The Scientific Origins of Racism

by Jacob Zellmer at Aeon: Imagine for a moment that tomorrow we find humans on another planet. It’s an unlikely scenario to be sure, but you can imagine the theories that people might venture to explain their existence. They might propose that humans on this other planet descended from ancient earthlings who in prehistoric times had the technology to travel there. Or that humans on both planets were planted there by aliens. Or that conditions on the other planet are so similar to those found on Earth that humans evolved on both planets simultaneously. Then again, perhaps God created humans on both planets.

A very similar problem confronted the European mind in the modern period (though the analogy is not perfect). As Europeans embarked on great voyages of discovery from the 15th through to the 19th centuries, they were at a loss to explain how the native peoples they encountered in distant lands actually got there. Europeans generally assumed that all people descended from Adam and Eve – a view called monogenism – and so it was unclear how native humans came to exist in ‘New Worlds’ oceans apart from the original Garden of Eden. What is more, non-Europeans looked and acted differently. Before Charles Darwin, and for some time after him, there was no generally accepted explanation of these physical and cultural differences.

The challenge for early moderns, then, was to find a plausible explanation for how physical differences between humans arose if all humans on Earth descended from Adam and Eve. Some thinkers, such as the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), thought that human diversity arose through ‘degeneration’ from the original humans, where degeneration is caused by environmental features such as what your ancestors ate or the climate they inhabited.

A more radical way to explain human diversity involved accepting polygenism – the view that God originally created multiple first human mating pairs besides Adam and Eve. In the hypothetical scenario above, polygenism is akin to thinking that God created humans on both planets. As it happens, many influential 19th-century scientists in the United States were polygenists, turning to the theory as a means of explaining human racial differences – differences that were front and centre in American life. Proponents of polygenism argued that racial differences were fixed, some of them recruiting the theory to justify enslaving peoples whom God had made ‘lesser’.

Scientists like Samuel George Morton (1799-1851), who has been called the father of American anthropology, and the Swiss-born biologist and geologist Louis Agassiz (1807-73), a professor at Harvard, used polygenism as a purportedly scientific tool to help explain racial difference. Agassiz claimed that ‘the differences existing between the races of men are of the same kind as the differences observed between the different families, genera, and species of monkeys or other animals …’ On this view, different races have different physical attributes that correspond to intellectual and moral characteristics (that is, normative properties). Hence, for Agassiz there is a hierarchy of races, with whites superior to all others. Agassiz’s view that racial differences were built into the fabric of nature by God carried weight with the scientific establishment, and convinced many Harvard graduates that intelligence and moral goodness were racially determined.

Agassiz and others used polygenism to boost scientific support for slavery, to the extent that, as the anthropologist Charles Loring Brace points out in ‘Race’ is a Four-Letter Word (2004), their advocacy became a contributing factor to the American Civil War. Since polygenists understood races as different species,many, like Josiah Nott, a follower of Morton, believed inter-racial reproduction would yield less fertile offspring, just as breeding between horses and donkeys leads to mostly infertile mules. Nott’s article in The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal bore the telling title: ‘The Mulatto a Hybrid – Probable Extermination of the Two Races if Whites and Blacks are Allowed to Intermarry’ (1843). Such belief in a fundamental distinction between the races underscored anti-miscegenation laws that were widespread in the US. In 1869, the Georgia Supreme Court wrote:

The amalgamation of the races is not only unnatural, but is always productive of deplorable results. Our daily observation shows us, that the off-spring of these unnatural connections are generally sickly and effeminate, and that they are inferior in physical development and strength, to the full-blood of either race.

Polygenic ideas with a distinctly racist cast persisted through the 20th century, with figures like Carleton Coon, a professor both at the University of Pennsylvania and at Harvard, arguing in his influential The Origin of Races (1962) that the races evolved into Homo sapiens at different times. He maintained that the white race was more advanced on account of having evolved into H sapiensfirst. All in all, polygenism has been hugely influential in American scientific racism and its fallout. Indeed, you cannot fully understand American racism without understanding polygenism and its history. So how did polygenism first gain traction? And how did it become a mainstream view among the American scientific establishment?

The racial science of the 19th century had deeper origins in the 17th century that are mostly unknown today. In fact, polygenism was one of the more controversial ideas of the 17th century. It appealed to early modern European thinkers because it helped explain the existence of Indigenous peoples in far-flung lands, which monogenesis struggled to encompass. To help fend off polygenism, the Dutch humanist philosopher and monogenist Hugo Grotius proposed in 1642 that Native Americans were descendants of Norwegians who had moved to Iceland, then to Greenland, and then to North America. Later adherents of monogenism include Immanuel Kant, Blumenbach and Darwin.

The first intellectual to substantially defend polygenism was the French lawyer and theologian Isaac de La Peyrère (1596-1676). He published two works in 1655 – Men Before Adam and Theological Systeme upon the Presupposition, That Men Were Before Adam – that sparked immediate public fascination. La Peyrère recognised that Genesis contains two creation accounts in the first two chapters, and cited this as evidence that the Bible itself teaches that God created ‘pre-Adamites’ who were distributed throughout Earth (according to Genesis 1) before creating Adam and Eve. Through creative interpretation of Genesis 1, La Peyrère argued that all plants and wildlife were created for humans; and on this basis, he concluded that wherever plants and livestock were created, so humans were created as well. In La Peyrère’s scheme of prehistory, not only were pre-Adamite humans created before Adam, they were also distributed as mating pairs throughout the world. Looking elsewhere to support polygenism, La Peyrère noted that, after Cain is cast out of Eden for killing Abel, he says: ‘Whosoever finds me, shall slay me,’ which suggests that other people already existed. Cain is also said to have had a wife, despite Adam and Eve not having had a daughter. One of La Peyrère’s lasting contributions was his insistence that Adam and Eve are not the first human beings.

La Peyrère further drew on a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, which suggests that sin in the world predates Adam and Eve. La Peyrère takes this to mean there must have been sinners, and therefore people, before Adam. By way of dispatching the Biblical claim that ‘God made all mankind of one blood’ – some ancient variations say ‘from one ancestor’ – La Peyrère reads it as saying that all humans are children of God and not descendants of Adam.

As well as accounting for Indigenous peoples, La Peyrère was concerned to reconcile Christianity with those non-Biblical histories that appeared to conflict with the timeline of Genesis. The predominant view in the 17th century, based on a literal reading of Genesis, was that the creation of the world occurred at roughly 2348 BCE, making Earth only about 4,000 years old, while Chaldean and Egyptian creation accounts cite the creation of humans much farther back. Where most Europeans would have rejected non-Biblical creation stories, La Peyrère argued that they are in fact consistent with Genesis, because Genesis does not account for all human origins. La Peyrère’s interpretation thus reduced Genesis from a global history of humanity to a history of, primarily, the Jewish people. Genesis primarily concerns the creation of Adam and Eve, despite offering clues about the creation of other humans – its two creation accounts; the claims about Cain. For the beginnings of non-Jewish peoples, La Peyrère looked to Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese and American creation narratives.

To La Peyrère’s critics, his attempts to reconcile faith and reason looked revisionary and heretical. Dozens of books were quickly written to rebut him. According to the historian of philosophy Richard Popkin writing in 1987, polygenism was the most energetically refuted idea of the 17th century – indeed, under sustained assault, La Peyrère was eventually forced by the Catholic Church to recant his views.

Although polygenism offered a Biblical explanation of human diversity, it challenged the fundamental unity of humanity. La Peyrère went beyond explaining why Indigenous peoples existed in far-off lands to theorise ontological differences in ‘genus’ and ‘species’ between pre-Adamites, whom he also called the ‘Gentiles’, and Adamites, whom he called the ‘Jews’. As he put it: ‘not onely by kindred, and exposition of kindred did God distinguish the Jews from the Gentiles but would have them different in the species it self.’ In La Peyrère’s usage, a ‘genus’ distinction denotes a difference in family lineage. Pre-Adamites and Adamites are different in genus because they issue from different original ancestors. Given that pre-Adamites descend from ‘innumerable fathers’, there are also genus distinctions within the pre-Adamites.

A ‘species’ distinction is a bit more complicated. It is here that the notion of hierarchy comes into La Peyrère’s account, making it a progenitor of racialism in later polygenetic theories. According to La Peyrère, a species distinction amounts to a difference in the form or essence of a human, which arises in part from the mode of creation and material composition of each type of human. In a rather creative reading of Genesis, La Peyrère claims that the Adamites were made by God through a unique mode of creation – God used his hands to form Adam – whereas the early humans who preceded Adamites were made with God’s ‘word’ – God spoke them into existence – just as all other creation was made. In other words, the two species were made through different modes of creation, and the mode used to create the pre-Adamites was not unique to them. Adamites are not just uniquely made, according to La Peyrère, they are also made of a superior, more refined material than the primal matter from which pre-Adamites are composed. Though the material used to make both species is faulty, the primitive matter of pre-Adamites is more faulty. The mode of creation and material inferiority of pre-Adamites is evidence to La Peyrère that they have a form that ranks below Adamites but above nonhuman creatures.

La Peyrère did not have the broad conception of the human species that we have today, based on later archaeological findings that offer evidence of hominin species besides Homo sapiens, such as H erectus orH habilis. But he did have a concept of hierarchy. Pre-Adamites, he argued, are made in the internal image of God, while Adamites are made in the external image of God. As a result of this superiority, the Adamite people have ‘a lesse corrupt nature’ and are less prone to sin than pre-Adamites. In contrast, the essence of pre-Adamite people is less perfect, giving them a greater disposition for vice. From the essence of each species stems their normative properties.

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