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The Problem of Human Diversity in the European Cultural Experience of the Eighteenth Century

Guido Abbattista - Università di Trieste
Rolando Minuti - Università di Firenze

Atti del seminario internazionale "The Problem of Human Diversity in the European Cultural Experience of the Eighteenth Century"

G.Abbattista - R.Minuti,
«Introduction to The Problem of Human Diversity in the European Cultural Experience of the Eighteenth Century»,
Cromohs, 8 (2003): 1-4,
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1. In the following pages we present a selection of the contributions offered at the colloquium The problem of human diversity in the European cultural experience of the Eighteenth Century held in February 2002 in Trieste and organized by the local research unit of Florence within the Italian national research program Murst Cofin 2000-2002 La cultura europea dell’età dell’Illuminismo.
The Trieste seminar, planned as part of the activities to be carried out in the framework of the above mentioned national research project, was devoted to the analysis of such themes of the European cultural debate in the age of the Enlightenment as the intellectual experience of human diversity during the XVIIIth century, a period of time when intercultural relations between Europe and the rest of the world became a regular feature of Western life.
In this epoch more than ever before it became clear that the development of European civilization would receive decisive impulse from relationships with non-European cultures, not only in the sphere of material civilization (in other words, as far as forms of economic activities, consumption patterns, habits and customs, objects of the daily life are concerned), but also in the field both of knowledge, and of collective mentalities, ideologies and identities.
A continuous experience of and confrontation with the material and intellectual world of human diversity had of course been a fundamental aspect of European history at least since the beginning of the XVIth century and from the start this experience had been powerfully influenced by power relations: to know the Diverse, the Other, for the Europeans had always meant to dominate and to exert power and violence on it. The European discourse on the Other had for centuries inevitably been shaped by this circumstance. But the XVIIIth century witnessed a dramatic widening of the experience of diversity: one that, to put it quite simply, brought all the then known world, from the American Continent to the Far East, within the reach of European influence, or, at least, within the compass of the European mind in an unprecedented measure. As a matter of fact it was just an escalation of a longer history of expansion, exploration, confrontation and dominance, that was to be carried on even more dramatically in the XIXth century and the consequences of which we still have to deal with.

2. What the age of the Enlightenment saw perhaps for the first time was an effort to transform the experience of human diversity into systematic forms of knowledge aimed at taxonomy and encylopedia. In the XVIIIth century human diversity became the raw material of the emerging sciences of anthropology, ethnology and historical sociology. This is not to overlook the obvious fact that discussions on the origins of mankind – on monogenesis and polygenesis, on the populating the world, on creationism and diffusionism against spontaneous generation – had been going on since the times of Las Casas and Acosta, of Montaigne and Campanella, of Grotius and Laet, of Lapeyrère and Lafiteau coming down to Locke and Newton and Vico, and that the development of comparative ethnology had been under way since at least a couple of centuries before Diderot and d’Alembert. What the culture of the Enlightenment undertook – if such an ambiguous expression is permitted – was the search for laws on which to build classification and system and the replacement of both pyrrhonism and religious dogmas with experience, science and real knowledge. Indeed to confront the problem of human diversity means to go to the heart of European culture in the age of the Enlightenment.
It is not difficult to see the extensive scope of such an expression as “human diversity”, that may as well refer to woman and man as biological entities as well as to every other aspect of their social, psychological, emotional or political lives. To talk then in terms of “human diversity” is the same as facing the problem of understanding and explaining the variety of forms in which women and men live, generate, believe and worship, love, dress and eat, assemble in the smallest to the largest units, work and interact together or fight each other. The culture of the Enlightenment, for all its rationality or perhaps because of its very rationality, has constantly swung, in its consideration of any sphere of human existence, between acceptance and refusal, tolerance and censure, equality and hierarchy, nature and civilization, the search for unity and recognition of multiplicity. This is perhaps one of the features that appears less classical and more dramatic, critical and puzzling than some traditional interpretations of the Enlightenment used to maintain.

3. But the common ground of the contributions presented in the following pages is not so much the general problem of representing or imagining “otherness”, as, more specifically, the debate on the varieties of human species. Among the several possible facets of diversity dealt with in XVIIIth century discussions, they focus on the one concerning the human race, a concept that had been more precisely enunciated just at the end of the XVIIth century, firstly, it would appear, by the French physician, philosopher and traveller François Bernier; and one that was destined to attract the attention of natural philosophers and social thinkers throughout the following century and beyond. It is as well known that for scholars like George L. Mosse and Jacob L. Talmon, some of the worst evils human history has known – racism (or racialism) and totalitarianism – have their roots in XVIIIth century culture. “The cradle of modern racism – Mosse writes – was XVIIIth century Europe, whose main cultural currents had an enormous influence on the very foundations of racist thought”.[1] According to Mosse, it was thanks to ideas such as the “great chain of Being” and Europe’s supremacy and allegedly superior civilization that Enlightened culture opened the doors to what would become “racism” proper. It is certain that in Eighteenth century culture there existed clear tendencies to depart from a mere inventory and mapping and to turn towards classification and hierarchy; but a closer analysis reveals that a considerable degree of uncertainty persisted as to the relationships between biological heredity, environment, culture and historical traditions in shaping human diversities.

4. It will be most interesting to learn from the analyses that are presented here whether this thesis can obtain confirmation or not. What is certain and can be added as an afterthought on the basis of our experience of XXth century catastrophes, is that the inner conflicts and contradictions traceable in the handling of human diversities by the culture of the Enlightenment make plain that critical knowledge, a sound comparative approach and an effort towards real understanding are the only means to nourish the sentiment and appreciation of variety and the rejection of uniformity. This is an indication of the permanent validity and interest of the debates of which we are going to explore some aspects and whose main characteristic is, to our way of thinking, the persistence of uncertainties and doubts, not the commitment to geometrical rationality and clear cut definitions. On the other hand, it is evidently impossible to assess XVIIIth century ideas other than by their own standards, by the kind of knowledge and instruments available in a pre-paleoanthropological and pre-biochemical era. The reconstruction of the story of human species would have followed, afterwards, winding paths, and the unifying purposes of universal history – if we may be allowed to use such an out-of-date expression – would have achieved several representations before being dismissed as an unattainable ideal, but lately our knowledge in these fields has decisively profited by the outcome of molecular genetics and its discarding of the very concept of a biological race. No explanation of the impossibility of “pure” races, in genetic terms, and of the necessity for genetic mixture and its superiority – in terms of adaptability and survival probabilities – to genetic isolation or purity is more convincing than that offered by Luca Cavalli Sforza and colleagues.
But this is too recent a story, which we mention simply as a particularly convincing example of how much sound scientific knowledge can contribute to eliminating popular and vulgar prejudices. And this is, after all, an attitude typical of an epoch, like that of the Enlightenment, which advanced the standard of tolerance and freethinking.


[1] G.L. MOSSE, Toward Final Solution. A History of European Racism, New York 1978, p. 5.

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