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The races of humanity as described in the 18th century: Chinese, Laplander, Hottentot, Negro, American

The complex issue of human races, and the relationship of the human race to the rest of the animal kingdom, was one of the most hotly contested topics in the history of natural history. Monogenesis claimed that all human beings were members of a single type, while polygenesis argued that the different races actually represented different kinds of beings. Early anthropological studies were used to support both views. Goldsmith’s illustrated races (above) include “Chinese,” “Laplander,” “Hottentot,” “Negro,” and “American.” Variations in human physiognomy (seven-foot Masai tribesmen, three-foot pygmies, Asiatic North Americans, albinos of all “races”) led to far-fetched theories about the origins and possible relationships among human beings. Darker races were sometimes described as the descendants of Cain. Lighter races were linked to the iconography of Jesus, even after it became clear that a first-century Palestinian would have looked nothing like a “white” European. The proximity of humans to higher apes caused additional confusion; the orang-utan was referred to as homo silvestris (man of the woods) until well into the nineteenth century. The problem resolved itself into a simple opposition that had staggering consequences for the two centuries after 1800: if humans (much less races) were separately created, then the laws and moral values that applied to one group need not apply to another; if all humans (much less animals) were biologically related, then their shared destinies might depend on respect and cooperation, not blind dominion.

Goldsmith revealed his own view by discussing humans in “A History of Animals” in a chapter entitled “Of the Varieties in the Human Race” (see page reproduced below). His opening paragraphs suggest the way that even a popularizer might begin to apply a scientific method to his analysis of humanity. Humans were special animals, perhaps, but they were animals nonetheless.

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