When I was in the process of developing my course on race I decided to assign chapter VII of Darwin’s 1871 Descent of Man, the chapter entitled “On the Races of Man”, where among many 19th century racial anachronisms Darwin makes a case for the unity of the human species. Graves (2001) summarizes the critical paragraph from The Descent of Man in table form (2001:66). This is the same paragraph that many introductory anthropological texts reference when discussing race. In this paragraph, Darwin makes a statement about 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 paragraph many times to help convince students of the social nature of the concept of race. But something about it troubled me. Many workers 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 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?
Uses of the term “race”
The idea that Buffon brought the term race into scientific discourse goes well back in the anthropological literature. Montagu (1942) blames Buffon for the term while arguing how dangerous it is. Montagu understands, however, that Buffon’s use of the term “race” is nothing like the usage seen since the early 19th century:
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 abridgments 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.
Buffon clearly had no great sentiment about introducing the term race into the scientific discussion of man. His first usage of the term comes in the second paragraph of the 18th section (chapter?) of the third volume of Histoire Naturelle, most of which is dedicated to describing objects related to humans in the collections at the Jardin du Roi. This chapter, Varieties in the Human Species, comprises 159 of the 530 pages in this volume. The second paragraph, presaging the widespread use of the term race, reads as follows:
Examining the surface of the earth, beginning from the north, we find in Lapland, and in the northern coasts of Tartary, a race of men of short stature, whose face is strange, and whose expression is as wild as their manners are unpolished.
[En parcourant dans cette vûe la surface de la terre, et en commençant par le nord, on trouve en Lapponie et sur les côtes septentrionales de la Tartarie une race d’hommes de petite stature, d’une figure bizarre, dont la physionomie est aussi sauvage que les mœurs. My translation.] Buffon, Count de. 1749. Histoire Naturelle, Gènèrelle et Particulière avec la description du cabinet du Roy. Tome Troisième. Paris: Imprimerie Royale. Page 371.
While Buffon may have been responsible for influencing many workers to use the term race for what had been called varieties of the human species, as Montagu clearly points out, he was not using it the way later workers used it. Here are some examples of the use of race in Buffon’s 1749 of the Varieties of the Human Species:
The Danish, Swedish, and Muscovite Laplanders, the inhabitants of Nova-Zembla, the Borandians, the Samoiedes, the Ostiacks of the old continent, the Greenlanders, and the savages to the north of the Esquimaux Indians, of the new continent, appear to be of one common race…[the Ostiacks] appear to form a shade between the race of Laplanders and the Tartars…[or] the Laplanders, the Samoiedes, the Borandians, the Nova-Zemblians, and perhaps the Greenlanders, and the savages to the north of the Esquimaux Indians, are Tartars reduced to the lowest point of degeneracy…the Ostiacks are less degenerated than the Tongusians, who though to the full as ugly, are yet more sizeable and shapely…Those of Formosa, and the Mariana islands, resemble each other in size, vigour, and features, and seem to form a race distinct from that of every other people around them…In Ceylon there is a species of savages, who are called Bedas; they occupy a small district on the north part of the island, and seem to be of a peculiar race…in the island of Mindoro, which is not far from Manilla, there is a race of men called Manghians, who have all tails of [four to five inches], and some of these men had even embraced the Catholic faith. [Emphasis added].
These examples, drawn from Barr’s translation of Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle illustrate even more clearly than Montagu’s that Buffon is using race in a 17th century sense as synonymous with people or nation or society. His usage is closer to what would be called an ethnic group today (Crews and Bindon, 1991).
The last example also calls attention to another issue with Buffon’s discussion of the varieties of man and that is his uncritical acceptance of the existing literature for most of the groups that he discusses. Gossett (1963) says that Buffon’s work was sometimes referred to by other authors as “unnatural history” making a play on the title of his huge volume of work to reflect the fact that Buffon’s credulity was greater than that of many of his successors and competitors.
If we want to continue to credit Buffon with introducing the word race to the “scientific” literature, we need to do so the way that Montagu did, noting that it was a usage that would not be familiar to most readers today—or even through most of the 19th century.
How many races?
Now for the idea that Buffon divided humanity up into six races; as noted by Montagu this is apocryphal, but it has had substantial staying power within the anthropological literature, from the 18th century up to the present. In a 2007 article in Annals of Human Biology, Biondi and Rickards repeat the six race orthodoxy, and in the 2006, 6th edition of Molnar’s Human Variation: Races, Types, and Ethnic Groups, he not only claims that Buffon had a six race system, he names the six races: Laplander, Tartar, South Asiatic, European, Ethiopian, American (Molnar, 2006:6). I have used variations on the table that Molnar presents as I use Darwin’s paragraph to illustrate the difference of opinion on how many races there are. This issue of Buffon’s six races was something that I just could not put out of my mind so I decided to try to find out how this got into the anthropological literature.
I started with Darwin’s mention of Buffon’s six races in The Descent of Man. After completing the list of numbers of races discussed by the various workers, Darwin has a footnote that reads as follows: “See a good discussion on this subject in Waitz, Introduction to Anthropology, Eng. translat., 1863, pp. 198-208, 227. I have taken some of the above statements from H. Tuttle’s Origin and Antiquity of Physical Man, Boston, 1866, p. 35.” Here is the statement of Tuttle’s to which Darwin refers:
Buffon makes six varieties of mankind; viz.,–Polar Negro, Tartar, American, Australian, Asiatic, European [emphasis added]. Kant divides man into four varieties, white, black, copper, and olive; Hunter into seven varieties; Netzau, into two; Virey, into three; Blumenbach into five; Desmoulins into sixteen species; Bory de St. Vincent, into fifteen; Morton into twenty-two families; Pickering, into eleven races; Burke, into sixty-three; Jacquinnot, into three species of one genus. Such are the disagreements of those who have devoted themselves to this study. Granting that mankind are classified by any of these systems, I cannot see how knowledge is advanced. We cannot admit that mankind can have diversity of origin, while so united by one great plan. If a species or variety of the genus Homo sprang up in Europe, and another in America, by agency of conditions existing in those localities, it would be beyond probability that they should both be formed on the same plan: what then of the possibility of sixty-three or more species being formed on the same model? Deny we may, with plausibility, the origin of the diverse races from a single pair six thousand years ago; but the bond of union which exists between them points to a common source (Tuttle, 1866:35).
As we can see, Darwin took quite a lot of Tuttle’s treatment for his own use. The preceding paragraph in the two pieces is remarkably similar. It is interesting to note that the list of races that Tuttle lists for Buffon does not include any race from Africa. Since other writers had taken issue with Buffon’s disdain for Africans before Tuttle, it is surprising that the absence of Africans did not raise an alarm. The other source that Darwin lists, Waitz, reviews Buffon’s work in great detail and relies on many of his biological and ethnological statements, but never suggests that Buffon classified humans into a discrete number of races. Once I had looked up Tuttle’s confusing statement and Waitz’s (1863) fairly clear treatment of Buffon, I was at a dead end because Tuttle cites no source for the six races of Buffon and Waitz does not mention them, so I began looking for other authors who could lead me to a source. I quickly found Brewer’s statement about Buffon:
The number of races proposed in these several systems varies from two to twenty or more. One of the most convenient and popular divisions is that in which the white the black the red the yellow and the brown skins afford a basis for classifying mankind in five races but the classification proposed by Buffon into six primary races is now very generally accepted [emphasis added] and is for many reasons the most convenient for use in the study of Physical Geography.
In accordance with the system of Buffon the six primary races are (1) the Caucasian (2) the Mongolian (3) the American (4) the Malay (5) the African and (6) the Australian.
Each of these is divided into a great number of sub races most of which are so connected by the intermediate shades of gradation and are so blended with one another that no sharp line of distinction can be drawn between them (Brewer, 1890:117).
Already we can see that the races are very different in the version given by Tuttle and the one from Brewer and neither one exactly corresponds to the list given by Molnar (derived from Hrdlička, but Molnar cites Slotkin, 1965 and Montagu 1960). Like Tuttle, Brewer names no source for his races of Buffon, although it is “now very generally accepted” (Brewer, 1890:117).
The one Buffon aficionado who actually espouses a six race system for man is Goldsmith ( 1854). Much of Goldsmith’s 1774 natural history is based on the work of Buffon, but when he comes to humans he takes a very interesting tack, giving his own list of races:
If we look round the world there seem to be not above six distinct varieties in the human species, each of which is strongly marked and speaks the kind seldom to have mixed with any other. But there is nothing in the shape nothing in the faculties that shows their coming from different originals and the varieties of climate of nourishment and custom are sufficient to produce every change (Goldsmith,  1854:209).
We see here that the explanation for the origin of these races is essentially the same as that espoused by Buffon, a single human origin with adaptation to different environments accounting for the races. The six races enumerated by Goldsmith are: Laplanders, Tartars, Southern Asiatics, Africans, Americans, Europeans, essentially the same as Molnar’s list, although Goldsmith doesn’t actually label the races the way Molnar suggests Buffon did. Goldsmith offers the following note after saying that humanity is divided into six varieties: “I have taken four of these varieties from Linnaeus, those of the Laplanders and Tartars from Mr. Buffon,” (Goldsmith  1854:209). Slotkin (1965) cites this note, attributing the six race system to Goldsmith, but it appears that few have bothered to take notice of it in the continuing attribution of this system to Buffon.
In my search for the six races of Buffon, two authors cited specific sources for the number and name of Buffon’s races: Molnar (2006) and Hrdlička (1941). Molnar lists Buffon’s six races as part of a table, comparing the four races of Linnaeus, six of Buffon, five of Blumenbach, and three of Cuvier. He notes at the bottom of the table:
Examples of attempts to divide mankind into discrete divisions according to their physical characteristics. These four foremost natural scientists of the eighteenth century agreed with the major divisions of Europe, African, and Asian peoples, but there was some difficulty in placing Native Americans, Southeast Asians, and Pacific Groups. Sources: Slotkin, J.S. 1965, and Montagu, A.M.F., 1960. (Molnar, 2006:6).
I checked Slotkin (1965) and found a very clear statement that Buffon did not divide humanity up into races and Slotkin mentions the note from Goldsmith about the six race system. Rather than indicating that Buffon classified races, Slotkin provides lengthy quotations to illustrate the non-modern use of the word race by Buffon. Montagu, on the basis of his 1942 statement, was out of the question as a source for Buffon’s six races, but I checked the 1960 text anyway and found no statement at all about Buffon and race. Buffon was discussed exclusively in the context of the history of the concept of evolution.
When I read what Montagu had to say about Buffon in his 1942 book, I followed up on a footnote about the six race classification and was led to Hrdlička’s 1941 piece on human races. Hrdlička not only lists the races, he presents them in a geometrically arrayed fashion (1941:174):
Europeans Ethiopic [African] peoples
While Buffon offered very unflattering descriptions of almost everyone but the French, he never came close to enumerating these six races and he never attempted to arrange them in some geometric or geographic system as Hrdlička implies. Furthermore, the choice of the term Ethiopic is especially enlightening about the care that Hrdlička took in his scholarship of Buffon since Buffon himself offers this statement, “By confounding the Ethiopians with their neighbours [sic] the Nubians, who are nevertheless of a different race, we have been long in an error with respect to their colour [sic] and features,” (Buffon, [1749-1788] 1792:272). He also says, “These contrarieties are more than sufficient to confirm us in the opinion that the Hottentots are of a race distinct from that of the Negroes,” (Buffon, [1749-1788] 1792:294). He clearly had no intention of classifying all African or sub-Saharan African peoples in a single race, and if he did, he wouldn’t have called them Ethiopic! Hrdlička cites Buffon’s Methode en histoire naturelle; la theorie de la terre et de l’homme, 1749-1789, as his source for the six race system and list. A search of the Histoire Naturelle web site (http://www.buffon.cnrs.fr/) provides no such title and a comprehensive Buffon bibliography similarly has no such title by Buffon (Genet-Varcin and Jacques Roger); it appears to be a scrambled version of titles in the series of Histoire Naturelle, but it is clear from what Hrdlička presents that he has not consulted Buffon. Perhaps he mistook Goldsmith’s list of races for Buffon’s or he might have consulted a translation of Histoire Naturelle by John Wright (1831) that includes copious notes inserted by the translator including the ideas of other authors such as Linnaeus. Wright goes on at some length about the classification of Bory de Saint-Vincent and others in the middle of the translation in a way that might mislead the incautious reader. In any event, if Hrdlička did in fact research Buffon, he must have used some 19th century source that scrambled Buffon’s intent, but no translation nor original of Buffon’s work bears the title that Hrdlička cites nor does any present the six race system that he indicates and the geometric arrangement is purely from his own fancy.
Buffon’s work was very influential and it inspired numerous translations into many European languages. Not all of the translations sought to directly recreate Buffon’s thinking intact. An 1800 translation published in Edinburgh abridges the 36 volumes of Buffon into two volumes. On the title page the abridgers note that the work has been compiled chiefly from Swammerdam, Brookes, Goldsmith, etc. This volume offers the following leader to Chapter VI: “of the apparent varieties in the human species—Laplanders—Tartars—Chinese—Japanese—Formosans—Moguls—Persians—Arabians—Circassians—Turks—Russians—Negroes—Hottentots—Americans—causes of this variety,” (Buffon, 1800:48). Here the abridgers list 14 races, not including any mainstream Europeans. This is more indicative of the way that Buffon uses the term race, but even this list is clearly not an exhaustive catalog of Buffon’s races. This chapter leading statement is not a translation from Buffon, as there is no such header to his Volume IV, Chapter IX, “of the Varieties in the Human Species.” Even these abridgers, drawing from Goldsmith as they did, do not suggest a six race system of classification for Buffon.
I recently found a reference to Buffon’s races that took me into the legal literature. Reading Dorothy Roberts’ 2011 book on race, I came across a mention of Buffon in reference to the decision against the naturalization of Chinese in the 1878 case In re Ah Yup. Roberts says the California state jurist, Judge L.S.B. Sawyer, after reciting precedent saying that “white person” referred to someone of the Caucasian race, “then turned for guidance to the racial typologies developed by European naturalists Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, George Louis de Buffon, Carl Linnaeus, and Georges Cuvier, observing that all grouped Caucasians separately from Mongolians” (2011:15). This led me to the text of Sawyer’s decision where he stated that “[Blumenbach’s five race system] was adopted from Buffon, with some changes in names, and is founded on the combined characteristics of complexion, hair and skull.” This revelation of a five race system for Buffon was the first time I came across that number and the idea that Blumenbach borrowed his system of racial classification from Buffon was completely surprising and baffling. Sawyer cited the “Ethnology” entry of the “New American Cyclopædia” (Ripley and Dana, 1859). This source has several pages discussing different racial classification schemes and has this to say about Buffon and Blumenbach:
The divisions proposed by Buffon were 5: the Hyperborean (including the inhabitants of the polar regions and of eastern and central Asia, or Laplanders and Tartars), Southern Asiatic, European, Ethiopian, and American. Blumenbach adopted these, changing the names of some of the divisions, and more accurately defining their geographical distribution. (Ripley and Dana, 1859:306-307).
Needless to say, there is no more validity in attributing this racial classification to Buffon then there is for any of the other works. I should note that Ripley and Dana refer readers to the notorious Types of Mankind (Nott and Glidden, 1854) which hues to the six race orthodoxy with this: “Buffon divides the human race into six varieties—viz., Polar, Tartar, Austral-Asiatic, European, Negro, and American” (Nott and Glidden, 1854:82). Since the general scholarship of that volume is so lacking, I did not find this remarkable nor deserving of further comment.
As Montagu pointed out in 1942, Buffon never suggested a six race classification of humans and those who suggest he did cannot agree on what the races are nor can they point to a source in Buffon’s work that would validate this claim. The fact that Darwin, Hrdlička, and more recent biological anthropologists continue to make this mistake emphasizes the importance of finally getting it right.
So what are the lessons to take away from this little exercise? First, attributing the use of the word “race” in the early “scientific” literature to Buffon is partially valid, but if one wants to make this claim it needs to be qualified as Montagu (1942) did or contrasted with the Linnaean perspective as Marks (1995) did. Buffon may be responsible for introducing race into the scientific literature on man, but it was a race concept that has very little to do with the modern concept. Second, Buffon never classified humans into six races. The fact that so many formidable anthropologists have maintained this apocrypha is testimony to the staying power of academic falsehoods. However this myth originally crept into the anthropological literature, and my money is on misreading Goldsmith and attributing the system to Buffon, it has been almost impossible to eradicate right into the 21st century.
The teaching moment from this project is to be skeptical of what anyone says about anyone else’s work. In teaching research writing to students for many years, I emphasized the dangers of secondary sources and instructed students to go to the original sources (Bindon, n.d.). I discovered how easy it is for apocrypha to creep into a paper when I cited one of my very early papers in another one I was writing, only to find out between submission and revision that I did not actually make the case I was citing the paper for in that particular publication. If I could mistakenly cite my own work, think what I could do to the work of others! The case of Darwin’s allegory and Buffon’s apocryphal races provides a good example of the dangers of relying on the scholarship of others and shoddy scholarship in general.
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