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VI T H E B O D I E S O F M E N The Negro's Physical Nature THE AVALANCHE OF NAVIGATIONS AND GEOGRAPHICAL DIScoveries beginning in the fifteenth century had created an increasingly pressing problem for European thought. Old ideas about the natural world were almost buried by a mounting pile of information about distant lands and strange plants, animals, and even men. By the eighteenth century it was obvious that this mass of information had to be squeezed into some logical framework if men were to continue to make sense of the world. The tension created by the undigested raw data of the explorers was so great that anyone capable of bringing order out of chaos was bound to be welcomed as a heroic deliverer. The brilliant successes of Newton and Linnaeus brought clamorous acclamation; they also inspired imitation by many lesser and lesser-known intellectuals. Success in conceptual and technological manipulation of their natural environment led Europeans increasingly to ponder their own place in Nature's scheme. Unless man was a disembodied spirit, it was essential that mankind be included in any assessment of the handiwork of God. By the eighteenth century, moreover, many men no longer fastened their eyes steadfastly upon the drama of salvation. Many intellectuals were ripe for a new center of interest which would bear the weight of their energy and curiosity; and their curiosity had been whetted by the flood of reports about strange-looking men in all quarters of the globe. During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the strange appearance of Indians and Negroes and (somewhat later) Malays and Lapps had of course attracted attention. So had their heathenism and their savagery, and these attributes continued to merit the interest especially of clergymen and political reformers. Yet gradually, as men became more interested in themselves as natural creatures, the [216] The Bodies of Men purely physical differences among men acquired heightened significance and greater relative importance. Viewed in the broadest terms, this growing interest in the physical distinctions among human beings was one aspect of the secularization of Western society. Secularization did not simply happen, of course; one of the myriad, interrelated causes of the process was the relatively sudden discovery that various groups of men looked very different from each other. 1. CONFUSION, ORDER, AND HIERARCHY From the first, this fact had demanded explanation and had stimulated discussion of such subjects as the effects of climate and the behavior of Noah's sons. In the eighteenth century more than any other, though, Europeans were inclined to feel that the best way of explaining anything was to arrange relevant data into some meaningful order. Naturalists particularly reacted to reports from overseas much like a good housewife trying to tidy up after the movers had dumped everything helter-skelter into the new house. Newton had explained the arrangement of the universe with such brilliance as to cast a spell over generations. In unfortunate contrast , when natural philosophers set about arranging animals and men, they found their materials inherently less easy to manage than the steadily orbiting planets and their findings more liable to unleash disturbing religious and social questions. In the face of these difficulties they nonetheless remained determined to impose order as firmly on the motley variations of men as on all living things. It became apparent in the eighteenth century, however, that there were various ways in which order could be imposed. The simplest method was to fasten upon one characteristic in which men differed and to group them accordingly. The first European to take this approach with all mankind, Francois Bernier in 1684, ran smack into the obvious difficulty of choosing a characteristic ; although he discussed a variety of features such as hair, stature, and shape of nose and lips, when he came down to making his "Nouvelle Division de la Terre" he relied more upon color than anything else in chopping mankind into four (or possibly, Bernier thought, five or six) categories, the Europeans, Africans, Orientals, Lapps ("wretched animals"), and perhaps American Indians and Hottentots.1 Bernier's classification was prophetic not only in its i. [Francois Bernier], "Nouvelle Division de la Terre, par les Differentes Especes ou Races d'Hommes qui 1'Habitent . . . ," Journal des Sfavans [217] W H I T E O V E R B L A C K stress on color but in its basic aim of dividing all mankind into discrete groups on the basis of physical attributes. This approach...


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