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 However, to maintain historical accuracy, this blog uses outdated and sometimes offensive ethnic terms found in historic documents.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.

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