When I was in the process of developing my course on human variation I discussed the course with my colleague and friend, Doug Crews, professor of anthropology at the Ohio State University. He had been teaching a course in human variation and the two of us decided we would try to put together a reader that we could use for both our classes. One of the articles I proposed was chapter VII of Darwin’s Descent of Man, the chapter entitled “On the Races of Man” (1871). While there are many 19th century racial anachronisms in this chapter, in it Darwin makes a strong argument for the unity of the human species, all groups coming from a common ancestor, and for the differences being largely the result of adaptation to environmental circumstances. For many years I required my students to read this chapter to contextualize the 19th century race concept and to see the argument Darwin made against polygenism or the separate origins of the races. Graves, in The Emperor’s New Clothes which I have used in my race class, summarizes the critical paragraph from The Descent of Man in table form (2001:66). This is the same paragraph to which many introductory anthropological texts call attention when discussing human variation. In this selection, Darwin argues for the lack of clear boundaries between races and that therefore there is only a single human species with a single origin:
But the most weighty of all the arguments against treating the races of man as distinct species, is that they graduate into each other, independently in many cases, as far as we can judge, of their having intercrossed. 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 de 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 (Darwin, 1871:232-233).
I have used this statement in my presentations many times to help convince students of the social nature of the concept of race. But something about it troubled me. I knew that many anthropological works cite Buffon as contributing to the 18th century understanding of human variation. His suggested means of adaptation leading to race formation within the human species includes ideas that are still being investigated today. As he notes:
Three causes … must be admitted, as concurring in the production of those varieties which we have remarked among the different nations of this earth: 1. The influence of climate; 2. Food, which has a great dependence on climate; and, 3. Manners, on which climate has a still greater influence (Buffon, 1749-1788, Volume V:139-140).
But I also had been teaching throughout my career that Buffon was the anti-Linnaeus, he opposed the idea of classification as a valid pursuit in natural history. After using Jon Marks’ book Human Biodiversity (1995) as a required text in several courses, this idea was strongly reinforced by his extensive coverage of the contrasting approaches of Linnaeus versus Buffon in early anthropology. This led me to question the place of Buffon in understanding the history of the concept of race in anthropology. If Buffon was anti-classification, why would he divide the human species up into a small number of races like other 18th century scholars? Why would he use the concept of race in this “modern” sense of a few large groups?
It is commonly stated that Buffon classified man into six races. Buffon, who was the enemy of all rigid classifications, did nothing of the sort. What he did was to provide an account of all the varieties of man known to him in a purely descriptive manner. This is how he begins: “In Lapland, and on the northern coasts of Tartary, we find a race of men of an uncouth figure and small stature.” and this is the type of Buffon’s description. Here the word “race” is used for the first time in a scientific context, and it is quite clear, after reading Buffon, that he uses the word in no narrowly defined, but rather in a general sense. Since Buffon’s works were widely read and translated into many European languages, he must be held at least partially responsible for the diffusion of the idea of a natural separation of the races in humankind, though he himself does not appear to have had such an idea in mind (Montagu, 1996:69).
As a contrasting view, Nott and Gliddon (1857) assert that Buffon’s work was secondary and it was Cuvier who was truly responsible for the scientific classification of mankind:
Hence, although Linnæus, in his Systema Naturæ, brought together the genera Homo and Simia, under the general title Anthropomorpha, and although Buffon, filled with the importance of human Natural History, devoted a long chapter to the varieties of the human species, yet the first truly philosophical and practical recognition of the zoological relations of man appears in the anthropological introduction with which the illustrious Cuvier commences his far-famed Règne Animal. (Nott and Gliddon, 1857:215)
Smedley (1996) cites Scheidt (1950) as her source for Buffon bringing race into the vocabulary of the natural sciences. The Scheidt piece is actually a 1925 German language publication which was translated, edited, and reprinted by Count in his 1950 reader, This is Race. I point this out because one of the problems with understanding Buffon’s influence on the concept of race has been the use of secondary sources, translations, and abridgements of his work that do not always clearly capture the intent of Buffon. Scheidt adds in a footnote to his article, “the word ‘race’ to all appearance was introduced into the language of natural science by Buffon,” Scheidt (1950:360). Smedley (1996) goes on to suggest that the term was used by other earlier workers but none as significant for subsequent natural historians as Buffon.