There is no more contentious issue in the history of racial theory than the legacy of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, and perhaps no figure who regarded his work as less controversial or provocative. Having published the first of what would become many editions of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Göttingen in 1775—the same year Kant published the first version of his essay “Of the Different Human Races”—at the precocious age of twenty-three, Blumenbach became a professor at that institution and remained there the rest of his life. He died in 1840 at the age of 87, the recipient of countless honors, awards, and recognitions from many nations. He is generally regarded as the leading figure in the founding of a scientific concept of race.
A prodigious polymath who made contributions in a wide range of fields, Blumenbach is today best known for his work in natural history, especially physical anthropology, the field established by his dissertation, to which he gave the ambitious title of On the Natural Variety of Mankind. This compendious treatise, which Blumenbach revised for the third and last time in 1795, argued for the essential unity of mankind and the fundamental equality of all peoples, and in so doing threw a line from creationist biology to the evolutionary life-sciences. The book also signals the emergence of a disciplinary approach to knowledge in its concern for precise and consensual definitions in a given field. The selections below are taken from the 1795 edition, which was translated into English in 1865.
Blumenbach was a naturalist but not an atheist. The theory he advanced was founded in the belief that all humans now on earth had descended from Adam and Eve, and represented possible variations rather than discrete groups, and certainly not separate creations. In his dissertation, he categorized the peoples of the earth by geography (Europe, Asia, Africa, North America); in the second edition, he added “Malay,” making five “foremost varieties of mankind.” In the radically revised third edition, in 1795, he changed the basis of his categories to generic varieties, resulting in the five groups of Caucasians (a deeply imprecise but durable term first introduced by Blumenbach and his Göttingen colleague Christoph Meiners), Mongolians, Ethiopians, Americans, and Malays—Linnaeus’ categories, except for the last.
By naming and describing groups, and attributing variation to heredity (following “our great Kant” in this respect), Blumenbach laid the foundation for an organic and hereditary concept of race. This term did not, however, appear in his text. It was not until 1798, when a German translation of the Latin text of his third edition appeared, that “eine Rasse” entered the Blumenbach lexicon, marking the change in Blumenbach’s thinking from an emphasis on geography and climate as agents of human differentiation to a narrower, biological and hereditary, understanding of human diversity. Blumenbach excluded from consideration everything non-physical. As one scholar puts it, the emergence of “race” is “the textual marker of a narrower, biological connotation of a race from a much older semantic slurry.”** What was mere variety in the previous editions became specific varieties, described with the biological metaphors of stock and stem (stirps and stemma), both suggesting descent from an original stock (see Lenoir in Further Reading).
Although a monogenist who rejected the forms of polygenesis being discussed in Germany at that time, Blumenbach considered the Caucasian to be the only true autochthon, the primordial or “primeval” race from which the others “degenerated” (a term that for him meant “deviated”) because it seemed to him far easier for white to become black than the reverse. The agents of degeneration were entirely external rather than biological, and included climate, diet, and mode of life, all of which influenced the “formative force” carried in the “genital liquid,” and caused the production of hybrids or varieties that then reproduced themselves.
The first such variations were the Mongolians and Ethiopians, with the indigenous Americans representing a transition from the Caucasian to the Mongolian and the Malay a transition from the Caucasian to the Ethiopian. By adding the Malay race to Linnaeus’ four, Blumenbach was able to imagine, or to visualize, a race—the Caucasian—that was both original and central, flanked on both sides by degenerated forms. As Stephen Jay Gould says, “By moving from the Linnaean four-race system to his own five-race scheme, Blumenbach radically changed the geometry of human order from a geographically based model without explicit ranking to a double hierarchy of worth, oddly based upon perceived beauty and fanning out in two directions from a Caucasian ideal. . . . a fateful transition in the history of Western science.”*
This argument has become well known, but it is unfortunate that Gould does not remark on a far more consequential difference between Linnaeus and Blumenbach. Where the former could see little difference between the physiology of men and orang-outangs, and located the human difference only in rationality, Blumenbach cited a long list of physical differences both mental and physical, including erect posture and consequent two-handedness, which placed man into a new taxonomic category of “Bimana” as opposed to the quadruped ape (171).
Blumenbach did not identify groups by color. White may have been “the primitive color of mankind,” but Blumenbach noted that all humans are born red, and skin color could not be considered a decisive factor. In a shift of emphasis whose full consequences [see Camper, Morton, and Broca] he could not have anticipated but for which he has been held partly responsible, Blumenbach focused his attention on skull formation, presenting diagrams of skulls from his substantial collection with comments on their relative beauty; from these he concluded that the Caucasian race was the least degenerated. One of the skulls that came to him in 1793 from the Caucasus resembled the skulls of Germans, and on this slender basis Blumenbach identified white Europeans as “Caucasian.” In the figure below, taken from the 1795 third edition, the skull on the left is from an Ethiopian female, the “very symmetrical and beautiful” one in the middle is of a Georgian (“Caucasian”) female, and the one on the right is a “reindeer Tungus” from Manchuria (237).
Blumenbach’s interest in skulls anticipated the subsequent practice of craniometry, which became associated with the school of thought that became known as “scientific racism.” But his conviction of the physical and moral unity of mankind, and his explicit statements about the essential equality of races represented an early stand against any kind of race-ranking, including the form implicit in the concept of the “great chain of being” or the “scale of nature.” Many of his contemporaries, including James Cowles Prichard and Marie-Jean-Pierre Flourens, understood him as an enlightened humanist, as did his most famous student Alexander von Humboldt, who wrote in Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, that, “While we maintain the unity of the human species, we at the same time repel the depressing assumption of superior and inferior races.” In 1799, Blumenbach wrote that “the negroes, in regards to their mental facilities and capacity, are not inferior to the rest of the human race.”***
Blumenbach argued against sharp divisions between human groups and said of his project only that he hoped it would prove “serviceable to the memory to have constituted certain classes into which the men of our planet may be divided” (On the Natural Variety, 100). And yet, the polygenists, including James Hunt, who founded the Anthropological Society of London in 1863 (breaking away from the Ethnological Society founded by Prichard and others), claimed that their conclusions about Negro inferiority were derived from Blumenbach’s notion of degeneration, and from his discovery of physical differences between the races, which they believed were connected to mental and moral differences that justified a ranking of races.
In 1865, the Anthropological Society produced a translation of the text—with none of the illustrations—of the third edition of The Anthropological Treatises of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, with selections translated, or, as has recently been argued, tendentiously mistranslated, from German and Latin by the vice-president of the Society Thomas Bendyshe, a pro-slavery race supremacist (who also translated Bernier’s Voyages), and presented in such a way as to support the group’s conclusions. That publication (which includes as an appendix John Hunter’s “Inaugural Disputation on the Varieties of Man,” an unequivocal rejection of racial ranking) remains the primary English-language source for Blumenbach’s writing. The feature that has drawn most attention is Bendyshe’s frequent translation of terms such as varietas, gens, stemma, and stirps as “race.” Also noteworthy, though, is the list of “Peoples of the World” compiled after Blumenbach’s death by a Göttingen colleague, Rudolf Wagner, and presented as a faithful representation of Blumenbach’s thinking. This list includes forty “Caucasian Races,” twelve “Mongolian Races,” and five “Wooly-haired African Nations”; the transitional groups are presented as “Peoples of the New World,” and include sixteen “Americans” and nine “Malays and South-Sea Islanders” (350-51).
The association of Blumenbach with scientific racism continues into the present era. In 1973, Jacob Bronowski, an eminent mathematician and creator of a popular television series called The Ascent of Man, linked Blumenbach’s collection of skulls to eugenics practices that were “a core of racist, pan-Germanic theory, which was officially by the National Socialist Party.” And in The History of White People (2010), Nell Irvin Painter described Blumenbach as a deeply conflicted thinker whose work was, despite his own professed convictions, deeply implicated with race ranking and even with slavery since the “Caucasian” skull he possessed had belonged to a sex slave (see Painter in Further Reading, 84).
*Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1996), 403, 405.
**Bronwyn Douglas, “Climate to Crania: Science and the Racialization of Human Difference,” in Bronwyn Douglas and Chris Ballard, eds., Foreign Bodies: Oceania and the Science of Race 1750-1940 (Canberra: ANU E Press, 2008), 33-96, 40.
*** Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, “Observations on the Bodily Conformation and Mental Capacities of the Negroes,” Philosophical Magazine 3 (1799): 144–147, 141.
22. Subject proposed. Hitherto we have investigated those things in which man differs from the rest of the animals. Now we come nearer to the primary object of the whole treatise, for we are to inquire of what kind and how great is the natural diversity which separates the races and the multifarious nations of men; and to consider whether the origin of this diversity can be traced to degeneration, or whether it is not so great as to compel us rather to conclude that there is more than one original species of man. Before this can be done, there are two questions which must be considered: First, what is species in zoology? Secondly, how in general a primordial species may degenerate into varieties? and now of each separately.
23. What is species? We say that animals belong to one and the same species, if they agree so well in form and constitution, that those things in which they do differ may have arisen from degeneration. We say that those, on the other hand, are of different species, whose essential difference is such as cannot be explained by the known sources of degeneration, if I may be allowed to use such a word. So far well in the abstract, as they say. Now we come to the real difficulty, which is to set forth the characters by which, in the natural world, we may distinguish mere varieties from genuine species. (188)
[There follows a lengthy consideration of the “formative force” (nisus formativus), a principle of reproduction that is carried by the “genital liquid” and activated by the “kindling of the heat in the egg during the process of incubation.” This force may “sometimes turn aside from its determined direction,” producing monsters or non-fertile hybrids; but under the right circumstances, fertile hybrids may be produced, and reproduced over vast stretches of time, resulting in new “varieties.” (194-95). Blumenbach then considers other sources of species alteration including climate, mode of life, hybrid generation, and disease. In Section III, Blumenbach takes up specific modes of degeneration beginning with an extended discussion of skin color before considering hair, eyes, and the “racial face,” all of which “become mingled, and as it were run together in the offspring from the unions of different varieties of mankind” (233). He then discusses the “racial form” of skulls, criticizing Camper’s “facial line” as misleading, and proposing his own “vertical scale” method of examining skulls from above as an alternative (see illustration, above). He concludes this section with a treatment of racial variations in ears, breasts, and genitals. “It is,” he says, “generally said that the penis in the Negro is very large,” a suspicion supported by “the remarkable genitory apparatus of an Æthiopian which I have in my anatomical collection” (249). The section ends with a learned disquisition on “fabulous varieties of mankind,” “nations with tails,” and other anomalies.]
80. Innumerable varieties of mankind run into one another by insensible degrees. We have now completed a universal survey of the genuine varieties of mankind. And as, on the one hand, we have not found a single one which does not . . . deduce its origin from manifest causes of degeneration; so, on the other hand . . . no variety exists . . . so singular as not to be connected with others of the same kind by such an imperceptible transition, that it is very clear they are all related, or only differ from each other in degree.
81. Five principal varieties of mankind may be reckoned. As, however, even among these arbitrary kinds of divisions, one is said to be better and preferable to another; after a long and attentive consideration, all mankind, as far as it is at present known to us, seems to me as if it may best, according to natural truth, be divided into the five following varieties; which may be designated and distinguished from each other by the names Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian,
American, and Malay. I have allotted the first place to the Caucasian, for the reasons given below, which make me esteem it the primeval one. This diverges in both directions into two, most remote and very different from each other; on the one side, namely, into the Ethiopian, and on the other into the Mongolian. The remaining two occupy the intermediate positions between that primeval one and these two extreme varieties; that is, the American between the Caucasian and Mongolian; the Malay between the same Caucasian and Ethiopian.
82. . . . Caucasian variety. Colour white, cheeks rosy; hair brown or chestnut-coloured; head subglobular; face oval, straight, its parts moderately defined, forehead smooth, nose narrow, slightly hooked, mouth small. . . . In general, that kind of appearance which, according to our opinion of symmetry, we consider most handsome and becoming. To this first variety belong the inhabitants of Europe (except the Lapps and the remaining descendants of the Finns) and those of Eastern Asia, as far as the river Obi, the Caspian Sea and the Ganges; and lastly, those of Northern Africa.
Mongolian variety. Colour yellow; hair black, stiff, straight and scanty; head almost square; face broad, at the same time flat and depressed. . . . This variety comprehends the remaining inhabitants of Asia (except the Malays on the extremity of the trans-Gangetic peninsula) and the Finnish populations of the cold part of Europe, the Lapps &c. and the race of Esquimaux, so widely diffused over North America, from Behring’s straits to the inhabited extremity of Greenland.
Ethiopian variety. Color black; hair black and curly; head narrow, compressed at the sides; forehead knotty, uneven; malar bones protruding outwards; eyes very prominent; nose thick, mixed up as it were with the wide jaws; alveolar edge narrow, elongated in front; the upper primaries obliquely prominent; the lips (especially the upper) very puffy; chin retreating. Many are bandy-legged. To this variety belong all the Africans, except those of the north.
American variety. Copper-coloured; hair black, stiff, straight and scanty; forehead short; eyes set very deep; nose somewhat apish, but prominent; the face invariably broad, with cheeks prominent, but not flat or depressed . . . . This variety comprehends the inhabitants of America except the Esquimaux.
Malay variety. Tawny-coloured; hair black, soft, curly, thick and plentiful; head moderately narrowed; forehead slightly swelling; nose full, rather wide, as it were diffuse and thick; mouth large . . . . This last variety, includes the islanders of the Pacific Ocean, together with the inhabitants of the Marianne, the Philippine, the Molucca and the Sunda Islands, and of the Malayan peninsula. (264-66)
Blumenbach then rehearses the systems of racial divisions proposed by other authors including Linnaeus, who identified four races, each associated with a geographical region; Buffon, six varieties; Kant, four varieties; Hunter, seven; and Meiners, who “refers all nations to two stocks: (1) handsome, (2) ugly; the first white, the latter dark.”
84. . Notes on the five varieties of Mankind. . . . . Now, I will string together, at the end of my little work, as a finish, some scattered notes which belong to each of them in general.
85. 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 Mongolian, on the other the Ethiopian). Besides, it is white in colour, which we may fairly assume to have been the primitive colour of mankind, since as we have shown above, it is very easy for that to degenerate into brown, but very much more difficult for dark to become white, when the secretion and precipitation of this carbonaceous pigment has once deeply struck root.
86. Mongolian variety. This is the same as what was formerly called, though in a value and ambiguous way, the Tartar variety; which denomination has given rise to wonderful mistakes in the study of the varieties of mankind which we are now busy about. . . . But the Tartars shade away through the Kirgus and the neighbouring races into the Mongols, in the same way as these may be said to pass through the Tibetans to the Indians, through the Esquimaux to the Americans, and also in a sort of way through the Philippine Islanders to the men of the Malay variety.
87. Ethiopian variety. This variety, principally because it is so different in colour from our own, has induced many to consider it, with the witty, but badly instructed in physiology, Voltaire, as a peculiar species of mankind. But it is not necessary for me to spend any time here upon refuting this opinion, when it has so clearly been shown above that there is no single character so peculiar and so universal among the Ethiopians, but what it may be observed on the one hand everywhere in other varieties of men; and on the other that many Negroes are seen to be without each. And besides there is no character which does not shade away by insensible gradation from this variety of mankind to its neighbours, which is clear to every one who has carefully considered the difference between a few stocks of this variety, such as the Foulahs, the Wolufs, and Mandingos, and how by these shades of difference they pass away into the Moors and Arabs.
The assertion that is made about the Ethiopians, that they come nearer the apes than other men, I willingly allow so far as this, that it is in the same way that the solid-hoofed variety of the domestic sow may be said to come nearer to the horse than other sows. But how little weight is for the most part to be attached to this sort of comparison is clear from this, that there is scarcely any other out of the principal varieties of mankind, of which one nation or other, and that too by careful observers, has not been compared, as far as the face goes, with the apes; as we find said in express words of the Lapps, the Esquimaux, the Caaiguas of South America, and the inhabitants of the Island Mallicollo.
88. American variety. It is astonishing and humiliating what quantities of fables were formerly spread about the racial characters of this variety. Some have denied beards to the men, others menstruation to the women. Some have attributed one and the same colour to each and all the Americans; others a perfectly similar countenance to all of them. It has been so clearly demonstrated now by the unanimous consent of accurate and truthful observers, that the Americans are not naturally beardless, that I am almost ashamed of the unnecessary trouble I formerly took to get together a heap of testimony. (267-72)
89. The Malay variety. As the Americans in respect of appearance hold as it were a place between the medial variety of mankind, which we called the Caucasian, and one of the two extremes, that is the Mongolian; so the Malay variety makes the transition from that medial variety to the other extreme, namely, the Ethiopian. . . .
90. Conclusion. Thus too there is with this that insensible transition by which as we saw the other varieties also run together, and which, compared with what was discussed in the earlier sections of the book, about the causes and ways of degeneration, and the analogous phenomena of degeneration in the other domestic animals, brings us to that conclusion, which seems to flow spontaneously from physiological principles applied by the aid of critical zoology to the natural history of mankind; which is, That no doubt can any longer remain but that we are with great probability right in referring all and singular as many varieties of man as are at present known to one and the same species. (275-76)
Timothy Lenoir, “Kant, Blumenbach, and Vital Materialism in German Biology,” Isis 71 (1980) 1: 77-108.
John S. Michael, “Nuance Lost in Translation: Interpretations of J. S. Blumenbach’s Anthropology in the English Speaking World,” 25 July 2017: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00048-017-0173-8 (On the 1865 English translation of Blumenbach by Thomas Bendyshe)
Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W. W. Norton 2010), 72-90.
Nicolaas Rupke and Gerhard Lauer, eds., Johann Friedrich Blumenbach: Race and Natural History, 1750-1850 (London: Routledge, 2019).
George W. Stocking, Jr., Victorian Anthropology (New York: Free Press, 1987).
John H. Zammito, “Policing Polygeneticism in Germany, 1775: (Kames,) Kant, and Blumenbach,” The German Invention of Race, ed. Sara Eigen and Mark Larrimore (Albany: SUNY Press, 2006), 35–54.