Saturday, June 29, 2013

Still missing the point

Occurrences of ‘Blumenbach’ in published writings. After a peak in the early 19th century, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach faded into the background. He had little influence on the thinking of later anthropologists. (source) 

Stephen Jay Gould believed that the Western world view had been perverted by the racial theorizing of anthropologists in the 18th and 19th centuries, one of them being the American anthropologist Samuel George Morton (1799-1851). Another was his German contemporary Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840):

In the eighteenth century a disastrous shift occurred in the way Westerners perceived races. The man responsible was Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, one of the least racist thinkers of his day.

[…] Blumenbach chose to regard his own European variety as closest to the created ideal and then searched for the subset of Europeans with greatest perfection--the highest of the high, so to speak. As we have seen, he identified the people around Mount Caucasus as the closest embodiments of the original ideal and proceeded to name the entire European race for its finest representatives.

[…] however subjective (and even risible) we view the criterion today, Blumenbach chose physical beauty as his guide to ranking. He simply affirmed that Europeans were most beautiful, with Caucasians as the most comely of all.

[…] Where would Hitler have been without racism, Jefferson without liberty? Blumenbach lived as a cloistered professor all his life, but his ideas have reverberated in ways that he never could have anticipated, through our wars, our social upheavals, our sufferings, and our hopes. (Gould, 1994)

As Gould himself noted, Blumenbach denied that human populations differ in mental capacity. In this, he was less racist than many other people of his day. But he did posit differences in sexual beauty, thus ultimately leading humanity to … Hitler.

Is this true? Yes, Blumenbach considered Europeans the most attractive of all humans, as we may see in his work De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa:

Caucasian variety. Colour white, cheeks rosy, hair brown or chestnut-coloured [...] In general, that kind of appearance which, according to our opinion of symmetry, we consider most handsome and becoming. (Blumenbach, 1795, p. 265)

Meiners refers all nations to two stocks: (1) handsome, (2) ugly; the first white, the latter dark. He includes in the handsome stock the Celts, Sarmatians, and oriental nations. The ugly stock embraces all the rest of mankind. (Blumenbach, 1795, p. 268)

Caucasian variety. I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighbourhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian; and because all physiological reasons converge to this, that in that region, if anywhere, it seems we ought with the greatest probability to place the autochthones of mankind. For in the first place, that stock displays, as we have seen, the most beautiful form of the skull, from which, as from a mean and primeval type, the others diverge by most easy gradations on both sides to the two ultimate extremes (that is on the one side, the Ethiopian, on the other, the Mongolian) […] (Blumenbach, 1795, p. 269)

These passages, however, covered less than a page out of a tome that ran to 276 pages. Nor did they recount anything new in the academic or popular literature. Blumenbach simply stated what most people of his time believed, as is implied by the above quotes. One likeminded person was the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832):

The white race, with its oval face, long hair, protruding nose, to which the civilized peoples of Europe belong, and which appears to us to be the most beautiful of all races, is also much superior to the others by strength of genius, courage and activity. (Cuvier, 1798, p. 71)

Another was the American President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826):

And is this difference [of color] of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them […] (Jefferson, 1785, p. 265)

Blumenbach did not create a perception that Europeans were more beautiful than other humans. That perception already existed.

Influences on later anthropologists?

But was Blumenbach instrumental in transmitting this perception to later anthropologists? Did he play a pivotal role in creating the racialized mind-set of later times? That, too, is doubtful. There is a chasm between him and his successors. Unlike the latter, he saw human diversity through the lens of the Bible, in particular the story of the Flood. Since Noah’s Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, he reasoned that the inhabitants of that region must closely resemble the humans that God chose to repeople the Earth. From this epicenter of physical perfection, Noah’s descendants spread to other lands and gradually became less perfect in appearance.

This view is quite unlike later ones, which were framed in secular and evolutionary terms. For Blumenbach, change was degenerative, moving from the perfect to the less perfect. Later anthropologists, while accepting the possibility of degenerative change, saw a general trend towards advancement and increasing complexity.

Like others of his time, Blumenbach also believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. If people of any origin share the same climate, diet, and means of existence, they will converge to the same physical type—not through natural selection, but through the direct action of the environment. In this, he was poles apart from later writers, particularly those influenced by Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel.

The chasm between him and later writers can be seen in the occurrence of the term ‘Blumenbach’ in books over the years. After a peak in the early 19th century, references to his name fell into steep decline, long before the publication of Darwin’s Descent of Man in 1871 (Hawks, 2013). That book had only four such references, all of them minor.

Finally, European writers do not assign this German naturalist a key role in the development of racial thinking. In a recent French dictionary on the history of racism, there are entries for such individuals as Bolk, Buffon, Darwin, Gobineau, Haeckel, Nietzsche, and Linnaeus, but none at all for Blumenbach (Taguieff, 2013).

Famous but no real legacy

Blumenbach, though widely respected in his time, made few intellectual contributions that would be both lasting and original, other than his coining of the term ‘Caucasian’ for white folks. What about the notion that the Caucasus is the epicenter of human beauty? It was already in circulation, as seen in this passage by the French traveler Jean Chardin (1643-1713):

[…] the Persian blood is now highly refined by frequent intermixtures with the Georgians and the Circassians, two nations which surpass all the world in personal beauty. There is hardly a man of rank in Persia who is not born of a Georgian or Circassian mother; and even the king himself is commonly sprung, on the female side, from one or other of these countries. As it is long since this mixture commenced, the Persian women have become very handsome and beautiful, though they do not rival the ladies of Georgia (Lawrence, 1848, p. 310)

The Caucasus was the last area where one could freely buy fair-skinned women for marriage or concubinage, typically for clients in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. Previously, the zone of recruitment had been larger, extending into what is now Ukraine and southern Russia. Further back in time, it had covered almost all of Europe. But this earlier page of European history was largely forgotten by Blumenbach’s time.

Blumenbach really had only one original idea. He saw a causal link between the biblical account of the Flood and the beauty of European women, particularly those from the Caucasus. But that single flash of insight would leave no lasting impression on future generations.

More shenanigans …

None of this was pointed out in 1994, when Stephen Jay Gould published his essay on Blumenbach. Or perhaps it was. If a man shouts in a forest and no one listens, did he ever really say anything?

Two years later, Gould incorporated this essay into a new edition of The Mismeasure of Man. Once again, he couldn’t resist the urge to “fudge”:

In 1996, when Gould updated The Mismeasure of Man, he added an article about Blumenbach. It included a drawing of skulls which Gould claimed to be an illustration from one of Blumenbach’s books. In this graphic, a Caucasian skull is situated higher than those of other races. When a paper by University of Tubingen historian Thomas Junker demonstrated that the original drawing placed all the skulls at the same level, Gould blamed the mistake on his editor saying, “I don’t think that I even knew about the figure when I wrote the article, for I worked from a photocopy of Blumenbach’s text alone.” Gould dismissed this error as “inconsequential” and faulted Junker for misstating “the central thesis of my article—a misinterpretation that cannot, I think, be attributed to any lack of clarity on my part.” (Michael, 2013)

One might wonder why Gould missed this error when he got the galley proofs for the new edition. Furthermore, since his errors point in the same direction, one might wonder whether there had been a systematic tendency to distort the facts, either consciously or unconsciously. Wasn’t this the same argument he had made when condemning Samuel George Morton?


Blumenbach, J.F. (1795). De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa, trans. On the Natural Variety of Mankind, 1865, London.

Cuvier, G. (1798). Tableau elementaire de l'histoire naturelle des animaux, Paris.

Gould, S.J. (1994). The Geometer of Race, Discover Magazine, (November 1994), online edition

Jefferson, T. (1785). Notes on the State of Virginia,

Hawks, J. (2013). Blumenbach, Haeckel, Dobzhansky, January 2, John Hawks Weblog,

Lawrence, W. (1848). Lectures on Comparative Anatomy, Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man, London: Henry G. Bohn.

Michael, J.S. (2013). Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel George Morton: A Personal Commentary, Part 4, June. 14,

Taguieff, P.-A. (ed.) (2013). Dictionnaire historique et critique du racisme, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.


Sean said...

Yes, Gould posited unconscious manipulation as a scientific norm, but implicitly he was exempting himself and anyone who agreed with him; skewering physical anthropologists as supremacists, thereby demonstrating he was better than those who constructed hierarchies of humanity. The man had his cake and ate it. A true Living Legend.

Where would Hitler have been without racism? Well he would still have the heroes of Wagner as inspiration. Morover, he would still have had the concept of the Volk, which came from extreme egalitarian and cultural relativist Herder. Admittedly Romantic ideas originated as a reaction against the scientific outlook of the Enlightenment typified by Blumenbach. Without racism Hitler would still have have had the realist rationale for aggression:

"THE edgiest parts of Tragedy are when Mearsheimer presents full-bore rationales for the aggression of Wilhelmine Germany, Nazi Germany, and imperial Japan. The German decision to push for war in 1914 was not a case of wacky strategic ideas pushing a state to start a war it was sure to lose. It was … a calculated risk motivated in large part by Germany’s desire to break its encirclement by the Triple Entente, prevent the growth of Russian power, and become Europe’s hegemon."

One may wonder what Gould, would have done without a concept of racism that was widely accepted in the wider society. It's clear to me Gould was feted,not because he was original, but because he articulated the views of a very influential body of opinion among the higher, the most pacified, reaches of society.

Questioning the reliability of human cognition used to be an argument used against atheists. Gould used it to defend the new foundational belief of Western society.

Anonymous said...

Johann Friedich Blummenbach should be imagined who are a chosen.

Do not know anything about what really happened in World War II.
Blumenbach was not a racist, please stop using the word ugly, you guys invented by the German city of Frankfurt, mankind has lived 98% of his story without that thing, that denies, especially the Europeans, the right all natural and their biological prefer than the other, there is nothing wrong with that.

Sean said...

Insofar as it suited his purpose, Gould was quite the nominalist: "We abstract what we consider the “essence” of an entity, and then arrange our judgments by their degree of similarity to this assumed type"

He switched feet to claim species corresponded to an objective reality, but races did not.

"Species are unique in the Linnaean hierarchy as the only category with such objectivity. All higher units--genera, families, phyla, et cetera--are human conventions [...] subspecies are also partly objective but partly based on human decision. [...] Yet subspecies cannot be irrevocably unique natural populations (like full species) for two reasons: First, the decision to name them rests with human taxonomists, and isn’t solely dictated by nature. Second, they are, by definition, still capable of interbreeding with other subpopulations of the species and are, therefore, impermanent and subject to reamalgamation." See here.

Anonymous said...

Gould was a political activist first and a scientist second.

Anonymous said...

I doubt if it's only ducks:
Nearly every waterfowl season, a hunter brings a photo of a strange duck to a DU biologist and asks, "What kind of duck is this?" Typically, the bird has characteristics of two waterfowl species—the wings of a mallard and the bill of a pintail, for example, or the tail of a wigeon and the profile of a wood duck. Known as hybrids, these birds result from the mating of two different species.
Hybridization, or crossbreeding, occurs when an individual of one species enters the geographic or ecological space of another species, and two individuals mate and produce offspring. Hybridization sometimes results from a mixed-species pairing. A male mallard, for example, will pair with a female black duck and prevent other male black ducks from pairing with that female. But hybridization can also result from forced copulation, where a male of one species forcibly mates with a female of another species.

Waterfowl crossbreed more often than any other family of birds. Scientists have recorded more than 400 hybrid combinations among waterfowl species. Mallards crossbreed with nearly 50 other species, and wood ducks hybridize with a surprising 26 other species. Nearly 20 percent of waterfowl hybrid offspring are capable of reproducing.

In North America, one of the most common wild hybrids results from mallard/pintail breeding. Mallards also commonly crossbreed with black ducks, wigeon, shovelers, cinnamon teal, green-winged teal, and gadwalls.

While hybridization is very rare in the wild, mallards have been known to crossbreed with some 40 waterfowl species...The wood duck, known to have crossbred with as many as 20 other duck species, takes second place in the annals of waterfowl promiscuity.

Sean said...

Mallards force themselves on female Black ducks and intimidate the Black males, but surely they don't have a theory about the superiority of Mallards genes or penes; do human groups need to have a theory to violate the natural rights of others?

Tooby said "To restrict interbreeding is to cut off ones population from the slow influx of spreading favourable mutations being harvested across the species range {...] In Goulds view, most evolutionary change takes place when closely related biological lineages compete, with one surviving and spreading through the others' ranges while the others go extinct...there is not much difference between a incipient species and a 'race' and in Goulds world of sudden genetic revolutions there is not necessarily any difference at all... Gould does intimate that competitive ability between sibling species is often the deciding force"

Gould said WW1 and 2 (and Nam) were the result of Blumenbach (and Haeckel). Yet according to Tooby, Gould was not really arguing against selection at the species level at all. Basically Gould was saying that it was statistical and logical fallacies that caused injustice and enormity. It is not obvious to me that any cultural, ethnic or political unit that ever existed was formed or motivated to commit aggression through an perception of superiority in some quality like beauty or intelligence.

I suppose during interactions individual ducks can be said to have beliefs about the relative formidableness of those they are competing with though.

Peter Fros_ said...

Anon and others,

I'm starting to delete off-topic comments more ruthlessly now. There are other venues for some of the topics you wish to discuss. Please avail yourselves of them.

Autor Desconhecido said...

'''m starting to delete off-topic comments more ruthlessly now. There are other venues for some of the topics you wish to discuss. Please avail yourselves of them.''

My answers are completely related to Gould fraud. To understand why reason one public (or pubic) person lies about very important issues you need go more deep on the topics.
He's not lie because was naive, idealistic or something, but because make part of jewish agenda.
Unfortunatelly you need accept the bad reality or these bad reality some hour will be appear near in your house.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Peter - I suppose you are using open-mindedness on SJG's ???dishonesty as a rhetorical device - but as a professional you must know people who had close dealings with SJG, and can confirm beyond doubt that he was thoroughly dishonest and had no interest in discovering or propagating the truth nor in correcting error?

The evidence on this is as solid and uncontradicted as anything gets, and if it isn't regarded as enough to convict him... well, then we might as well give up on scientific standards altogether.

It is a matter of standards of proof. Within the invisible college, scientists have to prove themselves honest and competent or else they are ignored.

It is not up to other scientists to come up conclusive evidence to legal standards of proof and with no alternative possible explanation that X is dishonest - they are assumed dishonest and incompetent until they show otherwise. And when they are shown to be sloppy or biased, then then *must* acknowledge the fact, publicly, or else that is that for them.

At least, that is how *real* science works. Of course, there is very little of that nowadays.

Among serious and competent scientists actively working in the field, Gould's has been ignored for many decades. Other people's opinions ought not to matter, since they are staking nothing upon them.

Kiwiguy said...

***scientists actively working in the field, Gould's has been ignored for many decades.***

Yes, Robert Wright wrote some scathing essays in the New Republic, Slate
and New Yorker about Gould's dishonesty & incompetence in discussing evolutionary biology
. In the Slate article he wrote:

" It all started in 1990, when I reviewed his book WonderfulLife for the NewRepublic. I argued, basically, that Gould is a fraud. He has convinced the public that he is not merely a great writer, but a great theorist of evolution. Yet, among top-flight evolutionary biologists, Gould is considered a pest--not just a lightweight, but an actively muddled man who has warped the public's understanding of Darwinism.:

Gould apparently ignored the comments but The New Yorker article prompted a response from Gould - not actually bothering to rebut Wright, but just noting his surprise they ran it:

IThis winter, after a brief silence, Wright has come back into Gould's life with a vengeance. To coincide with the publication of Nonzero, Wright has orchestrated a flurry of bylined pieces in The New Republic, Time, and the New York Times. But it was his New Yorker article that drew blood. "Other people have attacked me before," Gould says. "But this was different. I've read The New Yorker my whole life; I consider it a friend. And this did feel, emotionally, like a betrayal by a friend...

Gould, meanwhile, doesn't feel like the winner. "I still can't understand why The New Yorker ran that article," he says. And though he's been asked to review Wright's book, so far he has declined the invitation."

Peter Fros_ said...

Autor Desconhecido,

As the owner of this blog, I get to decide what is off-topic. Not you.

'Peter Frost' isn't a pseudonym. It corresponds to a real person who publishes under his own name. I thus assume the consequences of what I write, and some of those consequences can be quite negative. I can deal with that. But I don't see why I should suffer for stupid things that anonymous commenters write.

Lately, I've been getting a lot of extreme comments on my blog. You're not doing me a favor by writing such comments, although for you that might be a feature not a bug.

If this continues, I'll have to impose comment moderation. Will that be necessary?

Thomas said...

Dear Mr. Frost,

I would like to know if you would be interested in being interviewed for a documentary about men, women, sexual attraction and sexual selection. I could not find any contact in your webpage, so I am writing here hoping that you may see it. You may write back to me privately at, or let me know in which email address I can reach you, in case that you are interested. It would be very short, perhaps primarily by email and eventually filmed with a small video camera. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

The female sex drive

Of course, it is going to be modified by selection ...

Of course, females are in a difficult position. Any open displays of sexuality is likely to be mistaken by the wrong sort of males ... life is so hard.

Anonymous said...

I used to read a lot of Gould's books, but one day I woke up and realized that he was a charlatan.

The Flying Mangos said...

A recent 2017 study has documented that the English translations of Blumenbach were faulty. Thus Gould's evaluation and that of many others were based on bad translations. See here: