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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
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 for civilization. . . . The structure of his mind appears to be
different from that of the white man. . . .They are not only averse to the restraints of
education, but for the most part are incapable of a continued process of reasoning on abstract
Genealogy, the second argument. Evolutionary theory required a common origin for human
races, but many post-Darwinian anthropologists found a way to preserve the spirit of
polygeny. They argued, in a minimal retreat from permanent separation, that the division of
our lineage into modern races occurred so long ago that differences, accumulating slowly
through time, have now built unbridgeable chasms. Though once alike in an apish dawn,
human races are now separate and unequal.
We cannot understand much of the history of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century
anthropology, with its plethora of taxonomic names proposed for nearly every scrap of fossil
bone, unless we appreciate its obsession with the identification and ranking of races. For
many schemes of classification sought to tag the various fossils as ancestors of modern races
and to use their relative age and apishness as a criterion for racial superiority. Piltdown, for
example, continued to fool generations of professionals partly because it fit so comfortably
with ideas of white superiority. After all, this "ancient" man with a brain as big as ours (the
product, we now know, of a hoax constructed with a modern cranium) lived in England--an
obvious ancestor for whites--while such apish (and genuine) fossils as Homo erectus
inhabited Java and China as putative sources for Orientals and other peoples of color.
This theory of ancient separation had its last prominent defense in 1962, when Carleton
Coon published his Origin of Races. Coon divided humanity into five major races--
caucasoids, mongoloids, australoids, and, among African blacks, congoids and capoids. He
claimed that these five groups were already distinct subspecies during the reign of our
ancestor, Homo erectus. H. erectus then evolved toward H. sapiens in five parallel streams,
each traversing the same path toward increased consciousness. But whites and yellows, who
"occupied the most favorable of the earth's zoological regions," crossed the H. sapiens
threshold first, while dark peoples lagged behind and have paid for their sluggishness ever
since. Their inferiority, Coon argues, is not their fault, just an accident of their situation in
less challenging environments:
Caucasoids and Mongoloids . . . did not rise to their present population levels and positions
of cultural dominance by accident. . . . Any other subspecies that had evolved in these
regions would probably have been just as successful.
Leading evolutionists throughout the world reacted to Coon's thesis with incredulity. Could
modern races really be identified at the level of H. erectus? I shall always be grateful to
W.E. Le Gros Clark, England's greatest anatomist at the time. I was spending an
undergraduate year in England, an absolute nobody in a strange land. Yet he spent an
afternoon with me, patiently answering my questions about race and evolution. Asked about
Coon's thesis, this splendidly modest man simply replied that he, at least, could not identify
a modern race in the bones of an ancient species.
More generally, parallel evolution of such precision in so many lines seems a virtual
impossibility on grounds of mathematical probability alone. Could five separate subspecies
undergo such substantial changes and yet remain so similar at the end that all can still
interbreed freely, as modern races so plainly do? So glaring are the empirical weaknesses
and theoretical implausibilities of Coon's thesis that we must view it more as the last gasp of
a dying tradition than a credible synthesis of available evidence.
Genealogy, the modern view. Human races are not separate species (the first argument) or
ancient divisions within an evolving plexus (the second argument). They are recent, poorly
differentiated subpopulations of our modern species, Homo sapiens, products at most of tens
or hundreds of thousands of years, and marked by remarkably small genetic separations.
Geography, the first argument. When Raymond Dart found the first australopithecine in
South Africa nearly sixty years ago, scientists throughout the world rejected this oldest
ancestor, this loveliest of intermediate forms, because it hailed from the wrong place.
Darwin, without a shred of fossil evidence but with a good criterion for inference, had
correctly surmised that humans evolved in Africa. Our closest living relatives, he argued, are
chimps and gorillas--and both species live only in Africa, the probable home, therefore, of
our common ancestor as well.
But few scientists accepted Darwin's cogent inference because hope, tradition, and racism
conspired to locate our ancestral abode on the plains of central Asia. Notions of Aryan
supremacy led anthropologists to assume that the vast "challenging" reaches of Asia, not the
soporific tropics of Africa, had prompted our ancestors to abandon an apish past and rise
toward the roots of Indo-European culture. The diversity of colored people in the world's
tropics could only record the secondary migrations and subsequent degenerations of this
original stock. The great Gobi Desert expedition, sponsored by the American Museum of
Natural History in the years just preceding Dart's discovery, was dispatched primarily to find
the ancestry of man in Asia. We remember it for success in discovering dinosaurs and their
eggs; we forget that it failed in its major goal because Darwin's simple inference was
Geography, the second argument. By the 1950s, further anatomical study and the sheer
magnitude and diversity of continuing discovery forced a general admission that our roots
lay with the australopithecines, and that Africa had indeed been our original home. But the
subtle hold of unacknowledged prejudice still conspired (with other, more reasonable bases
of uncertainty) to deny Africa its continuing role as the cradle of what really matters to us--
the origin of human consciousness. In a stance of intermediate retreat, most scientists now
argued that Africa had kindled our origin but not our mental emergence. Human ancestors
migrated out, again to mother Asia, and there crossed the threshold to consciousness in the
form of Homo erectus (or so-called Java and Peking man). We emerged from the apes in
Africa; we evolved our intelligence in Asia. Carleton Coon wrote in his 1962 book: "If
Africa was the cradle of mankind, it was only an indifferent kindergarten, Europe and Asia
were our principal schools."
Geography, the modern view. The tempo of African discovery has accelerated since Coon
constructed his metaphor of the educational hierarchy. Homo erectus apparently evolved in
Africa as well, where fossils dating to nearly two million years have been found, while the
Asian sites may be younger than previously imagined. One might, of course, take yet
another step in retreat and argue that H. sapiens, at least, evolved later from an Asian stock
of H. erectus. But the migration of H. erectus into Europe and Asia does not guarantee (or
even suggest) any further branching from these mobile lineages. For H. erectus continued to
live in Africa as well. Evidence is far from firm, but the latest hints may be pointing toward
an African origin for H. sapiens as well. Ironically then (with respect to previous
expectations), it may well turn out that every human species evolved first in Africa and only
then--for the two latest species of Homo--spread elsewhere.

I have, so far, only presented the negative evidence for my thesis that human equality is a
contingent fact of history. I have argued that the old bases for inequality have evaporated. I
must now summarize the positive arguments (primarily three in number) and, equally
important, explain how easily history might have happened in other ways.
The positive argument from racial definition. In one of the first columns of this series
(March 1974), I presented the biological argument against naming races within any species,
and within H. sapiens in particular. The argument is technical and taxonomic; it has nothing
to do with human particularities or ethical impositions. Its précis follows:
We recognize only one formal category for divisions within species--the subspecies. Races,
if formally defined, are therefore subspecies. Subspecies are populations inhabiting a
definite geographic subsection of a species' range and sufficiently distinct in any set of traits
for taxonomists to recognize them. Subspecies differ from all other levels of the taxonomic
hierarchy in two crucial ways. First, they are categories of convenience only and need never
be designated. Each organism must belong to a species, a genus, a family, and to all higher
levels of the hierarchy; but a species need not be formally divided. Subspecies represent a
taxonomist's personal decision about the best way to report geographic variation. Second,
the subspecies of any species cannot be distinct and discrete. Since all belong to a single
species, their members can, by definition, interbreed. Modern quantitative methods have
permitted taxonomists to describe geographic variation more precisely in numerical terms;
we need no longer construct names to describe differences that are, by definition, fleeting
and changeable. Therefore, the practice of naming subspecies has largely fallen into
disfavor, and few taxonomists use the category any more. Human variation exists; the
formal designation of races is passé.
Some species are divided into tolerably distinct geographic races. Consider, for example, an
immobile species separated on drifting continental blocks. Since these subpopulations never
meet, they may evolve substantial differences. We might choose to name subspecies for such
discrete geographic variants. But humans move about and have the most notorious habits of
extensive interbreeding. We are not well enough divided into distinct geographic groups,
and the naming of human subspecies makes little sense.
Our variation is subject to all the difficulties and discordances that make taxon omists
shudder (or delight in complexity) and avoid the naming of subspecies. Consider just three
points. First, discordance of characters. We might make a reasonable division on skin color,
only to discover that blood groups imply different alliances. When so many good characters
have such discordant patterns of variation, no valid criterion can be found for unambiguous
definition of subspecies. Second, fluidity and gradations. We interbreed wherever we move,
breaking down barriers and creating new groups. Shall the Cape Colored, a vigorous people
more than two million strong and the offspring of unions between Africans and white
settlers (the ancestors, ironically, of the authors of apartheid and its antimiscegenation laws),
be designated a new subspecies or simply the disproof that white and black are very
distinct? Third, convergences. Similar characters are independently evolved again and again;
they confuse any attempt to base subspecies on definite traits. Most indigenous tropical
people, for example, have evolved dark skin.
The arguments against naming human races arc strong, but our variation still exists and
could, conceivably, still serve as a basis for invidious comparisons. Therefore, we need the
second and third arguments as well.
The positive argument from recency of division. As I argued in the first part of this essay
(and need only state in repetition now), the division of humans into modern "racial" groups
is a product of our recent history. It does not predate the origin of our own species, Homo
sapiens, and probably occurred during the last few tens (or at most hundreds) of thousands
of years.
The positive argument from genetic separation. Mendel's work was rediscovered in 1900
and the science of genetics spans our century. Yet, until twenty years ago, perhaps the most
important question in evolutionary genetics could not be answered for a curious reason. We
were not able to calculate the average amount of genetic difference between organisms
because we had devised no method for taking a random sample of genes. In the classical
Mendelian analysis of pedigrees, a gene cannot be identified unless it varies among
individuals. For example, if absolutely every Drosophila in the world had red eyes; we
would rightly suspect that some genetic information coded this universal feature, but we
would not be able to identify it by analyzing pedigrees, because all flies would look the
same. But as soon as we find a few white-eyed flies, we can mate white with red, trace
pedigrees through generations of offspring, and make proper inferences about the genetic
basis of eye color.
To measure the average genetic differences among races, we must be able to sample genes at
random--and this can't be done if we can only identify variable genes. Ninety percent of all
genes might be held in common by all people, and an analysis confined to varying genes
would grossly overestimate the total difference.
In the late 1960s, several geneticists harnessed the common laboratory technique of
electrophoresis to solve this old dilemma. Genes code for proteins, and varying proteins may
behave differently when subjected in solution to an electric field. Any protein could be
sampled, independent of prior knowledge about whether it varied or not. (Electrophoresis
can only give us a minimal estimate because some varying proteins may exhibit the same
electrical mobility but be different in other ways.) Thus, with electrophoresis we could
finally ask the key question: how much genetic difference exists among human races?
The answer, surprising for many people, soon emerged without ambiguity: damned little.
Intense studies for more than a decade have detected not a single "race gene"--that is, a gene
present in all members of one group and none of another. Frequencies vary, often
considerably, among groups, but all human races are much of a muchness. Variation among
individuals within any race is so great that we encounter very little new variation by adding
another race to the sample. In other words, the great preponderance of human variation
occurs within groups, not in the differences between them. My colleague Richard Lewontin,
who did much of the original electrophoretic work on human variation, and whose recent
book, Human Diversity (Scientific American Library, 1982), may be consulted for the
details, puts it dramatically: if, God forbid, the holocaust occurs "and only the Xhosa people
of the southern tip of Africa survived, the human species would still retain 80 percent of its
genetic variation."
As long as most scientists accepted the ancient division of races, they expected important
genetic differences. But the recent origin of races (second positive argument) squares well
with the minor genetic differences now measured. Human groups do vary strikingly in a few
highly visible characters (skin color, hair form)--and this may fool us into thinking that
overall differences must be great. But we now know that our usual metaphor of
superficiality--skin deep--is literally accurate.
In thus completing my précis, I trust that one essential point will not be misunderstood: I
am, emphatically, not talking about ethical precepts but of information as we understand it
for now. It would be poor logic and worse strategy to hinge a moral or political argument for
equal treatment or equal opportunity upon any factual statement about human biology. For if
our empirical conclusion turns out to be wrong--and all facts are tentative in science--then
we would be forced to justify prejudice and apartheid (directed, perhaps, against ourselves,
since who knows who would turn up on the bottom). I am no ethical philosopher, but I can
only view equality of opportunity as inalienable, universal, and unrelated to the biological
status of individuals. Our races may vary little in average characters, but our individuals
differ greatly--and I cannot imagine a decent world that does not treat the most profoundly
retarded person as a full human being in all respects, despite his evident and pervasive
I am, instead, making a smaller point, but one that tickles my fancy because most people
find it surprising. It is an evident conclusion, once articulated, but we rarely pose the issue in
a manner that lets such a statement emerge. I have called equality among races a contingent
fact. So far I have only argued for the fact; what about the contingency? In other words, how
might history have been different? Most of us can grasp and accept the equality; few have
considered the easy plausibility of alternatives that didn't happen.
My creationist incubi, in one of their most deliciously ridiculous arguments, often imagine
that they can sweep evolution away in this one unanswerable riposte: "Awright," they
exclaim, "you say that humans evolved from apes, right?" "Right," I reply. "Awright, if
humans evolved from apes, why are apes still around? Answer that one!" If evolution
proceeded this way--like a ladder of progress, each rung disappearing as it transforms bodily
to the next stage--then I suppose this argument would merit attention. But evolution is a
bush, and ancestral groups usually survive after their descendants branch off. Apes come in
many shapes and sizes; only one fine led to us.
Most of us know about pushes, but we rarely consider the implications. We know that
australopithecines were our ancestors and that their bush included several species. But we
view them as forebears, and subtly assume that since we are here, they must be gone. It is
so, indeed, but it ain't necessarily so. One population of one line of australopithecines
became Homo habilis; several others survived. One species, Australopithecus robustus, died
out less than a million years ago and lived in Africa as a contemporary of H. erectus for a
million years. We do not know why it disappeared. It might well have survived and
presented us today with all the ethical dilemmas of a human species truly and markedly
inferior in intelligence (with its cranial capacity only one-third our own). Would we have
built zoos, established reserves, promoted slavery, committed genocide, or perhaps even
practiced kindness? Human equality is a contingent fact of history.
Other plausible scenarios might also have led to marked, inequality. Homo sapiens is a
young species, its division into races even more recent. This historical context has not
supplied enough time for the evolution of substantial differences. But many species are
millions of years old, and their geographic divisions are often marked and deep. H. sapiens
might have evolved along such a time scale and produced races of great age and large
accumulated differences--but we didn't. Human equality is a contingent fact of history.
A few well-placed mottoes might serve as our best antidotes against those deeply ingrained
habits of Western thought that so constrain us because we do not recognize them--so long as
these mottoes are epitomes of real understanding, not the vulgar distortions that promote "all
is relative" as a précis of Einstein.
I have three favorite mottoes, short in statement but long in implication. The first, the
epitome of punctuated equilibrium, reminds us that gradual change is not the only reality in
evolution: other things count too; "stasis is data." The second confutes the bias of progress
and affirms that evolution is not an inevitable sequence of ascent: "mammals evolved at the
same time as dinosaurs." The third is the theme of this essay, a fundamental statement about
human variation. Say it five times before breakfast tomorrow; more important, understand it
as the center of a network of implication: "Human equality is a contingent fact of history."

Stephen Jay Gould teaches biology, geology, and the history of science at Harvard