1Since the 2000s in France, the notion of “race” has made a comeback by way of genetics and certain kinds of population studies. Whether or not it ever disappeared from biology and medicine after the Second World War, as is commonly claimed, is in fact open to question. The modern understanding of the notion would seem instead to have been reached through a process of continual change in the fields of politics and science. This is what the historian and philosopher of science Claude-Olivier Doron suggests in his book, which encourages us to examine the present with the historian’s analytic tools despite the fact that its specific focus is the period from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. The book is first and foremost a history of the notion of “race” that is not focused on the issue of racism. It is also a history of the uses and circulation of the term “race” in multiple discursive areas, including nobiliary and pastoral narratives and natural history. As the author sees it, the book is first and foremost “an epistemological history that takes race seriously as a positive concept.” The question driving it is how “race” gradually came to be conceptualized first as an object of knowledge, later as an object for power practices, though in fact the author stops short of a full investigation of this last point. Last, it is a history of “race” as understood by means of the less familiar notion of degeneration – the book’s real subject.
2For the book’s real purpose is to show the historical and theoretical importance of that idea. Contrary to notions of racism as an attitude toward radical difference, notions based on anatomical classification logic, the author highlights a genealogical type of reasoning, on the basis of which we can discover another history of race, rooted in what he calls “differentialist universalism.” His programme is ambitious. The first task he sets himself is to demonstrate that the most important thinkers on racism may not be the ones we thought. Whereas historians have tended to emphasize polygenicist race theorists, the author claims on the contrary that what produced the understanding that one “race” could legitimately dominate was inclusive humanism. His second task is to show that a biology-based conception of race developed only relatively late in the day and that there was no reason to think it would be readily accepted in natural history. Degeneration – or the degradation of that which is the same – is the key word here, he explains, as it enables us to understand these counter-intuitive claims. In this thinking, human diversity was explained as the result of a process by which a degraded state was transmitted from a single original identity across generations. This genealogical approach was entirely alien to polygenist thinking, where the assumptions were that biological differences between “races” had existed from the start and were definitive.
3The book is divided into four parts, followed by a substantial “epilogue”. Part I discusses the first uses of the genealogical notion of race. Through a study of nobiliary narratives, pastoral narratives, and practices, Doron shows how the degeneration mechanism came to be cited and circulated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to explain cases of behavioural deviance from a norm of origin, while legitimating a mode of domination founded on the argument of a “degenerated self” incapable of self-government – the perfect example being colonial domination.
4The next two parts seek to answer two interrelated questions. First, how, starting in the eighteenth century, did the notion of “race” become an object that was just as important to politics and policy as to science? The mid-1750s represent a genuine break in the history of the notions of race and degeneration. On the political side of the race issue, the question was modelled on agronomy and late seventeenth-century breeding practices. Detailed knowledge had been acquired on animals’ “race”-specific qualities and how to perfect them through crossbreeding. Second, the moral problem that followed from the understanding that God ruled Nature gave way to a strictly nature-related question about how to govern men, one that required knowledge of the laws of nature in the areas of transmission and reproduction. The norm founded on origin gave way to a norm of the ideal type that could be used to measure degradation in animal species and, from the eighteenth century, in the human species as well. Agronomy and breeding practices furnished a model for producing knowledge that would make it possible to associate an ideal type of animal with a set of living conditions that would be ideal for it (climate, region, etc.). This was then transposed to humans to explain, for example, the high mortality rate among colonial settlers. The word degeneration ceased to denote a process by which the high(er) quality of immediate ascendants came to be degraded and came to denote a process of deviation from the ideal type of the species. This in turn opened the way in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for practices of governing or managing abnormal human beings and regenerating and perfecting the human species (through race mixing or race preservation, etc.). It was in this connection that race became a political – and policy – concern.
5Part III studies the scientific side of the race notion. After genealogical reasoning was introduced into the natural sciences in the mid-eighteenth century, a science of race developed, though this required a great number of conceptual transformations. The author draws his arguments here from texts by monogenist naturalists, discovering a fully developed body of thinking in which races were ranked by degree of development and degeneration. Genealogical reasoning – which supplanted the classificatory reasoning that dominated in natural history – brought concepts and types of reasoning into that discipline that were totally alien to it. Conversely, the natural history perspective led to ridding monogenism of any Biblical or metaphysical narrative on the origins of Man. “Race” and “degeneration” became scientific concepts and elements of what the author calls “degradation racism”, of which there were two sorts: “deviation from the primitive”, where the point was to apply aesthetic criteria to establish how different a given man was from a primitive archetype; and “development fixation”, where the point was to rank men on the basis of how perfectible and adaptable they were. In the latter system, the political notion of “civilization” – an idea associated with “expansionist racism” – found a home: the species had to be educated, civilized. The primitive was no longer an ideal being but a roughhewn, brutal one instead. To natural historical classification was added the principle of position in a hierarchical structure, a notion that attained its apogee in the nineteenth century.
6Part IV focuses on the epistemological conditions for introducing the notions of race and degeneration into natural history. Here the author raises two questions: How, despite all the epistemological obstacles, did genealogical reasoning take over in natural history? And how did the notions of “race” and “degeneration”, initially posited for exploration in the field of agronomy, end up penetrating natural history? The author puts forward three hypotheses. First, it was necessary for natural history’s classificatory style to yield to genealogical thinking. Second, naturalists had to have deemed it necessary to introduce an additional classification level in between species and variety: race. Third, the theory of preformation, according to which living beings realized forms chosen by God – a theory that was incompatible with the possibility of character transmission implied by the notion of generation – had to have been contested.
7In his study of how the notions of race and degeneration circulated from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century in distinct discursive fields, Doron often emphasizes the conceptual changes those notions underwent, some of which involved continuity, others breaks in same. While he denies that this is history of ideas, the fact is that he says little about actors’ practices. Likewise, though he does help us understand how race became a focus for science, the conditions under which it became an “object of power” are less clear. The author presents the logical rather than practical consequences of these developments; the latter seem rather disembodied. Furthermore, can we be sure that the political object “race” followed from the scientific conceptualization of race? Might not uses have preceded concept? It is not at all clear which brought about or influenced which, and it would seem important to study that question as well.