some historical reading: darwin on human ‘races’

The other day one of my students came by my office to ask about his essay. He’d found a book that suggested that the human species was split into 3 races (black, white, & oriental, in case you’re wondering), & that these races differed in things like fecundity and birth rate. Should he include this information in his essay?


I advised him to do a bit more reading on the subject – modern genetics suggests that there’s very little to support the old concept of ‘race’. And in any case, it’s always a good idea, before you cite a single source, to read around & see how well-supported that particular viewpoint is.

And then this morning I found Darwin’s own take on the issue of human ‘race’ – I’ve pasted it here below for you to read & think about.

“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.”  (C. Darwin, (1871), The Descent of Man)


2 thoughts on “some historical reading: darwin on human ‘races’”

  • Darwin is practically foreseeing the concept of populational clines in this paragraph. I’m awfully curious to know the 63 proposed races by (Luke?) Burke though. Shamefully I’ve never read Darwin, but I know I should. I’ve read dozens of excerpts, almost each single one surprisingly actual, bearing the foundations of every further development of biological/evolutionary sciences. In Cavalli-Sforza’s (who also admitted to have not read much of Darwin, what diminishes my embarrassment somewhat) “genes, peoples and languages”, which deals marginally with race and race-like concepts, he shows an excerpt were Darwin pretty much lays the foundations of cladistics, which were only really developed in the 70s.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    I’m working my way through Darwin – you might want to start with his journal of the Beagle voyage. It’s an excellent read & his personality comes through so well. For the other end of his life, Charles’ autobiography is also very good. (I think I’ve blogged on it here, with the reference.) Our library has just bought an illustrated volume of the Beagle letters, & the science librarian sent it over, so that’ll be my lunchtime entertainment for the next week or so 🙂

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