04 Race, Ethnicity, and Human Variation

Race, Ethnicity, and Human Variation

Buffon on Race


Updated: May 30th 2012

When I was in the process of developing my course on human variation I discussed the course with my colleague and friend, Doug Crews, professor of anthropology at the Ohio State University.  He had been teaching a course in human variation and the two of us decided we would try to put together a reader that we could use for both our classes.  One of the articles I proposed was chapter VII of Darwin’s 1871 Descent of Man, the chapter entitled “On the Races of Man” (1871).  While there are several 19th century anachronisms in this chapter, it is a strong argument for the unity of the human species and for differences being largely the result of adaptation to environmental circumstances.  For many years I had students read this chapter as a required reading during the history segment of my course.  Now one of my required texts incorporates parts of the chapter.  One of the sections that many anthropological texts call attention to is Darwin’s paragraph arguing for the lack of clear boundaries between races and that there is only a single human species:

But the most weighty of all the arguments against treating the races of man as distinct species, is that they graduate into each other, independently in many cases, as far as we can judge, of their having intercrossed. Man has been studied more carefully than any other animal, and yet there is the greatest possible diversity amongst capable judges whether he should be classed as a single species or race, or as two (Virey), as three (Jacquinot), as four (Kant), five (Blumenbach), six (Buffon), seven (Hunter), eight (Agassiz), eleven (Pickering), fifteen (Bory de St-Vincent), sixteen (Desmoulins), twenty-two (Morton), sixty (Crawfurd), or as sixty-three, according to Burke. This diversity of judgment does not prove that the races ought not to be ranked as species, but it shews that they graduate into each other, and that it is hardly possible to discover clear distinctive characters between them (Darwin, 1871:232-233).

             I have used this statement in my presentations many times to help convince students of the social nature of the concept of race.  But something about it troubled me.  I knew that many anthropological works cite Buffon as contributing to the 18th century understanding of human variation.  His suggested means of adaptation leading to race formation within the human species includes ideas that are still being investigated today. As he notes:

Three causes … must be admitted, as concurring in the production of those varieties which we have remarked among the different nations of this earth: 1. The influence of climate; 2. Food, which has a great dependence on climate; and, 3. Manners, on which climate has a still greater influence (Buffon, 1749-1788, Volume V:139-140).

But I also had been teaching throughout my career that Buffon was the anti-Linnaeus, he opposed the idea of classification as a valid pursuit in natural history.  After using Jon Marks’ book Human Biodiversity (1995) as a required text in several courses, this idea was strongly reinforced by his extensive coverage of the contrasting approaches of Linnaeus versus Buffon in early anthropology.  This led me to question the place of Buffon in understanding the history of the concept of race in anthropology.  If Buffon was anti-classification, why would he divide the human species up into a small number of races like other 18th century scholars?  Why would he use the concept of race in this “modern” sense of a few large groups?

Uses of the term “race”

            The idea that Buffon brought the term race into scientific discourse goes well back in the anthropological literature.  Montagu (1942) blames Buffon for the term while arguing how dangerous it is.  Montagu understands, however, that Buffon’s use of the term “race” is nothing like the usage seen since the early 19th century:

It is commonly stated that Buffon classified man into six races.  Buffon, who was the enemy of all rigid classifications, did nothing of the sort.  What he did was to provide an account of all the varieties of man known to him in a purely descriptive manner.  This is how he begins: “In Lapland, and on the northern coasts of Tartary, we find a race of men of an uncouth figure and small stature.”  And this is the type of Buffon’s description.  Here the word “race” is used for the first time in a scientific context, and it is quite clear, after reading Buffon, that he uses the word in no narrowly defined, but rather in a general sense.  Since Buffon’s works were widely read and translated into many European languages, he must be held at least partially responsible for the diffusion of the idea of a natural separation of the races in humankind, though he himself does not appear to have had such an idea in mind (Montagu, 1996:69).

Smedley (1996) cites Scheidt (1950) as her source for Buffon bringing race into the vocabulary of the natural sciences.  The Scheidt piece is actually a 1925 German language publication which was translated, edited, and reprinted by Count in his 1950 reader, This is Race.  I point this out because one of the problems with understanding Buffon’s influence on the concept of race has been the use of secondary sources, translations, and abridgements of his work that do not always clearly capture the intent of Buffon.  Scheidt adds in a footnote to his article, “the word ‘race’ to all appearance was introduced into the language of natural science by Buffon,” Scheidt (1950:360).  Smedley (1996) goes on to suggest that the term was used by other earlier workers but none as significant for subsequent natural historians as Buffon.

            While Buffon may have been responsible for influencing many other workers to use the term race for what had been called varieties of the human species, as Montagu clearly points out, he was not using it the way later workers used it.  Here are some examples of the use of race in Buffon’s 1749 Of the Varieties of the Human Species:

The Danish, Swedish, and Muscovite Laplanders, the inhabitants of Nova-Zembla, the Borandians, the Samoiedes, the Ostiacks of the old continent, the Greenlanders, and the savages to the north of the Esquimaux Indians, of the new continent, appear to be of one common race.


[the Ostiacks] appear to form a shade between the race of Laplanders and the Tartars . . . [or] the Laplanders, the Samoiedes, the Borandians, the Nova-Zemblians, and perhaps the Greenlanders, and the savages to the north of the Esquimaux Indians, are Tartars reduced to the lowest point of degeneracy . . .  the Ostiacks are less degenerated than the Tongusians, who though to the full as ugly, are yet more sizeable and shapely.


Those of Formosa, and the Mariana islands, resemble each other in size, vigour, and features, and seem to form a race distinct from that of every other people around them.


In Ceylon there is a species of savages, who are called Bedas; they occupy a small district on the north part of the island, and seem to be of a peculiar race.


in the island of Mindoro, which is not far from Manilla, there is a race of men called Manghians, who have all tails of [four to five inches], and some of these men had even embraced the Catholic faith. [Emphasis added].

            These examples, drawn from Barr’s translation of Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle illustrate even more clearly than Montagu’s that Buffon is using race in a 17th and early 18th century sense as synonymous with people or nation or kind or type.  His usage is closer to what would be called an ethnic group today (Crews and Bindon, 1991).

            The last example also calls attention to another issue with Buffon’s discussion of the varieties of man and that is his uncritical acceptance of the existing literature for most of the groups that he speaks of.  Gossett (1963) says that Buffon’s work was sometimes referred to by other authors as “unnatural history” making a play on the title of his huge volume of work to reflect the fact that Buffon’s credulity was greater than that of many of his successors and competitors.

            In conclusion, if we want to continue to credit Buffon with introducing the word race to the literature, we need to do so the way that Montagu did, noting that it was a usage that would not be familiar to most readers today—or even through most of the 19th century.

How many races

            Now about the idea that Buffon divided humanity up into six races; as noted by Montagu this is apocryphal, but it has had substantial staying power within the anthropological literature, from the 18th century up to the present.  In a 2007 article in Annals of Human Biology, Biondi and Rickards repeat the six race orthodoxy, and in the 2006, 6th edition of Molnar’s Human Variation: Races, Types, and Ethnic Groups, he not only claims that Buffon had a six race system, he names the six races: Laplander, Tartar, South Asiatic, European, Ethiopian, American (Molnar, 2006:6).  In my presentations to physical anthropology classes over the years I have used variations on the table that Molnar presents as I use Darwin’s paragraph to illustrate the difference of opinion on how many races there are.  This issue of Buffon’s six races was something that I just could not put out of my mind so I decided to try to find out how this got into the anthropological literature.

            I started with Darwin’s mention of Buffon’s six races in The Descent of Man.  After completing the list of numbers of races discussed by the various workers, Darwin has a footnote that reads as follows: “See a good discussion on this subject in Waitz, Introduction to Anthropology, Eng. translat., 1863, pp. 198-208, 227. I have taken some of the above statements from H. Tuttle’s Origin and Antiquity of Physical Man, Boston, 1866, p. 35.”  Here is the statement of Tuttle’s to which Darwin refers:

Buffon makes six varieties of mankind; viz.,–Polar Negro, Tartar, American, Australian, Asiatic, European [emphasis added].  Kant divides man into four varieties, white, black, copper, and olive; Hunter into seven varieties; Netzau, into two; Virey, into three; Blumenbach into five; Desmoulins into sixteen species; Bury de St. Vincent, into fifteen; Morton into twenty-two families; Pickering, into eleven races; Burke, into sixty-three; Jacquinnot, into three species of one genus.  Such are the disagreements of those who have devoted themselves to this study.  Granting that mankind are classified by any of these systems, I cannot see how knowledge is advanced.  We cannot admit that mankind can have diversity of origin, while so united by one great plan.  If a species or variety of the genus Homo sprang up in Europe, and another in America, by agency of conditions existing in those localities, it would be beyond probability that they should both be formed on the same plan: what then of the possibility of sixty-three or more species being formed on the same model?  Deny we may, with plausibility, the origin of the diverse races from a single pair six thousand years ago; but the bond of union which exists between them points to a common source (Tuttle, 1866:35).

            As we can see, Darwin took quite a lot of Tuttle’s treatment for his own use.  The preceding paragraph in each work is also remarkably similar.  It is interesting to note that the list of races that Tuttle lists for Buffon does not include any race from Africa.  Since other writers had taken issue with Buffon’s disdain for Africans before Tuttle, it is surprising that the absence of Africans did not raise an alarm.  The other source that Darwin lists, Waitz, reviews Buffon’s work in great detail and relies on many of his biological and ethnological statements, but never suggests that Buffon classified humans into a discrete number of races.  Once I had looked up Tuttle’s confusing statement and Waitz’s (1863) fairly clear treatment of Buffon, I was at a dead end because Tuttle cites no source for the six races of Buffon and Waitz does not mention them, so I began looking for other authors who could lead me to a source.  I quickly found Brewer’s statement about Buffon:

The number of races proposed in these several systems varies from two to twenty or more.  One of the most convenient and popular divisions is that in which the white the black the red the yellow and the brown skins afford a basis for classifying mankind in five races but the classification proposed by Buffon into six primary races is now very generally accepted [emphasis added] and is for many reasons the most convenient for use in the study of Physical Geography.

In accordance with the system of Buffon the six primary races are (1) the Caucasian (2) the Mongolian (3) the American (4) the Malay (5) the African and (6) the Australian.

Each of these is divided into a great number of sub races most of which are so connected by the intermediate shades of gradation and are so blended with one another that no sharp line of distinction can be drawn between them (Brewer, 1890:117).

Already we can see that the races are very different in the version given by Tuttle and the one from Brewer and neither one exactly corresponds to the list given by Molnar (derived from Hrdlicka, but cites Slotkin, 1965 and Montagu 1960).  Like Tuttle, Brewer names no source for his races of Buffon, although it is “now very generally accepted,” (Brewer, 1890:117).

            The one Buffon aficionado who actually espouses a six race system for man is Goldsmith ([1774] 1854).  Much of Goldsmith’s 1774 natural history is based on the work of Buffon, but when he comes to humans he takes a very interesting tack giving his own list of races:

If we look round the world there seem to be not above six distinct varieties in the human species, each of which is strongly marked and speaks the kind seldom to have mixed with any other.  But there is nothing in the shape nothing in the faculties that shows their coming from different originals and the varieties of climate of nourishment and custom are sufficient to produce every change (Goldsmith, [1774] 1854:209).

             We see here that the explanation for the origin of these races is essentially the same as that espoused by Buffon.  The six races enumerated by Goldsmith are: Laplanders, Tartars, Southern Asiatics, Africans, Americans, Europeans, essentially the same as Molnar’s list, although Goldsmith doesn’t actually label the races the way Molnar suggests Buffon did.  Goldsmith offers the following note after saying that humanity is divided into six varieties: “I have taken four of these varieties from Linnaeus, those of the Laplanders and Tartars from Mr. Buffon,” (Goldsmith [1774] 1854:209).  Slotkin (1965) cites this note, attributing the six race system to Goldsmith, but it appears that few have bothered to take notice of it in the continuing attribution of this system to Buffon.

            In my search for the six races of Buffon, two authors cited sources for the number and name of the races: Molnar (2006) and Hrdlicka (1941).  Molnar lists Buffon’s six races as part of a table, comparing the four races of Linnaeus, six of Buffon, five of Blumenbach, and three of Cuvier.  He notes at the bottom of the table:

Examples of attempts to divide mankind into discrete divisions according to their physical characteristics. These four foremost natural scientists of the eighteenth century agreed with the major divisions of Europe, African, and Asian peoples, but there was some difficulty in placing Native Americans, Southeast Asians, and Pacific Groups. Sources: Slotkin, J.S. 1965, and Montagu, A.M.F., 1960. (Molnar, 2006:6).

            First, Linnaeaus and Buffon, especially, emphasized behavioral and cultural characteristics in their discussion of the varieties of man.  Following up on Molnar’s sources, I checked Slotkin (1965) and found a very clear statement that Buffon did not divide humanity up into races, and the note from Goldsmith about the six race system.  Rather than indicating that Buffon classified races, Slotkin provides lengthy quotations to illustrate the non-modern use of the word race by Buffon.  Montagu, of course, on the basis of his 1942 statement, was out of the question as a source for Buffon’s six races, but I checked the 1960 text anyway and found no statement at all about Buffon and race.  Buffon was discussed exclusively in the context of the history of the concept of evolution.

            While reading what Montagu had to say about Buffon in his 1942 book, I followed up on a footnote about the six race classification and was led to Hrdlicka’s 1941 piece on human races.  Hrdlicka not only lists the races, he presents them in a geometrically ranked fashion as so (1941:174):



Europeans                            Americans                     Ethiopic [African] peoples

                                           South-Asiatic peoples

While Buffon offered very unflattering descriptions of almost everyone but the French, he never came close to enumerating these six races and he never attempted to arrange them in some geometric or geographic system as Hrdlicka implies.  Furthermore, the choice of the term Ethiopic is especially enlightening about the care that Hrdlicka took in his scholarship of Buffon since Buffon himself offers this statement, “By confounding the Ethiopians with their neighbours the Nubians, who are nevertheless of a different race, we have been long in an error with respect to their colour and features (Buffon, [1749-1788] 1792:272).”  He also says, “These contrarieties are more than sufficient to confirm us in the opinion that the Hottentots are of a race distinct from that of the Negroes,” (Buffon, [1749-1788] 1792:294). He clearly had no intention of classifying all African or sub-Saharan African peoples in a single race.  Hrdlicka cites Buffon’s Methode en histoire naturelle; la theorie de la terre et de l’homme, 1749-1789, as his source for the six race system and list.  I can find no such title by Buffon, but it is clear from what Hrdlicka presents that he has not consulted Buffon—perhaps he was working from Goldsmith’s list or some other 19th century source that scrambled Buffon’s intent, but no translation nor original of Buffon’s work presents the six race system that Hrdlicka indicates.

            Buffon’s work was very influential and it inspired numerous translations into many European languages.  Not all of the translations sought to directly recreate Buffon’s thinking intact.  An 1800 translation published in Edinburgh abridges the 36 volumes of Buffon into two volumes.  On the title page the abridgers note that the work has been compiled chiefly from Swammerdam, Brookes, Goldsmith, etc.    This volume offers the following leader to Chapter VI: “Of the apparent varieties in the human species—Laplanders—Tartars—Chinese—Japanese—Formosans—Moguls—Persians—Arabians—Circassians—Turks—Russians—Negroes—Hottentots—Americans—causes of this variety,” (Buffon, 1800:48).  Here the abridgers list 14 races, not including mainstream Europeans.  This is more indicative of the way that Buffon uses the term race, but even this list is clearly not an exhaustive catalog of Buffon’s races. This chapter leading statement is not a translation from Buffon, as there is no such header to his Volume IV, Chapter IX, “Of the Varieties in the Human Species.” Even these abridgers, drawing from Goldsmith as they are, do not suggest a six race system of classification for Buffon.

            In conclusion, as Montagu pointed out in 1942, Buffon never suggested a six race classification of humans and those who suggest he did cannot agree on what the races are nor can they cite a source in Buffon’s work that would validate this claim.


So what did we learn? First, attributing the use of the word “race” to Buffon is partially valid, but if one wants to make this claim it needs to be qualified as Montagu (1942) did or contrasted with the Linnaean perspective as Marks (1995) did.  Second, Buffon NEVER classified humans into six races.  The fact that so many formidable anthropologists maintain this apocrypha is testimony to the staying power of academic falsehoods.  However this myth crept into the anthropological literature, and my money is on misreading Goldsmith, it has been almost impossible to eradicate.  The teaching moment from this project is to not believe what anyone says about anyone else’s work.  In my web source for writing the research paper, I emphasize this by telling students to go to the original sources.  This case provides a good example of the dangers of relying on the scholarship of others.

References Cited

Biondi, G. and Rickards, O. 2007. Race: The extinction of a paradigm. Annals of Human Biology, 34(6): 588–592.

Brewer, W.H. 1890. Warren’s New Physical Geography. Philadelphia: E.H. Butler & Co.

Buffon, Count de. 1749-1788. Histoire Naturelle, Gènèrelle et Particulière. Paris: Imprimerie Royale.

Buffon, Count de. [1749-1788] 1792. Barr’s Buffon. Buffon’s Natural History Containing A Theory Of The Earth, A General History Of Man, Of The Brute Creation, And Of Vegetables, Minerals, Etc. Volume IV. Translated from the French by J.S. Barr. London: J.S. Barr.

Buffon, Count de. [1749-1788] 1800. The System of Natural History Written by M. De Buffon, Carefully Abridged: And the Natural History of Insects; Compiled, Chiefly from Swammerdam, Brookes, Goldsmith, etc., (Volume 1 of 2).  Edinburgh: J. Ruthven and Sons. (Abridger not named.)

Count, E.W. 1950. This is Race: An Anthropology Selected from the International Literature on the Races of Man. New York: Henry Schuman.

Crews, D.E. and J.R. Bindon.  1991.  Ethnicity as a taxonomic tool in biomedical and biosocial research.  Ethnicity and Disease, 1:42-49.

Darwin, C.R. 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. New York: Hill Press.

Goldsmith, O. [1774] 1854. An History of the Earth and Animated Nature. Hull: William Sprent, Neville Street.

Hrdlicka, A. 1941. The Races of Man. In: Jennings, H.S., Berger, C.A., Moore, T.V., Hrdlicka, A., Lowie, R.H., Klineberg, O. (authors), Scientific Aspects of the Race Problem. New York: The Catholic University of America Press.  Pp. 161-190.

Marks, J. 1995. Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race, and History. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.

Molnar, S. 2006. Human Variation: Races, Types, and Ethnic Groups, 6th Edition. Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Montagu, A. 1942. Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. New York: Columbia University Press.

Montagu, A. 1996. Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, 6th Edition. New York: AltaMira Press.

Scheidt, W. [1925] 1950. The Concept of Race in Anthropology. In Count, E.W. (ed): This is Race: An Anthropology Selected from the International Literature on the Races of Man. New York: Henry Schuman.  Pp. 354-391.

Slotkin, J.S. 1965. Readings in Early Anthropology. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co.

Smedley, A. 1999. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Tuttle, H. [1866] 1896. Origin and Antiquity of Physical Man. London: Copley’s Press.

Waitz, T. 1863. Introduction to Anthropology. (Translated and edited with numerous additions by J.F. Collingwood). London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts.




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