Race (historical definitions)

From Academic Kids

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Map of skin-color distribution for "native populations" collected by Renato Biasutti prior to 1940. The pigmentation is graded in the "von Luschan scale".

The definition of race, before the development of evolutionary biology, was that of common lineage—a vague concept interchangeable with species, breed, cultural origin, or national character ("The whole race of mankind." – Shakespeare; "From whence the race of Alban fathers come" – Dryden).

The word race, interpreted to mean common descent, was introduced into English in about 1580, from the Old French "rasse" (1512), from Italian razza, which may have been derived from the Latin word generatio (a begetting).

This late origin for the English and French terms is consistent with the thesis that the concept of "race" as defining a very small number of groups of human beings based on lineage dates from the time of Columbus. Older concepts that were also at least partly based on common descent, such as nation and tribe, entail a much larger number of groupings.

The first published classification of humans into distinct races seems to be François Bernier's Nouvelle division de la terre par les différents espèces ou races qui l'habitent ("New division of Earth by the different species or races which inhabit it"), published in 1684. Bernier distinguished four "races":

Bernier's race classification had a political message. At the time, races were distinguished by skin color, facial type, cranial profile and amount, texture and color of hair. Though many experts declare these to have little relationship with any other heritable characteristics, they remain persuasive due to the easy of distinction based on physical appearance.

Because of interracial breeding, such classification is weak in that it is difficult to classify some borderline individuals. (Contrast the difficulty of determining to which group a child of mixed parentage belongs with the much more clear-cut decisions involved in determining membership in species). In other words, racial purity has no clear biological meaning. It is clear, though, that for an extended period of time after Homo sapiens' first migrations from Africa (probably around 80,000 BCE) and before the rise of wheeled and seagoing transportation (around 3,000 BCE), geographically isolated groups of people underwent some degree of divergent evolution. Whether that degree was high enough to merit strict taxa beneath the species level is a question discussed by human biologists since the 1800s. It is a complicated issue full of semantic and emotional pitfalls, with much at stake on the consensus for all who look upon science as the bedrock authority for decisions in their daily lives.

Among the 19th-century naturalists who defined the field were Georges Cuvier, James Cowles Pritchard, Louis Agassiz, Charles Pickering (Races of Man and Their Geographical Distribution, 1848), and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Cuvier enumerated three races, Pritchard seven, Agassiz eight, and Pickering eleven. Blumenbach's classification was widely adopted:

  1. the Caucasian, or white race, to which belong the greater part of the European nations and those of Western Asia
  2. the Mongolian, or yellow race, occupying Tartary, China, Japan, etc.
  3. the Ethiopian, or black race, occupying most of Africa (except the north), Australia, New Guinea and other Pacific Islands
  4. the American, or red race, comprising the Indians of North and South America
  5. the Malayan, or brown race, which occupies the islands of the Indian Archipelago

Researchers in the decades following Blumenbach classified the Malay and American races as branches of the Mongolian, leaving only the Caucasian, Mongolian, and Ethiopian races. Further explication in the early and mid twentieth century, arrived at three primary races:

with a small number of less widespread races.

The most widely referenced 20th century racial classification, by American anthropologist Carleton S. Coon, divided humanity into five races:

Coon assigned even some populations on the northern fringe of sub-Saharan Africa to a broadly defined Caucasoid race, leading to charges that peoples with recorded ancient civilizations were being defined out of the black race, in order to depict the remaining "Congoid" race as lacking in culture.

Coon and his work were widely accused, even at the time, of obsolete thinking or outright racism, but some of his terminology continues in use to a lesser degree even today, even though the "-oid" terms now have offensive connotations [1] (, perhaps because his liberal opponents who de-emphasized the significance and definability of race, naturally did not introduce any superseding classification to drive them out of use. In addition to references in legitimate scientific discussion, Coon's macro-racial classification, as well as his detailed list of European "subraces", is popular with racist groups who agree with the existence of distinct racial types, and is widely reproduced on "white nationalist" websites.

In Blumenbach's day, physical characteristics like skin color, cranial profile, etc., went hand in hand with declarations of group moral character, intellectual capacity, and other aptitudes. The "fairness" and relatively high brows of "Caucasians" were held to be apt physical expressions of a loftier mentality and a more generous spirit. The epicanthic folds around the eyes of "Mongolians" and their slightly sallow outer epidermal layer supposedly bespoke a crafty, literal-minded nature. The dark skin, relatively sloping craniums and other common traits among "Ethiopians" were taken as wholesale proof of a closer genetic proximity to the other great apes, even though the skin of chimpanzees and gorillas beneath the hair is whiter than the average "Caucasian" skin, that the thin lips characteristic of "Caucasians" are actually closer in form to the lips of lower primates, that "high foreheads" can be seen in orangutans and some monkey species, and that the straight and relatively profuse body hair of Europeans is considerably more "ape-like" than the sparse, tightly curled body hair of "Ethiopians". By Coon's day, group physical characteristics were, for the most part, unhitched from assessments of group character and aptitude, and, since then, those maintaining the mere reality of physical group traits are often suspected of carrying the old malign racism.

Charles Darwin, in his book dealing with the origins of race from 1871, The Descent of Man, noted the great difficulty naturalists had in trying to decide how many "races" there actually were (Darwin was himself a monogenist on the question of race, believing that all humans were of the same species and finding "race" to be a somewhat arbitrary distinction between groups):

Man has been studied more carefully than any other animal, and yet there is the greatest possible diversity amongst capable judges whether he should be classed as a single species or race, or as two (Virey), as three (Jacquinot), as four (Kant), five (Blumenbach), six (Buffon), seven (Hunter), eight (Agassiz), eleven (Pickering), fifteen (Bory St. Vincent), sixteen (Desmoulins), twenty-two (Morton), sixty (Crawfurd), or as sixty- three, according to Burke. This diversity of judgment does not prove that the races ought not to be ranked as species, but it shews that they graduate into each other, and that it is hardly possible to discover clear distinctive characters between them.

Criticism of the biological significance of race often accompanied the development of racial theories. Many significant criticisms came from the school of Franz Boas beginning in the 1920s. During the mid-1930s, with the rise of Nazi Germany and its prominent espousing of racist ideologies, there was an outpouring of popular works by scientists criticizing the use of race to justify the politics of "superiority" and "inferiority". An influential work in this regard was the publication of We Europeans: A Survey of "Racial" Problems by Julian Huxley and A.C. Haddon in 1935, which sought to show that population genetics allowed for only a highly limited definition of race at best. Another popular work during this period, "The Races of Mankind" by Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish, argued that though there were some racial differences, they were primarily superficial, and in any case did not justify political action. The question of whether "race" was at all a useful scientific concept has been in continuous debate since that time, becoming especially politicized during and after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

From Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)

Race \Race\, n. [F. race; cf. Pr. & Sp. raza, It. razza; all from OHG. reiza line, akin to E. write. See Write.]

1. The descendants of a common ancestor; a family, tribe, people, or nation, believed or presumed to belong to the same stock; a lineage; a breed.

The whole race of mankind. --Shak.
Whence the long race of Alban fathers come. -- Dryden.

Note: Naturalists and ethnographers divide mankind into several distinct varieties, or races. Cuvier refers them all to three, Pritchard enumerates seven, Agassiz eight, Pickering describes eleven. One of the common classifications is that of Blumenbach, who makes five races: the Caucasian, or white race, to which belong the greater part of the European nations and those of Western Asia; the Mongolian, or yellow race, occupying Tartary, China, Japan, etc.; the Ethiopian, or negro race, occupying most of Africa (except the north), Australia, Papua, and other Pacific Islands; the American, or red race, comprising the Indians of North and South America; and the Malayan, or brown race, which occupies the islands of the Indian Archipelago, etc. Many recent writers classify the Malay and American races as branches of the Mongolian. See Illustration in Appendix.

2. Company; herd; breed.

For do but note a wild and wanton herd, Or race of youthful and unhandled colts, Fetching mad bounds. --Shak.

3. (Bot.) A variety of such fixed character that it may be propagated by seed.

4. Peculiar flavor, taste, or strength, as of wine; that quality, or assemblage of qualities, which indicates origin or kind, as in wine; hence, characteristic flavor; smack.

A race of heaven. --Shak.
Is it [the wine] of the right race ? --Massinqer.

5. Hence, characteristic quality or disposition. [Obs.]

And now I give my sensual race the rein. --Shak.
Some ... great race of fancy or judgment. --Sir W. Temple.

Syn: Lineage; line; family; house; breed; offspring; progeny; issue.

See also


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