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Nature, Human Nature, and Human DifferenceRace in Early Modern Philosophy$

Justin E. H. Smith

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780691153643

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691153643.001.0001

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From Lineage to Biogeography

From Lineage to Biogeography

(p.140) Chapter 6 From Lineage to Biogeography
Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference

Justin E. H. Smith

Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter turns to François Bernier's contribution to the history of racial thinking. This French physician and traveler is often credited with being the key innovator of the modern race concept. While some rigorous scholarship has recently appeared questioning Bernier's significance, his racial theory is seldom placed in his context as a Gassendian natural philosopher who was, in particular, intent to bring his own brand of modern, materialistic philosophy to bear in his experiences in the Moghul Empire in Persia and northern India. The chapter argues that Bernier's principal innovation was to effectively decouple the concept of race from considerations of lineage, and instead to conceptualize it in biogeographical terms in which the precise origins or causes of the original differences of human physical appearance from region to region remain underdetermined.

Keywords:   François Bernier, biogeography, modern race concept, racial theory, lineage, human physical appearance, racial thinking

6.1. Race, Species, Breed

In its earliest usage, “race” was first and foremost a term of animal breeders. Today as well, race remains the common, neutral term in French, to mention just one language, for “breed.” This latter sense has historical and conceptual precedence: there were races of dogs and horses before there were races of human beings. The determination of race, here, was based on lineage. Physical features were relevant in identifying what the race of a particular dog or horse was, but these were external signs of the animal’s racial lineage, and not themselves the features that established membership in a given race. “Race” first appears in early modern Italian (razza), perhaps a borrowing from an Arabic word meaning “origin” or “principle,” and perhaps stemming from an Old French term, haraz or haras, associated with the breeding of horses (in particular, a “haras” or stud farm). The etymology of the term remains uncertain until today, but most candidates involve some notion of breeding, ancestry, or intergenerational transmission of distinctive traits.1 The term arises directly in these modern European vulgates, without an equivalent ancestor in Latin. When the term is extended from animal breeding to the description of human populations, it joins genus and natio as close Latin synonyms. But these have clear and unambiguous descendants in the vulgates, and the appearance of a new term, as if out of nowhere, suggests that there was a new preoccupation in the early modern period with the practices and techniques that “race,” as applied to animal breeding, initially described.

Of course, the selective breeding of animals by humans is at least as old as the earliest domestication of wild species, and there were many treatises on breeding, which included the idea of distinct breeds within a species, already in classical antiquity. Plato, for example, drew on the (p.141) example of poultry breeding in the course of laying out his eugenic program in the Republic. If such a source is still not antique enough, we may also for the sake of completeness mention Jacob, who in the book of Genesis (30:25–31:16) conspires to breed speckled goats by having his mono-hued stock breed in an environment surrounded by speckled décor. The scripture gets the mechanisms of hereditary transmission wrong, but it also indicates a knowledge of the practical possibility of breeding for particular traits, and so of creating distinct subpopulations within a given species. This knowledge, we may justly suppose, arises in parallel with pastoralism, long before the beginning of textual history. Beyond such practical knowledge, however, the Renaissance and early modern periods in Europe witnessed a revolution in the theory of breeding as a result of a combination of factors, including developments in fields seemingly as separate as art theory and applied mathematics.2 We do not need to investigate these new developments here, but need only bear in mind that it is at least potentially significant that the term that was newly applied to the study of human diversity in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries had already been a new term not so long before in the sphere of domestic breeding.3

By “species,” early modern authors could not have intended the meaning commonly attached to this term today—namely, that each race is an isolated reproductive group—any more than Pierre Gassendi intended this when he spoke of “Negroes” as a “kind” (see chapter 2 above). One significant point of apparent disanalogy between races and species lies in the biology of reproduction: there is no barrier to reproduction between different breeds or races of a given animal kind, whereas species are often thought of as being defined by the very fact that they are reproductively isolated. Thus, for Aristotle, the humble mule had seemed poised to bring about a rupture in the very order of nature. As the fruit of a coupling between parents of two similar but nonidentical kinds, it appears to violate that most basic rule of generation, that like must always beget like. For Aristotle, the “production of a mule by a horse” is thus something that “happens contrary to nature.”4 But nature solves its own monstrous (p.142) problem by nipping this new generational series in the bud: she makes the donkey-horse hybrid infertile.5

The term “mulatto” appears to have been coined in Spanish in the fifteenth century to describe, on analogy to the equine hybrid, the child of mixed European and African ancestry. But surely, one supposes today, its coiners must have understood that the analogy is forced, since in the human case it has always been perfectly clear that nature has no interest in bringing the series to an end, and declines to make the human “half-breed” infertile. Thus we see here a fundamental difference between what we today call “race” and what we call “species,” a difference that has always posed an obstacle to essentialist thinking about racial difference. For races, on our understanding, unlike species, nature does nothing to ensure that like continues to beget like; if “miscegenation” is frowned upon, the understanding is that it should not happen, not that it cannot.

The textual evidence suggests that in the early modern period there was often not sufficient conceptual clarity in order to adequately reflect the points of disanalogy between race and species. For one thing, as we have seen, even if Aristotle has an explicit account of the unnaturalness of hybridity, interspecies fertility was generally presumed to be possible, even if it was unnatural, across a wide variety of species. In the Renaissance and early modern periods, the more interested a thinker was in questioning traditional claims about the order of nature, moreover, the more likely he was to emphasize the possibility of interspecies fertility. Insofar as reproductive isolation was often not part of the conception of a given animal kind, we tend to find a general unclarity in the way the concept of species is deployed, and this concept tends moreover to be used more or less interchangeably, beginning in the seventeenth century, with the concept of race. One could perfectly well overlook the obvious disanalogy between race and species—that there are no boundaries to interracial reproduction, while there are such boundaries to interspecies reproduction—since on the traditional understanding both sorts of reproduction were morally and thus “naturally” wrong, but not “biologically” (in our sense) impossible.

Some authors explicitly avowed that the difference between a racial boundary and a species boundary is difficult to determine, and may at best be provisional. Thus Leibniz writes in his New Essays Concerning Human Understanding of 1704, of the different “species” of great cat, “[M]any animals that have something of the cat in them, like the lion, the tiger, and the lynx, could have been of one single race and now could (p.143) be new subdivisions of the ancient species of cats. Thus I come back continually to what I’ve said more than once, that our determinations of Physical species are provisional and proportional to our knowledge.”6 Leibniz supposes that variety of this sort among what we today would think of as different feline species is no different from the great diversity among les races, which is to say the breeds, of domestic dogs. A “race,” in the sense in which Leibniz understands it here, is a relatively isolated reproductive community, but not one that is, as in Ernst Mayr’s “biological species concept,”7 isolated in view of its non-interfertility with other kinds. Thus a human group, such as “the Americans” or “the Ethiopians” (classifications Leibniz uses in a text to be discussed below), might be deemed a “race” akin to lynxes or poodles to the extent that its members tend to reproduce together, but this says nothing of the possibility of cross-fertility between lynxes and lions, poodles and bloodhounds, or Ethiopians and Europeans.

This, then, seems to have been the primary meaning of the term “race” when it was first deployed in the European vulgates in the mid-seventeenth century: a race is a lineage within a given kind of animals (or, later, humans) that tends, as a result of interbreeding across several generations, to share a number of the same traits. The primary application of this term, well into the eighteenth century, was to domestic animals that were selectively bred for certain traits (again, in today’s French, the concept of race continues to have a currency in matters of animal husbandry equal to the one it has in matters of human diversity). “Species” occupied a distinct but nonetheless partially overlapping semantic field with “race,” to the extent that the former term, as its etymology suggests, was concerned with the external aspect or appearance of a creature. Neither “species” nor “race” implied necessary reproductive isolation. The principal semantic difference between “species” and “race,” where these in fact differed, had to do with the fact that the former focused on physical traits of creatures, while the latter also recalled to mind the lineage or generative series from which—to return to the deepest etymology of the term—these traits flow.

6.2. François Bernier’s Racial Geography

The French natural philosopher, diplomat, and disciple of Pierre Gassendi,8 François Bernier, is often cited as the first author to use the term “race” to (p.144) designate different groups of humans with shared, distinguishing traits. Bernasconi and Lott, for example, write that “although many European travelers before Bernier noted the different physical characteristics of the various peoples they encountered, especially their skin color, he was the first to group these peoples specifically into ‘races’ on that basis. For this reason, Bernier’s short article of 1684, entitled ‘A New Division of the Earth,’ is sometimes described as the first text in which the term ‘race’ is used in something like its modern sense to refer to discrete human groups.”9 This attribution becomes even more solidified in subsequent historical overviews, so that now it is often held to be not only a terminological innovation but indeed a conceptual one. Thus in the entry on “Race” in a standard philosophy reference work, we read that “[w]hile events in the Iberian peninsula may have provided the initial stirrings of proto-racial sentiments, the philosophical concept of race did not actually emerge in its present form until the 1684 publication of ‘A New Division of the Earth’ by Francois Bernier.”10 How we are supposed to get from the terminological innovation to the conceptual one is not at all clear, and certainly there is little evidence of any interest in developing “race” as a concept in Bernier’s text. Of course, the boundary between terminological and conceptual innovations is not always perfectly perspicuous, but it is at least evident enough that in order for Bernier’s work to be said to have involved any genuine conceptual innovation in the history of “race,” it must be shown that the work is doing more than applying the term “race” in a novel way to describe a distinction that was previously described differently, but, more strongly, that a novel distinction is being made. In fact, in this case, neither the stronger nor the weaker sort of innovation may be said to occur.

Significantly, in a vivid illustration of the “Iberian curve” mentioned above, the Spanish-Inca philosopher Garcilaso de la Vega uses the term “race” several decades earlier than Bernier to describe the conceptualization of human diversity in South America. Even more significantly, he brings this up only to deny it, arguing that racial division is indeed an imposition of an artificial scheme by the Spanish colonizers, for the simple purpose of maintaining social order: “All these names [Creole, Negro, Mulatto, Cholo, Mestizo, Montagnard, Sacarunna, Quatraluo, Tresaluo] and many others I will leave aside were invented in my country in order (p.145) to comprehend the mixture that had been made of races since the Spanish arrived there. By which we can well see that they introduced by their arrival a great number of things that were not there previously.”11 There are various ways of reading this passage. One is to suppose that for de la Vega there are preexisting races that enter into new combinations in colonial settings, necessitating the creation of new names. There are, he seems to imply, real races that lie behind the improvised categories that the new colonial setting generates. It is important to recall however that the Spanish-Inca author was born to a mother recognized as Inca royalty, and he was indeed bestowed with a royal title that remained valid during the bulk of his life in Spain. The preexisting “races” to which the author refers are thus likely not Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans, which get fractured in the colonial setting into finer-grained categories of Mestizo, Creole, and so on. Rather, the races are, one may suppose, lineages, including royal lineages, which the author conceives as relatively stable until the era of contact. Races are not biogeographical regularities, for de la Vega, but rather diachronic lines of descent. What is interesting in this passage, in any case, is, first of all, that the New World author, at the very beginning of the seventeenth century, already invokes the term “race” to describe divisions within the human species, and, moreover, that he displays a clear skepticism as concerns the project of rigorously taxonomizing subkinds of this species. He recognizes the artificiality and the merely local salience of supposedly naturalistic divisions. Thus long before Bernier gives us what is supposedly the first modern attempt to divide the human species into subtypes, we find an author, born in Peru, denying that such a project is worthwhile or even possible.

By his own lights, Bernier’s work is novel in that it seeks to find a small number of basic human types throughout the world, rather than simply a long list of differences in facial and bodily traits from one canton or village to the next. “For although in the exterior form of the body,” he explains, “and particularly of the face, men are almost all different from one another, depending upon the cantons of the earth in which they live, so that those who have traveled a great deal can often distinguish in this way, without mistake, each nation in particular, I have nevertheless remarked that there are above all four or five Species or Races of men, whose difference is so great that it could serve as a good foundation for a new division of the world.”12 Bernier describes his innovation in the article, previously mentioned, titled “A New Division of the Earth, by the (p.146) Different Species or Races of Man,” published in the Journal des Sçavans in 1684. “So far,” he writes, “Geographers did not use any other criterion when mapping out the earth but that of the different countries or regions to be found on it. What I noticed in men in the course of my long and frequent travels gave me the idea to divide the Earth otherwise.”13 By his own account, Bernier’s work ought to be seen as an innovation in that it does not simply divide populations up according to what might be called “national physiognomy,” which is, again, a common practice going back at least to Hippocrates and still current in contemporaries of Bernier such as Malebranche. Instead, he tries to find a small number of more basic classifications.

The first “species” includes, roughly, those groups of people who today would be identified by linguistic criteria as speakers of either Indo-European or Semitic languages, which in turn, incidentally, map fairly closely onto those that are considered “white” for the purposes of census reporting in the United States. It includes, namely, “France and generally all of Europe, except a part of Russia. A small part of Africa, from the Kingdoms of Fez and Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, to the Nile; as well as an important part of Asia, namely the Empire of the ‘Grand Turk’ with the three Arabias, all of Persia, the States of the Great Mogul … may be included in the first Species.”14 Bernier further identifies sub-Saharan Africa as inhabited by a different race or species: “I regard the whole African continent except the North African coast as previously described as the second Species.”15 Significantly, he does not see Native Americans, in contrast with Africans, as sufficiently different to warrant placing them in a distinct race: “As for Americans, in fact most of them have an olive complexion and their features differ from ours, but not enough to justify their belonging in a different species.”16

The third “species” for Bernier are “Asians,” which includes for him the inhabitants of “part of the kingdoms of Aracan and Siam, Sumatra and Borneo, the Philippines, Japan, China, Georgia and Muscovy, the (p.147) Usbek, Turkistan, Zaquetay, a small part of Muscovy.”17 Though Bernier acknowledges a wide variability of skin color among Asians, he distinguishes them from sub-Saharan Africans by noting that the latter are “essentially black,” whereas darker skin color among non-Africans is a result of a contingent and reversible condition. Finally, the fourth species are the Sami, who, as mentioned above, are said to be “very ugly and partaking much of the bear.”18 He acknowledges only having “seen two of them at Dantzic; but, judging from the pictures I have seen, and the account which I have received of them from many persons who have been in the country, they are wretched animals.”19 The ranking of “Lapps” at the bottom of the scale of humanity would remain a commonplace throughout the eighteenth century, in Buffon, Maupertuis, Kant, and others.

Curiously, the last four pages of Bernier’s very concise, seven-page article are devoted to extolling the beauties of the women of various nations of the world. He is convinced by his extensive travels that “beautiful and ugly [women] are everywhere to be found.” He is particularly fond of women of the second species, and recalls seeing several of them in Ethiopia, “who were for sale, and I can say that one can see nothing more beautiful in the whole world; but they were extremely expensive, for they were being sold at three times the price of the others.”20 This is interesting material, but it is clearly more in the vein of boastful travel literature than racial science.

Is there anything new about Bernier’s “New Division”? Bernier is, again, not the first person to use the French term “race” to describe a subdivision of the human species. Below, we will be discussing at length a text of Leibniz from the 1670s in which he uses the term in precisely this way, and with much more significant theoretical aims. In effect, Bernier seeks to tie race or species to physical traits, and to correlate the appearance of these traits with geographical factors. He is generally silent about the root causes behind the racial diversity of different regions, but at least opens up the possibility of a polygenetic account. Of course very many natural philosophers prior to Bernier had also argued for the role of climate and geography in the diversity of different human populations, but Bernier proposes that it is the different physical traits preponderant in different regions themselves that could determine the way in which different regions are bounded off from one another. From being seen as a superficial result of a group’s migration into a given region, physical traits (p.148) of human populations are now, in Bernier’s project, the very criterion by which regions are to be mapped out.

So neither does Bernier discover bioclimatic influence as the causal mechanism behind human diversity, nor is he the first to apply the term “race” to different groups that tend to display physical traits different from those of their neighbors. What Bernier is among the first to say is, first of all, that physical traits are rigidly correlated with races, and that races in turn are rigidly correlated with regions. This new division of the earth would indeed serve well as a template for modern racism: it does not ask about the causes of physical variation, or about their significance for understanding potentially deeper differences between human groups, differences, for example, of character or intelligence. Instead, it takes physical variation as a priori, as the biogeographical starting point for the determination of geopolitical order.

We have already observed that “race” denotes, in the first instance, a “flow,” in the sense of the flow of traits or of kinship across generations. “Species” by contrast denotes the inspectable surface of a thing, its aspect. It is the kind to which a thing belongs in virtue of its current, apparent conformation, rather than in virtue of its origins, of where it flows from. One way of understanding Bernier’s innovation, somewhat paradoxically, is that he invented the modern concept of race by substituting the term “race” for what had previously been conceptualized under the notion of species. “Race” ceases to denote a potentially morphologically variable chain of descent, and comes to denote a fixed and bounded population of morphologically homogeneous individuals.

Just as no early modern pigeon breeder would have supposed that there were “essential” differences between different subpopulations of pigeon, indeed had to suppose that there could not be, in view of the descent of all pigeons from two original parents brought into existence at the creation, so too, anyone who chose to use the word “race” to describe human beings could not have been attempting to imply any more essential or biological, species-like differences between human subgroups than had been supposed prior to the term’s extension. If anything, by reducing the difference between Africans and Europeans to one akin to that between breeds of domestic animals, an early modern author would have sooner been understood to be downplaying the differences, and to be committing himself to the changeability or reversibility of any given human population’s physiological and temperamental traits through change of climate and diet or through interbreeding. But again, Bernier does not only adapt a term for animal breeding to human populations: if this were all he had done, his contribution to the history of racial science would have been no more significant than what we find in earlier authors, including for example Leibniz. What Bernier does, again, is to deploy a (p.149) term more familiar from animal breeding, but to use it, now, in a way that distances it from diachronic considerations of lineage and “flow,” considerations that had always been essential to breeders themselves, and instead focuses on the synchronic and spatial relationship between a group of people with a particular appearance, on the one hand, and the region that group inhabits on the other. This is sooner an impoverishment of a previously existing concept of race than it is the innovation of a new concept.

6.3. A Gassendian Natural Philosopher in the Court of the Grand Moghul

Few of the prominent early modern thinkers who wrote about human diversity traveled much at all, and far fewer ever set foot outside of Europe. For this reason, François Bernier’s own life and work provide an interesting insight into the way significant exposure to non-Europeans cultures could influence a trained philosopher’s reflections on the nature of human difference. Beginning in 1658 Bernier traveled extensively in Persia and in South Asia. He was fluent in Persian—at the time the lingua franca of the elites in northern India as well as of present-day Iran—and evidently translated the work of Descartes and Gassendi into this language. His most important task was as the personal physician to the Moghul emperor, Aurangzeb, and through his connection to the sovereign he was able to enter into contact with learned and luminary people, not just from among the Muslim elite, but also, on occasion, from the Brahmin class of people today called “Hindus.” It is important to note here that the French traveler, upon arriving in India, had entered into a highly charged milieu of intense intellectual debate about the nature of religious faith and the possibility of religious syncretism. Bernier had begun his sojourn in India as part of the retinue of the great philosopher and heir apparent of the Moghul emperor, Dara Shikoh, who is best known as an advocate for the synthesis of Vedanta and Sufic Islam.21 At around the same time Bernier was busy translating Descartes and Gassendi into Persian, Dara Shikoh was working on a translation of the Upanishads into the same language. Dara Shikoh’s path to power was blocked by Aurangzeb, who had his more enlightened rival arrested and executed in 1659. Bernier crossed over into the service of Aurangzeb, and his prejudices about Vedanta and other schools of non-Muslim Indian thought seem to be inflected by those of his new host.

(p.150) In an important treatise on the peoples, customs, politics, history, and resources of the region, translated into English and published as The History of the Late Revolution of the Empire of the Great Mogol in 1671,22 the French traveler reflects on the work of an Indian poet who describes the “paradise” of “Indostan” at the confluence of four rivers: “the River Ganges on the one side, that of Indus on the other, the Chenau on a third, and the Gemma on the fourth.” Bernier regrets that no scriptural or archaeological evidence can be found “that this was certainly the true Terrestrial Paradise, rather than that in Armenia.”23 In effect, Bernier here regrets that the authors of the Indian literary tradition do not explicitly lay claim to one of the most important places in scriptural geography, the region that supposedly hosted the Garden of Eden. If they had done so, it would have been plausible to grant it to them, given the actual topographical features of northern India, and given the relative closeness of this part of the world to the favored candidate in the South Caucasus. But without any explicit localization in ancient texts of Eden in South Asia, India lies beyond the pale of history. It does not identify itself with the texts that lie at the origin of everything that could in the seventeenth century be recognized as falling within the scope of history.

This extra-historicity of many of the earth’s peoples, would in turn, in the high Enlightenment, serve as a very common rationale for what we have been calling, with Popkin, liberal racism. Many thinkers in the eighteenth century would argue that non-European peoples must be brought into the fold of European history in order to be able to ride the wave, so to speak, of historical progress. This is abundantly clear in Kant, who maintains that the lives of South Sea islanders, to the extent that they are spent outside of the fold of history, are literally not worth living.24 And it continues to echo loudly in Marx, who maintains that the British installation of industrial looms in Bengal might have increased the misery of Bengali weavers for the time being, but at least it did them the service of moving them into a historical position from which social change (p.151) could, for the first time, take place.25 While Bernier may not have been the founder of scientific racism, as we saw above, it is nonetheless correct to identify him as an early exponent of liberal racism.

In his relations from the Moghul Empire, Bernier appears to perceive racial difference through the lens of political order, taking the ruling Moghuls as white, irrespective of their nationality, while identifying the “pagan” (i.e., non-Muslim) masses as uniformly brown: “[T]hose that are employ’d in publick Charges and Offices, and even those that are Listed in the Militia, be not all of the Race of the Mogols, but strangers, and Nations gather’d out of all Countreys, most of them Persians, some Arabians, and some Turks. For, to be esteem’d a Mogol, ’tis enough to be a stranger white of Face, and a Mahumetan; in distinction as well to the Indians, who are brown, and Pagans, as to the Christians of Europe, who are call’d Franguis.”26 India, unlike America and to some degree also sub-Saharan Africa, was of course part of the known world for Europeans since antiquity, and indeed was generally recognized as having been an important cradle and bearer of Eurasian history. Yet at the same time the fact that the majority of its population followed non-Abrahamic religious traditions put it in some respects on the same level as the New World. From an early modern European perspective, India was a place populated by strange heathens, yet ruled by close cousins. The Muslim elite was part of the same world as were the Christian Europeans; even if there was a long history of conflict between Christians and Muslims, it was still a shared history. The Hindus by contrast fell altogether outside of that history, and Bernier treated them, accordingly, as entirely foreign. In this, he is adopting a perspective that would be familiar and conventional for his Muslim hosts. Indeed, Bernier’s contempt for Hindu beliefs and customs, mixed with occasional ethnological insights, echoes in surprising ways the tenth-century Indica of the Muslim geographer Al-Biruni.

In the course of describing Hindu customs of ablution, Bernier has occasion to make a revealing observation about the question of the universality and locality of religious traditions: “When I told them,” he writes,

that in cold Countries it would not be possible to observe that Law of theirs in Winter (which was a sign of its being a meer human invention) they gave this pleasant answer: That they pretended not their Law was universal; (p.152) that God had only made it for them, and it was therefore that they could not receive a Stranger into their Religion: that they thought not our Religion was therefore false, but that it might be it was good for us, and that God might have appointed several differing ways to go to Heaven; but they will not hear that our Religion should be the general Religion for the whole earth; and theirs a fable and pure device.27

Bernier is describing here what the nineteenth-century Orientalist Max Müller would later label “kathenotheism”: the tendency he perceived in Hinduism to worship one god at a time, without promising singular devotion to the god that is the immediate object of attention. Such a practice of course opens up the possibility of what would appear from a European perspective as a variety of “relativism”: worshipping one god, yet declining to deny that a person who worships another god is mistaken in doing so. Kathenotheism is of course a model of “toleration,” which was contemporaneously being debated in Europe. It does not presume the mutual exclusivity of supreme beings; it does not suppose, as a philosopher such as Spinoza would rigorously argue, that there is room for only one God in this universe. The connection between the problem of toleration—that is, allowing that other groups of people are right to worship other gods—and the problem of human origins might not today be clear at first glance, but it would be hard for a thinker such as Bernier not to have seen it: from the seventeenth-century European point of view, it is but one small step from supposing that God had made possible several means of salvation, through several religions, to supposing that God separately created several groups of people, each with its own religion. After all, what it is to have the religion of the Judeo-Christian tradition just is, one might have supposed, to believe of oneself that one was descended from Adam and Eve. The only conceivable way for a person to fall outside of the scope of this tradition was to come from a separate line of descent. Interfaith respect—which Bernier disdains—thus practically requires a commitment to polygenesis.

At times, Bernier summarizes local beliefs with evident curiosity, while also compensating for this interest by an excess of dismissiveness. This is certainly the case with early European interest in Sanskrit learning in general, which, although this was a highly textual tradition with many accomplishments that could not but have been recognized by Europeans as philosophical and scientific, nonetheless was treated for the most part as a merely local, backward, and superstitious tradition. In Bernier’s case, the knowledge of the Sanskrit-speaking Hindu pandits, to whom he was introduced by his Persian-speaking Muslim hosts, was a mere curiosity (p.153) in comparison to the respect-worthy philosophy of the Muslims, which ultimately traced its pedigree back to Aristotle, at the court of the Grand Moghul in Delhi. On this understanding, “philosophy” might be said to be a proper noun, the name of a series of comments on a set of questions extending back to a handful of figures in ancient Greece, and whatever does not belong to this series cannot be considered philosophy. For Bernier, this is a distinction that makes a difference, as philosophy in the narrow sense is for him the only tradition of thinking that upholds standards of reasoning and inference, and that expresses interest in the truth.

Like many of his contemporaries in the European Republic of Letters, Bernier’s engagement with indigenous beliefs also serves a polemical purpose within the narrower European context. In his case, it is to defend a Gassendian, materialist theory of natural phenomena, by comparing European philosophers who disagree to Indian idolaters who fear eclipses with “childish credulity”: “Those apprehending some malign and dangerous influence, and these believing that they were come to their last day, and that the Eclipse would shake the foundations of Nature, and overturn it, notwithstanding any thing that the Gassendi’s, Robervals, and many other famous Philosophers could say or write against this perswasion.”28 Bernier recognizes that there are a “vast number and great variety of Fakires, Derviches, or Religious Heathens of the Indies,” but has trouble describing the variety without lapsing into disdain. He describes the yogis, for example, who “make certain vows of Chastity, Poverty, and Obedience,” yet who lead “so odd a life, that I doubt whether you can give credit to it.” He goes on to give a remarkably vivid description of yogic practice, evidently one of the few such descriptions from a European traveler in the early modern period:

You shall see many of them sit stark naked, or lie days and nights upon Ashes. … Their Arms were small and lean as of hectical persons, because they took not sufficient nourishment in that forced posture, and they could not let them down to take any thing without them, either meat or drink, because the Nerves were retired, and the Joints were filled and dried up: wherefore also they have young Novices, that serve them as Holy men with very great respect. There is no Megera in Hell so terrible to look on, as those Men are, all naked, with their black Skin, long Hair, dried Arms, and in the posture mention’d, and with crooked Nails.29

Bernier speculates that the yogis might be “a remainder … of that antient and infamous Sect of the Cynicks,” yet in contrast with this school, Bernier concludes, their extreme practices are not supported by an interest (p.154) in, or even an awareness of, the ideal of reason. Instead, he finds “nothing in them, but brutality and ignorance.” They seem to him “a kind of Trees, somewhat moving from one place to another, rather than rational Animals.”30

One question that this passage, offensive and revealing as it is, leaves open to interpretation, much like similar passages from Burton, Evelyn, and Spinoza discussed in earlier chapters, is the precise significance of the adjective “black” in this context. Is it being used here as a “racial” term, or is it rather meant to describe the effects of a certain ill-advised or unfortunate way of life? Is it possible to distinguish fully between the two? We have seen, in the “New Division,” that Bernier distinguishes the “essential blackness” of Africans from the contingent or circumstantial blackness of Asians, and the description of the practitioner of yoga seems to describe precisely such a case of circumstantial blackness. Yet it is not implausible that, as with the case of Spinoza’s “black, scabby Brazilian,” racial connotations might be intermingled with Bernier’s own use of the term “black” to express disapprobation, and might also be read into the text by subsequent generations of readers. And indeed one thing is clear: for Spinoza and Bernier alike, blackness is bad. Whether this deployment of the term “black” has deeper roots in ideas about medicine, health, or environment rather than what we would think of as “race” does not change the fact that the negative valence of blackness in its pre-racial sense helped to facilitate and rationalize antiblack prejudice in the era of explicitly racial thinking.

Inquiring into Hindu belief is an enjoyable pastime for Bernier, and he is guided in this by his Muslim host:

Do not wonder, if, though I know not the Hanscrit, the language of the learn’d, of which somewhat may be said hereafter, and which is perhaps the same with that of the old Brahmans) do notwithstanding tell you many things taken out of Books written in that Tongue. For you must know, that my Agah Danechmend-kan, partly out of my solicitation, partly out of his own curiosity, took into his service one of the famousest Pendets that was in all the Indies, and that formerly had had a Pension of Dara, the Eldest Son of King Chah-jehan, and that this Pendet, besides that he drew to our House all the most Learned Pendets, was for three years constantly of my conversation.31

Bernier reports that during his stay in Delhi he and his Muslim host would take breaks from discoursing on Harvey, Pecquet, Gassendi, and Descartes, which was his “chief employment for five or six years,” in (p.155) order to take “refuge” in his pandit. The latter “was obliged to discourse and to relate unto us his stories, which he deliver’d seriously and without ever smiling. Tis true,” Bernier concludes, “that at last we were so much disgusted with his tales and uncouth reasonings, that we scarce had patience to hear them.”32

Remarkably, Bernier proceeds to give a fairly accurate summary of the contents of the Vedas, of the traditional caste system, and of the doctrines of the six principal schools of so-called orthodox (a‐stika) Indian philosophy.33 But the rhetorical contrast between these “stories” on the one hand, and the learning with which he and his Muslim host are principally concerned, on the other, is unremitting. The removal of rationality from the explanation of what the yogis and the pandits are doing effectively unites Bernier’s vision of “the Indian” with, for example, Locke’s allusion to the “Indian” belief (again, it is not clear what sort of “Indian” the philosopher has in mind) that the world rests on the back of a tortoise: both see local or indigenous knowledge as useless in the pursuit of truth, since neither believes that this knowledge, having developed beyond the pale of philosophy, is underlain or driven by reason. It is a mere collection of stories; and the idea that stories might themselves point toward the truth, or be interesting adaptive responses to social or environmental exigencies, and in this sense might amount to “local rationalities,” is still far from most European authors’ minds. This idea, that there could be such a thing as local rationality, will of course be one of the core features of ethnography as a mature research program, but again, early modern philosophy, for the most part, though it is charged with questions of human nature and human variety, misses the opportunity to take a proper ethnographic and comparative turn.

6.4. Bernier and Leibniz

Bernier’s role in the emergence of the modern conception of race has, as we have already seen, been somewhat overstated: his “new division of the earth” is principally motivated by questions of physical geography (as well as simple storytelling), and he is more or less silent as to the deep nature of the difference in appearance and character of the different groups of people he considers. The historical explanation of this is simple: he happens to have been read by Leibniz, who happens to have been read by (p.156) Blumenbach, who in turn wrote On the Natural Varieties of Mankind in 1775, which served to codify the most basic outlines of racial classification, which would remain in place until the mid-twentieth century. Leibniz, for his part, though far from defending any theory of essential differences between different human races, did, as we will see presently, at least offer an explicit account of what a race is.

Even though Leibniz read the issue of the Journal des Sçavans in which Bernier’s article appears, it does not seem to have made enough of an impression on him for him to retain Bernier’s name. In a 1696 letter to the pioneering Swedish Slavist J. G. Sparwenfeld, republished in the 1718 Otium hanoveranum, a collection of various of Leibniz’s letters and miscellanea, edited shortly after his death by Joachim Friedrich Feller, Leibniz writes, “If it is true that the Kalmuks as well as the Moguls and Tartars of China depend on the Grand Lama in matters of religion, it is possible that this says something about the relation among their languages and the origin of these peoples. It is simply that the size and constitution of their body is so different among them.”34 Here, Leibniz seems surprised that bodily morphology should be expected by anyone to correspond to linguistic kinship among different groups, since, true to form, Leibniz believes that language is far more important than “race” for determining ancestral relations. Nonetheless, he is aware of the interest of others in racial classification:

I remember reading somewhere (but I cannot recall where) that a certain voyager divided human beings into certain tribes, races, or classes. He assigned a particular race to the Lapps and Samoyeds, a certain to the Chinese and neighboring peoples; another to the Negroes, still another to the Cafres or Hottentots. In America there is a marvelous difference between the Galibis or Caribbean, for example, who have a great deal of value and just as much spirit, and those of Paraguay, who seem to be children or youths all their lives. This does not prevent all human beings who inhabit the globe from being all of the same race, which has been altered by the different climates, as we see animals and plants changing their nature and becoming better or degenerating.35

The voyager in question is without a doubt Bernier. And this is not Leibniz’s only mention of him; elsewhere in the Otium hanoveranum, we find another text, unfortunately undated, consisting in a nearly exact Latin (p.157) paraphrase of the contents of Bernier’s “New Division.”36 In this text, he speaks of a “great voyager” (magnus peregrinator), who composed a work called the “Nova terrae divisio” that was published in the Diario Eruditorum Parisino (that is, the Paris Journal des Sçavans) of April 1684, at the instigation of the abbé Pierre Cureau de la Chambre. Leibniz goes on to present what might easily appear to be his own account of the proper method for dividing the different races of humans. But the text is interspersed with misspelled Italian expressions, motivating the conjecture that Leibniz composed it during his Italian voyage of 1689–90 for a colleague who could read no French, and amused himself in doing so by trying out his own elementary Italian skills. Evidently, Leibniz’s reasons for writing it fall short of assertion of the truth of its claims.

Yet later, Blumenbach would incorporate elements from the Otium hanoveranum into his On the Native Varieties of Mankind, evidently failing to recognize that Leibniz is not stating his own views but rather summarizing those of Bernier. Blumenbach writes, “Leibniz established four orders of men of our continent [Leibnitius nostri continentis hominum quatuor ordines statuit],” citing, specifically, page 159 of the Otium hanoveranum, where we find Leibniz’s summary of Bernier’s “New Division.”37 Thus, the identification of Leibniz as a seminal thinker in the history of racial science appears to result from a simple mistaking of indirect statement for direct. For Leibniz, as we will soon see in detail, it is historical linguistics and not the study of morphological differences that will give us insight into the true lineages of the various human groups. As he concludes in the text just cited, adding his own view to the long summary of Bernier’s system, “I should like for the regions [of the world] to be divided according to languages, and for this to be noted on maps.”38 This would be the consistent basis of Leibniz’s mature thinking about (p.158) human diversity: it is rooted in language and culture, not, as Blumenbach would have wanted it, in physiology.

In the note on Bernier, however, Leibniz neglects to take up the project of a broad taxonomy of the most basic human kinds, and reverts to what we might call “national physiognomy”: “In America there is a marvelous difference between the Galibis or Caribbean, for example, who have a great deal of value and just as much spirit, and those of Paraguay, who seem to be children or youths all their lives.” This is an inauspicious introduction to Leibniz’s theory of human diversity. He is guilty here of the sort of lazy, derivative transmission of hearsay that would later prove to be the most sophisticated reflection on diversity philosophers such as Hume and Kant would be able to muster. Yet Leibniz adds right away that national differences do not in any way reflect real divisions within the human species: “This does not prevent all human beings who inhabit the globe from being of the same race, which has been altered by the different climates, as we see animals and plants changing their nature and becoming better or degenerating.”39

For Leibniz, it is neither blood nor soil, but speech, that reveals kinship. His new division of the earth would divide it up according to language families, not phenotypes. Beyond linguistic community, there is for Leibniz no meaningful classification of human populations short of their membership in the human race as a whole. As far as blood is concerned, everyone is related. This commitment was a fundamental principle of both Leibniz’s political philosophy as well as his metaphysics. In the following chapter, we will explore in greater detail Leibniz’s views on human diversity, as well as their place within his broader intellectual project.

6.5. Conclusion

Recall Bernier’s account of his sessions with the Sanskrit pandit, of being “disgusted with his tales and uncouth reasonings.” Bernier was not prepared to acknowledge the full working of reason in groups of people who follow intellectual and religious traditions that we might today call “non-Western,” and this judgment moreover seems to have mapped for him, whether intentionally or no, onto a sort of racial distinction: the non-Muslim “natives,” with their uncouth reasonings, are, as if by the same fact, also physically different. The idea by contrast of understanding or reason as the underlying, shared, though perhaps concealed essence of all human beings would be a commonplace of Enlightenment-era anti-racism. Thus, in his 1789 memoirs, the freed slave Olaudah Equiano (also (p.159) known as Gustavus Vassa), offers a straightforward echo of the Leibniz-ian view we have begun to adumbrate: “Are there not causes enough to which the apparent inferiority of an African may be ascribed, without limiting the goodness of God, and supposing he forbore to stamp understanding on certainly his own image, because ‘carved in ebony’?”40

God does not forebear to stamp understanding on any human group, and to possess understanding is to be fully and equally human. The causes of phenotypic diversity, in turn, have simply to do with climatic and geographical forces. Equiano, for example, repeats the common view that the Portuguese in Africa become “perfect negroes” after a few generations. He believes, as some continue to believe today, that his own ethnic group, the “Eboans” or Igbo, are descended from Eastern Mediterranean Jews. He does not see the difference of skin color between West Africans and Jews as detrimental to this claim, commenting simply: “As to the difference of colour between the Eboan Africans and the modern Jews, I shall not presume to account for it.”41 He presumes however that whatever the cause of the difference, it is not for that reason the cause of any real divisions in nature, of anything that could serve as a basis for a new division of the earth. In this respect, in contrast with Bernier, Equiano offers not so much a biogeographical theory of race, as rather a biogeographical explaining away of race—at least where “race” is conceived, along Bernier’s lines, as a natural way of dividing up different human populations rigidly fixed to different regions of the globe.

As we have seen, Bernier does not offer much by way of causal explanation for his new division. The key development in his work is rather that populations are taken out of relation to one another, and placed in a system of geographically based divisions. Bernier’s proposal is thus a new division of the earth in a much deeper sense than he intended. It is indeed a new way of carving up the earth, a project that has occupied geographers since antiquity. But it is also a new way of carving up something, the human race, that until the modern period had been presumed to be possessed of a profound underlying unity.


(1) Since in its modern form the word appears first in Italian, etymological reference works in that language tend to be most complete. The authoritative Vocabolario etimologico della lingua italiana of Ottorino Pianigiani (Florence: Ariani, 1926), also mentions a possible etymological connection to the Latin radix (“root”), to the Old German reiza (“line” or “ribbon”), and to the Slavic raz (“mark” or “strike”).

(2) See for example Carlo Ruini, Anatomia del cavallo, infermità, et suoi rimedii, Venice: Appresso Fioravante Prati, 1618.

(3) See Maaike van der Lugt and Charles de Miramon (eds.), L’hérédité entre Moyen Age et époque moderne, Florence: Sismel—Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2008. See also Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, A Cultural History of Heredity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

(4) Aristotle, Metaphysics VII.8.

(5) See Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, 2.4 738b28. As Gareth Matthews points out, later in the GA (2.8 748a1) Aristotle intriguingly suggests however that the mule constitutes its own eidos. See Gareth B. Matthews, “Gender and Essence in Aristotle,” in Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 64 (suppl., June 1986): 16–25, 23.

(6) Leibniz, Nouveaux essais, 2:116.

(7) See Ernst Mayr, Systematics and the Origin of Species, from the Viewpoint of a Zoologist, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1942.

(8) For Bernier’s contribution to the development and propagation of Gassendian philosophy, see François Bernier, Abregé de la philosophie de M. Gassendi, Paris: Jacques Langlois, 1671. Some authors, including Francisco Bethencourt (Racisms, chap. 15), have drawn attention to earlier works that argue for substantially the same biogeographical division of races as would later be found in Bernier. See in particular Alonso de Sandoval, Un tratado sobre la esclavitud, ed. Enriqueta Vila Vilar, Madrid: Alianza, 1987 [1627].

(10) Michael James, “Race,” in Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2012 ed., http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/race/.

(11) Garcilaso de la Vega, Commentarios reales de los lncas, in P. Carmelo Saenz de Santa Maria (ed.), Obras complétas, Madrid, 1960 [1609, French translation by Jean Baudouin, 1633], book 9, chap. 31, 1277. I am grateful to Antoine Leveque for bringing this passage to my attention.

(13) Bernier, “Nouvelle division,” 133. On Bernier and the history of race, see Pierre H. Boulle, “François Bernier and the Origins of the Modern Concept of Race,” in Sue Peabody and Tyler Stovall (eds.), The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003, 11–27; Siep Stuurman, “François Bernier and the Invention of Racial Classification,” History Workshop Journal 50 (Autumn 2000): 1–21. Parts of the summary of Bernier’s racial theory given here appeared earlier in Justin E. H. Smith, “The Pre-Adamite Controversy and the Problem of Racial Difference in 17th-Century Natural Philosophy,” in Marcelo Dascal and Victor Boantza (eds.), Controversies within the Scientific Revolution, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2011, 223–50.

(21) See Annemarie Schimmel, Im Reich der Grossmoguln: Geschichte, Kunst, Kultur, Munich: C. H. Beck, 2000.

(22) See François Bernier, The History of the Late Revolution of the Empire of the Great Mogol: Together with the Most Considerable Passages for 5 Years Following in That Empire: To Which Is Added a Letter to the Lord Colbert Touching the Extent of Indostanand the Principal Cause of the Decay of the States of Asia, London: Moses Pitt, 1671. See also Robert Bernasconi, “François Bernier and the Brahmans: Exposing an Obstacle to Cross-Cultural Conversation,” Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 7, 19 (2008): 107–17; Nicholas Dew, Orientalism in Louis XIV’s France, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

(25) Karl Marx, “The British Rule in India,” New-York Daily Tribune, June 25, 1853, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Marx/Engels Collected Works, Moscow: Progress, 1975–2005, 12:125. “English interference having placed the spinner in Lancashire and the weaver in Bengal, or sweeping away both Hindoo spinner and weaver, dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities, by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.”

(28) Bernier, “A Letter Written to Mr. Chapelain,” in History of the Late Revolution, 104.

(33) On the general outlines of early modern philosophy in India, indeed for a compelling argument that India experienced a distinctly “early modern” period in philosophy as in other domains of culture, see Jonardon Ganeri, The Lost Age of Reason: Philosophy in Early Modern India, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

(34) G. W. Leibniz, Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe, Berlin: Berlin-Brandenburgische Akaademie der Wissenschaften, 1923–, I, xiii, 544–45.

(35) G. W. Leibniz, “Lettre de Mr. Leibniz à Mr. Sparvenfeld, (qui avoit soin de servir les Ministres étrangers qui étoient à Stockholm,” in Otium hanoveranum, sive Miscellanea, ex ore & schedis illustris viri, piae memoriae, Godofr. Guilielmi Leibnitii, ed. Joachim Friedrich Feller, Leipzig: Impensis Joann. Christiani Martini, 1718, 37–38.

(36) G. W. Leibniz, “Pars altera, complectens meditationes, observationes et crises varias leibnitianas, gallico & latino sermone expressas,” XLVIII, in Otium hanoveranum, 158–60. The text reads in part, “Nova terrae divisio per diversas hominum species vel generationes, quas magnus pergrinator misit Domino Abbati della Chambre, Parisino, extat in Diario Eruditorum Parisino A. 1684. d. 24. April. Res huc redit. Geographi terram per regiones (gubernationes potius) dividunt. Ego quinque species vel generationes observo. Prima continet homines Europae, parte Moscoviae excepta. … Secunda species est Africanorum: Grandia labra, naso scaffo o simo, paucissimis labia mediocria, nasusque aquilinus. … Tertia species implet partem regnorum Arakam, SIam, Sumatrae, Borneo, rum Philippinas vel Manillas, Japoniam, Pegu, Tunkinum. … His omnibus color albus, sed humeri largi, facies plana (viso piatto,) nasus exiguus (picciolo & schiacciato) oculi exigui & porcini, (lungi & incavati) & pauci in barba pili.”

(38) Leibniz, Otium hanoveranum, 160. “Ego velim regiones dividi per linguas & has notari in cartis.”

(40) Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, ed. Werner Sollors, New York: Norton, 2001 [1789], 31.