Part 1: The Multiple Roots of the Concept of “Race”

Ch1 Book Cover

(You can read the complete pdf of the Part 1 Introduction here: Blumenbach Part1_Intro_vW. The first few paragraphs of this section, without the footnotes, is presented below.)

Like the blind men in the ancient myth who sought to describe the elephant they could not see, so the scholars of the world have sought to understand human racial variation, or “race,” or whatever you want to call it. Some concluded that race was a real biological phenomenon of nature, while others regarded it as a myth, a creation of the human mind like tribe and class. In recent years, a number of authors have proposed that race was an invention, like the light bulb, which occurred in a specific time and a specific place. However, they cannot seem to agree on when or where. Those who study 18th century German history propose that the idea of race originated in 18th century Germany. Scholars of ancient Rome say it sprouted up in Rome, and so on. The titles of their publications, most of which are very informative and diligently researched, give contrasting narratives. The question is, which one is right?

  • The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity by Benjamin Isaac, (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2004).
  • “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages,” by Geraldine Heng in Literature Compass. Vol. 8, (May 2001).
  • The Invention of the White Race: The Origin of Oppression in Anglo America by Theodore W. Allen, (London: Verso, 1977).
  • The German Invention of Race, edited by Sara Eigen and Mark Larrimore, (Albany, MY: State University of New York, 2006).
  • Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty First Century, by Dorothy Roberts, (New York: The New Press, 2013).

In the next eight chapters, I will discuss the origin of racial theories. I will not exclusively endorse any one of the above invention-of-race options, though many of them have merits. As I see it, the concept of race was not an idea that sprung forth from a lone seed and spread like a grapevine across a hillside. Rather the concept of race as we now define it (accurately or not), is more like a river that was created by the flows of many streams, which in turn were formed by numerous gullies. This book is about a man who stood at the confluence of these streams, and how his writings were eventually manipulated and diverted, like a canal dug through the uplands that forces a waterway to go places it never would have otherwise gone.


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