Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

The Forging of Races


I’m not in favor of ducking debates, but in matters of science and religion, it’s best to keep one’s head down. Not that I mind giving and taking a few hits, but the slings and arrows hurled by various bloggers are not easily deflected by reason. Much of the time, arguments on both sides seem to proceed without any sense of historical nuance.

For example, creationists often speak about science as if they were playing billiards: science is a game of facts, observable, measurable, linked together by visible and predictable causes. Any forces that take place off the felt table (such as phenomena of the far away or the deep past) fall into the zone of “theory,” a pejorative term that comes to mean speculation or opinion. This works well with pool, but hardly science, where strict empiricism or “Baconian science” has been out of vogue since the 18th century.

On the other side, the polemical evolutionists tend to lump anti-evolutionary arguments together under the category of “anti-science.” This would have been news to nineteenth-century scientists such as Richard Owen and Georges Cuvier, both of whom advanced serious objections to evolution on scientific, not religious, grounds.

Richard Owen

Richard Owen

I bring these issues up not because I have picked up my sword and plan to fight the good fight, but because I’m reading an excellent book on science and religion by Colin Kidd called The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000.

Kidd argues that scriptures are largely color-blind, agnostic on the question of racial hierarchies. Yet he also argues that the Bible became the guide for western scholars trying to understand the origins of human races.

It is one of the central arguments of this book that, although many social and cultural factors have contributed significantly to western constructions of race, scripture has been for much of the early modern and modern eras the primary cultural influence on the forging of races. [Kidd, 19]

Even more interesting, Kidd argues that scriptures held racism or “racial essentialism” in check for much of modern history. As much as one can see rampent racism in the development of the Atlantic slave trade (pioneered by Christians and other followers of the Book), Europeans and Euro-Americans usually reaffirmed the common humanity of the races as “Children of Adam.” To do otherwise was to exclude some races from the original sin (and the promise of salvation) which emerges out of Genesis.


By the nineteenth century, certain scholars advanced the theory that non-white races were “Pre-Adamites,” humans who were formed by God in a separate act of creation. As religious theories of racial origin gave way to increasingly secular explanations, racial thinking became even more extreme, leading to policies of racial social control, eugenics, and genocide.

In short, the Bible was — unintentionally perhaps — a bulwark against the most extreme ideas of racial theory. If it promoted ideas of racial origin which now seem naive and far-fetched, it also protected the Atlantic World from some of the full blown horrors of racism realized during the more “scientific” age of the twentieth century.


  thesoulofthecreator wrote @

it seems that people will twist anything especially religious texts to their own need, with little understanding of context. We do this with a lot of stuff, just to make ourselves feel like we are right

  Will Thomas wrote @

Isn’t that argument a little weird from a historical standpoint, because it reduces the historical “race” question to monogenesis-polygenesis debates? After all, there were plenty of arguments about the relationship between climate and the mental and physical characteristics of different peoples; about the relationship between civilizations and “savage” (or unchristian “heathen”) peoples; and about the moral ascent and decline of civilizations, many of which were gladly deployed by proponents of monogenesis, not to mention proponents of colonization and slavery, and were considered entirely consistent with Biblical accounts.

Further, isn’t it ahistorical to suppose questions of racial genesis and “racial essentialism” were even considered pertinent prior to considerations of deep time, which only really began in the 18th century, and only became even remotely mainstream in the 19th? Can Biblical chronologies be reasonably considered a “bulwark” against a movement that had no reason to exist?

Also, though, I would seriously debate whether natural philosophy ever made resort to strictly observable facts, before or after the 18th century. I know there’s a big literature on the 17th-century culture of the fact that tends to downplay systematics, but I’m not sure scholars of the era would support the idea that a strict Baconianism was ever exactly in vogue.

Sorry to throw all the spanners in the works, but the points seem pertinent if this just a “religion could be a force for good against scientific essentialism” argument, as though the categories made sense in this context. I haven’t read the book, though, so that’s more of an anxiety than a direct criticism.

Anyway, glad for the post!

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Will: I’m only half way in to Kidd’s book so I cannot say, yet, whether his argument reduces to mono v polygenesis. This was a big theme in his intro but there may be more in store. If it sounds simplistic or reductionist, then, its probably due to my incomplete reading rather than his incomplete analysis.

Kidd acknowledges multiple levels of debates about human difference occurring in the early modern period. He also notes that thinking about race is very squishy. Some histories of racial thinking have tended to frame it as a nature vs culture debate. But Kidd says that sometimes scholars moved from one to the other rather easily.

On radical empiricism: I guess I meant vogue as ideal rather than practice. In addition to Bacon, I remember Cuvier and others eagerly dismissed work they tagged as ‘speculation,’ praising the legitimacy of the specimen. In any event, my point here was not about the history of Baconian science, per se, but about Creationists misrepresentation of science as radical empiricism, a label which allows ‘theory’ to sound illegitimate.

Not sure I understand your deep time point.

Thanks for the good questions/comments.

  Will Thomas wrote @

On Kidd: I’ll have to have a look! EWP co-blogger Chris Donohue has done a lot of research on 19th-century debates about hybridity, species, and Biblical chronology that is really interesting. The term “race” referred to distinct lineages, so proponents of monogenesis, accepting Biblical accounts, assumed different human peoples constituted a single “race”. But they were no less certain than proponents of polygenesis about the physical and mental inequalities of peoples, which they, following Enlightenment savants, attributed to the effects of climate.

So, I’m curious to see what Kidd has to say about the historical conceptual relationship between peoples and races.

On Baconian empircism: I’m just being a wonkish. You’re, of course, right about creationists’ strategies about critiquing “hidden” causal mechanisms however robust the evidence.

Of course, the critique of “occult” causes is a very old and interesting history going back to the 17th century. As happens so often in historical “insultology” it is consistently used by both sides. Lyell, of course, thought Cuvier’s explanations for violent catastrophes were speculative and relied on occult causes, and tarred him as being in league with proponents that Noah’s flood was responsible for geological formations!

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Will: Let me know what Chris thinks if he reads it. I’d be interested to know how it reads to an insider.

  Kieran Suckling wrote @

If racism was fundamentally a theory of origins, or for that matter, a theory at all, Kidd’s thesis would hold more water. But racism is fundamentally a belief in the inferiority of some races and the and superiority of others. History makes clear that racist beliefs and actions require no theory of origination.

Thus long before secular psuedo-scientific explanations of racial origin appeared, and quite independent of intellectual debates about pre-Adamites, European merchants, missionaries and soldiers killed, enslaved and dominated virtually every non-European culture they encountered and were capable of killing, enslaving and dominating. Neither scripture nor the belief that all humans descended from Adam and Eve tempered this racism. Indeed, the superiority/necessity of Christian culture was often used as justification (though not always and not exclusively).

It is always possible to draw implications from, and assert logical, founding precepts to racism, but one should not lose sight of the actual history of racist thought and action in the process.

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