Inquiries into fake history: Antoine Duchesne (1766) and Georg Forster (1786) on “race” in context to natural history

Science is replete with fake, whiggish histories peddled to bolster new paradigms. Biology is no exception. Two examples are the The Essentialism Story (Winsor, 2006; Richards, 2010; Wilkins, 2013) and The Classic View/The Mutationism Myth (Stoltzfus, 2010; Stoltzfus and Cable, 2014). According to the former, early biologists were inexplicably caught in the thrall of Platonic-Aristotelian typological essentialism, which resulted in the failure to recognize the significance of individual variation and which consequently retarded the recognition of evolution. According to the second, early geneticists were caught in the grip of saltationism, which resulted in the rejection of natural selection and held back for decades the synthesis between Mendelian principles and evolutionary theory. As expected, in these tellings, the actual historical views are often barely recognizable.

The most prominent, yet least discussed, example of pseudohistory of science has to be what should be called The Race Narrative. The Race Narrative is meta-myth, comprised of several related tales, which typically involve some permutation of: “”Race” never described a classification which had a proper place in natural history or a classification which, given how it was historically understood, was applicable to humans, but rather was a political construct imposed to oppress certain human groups, which was then back rationalized by natural historians, who read reality through the political ideology of their times.” Often The Essentialism Story and, to a lesser extent, The Mutationism Myth are incorporated into this Narrative.

To give just a few examples:

Approaching the matter sociologically, HoSang (2014) tells us that the race concept was historically developed to position human groups in a system of hierarchy and inequality. He writes:

The race concept emerged in the seventeenth century as an effort to link human variation to explanations for hierarchy and inequality (Bernasconi and Lott 2000; Smedley 1993). Of the infinite taxonomies that could be used to describe this variation, the race concept developed explicitly to situate the groups it identified within a colonial worldview. As the cases of Hsu and Sesardic make clear, the invocation of race as a scientific category has always been linked to the production and naturalization of a social hierarchy. The very substance and rationale of their inquiry is only cognizable within this implicit framework of white supremacy… Constructionist theory also argues that race itself is an artifact of power, a historical legacy of colonial expansion, slavery, and mass violence that has shaped much of the past 500 years of world history. In these accounts, race does not form the basis for domination; domination forms the basis for race.

Smedley (1993), whom he cites, tells us further that, “The idea of “natural” inequality was a central component of race from its inception.” This same Smedley penned the influential American Anthropological Association statement on race, in which we are told: “From its inception, this modern concept of “race” was modeled after an ancient theorem of the Great Chain of Being, which posited natural categories on a hierarchy established by God or nature.” This perplexing statement makes sense only after one realizes that the natural scientific concept of “race,” under discussion is none other than the pre-Darwinian concept of “species.” But with this realization, the story falls apart, as modern biological concepts of species either trace back to Aristotle or to Ray and Linnaeus, depending on how one wishes to define these, and thus before or after the time when they were said to have been conjured up. That natural scientific “species” concepts certainly were not made up to naturalize humans doesn’t help this old sociologist’s tale, either.

Moving on, Ludwig (2014) compares “race” to phlogiston. Parroting The Essentialist Story about species and adding to it another story about 19th century race concepts, he tells us that historic concepts of race are inapplicable because they entailed both property essentialism and far-reaching differences.

Despite these differences, race theories of the late 18th and the 19th century shared crucial empirical assumptions that turned out to be flawed and make it attractive to locate them near the idealized phlogiston-end of the elimination scale. Two features are especially obvious and important for their latter rejection. First, races were usually assumed to have essences: all members of a race share the same essential properties that unambiguously define their racial membership. Second, 19th-century theories postulated far-reaching differences between races on a morphological, intellectual, and ‘‘temperamental’’ level… Both assumptions were not only widely rejected in the 20th century but also contrasted with populationist approaches in early post-war biology.

In defense of what 19th-century theories supposedly implied, Ludwig cites Haeckel’s discussion. And he conveniently neglects to note that Haeckel explicitly conceptualized the racial groups under discussion as species, because of the apparent largeness of differences. That is, for Haeckel, the rank of species – not the generic concept of race — implied large differences. But no matter about such technicalities; this is philosophy of science after all.

In contrast to most philosophical commentary on the matter, Jean Gayon (2008) makes the genuinely interesting point that there is nothing biologically implausible per se about the common 18th century homogeneous-in-formal-nature view of species – after all, strains of Bacteria can be comprised of clonal copies and thus form something like these. But, as with so many others, he conflates the “traditional category of race” with a traditional concept of species, and then, incredibly, criticizes applications of the so-said concept of race visa via the concept of species on account of how species were once characterized.

I would like to provide a counterpoint to the previous discussion by examining a group of organisms for which the concept of race might be clearer than that of species: bacteria…. In such a situation, the traditional category of race is much more plausible than in fully sexually reproducing organisms. A local population, ecologically adapted, can be characterized both as a robust type (that is, as a class of homogeneous individuals) and as an evolutionary line with a limited lifespan… Bacteria therefore present us with a set of organisms in which the notion of race is easier to deal with than the notion of species. Locally adapted populations of bacteria are good candidates to be considered as races, because they possess the very properties that make this status so problematic in the case of sexually-reproducing plants and animals.

If one is going to argue that “race” concepts are problematic because historically they described a general type of entity which overlapped with “species” and also because historically “species” concepts were problematic, then one should be obliged to also argue that “species” concepts are at least as problematic! But then the game would be up, so we can’t expect such consistency. More generally, a recurring theme with these criticisms is that “race” is found guilty for all the problematic aspects of modern pre-Darwinian species concepts, without or with only passing acknowledgment that the problem is, in fact, with species concepts. And “race” is simultaneously given no credit for the accurate aspects of the same concepts.

As such, after years of study, Adam Hochman (2016) tells us that “race” never really explained anything unique in natural history. After all, human variation was always recognized, so what could a natural historian concept of race possibly have added?

What I want to point out is that while oxygen theory heralded a change in ontology from phlogiston theory, much of the underlying theoretical structure remained. Comparing race theory to phlogiston theory is a compliment to race theory! They are similar in the sense that neither phlogiston nor race is real, but they are dissimilar in the sense that racial theory cannot match the success of phlogiston theory. People have known that the human form varies along geographical space since antiquity. What were the empirical successes of race theory? What were its novel predictions?

Of course, modern “species theory” was outline by John Ray in 1686:

In order that an inventory of plants may be begun and a classification (divisio) of them correctly established, we must try to discover criteria of some sort for distinguishing what are called species. After long and considerable investigation, no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed. Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individuals or the species, if they spring from the seed of one and the same plant, they are accidental variations and not such as to distinguish a species? Animals likewise that differ specifically preserve their distinct species permanently; one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa. [Quoted in Richards, 2010]

The correct or oxidative aspect of this theory was that species were entities which propagate their form through seed, and thus were generative entities. This theory makes the prediction that, as Aristotle put it, in Parts of the Animal, humans will beget humans (and not e.g., horses).

As the old Arab saying goes: “If we had not seen that horses beget horses, we should say that they were begot of barley.” To counter this habit of mind, “species theory,” proposes that certain groups called “species” will re-produce themselves, begetting similar others, irregardless of the immediate environment. The incorrect or phlogistonic aspect, of course, was the idea that species could not transmute over a long succession of generations. Now, either we identify “race theory” with “species theory” and we grant that it makes useful predictions e.g., chicks will come from chicken – but not e.g., alligator – eggs. Or we identify “race theory” with “constant variety theory” and recognize that “race theory” makes useful predictions e.g., that Leghorn chicks will come from Leghorn chicken – but not e.g., Rhode Island Red – eggs. Or we identify “race theory” with both “species theory” and “constant variety theory” and recognize that it makes useful predictions e.g., that chicks will come from a chicken’s eggs and that Leghorn chicks will come from Leghorn eggs even when the Leghorn chickens are raised in Rhode Island Red environments.

To give a sense of actual historic race-thinking, I excerpted a few passages from Antoine Nicolas Duchesne’s “Histoire naturelle des fraisiers” (1766). (Patiently translated by Meng Hu.) In this, Duchesne discusses how the term race popularized by Buffon in context to zoology needed to be introduced into Botany to describe what were idiosyncratically termed “constant varieties,” lest following Ray and Linnaeus’s guidelines these varieties, which were somehow also constant, were ranked as species, on account of being seed propagating forms. For context, I also excerpted passages from Georg Forster’s “Something more about race.” Forster draws precisely the conclusion that Duchesne hoped to preclude, namely that different so-called “constant varieties,” in this case human varieties, are really different species.

For background, John Ray had defined species as seed propagating forms and contrasted these with intrapopulational variations. Carl Linnaeus adopted Ray’s understanding of species and popularized this species/variety distinction. As Müller-Wille (2007) notes:

At the core of Linnaeus’s reform stood his distinction between species and variety which was thoroughly based on his theory of generation. In distinguishing between species, Linnaeus advised his fellow naturalists, one should rely exclusively on “constant” characters – that is, not on characters that varied with external conditions like climate or nutrition, but on characters that reproduced in offspring under various external circumstances.

Both Ray and the early Linnaeus — along with most 18th to mid-19th century naturalists — understood species to be creator made entities which perpetuated their form invariably, if only because occasional monstrosities were purged through a process of survival of the form typical. This would be more or less in line with Aristotle’s idea that species did not transmute because substantial deviations from the species form were maladaptive relative to the species’ way of life, and, as a result, were eliminated across generations, a process – survival of the fittest as form typical – which produced a constant regeneration of the original species form (Lennox, 2001; 2009). Contrary to The Essentialist Story, the deduction about transmutation wasn’t resultant of an untenable essentialist way of thinking, but it seems to have been based on a belief in a well-designed and orderly cosmos. (In such a well functioning cosmos, leaky data transmission either wouldn’t exist or would get cleaned up rapidly.)

As the ability of entities to reproduce their form was seen as a species property, the constant propagation of a form across different environments evinced that groups were, in fact, specifically distinct and thus had separate origins. In contrast, changeability in form evinced that the entities were merely varieties. This reading of thought now seems to be widely accepted. As such in the fourth edition of “Race in North America,” Smedley and Smedley (2012 pp. 212) note:

Like most scientists of the eighteenth century, Linnaeus had a precise understanding of “species” as distinguished from “varieties.” He saw species as distinct primordial forms dating from creation that remained essentially the same throughout all time, whereas varieties were clusters within a species that had acquired superficial differences in appearance. Species were fixed and unalterable in their basic organic plan, whereas varieties reflected changes caused by such external factors as climate, temperature, and geographic features. It was the general and widespread belief that all humans were members of the same species, as they had descended from a common original ancestry and were capable of intergroup mating and reproduction.

As Smedley and Smedley note intersterility was also commonly taken as evidence that groups were species in the creator-kind sense. The issue is complex because, as Richards (2010) details, the later Linnaeus conducted hybridization experiments, which led him to conclude that many of his species and even genera were interfertile. He eventually concluded that his orders cut out creator-kinds and that genera and species were often hybrids of these these. One can see the change by comparing his first and thirteenth edition of “Systema Naturae”:

1735: If you look at God’s work, everything is clear enough, living things propagate from an egg, and all the offspring resemble the parent. For this reason, no new species are produced. (In Latin: Si opera Dei intueamur, omnibus satis superque patet, viventia singular ex ovo propagari, omneque ovum producer sobolem parenti simillimam. Hinc nullae species novae hodienum producuntur.)

1770: We may suppose God at the beginning to have proceeded from simple to compound, from few to many, and therefore at the beginning of vegetation to have created just so many different plants, as there are natural orders. That He then so intermixed the plants of these orders by their marriages with each other; that as many plants were produced as there are now distinct genera. That Nature then intermixed these generic plants by reciprocal marriages… and multiplied them into all possible existing species.

Needless to say, intersterility was a disputed criterion since natural historians – including Linnaeus himself – recognized the existence of hybridity between a multitude of lineages which everyone considered to be species. As Duchesne points out, the species/variety distinction formulated by Ray and Linnaeus was leading to quite a bit of confusion, because there were organismic groups which could interbreed but yet propagate their form through seed. In light of this distinction and questions about the evidential status of hybridity, many naturalists, later called splitters by Darwin, dismissed the intersterility heuristic and concluded that all forms which had always been known to propagate their form through seed should be considered to be species — and some were even willing to apply the logic to the human genus. As an example of the latter, the renowned naturalist Georg Forster, argued, in a reply to Immanuel Kant, that Blacks were a separate species from Whites since Blacks remained black and bore black children generation on end even when in Europe. Defending his conclusion, he points to the Linnaean species/variety distinction and to the inter-generationally constant differences in color.

I quote several passages below, since the argument – which represents the typical polygenist one – is notable on a number of accounts. We see a rejection of the idea of “constant varieties,” a consequent rejection of the idea that the study of race or lineage has a useful place in context to infraspecifc variation, a rejection of the idea that hybridity provides definitive evidence that groups are not Linnaean creator-kind species, a corollary rejection of the idea that “species” implies large differences, a consequent rejection of the idea that species implies a lack of intermediates, a continual reference to the inconstant variety/species distinction, and a repeated restatement of the idea that Linnaean varieties are by definition “purely climatic and changeable.” Moreover, we see the tendency of polygenists to dismiss not just the dominant, monogenist understanding of “race” insofar as it allowed for the possibility of constant varieties, but also the term “race,” with which, we are told, we can “conveniently dispense,” since human biological variation is exhausted by the categories of inconstant varieties and species. We also see a recognition that scientific moralism was motivating the monogenist, lumper position.

Kant seems to assume that such a difference of characteristic features might be sufficient for the individual describing nature to construct a kind. Of this, I cannot answer with complete satisfaction, because Linnaeus, the foremost author to treat [this] science systematically, wrote in Latin. His divisions are called: classes, ordines, genera, species, and varietates. Now [a] variety seems to me always to be defined by changeable, accidental characteristic features. By [saying] this, it is assumed that one variety can change into another. If Kant prefers in this sense to say Kind rather than variety, that is only an exchanging of words with which we can easily come to terms. If, on the other hand, the [Latin term] species is to be translate with [the German term for] species, [namely, Gattung], unalterable, distinguishing features, in the Linnaean sense, are required. [The situation] must be different in natural history, if, in this [field] we are, as Kant claims, concerned only with generative origination and descent. Natural history in this sense might, however, possibly be only a science for gods and not from human being. (pp. 156)

Someone will perhaps object [and say] that [the answer to these questions] depends upon an experiment that decides everything easily and without contradiction. We [might, for example] take two animals with different characteristic features that nevertheless appear closely related. We [might next] allow them to mate with one another. If an intermediary creature arises from this interbreeding that is again capable of reproduction, the parents were from the same species, although from a different variety (or kind). For my part, I find here, instead of a decisive ruling, simply a new definition. We call the greyhound and the Bolognese, which together produce a fertile intermediary creature, [either] species or varieties, [but when we do this] we thereby come not a hair’s breath closer to the investigation of their common descent from one original pair, and these expressions remain, as before, the inventions of the systematic investigator of nature, by means of which he wants to distinguish easily and quickly conspicuous or smaller modulations among the living things of the earth. (pp. 156-157)

Third, genus is as equally indeterminable a concept as species as soon as it comes to [the point of determining] the measure of the distance by which the one is separated from the other. The genus [of animals with] horned noses includes two species that nearly border on one another, and there now exists, as it were, a great gulf between it and the nearest genera… We find, therefore, entirely unequal distances everywhere between the individual living things of the earth that do not correspond to our determined division… [Nature] produces living things that at times so completely resemble one another that we can perceive no difference in them. A times, some of them diverge [from one another] in minor, small details. At times, others [diverge] where the analogy is maintained only at a distance. At this time it is the formation, at [that] time, the size; [and] at [yet another] time, the color that, in its forms changes. We often come across a creature that stands like a middle point among several related species. – In a word, the order of nature does not follow our divisions, and as soon [as] we want to force these [divisions] on [nature], we lapse into absurdity. (pp.158-159)

How much, then, is to be hoped for a decisive ruling on the [previous] question? Is the Negro a variety or a species in the human genus? If [the ruling] depends upon proving the descent of all varieties from an original, common parental couple, which cannot be demonstrated without indisputable historical evidence, there will be no definite solution…. If, on the other hand, we are satisfied by the Linnaean ruling, [that] a variety differs from a species simply through the inconstancy of its characteristic features, then a little provisional investigation is still required [to find out] to what extent this definition fits the various human lines of descent. (pp.159)

There are obviously differences of [skin] color in each of the human lines of descent, the white as well as the black. Whites becomes blackish in African [and] Negroes become olive-colored in the land of the Kaffiers. But no experiment up to now teaches us if this variability might be able to take place up to a full transformation of the white into the black color, and, the other way around, the black into the white. (pp. 159)

My friend, you now easily see that this matter has not yet been settled. If someone were to give us an undoubtable example [showing] that a Negro family might have lost its color in a determinate succession of generations in which no interbreeding had occurred after they were transplanted to our climate [and] gradually exchanged its ape-like formation for that of a European climate, we [could] without objection call the Negro a human variety in the Linnaean sense, because its characteristic features are purely climatic and changeable. Such an example does not, however, exist and must indeed always be lacking. (pp. 161)

I have deliberately made use of the word variety in the previous discussion, but [I have] at the same time given it to be understood that I consider it synonymous with [the word] race. Admittedly, the latter term was previously still [not very well] determined. We have borrowed [the term] from the French; it seems very closely related to [the words] racine and radix and signifies descent in general, though in an indeterminate way. For one talks in French of the race of Caesar [in] the same [way] as of the races of horses and dogs, irrespective of the first origin, but, nevertheless, as it seems, always with tacit subordination under the concept of a species. It would be a [great] mission for an individual who had nothing else to do, to develop in what sense each writer has possibly used this word. I am no doubt permitted to say of the authors of travel descriptions who have recently described the inhabitants of the South Sea Islands that they seem to take refuge in the word only in those cases where it is uncomfortable for them to say variety. [The word] should mean nothing more than a mass of men whose common formation is distinctive and sufficiently at variance with their neighbors [such that they] could not be immediately derived from them. [They are] a lineage whose derivation is unknown, and consequently, one which we cannot easily count under one of the commonly accepted human varieties because we lack knowledge of the intermediary link. Thus, the Papuans and the other black inhabitants of the islands of the South Sea related to them are called a different race [distinguishable] from the light brown people of Malaysian descent that can be found in the same region. [This, however, is only to say] that [they are] a people of peculiar character and unknown descent. If we wish in the future to keep this definition when talking about human beings, we can still continue to use the word. Where [this is] not [the case], we can conveniently dispense [with it]. Kant’s definition, on the other hand, seems to be much less acceptable the more uncertain and improbably it is that, among animals, one and the same line of descent could always produce an invariably heritable difference. (pp. 163-164)

As for the inconstant variations that do arise before our eyes, we know that their distinguishing signs are also transitory, that one can change into another and in the grandchild the unaltered formation of the ancestors [can] appear again, although the intermediary members were divergent [from it]. If, however, the differences can no longer be traced historically back to their point of origination, then the least we can do is regard the descent as undetermined; and the distinction that Kant wants to make between the concepts of the description of nature and the knowledge of natural history must become altogether void. (pp. 164)

Do we not, then, when we separate the Negro from whites as an originally distinct line of descent, cut through the last thread by means of which this ill-treated people might be connected with us and find still some protection and mercy from European cruelty. Let me rather ask if the thought that blacks are our brothers has ever, anywhere, even once, caused the raised whip of the slave driver to be lowered?… Human beings from one line of descent who were sharing in the unrecognizable blessing of a cleansed moral philosophy do not show themselves for this reason [to be any] more tolerant and more loving toward one another. Where is the bond, however strong it might be, that can hinder the decadent European from ruling over their white fellow human beings equally as despotically as over Negroes?… How, therefore, are we supposed to believe that an unprovable dogma could be the sole support for our system of duties when [it] has not prevented a single act of ignominy throughout all the time in which it has been accepted? No, my friend, if moralists begin from a false theory, it is truly their own fault when their edifice totters and falls completely apart like a house of cards. (pp. 165-166)

Although an old book, against which no one is permitted to write makes reference in no syllable to the Negro, [and] although the great man, the reputed author of [that book], has putatively seen no Negro, it is certainly an attack on this old book if one presents a possibility of more than one human line of descent, and this blow, which harms no one, is called a heresy. (pp. 167)

One wonders how the many critics of “race,” who identify, one way or another, “racism” with the polygenist position and “race” with “typological-essentialism” make sense of actual polygenist arguments, and the polygenists’ dismissal of biological “race” in any sense other than “species.” Whatever the case, the polygenist logic worked because in the Linnaean framework, or at least in a popular understanding of it, groups were either environmentally induced varieties or they were original creations.  For Duchesne, this deduction was precisely why the term “race” needed to be introduced into natural history: so to describe groups which exhibited constant, hereditary differences yet which clearly were not separate species (in the creator-kind sense). He gives as an example the race of strawberries which he saw born in his garden:

It is certain today that, if all species are stable, there are also races whose distinctions are constant, although belonging to the same species. The Versailles strawberry that I saw born, and which became the head of a race, puts that fact beyond doubt. Cultivation and other accidental causes do not produce new species, but changes in certain individuals do occur that are perpetuated in their posterity, constituting new races. (Appendix, “Remarques Particulières,” pp. 11-21).

The fact that the Linnaean variety/species distinction missed something, he tells us, was proven by the birth of a “constant variety” – an infraspecific seed propagating form – in his botanical garden. As part of his discussion, Duchesne presents us with one of the first diagrams of a phylogentic network, one similar to that of Buffon, who traces the genealogical networks of the races of dogs.

Regarding etymology, Duchesne points out that “race” (Fr. lignee, extraction, desendans, famille, sorte de gens) was used to mean what was frequently meant by “genus” (Lt. race, stock, kind; family, birth, descent, origin) to describe what we would now call “population lineages.” But, in natural history, the term “species,” the etymology of which implies visible differences, had come to refer to these generative groups. Duchesne suggests that the term “race” would better match with this generative concept. I made precisely the same point visa visa de Queiroz’s (“biological entities whose members propagate themselves to form lineages”) and Wilkins’ (“a living kind or sort is that which has a generative power to make more instances of itself”)  general concepts of species. These would more properly be called general concepts of “race” — and “species” would be understood as those population lineages which were sufficiently observably distinct to warrant the name “species.”

Here are the passages from Duchesne:

It may seem strange that today the word species corresponds exactly, in natural history, to the yevos of the Greeks, or the genus of the Romans; nothing, however, is more true. The word yevos appears to come, in Greek, from the verb yaw (I produce) whose derivatives are without number: it meant precisely then what we mean by raceGenus has been used in the same sense, in Latin, both literally and figuratively, as seen in an infinite number of passages of the best authors. The first modern Naturalists have also used it the same way.

The word species, on the contrary, of which we have formed a species, was derived from the rarely used verb specerespecio, (see): it was used only to signify an appearance, an image, etc. : we even use the word species in this sense, speaking of the impressed or visible species of the ancient philosophers. It is only very late that the word species came into use, in Latin, to signify also race. It seems to me that we have first said that similar things had the same species, the same appearance, as we would say they have the same figure, and that afterwards they were said to be of the same species, as we would say that they are of the same figure. Now, as nothing is more ordinarily alike, among natural objects, than two individuals, one of which produces the other; we will understand by species the assembly and succession of all individuals, as presenting all the same species, that is to say, the same appearance. (pp. 14-15)

These metaphysical divisions have become the basis of methods, in Natural History; but we have been forced, in order to avoid confusion, to give them particular denominations; to call kingdoms the great categories of animals and vegetables; classes, families, orders, sections, subordinate divisions or subdivisions; saving the word genera for the latter; and that of species, for the assembling of the individuals produced by each other, no matter how different they may be among themselves; we then called varieties the individuals in which these varieties were observed, by a figure of speech similar to that which has made use of the word species, as we have just seen: when these extraordinary individuals have found themselves producing sorts similar to them, we have also extended to the whole assembly the name of variety, for which we have been forced to add the incompatible attribute of constancy; they have been called constant varieties; it is to this improper denomination that custom has on several occasions substituted the term of race; a term correctly employed by M. de Buffon in the Natural History of Animals, and which requires to be introduced into that of Plants.

It often happens that instead of the word race, species is employed; which obliges species to be given the name of genera; thus, instead of saying that in the human species, there are several races, that of white men, that of black men, etc.; whites and blacks are regarded as distinct species, which make up the human race. I confess that this way of expressing oneself would be more in conformity with the etymologies which I have just related, and that its use by certain persons would be very well adapted to them; but this usage is actually not that of scientists; and although the choice is truly indifferent, provided that care is taken to define the terms; it is at least very essential not to employ them in the two different senses, as it often happens, and which confounds all ideas. (pp.18-19.)

Indeed, reading from the chapter on the differences of Botanical philosophy, what Mr. Von Linnaeus said about this article, it appeared to me that instead of establishing, as he did, the differences of species in the number, the face, the proportion, and the situation of the various parts of the plants, one would act more surely by considering first their position and their internal form. Should these characters not be as constant in plants as in animals, in which, as we do, comparative anatomy serves very much to indicate the identity or difference of species. M. Von Linnaeus himself comes very close to this idea, when he says that the Florescence, that is to say, the position of flowers, gives the most real differences.

Why, then, in his works, are there so few differences thus established? Would it not be because the species are far too numerous? Because, for specific traits, the differences caused by the influence of climates, culture, etc., are taken as soon as they are perpetuated in the posterity of these plants; and that by following the axiom of [John Ray] Rai, being unable to consider varieties as constant races, they are called the species name. (pp. 25-26)

Now consider both Forster’s and Duchesne’s discussion in light of The Race Narrative. As Duchesne’s discussion illustrates, the term “race” was expressly introduced to describe varieties of both plants and animals which propagated their form through seed to produce “lineages” (or “races” in common French). And this term was used to make epistemic space for the oxymoronic “constant-varieties” which made no sense, given the contemporary metaphysics of biology, with its species/variety distinction. More broadly, the term was used to describe seed propogating forms in general, and thus both constant variety-lineages and species-lineages in particular. That is, it was being used to describe a genuine biological phenomenon of interest: entities which propogate their form to produce ancestry-descent sequencies, or what some would now call “population-lineages.”

Second, we see that there was nothing unique about the application of this term to humans. When it was introduced into natural history, it was used to describe the lineages of plants, non-human animals, and humans alike and in the same fashion. And prior to being introduced, breeders had been using the term to describe domestic lineages. Third, we see that a notion of “race” non-redundant with “species” was clearly not underwriting the polygenist argument that certain human lineages were fundamentally or radically different, rather it was being employed to argue that they were merely “constant varieties,” and thus essentially the same. It was, rather, the species/variety dichotomy that was underwriting the polygenist position.

Fourth, given the metaphysics of the time, the polygenist position, as applied to both human and non-human genera, was perfectly sensible. Major human lineages were obviously propagating their form with constancy. And the polygenists were at least as empirically correct as were the monogenists: they were right in that human groups in fact varied in formal nature, or what we would now call genotype, and as a result of this, and not of epigenic differences, these lineages varied in conspicuous phenotype. (Monogensts, in turn, were right that lineages need not be separate species to differ hereditarily.)

Fifth, splitters held very minimalistic concepts of species, and thus “race” in this sense. In particular, they rejected the idea that specific differences entailed a lack of hybridity, intermediates, and large differences. Their proof that different varieties were, in fact, different species rested on the mere empirical fact that these so-called varieties did not change into one another when environments were switched. (Their other sense of “race,” that of Linnean varieties understood genealogically, was so thin, that it had no proper place in biology, as Forster notes.) Correspondingly, the lumper concept of constant variety, and thus “race” in this sense, was even thinner than the splitter concept of species, but thick enough to have an actual place in natural history. Sixth, polygenists frequently found the notion of “race” problematic since it complicated their arguments. The “ambiguous term race” was, as Paul Broca put it, part of the monogenist, not polygenic language (Broca & Blake, 1864). It complicated the simple reduction of constant forms to species.

Against the part of the Race Narrative which conflates “race” with “species” and employs The Essentialism Story about species to criticize race, it can be noted that race, broadly constructed, referred to seed propogating forms, thus both species-lineages and constant variety-lineages. And criticism of historic-sense race as species fails against historic-sense race as constant varieties. This failure is amplified by the fact that the vast majority of historic race researchers conceptualized human groups as constant varieties (if only because doing otherwise was heretical), for which significant natural inequality only became possible after evolutionary theory came to be accepted, as only after then could infraspecifc groups have species-like differences.

Against Hochman (2016) like criticisms, in addition to what was previously stated, it can be noted that “race theory” in the broadest sense had the serendipitous effect of linguistically amalgamating the distinct pre-evolutionary concepts of species and constant varieties, a verbal amalgamation which made ready the conceptual synthesis of these concepts under evolutionary theory and the consequent development of a — now forgotten — general systematic classification. Thus by 1806, Lamarck was arguing that in nature there really were only individuals and races — species and genus being conventional categories:

All the observations I have gathered on this important subject, the difficulty that I know from my own experience, which is experienced now to distinguish species in the genres where we have already very enriched, a difficulty which increases every day as research. Naturalists expand our collections, everything convinced me that our species have only a limited existence, and are only races or mutable variables…. Meanwhile, let us remember that none of this is in nature; That it knows no classes, no orders, no genera, no species, notwithstanding basis of the natural series we offer our collections; And that among the organized or living bodies there has really only individuals, and different races that are nuanced in all the degrees of organization.

The problems with the Race Narrative should now be apparent. Instead of reiterating these, it is worth trying to make sense of why this narrative is as resilient as it is given that relevant 17th to 19th century texts are now readily available and that these clearly refute this story. The dogged persistence of The Race Narrative, I think, is only fully understandable when we view the debate from the lens of scientific moralism. While this is not the whole story, it is an important subplot acknowledged by race deniers (e.g., Lieberman, 1968):

Start in the 1760s. The original bad guy splitters were working from a perfectly respectable frame. And by this, different human forms showed some intergenerationally constant differences and therefore were different species, meaning aboriginally distinct lineages. But the 18th to mid-19th century scientific moralists said: “No-no! heresy! If that’s true then there is no reason to think that the Creator made us all equal in nature. And if different human groups are thought of as autochthonic lineages then discrimination, war, and slavery! So there must be this other category called “constant varieties,” meaning infraspecifc forms which propagate themselves to form races or lineages. So bad guys, your deductions don’t work. These different human groups are just different races of one species which environmentally acquired their differences, ones which somehow have become hereditary. We are all basically the same!”

Fast forward to the 1960s. The bad guy splitters were working from a perfectly respectable frame. And by this, different human varieties showed some intergenerationally constant differences and therefore were different races, meaning infraspecifc forms which propagate themselves to form lineages. But the mid-20th to 21st century scientific moralists said: “No-no! heresy! If that’s true there is no reason to think that every group evolved the same distribution of dispositions. And if different human groups are thought of as evolutionary different pedigrees then own-race favoritism, white identity politics, and no more open borders and EBT cards. So there must be no such category to speak of, meaning that there are only character gradients and geographic populations. So bad guys, your deductions don’t work. These different human groups are just populations defined in terms of geography which environmentally acquired their differences, ones which will not propagate when behavioral. We are all basically the same!”

Cthulhu may swim slowly, but he always swims left … And yet, this tottering house of card is eventually bound to collapse.


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