“2. Intellectual and Moral Diversities of Races” (1859)


In this second chapter of The Testimony of Modern Science to the Unity of Mankind, published in 1859, James Lawrence Cabell critiques polygenism, the theory posited by Types of Mankind, written by George Gliddon and Josiah C. Nott, and Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races by Count Arthur de Gobineau. Polygenism argues that human races have different origins. Though Cabell upholds the idea that there is a hierarchy of races, he says he cannot prove anything about the origin of racial differences. Cabell was a race scientist and professor of anatomy, physiology, and surgery at the University of Virginia, the southern center of the eugenics movement in the United States


“The grand problem,” according to one of the authors of ‘The Types of Mankind,’ “more particularly interesting to all readers, is that which involves the common origin of races; for upon the latter deduction hang not only certain religious dogmas, but the more practical question of the equality and perfectibility of races. Whether an original diversity of races be admitted or not, the permanence of existing physical types will not be questioned by any archaeologist or naturalist of the present day;

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nor by such competent arbitrators can the consequent permanence of moral and intellectual peculiarities of types be denied. The intellectual man is inseparable from the physical man; and the nature of the one cannot be altered without a corresponding change in the other.”

The same writer, Dr. J. C. Nott, has again made use of the same argument in the appendix to an American reprint of the interesting and suggestive essay of Count A. de Gobineau, on the “Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races.” He regards “most of Count Gobineau’s conclusions as incontrovertible.” We are not prepared to dissent from this estimate of their value; but we go further,–we adopt some very important ones which Dr. Nott rejects; for it so happens that this very work contains a refutation of his views respecting either a specific distinction or a plural origin of the races, or, at least, it demonstrates the entire consistency of all the known facts relating to the intellectual diversities of race with the idea of their specific unity and common

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descent. Assuming, on grounds which have already stated,* that all mankind have sprung from a common parentage, the author contends that this fact is not inconsistent with the idea of permanent differences among the races, and justifies his position by referring to the analogous case of different children of the same parents. “If two men, the offspring of the same parents, can be the one a dunce, the other a genius, why cannot different races, though descended of the same stock, be different also in intellectual endowments?” “All that is here contended for is, that the distinctive features of such races, in whatever manner they have originated, are now persistent. Two men may, the one arrive at the highest honors of the state, the other with every facility at his command forever remain in mediocrity; yet these men may be brothers.”

In an admirable chapter on the “Influence of Christianity upon the Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races,” the author avows with earnestness and force his unhesitating convic-

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tion of the adaptedness of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to all, even the most hopelessly inferior, of the races. He speaks with indignant warmth of those writers who (like the authors of “Types of Mankind,” he might have said,) “dare to contradict the sacred promise of the Gospel, and deny the peculiar characteristic of our faith, which consists in its accessibility to all men. According to them, religions are confined within geographical limits which they cannot transgress. But the Christian religion knows no degrees of latitude or longitude. There is scarcely a nation or a tribe among whom it has not made converts. Statistics,–imperfect, no doubt, but as far as they go, reliable—show them in great numbers in the remotest parts of the globe; nomad Mongols in the steppes of Asia, savage hunters in the table-lands of the Andes, dark-hued natives of an African clime, persecuted in China, tortured in Madagascar, perishing under the lash in Japan. But this universal capacity of receiving the light of the Gospel must not be confounded, as is often done, with a faculty of

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entirely different character, that of social improvement. This latter consists in being able to conceive new wants, which, being supplied, give rise to others, and gradually produce that perfection of the social and political system which we call civilization. While the former belongs equally to all races, whatever may be their disparity in other respects, the latter is of a purely intellectual character, and the prerogative of certain privileged groups, to the partial or even total exclusion of others. With regard to Christianity, intellectual deficiencies cannot be a hinderance to a race. Our religion addresses itself to the lowly and simple, even in preference to the great and wise of this earth. Intellect and learning are not necessary to salvation.”*

It gives us real pleasure to quote these lines from a work written in a truly philosophical spirit. We were not, indeed, fully prepared to admit all the conclusions of the learned author; not, however, that they are intrinsically inad-

*Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races. By Count A. de Gobineau. Edited by H. Hotz. P. 216.

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missible, but solely because the evidence does not appear to us to be entirely adequate to warrant some of his inductions.* We are not sure, for example, that he has not exaggerated the significance of the past as betokening the future inferiority, for all time, of certain races. With regard to some of these races, at least, it does not appear to us that the experiment of testing the inveteracy of their resistance to the influences tending to the improvement and

* The late Hugh Miller seems to have arrived at conclusions similar to those of Count Gobineau, respecting the permanent inequality of the races. After enumerating and characterizing many of the inferior races, he proceeds to say: “All these varieties of the species, in which we find humanity ‘fallen,’ according to the poet, ‘into disgrace,’ are varieties that have lapsed from the original Caucasian type. They are all descendants of man as God created him; but they do not exemplify man as God created him. They do not represent, save in hideous caricature, the glorious creature moulded of old by the hand of the Divine Worker. They are fallen—degraded; many of them, as races, hopelessly lost. For all experience serves to show that when a tribe of men falls beneath a certain level, it cannot come into competition with civilized man, pressing outwards from his old centres to possess the earth, without becoming extinct before him. Sunk beneath a certain level, as in the forests of America, in Van Dieman’s Land, in New South Wales, and among the Bushmen of the Cape, the experience of more than a hundred years demonstrates that its destiny is extinction—not restoration. Individuals may be recovered by the labors of some zealous missionary, but it is the fate of the race, after a few generations, to disappear. It has fallen too hopelessly low to be restored.” (Testimony of the Rocks. Edinburgh, 1857, p. 254.

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civilization has been sufficiently tried, and accordingly, while we freely grant that the question is fairly debatable, we must hold that no positive conclusion can be announced either way. But let it be granted that a most decided inferiority in intellect and in the capacity of social improvement is to be the permanent heirloom of certain races, a point which is not only possible but quite probable, we yet contend that it proves noting with respect to the origin of such diversities. We have shown that varieties even more considerable than those which separate the most degraded forms of humanity from the finest specimens of the most intellectual races, and also that the characteristics of these varieties, once formed, are as persistent as those of the species itself, even when the influences that gave rise to them have been long withheld. Who would expect to be able to convert the numerous existing varieties of the hog to the wild boar, except by an amalgamation? There is, therefore, nothing in the

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admitted fact of the permanency of the intellectual and moral inferiority of certain races, which in the least conflicts with the hypothesis of their common origin.

We must here notice and condemn the insidious appeal addressed in “The Types of Mankind” to the prejudices of slaveholders, as a most inadmissible argument in a discussion which should be purely scientific.

We trust that those who, in the providence of God, have been placed in that part of our common country in which the African race is held in servitude, will not be induced by the weak reasoning of a shallow book to put themselves in a false position before the Christian world, and foolishly to seize upon a scientific error, as a mode of asserting rights which have been guaranteed by the Federal Compact, and which are incident to relations recognized and sanctioned by the inspired Apostle to the gentiles.*

*While thus protesting against the scientific error which asserts that the black man is an animal of different origin and species from his white master, we must protest with equal emphasis against the absurd and, in their consequences, wicked doctrines which modern fanaticism

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*strives to erect upon the admitted truth of the unity of mankind. If the inferior races “cannot come into competition with civilized man without becoming extinct before him, as Hugh Miller so forcibly argues,–if, while only “a few individuals may be recovered by the labors of some zealous missionary, it is the fate of the race, after a few generations, to disappear, for it has fallen too hopelessly low to be restored,”—it certainly deserves thoughtful inquiry whether the singular growth of the black population in the Southern States of our confederacy, and the marked improvement of the race in physical and moral characteristics, may not have resulted from its contact with a superior race in the only relation that could exclude the fatal “competition;” whether, in a word, the actual bondage of the blacks in America was not intended, in the merciful and wise providence of God, as the only means of extricating them from their otherwise inevitable “destiny,” and of becoming “extinct before” such higher race. A little reflection on the subjects suggested by such inquiry would make patent duties and responsibilities on the part of every American citizen, may, of every true Christian, with reference to American Slavery, far different from those sought to be inculcated by the zealous abolitionists of the day both in our country and in Europe. See Epistle of St. Paul to Philemon.

APA Citation:
Cabell, James Lawrence. “2. Intellectual and Moral Diversities of Races” (1859). (2023, July 14). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Cabell, James Lawrence. "“2. Intellectual and Moral Diversities of Races” (1859)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (14 Jul. 2023). Web. 19 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2023, July 14
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