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Throughout the history of time, we have always categorized humans in some manner. For the last few centuries, skin color has been the divider of choice. The scientific concept of race was used to explain and justify social inequalities starting in the eighteenth century. The three naturalists, Charles Darwin, J. F. Blumenbach and Petrus Camper, utilized race in their observations of mankind during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. All three of these scholars believed that all of mankind shared a similar origin, however, their descriptions of the first humans differ vastly. Also, Blumenbach and Camper both experienced misinterpretations of their experiments which included categorizing skulls based on aesthetics. Charles Darwin, J. F. Blumenbach and Petrus Camper had both similar and contrasting ideas about race.
German naturalist J.F. Blumenbach (1752-1840) of the Enlightenment is considered, by many, responsible for establishing the most detailed and influential racial classification system. Blumenbach was a monogenist, meaning he believed that humans of all races shared a similar origin. His major argument for this was that there are no definite lines that can distinctly divide races. He also believed that racial diversity, including skull shape and skin color, was created by geographical variations in climate. Blumenbach was the first to divide humans into five different groups according to geography and appearance: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malay. He formed his five-race system by extending the four-race taxonomy created by his mentor Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778). Blumenbach decided to add the Malay category as his fifth group which would consequently divide Linnaeus's Asian group into two: Mongolian for all East Asians and some Central Asians and Malayans for Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders. His additional division continued to follow a geographically based model, as opposed to a racially based one. Blumenbach's original linear model places the Caucasian skull in the center with the Ethiopian and Mongolian as the two extreme divergences and the Malay and American Indian as intermediates, respectively. Although Blumenbach, himself, was not racist, the way he portrayed his five-race model implicitly instigated a radical change in perception of race among people.
Although his model was interpreted in a racist manner, Blumenbach originally arranged his model by aesthetics, not by intelligence or worth. He believed that racial origins were based on degenerations of the Caucasian type. Blumenbach considered the race that most resembled human origin to also be the most beautiful. He believed that the inhabitants of the Caucus Mountains had the most beautiful forms of skulls and therefore this region must have been the origin of man. Additional reasoning behind his claim was that it was much easier for white to become darker, but more difficult for brown to change to white. And so, Blumenbach's model was organized based on aesthetics, rather than intelligence or worth. However, many people misinterpreted his taxonomy as racist, misusing his model to claim that whites were the superior race.
Similarly to Blumenbach, Dutch anatomist and painter Petrus Camper (1722-1789) experienced comparable misinterpretations of his work. Collections of skulls were an important part of the equipment for racial classification for both of these men. Camper is most well-known for his theory of the åacial anglein connection with beauty in art. This was the angle formed by the horizontal line joining the ear to the base of the nose and the vertical line joining the upper jaw to the most protruding point of the forehead(Barnard 242). Camper foresaw this measurement as a useful aid to artists for the accurate representation of different human groups (Burns 95). He regarded the Greco-Roman statues as the quintessence of beauty. He also noted that these statues had a considerably higher facial angle than modern humans. After collecting data from a multitude of skulls, Camper found the facial angle of Africans to be most acute and least acute in Europeans (Burns 95). Since Africans deviated the farthest from the high Greco-Roman facial angle, Camper also considered this group as the farthest away from the Classical ideal beauty. Because these measurements of the facial angle coincided with the distinctions of skin color, Camper categorized humans in this manner (Burns 94). Both Camper and Blumenbach based their categories of race by beauty, however, Camper was more objective in his approach by taking measurements of the skulls while Blumenbach merely made subjective observations. Camper's results were later used as scientific racism just as Blumenbach's taxonomy was misinterpreted as racist (Burns 94). Also, similar to Blumenbach, Camper was a mongenist, however, his theory on the skin color of original humanity differed. While Blumenbach believed that the first humans were white, Camper insisted that their skin color could not be determined (Burns 95).
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) believed in a common origin among all humans as illustrated in his origin of Species The strong debate during the nineteenth century was that between monogenists and polygenists. Darwin believed that species which are biologically similar are similar because they share a recent common ancestor. With this belief, Darwin was considered a monogenist like Blumenbach and Camper. However, unlike Blumenbach and Camper, Darwin believed that the human origin was located in Africa. He believed in evolution of mankind and that races were created by exposure to different environments and some form of natural selection. Darwin thought that as groups of dark-skinned people migrated from the origin of mankind in Africa, later generations would display new features that would help adapt them to a different climate. For example, white skin would allow for more absorption of Vitamin D in regions where sunlight is less direct. People who had even subtly lighter skin due to genetic mutations were more likely to survive in cloudy places by absorbing an adequate amount of Vitamin D, and so eventually light skin would become a dominant characteristic in this area. Darwin viewed race as a significant division of a species, but not a new species itself. He did not believe in classifying humans by skin color or race His greatest argument against viewing races as separate species was the gradation of skin color in mankind. If the different races of humans were also different species, then this gradation would not occur. Most likely, a mulatto, a mixed person with one black parent and one white parent, would either be all white or all black. The gradation of skin color among mankind was the same reason Blumenbach doubted multiple origins of man.
The three anthropologists, Charles Darwin, J. F. Blumenbach and Petrus Camper have both comparable and dissimilar ideas about race. All three of these naturalists were monogenists, believing that all of mankind shared a similar origin. However, their thoughts about the skin color of the first humans were not the same. Blumenbach was convinced that the originating humans were white and that all other races were degenerations from the Caucasian race. Contrastingly, Darwin claimed that the first humans had dark skin originated in Africa. Even though Darwin and Blumenbach concluded that the first human had opposite skin colors, they both believed that climate and geographical conditions created racial variation over time. On the other hand, Camper determined that it was impossible to ascertain the skin color of the first humans. The greatest parallel between these three scholars is the racial classification systems of Camper and Blumenbach. They both analyzed numerous human skulls and categorized them based on beauty, but their methods contrasted. Blumenbach subjectively judged the skulls' beauty based on his personal likings while Camper recorded actual measurements of the facial angle to compare the skull shapes with the ideal Classical beauty of Greco-Roman statues. Unfortunately, both Camper and Blumenbach's research and conclusions were used to foster the concept that racial diversity equated to racial superiority or inferiority. Although the research of Charles Darwin, J.F. Blumenbach, and Petrus Camper ranged over one hundred years, many parallels and divergences can be drawn between their individual understandings of race.
Additional Works Consulted
Barnard, Alan J. "Anthropology, Race, and Englishness: Changing Notions of Complexion and Character."Eighteenth-Century Life 25.3 (2001): 94. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 19 Oct. 2010.
Burns, William E. Science in the Enlightenment: an Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC- CLIO, 2003. Print.