Chapter 2: A Race of Bishops & Zeus’s Blood

(You can read the complete pdf of this chapter here: Blumenbach Ch2vW. The first few paragraphs of this chapter, without the footnotes, is presented below.)

In researching this book, I have acquired a shelf full of old books dealing with race or race relations, mostly purchased at bargain prices from used book stores. They typically begin with a chapter entitled something like, “The origin of race as a concept,” which explains how the very idea of race was first formulated among European scholars during the Age of Enlightenment, that great expansion of learning that took place in the 18th century. Some authors go back a bit further and mention the works of Aristotle or the Bible, which explained human diversity through the stories about Abraham and Noah. I find many of these discussions to be somewhat ethnocentric since they suggest that it was only the western world that came up with any useful ideas about racial variation. Whatever the Arabs, Chinese, or Egyptians had to say on the matter just didn’t count. I am going to discuss non-western views on race in the middle of this chapter. But before I do that, I need to discuss how the English word race came to exist.

No one is entirely certain where the word race comes from. It first appeared in English and a number of other western European languages in the mid-1500’s and it referred to the lineage of one person or the breed of a horse. Nowadays, race refers to a group of people such as the white race, the Irish race, or the Negro race. However, when Blumenbach was writing his books in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the English word race did not mean the same thing it does today. While race began as word describing a quality possessed by one person, it evolved to mean a group of people. This fact can cause some confusion for the historian. When one reads a book about race written before the 20th century, it is hard to tell if the author is using the modern definition or harkening back the original one.

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