Occidental Origins of Race-Theory (II)

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(a.3) Prominent Theorists (continued from part I)


The first comprehensive survey and classification of the races of man of which anything is known was penned in 1684 by the French wayfarer, physician and anthropologist, Francios Bernier (1620-1688) in his Nouvelle division de la terre par les différents espèces ou races qui l’habitent (“New division of Earth by the different species or races which inhabit it”), published in 1684 (Gossett, 1997:32-33). Bernier’s treatise on race was first published in a parisian paper, Journal des Sçavans in an April, 1684 edition in which he delineated four principal races of mankind, those being:

  • Eurasians

  • Sub-Saharans

  • White Orientals

  • Lapps

Bernier makes clear in his paper that clime is a significant, but not exclusive, determing factor, as le semence (genetics) was also, according to Bernier, crucial. What was remarkable about his monograph was that, unlike so many papers of the time, it was taxinomic rather than historical and libertine rather than religious. Joan-Pau Rubies, in his paper Race, Climate and Civilization in the Works of Bernier notes, “Bernier’s analysis… did not really seek to confront Biblical genealogies one way or the other.”1 So here we can discern a clear break with the tradition of Biblical originism dating back to St. Augustine. What further distinguished Bernier’s work from many of his contemporaries was his monogenism. Monogenism (or monogenesis) is the theory that all human races originated from a common ancestor and is contrasted with polygenism (or polygenesis), the theory that all human races emerged from various different common ancestors. An example of a monogenetic model would be the creation story contained in the Book of Genesis which describes the creation of man from Adam and Eve. Another monogenetic model would be the ‘Out of Africa’ theory which is widely held in contemporary scholarship by many paleoanthropologists. A example of criticism of polygeneic models is included in the papal encyclical, Humani generis wherein Pope Pius XII noted,

When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the [Catholic] Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which through generation is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.”

An example of a polygenic theory is contained in the Mbuti mythology of the Congo pygmies who believed the god Khonvoum created the races of man from three different pieces of clay, one black, one white and one red2; many of the creation tales of the ancient Greeks also feature polgenic theories concerning the origins of various different creatures and groups of man (such as the titan Prometheus crafting humans out of water and clay3).

Of further importance to note is that Bernier’s racial classifications where not simply based upon skin color but upon a whole array of phenotypic traits such as facial structure, character of the hair and skin (oily/dry, rough/smooth etc) and even the teeths and tongue. Further, Bernier differentiates between superficial traits (those caused by the environs such as tan skin from sun exposure) and constitutional traits (those caused by genes; such as eye and intrinsic skin color, average height and bone structure). Despite the erection of such incisive taxonomic distinctions, certain gaps in Berniers knowledge lend to incorrect conclusions; for instance, he believed the Amerindians of the New World were of the same race as his fellow Europeans. There is no evidence to suggest that he ever meet an Amerindian and thus his knowledge thereof was purely second or thirdhand at best (which, at the time, was far more of a handicap than it is today given the lack of alternative sources of information against which to check one’s summations).

Bernier’s theories, though important, are easy to overstate due to how early along they emerge in the history of racial thought. Bernier was undoubtedly a incisive thinker and had a impressive knowledge of the Persian tongue and the Mughal Empire but his analytical framework though empirical, was not highly rigerous, as is evidenced by his classification of the Lapps (Sami4) as a seperate race based upon only one viewing of two such individuals.

Bernier’s aforementioned paper, however, was not a serious work which he expended much energy on and there is good reason to believe5 it was penned largely for the entertainment of his friends and possibly courting of local female who managed the salon (—). A much better known work by the wayfarer was his masterful 576 page travalogue Travels in the Moghul Empire (1656-1668) in which, in his opening Dedication to the King Bernier writes, “The Indians maintain that the mind of a man cannot always he occupied with serious affairs, and that he remains forever a child in this respect: that, to develop what is good hi him, almost as much care must be taken to amuse him as to cause him to study. This may he true with regard to the natives of Asia, but Judging by all the great things I hear said everywhere regarding France and her Monarch, from the Ganges and the Indus, the Tigris, and the Euphrates, unto the Seine, I have some difficulty in believing this to be a saying capable of universal application.”

He then goes on to declare his hopes that the king should enjoy his writings as reprieve from weighty matters of state but adds the cautionary, “-I hope that His MAJESTY will chiefly take into His consideration the subject [the travels], and that he will consider it nothing very extraordinary that during my long absence, whether wandering about the World, or attached to a Foreign Court, my language may have become semi-barbarous.” 6

What is remarkable about the passages, outside of their poetic character, is the frankness with which Bernier describes the natives of his travels; their character and customs. To refer to a language or the influence of a culture, or some portion of a culture, as inferior in some fashion would be high treason in the year 2018 in any industrialized western country. For an American today to speak of Pakistani or Somali influence as “semi-barbarous” would be most scandalous! For the new Iron Law states that no distinctions may ever be made which takes anything of value into account, even if the area of comparison were to be something which was able to be wholly or largely quantified (such as in the case of literacy rates, crime rates, birth rates, etc). A silly injunction of a certainty, but it’s ridiculous character has not stopped it from spreading like a plague all across the world. The problem entailed in such thinking (as Bernier doubtless understood) was that when one ceases to make value-judgments between different cultures (and by extension, different peoples) one ceases to value anything at all. To say that no culture is barbarous is to say also, “there is no such thing as collective barbarity,” which is not just manifestly false, but also profoundly foolish and, in graver circumstances, suicidal. Of course, one should be sure to make the distinction between barbarousness and the appearance of barbarous; but this is an easy distinction to make and of no real weighty concern.

1Joan-Pau Rubies. Race, Climate and Civilization in the Works of Bernier, p. 56. 2013.

2John Mbiti. African Religions & Philosophy, Heinemann, 1990, p. 91.

3The clay-creation motif is peculiar in that it recurs over and over again in numerous ancient tales.

4The Lapps or Sami are a Fino-Urgic people who dwell in Sapmi (Lapland) in Sweden, Norway and Finland.

5See Joan-Pau Rubies writings on Bernier for further reference.

6Bernier, Travels in the Moghul Empire, p. |vi


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