Theories of Race

Rudolf Virchow

  • Rudolf Virchow's portrait

    Rudolf Virchow



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A figure of immense and general celebrity, Rudolf Virchow was the most distinguished physician of his day, recognized for pioneering work in cell biology, epidemiology, and other fields. Taking the most expansive and ambitious view of his profession, Virchow virtually invented and relentlessly promoted the concept that medicine was a social issue and a political responsibility. Known as the father of cellular pathology, Virchow saw the behavior of cells not only as the source of diseases such as cancer but, in a larger sense, as the key to understanding many social and political processes. A zealous participant (on the losing side) in the Revolution of 1848, Virchow was a fearless proponent of his views, even provoking Otto von Bismarck to challenge him to a duel in 1865 (Virchow declined). Beyond even that, he was one of the leading anthropologists of his day, with strongly held views on the controversies surrounding the place of humanity in the natural world.

The founder of several museums as well as the German Anthropological Association, the Archiv für Anthropologie, and the Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology, and Prehistory, Virchow made field trips to excavate and explore prehistoric sites in Asia Minor, the Caucasus, Egypt, and elsewhere. On one of these trips, in 1856, he served as a consultant with Thomas Henry Huxley. And in 1872, Virchow examined the first Neanderthal fossils that had become available, concluding that the Neanderthal was not a rudimentary human but merely a deformed one. Convinced that Darwinism was an interesting but unsubstantiated idea based on a phantom “intermediate form”—and that Darwin himself was an “ignoramus”—Virchow opposed its teaching in schools. One of his students, Ernst Haeckel (whom Virchow subsequently called “a fool”) agreed with Virchow about the intermediate form, which he located in the gap between man-like apes and ape-like man, but differed with his teacher sharply on the question of teaching Darwin, arguing his case in an 1879 book called Freedom in Science and Teaching.* One of Virchow’s colleagues at Berlin in 1885 was the young Franz Boas.

An indefatigable researcher, Virchow reportedly analyzed the hair, skin, and eye color of nearly seven million schoolchildren, attempting to identify the Jews and Aryans. Failing to discover any patterns that would constitute an argument for distinct racial differences, he announced that neither a Jewish nor a German—nor an “Aryan”—race existed.** Since visible differences in human physiology do not correlate with languages and cultures, he pronounced evidence drawn from those fields similarly invalid. He criticized cranial studies in particular, insisting that no skull could be called “Turanian,” “Teutonic,” or “Slavic.” He conducted craniometric and ethnological studies on Eskimos who had been brought to Germany, using the data to reject what he called the “Nordic mysticism” promoted by Haeckel and many others, and, more generally, any theory of inherent racial superiority or inferiority.

A radical liberal in his twenties, Virchow became over time a progressive convinced of the need for a modern international order based on the collaboration of science and liberal political principles. As the mood of Germany under Bismarck turned in the opposite direction and toward a racialized conception of the German state, Virchow found himself increasingly honored for his medical achievements and marginalized for his politics.

In the essay from which the selection below is taken—unusual in the context of this volume for being an essay rather than part of a large volume—Virchow rehearses many of the accounts of the origin of racial difference given by scientists and thinkers over the course of the previous century, finding them all unpersuasive. Like Quatrefages, Virchow did not believe that a species could ever mutate into another species. Nor did he believe that one race could become another merely by exposure to a different climate, and cited the durable whiteness of the descendants of settlers from Europe in Australia or America as proof.

Virchow approached such problems from a medical perspective. Applying a principle developed in one field to the problems of another, Virchow said that any process by which differentiation occurred should be understood as “pathological.” A variation of some kind had, he ventured, produced a departure from the norm, which had been continued by heredity, ultimately becoming consolidated into a “racial” difference. Since the origin and date of this event were undetermined and perhaps undeterminable, “the question of race formation in man is to this day an open one,” and we will likely never know whether mankind originated from a single primal stock or from several. In any event, he noted, scientific terminology had become degraded to the point where it was “not sharp enough to maintain always exactly the same meaning for race and stock. The concept of race has gradually become so diffuse that whenever it suits the expounder the designation can also be extended to a stock” (185). Like Hunt, Galton, Vogt, Haeckel, Quatrefages de Bréau, Topinard, and Deniker, Virchow preferred the term “type,” a concept rather than an observable group, and a stable idea or essence underlying the wilderness of variation one encountered in the world.

Taken together, the work of Topinard, Deniker, Quatrefages, and Virchow indicates a growing conviction that the scientific inquiry into race, which had occupied philosophers, historians, anthropologists, zoologists, and biologists for over a century, had run its course, that the conclusions about the origin and character of races had “out-distanced the facts,” and that in the absence of new and different facts further scientific inquiry would be wasted (189). What Virchow contributes to this argument is, in addition to his immense prestige, an emphasis on cells and cellular pathology as the model for and distant cause of what are mistakenly labelled racial variations. Virchow’s arguments made a powerful impression on Boas, who wrote a deeply appreciative memoir of Virchow as “the great man” of anthropology, praising in particular his encyclopedic knowledge and the extraordinary clarity of his critical judgment.***

*For an account of this incident, see Thomas F. Glick, The Comparative Reception of Darwinism (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1988), 86-87.  

**Andrew Zimmerman, “Anti-Semitism as Skill: Rudolf Virchow’s Schulstatistik and the Racial Composition of Germany,” Central European History 32 (2008) 4: 409-29; at: Replying to the contention of Quatrefages in 1870 that the German people were not Teutons at all but rather Slavo-Finns, Virchow argued, on the basis on data from millions of skull measurements, that modern Germans were racially mixed.  

*** Franz Boas, “Rudolf Virchow’s Anthropological Work,” Science 16 (19 September 1902) 403:  441-45, 445. 

“Heredity and the Formation of Races”


Under the assumption that reproduction of life has universal hereditary validity, the beginnings of race-formation can be conceived in only two ways. Either various races have proceeded from one single original form, or else from the very beginning different races have existed. Incidentally,—these two possibilities, the monogenistic and polygenistic, do not really differ in principle. For in the former case we could trace back all races to an original human stock; in the latter case, to a Proanthropus; and in both the assumption would be one of heredity.

Here I come to a contrast between myself and many non-medically-trained biologists. They place a different content into the concept of “Pathology.” . . .

Let us begin by examining the boundary between pathology and physiology. No one doubts that physiology is the discipline concerning the processes of life as expressed by law . . . . The law by which these arrangements and activities come about has only in recent times been more accurately envisaged; and the term “type” has been selected for this. Every deviation from this “type” or, expressed quite in general terms, from normal living, is pathological. . . .

In an essay on “Descent and Pathology” I have sought to indicate that the first origin of a race is to be conceived in no other way than that at first an individual variation takes place and that this thereafter is continued by heredity. In this construct I was able to invoke a recognized authority, Darwin himself. He says, with reference to the origin of varieties and sub-varieties: “The whole organization seems to have become plastic, and tends to depart in some small degree from that of the parental type.” How indeed should it be possible that a variation should come into being, if no alteration of type had gone before? But if such a thing takes place then the anomaly (itself) too becomes obvious. Therefore Darwin openly recognized that between variety and monstrosity no sharp boundary can be drawn . . . .

Still more unfavorable, by far, than the problem of man’s origin from animal is that of racial origins. Humanity at least appears to us as a unit, even though this “appearance” is not exactly demonstrated. Once mankind has broken up into races, there is no point of reference from which to determine the number of the original races which have arisen together. But one should have to know these a priori in order to be able to begin the investigation into the way by which one has originated out of another, or how several races have proceeded side-by-side out of the supposed primal human stock. Up to now this is a pium desiderium [pious desire]. We are going to pay no attention to lack of an exhaustive classification of all races and content ourselves with a contemplation of those races over whose acceptance there is common agreement. In the Old World these are the white, the black, and the yellow races.

If, following time-honored usage, we assign to skin-color its rank of principal criterion, it is self-evident that we cannot exclude the other traits that are properties of the skin, especially hair; quite as truly as that we cannot treat skeleton or viscera as insignificant. I wish none the less to emphasize that the viscera have yielded, up to the present, no diagnostic traits that are so important, and decidedly none that are so convenient, as to place them in the fore. Even the brain, however highly it must be evaluated, belongs in matters of race anatomy among the terrae incognitae. About the skeleton we know a very great deal; nevertheless we must take it as very daring to conclude the race membership of its erstwhile owner, from considering it in its entirety; or still less from a knowledge of single parts of it. Even the skull, which is known best of all and possesses many characteristics that are very valuable for diagnostic purposes, can be accurately disposed of with regard to its descent only by the aid of many adjunct circumstances. What skin color belonged to the erstwhile owner of the skull is so little to be inferred even in the spirit of surmise, that we can say but very little about the racial position of older prehistoric men.

In spite of this, one thing remains clear for the course of investigation to be undertaken: there must have been a beginning for every race, and this beginning must have been pathological. Pathological, of course, in the sense developed above; or, more accurately: Every race must have begun with a deviation from a type, whether that type be that of a primal race or of a secondary race. And this deviation could not have arisen spontaneously, but must have had a cause which lay outside the typical organization or, briefly, which must have been an external cause. Whoever disputes these postulates renounces logical thinking, and in the matters of natural science it is impossible to come to an understanding with him. It may be objected that the basis of these postulates is purely theoretical. But this theory is universally valid for all branches of biology . . . .

In spite of these difficulties [in determining racial categories], the naturalist cannot disbar the thought that there must have been transition from one race to another; that is, that there is a sort of metaplasia in races. The fact that races have persisted so long testifies to the power of heredity; but it does not prove either the permanence or the unalterability of races. Those experiences of animal husbandrymen that Darwin collected so skilfully teach us beyond doubt that it possible to breed new varieties out of these new “races”; and we cannot fail to recognize that the experiences of artificial breeding can be applied without violence to an explanation of “natural selection” in maternal and paternal animals. They furnish better standards for the interpretation of transitions than any other hypothesis. None the less we must not fail to see that this hypothesis can be granted the dignity of a confirmed doctrine only when at last we have succeeded in observing metaplasia in definite races. Up to now this has nowhere been carried out as far as man is concerned.

It is possible that too much significance has been ascribed to dolichocephaly and brachycephaly. In this connection, speaking in a strict sense, the only significant objection is that both characteristics must be determined by certain numerical values, and that as a matter of science it is not admissible to treat these values as absolute criteria. . . .

I have been at pains to show that the question of race formation in man is to this day an open one. But since far more basis exists for the belief that the ancestors of the various races did not arise independently of each other, that much rather the races taken together are to be carried back to common ancestors, at present we cannot help seeking external influences for their origin. . . .

If we dispense with factual evidence of remains of primal man, we have left over only that route for explaining the origin of races which Darwin took to explain the origin of species; namely, the study of progressive variation from one individual to the next. If we use the principle of adaptation it is just as easy to explain the graduation from “colored” races to weakly colored ones as the graduation from “white” races to yellow or black. . . .

The development of the notion of some former primal home of a unitary humankind has been reserved largely by the religious; one should perhaps say by the priests. We have no inducement to enter into it further. The only attempt of this sort ever made from the standpoint of natural science harks back to Quatrefages, who believed he had found this primal home in Central Asia. He supported himself on the premise that the original dwelling-places both for the physical and of the linguistic races were distributed about the mountainous central massif of Asia. Taken in the large, much can be said for this; but in detail the facts do not fit it. So Quatrefages is compelled to support the original presence of blacks in this region upon the indication of recognizable traces of these in the south of the Asiatic continent and on the islands as far as Japan; the once dominant blacks are supposed to have been broken through, scattered and mixed mostly with yellows, less frequently with whites. But even if this construct were correct it still would not certainly follow from it that the primal home of the Asiatic blacks lay in the neighborhood of the primal home of the whites and yellows.

Thus no matter how we may attack the problem of race formation in man from the standpoint of natural science, i.e., empirically, it still remains unsolved. Theoretically, in my opinion, there can be no doubt that races are nothing more than hereditary variations. What we know about the origin of such variations, is therefore applicable to the origin of races. Since, however, the non-inherited varieties must be attributed without exception to the influence of external cause, whether they be outside the body or whether they be outside the affected part even though that part lie within the body, we must derive races also from the influence of external causes, and we may define them as acquired deviations from the original type. Thereby the influence of the environment enters immediately into its right, but, let it be well noted, not an exclusive right. For beside the environment (the milieu) there is operative an untold number of mechanical, chemical etc. influences, which have nothing whatever to do with the environment, i.e., with locale.

John M. Efron, Defenders of the Race:  Jewish Doctors and Race Science in Fin-de-Siècle Europe (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1994). 

Friedrich C. Luft, “Rudolf Virchow and the Anthropology of Race,” Hektoen International;  A Journal of Medical Humanities 

Léon Poliakov, The Aryan Myth:  A History of Nationalist and Racist Ideas in Europe (London:  Sussex University Press, 1971).