appearance.

The Renaissance, starting in the fifteenth century, completely changed this outlook. Ocean-going ships and navigational capabilities enabled people to sail from one continent to another without seeing anything in between. The native inhabitants of the end points of such voyages seemed categorically distinct, providing the mind-set that led to the establishment of the idea that human variation was represented by a finite number of separate entities called “races,” although that term did not enter common usage until the nineteenth century.

In the Enlightenment world of the eighteenth century—the “Age of Reason”—it was assumed that the pursuit of science would not only bring the greatest benefits to humankind but would also demonstrate the glory of the “Creator of the world.” The figure credited with naming the categorical distinctions of the living entities of the world was the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778) in his Systema Naturae (The System of Nature, 1735, especially the 10th edition of 1758). Linnaeus designated all living things by “Class, Order, Genus, and species.” For common usage, he established his “binomial nomenclature,” or two-name designation, using only Genus and species as the standard way of categorizing all living creatures. Thus, humans were called Homo sapiens. This single human species was then divided into four subspecies, in a kind of perpetuation of the old flat earth outlook where there were four sides of the world: north, south, east, and west. The four categories of Homo sapiens were H. s. Europaeus, H. s. Afer, H. s. Asiaticus, and H. s. Americanus, and each of these subspecies was described in terms of what Linnaeus regarded as its distinguishing behavioral characteristics, which were based on the four “humors” of the Greco-Roman physician, Galen of Pergamon (129–c. 216 CE). Europeans were said to be “sanguine,” Africans “bilious,” Asians “melancholic,” and Americans “choleric.”

The eighteenth-century systematists still honored the traditional Christian assumption of a single creation of all beings, as described in Genesis, a view that did not change fundamentally until the end of Enlightenment in the nineteenth century. Europeans were assigned the most favorable, and Africans the least favorable, of

Galen’s four humors, but this only hardened into a picture of permanent “racial” distinctions in the fourth decade of the nineteenth century.

The most influential of the eighteenth century formulations was that of the Göttingen anatomist, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) in the third edition (1795) of his doctoral dissertation, De generis humani varietate native, translated as On the Native Varieties of the Human Species by Thomas Bendyshe (1865). Blumenbach expanded on the four “varieties” of Linnaeus to recognize five, which he labeled Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. The Caucasian variety he named after the Caucasus, the strip of land between the Caspian and the Black seas running from southeastern Russia to northwestern Iran. He regarded the Caucasian form of the skull the most beautiful in the human spectrum and believed that there was reason to accept it as representing the original human form, declaring “white …we may fairly assume to have been the primitive colour of mankind” (1865 [1795], p. 269). After all, Mount Ararat is located at the southwestern corner of the Caucasus, and in the traditional Christian view of things the ancestors of all living people got off Noah’Ark there.

Blumenbach declared that living people depart from that presumed original form by easy gradations on all sides. Because there are no hard and fast lines between the different human varieties, he acknowledged that the recognition of those varieties is more or less arbitrary. He was also clear that there was no innate inequality between the several varieties. He did note that the differences that had accrued since the time of common origin had occurred by a process of “degeneration,” but in Latin that term simply means “departure from origin,” without the pejorative connotation that the word degenerate has taken on in English.

Blumenbach’s attempt to meld the scientific and the Biblical was a classic Enlightenment effort. Things changed in the next century. The most powerful and influential formulation was that of the Philadelphia physician and anatomist Samuel George Morton (1799–1851). In his Crania Americana (1839), he was the first to label Blumenbach’s five varieties as “races,” although he used the same identifying adjectives that were in Blumenbach’s scheme. He preferred “race,” rather than “variety,” because it left open the possibility that the various groups might eventually be shown to be fully different species. He certainly specified the differences in innate capabilities and “worth” that characterized his various “races”—and “races” they have been ever since, although virtually no one remembers that it was Morton who pioneered this usage. After Morton’s death, his views were taken up in the American South to justify the institution of slavery. When the South lost the Civil War, the views that had been associated with its “cause” were downgraded, and Morton was largely obliterated from memory.

Morton’s views, however, had been adopted by the founder of French anthropology, Paul Broca (1824–1880), and they have remained at the core of French biological anthropology ever since. When the English-speaking peoples joined the French side in World War I, they adopted many French views, one being the validity of “race.” It had been completely forgotten, however, that those views had been predominantly American in the first place. The American experience of the daily confrontation of people originally from radically different parts of the world initially led to the reification of the concept of “race.”


Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich. 1865 (1795). On the Natural Varieties of Mankind. Translated by Thomas Bendyshe. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts and Groom.

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

C. Loring Brace