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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T02


Modern Populations of America 1

I have been asked to speak on the modern populations of America,
and I confess that I feel some hesitation in taking up this important
subject. The scientific problems involved are of great and fundamental
importance; but unfortunately materials for their discussion have
hardly been collected at all, and I do not see any immediate prospect
of their being gathered on a scale at all adequate.

We may distinguish three distinct types of populations in modern
America. The first type includes those that are entirely or almost
entirely descendants of European immigrants, such as the population of
the northern United States, of Canada, and of the Argentine; a second
type is represented by populations containing a large amount of Indian
blood, like those of Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia; and a third type includes
populations consisting essentially of mixtures of Negroes and other
races. In this last group we may again distinguish between populations
in which the mixture is essentially Negro and White and those in which
we find a strong mixture of Negro and Indian, or Negro, Indian, and
White. Examples of these are the populations of the Southern States,
of the West Indies, of some districts of Central and South America, like
parts of Brazil, and of certain localities on the west coast of South

It will easily be recognized that the mixed populations who are
descendants of American Indians and Europeans are found essentially
in those large areas in which the aboriginal population at the time of
the Conquest was dense. This was the case particularly in Mexico and
in the Andean highlands. The extermination of the native population
has occurred only in those areas in which at the time of the Conquest
the Indian population was very sparse or where a dense population lived
in a limited territory, as in the West Indies. The Negro populations
occur in all those areas in which there was a long-continued importation
of African slaves.18

The development of these populations depended to a great extent
upon the very fundamental difference in the relations between the
Anglo-Saxon European immigrants and the Latin American immigrants.
While among the former intermarriages or unions between women of
European descent and members of the foreign races were rare, intermixture
was not so limited in Latin American countries; and unions
between European men and women of foreign races, or of European
women and men of foreign races, have always been of more nearly
equal frequency. The importance of this difference is great, because
in the former case the number of individuals with European blood is
constantly increasing, because the children of the women of the White
population remain White, while the children of the women of the
Negro or Indian population have on the average a considerable amount
of infusion of White blood. This must necessarily result in a constant
decrease of the relative amount of non-European blood in the total
population. This phenomenon may be disturbed to a certain extent by
differences in fertility or mortality of the mixed populations, but it is
not likely that the total result will be influenced by such differences. In
those cases, on the other hand, in which White women marry members
of foreign races, or at least half-blood descendants of foreign races, a
thorough penetration of the two races must occur; and if marriages in
both directions are equally frequent, the result must be a complete permeation
of the two types. There is very little doubt that the rapid disappearance
of the American Indian in many parts of the United
States is due to this peculiar kind of mixture. The women of mixed
descent are drawn away from the tribes with a fair degree of rapidity,
and merge in the general population; while the men of mixed descent
remain in the tribe, and contribute to a continued infusion of White
blood among the natives.

The claim has been made, and has constantly been repeated, that
mixed races — like the American Mulattoes or the American Mestizos —
are inferior in physical and mental qualities, that they inherit all the
unfavorable traits of the parental races. So far as I can see, this bold
proposition is not based on adequate evidence. As a matter of fact, it
would be exceedingly difficult to say at the present time what race is
pure and what race is mixed. It is certainly true that in the borderland
of the areas inhabited by any of the fundamental races of mankind
mixed types do occur, and there is nothing to prove that these types are
inferior either physically or mentally. We might adduce, as an example,
19Japan, a country in which the Malay and the Mongol type come into
contact; or the Arab types of North Africa, that are partly of Negro,
partly of Mediterranean descent; or the nations of eastern Europe, that
contain a considerable admixture of Mongoloid blood. In none of
these cases will a careful and conscientious investigator be willing to
admit any deteriorating effect of the undoubted mixture of different
races. It is exceedingly difficult in all questions of this kind to differentiate
with any degree of certainty between social and hereditary
causes. On the whole, the half-bloods live under conditions less favorable
than the pure parental races; and for this reason the social causes
will bring about phenomena of apparent weakness that are erroneously
interpreted as due to effects of intermixture. This is particularly true in
the case of the Mulatto population of the United States. The Mulatto
is found as an important element in many of our American cities where
the majority of this group form a poor population, which, on the one
hand, is not in a condition of social and economic equality with the
Whites, while, on the other hand, the desire for improved social opportunity
creates a considerable amount of dissatisfaction. It is not surprising
that under these conditions the main characteristics of the
group should not be particularly attractive. At the same time the poverty
that prevails among many of them, and the lack of sanitary
conditions under which they live, give the impression of hereditary

The few cases in which it has been possible to gather strictly scientific
data on the physical characteristics of the half-bloods have rather
shown that there may be a certain amount of physical improvement in
the mixed race. Thus the investigation of half-blood Indians in the
United States which I undertook in 1892 showed conclusively that the
physical development of the mixed race, as expressed by their stature,
is superior to that of both the White and Indian parents. I also found
that the fertility of half-blood women was greater than that of the full-blood
Indian women who live practically under the same social conditions.
The latter conclusion has been corroborated by a much wider
investigation, included in the last Census of the United States. Professor
Dixon, under whose auspices the data were collated, not only
found that the half-blood women were more fertile than the full-blood
women, but he also discovered that the number of surviving children of
half-blood women was greater than the number of surviving children
of full-blood women. This seems to indicate a greater vigor even more
20clearly than the data found by a study of the stature of the half-blood
race. During the present year I have been able to make an investigation
of the population of Puerto Rico; and here a similar phenomenon appears
in a comparison between the Mulatto population and the White
population. In a study of children it was found that the Mulattoes excel
in physical development the children of pure Spanish descent, and that
their development is more rapid. Evidently the rapidity of development
of the Mulatto, and his better physique, are phenomena that are closely

A number of tests have been made of the mental conditions of Mulatto
children. These, however, I do not consider as convincing, because the
differences found are slight, and because, furthermore, the retardation
of development due to less favorable social conditions has not sufficiently
been taken into account. There is also much doubt in regard
to the significance of certain differences in the resistance to pathogenic
causes that has been observed in different races. Judging from a general
biological point of view, it would seem that an unfavorable effect of
mixture of races is very unlikely. The anatomical differences between
the races of man that we have to consider here are at best very slight,
certainly less than those found in different races of domesticated animals.
In the case of domesticated animals, no decrease of vigor has been
observed when races are crossed as closely allied as races of man. Since
man must be considered anatomically as a highly domesticated species,
we may expect the same conditions to prevail, and by analogy there is
no reason to suppose any unfavorable effects.

Attention should be called here to a peculiar condition of society in
all those regions where the old aboriginal population contributes a large
amount to the modern population. In all these cases we observe a continuity
of tradition that leads back to pre-Columbian times. It may be
that the ancient religious ideas and that much of the oral tradition of
the people have been lost and that their place has been taken by ideas
imported from Europe. Nevertheless a vast amount of the old customs
survives. This may be readily seen by a study of the habitations and of
the household utensils in Mexico and in Peru. It is quite obvious that
in these cases the ancient tradition survives; and this fact is merely an
indication of the tremendous force of conservatism that binds the people
of modern times to their past. It is no wonder that in these cases the
obstacles to the diffusion of modern ideas are much greater than in
those populations that derive their origin entirely from European
21sources. This is so much more the case, since the European immigrant
breaks completely with his past, and develops in a new environment
and according to new standards of thought.

The investigation of the ideas and beliefs of the American Negroes
throws an interesting side-light on these conditions. Unfortunately this
subject has received very slight attention, and it is hardly possible to
state definitely what the conditions are in various parts of the continent.
It is quite clear, however, that the Negroes, owing to their segregation,
have retained much of what they brought from Africa. In this case
there is no continuity in the material life, because the houses, household
utensils, and other objects are all derived from European sources, while
many of the old tales and old religious ideas seem to survive, much modified,
however, by American conditions. Owing to the fact that the
coast tribes of Africa have been long under the influence of Portuguese
civilization, a certain assimilation of Negro ideas had developed; and
in all probability this accounts for the similarity of ideas found among
American Negroes and Indians of Latin America, so far as these have
adopted ideas imported by Spaniards and Portuguese of the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries.

Another question relating to the physical type of the mixed populations
relates to the question of how far a new type results from their
intermingling. Of recent years there has been much discussion in
regard to this problem. Galton and his adherents maintain that in a
mixture of types a new intermediate type will develop analogous to the
appearance of the mule as a result of mixture between horse and donkey.
Other investigators, following the important observations of Mendel
and his successors, claim that no permanent new type develops, but that
the so-called “unit” characters of the parents will be segregated in the
mixed population. Assuming, for instance, the blue eye of the North
European to be a “unit” character, it is assumed that in the mixed type
there will always remain a certain group with blue eyes. More specifically
it is claimed that among the descendants of couples in which one
parent has blue eyes, the other pure brown eyes, one-fourth of the total
number from the second generation on will have blue eyes, while the rest
will have brown eyes. In order to avoid technicalities, we might perhaps
say that in these cases there must be a certain degree of alternating
inheritance, in so far as in a mixed population some individuals will
resemble in their traits the one parental race, while others will resemble
the other. Some investigators claim that the existence of this type of
22inheritance — so-called “Mendelian” inheritance — has been definitely
proved to exist in man.

It is hardly possible at the present time to answer this important
problem with any degree of definiteness, although in regard to a number
of traits sufficient evidence is available. I pointed out before that
in the case of stature the half-blood shows a tendency to exceed both
parental types; in other words, that a new distinctive form develops.
On the other hand, the investigation of eye-color has shown that while
intermediate eye-colors do occur, there is a decided tendency for a
number of individuals to reproduce either the blue eyes of northern
Europe or the very dark eyes of other races. In regard to skin-color the
evidence is not clear. A certain permanence of type has also been
found in the head form. Some types of man may be characterized by
the ratio of the longitudinal to the transversal diameter of the head.
Sometimes both are not very different, while in other cases the head is
very narrow and at the same time very long. It has been found that
when two types intermingle in which the parental races show material
differences in head form, then a great variety of head forms will occur
among the descendants, indicating a tendency to revert to the parental
types. Whether or not the classical ratios of Mendelian inheritance
prevail is a question that it is quite impossible to answer. On the whole,
it seems much more, likely that we have varying types of alternating
inheritance rather than true Mendelian forms.

If further investigation should show that the tendency to such alternating
inheritance is found in mixed types throughout, and that the
different features belonging to the distinctive parental types have only
slight degrees of correlation, it would follow that in a mixed type we
may expect the occurrence of a great variety of combinations of parental
types; and we may expect, perhaps, a certain loosening of those correlations
that are characteristic for the parental races. This question, however,
has never been investigated, and cannot be answered with any
degree of certainty.

These questions have also a bearing upon the characteristics of the
populations of pure European descent that are developing in our
country. In earlier times the provenience of the settlers in each particular
area was fairly uniform. In the United States we find settlers
from England; in the Argentine, those from Spain; but the rapid increase
of population in Europe, and the attractiveness of economical
conditions in America, have brought it about that the sources of European
23immigration have become much wider. In the Argentine Republic
we find an immigration coming principally from the shores of the
Mediterranean. The modern population of the United States is drawn
from all parts of Europe, the most recent influx being principally from
southeastern, southern, and eastern Europe. The racial composition of
the population of Europe is not by any means uniform; but we find
distinctive local types inhabiting the various parts of the continent.
The differences between a dark-eyed, black-haired, swarthy South
Italian, and a blond, tall, blue-eyed Scandinavian and a short-headed,
gray-eyed, tall Servian, are certainly most striking. This fact has led to
the assertion that nothing like the modern intermixture of European
types has ever occurred in the past in any part of Europe.

Attention should be called here to a peculiar difference between the
composition of our American population and that of European populations.
After individual land-tenure had developed, and agriculture
had become the basis of life of all European peoples, a remarkable permanence
of habitat developed in all parts of Europe. In place of the
waves of migration that marked the end of antiquity, a local development
of small village communities set in, which, after they were once
established, came to be exceedingly permanent. The members of these
communities were only slightly increased from the outside, and thus a
period of inbreeding set in that is equaled only by the amount of inbreeding
characteristic of small isolated primitive tribes. It is difficult
to obtain exact information in regard to this process; but the investigation
of genealogies of a few European communities shows that it has
been very marked. It is therefore clear that when we compare, let me
say, the population of a small Spanish village and that of a South Italian
village, we may find in both communities what appears to the observer
as the same type; but we find at the same time that the actual lines of
descent of these two groups have been quite distinct for many generations.
A peculiar result is found wherever this type of inbreeding occurs.
Since all the families are interrelated, it is clear that all the families are
very much alike, and that practically any family may be selected and
considered as the type of the population that is being investigated.
Wherever these conditions do not prevail, and where the ancestry of the
various parts of the population is quite distinct, a single family can
never be considered as representative of the whole population, and we
may expect considerable differences to occur between the family lines.
This coming together of distinct lines is characteristic of all the industrial
24districts of Europe and also of the populations of European descent
in America. Thus in the Argentine Republic the people of Spanish
and of Italian communities will be brought together. In the United
States we find side by side families of English, Irish, French, Spanish,
German, Russian, and Italian descent, each of which represents the
type of the locality from which it comes. In other words, the family
lines composing American populations are much more diverse than
those found in the rural communities of Europe.

From a biological point of view there is little doubt that this condition
must have an effect upon the physical characteristics of the whole
population. Observations are not available, except those bearing upon
the relation of sexes in the Argentine Republic. According to the last
Argentine census, it has been found that the relation of sexes of children
found in families of pure Italian or pure Argentine descent shows considerable
differences when compared with that found in families of
mixed Italo-Spanish descent, and it may very well be that this has to
do with the disturbances of the lines of descent which we have just

No investigations are available on the physical characteristics of individuals
of mixed European descent. All we know is that the alternating
inheritance referred to before may be observed also in the descendants
of a single people. Thus, for instance, it has been shown that when
a long-headed Russian Jew marries a short-headed Russian Jewess, the
children resemble in part the father, in part the mother, so that here also
a certain reversion of type may be noticed. It has also been found that
the laws of inheritance of eye-color are similar to those referred to
before. There is therefore every reason to assume that the same laws
of inheritance prevail in a mixture of European peoples that have been
observed in a mixture of different races.

A word should be said in regard to the claim that the mixture of
European types that is characteristic of the population of modern
America is of a unique character. The events that occurred in prehistoric
Europe do not favor this assumption, because the European continent
at that time was the scene of constant migration and of constant
intermingling of different peoples. The contrast between medieval conditions
and ancient conditions appears, for instance, very clearly in
Spain. The oldest inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula of which we
know were overlaid successively by Phenicians, Romans, Kelts, Teutonic
tribes, and Moorish people from northern Africa, which resulted in an
25enormous infusion of blood from all parts of Europe. With the Spanish
victories over the Moors and the driving away of the Jews, a period of
inbreeding set in which has lasted up to the present time. Similar conditions
obtain in eastern Europe, where waves of migrations of Slavic,
Teutonic, Finnish and Mongol peoples may be traced, each of which
represented a certain definite local type. In short, the whole early history
of Europe is one continued series of shifts of populations, that
must have resulted in an enormous mixture of all the different types of
the continent.

The important question arises whether the types that come to America
remain stable and retain their former characteristics. A number of
years ago I investigated this question, and reached the conclusion that
a number of definite, although slight, changes are taking place; more
particularly, that under American geographical and social conditions
the width of the face decreases, and the head form undergoes certain
slight changes. My observations are corroborated by the evidence that
may be obtained from studies of European city populations. The differences
in social environment there are probably the same as those that I
have observed in the city of New York; and the observations also indicate
a certain difference between the city population and the country
population which cannot be explained by mixture or by selection.

Quite recently I investigated this question in Puerto Rico, and found
that the type of the modern population does not conform to any of the
ancestral types. The population is derived very largely from Spanish
sources, so much so that among the individuals whom I measured a large
percentage were sons of Spanish-born fathers. Besides this, we find a
considerable infusion of Negro blood, and I presume also a certain
survival of Indian blood. The ancestral types, except the Indians, are
decidedly long-headed. The Indian blood cannot be very considerable;
nevertheless we find that the Puerto Ricans of today are as short-headed
as the average of the French of the Auvergne. We may therefore conclude
that the movement of populations from Europe to our continent is
accompanied by certain changes of type, the extent of which cannot
be definitely determined at the present time.

I cannot conclude my remarks without at least a brief reference to
the modern endeavors to improve the physical type of the people. It
has been claimed that the congestion in modern cities and other causes
are bringing about a gradual degeneration of our race, which advocates
of eugenics desire to counteract by adequate legislative measures. It is
certainly right to try to check the spread of hereditary defects by such
26measures, but the movement as it is now conceived is not free of serious
dangers. First of all, it would seem that the fundamental thesis of the
degeneracy of our population has never been proved. Our statistics
permit us to count the number of defective individuals, which of course
appears to increase with the rigidity of examination. On the other
hand, our statistics do not allow us to count the individuals of unusual
physical or mental development. It is obvious that, even if the method
of counting should remain the same, there would be an apparent increase
in the number of defectives if the variability of the total population
should increase; in other words, if not all should conform to a
standard, but a considerable number should be inordinately gifted,
another number inordinately deficient. This would not necessarily
mean a degeneration of the population, but would merely be an expression
of increased variability. More serious is the question whether
the principles of eugenics conform to the natural development of the
human species. The fundamental motive that prompts us to advocate
eugenic measures is perhaps not so much the idea of increasing human
efficiency as rather to eliminate human suffering. The humanitarian
idea of the elimination of suffering, which conforms so well with our
sentiments, seems, however, opposed to the conditions under which
species thrive. What is an inconvenience today will be suffering tomorrow;
and the effect of an exaggerated humanitarianism may be to
make mankind so sensitive to suffering that the very roots of its existence
will be endangered. This consideration ought to receive the most careful
attention of those who try to predetermine the development of our
populations by legislative devices.27

1 From Proceedings of the 19th International Congress of Americanists, Washington,
December, 1915
(Washington, D. C., 1917), pp. 569-575.