Part 3: How Blumenbach & Morton Got Stereotyped

(You can read the complete pdf of the Part 3 Introduction here: Blumenbach Part3_Intro_vW. The first few paragraphs of this section, without the footnotes, is presented below.)

In many ways, this book is like a criminal trial. I am the defense lawyer, trying to convince the jury that my client, Blumenbach, has been slandered on two occasions: first in the 19th century by Dr. Samuel George Morton and Thomas Bendyshe, and then again in the 20th century by Prof. Stephen Jay Gould. This is not the first time Gould has been accused of such slander. In 2011, he was accused of misrepresenting Morton’s research. Gould’s career was dogged by critics and personal enemies who claimed he twisted facts and told half-truths to support his left-wing viewpoints. In the last part of this book, I will address Gould, and what I see as his willingness to cherry pick evidence to promote his own celebrity, more so than his ideology. But for now, I want to discuss the rather inaccurate narrative that Gould and his admirers told about Blumenbach. This discussion will also involve Morton, who was regarded by his well-placed associates as a kind of American Blumenbach. I will also introduce a number of other 19th century white supremacists who, the narrative would have us believe, were carrying on Blumenbach’s supposedly racist research and ideas.

It is tempting to refer to the inaccurate narrative about Blumenbach and Morton as “Gould’s Narrative,” but that would not be fair. Although Gould wrote two influential articles about Blumenbach and Morton, both of which were, to be blunt, based on a paucity of historical evidence much of whose importance was grossly exaggerated, Gould was just one of many authors to disseminate and refine this narrative. Was Gould the celebrity scientist to blame because his star-struck editors and peer reviewers failed to thoroughly back check his work? Indeed, the mistreatment of Blumenbach was as much a failure of the system as it was the lax scholarship of just one man. Gould may have started the process of stereotyping Blumenbach, but the subsequent academic embrace of Gould’s narrative was not his doing. Many well educated people actively chose (and still choose) to uncritically accept Gould’s un-referenced opinions as fact, as if anything a famed Harvard scientist utters must be science.

The foundation of Gould’s argument regarding Blumenbach and Morton was that they were not overtly racist. Rather, they were subconsciously biased, because they lived in a racist culture which, in effect, infected them with racism like a disease they could not shake. But for many of the authors who quoted Gould, the message was much simpler: Blumenbach and Morton were out-and-out racists. Because their research was corrupted by their racism, their findings must be rejected. I will refer to this transformation (or should I say de-generation?) of the tale of Blumenbach and Morton as the 20th Century Narrative, in part because I hope that it will not survive into the 21st Century. Throughout the next # chapters, I will periodically refer to the 20th Century Narrative. I will use this term when describing Blumenbach’s research and how it was hijacked by Morton, who was indeed a racist, but not quite the kind described by the 20th Century Narrative.

Although differing authors tell variations of the 20th Century Narrative, they tend to share these key inaccuracies:

  • Blumenbach believed in separate and distinct races.
  • Blumenbach believed that Caucasians were pure, and ranked them as superior to other races.
  • Blumenbach believed that non-Caucasians were a degraded branch of the Caucasian race.
  • Blumenbach believed that white skin was beautiful and dark skin was not.
  • Morton carried on Blumenbach’s research, rather than hijacking it.

For example, Australian scholars Ian J. McNiven and Lynette Russell wrote that, “Like Buffon and Blumenbach, Kant believed that the “first [original] race” was “white” and superior.” The book Race, Racism and Science stated that “Like Blumenbach, Morton believed in five distinctly different races.” Historian Ann Fabian described Blumenbach as “Morton’s mentor.” And as I already noted in Chapter 1, Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, wrote that Blumenbach arranged Caucasians, “at the top,” and as a result “contaminated human beings’ understanding of one another over the course of the next three centuries, and still reverberates today.”


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