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 http://discovermagazine.com/1994/nov/thegeometerofrac441#.UOGEqXcdOZQ
Jefferson, T. (1785). Notes on the State of Virginia, http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=JefVirg.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=14&division=div1
Hawks, J. (2013). Blumenbach, Haeckel, Dobzhansky, January 2, John Hawks Weblog,http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/history/biology/blumenbach-haeckel-dobzhansky-2013.html
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, Michael1988.comhttp://michael1988.com/?p=203
Taguieff, P.-A. (ed.) (2013). Dictionnaire historique et critique du racisme, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.