Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

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Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

May 11, 1752-January 22, 1840

Born in Gotha, Germany in 1752, Blumenbach went on to Jena to study medicine. He completed his doctoral training at Gottingen in 1775. Just a year later, he was appointed as an extraordinary professor of medicine. His study of the history of man showing the value of using comparative anatomy and his classification of the five varieties of man were two important contributions made by Blumenbach (1911 Edition). He wasted no time in becoming one of the most influential members of the fields of comparative anatomy, zoology, physiology, anthropology, and craniology, in fact, Blumenbach is considered to be the founder of anthropology as well as craniology. In his construction of this new field of physical anthropology, he used the methods of natural historians, and applied those methods to the human species (Keith 106). Objectifying the study of mankind, Blumenbach collected numerous specimens from various races. Skulls, skin, hair and pictures were among the items collected. From each item, the location, as well as race of the item, was known and recorded. Prior to Blumenbach's systematized assortment of specimens, the only collections "consisted of miscellaneous oddities preserved in the 'cabinets' of noble houses, for the idle amusement of the curious." (Keith, 106). Blumenbach' s more complete collection allowed intensive study into the racial history of mankind, which is just what he wanted to do. Blumenbach was also the first to study the actual form of skulls (Retzius 283).

The book, On the Natural Variety of Mankind, was Blumenbach's main contribution to the field of anthropology and comparative anatomy. In this book he discusses the chief varieties of mankind, the causes of degeneration, the differences between man and other animals, the differences, and causes of differences, between varieties of man, and various other issues related to the existing varieties of the species of man. Blumenbach asserts that climate is an important contributing factor in racial differences. In fact, he states specifically, "climate is the principal cause of the racial face," (Blumenbach 229). Diet and customs were also important contributions, according to Blumenbach. He even went so far as to say that the Ethiopians’ flattened facial features were caused by the practice of mothers carrying their infants on their backs while working, and thus pressing the infants face into the mothers’ backs (Schiebinger 393).

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He also states that even though there are differences between certain humans, we are one race and the differences that exist only classify people into different varieties, not different species. For Blumenbach, a species is distinct only when there are morphological distinctions. Human races/varieties do not have such distinctions, and are thus not separate species.

His book, On the Natural Variety of Mankind, was written during a time when the biological sciences were not yet organized. No clear methodology was in place. Religion, politics, and chaos following the Napoleonic wars added to the divisions already present in intellectual life (Lenoir 107). The work done by Blumenbach, as well as Immanuel Kant, provided a model for the biological sciences to follow. “A model for organizing the biological sciences first sketched in the works of Kant and Blumenbach and then explored more systematically by a small group of closely related individuals guided subsequent development in several key areas of biological research for at least three decades, leading to the major achievements of German zoology and physiology in the early nineteenth century.” (Lenoir 107). A structure was set in place which incorporated observation of a wide variety of specimens and systematic recording of data. Specifically, as stated by Lenoir, "vital materialism may have served as a significant unifying model for biological research in Germany in the first half of the century." (78). Vital Materialism, at that time, was one of the principle ways to discuss life. Blumenbach saw life as its own force, similar to that of gravity and having physical laws or explanations. However, the cause of life and the details of the “life force” were still unclear. “He (Blumenbach) treated the agent responsible for organic structure as a Newtonian force, which he called the Bildungstrieb.” (Lenoir 83). Being an environmentalist, Blumenbach believed that shifts in climate and diet could make changes in the Bildungstrieb. After many generations, these changes could become permanent. Although he did not have the tools or techniques to determine the design or cause of the Bildungstrieb, his perception of life as a vital force, as well as others' conceptions of similar forces, helped move people to explore options beyond mystical explanations and search for answers about human life in a more scientific way.

On the Natural Variety of Mankind was one of the works done to help characterize and classify the 'races' of man. Anatomists and anthropologists, back in the eighteenth-century, were in a quandary about how to rank certain groups of people, for instance women, in terms of status and power. If Blumenbach's work had been strictly adhered to, much discrimination and oppression that occurred in history may not have taken place. Blumenbach, in fact, tried to show the unity within all of the varieties of humans. He did classify five varieties of man, and he stated that all varieties were degenerated from the Caucasian; however, "he did not see races as sharply divergent from one another." (Schiebinger 390). Blumenbach also minimized the importance of sex differences and disagreed with the notion that sex could easily be determined by the skull or other skeletal bones, save the pelvis. However, most anatomists agreed that sex was an important classification to make. Samuel Thomas von Soemmerring, in particular, believed that sex differences were clear in the structure of the body and he held that the European male was the "standard of excellence" upon which all others should be judged (Schiebinger 404). With anatomists in agreement with Soemmerring, it is not a surprise that, “The French National Convention was able to quote directly from anatomy text books to justify denying women civic rights. To those concerned, it seemed that nature, and not man, had created the inequalities between the sexes and the races," (Schiebinger 405). To the most highly educated people, these biological differences in races and sexes were the cause of occupational differences and differences in positions of power and respect. Blumenbach would have agreed with the exact opposite argument. He suggests that, “occupation or social class might determine skin color, for example. ‘The face of the working man or the artisan, exposed to the force of the sun and the weather, differs as much from the cheeks of a delicate (European) female, as the man himself does from the dark American…” (Schiebinger 390). Climate and occupation can determine color; our innate biology was structurally equivalent. Any differences between races/varieties were caused by the passing down of traits acquired through environmental factors. Thus, to use people's biological differences as a means to suggest that certain groups are not capable of achieving success in particular areas, would be an unfair assertion in Blumenbach's view. These groups may have simply never had the exposure to the tasks in question. Once given the opportunity, they would acquire the necessary traits required in that particular environment or situation, and then pass those along to their offspring.

Another important thing to note about Blumenbach is that he accepted as fact the Biblical story of creation. Everything he wrote is in correspondence to that given in Genesis. In the time frame that he was writing, ideas about evolution were not yet developed, and certainly nothing of the study of genetics as we know it today was even touched upon. Blumenbach was only twenty-three when he wrote the first edition of On the Natural Variety of Mankind (1775). In 1781, the second edition was completed, and the third and final edition in 1795. Although Blumenbach’s works may seem very primitive to us today, what he did was actually very phenomenal, and the subsequent knowledge gained about races, and human varieties can be attributed in part to his works. His museums of skulls and other artifacts and specimens provided a detailed collection for many anthropologists to use. His idea about humans being members of one species with differences grouping us into varieties is still held to be true by many people. We even use his methods of studying skulls today, for example, those working in forensics often have to determine age, sex, race, and other factors based on skulls. The term Caucasian was first introduced by Blumenbach as well, and that certainly is still in use today also. However, many of his basic ideas as an environmentalist were crushed when evolution and natural selection became widely accepted. Advances in biology, assisted in part by his own contributions to the field, began to unveil certain problems with Blumenbach’s theories. “All his observations and opinions on anatomy and physiology were being outdated by the discovery that the human body was made up of a vast conglomeration of living microscopic units or cells.” (Keith 106). Despite the changes made to Blumenbach's theories, he is still highly credited for his landmark works done in anthropology and comparative anatomy. He contributed some of the most important building blocks for later scientists to add on to. Blumenbach searched for answers regarding the history man and the varieties of the specie of man. We still search for such answers, but from his guidance we have been given some direction and inspiration.

Works Cited

- Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich. The Anthropological Treatises of Johann Friedrich
Blumenbach: De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa. 1795. Ed. and Trans. ThomasBendyshe,

- Keith, Arthur (1940). Blumenbach's Centenary. Man, 40, 82-85.

- Lenoir, Timothy (1980). Kant, Blumenbach, and Vital Materialism in German Biology.
Isis, 71 (1), 77-108.

- Retzius, Gustaf (1909). The So-Called North European Race of Mankind. A Review of,
and Views on, The Development of Some Anthropological Questions. Journal of the Royal
Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 39, 277-313.

- Schiebinger, Londa (1990). The Anatomy of Difference: Race and Sex in Eighteenth-
Century Science. Eighteenth-Century Studies, 23 (4), 387-405.

- The 1911 Edition Encyclopedia, s.v. “Johann Friedrich Blumenbach”
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