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John Ray on species fixity and race

For since in nature the number of species is fixed and determined, since ‘God on the sixth day rested from all his labour’, that is, from the creation of new species, however infinite might be the number of plants varying in colour and multiplicity of flower, with new ones arising each year, we properly reject and exclude them from the grade and dignity of species.


Next, if these facts were sufficient for inferring a specific difference, the Ethiopian too by an equal reasoning would differ in species from a European, the black bullock from the white, red or mottled; something which no-one of sound mind, I think, would ever concede.

From chapter 20 of “The Historia Plantarum Generalis of John Ray: Book I – a translation and commentary.” by Elizabeth Mary Lazenby, 1995, PhD thesis, The University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Ray’s Historia was published in 1686. He was both a minister of religion and a botanist. This is the chapter in which he defines species in living things for the first time.


  1. David Duffy David Duffy

    “All racial theorists used John Ray’s notion of the ‘interbreeding criterion’ to establish fundamental species identity…Edward Long, used the interbreeding criterion explicitly to establish identities…in his History of Jamaica (1774), Long argued that mulattoes were ultimately infertile, an implication of which few would have been unaware”.

    I did enjoy Ray on “the Hair, tho’ it is efteemed an Excrement, is of great Ufe…I find it remarked by Machetti, the famous Anatomift of Padua, that the Caufe of Baldness is the Drynefs of the Brain, and its fhrinking from the Cranium or Skull; he having obferv’d, that in Bald Perfons, under the bald Part there is always a Vacuity…and Laftly, no name no more, it ferves alfo for a graceful Ornament to the Face…”

    • What’s the source of the first quote? If Long did that he explicitly opposes Ray’s use of the interbreeding criterion, and his longer discussion of variation/accidence over essence of species.

        • Thank you. I think there is a history of naturalists denying that human races are distinct species (not only Ray in the quote, but Buffon as well) as they are fertile inter se, as they used to say, and racialists using their criteria (both Ray and Buffon used interfertility) to deny the unity of the human species. This is a case of that.

        • David Duffy David Duffy

          And it refers to Book 2 Chapter 13 p 336 of Long (1774), where he claims that intermarriage of Mulattos leads to reduced fertility “when the same man and woman, having commerce with a White or Black, would generate a numerous issue…[this] tends, among other evidences, to establish an opinion, which several have entertained, that the White and the Negroe had not one common origin…For my own part, I think there are extremely potent reasons for believing [they] are two distinct species.” Long cites Buffon as his source for this criterion (p 335). Early in this chapter (p 260) he discusses the different “casts…which all have their proper denominations, invented by the Spaniards, who make this a kind of science among them…”. Anyway, you can guess the rest.

  2. jeb jeb


    ‘ tho’ it is efteemed an Excrement’

    Where does that come from? I have been looking at the wider subject (excremental discharges) in relation to warts, coral, shellfish and star jelly and chemical experiment (way solutions were tasted to determine the boundary of animal/ vegetable)

    Ray seems to hover in the background at the center of correspondence or influence.

    ‘it ferves alfo for a graceful Ornament to the Face’ = philosophical beard.

    ‘ god gave men beards for ornamental purposes and to distinguish them from women’

    Carl Linnaeus, if memory serves me correct, remarks delivered in lecture on the year women were first allowed to study.

    Its a common formula of the period.

      • Well for a start, there’d be the trip to the Bodleian…

      • jeb jeb

        “As the Eyes are the Windows to let in the Species of all exterior Objects into the dark Cells of the Brain for the Information of the Soul, fo are they flaming Torches to reveal to thofe abroad how the Soul within is moved or affected.”

        It reminded me of my favroute hair remark by John Roland translating Joannes Jonstonus

        “The Countesse of Caumantia; whilest her hair was kemb’d in the dark, it seemed to vomit forth fire.”

        Caumantia/ caumans = ‘I rest in the heat’

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