Blumenbach’s Skull Research was not Compromised by Aesthetic Desires as Claimed by Londa Schiebinger

This blog is based on text from Chapter 22 of my book, a pdf of which is posted on this webpage. Detailed footnotes and citations are presented in the pdf. The author does not support racism, eugenics, or even the existence of biologically distinct human races. However, to maintain historical accuracy, this blog uses outdated and sometimes offensive ethnic terms found in historic documents. No offense is intended.

Perhaps the most unwarranted critique of Blumenbach’s research can be found in in Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science by the American historian Londa Schiebinger. In this book, she argued that Blumenbach chose to call white Europeans “Caucasians” for mostly aesthetic reasons. As Schiebinger wrote:

“An extraordinary example of the sway that notions of beauty, and female beauty in particular, held over science can be seen in Blumenbach’s coining the term Caucasian… In one stroke Blumenbach assigned the greatest beauty to a particular people, gave them the honor of being the original humans, and bequeathed a name to this premier race that stands even to this day as a potent marker of privilege.”

Schiebinger went on to say (and note that here again she is employing the word honor):

“According to his own account, Blumenbach took the name from the Caucasus Mountain range… because this region, especially its southern slope, produced what he considered the most beautiful of all humans – the Georgians. He chose the Caucasus for this honor because, “all physiological evidence converged on this region” as the birthplace of human kind.” As proof, he pointed to the unsullied whiteness of its inhabitants. “It is very easy” Blumenbach reasoned, “for white skin to degenerate into brown, but very much more difficult for a darker skin already impregnated with carbonaceous pigments to become white…” Even more important than skin color for Blumenbach was the pleasing symmetry of the Georgian skull. For him the Caucasian’s great beauty simply revealed them as the original humans – the archetype from which all other races degenerated.”

Like many other 20th Century scholars, Schiebinger relied on an uncritical reading of Thomas Bendyshe’s bad translation of Blumenbach, and added to it a number of assumptions about Blumenbach that are incorrect. For a start, Blumenbach never stated that being the first (autochthonous) human was an honor. Schiebinger also referred to the “unsullied whiteness” of Georgians, which again was a concept that Blumenbach himself never expressed. He never claimed that dark pigment was a form of filth. In fact, he praised the attractiveness of darker skinned people in a number of his writings. Schiebinger accepted Bendyshe’s translation as literal, assuming that when Bendyshe used the word beautiful, it was because Blumenbach used just that one word. Nowhere in her book does Schiebinger note that the word beauty had a different meaning in 1776. Furthermore, within Schiebinger’s book, I did not find any text in which she explained that the term de-generation was not the same as degeneration. I can only assume that she genuinely believed that Blumenbach regarded dark skinned people as a deteriorated form of white people. However, he did not.

As I see it, Schiebinger was looking only for that evidence that would support her philosophical interpretation of history, which to her credit she openly presented at the beginning of her book. As part of this statement she wrote:

“Twentieth-century historians of science have tended to treat racial and sexual science in separate studies. While eighteenth-century studies of race and sex admittedly formed distinct literatures, they7 also shared an intimate history having to do with the rise of what Michele Foucault has called “political anatomy”. The body – stripped clean of history and culture as it was of clothes and often skin – became the touchstone of political rights and social privileges.”

According to Schiebinger, Blumenbach created the term Caucasian, not because there was a scientific basis for it, but rather because he was so enamored by the beauty of Georgian women. His choice was not really evidence-based or logical but rather driven by desire, which overrode his rational mind. Schiebinger proposed that Blumenbach was not simply influenced by the medieval notion that Georgian women were beautiful, but rather “Deeper reasons… lay behind the beauty of assessment of beauty of Georgian woman that so influenced Blumenbach.”

Although, to her credit, she did say that, “To Blumenbach’s credit, he did not place the cradle of humanity in his native Germany.”

To Schiebinger’s way of thinking, Blumenbach’s choice of a Georgian female’s skull was highly significant and rich with symbolic importance:

“Blumenbach’s reverence for beauty may also explain why he singled out a female skull to represent the Caucasian race. Departing from medical traditions that for centuries had established the male as the paragon of human excellence, Blumenbach chose from his vast anthropological collection the skull of a young Georgian woman to represent “the Caucasian.””

What Schiebinger failed to notice is that Blumenbach also chose female skulls to represent his Ethiopian and Malay variety. According to Schiebinger’s rationale, Blumenbach must have also had a “reverence” for the beauty of black Africans and Polynesians.

When I first read Schiebinger’s above quote, something struck me odd about it. Schiebinger refers to Blumenbach’s “vast collection,” which from my perspective was not vast at all. Back in 1986, when I spent three weeks measuring the Morton skulls, I was actually rather disappointed with how small the collection was. Although it contains about 1,000 skulls, it only fills two rows of cabinets, each about 25 to 30 feet long. You could store all those cabinets in a garage and still have room for a sub-compact car. If Morton’s collection was that small, Blumenbach’s must have been small enough to store in a couple of large bookshelves.

I decided to do some research to see if I could figure out how just how large Blumenbach’s collection was in 1795 when he came up with the word “Caucasian.” Fortunately for me, Blumenbach published a series of seven small articles about his skull collection between 1789 and 1828. The first six of these articles presented a drawing of ten skulls and a description of each of them along with Blumenbach’s comments. Thus these articles are now jointly known as the Decas Cranorium (Ten Skulls). According to the Decas Cranorium, by 1795 Blumenbach had only collected 30 skulls, although he may have had more specimens he did not list. Even if he had 100 skulls, that is not what I would call a vast collection.

There was something else that I noticed while reading Blumenbach’s Decas Cranorium. Some of the skulls he illustrated were chipped, broken, or had missing teeth, which reminded me of the Morton collection.. Some of the skulls in Morton’s collection were in great condition, solid and un-cracked, with all of their teeth. Most of the skulls, however, had some sort of minor damage, often a few missing teeth, or were chipped along the thin bones within the nose or in the back of the eyes. Many skulls were also missing jaws. A good portion of the skulls, perhaps a quarter, were substantially damaged. For example, many had cracks around the sutures, like an old guitar whose back had cracked at the seam. Others were simply punctured as if hit by a hammer or more likely the shovel that was used to dig them up. It was also common to see holes from water damage, or in the case of desert skulls, damage from wide erosion.

Having been somewhat educated as a paleontologist (I dropped out of a master’s program in mammal paleontology), I was aware that anyone who studies a bone has to follow a rule which dictates that the bone being studied must be a physically ideal specimen. There are exceptions; but in general, a scholar should not make definitive statements about a bone if it is poorly preserved or shows evidence of disease. In paleontology, the term “type specimen” or “holotype” is used to describe a bone or skeleton that is the definitive example of an extinct animal. It should be in excellent condition, with no evidence of disease, and come from an adult, not a juvenile. Usually, when a new fossil is discovered (for example, a fish), the scientist who first describes it in a paper will choose the best preserved example of that species of fish (assuming she has a few to choose from), and declare it to be the type specimen. From then on, any other paleontologist who finds a similar looking fish can compare it to the type specimen. If the newly discovered fish matches the type specimen, then they are the same species. If not, they are different species. Of course, it does not always work out so neatly. For years it was thought that there were two types of large ape that lived in South Asia long before humans evolved. The big one was called Sivapithecus while the small one was called Ramapithecus. They each had a type specimen until somebody realized that the big one was the male version of the small one. They were both the same species.

The notion that Blumenbach might have been seeking out a racial type specimen led me to look at the drawings of the five skulls that he used as examples of his five varieties (American, Caucasian, Ethiopian, Malay and Mongolian.) They were all in good to excellent condition, like a type specimen, except for the Malay which was missing most of its teeth. I suspected that Blumenbach was forced to use a less than ideal Malay skull because his collection had only a few specimens from that population. To verify my suspicion, I conducted an analysis of all skulls illustrated in Decades Cranium. I gave them a score from 5 to 1 based in the following guidelines:

5. No chips
4. Chipping in one location
3. Chipping in two locations
2. Major cracks
1. Substantial damage or areas with mummified skin still attached

Using these admittedly arbitrary guidelines, and an examination of the drawings of the skulls rather than an actual examination of the skulls, I developed the table presented in Figure 1. This table indicates that Blumenbach only had 14 Caucasian skulls as of 1795. Of these 14 skulls, only two were free of chips, and had their jaws and all their teeth. One was a Jewish Girl who was not an adult (#3-38) and the other was a Woman from Georgia (#3-21). Both these skulls were present in his collection in 1795. This evidence suggest that the reason Blumenbach chose the Georgian skull as his “type specimen” was because it was the only Caucasian skull he had that was an adult specimen in good condition.

D3-12_F2D3-12_F1If my contention about the Woman of Georgia’s skull is correct, then I should be able show that Blumenbach chose the other type specimens based on the same non-aesthetic criteria. As it happens, four out of the five skulls Blumenbach chose to illustrate his varieties (American, Caucasian, Ethiopian, Malay, and Mongolian), were in excellent condition. As Figure 1 shows, Blumenbach had 11 American skulls, only two of which had jaws, a full set of teeth, and no chips. But he only had one of these two skulls in 1795, and that was the Carib of St. Vincent Isle (#1-10), which he chose as his American type specimen. Blumenbach only had 16 Caucasian skulls, of which three were adults in prime condition. One was Turk from Turkey, one was a Tatar presumably from Crimea, and one was a Georgian form that Caucasus Region. He chose the Woman of Georgia. Indeed, she may have been his favorite skull, but she was also the only Caucasian he had at the time. Schiebinger’s claim that Blumenbach chose the Woman of Georgia for aesthetic reasons assumed that he could have chosen her out of many in his “vast collection.” But the above evidence indicates that his collection only had one skull from the Caucasus. His choices were severely limited.

Blumenbach was Not Obsessed with Beauty, but His 19th Century Translator Sure Was

This blog is based on text from Chapter 21 of my book, a pdf of which is posted on this webpage. Detailed footnotes and citations are presented in the pdf. The author does not support racism, eugenics, or even the existence of biologically distinct human races. However, to maintain historical accuracy, this blog uses outdated and sometimes offensive ethnic terms found in historic documents. No offense is intended.

Throughout my book I have stressed how in 1865, Thomas Bendyshe published a racist mistranslation of Blumenbach’s anti-racist writings led 20th century authors such as Bruce Dain to assume that Blumenbach harbored a white supremacist racial bias, at least early in his career. My initial suspicion that Blumenbach was mistranslated by Bendyshe led me to seek out the services of a professional Latin translator. In 2014, I was fortunate enough to hire a professional translation firm, Shillenn LLC, whom I will henceforth refer to as my 2014 Translator.

My 2014 Translator translated a number of passages from Blumenbach’s works that I suspected were mistranslated by Bendyshe. Before I discuss them, I need to briefly explain that within Blumenbach’s original text a “§” symbol was used to denote a chapter, thus § 62 refers to Chapter 62. Most of the chapters in De Generis of 1795 are just a few paragraphs long. In modern terms, they would be called sections. The image below is taken from Blumenbach’s original text which was bound into a book about the size of a small paperback you might buy in an airport. The left side of this image presents one entire page.

D2-12_F1When my 2014 Translator provided me with his translations, he also included notes which you can read in the pdf of Chapter 20. I found the 2014 Translator’s comments to be fascinating because they illustrate the complexities of translating the Latin used in Enlightenment Era Germany. My 2014 Translator’s rendering of Chapter 62 reads (with my bold):

Ҥ 62. Ethnic varieties of skulls
It seems that all the diversity of the skull of the various ethnic groups and that of the ethnic groups which we have surveyed (§ 56) can also be reduced to five prime varieties; plate II shows examples of these [varieties] (selected from many).

1. The middle place is held by an excellently symmetric, somewhat rounded specimen, whose forehead is moderately flattened out; the cheek bones are rather narrow, nowhere protruding, running down from the malar process of the frontal bone; the alveolar ridge [is] somewhat round; the front teeth of each jaw are positioned perpendicularly. The most elegant skull of a Georgian woman is shown as the example in plate II, figure 3. This charming shape of the skull is midway between the two extremes; of which one of the two…” [At this point Blumenbach goes on to describe Mongolians and Ethiopians.]

Bendyshe’s 1865 translation is presented below. This image is taken from the original text, which has a much more modern look than Blumenbach’s 18th century version. As you read Bendyshe’s translation, you will notice that Bendyshe used the words beautifully and beautiful.

D2-12_F2Comparing my 2014 Translator’s text and Bendyshe’s1865 translation for two phrases dealing with beauty indicates that Bendyshe was overusing the word beautiful as seen below:

D2-12_F3The topic of beauty also arises in Chapter 85 of De Generis of 1795, as presented below:

D2-12_F4As seen below, my 2014 Translator’s text indicates that Blumenbach regarded the Georgian people from of the Caucasus Mountain to be “the most beautiful race” of humans:

Ҥ 85. A) The Caucasian variety
The name for this variety is from the Caucasus mountains, because the surrounding area, especially its southern region, nurtures the most beautiful race of humans, i.e. the Georgian, and since all the physiological measures point in the same direction, [i.e.] that the “original types” of the human species most likely ought to be located, if anywhere, in this same region.

In the first place, as we have seen (§ 62), this stock exhibits the most beautiful shape of the skull, from which, as from a mediate and original shaping, the other [varieties] very gradually diverge in both directions toward to the two furthest extremes (in one direction the Mongolian and in the other the Ethiopian).

Moreover since this same [variety] is white in color, which we may consider to be the original [color] of the human species since, as we have shown above [§ 45], it is easy for [white] to degenerate into dark, while it is far more difficult [to move] from dark into white (namely when the secretion and precipitation of carbonaceous pigment (§ 44) over a long time has taken root).”

Bendyshe’s translation of 1865, as seen below, also indicated Blumenbach’s perception of the Georgians as being beautiful.

D2-12_F5And so we are left with two translators who agree that Blumenbach did indeed think that the Georgians were the most beautiful of branch of humanity (pucherrimam homien stirpum). Both Behndyshe and the 2013 translations agreed that the Georgians had the most beautiful shape of skulls (venustissuam ut videmus cranai formam).
One could argue that Bendyshe’s mistranslations were due to his inability to read Blumenbach’s arcane form of Latin. However, Bendyshe also mistranslated Blumenbach’s German writings in a way that fraudulently made it appear the Blumenbach held whites to be not just beautiful, but the most beautiful, while and blacks were not just ugly, but the ugliest. For example, Bendyshe also mistranslated Blumenbach’s 1806 German publication Beytrage zur Naturgeschichte. In this book, Blumenbach describes meeting the charming and beautiful African-born Haitian midwife who he met in Yverdun, Switzerland. The following passage regarding this black African woman was translated into English by my 2014 Translator. Based on his translation, Blumenbach’s describe the Haitian midwife as having (with my bold):

“A face, which absolutely – even in the nose and the somewhat thick lips – did not even have anything striking – let alone unpleasant, that the same traits with white skin, would have certainly had to be generally pleasing, just as Le Maire says in his journey to Senegal and Gambia: there are Negresses, who, abstracting from the color, are allegedly as well formed as our European ladies. Also Adanson, the meticulous naturalist, confirms this about the Senegal-Gambian Negresses: “they have,” he says, “beautiful eyes, a small mouth and lips and well-proportioned facial traits: some are found having perfect beauty *): they are full of vivacity and eminently have a light, free and pleasing decorum.”

In this quote, Blumenbach notes that the Haitian midwife had thick lips and a wide nose. Furthermore, he suggests that those very African-looking facial features were nonetheless attractive, and would have been attractive if they occurred on a woman with white skin. Blumenbach then gives two more examples of respected naturalists who also agree that black African women can be just as pretty as whites. However, when Bendyshe translated this text, he rendered it to imply that Blumenbach regarded black skin as being “disagreeable.” Bendyshe’s translation reads (with my bold):

“Such a countenance – even in the nose and the somewhat thick lips – was so far from being surprising, that if one could have set aside the disagreeable skin, the same features with a white skin must have universally pleased, just as Le Maire says in his travels through Senegal and Gambia, that there are negresses, who, abstraction being made of the colour, are as well formed as our European ladies. So also Adanson, that accurate naturalist, asserts the same of the Senegambia negresses; they have beautiful eyes small mouth and lips and well-proportioned features; some, too, are found of perfect beauty; they are full of vivacity, and have especially an easy, free and agreeable presence.”

In 2002, Bendyshe’s version of this text was used by American historian Bruce Dain to argue that Blumenbach “found black skin repugnant,” yet he “could see fineness in relative terms. Round-headed, black, full-featured people could be beautifully, finely made, hence highly intelligent.” Dain’s statement was mistaken in a number of respects. First, Dain uncritically accepted Bendyshe’s warped translation as being an accurate reflection of Blumenbach’s views. Then Dain used this mistranslation to suggest that Blumenbach equated physical beauty with intelligence, an idea that would have sat well with Blumenbach’s intellectual arch rival Christophe Meiners, but not Blumenbach. Lastly, Dain assumed that Blumenbach, writing in 18th century Germany, defined the word beautiful (or its German equivalent,) the same way that we do in 21st Century America. And that leads to the question, how exactly did Blumenbach define beauty way back then?

When Blumenbach said that the Georgians were the most beautiful people on earth, did he mean that they were like the kind of ravishingly gorgeous women and brutally handsome men who grace the magazines that I see while in line at the grocery store? Or was Blumenbach referring to another form of beauty? After all, other things that can be beautiful, like a sunset, an insect’s diaphanous wing, the interior of a cathedral, or a screaming newborn child. Perhaps Blumenbach, the biologist and anatomist, was impressed by the structure of the Georgian’s physiology, just as he might be impressed by the tail feathers of a peacock.

In Figure 6, I have listed all of the instances that I was able to find in which Bendyshe used the word beautiful when translating passages from De Generis of 1776. As the figure shows, Bendyshe translated two Latin words, elegans and exellentem, as beautiful.

D2-12_F6Figure 7 lists instances where Bendyshe used the words beautiful, handsome, or becoming when translating De Generis of 1795. In these passages, the Latin word pulcher is translated as beautiful in three places. The words venustus is rendered as beautiful in two instances, but appears as handsome only once. Adding these three words to the two words noted (above elegans and exellentem), we now have five words that Bendyshe translated as beautiful. Unfortunately, I have no way to determine exactly what these five Latin words meant in the form of Latin used by German scholars in the 18th century. However, I am wary enough to suggest that they may not have the exact same meaning they do today.

D2-12_F7There is currently no way to know what English words Blumenbach would have used to describe all the different Latin terms describing beauty or attractiveness. However, Blumenbach did published one paper in English, in which he used but one word that related to aesthetics. Blumenbach had proficiency in English but was not totally fluent in it. Thus, the following quote represents Blumenbach’s direct un-translated writing, a rare occurrence in this or any of the other English-language books that discuss him (with my bold):
“The maxilla were sensibly prominent, but by no means so much as in a true Guinea face; and not more so than is often seen on handsome negroes, and not seldom on European countenances.”

In this passage, Blumenbach is describing the face of a mummy which he had examined while visiting England. He is saying that its face was prognathic, with a mouth and teeth that jutted out. However, this mummy’s face was not as prognathic as is common in black Africans from Guinea. Blumenbach’s conclusion was that this mummy had a mouth that was like the mouths found in some Europeans and in “handsome negros,” a term which requires some investigation. I cannot determine if Blumenbach was using the term negro to mean all blacks everywhere, or only West Africans who were not from Guinea. It is also possible that he was referring to only people from Negroland, which in this context would likely be Senegambia. Regardless, Blumenbach stated that these “negros” were handsome, a word that is currently used to describe an attractive man, rather than an infant or a sunset. However, handsome had a somewhat different meaning in Blumenbach’s day. In 1802, Samuel Johnsons’ dictionary defined it this way:

“HANDSOME. Adj. [handsaem, Dutch, ready, dexterous.] 1. Ready; gainly; convenient… 2. Beautiful with dignity; graceful… 3. Elegant; graceful… 4 Ample; liberal, as a handsome fortune… 5. Generous; noble as a handsome action.”

In 1825, Richard Thomas Gore translated Blumenbach’s A Manual of the Elements of Natural History, which was originally written in German. Gore was a British surgeon and anatomist who I regard as the most qualified translator of Blumenbach, of any century. Gore’s translation of A Manual of the Elements of Natural History provides an excellent summary of Blumenbach’s world view during the latter part of his career. I was able to find the word beauty twelve times this document, but only once did it refer to humans, as shown below (with my bold):

“1 THE CAUCASIAN RACE
(Abbild. Nat. Hist. Gegenst. Tab. 3 and 51)
Colour more or less white; with florid cheeks, hair long, soft, and brown (running on the one hand into white, on the other into black); according to the European ideas of beauty, the form of the face and skull most perfect. It includes all the Europeans, with the exception of the Laplanders; the western Asiatics on this side of the Ob, the Caspian Sea and the Ganges; lastly, the northern Africans; altogether the inhabitants of the world known by the ancient Grecians and Romans.”
To double check Gore, I had my 2014 Translator translate the same text that Gore did. My 2014 Translator came up with a similar rendering, although he more closely followed Blumenbach’s sentence structure:

“The Europeans, with the exception of the Lapps and other actual Finns and the West Asians, on this side of the Ob, the Caspian Sea and the Ganges, together with the North Africans. In a word, approximately the inhabitants of the world known to the ancient Greeks and Romans. They are more or less white in color, with red cheeks, and, according to the European concepts of beauty, they are the best formed humans in the shape of their face and skull.

Both of these translations include the key phrase “according to the European ideas/concepts of beauty,” which in the original German is “der nach den europaischen Begriffen von schonheit.” This text suggests that when Blumenbach wrote that Europeans were beautiful, he was qualifying it by noting that such beauty was based on the arbitrary standards set by Europeans. In 1810, Blumenbach also emphasized the arbitrary nature of beauty. At that time, he published the German text shown in Figure 8, which is not a translation from Latin.
D2-12_F8I provided this text and the paragraph that followed it to my 2014 Translator. His translation reads (with Blumenbach’s italics and my bold):
“Jusuf Aguiah Efendi: As a representative of the Caucasian race, to which the best formed humans – according to our concepts of beauty – belong, I could have therefore just as properly cited any other particularly regularly formed European, a MILTON or a RAPHAEL and the like; however, I have selected this respected man who, as is well known, is now in London as an envoy from the Ottoman Port, because his homeland is located nearer to the Caucasus, from which this whole race takes its name, and in the vicinity of which it was likewise originally at home.”

What is striking about the sentence shown in Figure 8 is that Blumenbach emphasized the word unsern which means our by placing it in italics. It appears that he is indicating that beauty is subjective and not a quantifiable fact. Perhaps Blumenbach’s discussion of the arbitrary nature of beauty was a back-handed insult of his fellow professors who assumed their own race was the most beautiful. This jibe may have even been focused on his intellectual arch foe, Christophe Meiners, who regarded all of humanity as divided into either ugly races or beautiful races. Such a subtle dig at blithely bigoted intellectuals would be consistent with Blumenbach’s oft quoted satire of race chauvinists: “If a toad could speak, and were asked which was the loveliest creature upon God’s earth, it would say simpering, that modesty forbade it to give a real opinion on that point.”
In summary, Blumenbach was not obsessed by beauty, but his translator, Thomas Bendyshe sure was.

 

Blumenbach was an Anti-Racist: His 19th Century Racist Translator Fooled Schiebinger and Gould

This blog is based on text from Chapter 21 of my book, a pdf of which is posted on this webpage. Detailed footnotes and citations are presented in the pdf. The author does not support racism, eugenics, or even the existence of biologically distinct human races. However, to maintain historical accuracy, this blog uses outdated and sometimes offensive ethnic terms found in historic documents. No offense is intended.

Throughout my book, I have stressed how in 1865, Thomas Bendyshe published a racist mistranslation of Blumenbach’s anti-racist writings which led 20th century authors to incorrectly assume that Blumenbach harbored a white supremacist racial bias, at least early in his career. My initial suspicion that Blumenbach was mistranslated by Bendyshe led me to seek out the services of a professional Latin translator. In 2014, I was fortunate enough to hire a professional translation firm, Shillenn LLC, whom I will henceforth refer to as my 2014 Translator. Because my 2014 Translator spoke both German and Latin, he was able to inform me that Blumenbach’s Latin grammar was a little bit too Germanic. When Blumenbach composed his sentences in Latin, he would sometimes write the words out in the order in which they would appear if he were writing in German. In a sense, you could say that he wrote Latin with a German accent.

My 2014 Translator translated a number of passages from Blumenbach’s works that I suspected were mistranslated by Bendyshe. Before I discuss them, I need to briefly explain that within Blumenbach’s original text a “§” symbol was used to denote a chapter, thus § 62 refers to Chapter 62. Most of the chapters in De Generis of 1795 are just a few paragraphs long. In modern terms, they would be called sections. The image below is taken from Blumenbach’s original text which was bound into a book about the size of a small paperback you might buy in an airport. This image presents one entire page of what is a five-and-a half page chapter.

Dec14_Blog-F1My 2014 Translator’s rendering of the above text included a phrase of utmost importance which I have put in bold:

Ҥ 81. Five principal varieties of the human species established

However, since from among the arbitrary bases for these kinds of divisions, one may be said to stand out and to be preferred over the other, after all things have been considered at length at with care, the whole human species, to the extent it has become known to us, as it seems to me, can be divided, in a manner that is most fitting to truth of nature itself, into the five following varieties and distinguished from one another with the [following] names:
A) Caucasian,
B) Mongolian,
C) Ethiopian,
D) American and
E) Malayan.

I have placed the Caucasian [variety] as being in the first place because of being the original one, for the reasons that will be explained below.

This [variety] went off into two extremes that are furthest removed and most different from one another; namely in one direction into the Mongolian variety and into the other direction into the Ethiopian variety. The median positions between the primeval variety and these extreme varieties are held by the remaining two varieties; The American [variety] namely between the Caucasian and the Mongolian; And the Malayan [variety] between this same Caucasian [variety] and the Ethiopian [variety].”

In his text, Blumenbach explains that there are a number of different classification systems (or arbitrary bases) that a scholar can use to classify human beings. However, in Blumenbach’s opinion, only one of these classification systems “may be said to stand out and to be preferred over the other.” In other words, he is being a bit egotistical in stating that there are many classification systems, but the only one that is worth following is the one Blumenbach himself has created. Unfortunately, when Bendyshe translated this text he came up with a markedly different interpretation. According to Bendyshe, it is not Blumenbach’s system that is the preferred of all systems, but rather is the Caucasian race that is the preferred of all races.
Dec14_Blog-F2By mistranslating just one sentence – either by accident or on purpose – Bendyshe made it appear that Blumenbach held Europeans to be superior to all other races, which was not true. To reiterate, while Blumenbach is saying that one method of classifying races is better than the other, Bendyshe is saying one race is better than the others.
The 2014 translation of Blumenbach also includes a phrase which differs significantly from Bendyshe’s as noted below (with my bold):

Dec14_Blog-F3The version of this passage as translated by my 2014 Translator indicates that Blumenbach is admitting that his five part classification system is a concoction of his own mind (to paraphrase Camper). Blumenbach accepts that his own man-made system is not perfect, but rather it is “most fitting” to nature. The validity of my 2014 Translator’s text is supported by a passage Blumenbach wrote himself in his only English publication (with my bold):

“Adopting, as I think it conformable to nature, five races of the human species, viz. 1. the Caucasian; 2. the Mongolian; 3. the Malay; 4. the Ethiopian; 5. the American; I think the Egyptians will find their place between the Caucasian and the Ethiopian, but that they differ from none more than from the Mongolian, to which the Chinese belong.”

In this English text, we can see that Blumenbach was not brashly declaring to all comers that he had discovered a natural phenomenon that anyone could see. Rather, he used the wiggle words “as I think it conformable,” so as to hammer home that this was only his own view of nature , as opposed to a clear-cut characteristic of nature, such as ice is solid and water is liquid. However, Bendyshe’s translation implies that Blumenbach was claiming to have discovered a naturally existing pattern actually found in nature. Bendyshe mistranslated this passage to make it appear as if Blumenbach was stating the exact opposite of what Blumenbach intended. In summary, Blumenbach was saying that races were not naturally isolated units, while Bendyshe was saying that they were.

Simply put, Blumenbach was an anti-Racist whose research stands apart from that of most his contemporaries, most of whom were indeed over racists. Schiebinger’s and Gould’s contentions that Blumenbach’s work was tainted by racism are ungrounded because they were based on evidence that was fraudulently manufactured by Thomas Bendyshe in 1865.

Blumenbach’s Racial Spectrum Theory: Not Just Five “Races”

This blog is based on text from Chapter 1 of my book, a pdf of which is posted on this webpage. Detailed footnotes and citations are presented in the pdf. The author does not support racism, eugenics, or even the existence of biologically distinct human races. However, to maintain historical accuracy, this blog uses outdated and sometimes offensive ethnic terms found in historic documents. No offense is intended.

During his lifetime, Blumenbach became famous for his collection of over 100 human skulls from throughout the world. But he also sought out to different kinds of people in the flesh to observe how they behaved. Once while visiting the international port city of Amsterdam, Blumenbach made a point of observing “twenty one living Chinese.” He also collected pictures and paintings to see how they dressed and lived. Blumenbach noted that there were many drawings available depicting exotic peoples, but “when they are critically examined, very few are found which you can trust.” His drawings included a Turkish woman, two Chinese sailors, a “Boshman with wife and child,” a Native American from Tierra Del Fuego and a “New Zealand chief.” It was as if he was studying the wings of sparrows, but instead of simply dissecting wings, he collected paintings of them and, whenever possible, he went outside and took notes on how they flew. It was not enough observe their bones. Blumenbach wanted to see pictures of them and words written by them.

In 1810, Blumenbach’s presented parts of his collection in Abbildungen Naturhistorischer Gegenstände (Illustrations of Objects from Natural History). True to its title, it is chock-full of pen and ink illustrations like those in Figure 1.

Dec14-Mastadon ToothThis document is essentially an atlas of pictures representing everything from anthills and fossils, to domesticated dogs and newly hatched reptiles. It is not so much a field guide as a portable museum. This book also included illustrations of what he called the five varieties of humankind, as seen in Figure 2. In some of his publications, he used the word races instead of varieties. It is possible that he defined the word race to be a lineage or branch of humankind, and not a distinct unrelated group which is how race is defined today. I will discuss this somewhat confusing nomenclature in more detail in later blogs.

Dec14-Blum5FacesThe five portraits shown in Figure 2 were presented on six separate pages in the order that they are presented in the figure. The Mongolian was on the first page followed by the American, and so on. They were, in a sense, “field view” examples of Blumenbach’s different varieties, and all of them are presented in a dignified manner.

For Blumenbach, these pictures were not illustrations of anonymous biological samples, but real people with names. As a result, we can now scour historic records to find out something about who they were, how they lived (their habitus), and why Blumenbach chose them to be quintessential examples of their race.

The first picture depicts the dapper Fedor Iwanowtisch (1765-1832) who likely came from what is now far eastern Russia or one of its neighboring Asian republics. He was a successful illustrator born to the Calmuk people, now known as the Oirats, who are the western-most population of Mongols. As a child, Iwanowtisch was said to have been captured or enslaved by Cossacks, and later adopted by a Russian family of means. Trained as an artist, he studied in Rome for seven years, and later traveled to Greece with Thomas Bruce (1766-1741) the Earl Elgin, remembered mostly for bringing the Elgin Marbles to England.[1] In a way, Iwanowtisch was like Phillis Wheatley, but with a happy ending.

The second picture is Tayadanuga (1743-1807), a famous Mohawk chief, now known as Theyendanega or Joseph Brant. As the son of an influential chief who was allied with the British troops in colonial New York, Theyendanega was educated in the English system. He became a staunch supporter of the British during the American Revolution.The third image is that of Jusaf Aguia Efendie (1744-1824), now known as Yusuf Agah Efendi. He was the first Ottoman ambassador to England from 1793 to 1797.His weathered face and central Asian ethnicity will become important later on when I discuss how Blumenbach’s old fashioned definition of beauty, may or may not have differed from the definition we use today.

The handsome turban-clad Polynesian in the fourth picture is Omia (c.1751-1780), also called Mia or O’Mia. This young man traveled from his native Tahiti to Britain with Captain Cook’s flotilla. He charmed King George III (1738-1820) and London society with his exotic ways, his politeness, and his intelligent, inquisitive manner. He later returned to Tahiti and gave fine gifts to his people. Through this action, Omia antagonized the local chiefs, who looked bad by comparison to this young upstart of un-chiefly birth. He died before the age of thirty of an infectious disease, as was common for many south sea islanders who came in contact with Europeans. In Hawaii, the epidemic of 1832-1833 and the whooping cough and influenza epidemic of 1848-1849 each killed 10,000. The 1853 small pox epidemic killed at least 2,800 and probably more. It is estimated that prior to Cook’s arrival there were 400,000 to 800,000 native Hawaiians. By 1823, there were fewer than 135,000 and only 23,000 by 1919.

The fifth portrait is that of the formally-attired Jacobus Elisa Capitein (1718-1747), a Ghanaian slave who was taken to the Netherlands as a child and adopted as a son by his master. He excelled at school and became the first native African to graduate from the Dutch university. Capitein was a supporter of slavery, noting that it was consistent with Christian principles. He became a missionary in Ghana, but was unsuccessful since he was too Dutch to be accepted by his ancestral people. His attempt to marry a Ghanaian was stifled because she was not a Christian. He subsequently married a Dutch woman, and in his later years suffered ill-health and debt. In the late 18th century, his life story and scholarly talents were cited by those who supported racial equality. However, his later failures in life were cited by those who opposed it.

What is distinctive about these five portraits is that they all treat their subjects with equanimity. The Asian is not a weak-willed peasant, the American is not a painted savage, and the Caucasian is not a Nordic superman. The Polynesian is not a wild-eyed cannibal nor is the African a sub-human semi-ape. These drawings are not stereotypes. They are men, presented in the respectful way that Blumenbach intended. The common denominator linking all these people is that they were able to function and flourish in the highest echelons of white European (or European American) society, despite being born in exotic locales, thousands of miles away from each other. Through these examples, Blumenbach is showing us that it is the environment that shapes human beings. Give a barbarian child a book, and she will grow up to be become a civilized individual. Savagery is not an inherited condition, and so, neither is civilization.

The text Blumenbach wrote when first describing the five portraits presented in his 1810 book reads:

“Die physiognomischen Unterscheidungs zeichen dieser 5 Rassen habe ich in der 3ten Ausgabe der Schrift de generis humani varietate nativa S. 177 u. f. ausführlich angegeben; wo auch 5 musterhafte Schedel von denselben aus meiner Sammlung abgebildet sind, die man mit den gegenwärtigen 5 Porträts vergleichen kann.

Hier nur soviel: Die Caucasische Rasse ist nach allen physiologischen und historischen Datis wahrscheinlich der Urstamm, der mit der Zeit durch die verschiedenen Ursachen der Degeneration in die beiden Extreme, nämlich einerseits in die Mongolische B. mit dem platten Gesichte; und anderseits in die Aethiopische mit den prominirenden Kiefern, ausgeartet.

Translating Blumenbach’s work is difficult, and much of what he wrote is still not available in English or even modern German. I was unable to find a translation of his above text. Thus, I took a crack at it myself, using my high school knowledge of German, an on-line translator, and my undergraduate experience measuring a collection of 201 human skulls from throughout the world.

As far as I can tell, Blumenbach was noting that the five pictures presented in Figure 2 where good examples of the five major varieties of human beings. He suggested these five portraits should be compared with five skulls of each race that he had already discussed in a previous publication. Blumenbach also said that all the available evidence suggested that Caucasian race (or lineage) is probably the ancestral strain of all the forms of human kind. He went on to propose that there were various factors (not just one) that caused Caucasians to derivate – what we would now call evolve – into all the other races. He stated that the two races whose skulls are most different from Caucasians are the Mongolian and the Ethiopian, by which he meant West African. According to Blumenbach, the Mongolian skull has a flat face relative to the face of the Caucasian skull. Conversely, the Ethiopian skull has a more protruding upper and lower jaw than does the Caucasian. Thus Caucasian skulls have a face with a somewhat protruding jaw that is intermediate between the two other extremes.

Confused? Well, you should be. In this passage, Blumenbach is saying that the portraits of the five men can be compared to the illustrations of five skulls that he had published 35 years earlier in his anthropological masterwork De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa, 3rd Edition (which I will henceforth refer to as De Generis of 1795).. This book was a pioneering examination of human diversity and it was written in Blumenbach’s characteristically tortuous Latin. Its title translates as The Human Race’s Natural Variety. However the book has since come to be known as On the Natural Varieties of Mankind. The book itself, (I’ve paged through an original copy) is about six inches tall and four inches wide, about like a modern day field guide. It has no pictures, except for some plates at the very end. These pen and ink illustrations of five skulls, as shown in Figure 3 below, fold out like a map. You can see darkened lines where the paper was folded accordion style. These are the skulls that Blumenbach was comparing to the five portraits.

Dec14-Blum5SkullsIn this drawing, the five skulls are labeled (from left to right) Tungusae, Caribaci, Feminae Georgianae, Otaheitae, and Aethiopissae. Translated in to English, these terms are respectively: Tungus (a native Siberian people), Carib (the Kalingo Indians of the Caribbean Islands ), Female Georgian, Tahitian, and Ethiopian. These were presented as examples of the five primary varieties that Blumenbach called Mongolian, American, Caucasian, Malay, and Ethiopian. Blumenbach has been cited by both Gould and Bruce Dain as having “invented” the name Caucasian to describe Europeans, Middle Easterners, and South Asians. In fact, Blumenbach’s university colleague Christoph Meiners had previously used it. It would be more accurate to say that Blumenbach popularized the term.

Blumenbach’s Malay Variety was not what we would now call Malaysians, but rather a group encompassing Polynesians, Indonesians, Australians, and other peoples of the South Pacific. Blumenbach’s description of these skulls (as translated from Latin into English by Bendyshe) reads:

“Five very select skulls of my collection, to demonstrate the diversity of the five principal human races.

Fig. 1. A Tungus, one of those commonly called the Reindeer Tungus. His name was Tschewin Amureew, of the family of Gilgagirsk. He lived about 350 versts (sic) from the city Bargus; and cut his own throat in 1791. Schilling, the head army surgeon was sent thence by Werchnelldinski, to make a legal inquiry as to the cause of his death; he brought back the skull with his own hand and gave it to Baron de Asch.

Fig. 2. The head of a Carib chief who died at St Vincent eight years ago, and whose bones, at the request of Banks, were dug up there by Anderson, the head of the royal garden in that island.

Fig. 3. A young Georgian female, made captive in the last Turkish war by the Russians, and brought to Muscovy. There she died suddenly and an examination was made of the cause of death by Hiltebrandt, the most learned anatomical professor in Russia. He carefully preserved the skull for the extreme elegance of its shape, and sent it to St. Petersburg to de Asch.

Fig. 4. The skull of a Tahitian female, brought at the request of Banks by the brave and energetic Captain Bligh, on his return from his famous voyage, during which he transported with the greatest success stocks of the bread-fruit tree from the Society Islands to the East Indies.

Fig. 5. An Ethiopian female of Guinea, the concubine of a Dutchman, who died at Amsterdam in her 28th year. She was dissected by Steph. Jo. Van Geuns, the learned professor at Utrecht.”

Bendyshe’s translation has Blumenbach saying that there were five “principle human races,” but the original Latin is humani varitatum principalum or “main varieties of human.” Blumenbach was not saying that there were only five races. Rather, he was proposing that there were five main types (which is to say large populations) of humans. There were other “types” as well, but they were not as populous. Blumenbach’s notion that there were five types of human beings was largely accepted throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century. However, his idea that races were parts of one single unit did not break through into the public consciousness. The average man on the street viewed Blumenbach’s five groupings as five distinct and separate races. In many respects, these classes are still with us today. In terms of common usage, these can be described as red, yellow, black, white, and brown (although in America, brown tends to mean Hispanic). This simple racial color scheme still survives in the children’s song I learned in church school: “Jesus loves the little children, All the little children of the world, Red and yellow, black or white, All are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

However, Blumenbach never proposed that there are five (or four) distinct races of humanity. For him, the “Innumerable varieties of mankind run into one other by insensible degrees.” Blumenbach’s original Latin text used the term gradation invicem confluent (gradations into each other flow). With this language, he was proposing that races are much like the currents that course through the oceans of the world. One race gradually merges with the next just like the Atlantic Ocean gradually merges with the Pacific below the tip of South America. Ask yourself how many oceans there are, and you might come up with five to seven answers. But the only true answer is one, because there is but one body of salt water covering the earth. In theory, a heavy-duty rubber ducky dropped into any of the earth’s coastal waters could eventually float through all of them.

By his own admission, Blumenbach viewed his five-fold classification system as being imperfect, although – not surprisingly – he viewed his own system as being the best one available. And in a way, his classification did not have five divisions, but ten. He proposed that each of his five main varieties could be further divided into two subgroups, which can be charted out as seen in Figure 4. In this figure, I added text in italics to show how Blumenbach’s ten part subdivisions tend to be broken down in east-west or north-south divisions. Furthermore, Blumenbach regarded Egyptians as belonging to neither Caucasian nor the Ethiopian variety but rather as a “linking” group that joins the two, much as an isthmus joins two continents. Similarly, he regarded central Asian Cossacks as links between, but not belonging to, the Caucasian and Mongolian varieties. Joining the Mongolians and the Native American were the “Eskimotae.”

Dec14-Blum10RaceTableWhen viewed at this ten-part subdivision level, Blumenbach’s system looks less like a number of distinct categories and instead takes on the feature of a gradually changing continuum. Using modern terminology, I shall refer to Blumenbach’s system as a “racial spectrum” which is much like the color spectrum (infrared, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, and ultraviolet), all of which are wavelengths that transition into each other. This gradual change of traits from place to place is common in the natural world. Zoologists refer to such incremental geographical variation as a cline, but I am not going to use that word because most people are unfamiliar with it. Instead I will use spectrum.

My use of the word spectrum to describe human racial variation draws from the 1990 anthropological research of C. Loren Brace in which he compared measurements of the teeth and facial bones of 57 human populations. He wrote that, “there is a spectrum of variation in humans that is “rarely taken into account in appraisals of human evolution in general and individual fossil specimens in particular.” His findings were that, among the populations he measured, there were a range of tooth sizes, with Europeans having the smallest and native Australians having the largest teeth. And yet, Brace noted, centuries’ worth of contact (like sexual intercourse and blood transfusions) between Europeans and native Australians show beyond any shadow of a doubt that they are the same species. He cautioned:

“There is almost certainly some ethnocentrism inherent in viewing the spectrum as running from Europe to Australia, but this quite literally does extend from one geographical extreme of the earth to the other, and, dentally at least, the Australian aborigines can legitimately stand for a morphological extreme in contemporary H. sapiens and Europeans come quite close to representing their antithesis.”

In many ways, Brace’s 20th century lab-based finding of what he called a spectrum of traits has a strong parallel in Blumenbach’s 18th century observations. What is more important is that both these men came up with the same overall conclusions independently. Due to this more-or-less confirmation of Blumenbach’s ideas, I feel comfortable referring to Blumenbach’s concept as a racial spectrum, even though he did not use those words. It would appear they were both observing the same naturally occurring phenomenon: a cline.

A good analogy to explain the way in which Blumenbach viewed human populations involves the flow of water through a river system. For example, the Mississippi River down in New Orleans received its waters from other major rivers like the Ohio, the Illinois, and the Missouri. These rivers are also fed by branches of smaller rivers that collect water from creeks, streams, and ultimately tiny intermittent rivulets. All of these waterways are part of one interconnected network that together form a drainage basin. For Blumenbach, the notion that Negros and Caucasians were entirely separated sub-species would be as silly as saying the Ohio River and the Mississippi River were completely unconnected. And just as the Ohio River is home to some fish that cannot be found in the Mississippi, so Kenyans have some traits, like brown skin, that Austrians do not possesses. And yet Kenyans and Austrians are connected via the brown-skinned Ethiopians and Egyptians, the tan-skinned Lebanese and Greeks, and the Balkan peoples who live between Greece and Austria.

Blumenbach did not believe that there were separate races. Nor did he suggest, like 20th century British-American anthropologist Ashley Montague (1905-1999) and others, that race was a biologically invalid concept that simply does not exist. But then again, comparing Blumenbach’s ideas with Montague’s is not entirely fair, because they were living in different places and times. The definition of race that Blumenbach used in early 19th century Germany was not the same as was used later authors, from Adolph Hitler (1889-1945) in the 1920s to Gould or Michael (who is me) in the 1980s. To fully appreciate the vocabulary differences that separated the worlds of Blumenbach and Montague it is essential to know how people have viewed racial variation – or more accurately, ethnic variation within the human racial spectrum – since the days of ancient Egypt. I address this topic in Chapter 2 of my book.