"Races" - past and fading differentiations of humanity

Our individualization as human beings, independent of our gender, race, culture, national origin or religious beliefs, is the main focus of anthroposophy.

While the development of anthroposophy with this focus took form at the end of the 19th and during the first decades of the 20th century, there also developed other discussions in Western culture, including the question of the origin of man, focusing on the problem more from the perspective of our relation to the natural world.

Along with the development of the theory of evolution of the different organisms of nature during the 19th century, humanity as well came to be understood as differentiated into different sub groups, similar to the sub groups of animal species, which were called "races".

In this discussion, Rudolf Steiner addressed a number of aspects of these questions.

In his view, human "races" in two biological senses (see the two sections below) arose at different times in the past but in general started to fade in relevance and as a reality at the end of the last glacial age and will cease to exist completely in the future as the fading realities we experience them, with our increasing individualization as human beings.

As mentioned at another page, the theosophical concept "root race" (which is incorrectly cited in allegations of racism in anthroposophy by some individuals for demagogical purposes) is not a "race" concept in our present meaning.

Instead it just uses the term "race" as often was done in Victorian times to refer to a "group of humans", whether it was humanity as a whole referred to as "the human race", or defined by some form of geographical criteria ("the Irish race") or sociological criteria ("the race of scholars").

As also mentioned, the two first "root races" described in theosophy do not even refer to humanity as it comes to expression on the present planet Earth. Instead they refer to stages in the development of humanity as it existed, according to theosophy and anthroposophy, in a spiritual form from the initial formation of our present solar system up to the formation of the present Earth as a planetary body separate from the sun.

"Sub races of Atlantis"

While the concept "root race" is the first theosophical concept incorrectly cited in allegations of racism in anthroposophy, the concept "sub races of Atlantis", which is used in the theosophical tradition but not in anthroposophy, is the second concept cited in such allegations.

During the time of the mythical "Atlantis", that is, during the time which Steiner later in his life cited as corresponding to the Tertiary and Quaternary periods, a number of groups of peoples developed. These groups, originating far in the past, in the view of theosophy, constituted the origins of a number of later developing peoples.

The theosophical tradition pointed to them as Rmoahals, Tlavatli, original Toltecs, original Turanians, original Semites, original Akkadians and original Mongols. For these groups, the theosophical tradition, but not anthroposophy, used and continues to use the concept "sub-races" of the Atlantean epoch.

The distinction from a present perspective can be understood as a tentative effort among theosophists at the end of the 19th century to understand the origin of the peoples mentioned, from a long term perspective, as well as from a spiritual perspective.

In the view of Steiner, the whole world of plants and animals constitutes living forms that have branched off from the developing form of the human being, at different stages in our long evolutionary development. It was also his view that human beings initially had a form not even recognizable as human in the present sense, and only slowly developed the present human form from the time corresponding to the Paleozoic through the Mesozoic up to the Cenozoic period.

In addition, the developing human form was not dense enough to leave any physical traces as fossils until after the branching off of the anthropoid apes from the developing human form, during the Tertiary period.

While it is a common view that man developed out of anthropoid apes, the markedly human characteristics of young anthropoid apes, before they develop the characteristics of the adult ape, a phenomenon called neoteny (the picture exemplifies this with the young and the mature chimpanzee), points in the opposite direction.

The human-like characteristics indicate that the anthropoid apes have developed as branched off forms from a markedly more human form in the present sense, yet not dense enough to leave physical traces at the time of the branching off of the apes.

Only during the middle phase of "Atlantean" time, that can be understood to correspond to the time of the Pliocene period, marking the transition from Tertiary to Quaternary, did human physical development progress such that fossil traces of human beings would start to remain. This corresponded with an impulse to a new form of self consciousness in man at the time. It is also from this period that the fossil remains of "Lucy" in eastern Africa originate.

In Steiner's view, one can, however, only talk of human "races" in a proper sense of the word from the late "Lemurian" time - that is, the end of the Mesozoic period, when the human form was not yet dense enough to leave fossil traces - up to the end of "Atlantis" (Cenozoic up to the end of the Pleistocene), with the mythical deluge.

After the end of the time of "Atlantis", with what is described in mythology as a deluge, the concept of "race" in a biological sense -- in the view of Steiner -- is continually and increasingly losing its relevance and meaning as a biological concept in human contexts, and will have lost its meaning as we now know it in a foreseeable future, as its last vestiges from the last glacial age are increasingly superseded by our cultural and individual development as humans.

The "five main races" of humanity

The old concept of the "five main races of humanity", now increasingly obsolete, is the third concept incorrectly cited in allegations of racism in anthroposophy.

During the time of the mythical "Atlantis", cited by Steiner as reflecting the development of the human being during the Cenozoic period, there also developed another differentiation into "races" which we still experience today, albeit as increasingly less relevant.

But while Steiner viewed the formation of seven sequential human forms during the "Atlantean epoch" (in theosophy called the "sub races of Atlantis"), paralleling the development reflected in the paleontological remains from the beginning of Cenozoic up to the end of Pleistocene, as part of the "normal" development of humanity, the formation of what we experience as the fading existence of the "five races" of humanity, in his view, took place as an abnormal differentiation of humanity during the period in question.

These group differentiations, that refer to bodily characteristics, in later times have been referred to as "Ethiopians", (Africans), Malayans, Mongols, Caucasians, and American Indians.

The tentative distinction between these five groups of people as the five main "races" of humanity can be found already in 1795 in a work on The Natural Variety of Mankind  by the father of anthropology, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who focused, like Steiner later, on the unity of the human species as the grand idea.

In commenting on these "five main races of humanity" in a lecture series in 1910 (Mission of Folk Souls), with regard to their origin and nature, when they were formed far in the past before the end of the last glacial time, Steiner expressly begged his audience not to misunderstand that his characterizations of the "races" in this lecture series referred to bodily characteristics, that they not were descriptions of the inner being of man, which constitutes us as human beings, and that in our age, the racial characteristics in question are generally being overcome.

Steiner's description also made clear how all the five main races of mankind, including the "Caucasians", in their origin and nature before the end of the last glacial age, need to be understood as one-sided in nature, in his view originating in the activity of abnormally developing spiritual beings, and that they only together reflected the whole of the human being.

Against the increasing propaganda for a development into the future based on ideals of races and nations in many countries at the beginning of the 20th century, including by the National Socialists in Germany, Steiner argued that this approach was one which addressed decaying impulses of humanity and that nothing would bring humanity more into decay than if the ideals of races, nations and blood (biological heritage) were to continue.

In a number of lectures, Steiner also described his understanding, based on spiritual research, outlining how we as individuals and groups of people have moved through history between lives in one race and culture and lives in other races and cultures in other parts of the world.

These points show that in Steiner's view - expressed nearly 100 years ago, at a time and in a culture permeated with thinking in terms of "races" - our development as individuals is not determined by, and is less and less connected with "temporary" external characteristics like "race" or nationality or gender.

Instead, our development as individuals is being superseded and ever more purely determined by our increasingly individual paths through history, independent of such external characteristics.

For more, see Rudolf Steiner on

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Copyright 2004: Robert Mays and Sune Nordwall