The fact that cultures evolve in different
places and at different rates tends to segregate man into distinct groups.
The presence of distinct groups tends to lead to genetic divergence.
These two facts are both plausible, but the
second does not necessarily follow from the first. A group of animals that
cannot, or normally does not breed with another group to produce fertile
offspring is a species. Often we have to infer this with fossils, until
better evidence comes along. Yet we have seen gradual transitions between
say habilis and erectus, and who is to say that Neanderthals didn't breed
with sapiens to produce those troublesome intermediate types? As far as we
know all groups of modern man have always been able to interbreed, and
have interbred where this is Geographically feasible. Overlap has produced
hybridisation - there are no pure races of man.
But there are still major groupings of
interrelated people possessing distinctive physical traits which are the
result of inheritance. If I say to you Negro, or Chinaman, or Aborigine,
or Amerindian a picture appears of distinct facial and body type. General
anatomical relationships indicate common ancestry. In 1961 this table was
published in Teach Yourself Anthropology
At present our view of these racial
groupings is a snapshot: a snapshot taken a hundred years ago and one
taken in a hundred years time would be very different. Races are changing,
and always have. They are probably changing now faster than ever before.
We have seen that what would probably
nowadays be called racial differences were present between different forms
of habilis, of erectus and the early sapiens types: so it is not
surprising that they are present today. But these differences within
populations make it difficult to trace exactly where modern man came from
Molecular data, such as blood grouping, DNA
analysis and linguistic studies all point to an African origin for man, as
indeed does the fossil record. However the timing and pattern of the
subsequent spread are as controversial as ever. Also molecular and
morphological traits are not necessarily coupled: a tool which gives a 99%
likeness between man and chimp is obviously not a good discriminator, and
the molecular data may well be recording the earlier spread of H erectus
early sapiens out of Africa rather than the radiation of modern man. DNA
data relies on the rate of mutation of its bases: if DNA evolution is
constant then the differentiation of modern populations must have been
>0.25 - 0.75 mya - i.e. in the erectus phase. If DNA evolution is not
constant we can't use it as a tool.
There are also problems with the data. The
original 'out of Africa' hypothesis was based upon phylogenetic trees
which in turn reflected the DNA structure of population from all over the
world. A shortest possible tree was constructed to relate all these
samples to each other. Subsequent re-analysis has shown at least 10,000
other possible trees with 5 less steps than the original - some not based
on Africa. So there are two more problems: the shortest tree isn't and
there are another 10,000 choices, all as good as each other. Also the
preferred trees do not reflect similarities in morphological traits.
So, we don't have a detailed pedigree of
where we came from, and we know that races are changing. But how do we
account for the sets of characteristics which define a Chinese or a Red
Indian? As Biologists we can sort out some likely causes:
What do we choose as racial characteristics?
Taking Teach Yourself Anthropology as a guide we can say usually things
that are biologically trivial, and usually things that are very visible.
- Mutation. Changes occur in the structure
of the genetic material
- Natural selection. Such changes may have
- Genetic drift: if a breakaway group has
some genetic characters unlike those of a main population, then after
a time divergence may occur
- Population mixture will bring in
Probably the most visible characteristic is skin colour. Historically long
standing division into white, yellow and black. This is probably due
originally to mutation: the classic story says that a darker pigment will
give more protection against the sun. Probably more likely, if we believe
an out of Africa scenario is that mutation giving a less pigmented skin
allowed greater synthesis of vitamin D from the rather reduced sunshine of
northern areas. Anyway, there was presumably a selective advantage. Skin
colour is therefore a good racial classifier, highly visible, not terribly
accurate (some Caucasoid races are darker than some Negroids and there is
a huge range of variation).
All non-Caucasoid populations have a dark brown or a black iris:
Caucasoids have a range from light blue to brown. Many Asiatics have an
epicanthic fold over the inner cornea of the eye which gives there
appearance of a slant
Hair colour and texture
Hair is dark and woolly in Negroids, straighter and lighter coloured in
most Caucasoids, black and flat in cross section in Chinese.
Cephalic index has also been used i.e. relative broadness of the head.
This is not really useful because of inter-group variability. Stature,
nose shape, lips, ears and body hair have also been used. Blood groups are
useful - Caucasians and Asiatics have a very similar distribution,
American Indians are largely O
Of course these are generalisations and there is much variation: Swedes
are tall, fair haired and blue eyed aren't they? Well 11% of them are
according to the Swedish army recruiting figures.
But even allowing for overlaps and
generalisations and mixtures we can classify three broad racial types in
the modern world.
Caucasoids. 1,000 million people with
variable skin colour; white-dark brown. Hair variable, never woolly, body
hair often thick. Lips tend to be thin. Three subdivisions exist, the
Nordic, the Mediterranean and the Alpine.
The Nordic group are often tall, blonde and
narrow headed - Scandinavia, Baltic, Germany, France, Britain The
Mediterranean group (Southern France, Spain, Italy and oddly, Wales
Egyptians, Semites, Persians, Afghans and some Indians. Lighter in body
build, dark and narrow headed. The Alpine group extends from the
Mediterranean to Asia. Broad headed, square jaws, olive skin, brown hair.
Mongoloids Most numerous of the present day
populations, split into three groups
Negroids 100 million from Africa south of the
Sahara and Melanesians of the S Pacific.
- The Eastern Siberians, Eskimos and the
Northern American Indians
- The Japanese, Koreans, Chinese
- The Indonesians and Malays
Others. We also have to fit in somewhere
the Central African pigmies, the Bushmen and the Australoids.
Noting that there are differences between men from different areas is a
very different thing from implying any judgement. Today there is a
politically correct view that all men are equal. This is undoubtedly
biologically correct too.
But lets go back to our Phoenician merchant
travelling a world which varies culturally from his own comfortable and
advanced society to the stone age. Let us get into the shoes of a Catholic
missionary in South America in the fifteenth century, or a Methodist in
nineteenth century Africa. These good people saw a stone age culture
around them, believed implicitly in good faith that their version was
better and drew the inevitable conclusion that the 'natives' who lived in
'savagery' were indeed savages and must be inferior because they had done
nothing about it.
We thus see the beginnings of a feeling
that members of other races, handily identified by visible
characteristics, were inferior or even subhuman. Once implanted such a
belief is difficult to eradicate.
Lets take up this belief at an arbitrary
point, before Darwinism (so that we can see what impact the theory of
evolution and the descent of man, and the introduction of quantitative
science made) and in an arbitrary place, America (because there were two
'inferior' racial groups there, the Indians and the Blacks).
In America at this time the general view
was Indians below whites and blacks below everyone else. This was part of
a general view of white supremacy Perhaps the truth was unintentionally
amended to make the point (the chimp skull has too large a braincase, the
Negro a much extended jaw) but the picture was clear). Hard liners said
that Blacks were inferior and their biological status justified
enslavement: soft liners (such as Jefferson ) said that Blacks were
inferior but that was not sufficient reason to enslave them. Soft liners
differed in their views - some said that proper education would improve
the Blacks, others that the ineptitude was inbuilt. The most liberal
thinkers had an attitude which would today embarrass all of us .
' And while we are clearing America of
woods and so making this side of our globe reflect a brighter light why
should we.. darken its people? Why increase the sons of Africa by planting
them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all
blacks and tawneys, of increasing the lovely whites and red?' That was
Benjamin Franklin: at least he was pro-Indian.
Thomas Jefferson, another American hero:
'I advance it, therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether
originally a distinct race or made distinct by time and circumstance, are
inferior to the whites in the endowment of both body and of mind'.
'There is a physical difference between the white and black races which
I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of
social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while
they do remain together there must be the position of superior and
inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favour of having the
superior position assigned to the white race'
All leading scientists followed these
views. Linnaeus described Homo sapiens afer as 'ruled by caprice' Homo
sapiens europaeus as 'ruled by customs'. Of African women he wrote
Femnis sine pudoris: mammae lactanes prolixae - women without shame,
breasts lactate profusely. The men, he added, are indolent and anoint
themselves with grease. Cuvier, the founder of Geology Palaeontology and
comparative Anatomy considered blacks:-
'the most degraded of human races, whose form approaches that of the
beast and whose intelligence is nowhere great enough to arrive at regular
Charles Darwin, as liberal and abolitionist
as any man alive at the time wrote about a future time when the gap
between man and apes would be increased by the extinction of intermediates
such as the chimpanzee and Hottentot. Man would be isolated by the gap
between Caucasian and baboon, not by that between ' Negro or Australian
and the gorilla'.
So how do we, as pre Darwinians, explain
the inferiority of some races, or the superiority of others? Again there
were two views. The first, very Christian suggested a single Adam and Eve
who were, before the Fall, perfect. Modern races have degenerated since
Eden, but to greater or lesser extents. Climate was seen as the most
likely agent. Some argued that change was irreversible, some that remedial
action was possible: Stanhope Smith, President of Princeton hoped that
American Blacks, in a climate more suited to Caucasian temperaments, would
soon turn white.
The harder argument held that human races
were separate biological species, descendants of different Adams.
Degeneration was the most popular view, not least because scripture was
not to be discarded lightly. Moreover inter fertility of races made them
more like a single species.
Some people managed to sit quite firmly on
fences. Serres, a French medical anatomist wrote:
'Their conclusion is that the Negro is no more a white man than a
donkey is a horse or a zebra - a theory put into practice in the United
States of America, to the shame of Civilisation'
Yet he managed to hold the view that
recapitulation was the answer, and that Blacks were like white children
and Mongolians like white adolescents. He had some trouble getting his
data to agree with this hypothesis but settled on the distance between
navel and penis 'that inefficable sign of embryonic life in man'.
This distance is small relative to body height in man, and the navel
migrates upward in fetal life, but to a lesser extent in Blacks and more
in whites than Asiatics.
David Hume (the Scottish philosopher) took
the alternative view, that man was disparate:
'I am apt to suspect the Negroes and in general all the other species
of man (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally
inferior to the whites. There never was a civilised nation of any other
complexion than white'.
Others were less rational in their
criteria. Charles White, an English surgeon , wrote that only in the white
man would one find:
'that nobly arched head, containing such
a quantity of brain... where that variety of features and fullness of
expression, those long, flowing graceful ringlets, that majestic beard
those rosy cheeks and coral lips? Where, except on the bosom of the
European woman, two such plump and snowy white hemispheres, tipt with
Now the first important fact about the
polygenic theory is that is was American: it was referred to as the
American school of anthropology. It came from a nation practising slavery
and at the same time expelling its aboriginal natives from their
homelands. The second important fact is that is was, at first, a
non-scientific theory. Scientific respectability was added by two great
American anthropologists Agassiz and Morton
Agassiz was in fact a Swiss, converted to
polygeny after his first encounters with American Blacks. He was also a
creationist - but everyone was before 1859. He maintained his beliefs
however and remained a leading anti-evolutionist.
In studying animals and plants Agassiz formed a view that there were
centres of creation and that organisms didn't generally wander far away.
He classified geographical races as separate species, each created at a
different centre of origin and exploiting environmental differences. Man
was a startling exception.
'Here is revealed anew the superiority of the human genre and its
greater independence in nature. Whereas the animals are distinct species
in the different zoological provinces to which they appertain, man,
despite the diversity of his races, constitutes one and the same species
all over the surface of the globe'
But Agassiz had probably never met a Black
in Switzerland., or indeed in Europe. When he moved to Philadelphia he was
seized by a visceral revulsion and changed his tune. He never produced any
data but felt:
'it is impossible for me to repress the
feeling that they are not of the same blood as us. ....their black faces
with thick lips and grimacing teeth, the wool on their heads, their bent
knees, their elongated hands, their large curved nails and especially the
livid colour of the palms of their hands'
Strong stuff. Agassiz rationalised the
separateness of the Blacks like this. The Christian doctrine of Adam
refers, of course, only to Caucasians. The bible does not speak of things
not known to the ancients. Negroes and Caucasians are as distinct in
Egyptian mummified remains (3,000BC) as they are today. The chronology of
the Bible puts creation at 4004BC. Surely if they diverged so much in the
first 1,000 years they would have diverged much further since. So, the
racial groups, occupying distinct geographical areas (albeit with some
migration) are distinct species, created at separate centres of origin.
Allied to separateness, of course, was a
pecking order and, of course, the Negroes were at the bottom. Because of
this interbreeding must be discouraged., as unnatural and repugnant. The
fact that interbreeding occurred was, of course, due to the sexual
receptiveness of housemaids and the naiveté of young, white, Southern
gentlemen. The servants says Agassiz are halfbeeds already (although how
the parents overcame their natural repugnance is not stated) and the young
men respond aesthetically to the white half while a degree of blackness
loosens the natural inhibitions of the higher race.
All this, remember, and no data. Data was
supplied by Moreton, who had a large collection of skulls, over 1,000 by
the time he died. Why? because he had a hypothesis that the ranking of the
races could be proved by the structure of the brain, as reflected in the
skull. He measured the cranial capacity with mustard seed, and later,
because that was not totally satisfactory, with lead shot. He produced
clean, objective data reinforcing prejudice and putting the white man on
The odd thing is that these summary tables
are derived from raw data, which he also published, and which said no such
thing. There is no reason to suspect Morton as a faker - if so why publish
the raw data, but unconsciously data was massaged to fit prejudice. With
statistics in its infancy he did not understand the weighting of sub
samples to make an average. He was choosy about who was in and who was
out: Peruvians (who lowered the Indian mean) were in, Hindus (who lowered
the Caucasian) were out. Changing from seed (where results are rather
unpredictable) to shot (where results are repeatable) made a difference,
but not a consistent one. Using shot instead of seed shifted the black
average by 5.4cu in but the Caucasian by only 1.8: the Blacks fared the
worst when results could be (unconsciously) biased by packing in more
seed. Means were never computed by sex or stature: the Negroids from Egypt
contained more (smaller) females, not more stupid blacks.
But craniology was not dead - it was the