Generation, Heredity, and Race: Key Texts in the History and Philosophy of the German Life Sciences, 1745–1845

Edited by Jennifer Mensch and Michael Olson 

The aim of this volume is to bring together a set of key texts from the eighteenth century life sciences. The grounds for inclusion stem from our sense that there is an argument to be made for connecting two domains of inquiry that have heretofore remained distinct in both their  presentation and scholarly analysis: life science debates regarding generation and inheritance on the one hand, and emerging philosophical and anthropological theories regarding both the grounds of racial diversity and the means for its subsequent classification. 

“White Adam, Black Eve” © Stadtmuseum Calw, “Palais Vischer”

The volume has three sections, the first is devoted to selections from life scientists working to create an account of the processes guiding generation and embryogenetic development. Given that at the time there were few ways to definitively prove that babies received contributions from both parents in their creation, mixed-race children became increasingly valuable sources of evidence for those insisting on joint inheritance. This sets up the second section of the volume since one can trace a clear facet of racial biometric science out of this original set of enquiries, however, the bulk of section two is devoted to the many different accounts created at the time to understand and delineate racial differences. The last section is focused on ‘race and empire’ in order to situate the scientific texts of the previous sections in their socio-historical context. By including these pieces we remind readers that scientific curiosity over the nature and origin of racial diversity, for example, did not develop in a vacuum  but indeed existed in full knowledge of the exploitation and dispossession of human beings. The ‘materials’ for this research program were in many cases either directly taken from black and  brown human beings caught up in Europe’s colonial projects, or reliant upon the data gathered during large-scale expeditions, such as those undertaken by James Cook in the South Pacific during the 1770s, expeditions that were funded in large part by way of profits earned on the sugar and rum produced by plantation slaves. While we lay out the argument for these connections in the Introduction, the value of this volume will be in the curated texts themselves. 

“scientific curiosity over the nature and origin of racial diversity did not develop in a vacuum  but indeed existed in full knowledge of the exploitation and dispossession of human beings”

The texts included here fall into three categories: German texts in the public domain which appear here in translation for the first time; English translations of texts in the public domain; and well-regarded contemporary English translations of texts for which we have obtained the rights for reproduction. While this means that a number of our texts are already available in English translation, many of these are out of print or hard to find, and others are available only as part of large and expensive collections. More importantly, by including them together in the present volume, we believe that the conceptual and historical connections  between these pieces will become visible in new and important ways, and allow readers to thereby appreciate the continuity between eighteenth-century debates on generation, race, and empire in a way that is rarely appreciated. 

The translations in the volume are framed by a consistent editorial apparatus meant to clarify the ideas and debates unifying the volume as a whole. In the first instance we have communicated this unity through an Introduction depicting the landscape of eighteenth-century theories of generation, the manner in which these interacted with observations and theories regarding the nature of heredity, and how this helped to create the parameters within which early conceptions of human diversity could emerge. The explanatory apparatus of the volume continues throughout the volume by way of critical notes introducing authors and texts, with internal cross-references throughout the volume, demonstrating the scientific debates taking  place in Germany by the authors of these works. This, along with a comprehensive Index,  biographical sketches, and a Bibliography of historical and modern works devoted to theories of generation and race in the history of the life sciences, make this volume a valuable contribution to a range of scholars and students. 

Colonial “casta” paintings depict racial classifications of the people living in New Spain

The clearest audience for a general anthology of key texts in the eighteenth-century life sciences will be scholars working in areas adjacent to this field including history of philosophy and science, anthropology, critical race theory, the history of medicine, and German studies. Kant studies in particular offers an audience primed to delve deeper into this topic, since recent years have witnessed increasing interest among Anglophone scholars in Kant’s engagement with the life sciences and its relevance to his more familiar ‘critical’ philosophy. In our view, a comprehensive anthology of important eighteenth-century texts in English with a robust editorial apparatus thus makes an important and popular contribution to a range of scholars in these fields. 

The audience for this anthology should not, however, be limited to scholars already working in the field. There is burgeoning interest in the history of the concept of race,  philosophies of race and difference, and critical race theory across the Anglophone world, as recent trends in both curriculum development and hiring clearly indicate. A crucial dimension of the research and training that supports these fields is the historical study of race. As young academics take up new positions and begin teaching courses that reflect their research interests, a critical edition of the key historical sources underpinning modern conceptions of race can serve as an important teaching resource. 

The multidisciplinary nature of the contents of the volume will, in short, be reflected in a multidisciplinary audience. The completeness of the texts we have included and the historical and conceptual context provided by our Introduction and notes ensure that this volume should be an important resource for a wide range of peoplestudents and scholars new to the field as well as advanced scholars looking for a critical edition of key resources working across a great number of disciplines