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Raj Bhopal re-examines the role of perhaps the most important contributor to the scientific concept of race, Blumenbach, whose insights and errors provide important lessons for us today
The biological concept of human races, as subspecies characterised primarily by physique, has a stormy history.1 The consensus after the Second World War—that race is a social construct with minor biological components—is now under academic scrutiny, as illustrated by three advances in biomedical science. Firstly, the mapping of the human genome is enabling the importance of genetics in creating and perpetuating differences between populations to be analysed thoroughly.2 Secondly, personalised medicine has been rejuvenated by pharmacogenomics, which is finding racial classification, for all its weaknesses, a convenient though crude route to understanding differences in drug response. Thirdly, in 2005, the Food and Drug Administration of the United States licensed the drug BiDil (a combination of hydralazine and isosorbide dinitrate) exclusively for the (self defined) black population.3
Meanwhile, in support of race as a social construct, and to counter racism, race equality has been enshrined in international and national laws and in governmental and institutional policies.
Race, and the related and newer concept of ethnicity (subgrouping human populations using cultural and physical features, thereby subsuming race), are prominent in modern multi-ethnic societies.1 Race and racism are topical subjects in the United Kingdom because of the 200th anniversary of the UK’s 1807Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. It is therefore a good time to re-examine the role of perhaps the most important contributor to the scientific concept of race, Blumenbach, whose insights and errors provide important lessons for us today.4
Box 1 summarises some of Blumenbach’s achievements. For this article, I draw largely on Blumenbach’s collected treatises,4 edited by Thomas Bendyshe. This book includes two memoirs on Blumenbach, one by Professor K F H Marx and the other by M Flourens; the first and third editions of Blumenbach’s MD thesis; some other works by Blumenbach; and an essay by Dr John Hunter also on the varieties of humans published in 1775.
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (fig 11)) was born in Gota, Germany, and studied medicine at Jena University and Gottingen University. He graduated in 1775, with his MD thesis “De generis humani varietate nativa (on the natural varieties of mankind).” He was appointed extraordinary professor of medicine at Gottingen University in 1776, aged 24 years, and to a normal professorship a few years later. He continued to work as a professor until his death. In common with other physician-scientists of the time, he was a polymath, and he made major contributions to comparative anatomy and anthropology. He was an outstanding teacher. He published several books on subjects such as physiology, skeletal anatomy, natural history, craniology, and the literary history of medicine. Seventy eight learned societies elected him as a member. He contributed to practical medicine. He was court physician to the king of Great Britain.
Marx’s introduction states that in Blumenbach’s time “negroes and savages” were considered half animal, and the idea of emancipating slaves was alien. While this was an exaggeration, as the emancipation movement was already gathering momentum, it does reflect the ethos of those times. Blumenbach proclaimed, unequivocally, that such people were only separated from other humans by opportunity. This contribution alone is notable. Blumenbach was revered for his humanity and his science, as indicated not only by the two memoirs in Bendyshe’s volume, but also other sources.
Blumenbach’s thesis was published in three editions. In 1775 the first edition discussed four geographically defined varieties of humans, while the second edition in 1881 outlined five geographically defined varieties. He developed this classification further in the third edition, which is the definitive volume, where he provided generic rather than geographical labels.
The first edition starts with the potential of crossing between species and mentions humans mating with animals. Blumenbach found no evidence for this. He concluded that humans are a unique species, with no intermediate forms that are partly non-human. He identified the major unique features of humans as the large brain, speech, erect posture, two free hands, naked skin, and the hymen in women (and possibly menstruation).
Blumenbach’s central question, one of great interest at the time and still rarely discussed in science, was whether contemporary humans comprised one or more species.4 Plurality of human species (polygeny) was the popular view in the 18th century. Blumenbach emphasised the unity of humanity, however. He saw gradations among humans, but no distinct species or subspecies. None the less, in the first edition he ventured to describe—cautiously and somewhat reluctantly—four varieties of humans relating to four geographical regions (box 2). In the second edition in 1781 (also appearing in a footnote in a reprinting of the first edition he identified five varieties of humans relating to five geographical regions (box 2).
Blumenbach attributed differences between these human types—such as variations in stature and colour—largely to climate. He dismissed leucoplakia, a condition characterised by loss of skin pigmentation, as merely a disease and not even a variety of humanity, never mind a subspecies, as Blumenbach interpreted others’ work. He noted that many plants and animals in northern latitudes are white, especially in winter, and also that humans are all born red. Colour, he said, cannot constitute a species or a variety. He attributed the shape of the skull to environmental factors, an observation that threatened the foundations of craniology but was not properly heeded by craniologists (and possibly by himself). He identified the important role that culture plays in changing the body.
The third edition starts with a letter from Blumenbach to Sir Joseph Banks, which clarified the notion that humans have their own order of mammalia, gave credit to Linnaeus for being the first to arrange mankind in certain varieties, and making the argument for fresh thinking on this issue.4 5 He also lists his scientific methods, which include examining skulls, fetuses, hair, anatomical preparations, and pictures and drawings. He is more systematic than in the first edition; for example, the differences between humans and animals are listed as erect position, broad flat pelvis, two hands, and regular close set rows of teeth. He emphasises that no clear cut subdivisions of human species exist, but that the “varieties . . . run into one another by insensible degrees.” None the less, he now discerns five varieties—and these labels have stuck to this day (box 2). The conceptual underpinning of Blumenbach’s classification is largely forgotten and misrepresented, while his classification is mentioned by most people reviewing the topic of race.
He gave examples of people fitting his five varieties. He stated that Turkish and Hindostan women were Caucasians but that people from Bengal and Esquimaux people were Mongolians. He identified New Zealanders (Maoris) as Malays. He thought that Egyptians could be Ethiopian, Indian, or a type with “short chin and prominent eyes.” He was surprised that other people attributed Egyptians to one type. Blumenbach recognised the heterogeneity within populations in one land or nation, something that was overlooked in his time, as it often is now.
Blumenbach put special emphasis on the study of skulls and he reduced a diversity of skulls to five main varieties. The two key plates are reproduced here (figs 22 and 33 (plates III and IV in the treatise)). Surprisingly, although he had noted that environment influenced skull shape, he drew major and firm conclusions from his skulls. He wrote, “The meaning and use of this will easily be seen by an examination of plate III, which represents, by way of specimen, three skulls disposed in the order mentioned. The middle one (2) is a very symmetrical and beautiful one of a Georgian female; on either side are two skulls differing from it in the most opposite way. The one elongated in front, and as it were keeled, is that of an Ethiopian female of Guinea (3); the other dilated outwardly toward the sides, and as it were flattened, is that of a Reindeer Tungus (2). In the first, the margin of the orbits, the beautifully narrowed malar bones, and the mandibles themselves under the bones, are concealed by the periphery of the moderately expanded forehead; in the second, the maxillary bones are compressed laterally, and project; and in the third, the malar bones, placed in nearly the same horizontal plane with the little bones of the nose and the glabella, project enormously, and rise on each side.”
Mostly, Blumenbach’s writing retained a scientific stance, but he exposed his bias on beauty when he wrote that the Causasian skull of a Georgian female was the “most handsome and becoming.” He stated that the most beautiful people live in the Southern slope of Mount Caucasus—that is, the Georgian people. He then speculated on the origins of humans and made his second error, by going beyond the available evidence. White, to quote Blumenbach, “we may fairly assume to have been the primitive colour of mankind.” His reasoning was that it is easy to change from white to brown but not vice versa. Time has shown that this view was wrong.
These errors were not the result of colour prejudice. Blumenbach refuted the notion that Ethiopians were inferior to other races. Blumenbach wrote favourably about “negroes,” extolling their beauty, mental abilities, and achievements in literature and other fields. He pointed to variations in opportunity as the cause of differences. His viewpoint on Africans was out of tune with that of the times6 and more in line with that seen during the movements for civil rights and equality in the 1960s.
Blumenbach wrote, in a pleased tone, that he had made no striking new discovery but had reached a satisfactory conclusion that all humans are one species. His view on the unity of humanity (monogeny) was a timely correction of the erroneous movement claiming that humans comprised several species.6
Blumenbach’s work was a turning point in the history of race and science, although it was nearly 200 years before the lessons were properly absorbed. Blumenbach’s legacy is tarnished by biases and errors, and it teaches us that even great scientists can be led astray by personal views (such as notions about beauty) shaped by the ethos of their times. His original words also show how the simple, clear cut classification of five distinct human races displaced—against Blumenbach’s repeated warnings—the complex reality of gradations and the unity of humanity (including equal potential). Blumenbach’s name has been associated with scientific racism, but his arguments actually undermined racism. Blumenbach could not have foreseen the coming abuse of his ideas and classification in the 19th and (first half of the) 20th centuries.
We continue to struggle with the complexity of the concepts of race and ethnicity, and the resultant imperfect classifications, in our multi-ethnic world.1 Now, Blumenbach’s varieties of humanity can be seen in virtually every major city, and through the visual media, globally. Blumenbach’s thinking, despite its faults, continues to be relevant, inspiring, and illuminating.
A longer version of this article, giving page citations to Blumenthal’s collected treatises, is available on bmj.com
Thanks to Anne Houghton for secretarial assistance, the library of the University of Edinburgh for reproducing Blumenbach’s plates electronically, and Aziz Sheikh and Iain Milne for helpful comments on an earlier draft.
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.