That thinking about human diversity comes to be expressed specifically in global typologies of human subgroups only towards the end of the 17th century is easy to understand. This is the first time in history that we see great progress in attempts at global knowledge of any sort at all: increasingly accurate world maps, the measurement of longitude, and so on. That these global typologies should in turn reproduce the language, and some of the presuppositions of biological taxonomy, flows in turn from the tremendous recent progress of the taxonomic project, combined --which we may see only in retrospect-- with what may well be an innate tendency to conceptualize ethnic difference along the same essentialistic lines by which we cognize differences of kind throughout the biological world. This appears to have been the case, as we have seen, even when the explicit scientific theory of ethnic or racial difference did not involve a commitment to any species-like or biologically significant essential differences between races. The modern race concept was constructed by practices of naming and ordering, much more than it was by overt expressions of racial realism. It owes much more to the systematic project of Blumenbach than to the juvenile taunts of Voltaire.
The recent cognitive literature suggests that some basic division of human society into essentialized subtypes has been with us all along, even if there is by no means an explicit theory of race in all places and times. One way of understanding the difficulty of eliminating racial thinking, then, is to suppose that it is not divisions in nature that remain stubbornly fixed and ineliminable, but rather certain patterns of human thought. Such an understanding of the sources of racial thinking long precedes the development of an explicitly cognitive approach. To cite one of many examples we have seen, in the 18th century Montesquieu argues not that there is an essential difference between Europeans and Africans, but only that Europeans are innately disposed to see the difference of skin color as marking out an essential difference. This is not, to be sure, what the current cognitive literature on race says, since no serious scientist claims that the perception of difference between Europeans and Africans is fixed and insurmountable. Yet Montesquieu places the sources of racial difference in, so to speak, the mind of the beholder, rather than in the joints of nature. To some extent, this is also what Kant, Blumenbach, and so many other exponents of modern racial science do, when they distinguish, to use Kant’s terminology, between artificial and natural divisions. They identify the entire human species as the only true natural division, in virtue of the unity of its reproductive power, while identifying racial divisions as ultimately grounded only in the classificatory interests of the people doing the classification.
At the same time, it would be hard to position the views of most of the authors we have investigated in relation to the Millian conception of natural kinds. For Mill, in contrast to Leibniz, Kant, Blumenbach, and others, the principle of natural unity of ‘Kinds’ in general arises from the fact that they share properties beyond the properties in virtue of which they are classified; for Kant and the others on whom we have focused, the principle of natural unity of living kinds in particular arises from their power to transmit kind membership across generations. Here, then, the criteria for shared kindhood for a group of living beings, such as ‘Negroes’, cannot be the same as the ones Mill would set up, e.g., for phosphorus. Rather, for Kant and others, racial divisions are artificial to the extent that they are not grounded in a principle of reproductive unity, but real to the extent that they pick out ‘deviations’ that are actually there. These deviations, however, are in the end much like the admixtures of tin that turn copper to bronze: it is up to the name-giver to decide where the one kind of thing leaves off and the other begins. Race is not a natural kind for the authors we have studied --even, or particularly, the authors who were so influential in the rise of racial science--, but this is in large part because these authors reject the idea, pace Mill, that there can be a general account of natural kinds that runs races, species, and the elements of the periodic table together indiscriminately. Rather, living kinds deserve a distinct philosophical analysis, and on this analysis one finds no basis for the identification of races as natural. The importance of this point can only be seen if we work our way back into a non-Millian frame of mind, part of which involves taking seriously the central significance of what we now call the ‘philosophy of biology’ throughout so much of the history of philosophy.
It was in large part the systematization of nature, in generally avowedly artificial classifications, that led to the emergence of racial realism in the modern period. It was quite enough to devise complicated schemata or groupings-together of all natural beings, including human beings and their purported subtypes, to reify the categories of race that so many modern people have taken for granted. It was not necessary, in addition, to produce philosophical arguments in defense of racial essentialism. Race, as an entity on a par with phlogiston, cosmic radiation, or gluons, is not invented in the modern period. What is invented is a system of racial typology, which in turn promotes a new way of talking about human diversity --a discourse, if you will--, and which supervenes on the prior and parallel project of biological taxonomy, even as it explicitly and repeatedly denies that the divisions it is making are actually given in nature. This new typology, finally, may be said to be the result of an increasing concern in the modern period to understand the human being as a thoroughly natural being, as exhaustively comprehensible within the terms of a system of nature that also includes primates, quadrupeds, molluscs, and plants. The insertion of the human being into such a system of nature, as we have attempted to show here, had profound implications for philosophical anthropology in the widest sense: for the understanding of human nature, and of the nature of human difference.
There is a certain responsibility, in addressing a subject as charged and as unresolved as race, to not treat it from a dusty and antiquarian point of view, but also to seek to bring something to current discussions that might help to lessen this idea’s harmful effects. We began this book with an epigram from W. E. B. DuBois, identifying ‘color prejudice’ in the Southern United States as a ‘curious kink of the human mind’, and then proceeded to investigate the concept of race as it unfolds from the Spanish Renaissance to the German Enlightenment, thus in a period that unfolds mostly before the institutions of prejudice that interest DuBois had taken shape. This may seem an avoidance of the pressing matter at hand, but the approach here has been motivated by the conviction that these curious kinks of US history may best be seen as a local inflection of a deep global history, which must be uncovered and analyzed in order for the seemingly intractable local pathologies, the ‘kinks’ to which DuBois refers, to be properly diagnosed and remediated. There can be no easy division between the antiquarian and the contemporary, since the way we talk about race is in large part an accrual or a distillation of history. There may be transhistorical and innate predispositions to divide human society into a fixed number of essentialized subgroups, but it would be extremely hasty to suppose that these kinks of the human mind are somehow etched into the human brain. Between any possible predisposition and the actual modern history of thinking about race, there is a tremendous amount of room for conceptualizing alternative paths our deepseated propensities for thinking about human diversity might have taken, and could still yet take.
Recent work in the ‘philosophy of race’, particularly in the Anglo-American tradition, has provided remarkable insight, borrowing much from empirical psychology, into the way implicit bias functions to heighten and perpetuate racial prejudice in society. This is valuable work, but it may threaten inadvertently to strengthen the understanding of racial difference as a difference rooted in natural kinds. If our brains are making distinctions between races even in spite of our stated beliefs about human equality and about the scientific insignificance of racial categories, then maybe, one might suppose, these divisions really are deeply rooted and somehow or other worthy of our respect. But what this line of reasoning overlooks is the way in which the perception of social reality is historically conditioned, and the way in which the categories that come into play in much of our effort to make sense of social reality can be much better understood not as natural kinds, or even as candidates for natural kindhood, but as historical kinds, to be questioned and challenged not only in clinical experiment and conceptual analysis, but also in the archives: the open record of our wrongs, conceptual and moral at once.