“Two Races: Ugly and Beautiful”

Race is a 19th-century concept. In the 18th century, the division of human “varieties” was just as arbitrary—but a little more creative.
  • Transcript


Question: How was the emerging notion of race tied to 18th-century scientific thought?

Nell Irvin Painter:  For Linnaeus—and the great version of his taxonomy was 1758—he did categorize people, so but he categorized them according to where they were from, so they were categorized, there were four different varieties, and they were categorized by their continent.  They did have continental temperaments, so people from Africa were flighty and people from Europe were thoughtful, but their names had to do with where they were from.  So Johann Friedrich Blumenbach writing in… actually publishing on the 11th of April, 1795 enlarged Linnaeus’ four categories into five and called one of them Caucasian.  Note that he is calling them varieties, not races.  Race is…  He wrote in Latin and so the translation becomes races and races is the nineteenth-century word.  So for Blumenbach at the very end of the eighteenth century it was already clear that these varieties shade from one to the other imperceptibly.  He said you can’t draw a clear line that all of this kind of person will be on one side and all of that kind of person will be on another, and he also offered his readers several different numbers of varieties.  He said you could choose.  For instance, he said I know a person who says there’re only two.  He didn’t name that person, but we know who it was—Christoph Meiners, who was his colleague—and Meiners’ two races were ugly and beautiful.