Understanding the RAtionale of Scientific Racism in the 19th Century

In the late 19th century, scientists and philosophers were inspired by the Enlightenment ideals to categorize and observe the natural world. Prior to the 19th century, the human species was generally committed from the study of natural history, but as society became increasingly secular, a willingness to subject human species to the same kind of scientific analysis formulated. By the 19th century, history saw the search for the historical and biological origins of different races, scrutinizing all aspects of race by distinguishing characteristics, personalities and even mental abilities, in 1850, Robert Knox, an English ethnologist, wrote in his book, The Races of Men, that, “Race or hereditary descent is everything; it stamps the man”.

By this point in time, race was coined as a new way to classify and separate different human ethnic groups and severely influenced the social climate of the rest of the century through ideas of nationalism, new scientific theories, and resurgence of imperialism. Moreover, the doctrine of race was contrived and invented by 19th century theorists as a means to justify unequal power relationships and vindicate oppression.

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Proponents of these invented race theories then applied this new school of thought as a means to re-establish inequality, hierarchy, and order in the 19th century world.

It is pertinent to first understand the political backdrop that prefaced the development of race studies that eventually led to scientific racism in the mid-to-late 19th century. By the early 19th century, there was a systematic downfall of autocratic kingdoms across Europe, and after the Revolutions of 1848, many of the monarchs of Europe were completely abolished.

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From the vertically organized with the King followed by the clergy, nobility, and commoners (Schroeder 7). With the demise of this system, there was no longer any consistent hierarchical order in Europe that guaranteed the qualifications of superiority for certain groups. This opened the vacancy to a new oppressive system that clearly distinguished between inferior and superior groups.

Another key aspect that led to the emergence of scientific race theories was the introduction of the nation-state when the reign of Europe’s monarchs was officially terminated. In the 18th century, Europe was carved through the influences of kingdoms like the Austrian Empire, Kingdom of France, Russian Empire, and so on. Once these kingdoms were perpetually obliterated, it meant that sovereignty was no longer centralized within the monarchs and was now derived from the people of the society. This demand for a new state formation required the distinction of who the people of the nation actually were (Winks 206) and led to a redefinition of the nation state in these terms. Under these circumstances, the marriage of “race” and “nation” was introduced. In Boyd C. Shafer’s History of Nationalism, he wrote that, “From the mid 19th century, racial interpretations of all aspects of human behavior multiplied and became a standard explanation for the establishment of nations and for the kind of nation racialists thought ought to be established” (Hudson 258). While the nation increasingly became identified as the very “soul” of national identity and race was emerging to speak to innate disparities in the physical and intellectual makeup of different ethnic groups, the coupling dealing with in a society spawned the most virulent forms of 19th century racism and motivated the development of racist theorists and sparked new theories.

Among these influential racial theorists was Arthur de Gobineau, a French aristocrat and scientist who is best known for legitimizing scientific racism and racial demography in the 19th century. On an individual level, Gobineau despaired France’s decline into republicanism and centralization. Gobineau’s racism originates from his, “…revulsion against a society that had rejected the virtues of nobility and that his social pessimism begins as fundamentally a matter of class-consciousness” (Stocking 350). His motivation to study from his personal desire to have a hierarchical and supremacist reasoning of the world. This mindset drove him to delve into the studies of race theory.

In Gobineau’s 1853 essay, On the Inequality of the Human Races, he reasoned that there were significant differences between human races and that the white, Aryan race was the pinnacle of superiority and human development. In his theory, Gobineau divided humanity into three races: “…the brutal, sensual, and cowardly black race; the weak, materialistic, and mediocre yellow race; and the intelligent, energetic, and courageous white race. The white race had the monopoly of beauty, and alone knew the concept of honor”(Fortier 342). He used his theories on race to decipher intellectual capacity, moral worth, military power, and so on among the 3 racial groups while simultaneously introducing the idea that homogeneity of races would bring the ultimate success. For example, Gobineau accredited the demise of the Roman Empire due to their “interbreeding” and ultimately breaking up the racial purity of the kingdom. Moreover, Gobineau’s theories explained the world through the lens of a division of races, using it to justify world history as would future supporters of scientific racism.

The philosophical and political underpinnings of race superiority and inferiority were mainly given credence with the publication of Charles Darwin’s revolutionary book, On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection, in 1859. Darwin’s book essentially told of, “… the rise, the development, and sometimes the disappearance of thousands of different forms of plant and animal organisms or species” (Winks 241). Darwin’s documentation of evolution was primarily concerned pertaining as to why certain species would survive and why other would die off. He answered this question understanding that the weak die off and the strong survive.

Darwin never intended for his evolutionary theory to be racist and rarely addressed the social consequences of this form of evolution on the basis of humans. Yet, several 19th century philosophers and social scientists used Darwin’s theory in pseudo-scientific ways to justify violence in terms of genocide and racism (Dennis 240), whereas others used his theory as a platform to build a human-evolutionary theory on. Among these scholars was Herbert Spencer, an English biologist who modified Darwin’s theory to be applicable to race and human abilities in 1864 with the release of his Principles of Biology. Spencer reasoned that Darwinist principles could be translated into human societies, and that human societies, like biological species, “… operate according to the principles of natural selection, are governed by competition and fitness, and evolve from an undifferentiated and primitive state to one of differentiation and progress” (Dennis 244). Spencer was also known for coining the term “survival of the fittest’, which he’d later go on to describe as those who are, “too weak or ill-equipped to compete, or those who are unwilling and unable to do so, ought not to be given an artificial boost to keep them on Nature’s battlefield” (Dennis 244). By and large, Charles Darwin can still be seen as a significant academic contributor to the racism paradigm as he, essentially, laid the bricks for other conservative racial theorists to build from and in many ways, severely affected the development of scientific racism in the 19th century.

The notion that the white race was superior due to biological and evolutionary reasons derived from scientific theorists like Gobineau, Darwin, and Spencer, began to dominate the discourse of imperialism. Collectively, their studies both directly and indirectly formulated into racist ideals and was then used to justify the mass killings and genocide during the late 19th century. European expansionism resurged with the scramble for Africa, bringing a handful of competing nations to divvy up more raw materials and acquire more land (Bayly 228).The pseudo-sciences of theories of race were used here as a convenient justification for invasion, as advocates argued that the various European powers needed to prevail by being the most aggressive to survive, essentially applying the survival of the fittest idea. Therefore, scientific racism encouraged more conquest because genocide was justified by the laws of nature. Yet, European conquest and acquisition throughout the world in this period created the very real reality of extermination, yet the European exterminators argued that this was naturally inevitable (Bayly 229). In this sense, imperialism demonstrated the application of power relations in the development of this racial discourse, which can also be seen as an attempt to justify the unequal societal status between the superior and inferior. The extent to which Europeans use science to rationalize their coercive behavior is unprecedented. Imperialist actions drew upon the racial paradigm to provide a “less selfish” justification for the new empires and vindictive oppression.

Science was used as a justification to propose, project and enact racist social policies and actions in the 19th century. With so many under the impression during this time that there was some inherited, biological characteristic that made them superior to the “others”, the popularity of the pseudoscience can ultimately be attributed to support policies and practices that oppressor individuals and countries justified as congruent with their national and political interests. This desire to subjugate can thus be attested to merely a moral attempt to rationalize actions that in reality, contradicted the democratic principles that these nations just newly adopted in the 19th century. The scientific arguments and theories that Gobineau and Spencer put forward was influential during their time, yet, reflecting today, it was merely jardon that was ideologically, radically, and politically driven. Furthermore, race has served as a dividing line throughout history. This engine that warranted racial supremacy and shaped the ideas of race in the 19th century, moreover, does not disappear, as it continued to inspire some of the ethnic and racial savagery that is later seen in the 20th century.


  1. Abberley, Will. “Race And Species Essentialism In Nineteenth-Century Philology.” Critical Quarterly 53.4 (2011): 45-60. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.
  2. Bayly, C.A.”The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914″ London: Wiley-Blackwell. 2004. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.
  3. Dennis, Rutledge. “Social Darwinism, Scientific Racism, and the Metaphysics of Race.” The Journal of Negro Education (1995). Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
  4. Fortier, Paul A. “Gobineau and German Racism.” Comparative Literature, vol. 19, no. 4, 1967, PP.341-350. Web. 15 November 2016.
  5. Gobineau, Arthur. The Inequality of Human Races. New York: H. Fertig, 1999. Print.
  6. Hudson, Nicholas. “From “Nation’to “Race”: The Origin of Racial Classification in Eighteenth Century Thought.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 29.3 (1996): 265. Web. 16 November 2016.
  7. Stocking, George W. “American Journal of Sociology.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 77 1-2,1971, pp. 349–351. 

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Understanding the RAtionale of Scientific Racism in the 19th Century. (2021, Sep 21). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/understanding-the-rationale-of-scientific-racism-in-the-19th-century-essay

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