Britteny M Howell & Andrew Shooner. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.
This chapter focuses on human diversity as seen in both culture and biology. Of the innumerable ways humans can be culturally diverse, this chapter briefly discusses just a handful of characteristics such as religion and belief, social organization, gender, sexual orientation, and even the cultural constructs of race and ethnicity. In addition, a few features of human biological diversity will be discussed such as skin, hair, and eye color and body structure and stature.
Skin color, hair texture and color, nose form, stature, and even eye color are just some of the observable aspects of human biological diversity that have served as adaptations to environmental and geographic conditions. Anthropologists strive to teach physical diversity in terms of geographic clines, gradual changes in physical characteristics over a geographical area. In certain geographical areas, there tends to be a co-occurrence of physical traits such as skin color, and these are often explained as human adaptations to the environment.
Lastly, human groups construct ideas of race differently. This chapter will conclude with a brief history of the concept of race in the Western world and its impact on society. The ways in which race can be constructed by each culture vary dramatically. From the very narrow ideas of four races in America to the over 500 racial classifications of Brazil, the race concept is very much in the eye of the beholder. This chapter aims to provide a broad overview of only some of the ways in which humans are culturally and biologically diverse.
Humans express themselves in a myriad of ways—through customs, traditions, sexual orientation, religion, and many more. As such, these expressions of cultural diversity are much more prevalent than are expressions of biological diversity. Culture refers to the set of learned behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, values, and ideals that are characteristic of a particular society (Ember & Ember, 2009, p. 23). Since many characteristics of culture, such as customs, traditions, language, kinship, politics, and subsistence strategies, are discussed elsewhere in this text, this section of this chapter aims to briefly address aspects of cultural diversity such as religion, belief, gender roles, sexual orientation, and social organization.
Religion and Belief
It is often stated in anthropology that concern for a higher power is a cultural universal (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2008, p. 85).Religion has been defined anthropologically as the “belief and ritual concerned with supernatural beings, powers, and forces” (Wallace, 1966, p. 5). For many, religion is a formal institution involving regular worship in groups. With its group nature, religion creates a community of shared beliefs. The solidarity that participants experience is an important social function, but just as religion forms bonds between people, it is also divisive. People have a sense of belonging to a religious belief system, often to the exclusion of others. Religious diversity is defined by the different ways people interact with deities and the supernatural, the types of religious practitioners that are sanctioned, and the way religion is used as an adaptation to external forces.
Communication with the Supernatural
The supernatural refers to the existence of entities outside the visible universe. People in every human culture believe there are supernatural forces that affect their daily lives. The founder of the anthropology of religion, Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, stated that people invented the supernatural as a way to explain events and conditions for which they had no reference to explain any other way. People needed to explain their existence, the meaning of death, and even dreams, but had no other explanation for these phenomena. He posited that the earliest forms of religion were animistic, involving the belief that humans, animals, and nature were imbued with spirits (Tylor, 1871/1958). This also means the earliest religions were probably polytheistic, in which people believed in more than one god. Monotheism, belief in a single god, developed later.
People around the world interact with supernatural beings and deities in different ways. These strategies include prayer, dreams, visions, rituals, and sacrifices (Wallace, 1966, pp. 52-66). Ember and Ember (2009) simplify the difference between these strategies. Prayer refers to asking the supernatural to do something on one’s behalf, while rituals and sacrifices are thought to be sacred acts that will please and compel the supernatural to act (p. 195). The latter strategy is termed magic, supernatural techniques meant to accomplish specific goals (Kottak, 2008, p. 183), while manipulating the supernatural for harm against others is referred to as witchcraft. Witchcraft is often used to explain tragic or unforeseen accidents and illness in cultures such as the Azande of Zaire or populations in Papua New Guinea. Violating a taboo or acts of carelessness are recognized causes of illness or death, but witchcraft is used to explain the otherwise unexplainable.
People in cultures that believe in witchcraft also tend to believe strongly in revenge and retaliation for bewitching each other. Some anthropologists have stated that belief in witchcraft may be an adaptive mechanism that acts to level society and purge marginalized individuals from the group. People who are particularly successful and acquire much wealth are often accused of invoking witchcraft to cause their peers to fail so that they may triumph. Accusing wealthy individuals of using sorcery for ill-gotten gains often strips them of their wealth and acts to level society again (Whiting, 1950).
Shamans are intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds. These part-time religious specialists are also often associated with healing. Common techniques of the shaman include dreams and trances. Trance involves the use of an altered state of consciousness in which communication with the supernatural is possible. Individuals may obtain trancelike states through exhaustive dance or running, taking alcohol or hallucinogenic drugs, or deprivation of food, water, or sleep. It has been stated that 90% of the world’s societies practice religious trance (Bourguignon, 1973). Shamans are also quite common around the world, and the ability to communicate with the supernatural and cure the sick is the shaman’s primary responsibility. The belief that illness is caused by the supernatural is prevalent worldwide. In 1980, George Murdock compared 139 societies and found that only 2 did not contain the belief that gods or spirits could cause illness.
Religion as an Adaptation
The purpose of religion is more than just explaining the unexplainable. Religion serves the emotional needs of people as well. People can take comfort in the fact that there is an omnipresent and all-powerful deity watching over them. A belief in the afterlife or a “better place” can also help people cope with emotions experienced due to terminal illness and death. Anthropologists recognize that all religions act to reduce anxiety and uncertainty. According to Malinowski (1931/1978), when humans face much uncertainty and danger they turn to magic. He hypothesized that when people lack control, magic and spirituality alleviate psychological stress.
Human societies around the world are divided into many major and minor religions and belief systems. The largest world religions are Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Of course, there are many others not mentioned here as well as numerous divisions within religions. Religion is a major factor in human cultural diversity because people around the world see religion as part of their identity, as something that defines them to the exclusion of other belief systems. Because people tend to be emotionally attached to their belief system, religion is often a form of conflict that divides groups of people.
Gender and Sexual Orientation
To understand diversity in gender and sexual orientation it is important to distinguish between sex and gender. Sex is a biological and anatomical classification referring to the chromosomes present in an individual; females have two X chromosomes and males have one X and one Y chromosome. Men and women also differ biologically in primary and secondary sexual characteristics. Primary sexual characteristics are genitals and reproductive organs, while secondary sexual characteristics are often breasts, voice differences, and hair distribution (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2008, p. 145). But there are other differences in male and female biology beyond sexual characteristics. Sexual dimorphism refers to those nonsexual differences such as height, weight, muscle mass, lung capacity, and endurance. Today, there is quite a bit of overlap in these areas but these differences existed to a greater degree throughout human evolution.
As opposed to sex, gender refers to the cultural construct that defines acceptable male and female behavior. These gender roles vary widely across the globe. Anthropologists have identified recurring themes in gender divisions of labor, but gender roles differ with the environment, economy, and political system of societies (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2008, p. 146).
Because gender differences exist in societies, often gender stratification develops. Gender stratification is the unequal distribution of power between males and females that reflects their different positions in the social hierarchy.
In many societies, gender stratification favors males. According to many anthropologists, gender divisions of labor progressed into gender stratification favoring men when many societies abandoned foraging in favor of farming (see Diamond, 1987, 1998; Kottak, 2009). Previous foraging subsistence valued the work of women because their vegetable food-gathering and small-animal trapping provided a majority of the daily caloric requirements (Diamond, 1987, 1998; Lee, 2003). The shift to agricultural lifestyles involved long days of hard manual labor, in which male biological differences were favored. As men became the primary food producers, there was a shift of women and domestic tasks to an inferior status. Also, in many societies, males are granted access to the public sphere and the outside world, which gives them experiences and power over females who do not possess access to such experiences (Rosaldo, 1980; Kottak, 2009, p. 228).
However, the gender roles and expectations are too great for some. Individuals sometimes feel they do not belong to their sex or gender. In some societies, there is a place for these people whose sex and gender do not correspond, individuals who feel they are neither man nor woman.
The Third Gender
The “two-spirits” Native North Americans constitute a third gender, often referred to as berdache. The two-spirits has been identified in over 150 North American tribes in the historical and ethnographic literature. An interesting feature of the berdache identity is that it could include both males and females. Berdache are known for preferring work of the opposite sex and engaging in homosexual relationships with nonberdache individuals. The two-spirits identity is believed to be the result of supernatural forces that come to them in visions or dreams. The community to which berdache belong often regards them as being neither male nor female, but they are distinguished from typical male and female gender roles. Many Native North American tribal groups also attributed fertility and sexual powers to berdache shamans (Roscoe, 1998).
In the Middle East, the country of Oman has a third gender called xanith. A xanith is anatomically male but takes on gender roles that are in between those of males and females. While men wear white and women wear bright patterns, xaniths wear unpatterned, pastel clothing. They also have medium-length hair and intermediate social roles. Gender roles are strictly defined in Oman and women are not to leave the home without permission. A xanith, though, may come and go as he wishes as well as interact with both men and women socially. Xaniths may have sexual relationships with women or men, or choose to remain unwed. If a xanith is involved in a relationship with a man, he will be allowed to retain his male public status as a man as long as he is also married to a woman and can prove he consummated that marriage (Wikan, 1982).
The fa’afafine are a third gender specific to Samoa, in the South Pacific. These individuals are born male but are raised as females. The literature suggests there are two ways in which parents may choose to raise their son as a fa’afafine. First, and traditionally, sons became fa’afafine because the couple had plenty of sons and not enough daughters. Traditional gender divisions of labor prohibited men from doing domestic work, and raising a son as a fa’afafine served as an adaptation to having too few daughters. Other sources state that, more recently, sons may choose to be raised and treated as fa’afafine because of homosexual or effeminate tendencies (Mageo, 1992). Fa’afafine are not always considered homosexuals or transvestites, because they retain characteristics of being both male and female; they do “women’s work” as well as sometimes taking a wife and having a family.
In contrast to fa’afafine, hijras are third-gender individuals of India, a group that includes hermaphrodites (individuals born with both male and female genitalia), eunuchs (castrated men), and homosexual men. Due to the relatively few humans that are born truly hermaphroditic, Nanda (1999) believes that most hijras are men who have undergone the emasculation procedure or homosexual men who have retained their genitalia. Many hijras state that they were born as neither man nor woman, even if they had undergone the emasculation procedure, and are united in their belief that “no greater insult is possible than to describe them as males” (Lal, 1999, p. 127). In fact, hijras dress and behave as females but do not try to pass themselves off as females; they make themselves known to be true hijras, neither man nor woman.
Hijras belong to a special caste of devotees to the mother goddess Bahuchara Mata and are traditionally employed as performers in special ceremonies, such as weddings and the blessing of newborn children. According to Hindu belief, and much like Native American berdaches, these third-gender individuals have the power to bring fertility and prosperity in traditional ceremonies. Although the presence of hijras at ceremonies is believed to be auspicious, Indians are somewhat fearful of these sexually ambiguous individuals because they also have the power to bring infertility and misfortune on families that do not pay them enough. Additionally, many hijras are homosexual prostitutes, which decreases their respect, and those hijras that make a living as street performers receive much public scorn and ridicule (Nanda, 1999).
All of the societies with a third gender discussed here are considered to have some form of institutionalized homosexuality. Sexual orientation is generally divided into four forms: (1) heterosexuality, sexual attraction to the opposite sex; (2) homosexuality, attraction to the same sex; (3) bisexuality, attraction to both sexes; and (4) asexuality, no sexual attraction to either sex. Although all four forms exist in many parts of the world, they are defined differently by each culture. For example, in the societies mentioned above, a form of institutionalized homosexuality exists within the purview of a third gender.
An extreme example of institutionalized homosexuality can be found among the Etoro of Papua New Guinea. Here, masculinity is considered an achieved status whereby adolescent boys need to acquire the characteristics that will make them men. Particularly, this includes the acquisition of semen from older men. Beginning around age 10 and continuing into adulthood, males are inseminated orally by older men, usually their maternal uncles (Kelly, 1976). It was considered inappropriate for two youths to engage in this activity because it is believed they are draining each other’s semen supply, and thus shortening their life spans.
It is also important to note that a number of Papuan societies practice female avoidance. Femininity is believed to be an ascribed status—something one is born with and does not need to acquire through deeds during the lifetime. This innate femininity is also considered highly polluting. Males in these regions live in communal housing with other men, hide ritual and sacred objects from women, limit all interactions with females, and even have a taboo against heterosexual intercourse. Sex with women is believed to sap the life force from men and is only to be practiced for procreation. Viewed in light of these dramatic circumstances of female avoidance, institutionalized homosexuality does not seem so surprising. The Etoro are exhibiting homosexuality not as something driven by their hormones or genes, but as a cultural tradition (Creed, 1984).
Discussions of gender roles and sexual orientation need to be viewed in light of a number of cultural characteristics, such as religious beliefs, and social and political structure. Particular practices and belief structures can often be better understood by how they trace their descent, how power is structured, and how these relations came to be.
Human cultural diversity is also expressed by human social and political organization. Elman Service (1962) is well-known for his sociopolitical typology that divides human groups into the four categories of band, tribe, chiefdom, and state. A band is a kin-based society where all members are related through blood or marriage. Bandlevel societies engage in nomadic or seminomadic foraging, or hunting and gathering. This type of society is usually egalitarian, where people enjoy relatively equal political, economic, or social status. This does not mean that all people in bandlevel societies are equal; egalitarian bands do have status differences based on gender and age. Bands are also based on reciprocity, an economic system that governs exchange between social equals, which serves to forge and solidify relationships. The Khoisan of southern Africa are famous examples of band-level societies that retained many “traditional” features up until the 1970s (Lee, 1979, 2003).
Tribes are sedentary or seminomadic societies living in villages that practice small-scale agriculture such as pastoralism and/or horticulture. Like bands, tribes are also organized by kin groups, although tribes claim common descent through clans and lineages. Also like bands, tribes lack formal government, but many tribes possess a village head or “big man.” A big man is like a village leader that has influence in more than one village. The Yanomami of the Amazon forest and the Masai of East Africa are examples of tribal societies.
Chiefdoms are also kin-based societies. Although they do possess permanent government, kinship, marriage, descent, age, and gender are factors that divide people in chiefdoms into social classes. A person’s status can be determined by achievement or ascription. Achieved status refers to the social position one holds due to hard work, perseverance, skills, or other actions and activities achieved during one’s lifetime. An example of an achieved status would be an occupation, since no one is born a doctor and that status must be earned. An ascribed status is one that is assigned at birth and generally cannot be controlled or changed, such as gender and nationality. Wealth, power, and social status can be either achieved or ascribed in chiefdom-level societies. An example of a chiefdom is the Cherokee of North America.
State-level societies are political units with formal governments based on codified law with law enforcement. States also have economic, or fiscal, systems that are needed to support the large population and government officials. Compared with bands, tribes, or chiefdoms, states are large and urban based, and they exist as today’s nation-states. Any contemporary country is a state-level society.
Even though Service’s (1962) classification system seems clear-cut and functional, this is no longer the case. Anthropologists recognize that no category except the state truly exists today as a self-contained form. All forms of social organization exist within the larger nation-state and are subject to its laws and regulations (Kottak, 2009, pp. 108-125).
Cultural diversity exists in many forms. Diversity is expressed in the way people worship, the way they adhere to or reject gender roles and norms of sexual orientation, and even the way they are socially organized. These are just a few of the ways in which humans express diversity; others include language, kinship structures, values, marriage, folklore, ethnicity, and music, which are discussed in further detail throughout this text. Now we turn our attention from human cultural diversity to biological diversity.
In addition to the many ways people can be culturally diverse, there also exist some biological differences. Again, human biological diversity is far less pronounced than the infinite ways in which people express themselves culturally. Anthropologists explain physical differences in human appearance in terms of geographic clines, a term coined by Sir Julian Huxley in 1938. Clines are gradual shifts in phenotypes over a geographical area. A phenotype is an observable trait or characteristic, such as skin, hair, or eye color, nose form, or stature. Biological anthropologists recognize that human expression of certain physical characteristics shifts with geographic and environmental conditions. These gradual shifts in phenotypes are not clearly delineated, and they do not separate “races” of people. Phenotypic variations are known to be adaptations to environment and geography.
Over the course of human evolution, human physiology has adapted to a number of environmental factors such as amount of UV light exposure, extreme hot and cold climates, and availability of nutritious food. Many human biological traits have taken about 4 million years to develop while others are more recent in human history. As Homo sapiens sapiens migrated out of Africa, they began to inhabit a wider variety of climate zones. Humans were able to adapt to many environmental conditions within the last 500,000 years of their existence. This section of the chapter aims to describe the most common environmental obstacles and how human biology was able to adapt and even flourish under these conditions.
Humans manufacture most of their vitamin D by absorbing and then synthesizing UV light through the skin. However, the ultraviolet light emitted from the sun that reaches the earth is unevenly dispersed. Areas around the equator are exposed to higher levels of the sun’s UV light than far northern or southern areas, and this UV light dispersal is roughly latitudinal. The UV light distribution on the earth’s surface is quite uneven and is even considered inadequate for proper vitamin D production in some regions.
Melanin is a pigment compound found in the skin. Melanin granules range in color from brown to black and protect the skin from overproduction of vitamin D. Individuals exposed to high levels of UV light express high levels of melanin in the skin, resulting in dark skin color. Individuals living in environments with little to no UV exposure are characterized by low levels of melanin in the skin and express light skin color. In other words, the amount of melanin in the skin is related to the amount of daily exposure to UV radiation (Frisancho, 1993, p. 154).
Skin color is darkest near the equator, in regions where melanin production in the skin is elevated due to the amount of sunlight. These high levels of melanin protect the body from sunburn. Additionally, increased melanin production prohibits overproduction of vitamin D. As one moves farther away from the equator, either north or south, the clines of skin-color variation contain less melanin, resulting in lighter skin. Light skin is able to better manufacture vitamin D without much exposure to UV sunlight (Frisancho, 1993, pp. 166-167). This being said, individuals living in extreme northern or southern latitudes may still experience ill health due to vitamin D deficiency.
In the 17th through 19th centuries, many children in northern European countries suffered from rickets, a vitamin D deficiency disease. Rickets is characterized by muscle weakness, projections above the ribcage, and skeletal malformations such as bowed legs and narrow pelves. This corresponded to a time in history when middle- to upper-class Europeans prized milky-white skin and outdoor activities were seen as “lower class.” Thus, outdoor activities were avoided unless the skin was completely covered up. Scientists then began to notice a link between rickets and sun exposure and ran some experiments to determine if this was the case. In 1919, Huldschinsky exposed children with rickets to radiation from a lamp and found that the children were cured of the disease in a few months. A few years later, in 1921, Hess and Ungar exposed children with rickets to sunlight in New York City for a few months and also found that they were healed of their lesions. Vitamin D deficiency has also been found in women in the Middle East due to cultural mandates that women be shielded from view in public. The practice of covering the skin with dark clothing in this region has led to hypocalcemia, low calcium levels in the blood, in women, which also affects the health of their children through breastfeeding (Dawodu et al., 1998).
Another factor affecting skin color is disease. Recessive genes can cause albinism, or hypomelanism, which is characterized by a lack of melanin in the skin, hair, and eyes. People born as “albinos” have white hair and skin and eyes with pink or pale-blue irises because their cells lack the ability to produce melanin. Albinism can be severe or quite mild, but individuals who cannot produce normal levels of melanin are at higher risk of skin cancer, astigmatism, optic nerve hypoplasia, and photosensitivity.
Hair and Eye Color
Ultraviolet light exposure affects not only melanin in the skin but also hair color and texture and even eye color. This is due to variation in melanin content of hair and eye pigment. Most humans have brown or black hair that contains more melanin than red or blond hair. Likewise, different eye colors contain a different density and distribution of melanin: Blue eyes contain the least amount and dark brown eyes contain the most melanin.
Generally, dark or light skin, eyes, and hair co-occur as an adaptation to the environment. Light hair, skin, and eyes help people of northern regions produce adequate amounts of vitamin D for survival where little UV radiation reaches the earth’s surface. By the same token, large amounts of melanin in the skin, hair, and eyes protect these features from overexposure to high levels of UV light in equatorial environments. However, this generalization has a few exceptions. Many European children are born with blond hair that darkens with age. Additionally, Aboriginal Australians have dark skin and eyes but light or even blond hair.
It is important to note that eye and hair color are not entirely defined by geographic clines. There are complex patterns of genetic inheritance that affect eye and hair color. Researchers know that there are many genes that affect these traits as well as admixture among the world’s populations (Molnar, 1998, pp. 246-247).
Body Shape and Stature
Another environmental factor that has affected human evolution is climate. Human physiology is quite remarkable in its ability to adapt to extremely hot or cold conditions. Body build and stature appear to have been altered in order to acclimate to environmental conditions. Although generalizations can be made that body shape and stature follow geographic clines, there are a few notable exceptions. It is imperative to remember that other factors such as diet, disease, and complex genetic inheritance and variation also play a role in determining body shape and stature.
According to Fourier’s law of heat flow, we know that the amount of radiant heat that can be lost in an object depends on the ratio of surface area to body mass. Researchers also know that about 67% of the heat lost in a human at rest is due to radiation (Stein & Rowe, 2000, p. 408). Taking these two facts into account, one can see how humans with a higher surface area:body mass ratio would be better at radiating heat from the body. Conversely, humans with a low surface area:body mass ratio would be better able to retain, or conserve, that body heat. We would expect to find tall and slender individuals with a higher surface area:body mass ratio in hot climates and short, stocky people with a low surface area:body mass ratio in cold climates. A good example is the Nuer of equatorial Africa. The Nuer are part of a larger group of tall East Africans, referred to as Nilotes, that all exhibit long, slender bodies with long limbs. These features are adaptations that allow their bodies to dissipate and dispel large amounts of body heat in their hot climates. Conversely, the Inuit of the Arctic exhibit short, stocky bodies with short limbs that allow them to retain body heat in their cold climates. The high amount of subcutaneous fat that makes them “stocky” acts to insulate and help retain body heat.
Of course, there are a few exceptions to this theory. Most notably, the Mbuti Pygmies of the Congo live only a few hundred miles from some of the tallest people in the world, the Tutsi (Hiernaux, 1977). How could the world’s smallest population live so close to one of the world’s tallest? A possible explanation for this has to do with the humidity in the hot, steamy forests that they inhabit. The pygmy body form is completely different than that of their tall, heat-dissipating neighbors; however, they are well suited to a hot, wet climate. The high humidity of the forest makes heat loss due to radiation and sweating ineffective. Instead, pygmies compensate with a reduction of internal body heat production. This is possible with a reduction in metabolism and muscle mass, which are accomplished with weight reduction. They are light and small because they are not producing as much body heat as their tall neighbors. While their neighbors can thermoregulate with sweating, pygmies had to adapt a different mechanism to acclimate to the hot and humid regions they inhabit (Molnar, 1998, pp. 198-200). Further evidence to support this hypothesis is that “pygmoid” populations around the world, such as Negritos of the Philippines and New Guinea, exhibit a similar body form and inhabit similar high-humidity regions.
As has been demonstrated in the preceding sections of this chapter, humans display a wide range of both cultural and biological variation. However, the cultural variation of humans is much greater and more complex than their biological variation. Cultural variation includes such differences as religion, beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status in society. Cultural features can also be widely dispersed throughout the world’s populations. In contrast, much of humanity’s biological variation can be explained as adaptations to geographic clines. Such features as skin color, hair and eye color, and body form and stature have helped people acclimate and thrive in different areas of the globe.
While the biological facts seem to point to adaptation to environmental conditions, other factors, such as diet, disease, and inheritance, play a role in the expression of human variation. Additionally, cultural constructs of these physical differences are quite different around the world. Many cultures rely on the concept of human races to explain physical differences. Unfortunately, the concept of race in the Western world has largely ignored biological explanations for human differences and historically has aimed to classify people into discrete categories. Grouping people based on phenotypes has led to prejudice, discrimination, and segregation.
Race in Western Culture
The concept of race in Western science has changed dramatically over the last 200 years. At the beginning of the 19th century, European thought about race was influenced by two significant forces: the doctrine of Christianity and the rational philosophy of the Enlightenment. The Judeo-Christian creation story reinforced the belief that all of mankind is descended from a single couple, Adam and Eve. The theory that all humans are descended from a single pair of ancestors is called monogenesis.
Since before the medieval period, the perception of the universe known as scala naturae was strongly integrated into both religious and scientific European thought. Scala naturae, or the “great chain of being,” was a perspective that fit the natural and supernatural world into a hierarchal structure that paralleled medieval European society itself. Scala naturae placed God at the top of the universal order, nobility at the highest levels of humanity, and the peasants at the bottom. The Christian church and the medieval state used scala naturae as a philosophical source of authority. Following this system meant never questioning one’s station in the great chain, much less the validity of the structure as a whole. Even into the Enlightenment of the 18th century, this perspective had a strong following.
As Europe’s exploration and colonization expanded throughout the world in the 18th century, its society became increasing aware of human cultural and biological diversity. Scientists of the time worked to put this diversity into a rational order. Carolus Linnaeus was an 18th-century biologist best known for his work creating a classification system, or taxonomy, of organisms. Contemporary biology’s current taxonomical system is based on his work. Linnaeus included humans in his taxonomy, separating mankind into distinct races, and attributing certain traits to the races as a whole. The development of racial types by Linnaeus in 1758 is perhaps the beginning of the model of race we still experience in contemporary Western culture. Another very important Enlightenment typologist was Johann Blumenbach. In his text,On the Natural Varieties of Mankind (1776), Blumenbach divided humanity into three major races, as well as two connecting minor races. At the center of this continuum was the “ideal” Caucasoid (Europeans). The Malaysian minor race connected the Caucasoid to the African race, and the Aboriginal Indigenous Americans connected them to Asians. There are several important aspects to Blumenbach’s approach. He argued for the influence of climate on race type, which explained how such gradation of variation could occur. The gradations of race that he observed, and his environmental explanation for the emergence of race, reinforced the possibility of a single origin of humanity.
European society considered its exploitation of cultures on other continents as bringing positive changes to inferior races. In America, however, the exploitation was not kept in far-off colonies, but was a part of everyday life. American society subjugated both the American Indians who were being driven from the land, and the African slaves being used to develop the economy. In this context, some thinkers proposed that these other races were not descended from the same ancestors as Europeans, but were instead effectively different species.
Gould outlines two key players in the American school of polygeny: Agassiz the theorist and Morton the empiricist (Gould, 1996, p. 74). Louis Agassiz was a Swiss-born comparative paleontologist and biologist at Harvard who never produced any evidence to back up his radical polygenist claims. As Gould describes, Agassiz appears to have arrived at the polygenist conclusion from visceral reaction to close contact with black slaves in America. He made subjective, racist observations and claimed them to be objective philosophical inquiry. Despite the abstract nature of his work, Agassiz was still an important figure in the polygenist-monogenist debate.
Samuel Morton (1839), an American physician and natural scientist, focused his efforts in support of polygeny on practical craniometry. He believed bigger skulls equated to bigger brains, which indicated greater intelligence (Wolpoff & Caspari, 1997). Morton sought hard scientific data to build a comparative body of evidence for inherent racial distinctions. To do this, he compared a large number of human skulls from many different populations throughout the world. His comparisons observed smaller volumes in American Indian than in Caucasian skulls. Another observation he saw as important was made in his study of Egyptian skulls, Crania Aegyptiaca (1844). He found a clear distinction between the white ruling class and the “Nubian” working class of ancient Egypt. Using a world chronology based on a literal interpretation of Christian scriptures, Morton dated these white Egyptian skulls to soon after creation, or around 4000 BCE. Such a find reinforced the concept of the original diversity of races, and argued that race was beyond the influence of environment, as Blumenbach had postulated. Besides conclusions brought about by his literalist-scriptural view, Morton’s more empirically based conclusions, derived from calculating cranial capacity by filling skulls with mustard seed and measuring how much the skull could hold, also produced what could only be described as bad science. His samples were chosen from both men and women, without any concern over characteristics that vary between men and women (sexual dimorphism). Also, he excluded samples that he deemed anomalous, despite the clear bias inherent in such manipulation.
At the same time that Morton was conducting racial studies biased toward fitting observable data into preconceived notions of race, scientists like Charles Darwin were working sufficiently outside the influence of scala naturae to produce new explanations for human diversity. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) implied, as a matter of logic, that humanity is a product of divergence from a previous species altogether. Darwin’s work also credited the influence of randomness; all biological variation did not follow some predestined chain of being, but rather was subject to unpredictable variability. This is a critical distinction that served to completely overturn much of the philosophy of science up to that point. If Darwin’s work served to completely outmode the issue of polygenism versus monogenism, it also set in motion what would become the contemporary challenge to the concept of race as a whole.
Race as a Social Construct
Biology since Darwin has still included concepts of race determined by culture and its understanding of genetics. Despite increasingly strong arguments against scientifically definable race, the concept has not disappeared from biological study. The Race, Ethnicity, and Genetics (REG) Working Group of the National Human Genome Research Institute (2005) highlights the lack of genetic diversity among so-called races when compared with other animal species. Of the genetic variation that does exist among humans, only 5% to 15% occurs between groups on different continents (p. 521).
Grouping populations into racial or ethnic categories due to a small part of their phenotype can confuse issues that have a much more complex genetic background. While doing broad population studies does require some generalizing terms, the most specific, unambiguous types should be used. Overall, the type of study being done should determine such classifications. Clearly, how scientists have approached race over the last 200 years has been determined by a variety of forces. Researchers like Samuel Morton serve as examples that science is inevitably a product of the society that produces it. In “Darwin’s Influence on Modern, Thought,” Ernst Mayr (2000) argues that such a relationship can exist between a scientist’s work and the culture that produced it.
Humans vary culturally and biologically. It must be noted, however, that humans express far less biological diversity than cultural diversity, and many of these variations can be explained as adaptations. Humans striving to explain the inexplicable, to understand death and the nature of life, have invented belief systems to help them cope with the world around them. People use these beliefs and traditions to alleviate anxiety, to obtain hope, and to create equality among the believers.
In their quest to understand the world, people have classified all that is around them, putting types of animals, plants, and even people into categories they can understand. In so doing, humans have created ideas of racial groups and even gender roles and divisions that are not based on biological realities. These classifications have often served to benefit one group and subjugate others. In many cultures, these human divisions are not accepted by all and subgroups have emerged. In Samoa, Papua New Guinea, and Native North America, third and fourth genders have emerged as a way for some people to deal with the gender divisions and inequalities that had been instituted.
People are also divided into different socioeconomic categories. Elman Service’s (1962) typology aimed to order all humans into bands, tribes, chiefdoms, or states. It is well understood that these categories no longer exist as self-contained entities, but humans continue to keep themselves divided. Racial classifications have also served to group people together often under the assumption of biological differences. Anthropologists now understand that many human biological traits serve as adaptations to the environment. Traits used to classify people into races are actually advantageous characteristics for their environment. Despite this new knowledge, people continue to use racial classifications as a way to organize the people around them. Although the history of the race concept in Western culture has come a long way, it is apparent there is still a long way to go.