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  • Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy by Justin E. H. Smith
  • Bernard Boxill
Justin E. H. Smith. Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. Pp. 312. Cloth, $39.95.

Justin Smith's book, a sophisticated history of the scientific and philosophical debates on nature, human nature, and human difference in the last centuries, is an important contribution to the pressing task of understanding and remedying our seemingly intractable color prejudice, that "curious kink" of the "human mind," as W. E. B. DuBois put it in a passage Smith uses as an epigraph to his book. It reveals how kinds of people, notably races that appear to be natural kinds, "carved out within nature," in fact only come into being "in the course of human history as a result of the way human beings conceptualize the world around them" (3). It also reveals how the gradual emergence of the race concept was facilitated by seemingly unrelated philosophical developments such as the fading of dualism, and the gradual insertion of human beings into nature as thoroughly natural beings. And, on a somewhat broader level, it suggests how misleading history can be when [End Page 350] it ignores what might appear to be abstruse intellectual speculation. Some historians have written as if Europeans simply enslaved people who could most profitably be enslaved, and noticed that they had enslaved people with black skins, only when they realized that these skins could be used to concoct an ideology to rationalize their crimes. Smith's book shows that, though slavery decisively affected racial thinking, that thinking had to build on conceptual innovations scientists and philosophers had already devised to try to understand the diversity in the natural and, especially, the living world. Racial theorizing would have gone in a different direction had black slavery never been established, but it would have gone on even if that slavery had never been established.Such theorizing about human diversity went back for centuries. The Bible's teaching that all human beings were descendants of Adam and Eve suggested that all human beings should resemble each other closely, but the peoples of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa did not resemble Europeans as closely as Europeans resembled each other. That fact needed to be explained. Noticing that diversities between peoples tended to follow diversities in climate, Europeans usually argued that the human race originated in Europe, but migrated from there to different parts of the world where the different climates they had to live in caused them to differ somewhat from their original appearance. This somewhat shaky theory became increasingly untenable when Europeans discovered America in the fifteenth century. Most strikingly, even if climate did cause the differences in human populations, how did the people whom Europeans found in America even get there from Europe, where Europeans assumed the human race began? As Smith informs us, Lucilio Vanini solved that problem by inventing the theory that Americans were separately created in America. His polygenetic solution implied that not all human beings were descended from Adam and Eve; but he intended it to explain why there were people in America—not to exclude certain human groups from their full share of humanity. Most thinkers, however, stuck with the scriptures by assuming that people had found a way to get to America from the Old World long before Columbus made the trip. But then a new problem emerged: if climate determined appearance why did the people of equatorial Africa not resemble the people of equatorial America who lived in a very similar climate?

In fascinating detail, Smith examines the theorizing about human differences that stemmed from attempts to answer that question. Most stuck with monogenesis, supplementing the theory that climatic differences caused human physical diversity with the theory that cultural differences also caused that diversity. Advocates of polygenesis either insisted that it was consistent with the Bible or delighted in the thought that it was not. And still other theorists argued that some of the human-looking creatures Europeans were encountering in different parts of the world were really not fully human but the strangely fertile offspring...


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pp. 350-351
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