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Human Diversity in the Nineteenth Century

2301 words (9 pages) Essay in History

08/02/20 History Reference this

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To what extent and why were conceptions of human diversity transformed over the nineteenth century?

This essay about human diversity in the nineteenth century has two main points of focus. The primary focus of this essay is to explore some factors as to what changed about human diversity and the extent of those changes during the nineteenth century. Secondly this essay will discuss some reasons as to why human diversity could have transformed over the chosen time period. To address the above points this essay will look at and analyse four themes and small parts of four different important periods of time. These are the age of enlightenment, the period of mid to late European imperialism and encounter, the age of social Darwinism, the ethnic divisions in community and the rise of nationalism and national self-identity. The critical analysis of those themes and periods should give an insight into a wide global historical topic and important period for European and Western communities, especially their global impact and influence in the world. Furthermore, the analysis of those four themes and time periods should produce a deeper understanding to what changed about human diversity, the extent of change and why it could have transformed over the course of the nineteenth century.

Some historians suggest that the modern starting point of transformation for human diversity was the period of enlightenment in Europe. The scientific thought of this period could be argued as a precondition for the growth of a modern racism based on physical typology which occurred during the late eighteenth to mid nineteenth century. One of the key scientists of this period who researched human diversity was the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus. In 1735 he created a scientific classification system of human types that included “some mythical and “monstrous” creatures; but the durable heart of the schema was the differentiation Linnaeus made among Europeans, American Indians, Asians, and Africans.”[1] Linnaeus’s theory implies that a basic classification of different human diversities based on human skin colour creates a system that separates those groups from one another and it is a starting point in modern science of people trying to explain why there are differences between the groups and how they may have occurred. Also, this theory could be interpreted and used by other academics or non-academic people to explain or to use as a justification of religious, social, political or economic policies, influencing agendas and interests of any European nations or groups of Europeans.   The scientific and reasonable ideas of the enlightenment are argued to be very different to the ideas and theories of human diversity that came before the period. Before the eighteenth century historians argued that there were few scientific theories and lots of religious theories about human diversity, for example “the curses on Jews for the killing of Christ and on blacks for the sins of Ham could serve as supernaturalist equivalents of biological determinism.”[2]  This religious theory suggests that the Europeans used the will and belief of God to support their views of differences between Christians and Jews or between Europeans and Africans which were ineradicable and they were embracing a racist doctrine and ideology.  These two theories show that the period of enlightenment in Europe transformed some of the old and religious ways of thinking into a more scientific and evidence based way of thinking about human diversity which questioned everything in this scientific manner. This change from religious views to scientific views suggests that this was a huge and very significant change, which created some theories of human diversity in the eighteenth century that were seen as the foundations for some theories of the nineteenth century. 

The second factor of how the conceptions of human diversity can be seen to transform during the nineteenth century was due to the European empires’ continued expansion of terrority across the globe. During this period the Europeans encountered a more diverse range of people. Some historians state that the assumption of the white man’s burden was to provide protection to the natives of their colonies and “rationalized the discrepancies between democracy at home and authoritarian colonialism abroad. Labeling the overseas Chinese as the “Jews of Asia” and rural peoples as “lazy natives” was propagated by Europeans … ideas and vocabularies of racial distinctions were widely adopted as part of local belief structures in many parts of the world.”[3] This usage of ideas about human diversity suggests that the colonizers’ civilising mission justified them going to the colonies. From their interactions in the colonies they created stereotypical characteristics of the native population. The increased encounters with natives gave scientists the opportunity to research, observe and conduct experiments to try to explain why the natives in the colonies had different features to the Europeans. In addition, historians proposed imperial encounters and colonisation as the idea of the colonizers living in imagined communities based on Western ideas of society. This may have been to overcome the economic and social disparities that could separate and often set members of a community in conflict. The imagined communities were able to be created by racial beliefs which could be used to  “mitigate such divisions and is thus a critical feature in the casting of colonial cultures, … it is often seen as a virtually built-in and natural product of that encounter, essential to the social construction of an otherwise illegitimate and privileged access to property and power”[4] This implies that the idea of human diversity has changed from the idea of religion against religion into the idea of civilised against uncivilised people. Therefore, this change of division from a religious to civilised dividing line, could be argued as a small but important change in the conceptions of human diversity. This is because there were still divisions in society being enforced by Westerners, but the divisions in society were transformed by Europeans focusing on new classifications of population groups. 

Another key factor of human diversity transforming during the nineteenth century was the creation of the theory known as social Darwinism. This theory infers that the global society has a hierarchy which was based on labelling the racial groups in their communities. This ladder of authority and power placed white westerners at the top with the most power, while black Africans were at the bottom with very little power. The other racial groups in between the top and bottom of the hierarchy had variable amounts of power. There are two examples of key figures in the nineteenth century who referred to this theory. The president Joseph Le Conte of the American Association for the Advancement of Science argues that “negroes” were an inferior and doomed race.”5 and the American anthropologist Daniel Shute exclaimed that “the Caucasian stands at the head of the racial scale and the Negro at the bottom.”[5] This suggests that the conceptions of human diversity had changed from being a question or relation of power between civilised and uncivilised people, into a relationship of power seen as a social hierarchy based on the differences of racial groups in the world. The human diversity shown in this hierarchical social system is important to scientists because “any explanation of racial differences among humans had to be part of a more complex explanation of the origin and nature of species of all kinds. … see races as inter­grading rather than as distinct, but this still left room for the possibility that some were naturally superior.”[6] This implies that the idea of human difference in the late nineteenth century had many theories and different points of views which made human diversity a complex topic of study to fully explain. The fact that the field of study was seen as very open to multiple interpretations created the opportunity for the theories of human difference to explain or be used as functions of social, political and economic sectors of modern global society. Therefore, the theory of social Darwinism transformed the conceptions of human diversity from the ideals of educated people and views of modern western society, into conceptions of an ordered power relationship between groups in the world. This transformation can be inferred as a very significant change because it created a more advanced hierarchical society.

Finally, historians argue that human diversity was transformed during the mid to late nineteenth century by the ideas of human ethnics. This was used to separate people into groups that are either seen as to belong to the community or seen as the outsider that does not belong in the community. One example of this is the historian Stoler’s explanation of the classification of people in colonies. Stoler states that “colonial racism is more than an aspect of how people classify each other, how they fix and naturalize the differences between We and also, … part of how people identify the affinities that they share and how they define themselves.”[7] Stoler suggests that the racist ideology, fear of the other and white prestige could have been used to control a power relationship between the indigenous subversives and the Europeans in the colonies. This social division made by classification shows a reason why human diversity may have changed during the interactions between colonisers and colonials. A second example of the human ethnics being used to classify and separate parts of communities was unifications of nations such as Germany and Italy in the early 1870s while national identities such as America were rising.  The historian Fredrickson states the civic form of nationalism as “which citizenship is allegedly based on universal human rights … can become… exclusionary if some segment of the population is viewed as less than fully human. … biological racism can be refuted or discredited, a polity inspired by … ideals of the Enlightenment could become a racially inclusive democracy where nationality is ethnic.”[8] This infers that the idea of national ethnicity was based on the bloodline or the genes of people. This means that any person with the wrong ancestry and bloodline according to the nation’s set ideals of nationality was not accepted as a true citizen of the nation. Therefore, this theory shows that the ideas of human difference changed from a racial difference to a biological difference due to civic ideas from the enlightenment being reused in the late nineteenth century. This transformation from focus of racial difference to biological difference can be argued as a very significant change.

The transformation of human diversity during the nineteenth century was a very complex topic to understand and to critically analyse. But this essay was able to narrowly explore and critically analyse a wide topic by focusing on the four themes: the age of enlightenment, the period of mid to late European imperialism and encounter, the age of social Darwinism, the ethnic divisions in community and the rise of nationalism and national self-identity. Therefore, the conceptions of human diversity transformed over this period due to many different factors and theories. Analysing the four chosen key theories and themes about human difference during this time period, it can be deduced that the conceptions of human diversity did transform over the nineteenth century. This may have been because the ideas and theories of human diversity became more advanced with society discovering more knowledge. For example, at the start of the century the ideas were just about physical typology of people which changed later in this century to the ideas of national ethnicity and social hierarchy based on racial groups and other modern theories. The extent of how the conceptions of human diversity have transformed over the nineteenth century can be seen as a very significant change that had a huge impact on society and how Westerners viewed the ideas of human difference. 

Bibliography

  • Banton, Michael (1987) Racial theories . Cambridge U.P
  • Fredrickson, George (2002) Racism: a short history. [Online]. Available from: http://search.proquest.com/docview/59908322/.
  • Hirschman, Charles (2004) The orgins and demise of the concept of race. Population and Development Review. 30 (3), 385–415. [online]. Available from: http://search.proquest.com/docview/211228199/.
  • Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2004) Social Darwinism in Anglophone Academic Journals: A Contribution to the History of the Term. Journal of Historical Sociology. [Online] 17 (4), 428–463.
  • Qureshi, Sadiah (2011) Robert Gordon Latham, displayed peoples, and the natural history of race, 1854-1866 . the historical journal. [online] 54 (1), 143–166.
  • Smedley, Audrey (1998) ‘Race’ and the Construction of Human Identity. American Anthropologist. [Online] 100 (3), 690–702.
  • Stoler, A (1989) Rethinking colonial categories: European communities and the boundaries of rule. Comparative Studies in Society and History. 31 (Jan 89), 134–161. [online]. Available from: http://search.proquest.com/docview/57800336/.

[1] Fredrickson, George (2002) Racism: a short history. p 56.

[2] Fredrickson, George (2002). p 51.

[3] Hirschman, Charles (2004) The orgins and demise of the concept of race. Population and Development Review. 30 (3), 385–415. pp. 395 to 396.

[4] Stoler, A & Stoler, A (1989) Rethinking colonial categories: European communities and the boundaries of rule. Comparative Studies in Society and History. 31 (Jan 89), 134–161. p. 137.

[5] Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2004) Social Darwinism in Anglophone Academic Journals: A Contribution to the History of the Term. Journal of Historical Sociology. p. 434.

[6] Banton, Michael (1987) Racial theories. p. 34.

[7] Stoler, A (1989) Rethinking colonial categories: European communities and the boundaries of rule. Comparative Studies in Society and History. pp. 137,138.

[8] Fredrickson, George (2002) Racism: a short history. pp. 69,70.

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