By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
Before the 20th century, there was no doubt that race was real. Philosopher Immanuel Kant divided the human race into four different categories: Northern Europe had the “noble blond”, the “copper-red” of the Americas and South Asia, then came the blacks of Africa, and then there were “yellow-olive” of east Asia and the Middle East. Skin color could be the easiest aspect to identify different human races, but this division had some other deeper elements.
German philosopher Immanuel Kant divided humans based on the color of their skin. According to Kant, in the Great Chain of Human Being, European whites were placed in the highest position. Next were the Asian Mongols who were followed by the red-skinned Hindustanis, and at the last place were the African Negroes.
Dividing Humans on the Basis of Intellect?
Kant said that as we scroll down the list, races become less and less intellectually enriched. No doubt, a finer distinction can be drawn between the groups based on this aspect. Subraces along the national boundaries can be talked about.
In one of his works, Kant gives an argument that the mind of the French is such that they admire the beautiful things, the things that affect our senses. He further says that on the other hand, the British mind is in touch with the magnificent, the one that takes us beyond ourselves. The Dutch mind doesn’t give any importance to any of these. They appreciate only the utilitarian elements of the world.
But there is no surprise when Kant says that the German mind is far superior in accessing both, the beautiful and the magnificent. The reason is that Kant was a German.
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Biological Features and the Human Race
In the two centuries after Kant, we see this perception of geography being attached to the biological features that are visible, which, in turn, is tied to the biological features that are invisible. This is further attached to the elements of character. And all of this was held together in one big package that was called the human race that was used to justify beliefs in the worth of humans.
Here, we must pay attention to the fact that there are three different connections. The first one is geography that determines the biological aspects that are visible. Next, these visible biological aspects are flags for a collection of more subtle biological differences. And thirdly, human character, behavior, intellectual ability, and human worth are all affected by these subtle biological differences.
This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
How Science Got Involved
In the 20th century, science tried to document and cement all of these three steps.
The first step is that we generalize the things from observation. When we travel across the world, we see people who do look different. The most evident feature is skin color. But color and texture of hair, eyes and their color, shape of lips and nose also seem to differ across the globe in such a way that it leads to groupings in the human race.
Darwin’s theory of evolution resulted in a keen interest being taken in these variations. Naturalists started documenting various non-human species and subspecies that could be found in different regions with different anatomical properties. As the human race was also now thought to be animals, although, of a slightly higher order, it was only fair that the same be done with us.
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Race on the Basis of Geographical Divisions
Anthropologists used this difference in skin color and other visible features to divide the human race on the basis of geographical regions, something similar to those of Kant. These four races were: Causasoids— white Europeans, Mongoloids—Asians, Negroids—Africans, and Australoids— Australian aboriginals.
In order to trace the distribution of various physical features, that we call clines, among the different human populations, much work was done. These clinical variations were quantified and correlated by the subfield anthropometry. This clinical mapping by anthropometrists gave two prominent results.
The Results of Clinical Mapping
The first result was that when you look at a given feature, you don’t find a sudden or sharp change, but there is a gradual and smooth transition as you move between populations, observing in two distinct areas. We may try to specify one part of the human race by one version of a feature and another part of the human race by a different embodiment of that feature, but a sharp dividing line can never be seen between them, rather we can always see a spectrum. If there is an effort to sharply categorize races, then this effort is undermined by the idea that the defining characteristics are a matter of degree.
The second result was that for different characteristics, clinical maps were found to be different. Like, if you are mapping the change in the color of skin, the maps will be different from where you try to map hair texture, and you will get another different map for eye-shape, and yet another different map for the average weight. It is a fact that there are different combinations among different populations, but if we are trying to draw sharp boundaries of any significance between these different parts of the human race, more reality needs to be assigned to one of these seemingly random features than the other.
There does not seem to be any good candidate for the one and only important factor, unless we find that one of them is linked to some other, more deep feature. This is our second step. We understand that visible biological differences are signs of more subtle and important differences between races.
So, in the argument that race is a legitimate scientific concept, the first step was that visually obvious signs could be used to draw sharp lines that divide all of the human race into groups. But if biologists could not find the race, in reality, there was a possibility that racial realities have more to do with psychology. Maybe, there is no difference in the genes but the difference lies in the working of the brain.
Common Questions about Human Race
Anthropologists used the difference in skin color and other visible features to divide the human race based on geographical regions: Causasoids— white Europeans, Mongoloids—Asians, Negroids—Africans, and Australoids— Australian aboriginals.
Immanuel Kant divided the human race based on the color of their skin: European whites were placed in the highest position; next were the Asian Mongols who were followed by the red-skinned Hindustanis, and at the last place were the African Negroes.
The three different connections to divide the human race are: geography; visible biological aspects; and, human character, behavior, intellectual ability, and human worth.