Apes, essences, and races: What natural scientists believed about human variation, 1700-1900

O'Flaherty, Brendan Andrew; Shapiro, Jill S.

Scientific views on human variation and the relationship between humans and apes changed dramatically between 1700-1900. This paper traces the history of those changes from an initial consensus on the homogeneity of man and on casual models tied to environmental contrasts to the turn of the 20th century when "race was everything". Over the course of these two centuries new sciences were born and matured and vast quantities of data were collected, generated and digested. Yet, paradoxically, while the overwhelming majority of data indicated that discrete interpopulational contrasts among humans were elusive, the broader social constructs, likely among them economics, would rely on a scientific foundation that viewed the differences as innate and fixed. By the turn of the twentieth century Europeans and European-Americans would explain their economic and military superiority in biological terms, even if contradicted by the data. Through an analysis of changing perspectives on the key underlying constructs of essentialism, fixity and ranking, we try to understand these shifting views on the nature of human variation.


More About This Work

Academic Units
Department of Economics, Columbia University
Department of Economics Discussion Papers, 0102-24
Published Here
March 22, 2011


March 2002