From the superstition of the unalterable permanence of psychical features in races there emerged the problem of racial ability. Gobineau ascribed to the yellow race strength of will and considered it on the whole practical, a masculine race, whereas the black is feminine, sensual and weak-willed but with outstandingly high (sic) artistic gifts. The Hegelian Michelet “philosophised” on racial themes thus: negroes constitute a “peaceful, childish pleasure — loving unity with nature”; Malayans, with their “mania for destruction”, stand for die Aufhebung des blossnatürlichen Seins; Mongols, on the other hand, den Gegensatz des Insichgekehrtseins des Geistes und des Sichhingebens an die Natur,469 from which it would really be necessary to conclude that these races had adapted themselves to Hegelianism.
But in every fairy-tale there is some truth. Different peoples do indeed have different abilities and preferences. In his Antropogeographie Ratzel quotes examples to show that “racial particularities or social relations make one people more, another less capable of exploiting geographical conditions”. He says that the Japanese once maintained active shipping traffic in all directions, but from about the time of the persecution of the Christians (about 1630), they ceased to make use of favourable conditions. The Irish, although they reached Ireland by sea, and live on very good coasts, hardly fish at all. The Celts, unlike the Germans, never went far to sea, even when they were surrounded by it, as in the British Isles. When Malayans and Papuans live together, the former always make for the shore, the others for the interior.
Ratzel could have added other instances, how the ancient Peruvians, with their long sea-board, nevertheless did not use ships; how the peoples of the ancient world domesticated cattle whereas the original inhabitants of America did not succeed in doing so; how the elephant became a useful domestic animal in India and remained for the African negroes a monster inspiring terror, although earlier inhabitants of Africa, such as Carthaginians and Numidians, had known how to subdue and domesticate the African elephant.
But what is there strange in the fact that abilities take varied directions and nobody is capable of everything? The Irish, although a littoral people, are not outstanding sailors, but they were good farmers. Malays have ability as fishermen, Papuans as hunters. American Indians were and are outstanding hunters, Peruvians warriors. Every people is normally good at something. And it should be borne in mind that the more primitive the civilisation of a people, the less opportunity it has to reveal abilities, since the categories of being are correspondingly restricted.
What method will provide us with an indicator of general ability? How to solve the question whether the Malayans heading for the shore, or the Papuans for the interior have the greater ability?
On the other hand, history provides an excellent — and negative — answer to the question of the permanence of a given level of civilisation. Societies rise and fall, and the degree of civilisation of a given “race” is by no means constant. Since it is not to be denied that the kind of psyche depends among other things on the level of civilisation, we have come upon new evidence that the communal psyche is changeable and not dependent on race. Nothing can be concluded about abilities from the variety of levels of a given civilisation, the less so in that it is possible to stand on a low level despite great abilities. And can it be said for certain that one of the peoples now primitive was never on a higher level of civilisation?
In estimating “ability” much confusion has been and is caused by the naive view that a society somehow stands higher from the point of view of civilisation the more closely it approaches “European” civilisation. How many misunderstandings are removed if we approach questions of communal psychology bearing in mind the distinctness of civilisations! There may be a very high level of some civilisation quite unconnected with our own; for it is possible to be very gifted without approaching our civilisation.
Despite this, the fundamental error has been made of drawing up a formal spiritual hierarchy of races according to degree of imitation of “European” civilisation. First to do so was the German Corns, author of a work significantly entitled Ueber die ungleiche Befähigung der Menschheitsstämme zur geistigen Entwicklung. Then Gobineau elaborated an exhaustive hierarchy of races in the work already quoted, which was ignored in the author’s life-time but has at least won him great posthumous fame.
Gobineau, an excellent writer470 but always a dilettante scholar, was also in his own eyes the greatest aristocrat of his generation.471 For him the “Aryan race” is the aristocracy of humanity, because only Aryans are of pure white blood: other varieties of the white race have secondary importance, while the non-white are fundamentally lower, destined for subsidiary roles in the history and economy of the world. Among the Aryans themselves, in Gobineau’s hierarchy the Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons occupy first place, along with the Franks (from whom he derived the gentry of Northern France). These are the true Germanic peoples, the strongest section of Aryans; the Germans have no place here at all, because they are a Celtic-Slav mixture who are not worth much even physically. The causes of the inequality of races do not lie in geography or history, but exclusively in race itself as such: the purer Aryan, the higher the type. Outside the white race there would be no civilisation at all if it were not for inter-breeding with whites, which he describes at length, and almost always erroneously, for he had at his disposal material still incomparably less adequate than we have today. Even the Chinese have to thank Aryan colonisation from India for their civilisation of a kind.
Gobineau energetically denies the idea that racial inequalities can be redressed with the aid of institutions. He devotes to the matter the fifth chapter of volume I: Les inégalités ethniques ne sont pas le résultat des institutions. Inferiority and superiority are inborn, and so an inferior people cannot by the very fact possess institutions of a higher order. It is not possible to ascribe essentially identical intellect to the Englishman and the Huron Indian, and explain the differences by the “irresistible force of environment” (des milieux). And. he insists, “barbarism and civilisation have flourished in turn on the same soil”. Institutions, therefore, are “results not causes”. Those inconsistent with the spirit of a people do not endure, because they must come from the society itself and be adapted to its “instincts and needs”. So institutions do not create peoples, but derive from them. And colonising States have never succeeded in imposing European institutions on the natives.
“Actually there are (i.e. in 1853) in the world two governments created by peoples foreign to our race, but according to patterns provided by us: one functions in the Sandwich Islands, the other in St. Domingo. An estimate of them must finally show the powsrlessness of all attempts to give a people institutions not deriving from its own mentality”. In Paraguay the chances appeared to be greater, for the institutions were based on religion. But the belief that barbarism is only the childhood of nations proved mistaken.472
Gobineau’s teaching could be called the Calvinism of raceology, real predestination. Some, as he himself puts it, are destined by nature to rule, others to serve; some are simply born to be heroes, others must be content with roles of common mediocrity. Are they then to have identical laws and duties? One further logical step, and the question arises whether the same ethic is to be binding on both?473
There is no point in polemics with the scientific apparatus of 1853, but specialists discover at almost every stage in his chief work that Gobineau did not even have the scientific training which it was possible to acquire in his day. And yet Gobineau’s arguments do not lack either truth or just observations. He discarded the superstition of equality and consequently sometimes came to correct conclusions. But he errs in accounting for even the truest observations by race.
The error has weighed on science to our day. Gobineau’s thesis was rediscovered afresh on several occasions by various scholars entirely independently. Thirty years after Gobineau, and not knowing him at all (for he was entirely forgotten) the French anthropologist Penka, drawing up a “social chemistry”, treated races in ethnology like elements in chemistry. Decrease of the Aryan-Germanic element he too regarded as a cause of decline.474
A few years later, before the beginnings of interest in Gobineau in France, the same discovery was made for a third time by the Le Bon already known to us. Each of his serious works was a real scientific event, and, as can already be appreciated, of no passing significance. In the book which he himself declared to be a synthesis of his numerous works, Lois psychologiques de l’évolution des peoples, we read views which are as if taken straight from Gobineau, and a whole separate section is devoted to showing comment les institutions dérivent de l’âme des peuples, with the accent still on race; he employs almost the same arguments to prove the matter as his predecessor.475
Le Bon did, in fact, make more than one discovery witnessing his greatness. He proclaimed hierarchy as a system of civilisation, a system for the organisation of communal life, but he hastened on unnecessarily to a “psychological hierarchy” of races, incidentally committing the error of establishing this hierarchy on a basis of proximity to or distance from our civilisation, or the “Indo-European” psychology. He adopted, therefore, a non-existant criterion (but let us remember one disproved only yesterday). A second error was his conviction of the basic inferiority of everybody as compared with ourselves, and his failure to take account of the lower and higher levels to be found in every civilisation — a failure which remains common to this day. It is these mistakes which explain his erroneous interpretation of facts which he had observed entirely correctly, a field in which he too excels.
He says, for example, that a negro or Japanese may possess every European diploma, but will not act in a European way in the varying circumstances of life. Why? Because the lower races have a greater or lesser incapacity for reasoning (incapacité de raisonner), while peoples of higher civilisation have not succeeded in transferring this power to those of lower precisely because of the gulf in the mentality of different races. Instruction does not achieve it. Intrinsingly lower elements are incapable of assimilitating civilisations basically too high for them.476
The anthropologist G. Vacher de Lapouge developed this theory of hierarchy. Long-headed blonds are in his view the nerves and brain of mankind, for only they are true Aryans. All cross-breeding lowers the level and there is no way of raising less-gifted races.477 Even further on the extremist wing stood E. J. Dillon, unable to find his way out of the labyrinth of anthropological errors. According to him, “human races exist which are without capacity for any more useful part in human progress than that played by the proletariat. It cannot be denied that there are in the world races which are incapable of accepting higher forms of civilisation, which can nevertheless provide valuable service in its lower forms, without being thereby wronged, and without demoralising others. It appears entirely possible that one day they will be mobilised and used in accordance with the principle that the good of every collectivity requires occupations to be allotted in such a way that every organ may perform the activities for which it is most suited”.478
All these scholars err in identifying race with civilisation, confusing one with the other. Having proclaimed a hierarchy of race, they were obliged to place some somatic features at the top, and so it came about that the long-headed blond was crowned and Scandinavia made into his eyrie and reserve country. Meanwhile, science has overthrown both the assumption and the results of the hierarchical theory in raceography. Above all it has been shown how weak are the Scandinavian foundations of the entire Nordic race and its long-headedness.
In 1902 Anton Nystrom published a treatise Ueber die Formenveränderungen des menschlichen Schädels und deren Ursachen479 in which he stated that in Sweden barely one fifth of the population is dolichocephalic, another fifth is brachycephalic, and three-fifths mezzocephalic; but more important, that most long-heads were found among the less-educated strata. There was a higher proportion of long-heads among old Germanic and Slav skulls. Nystroem does not even explain this by cross-breeding but by changes in the way of life. And when the famous Virchow expressed the view that skulls grow shorter with the advance of culture, the spiritual superiority of the long-heads was undermined.
Pittard recently posed a question which has pinned adherents of the hierarchy of races to the wall: why does it not occur to some sociologist that the enormous growth of the sciences in the second half of the nineteenth century and in the twentieth century is to be attributed to a decline in the number of long-heads and the multiplication of short-heads?480 The French anthropologist is right. If the development of science (for which history knows no parallel) were to be used as a basis on which to advance a theory of the superiority of short-heads, it would at least be based on something concrete.
Gobineau’s mistake only applied to the whole of humanity what in social stratification is called aristocracy, because he was under the erroneous impression that aristocracy excelled in purity of blood. And yet exactly the opposite is the case: the higher socially and economically a class the more anthropologically mixed it becomes; the more prosperous a land, the larger the influx of strangers its inhabitants have to meet: “ce sont les pauvres diables, qui ont la plus grande noblesse éthnique”481
The idea that higher development of civilisation accompanies (relative) purity of race cannot be maintained. It has already been mentioned that the purest of the known “historic” races are the Nubians, true descendants of the ancient Egyptians. Nor can the hierarchy of race be sustained. Then how is it that its adherents make so many just observations — is there truth at the back of the fairy-tale?
The puzzle clears up if here too we ask the question when? It is possible to speak of a hierarchy of communal mentalities in a certain historical period. For instance, there is no doubt that in Latin civilisation today, the Englishman is ahead of the Portuguese; but it was not always so. It is possible to investigate and define the hierarchy of levels reached within a certain civilisation in a certain period by various lands and peoples — but the hierarchy changes and is therefore no hierarchy of race. The Pole of the Saxon period is the undoubted descendant of the Pole of King Sigismund’s time, but one was in the depths, the other on the heights. The historical transformation of whole societies, by disposing of the notion of a psychical stability of race, demolishes the theory of a hierarchy of race.482