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Johann Blumenbach: The First Race Scientist

The accepted view is that the scientists of the European Enlightenment got the issue of race badly wrong. In fact, some of them got more right than they are usually given credit for.

· 12 min read
Johann Blumenbach: The First Race Scientist
Johann Blumenbach, Wikimedia

The concept of race, we are often told, is a social construct with no basis in biological reality. Some have argued that it was invented by white Europeans for the express purpose of constructing a racial hierarchy in order to justify slavery. According to cultural critic Kenan Malik, “Racism gave birth to race. The ancestors of today’s African Americans were not enslaved because they were black. They became classified as a distinct, and inferior, race as a means of justifying their enslavement.” This view is even espoused by some scientific institutions.

And yet, by analysing your genome, companies like 23andMe can describe your ancestry, and their reports match people’s own accounts of their racial ancestry to a high degree of accuracy. As humans spread across the globe, they tended to breed within ancestral groups, such that gene flow within groups became greater than gene flow between groups. This led to a pattern of “shared-ancestry clustering” that is still apparent across the world—as a result, we can usually differentiate at a glance between people whose ancestry can be traced back multiple generations in, say, Japan, from those whose ancestors came from Ethiopia or Norway. It is these clusterings that we refer to by the term “race”—a common-language term that predates Enlightenment science.

Despite the fact that there is obviously some biological underpinning to what we call “race,” many people claim that “races” are purely sociological. They argue that races could only be real if they were clearly demarcated, discrete categories and thus countable, or that for races to be real, they must be essentialist categories: i.e., there must be at least one trait shared by all the people of Race A and by no one who is not of Race A.

Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class—A Review
Charles Murray believes in the values of Enlightenment: science and knowledge, truth and progress.

In support of this, leading geneticist Richard Lewontin pointed out that genes vary just as much within a race as between races. While this is true, it does not negate the reality of races. Our ancestry is manifest in correlated patterns of genetic variation, and these correlated patterns are both real and meaningful and reveal our ancestral groupings. Furthermore, while many dismiss race as only skin deep, AI software can discern a patient’s race just by analysing medical X-rays. The AI cannot just be reflecting human bias when it does so, since it is discerning patterns of which human experts are unaware.

Many people believe that the scientists of the European Enlightenment got the issue of race badly wrong because they were motivated by prejudice and racism, and that this irredeemably tainted “race science” from the start. In fact, I would argue that many of them were driven by scientific curiosity and they were both more insightful and more correct than is often supposed.

To make this case, I’m going to focus on the “founding father of anthropology,” Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840), curator of the Museum of Natural History at the Georg August University of Göttingen, and perhaps the foremost “race scientist” of the era. I’ll be quoting from his major works On the Natural Variety of Mankind (three editions, 1775; 1781; 1795) and Contributions to Natural History (1790; 1806), both of which are available in English translation by Thomas Bendyshe, in an 1865 compilation published by the Anthropological Society of London.

Building on Linnaeus’s systematic categorisation of the world’s species, Blumenbach sought to apply a similar scientific analysis to human variation.

One of his primary tasks was to decide whether humans are all one species with a single origin, an idea known as “monogenism.” Blumenbach’s contemporary, Christoph Meiners, among others, argued for a “polygenist” account in which humans originated as several distinct creations (this was prior to Darwin, so a creationist account was taken as a given). But, while Meiners was a philosopher and historian, Blumenbach was a scientist (though the term had not yet been coined): that is, he sought to answer questions of human diversity through a thorough and detailed consideration of the anatomy of both humans and animals. On this, he was an expert: his 1805 Manual of Comparative Anatomy was regarded as the authoritative work on the subject. For Blumenbach, such questions could not be decided on the basis of any one trait alone, but only by considering multiple factors, including skin, hair, eyes, facial appearance, and other features.

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