The study of race and racial differences was a fascination for scientists and ethnographers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. As scientists came into contact with new human societies as well as species of plant and animal life, they sought systematic rules to describe and explain the differences they encountered.
Discussions of race have always been tied up with perceptions of morality, intelligence, and civilisation. The debate has centred on whether “race” is a purely biological concept, and the extent to which it is – at least in part – a social and cultural construct. Early concepts of race – as discreet physical categories of person – played a part in defining an individual’s social and cultural relationship to other persons. Modern science is aware of the biological processes that lead to divergent populations within the same species, defining these in terms of shared phenotypic characteristics – how people look is part of that, yet it also means the genes commonly shared between those individuals.
A telling reference of early ‘classificatory’ race science is made by Josiah Clark Nott and George Robert Giddon in their collaborative Indigenous Races of the Earth (1857)¸writing that:
“So far as their geographical distribution upon the surface of the globe is concerned, the races of man follow the same laws which obtain in the circumscription of the natural provinces of the animal kingdom"
The authors go on to say that, “the controversy which has been carried out among zoologists, upon this point, shows that the difficulties respecting the races of men are not peculiar to the question of man, but involve the investigation of the whole animal kingdom”.
In other words, the diversity of human physical ‘types’ (as they saw it) necessitated a consideration of the nature of that diversity – were different races separate species, or the same single species?
One of the many ways in which this science and ethnography envisioned difference was using images. Implicit in this – and often explicit – was a hierarchical representation of the races, often using careful measurements and mathematics to grade and chart the differences between ‘typical’ racial types.
This study of anthropometry (the study of the measurement of the human body) was used as such to make wider claims about the races. In his History of Jamaica (1774), Edward Long dedicated a chapter to discussing the type and condition of “negroes” on the island, comparing them unfavourably and hierarchically – as with Nott and Giddon’s diagram – with the supposed origins of ‘whites’.
These theories proposed a graduation from ‘civilisation’ to ‘barbarism’, at once justifying the European acquisition of foreign territories and highlighting the belief in the singular role of the Europeans as a civilizing force. This ‘biological determinism’ held the view that the biological (physical) and social differences shared between groups, as Stephen Jay Gould has written, "arise from inherited, inborn distinctions and that society, in this sense, is an accurate representation of biology".
This would lead Arthur de Gobineau, in his Essai sur l'inegalité des races humaines (1853-55), to argue:
"Considering it by itself, I have been able to distinguish, on physiological grounds alone, three great and clearly marked types, the black, the yellow, and the white [...] the negroid variety is the lowest, and stands at the foot of the ladder. The animal character, that appears in the shape of the pelvis, is stamped on the negro from birth, and foreshadows his destiny"
De Gobineau’s text would have a powerful and damaging impact on 19th century discussions about race.
Ultimately, these debates related to the wider scientific controversy surrounding the origin and evolution of the species. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – unlike that of many earlier scientists – proposed a common ancestor for humanity, suggesting that races emerged through adaptation and evolution (monogenism). In contrast, polygenism, theorized that the different races were different species, with separate origins. If, as Darwin discovered, races were not separate species and that biology was – in this sense – flexible, then the social and cultural differences between, for example, white Europeans and black Africans could not be reduced to biology.
These debates would continue throughout the 19th century, and would play a significant role not only in the theory of evolution by natural selection, but also political issues such as the slave trade and the American Civil War.