Nat. Hist, 11, 1984

Human Equality Is a
Contingent Fact of History

If our brothers, Australopithecus robustus, had survived for another million years, how would we treat them today?

by Stephen Jay Gould

Pretoria, August 5, 1984

History's most famous airplane, Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, hangs from the ceiling of Washington's Air and Space Museum, imperceptible in its majesty to certain visitors. Several years ago, a delegation of blind men and women met with the museum's director to discuss problems of limited access. Should we build, he asked, an accurate scale model of Lindbergh's plane, freely available for touch and examination? Would this solve the problem? The delegation reflected together and gave an answer that moved me deeply for its striking recognition of universal needs. Yes, they said, such a model would be acceptable, but only on one condition--that it be placed directly beneath the invisible original.

Authenticity exerts a strange fascination over us; our world does contain sacred objects and places. Their impact cannot be simply aesthetic, for an ersatz absolutely indistinguishable from the real McCoy evokes no comparable awe. The jolt is direct and emotional--as powerful a feeling as anything I know. Yet the impetus is purely intellectual--a visceral disproof of romantic nonsense that abstract knowledge cannot engender deep emotion.

Last night, I watched the sun set over the South African savanna--the original location and habitat of our australopithecine ancestors. The air became chill; sounds of the night began, the incessant repetition of toad and insect, laced with an occasional and startling mammalian growl; the Southern Cross appeared in the sky, with Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn ranged in a line above the arms of Scorpio. I sensed the awe, fear, and mystery of the night. I am tempted to say (describing emotions, not making any inferences about realities, higher or lower) that I felt close to the origin of religion as a historical phenomenon of the human psyche. I also felt kinship in that moment with our most distant human past--for an Australopithecus africanus may once have stood, nearly three million years ago, on the same spot in similar circumstances, juggling (for all I know) that same mixture of awe and fear.

I was then rudely extricated from that sublime, if fleeting, sentiment of unity with all humans past and present. I remembered my immediate location--South Africa, 1984 (during a respite in Kruger Park from a lecture tour on the history of racism). I also understood, in a more direct way than ever before, the particular tragedy of the history of biological views about human races. That history is largely a tale of division--an account of barriers and ranks erected to maintain the power and hegemony of rulers. The greatest irony of all presses upon me: I am a visitor in the nation most committed to such myths of inequality--yet the savannas of this land staged an evolutionary story of opposite import.

My visceral perception of brotherhood harmonizes with our best modern biological knowledge. Such union of feeling and fact may be rare indeed, for one offers no guide to the other (more romantic twaddle aside). Many people think (or fear) that equality of human races is a hope of liberal sentimentality probably squashed by the hard realities of history. They are wrong.

This column can be summarized in a single phrase, a motto if you will: Human equality is a contingent fact of history. Equality is not given a priori; it is neither an ethical principle (though equal treatment may be) nor a statement about norms of social action. It just worked out that way. A hundred different and plausible scenarios for human history would have yielded other results (and moral dilemmas of enormous magnitude). They didn't happen.

The history of Western views on race is a tale of denial--a long series of progressive retreats from initial claims for strict separation and ranking by intrinsic worth toward an admission of the trivial differences revealed by this contingent history. In this column, I shall discuss just two main stages of retreat for each of two major themes: genealogy; or the extent of separation between races as a function of their geological age; and geography, or our place of origin. I shall then summarize the three major arguments from modem biology for the surprisingly small extent of human racial differences.

Genealogy, the first argument. Before evolutionary theory redefined the issue irrevocably, early to mid-nineteenth-century anthropology was split by a debate between the schools of monogeny and polygeny. Monogenists espoused a common origin for all people in the primeval couple, Adam and Eve (lower races, they then argued, had degenerated further from original perfection). Polygenists held that Adam and Eve were ancestors of white folks only, and that other--and lower--races had been separately created. Either argument could fuel a social doctrine of inequality, but polygeny surely held the edge as a compelling justification for slavery and domination at home and colonialism abroad. "The benevolent mind," wrote Samuel George Morton (a leading American polygenist) in 1839, "may regret the inaptitude of the Indian