Quote: Darwin on human variation

There is much that could be said about Charles Darwin’s discussion of human races in Descent of Man. In Chapter 7 he embarked on a long discussion of whether races of humans should be considered as different species. Throughout, he argues that they should not, but Darwin presented and weighed the best arguments he can find on either score.

As I read the following quote, I wanted to tweet it, but it’s too long:

Every naturalist who has had the misfortune to undertake the description of a group of highly varying organisms, has encountered cases (I speak after experience) precisely like that of man; and if of a cautious disposition, he will end by uniting all the forms which graduate into each other, under a single species; for he will say to himself that he has no right to give names to objects which he cannot define.

I think that’s a wonderful precept. If every scientist refrained from “giving names to objects” without a clear definition, it would save marvelous confusion.

The immediate context of this sentence is Darwin’s discussion of what he describes as “the most weighty of all the arguments against treating the races of man as distinct species”, namely, that human races grade continuously into each other. As a consequence, he notes:

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 St. Vincent), sixteen (Desmoulins), twenty-two (Morton), sixty (Crawfurd), or as sixty- three, according to Burke. (18. 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.) 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.

Many of today’s issues in biology were already known to Darwin. It is easy to forget how much his presentation of such issues shaped the way later authors would present them. He sometimes packaged the ideas of others, but the fact that Darwin promoted and gathered such ideas together tended to place them into the biological canon.