Chapter 3: The Anti-Racists of the Enlightenment?

(You can read the complete pdf of this chapter here: Blumenbach Ch3vW. The first few paragraphs of this chapter, without the footnotes, is presented below.))

During the 17th century, a new view of human diversity began to develop which did not question the Bible narrative but instead expanded and amended it to accommodate new information that was being reported from abroad. This change can partly be traced back to François Bernier (1625 -1688), a Frenchman who spent twelve years in India as the court physician to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707). In 1684, Bernier suggested that physical traits could be used to classified humans into four groupings: Europeans, Far-Easterners, Blacks, and Laplanders, the reindeer nomads of Northern Scandinavia now known as the Sami. The fur-clad Sami were the last European people to be converted to Christianity. As a result, they were often regarded by many early race scholars as being just as savage as any half-naked native of Africa or the Americas. Oddly enough, Bernier never said Native Americans were a separate entity unto themselves, but he never quite explained to which of the other groups they belonged. Brace notes that Bernier advocated using the “four quarters” of the globe as the basis of providing labels for human differences. Thus Bernier, like the Bible, viewed human variation in terms of continental-race, not national-race.

Other early scholars who had ideas on race on were the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), the French astronomer and biologist Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759), and the Anglo-Irish physician Oliver Goldsmith (c.1730-1774). A unique, national-scale view of race was also promoted by John Pinkerton (1758-1826) who pursued a rocky career as a writer after inheriting his father’s estate. Pinkerton, a Scotsman living in London, proposed that the Scots and English were descended from Germans, while the Irish were not. His contention that the Irish were congenitally inferior to the Germanic peoples led him to be criticized in some scholarly circles. Pinkerton’s reputation deteriorated after he was caught forging supposedly ancient poems, and also due to his “irregularities of conduct.” He claimed that a woman he lived with was his wife, but then married and divorced another woman, claiming he only did so because of an unfulfilled promised made to him by his brother-in-law. He wrote a play that was so bad he was hissed off stage. Ultimately, he alienated most of his friends and moved to Paris where he spent his final years in ill health and poverty.

Pinkerton’s views were an extreme example of a very impassioned, eccentric, and possibly mentally ill person’s examination of race. A more sober evaluation would eventually be presented by the legendary French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, better known by his aristocratic title Comte de Buffon (1706-1788). After inheriting a fortune from his mother, Buffon became the keeper of the royal botanical gardens in Paris, which also housed a zoo. It is now the site of the 36-volume Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière, a natural history of everything. Included in this work, he proposed that all humans were descended from one root population, which was white-skinned. As these founders of humanity spread away from their original homeland, they were exposed to elements such as excessive heat or wind which made them turn black or tan. Again we see elements of the old Greco-Roman and Arab Primordial Bakery. Buffon even suggested that transporting Negroes to Europe might, over a few generations, make them lighten up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *