The Races of Man

W.J. Astore

In the 19th century, many people believed in polygenism, and others used the concept of “the races of man,” where by “race” they often meant species.  At home, I have a framed copy of the races of man taken from an encyclopedia published in the 1890s.  Here’s a photo of it:


Of course, there’s always an assumed hierarchy to the races of man concept.  White Europeans are at the top, since it’s they who defined and ordered the hierarchy.  Surprise!

In my photo, White Europeans take pride of place in the center, with some swarthy Italians at the top right (I’m half-Italian).  Meanwhile, Polynesian (pink flowers in hair) and Indian (from South America) women are shown with bare breasts.  “Primitives” are primitive precisely because they’re “immodest” in dress, a convention that allowed publishers to show nudity in illustrations and photos without being accused of pornography.  You might call this the “National Geographic” dispensation for nudity.

My college students were often amazed when I told them that science shows that all of us — all humans — came out of Africa.  Far too many people today still think of race as both definitive and as a rung on a ladder, and naturally they always place their own “race” on the top rung.

Even more disturbing is the resurgence of racialized (and often racist) thinking in the United States.  The idea of the races of man and the “scientific” ordering of the same was debunked a century ago, yet it’s back with a vengeance in much of the U.S.

Naturally, those who promote racialized thinking always put their own perceived race at the top.  In that sense, nothing whatsoever has changed since the 19th century and the “races of man” concept.

19 thoughts on “The Races of Man

  1. The ultimate biological hilarity lies in the fact that melanin-deprived skin is a recent mutation associated with living in a climate where humans are exposed to significantly less sunlight than is the norm in our species’ homeland (East Africa).

    What a thing to base a superiority narrative around. Also ironic, given that Europeans were on the periphery of the world for most of history, almost irrelevant until they combined technology imported from Asia across the Silk Road with the spirit of the Reconquest of Iberia (replete with inquisitions, ethnic cleansing, and all that jazz).


  2. I recommend a very good book on the subject of humankind’s emigration out of north-east Africa 50,000 years ago and what present-day genome research has revealed about this history: Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of our Ancestors, by Nicholas Wade (New York: Penguin Books, 2006).


  3. In 1992, when Photoshop was available on Windows machines I realized that I could do my own color corrections on photos using the RGB numbers. I am color blind, red-green partial deficiency, as it is referred to. So, although I started shooting and darkroom in the summer of 1967 I was never able to get a good color pack for color prints just by looking. When I did work in commercial photo labs, I was the B&W section. But I did do a lot of color-to-B&W conversions, usually from transparencies for a color catalog shoot.
    For that I had managed, using densitomer readings, to calibrate a set of color packs for various transparency emulsions, Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Fujichrome, AgfaChrome and so forth, so that they would look right on panchromatic B&W film.
    So, when Photoshop came along I figured I would also calibrate the RGB settings I needed for skin tones. I got out daylight slides of all my friends from whiter than me and super pale to honey brown, medium brown, charcoal brown and near black, blue black. I just assumed I would need a separate calibration for each, just the way I needed a separate calibration for the various transparency films.
    It turned out to be much easier (a relief for me).
    Everyone, no matter how pale or how dark corrected to the same pattern: more red, less blue and the green slider on a straight line between the red and blue. Better, although I am color blind and can’t determine the right color change just by looking, turns out I am very sensitive to the aliveness of the color and the deadness of the color. So I could work the color sliders to the overall generic pattern so that the picture popped up as alive as possible (without letting the shadows go blue).
    In other words, a matter of the concentration of colorant, not which colorant. (A colorant is a color used as an ingredient creating another color. i.e. red and blue, colors in themselves, are colorants when combined to make the color purple.)
    I use Lightroom now more than Photoshop and so have a different color correction mechanism. They don’t have convenient RGB sliders for me to use. Instead, I have to put the cursor over an area of skin and use the numerical readings, imagining how they would line up. But the method still works, with a little more work.
    I’ve used that over the years to darken or lighten colors when sometimes correcting a picture when I’ve cut off a limb and need to borrow a limb from another picture.
    Some years ago I did an example photo showing the blending of two dancers (white/black) into one image corrected where I had cut off the forearm of one dancer and borrowed a forearm from the other. If I can find a web reference or find a way to copy the picture here I will modifiy this entry to show it.
    Otherwise we humans are just us. All of us.


  4. “Race” is such a nebulous term, and I prefer to not use it (even though I still do in some cases). I have known people to say that there is only one race – the human race. While I appreciate the sentiment of that attitude, you cannot have an “A” without a “B,” meaning that if there is only one race, then the whole idea of race has no meaning! However, that is the way it probably should be. We can do without the hard bigotry of 19th century Eurocentric imperialism as well as the soft bigotry of low expectations that we see today. However, let it never be said that I believe humans are all the same – I never once susbscribed to that notion, even when I still called myself a communist. Scientifically, there are indeed differences between different human populations. For instance, Asians evolved longer digestive tracts than Africans and Europeans because their agriculture has been based on rice for thousands of years, which is harder to digest than wheat or corn. As far as the recent mutations of fair skin and blue eyes, I’m sure there are those who believe that Nordic peoples, who typically have those features, are “more evolved” than Africans. Well, yes and no. They are indeed more evolved, but that phrase does not mean what racial supremacists think it means. “More evolved” simply means an organism is more differentiated from its common ancestor than its extant relatives. Humans are more evolved than scorpions, not because we are more complex (which is dubious), but because scorpions have not changed very much since they first appeared several hundred million years before humans did. Life is not a ladder, it is a tree, and all living species are mere leaves on it.


  5. I was attachments were possible with comments.

    I have a 1898 Rand McNally World Atlas that includes an extensive section on people around the world with a drawing of each “type” and a write up on the practices of their societies. Some of the drawings are quite realistic, others cartoon-like.

    Heading the entire section is a graphic titled, “The Oran-utang and the Five Principle Races of Man”, depicting at the upper left the oran-utang then three black “races”, a white “Mongolian” representative and at lower right, in the final position most removed from the oran-utang, a distinguished, well dressed and white European with a tidy beard.

    Let no one say there is no such thing as progress. We’ve got a thousand problems today, but there’s been movement (with notable setbacks) in the right direction since 1898.


  6. The National Geographic Magazine in April 2018 apologized for it’s past racist portrayal of the world at large.

    A good book I read concerning human development was Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. Per WIKI: >> The book attempts to explain why Eurasian and North African civilizations have survived and conquered others, while arguing against the idea that Eurasian hegemony is due to any form of Eurasian intellectual, moral, or inherent genetic superiority. Diamond argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies originate primarily in environmental differences, which are amplified by various positive feedback loops.

    The first step towards civilization is the move from nomadic hunter-gatherer to rooted agrarian society. Several conditions are necessary for this transition to occur: access to high-carbohydrate vegetation that endures storage; a climate dry enough to allow storage; and access to animals docile enough for domestication and versatile enough to survive captivity. Control of crops and livestock leads to food surpluses. Surpluses free people to specialize in activities other than sustenance and support population growth. The combination of specialization and population growth leads to the accumulation of social and technological innovations which build on each other. Large societies develop ruling classes and supporting bureaucracies, which in turn lead to the organization of nation-states and empires.<<By 1803, at the height of its rule in India, the British East India company had a private army of about 260,000—twice the size of the British Army.

    Close behind the military were the missionaries spreading their own version of cultural dominance, in some cases it was convert or die. The America’s suffered the effects of the germs, which gave the Western Europeans an added advantage.

    I suppose at the height of the British Empire, the average person in the British homeland could have cared less about the atrocities being committed in Africa and Asia to expand and control the Empire.


    1. ML: back then I suppose the “average person” in Britain was much like the average American today: busy, distracted, trying to make ends meet while raising a family. What was happening in Africa or India was “off stage.” It was easier as well to ignore British “excesses” while attacking other countries, like Belgium and its treatment of the Congo, which became a cause about 120 years ago.

      Today, we may have more information available to us, and in “real-time,” but still people are often distracted, or suffering from compassion fatigue (if there is such a thing), or apathetic because they feel powerless. Heck, if we’re taught to feel powerless in the U.S., how can we think we can make a difference in faraway lands?

      The whole “races of man” concept was an effective way of keeping people divided. A mindset of “not my tribe.” Maybe even “not my species” for more than a few.


      1. Identification is a powerful force in humans. I recalled from my psych classes the idea of identification.
        Per WIKI >> Identification is a psychological process whereby the subject assimilates an aspect, property, or attribute of the other and is transformed wholly or partially, by the model that other provides. < Anna Freud pointed out that identification with parental values was a normal part of the development of the superego; but that “if the child introjects both rebuke and punishment and then regularly projects this same punishment on another, ‘then he is arrested at an intermediate stage in the development of the superego'”.<<

        It would appear our society can have significant numbers of people in this arrested development stage. It is just a question of finding the victim to project punishment onto. Blacks and Hispanics have been target. I recall people taking hammers to Japanese cars, but not German cars during the 1980's.

        Today our President Agent Orange can find several targets of opportunity to degrade and his followers the Trumpters eagerly pile on. The Trumpters might push forward the idea of eliminating E pluribus unum (One out of many) if only they knew Latin.


  7. ” “Primitives” are primitive precisely because they’re “immodest” in dress,” And we indeed considered ourselves ‘civilised’ because we were buttoned up from top to bottom.
    But now that WE go topless, flaunt belly buttons, various cleavages and other forms of nudity, we call that emancipation and our unalienable right. And women who dare to sit on a public beach (OUR beach) with their bodies covered, are deemed ‘improperly dressed’ and harrassed by (French) police.
    Seems we always will find a way to proclaim ourselves superior, no matter what.


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