|1820 drawing of a Book of Gates fresco of the
tomb of Seti I: Berber, Nubian, Asiatic, Egyptians
I promise. Only one or two installments after this! In this part, I’ll take you on a brief trot through the history of racial classifications. This ought to illustrate the futility of trying to fit the world’s people into a ‘reified’ category like ‘race.’ So, to be brief…
|Linnaeus: Carl von Linné|
The ancient Egyptians used colour to define four human groups. The Greeks had their classification. In the modern era,
dead ‘white’ male European Linnaeus produced a comprehensive taxonomy of life, and today we still employ the binomial system of classification that gives us our name—Homo sapiens. Linnaeus named four species of human: Homo europaeus, H. asiaticus, H. afer (for Africans), and H. americanus, for the original ‘Americans.’ He’s also the one who named us Mammals. (There’s a very interesting bit of gender history behind his choice to name us with reference to lactating females. Think about it. He could have used Testicula instead of Mammalia, or the less heavily sex-biased Hirsutia!). A little later, a German anatomist, Blumenbach, saw deficiencies in Linnaeus’s categories, and proposed 5: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Malay, Ethiopian, American. Science was indeed progressing!
In 1926 one of the early physical anthropologists, Hooton, proposed a set of divisions based on three so-called primary races: white, negroid, and mongoloid. Hooton’s primary sub-races in the ‘white’ category included people he termed Mediterranean, the Ainu of northern Japan, Keltic [his spelling, not mine], Nordic, Alpine and east Baltic peoples [no one’s really certain what happened to the west Baltic peoples]. Under ‘negroid’, Hooton included the ‘African Negro’, the ‘Nilotic Negro’, and the ‘Negrito.’ And just to demonstrate that he was sensitive to the inherent arbitrariness of even his super-sophisticated
classification, Hooton added secondary subraces to the mix. Under ‘Mongoloid’ were the ‘Classic’ and the ‘Arctic Mongoloid’, followed by the secondary subraces of the ‘Malay-Mongoloid’ and the ‘Indonesians’. I wonder, would Hooton have placed the original Australians in the ‘Nilotic’ or the ‘African Negro’ category? I think he might have had some problems with that classification.
Anthropologist Earnest Hooton. It’s not so much
that he was aware of his system’s arbitrary nature,
it was that his rational mind was trying to think of
square pegs in terms of round holes. [In the vernacular,
this is known as an epic fail.]
|Anthropologist Stanley Garn|
Enter the ‘geographical race’, which was defined as a collection of race populations, separated from other such collections by major geographical barriers. So said Stanley Garn, in the 1960s. Now we had the ‘Amerindian’, the ‘Polynesian’, the ‘Melanesian’, the ‘Melanesian-Papuan’, the ‘Australian’, the ‘Asiatic’, the ‘Indian’, the ‘European’, and the ‘African’. Within these so-called geographical races were hundreds of so-called local races: ‘northwestern European’, ‘northeastern European’, ‘Alpine’, ‘Mediterranean’, ‘East African’, ‘Bantu’, ‘Tibetan’, ‘North Chinese’, ‘Extreme Mongoloid’, ‘Hindu’. Garn even went so far as to admit the existence of something he called microraces: this enabled him ultimately to narrow the definition of a race to a neighborhood in a city. And one wonders if, in his darkest hours, Garn didn’t imagine that families, or even individuals couldn’t be construed as stand-alone races! Garn’s classification stands as a monument to the racial worldview in collision with reality.
|Von Luschan’s Chromatic Scale|
But let’s look more closely at one of these racial categories, to get a better idea of the sorts of issues that confound racial classification and that ultimately destroys the idea that races are real biological entities. Look, for example, at Von Luschan’s scale, shown here. He posited 36 discrete colours for the world’s people. Unfortunately, no two scalers could agree on the colour of the skin they were scaling. Try it yourself on these unsuspecting naked backed people. Seriously, there is continuous variability in skin colour, and anyone who says they can pick out mutually exclusive subsets is nuttier than I am for tackling this enormous issue in a few blog posts. But I digress. Even the cosmetics companies can do better at capturing the diversity of skin colour!
|Artificially delineated global distribution of skin colour|
It’s easy to see that a trait such as skin colour has an evolutionary basis. Dark skin maps on very nicely to latitude and annual hours and intensity of sunlight, with the homeland of the fairest skinned of all people in a high latitude place where it’s almost always cloudy. And light-skinned Australians know how that plays in a country where, annually, there are many more hours of sunlight than those experienced in England or Scandinavia.