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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T15


Review of Roland B. Dixon,
“The Racial History of Man” 11

During the last quarter of a century, particularly since the development
of studies on heredity, the attempts to unravel the history
of human types have been based more and more on the investigation of
morphological forms. The more mechanical classifications according
to metrical features which dominated anthropological inquiry during
the end of the past century do not play as important a part as they used
to do. An excellent instance of this kind is the detailed investigation of
the history of the Melanesian-Australian type given by Sarasin in his
study of New Caledonia. 22 The same tendencies manifest themselves in
the study of the ancient remains of man, particularly of those belonging
to the paleolithic period. It is recognized more and more clearly that
metrical values must be considered merely as a means of a quantitative
statement of descriptive features.

Professor Dixon's attempt to unravel the racial history of man runs
counter to this whole development. His book is based on the thesis that
three measurements of the head — length, breadth and height — and two
measurements of the nose — height and breadth — have remained stable
since paleolithic times. The second hypothesis on which his analysis is
based is the assumption that all those human types which are characterized
by the extreme forms of the length-breadth and length-height index
of the head and the height-breadth index of the nose are primary forms
and that all intermediate forms are due to intermixture between these
primary forms. In this way he obtains necessarily eight fundamental
races, representing the eight possible combinations of three independent

From a biological point of view it is difficult to see how these two fundamental
hypotheses could be maintained. First of all, we have no
160evidence that human types may be considered as absolutely stable. It
is true that not all types of organisms react equally energetically to environmental
influences, but there is no evidence that would permit us
to assume that man is absolutely resistant to them. We have the best
possible evidence that the size of the body and proportions of the limbs
are strongly influenced by environment and, so far as I can see, no observations
have been made that would contradict my own observations
on the changes of head and face form of immigrants in the United
States and of the descendants of Spaniards living in Puerto Rico. The
proof may not have been given that the differences between town population
and country population observed in Europe is due to direct
environmental influences, but even if we assume with Ammon 13 that
it is due to selection, it would show that the constitution of a group of
people may be materially changed.

The strongest argument in favor of the plasticity of skeletal form is
shown in observations of domesticated animals. Changes in head form
and in size of the skull have been noted not only in many domesticated
animals, but also among animals born in captivity. Differences
have been observed between wild lions and lions born in zoological parks
and between wild rats and rats raised in cages. Attention has been
called by Eduard Hahn and by the writer to the fact that men must be
considered a domesticated form and this thesis has been most fully
worked out by Eugen Fischer and recently by Berthold Klatt. 24 With
these observations in mind, the thesis of the absolute stability of human
forms from paleolithic times to the present would require proof before
it could be accepted. This view is practically a restatement of the thesis
of J. Kollmann, who considered the modern human types as “Dauerformen.”

In order to maintain the second hypothesis, Professor Dixon has
assumed (p. 17) that the three features which he discusses are not
subject to Mendelian inheritance. While we do not know in detail how
the three features are inherited, there is fairly conclusive evidence that
there is a tendency towards reversion to parental types. A study of the
data collected by Walter Scheidt 35 shows that the formation of middle
types as a result of crossings is not probable.

It would seem to the reviewer that an attempt to establish the extremes
161of a variable series as fundamental types is based on a misconception
of the meaning of variability. We know from the studies of
inbreeding carried out by Miss King 16 on rats and by Johannsen 27 on
beans that even in extreme cases of long continued inbreeding there will
always remain a considerable amount of variability. This is not surprising,
considering the complexity of the organism and the many ways in
which it is subject to formative influences which can never be fully
controlled. We are fairly familiar with the variability of the two head
indices and of the nasal index. If we assume for a moment that we have
a human type which, in regard to the three classes established by Professor
Dixon, occupies exactly a middle position and if we assume furthermore
the variability in this group to be equal to one-half of the space
occupied according to his definition by the middle group and if,
furthermore, we disregard the correlations between the various measurements,
we should find that in a group of. this kind all the extreme
groups would be represented by 0.5 per cent of the whole series; all
the groups containing two extreme forms and one middle form would
be represented by 1.8 per cent; those representing one extreme and two
middle forms each by 7.6 per cent and those representing three middle
forms by 28.7 per cent. As a matter of fact, the variability here assumed
for the three ratios considered by Professor Dixon is lower than the normal
variability that occurs in any given type and we would have to say,
therefore, that in a group of people of this kind all the extreme forms
would be represented. Professor Dixon would go on to say that all
the middle forms are mixed and he would thus obtain 12.5 per cent
for each one of his primary types as the ancestry of the group. The
assumption that the variability of a series of this kind is due to mixture
is entirely arbitrary. In short, the proof is not given that the extreme
forms are actually fundamental forms. On the contrary we should
rather be inclined to assume that the extreme forms are due to certain
excessive conditions that determine the particular form of the individual
in question.

It seems, therefore, that the theoretical basis of the whole investigation
would require proof of the two fundamental hypotheses and this
the author fails to give, and it is my belief that it cannot possibly be

It is, of course, true that the human races have intermarried to such
162an extent that the attempt to find a pure race anywhere is futile. Notwithstanding
this fact, we ought not to overlook the similarity of the
phenomenon to the analogous variability of plants and animals which
occur over extended areas. Exactly the same method might be applied
to forms of bears or to forms of mice. Here also extreme forms might
be established and all the intermediate forms might then be explained
as due to mixture. This simplification of the problem would, however,
hardly appear justifiable because here, also, the dogmatic assumption
would be made that the forms are permanent and not in any way subject
to environmental influences.

The difficulties of these hypotheses made by the author appear very
clearly when he compares his fundamental types as occurring in different
parts of the world. As might be expected he does not find any kind
of correlation between the ratios which he studies and other anatomical
traits, such as pigmentation, hair form and so on. It is quite obvious that
when we compare long-headed, high-headed, flat-nosed individuals living
in the Alps of Europe with similarly proportioned individuals from
Australia and West Africa, there must be serious differences in regard
to other traits. Because Professor Dixon assumes that these three values
are fundamental, he is compelled to assume that none of the other traits
are permanent and are all subject to change. No attempt it made to
prove this conclusion, which is merely an inference drawn from the
assumed permanence of the given traits. It is, of course, true that there
is a possibility that features like kinky hair may have developed independently
in different races, as Sarasin assumes, but this assumption
does not overcome the objections based on the failure to consider any
other bodily features.

On account of our fundamental disagreement with the general position
of the author it does not seem advantageous to enter into a detailed
discussion of the distribution of the various types which is given in a
number of maps. It must be understood, of course, that the maps are
analogous in character to the usual maps showing the distribution of,
for instance, short statures and tall statures, or low cephalic index and
high cephalic index and that all of these are only fragmentary reproductions,
because the plotted values depend upon two factors, the average
and the variability of the measurements. The author's maps ought to
be labeled as expressing approximately the frequency of occurrence of
certain combinations of features. The maps certainly do not prove that
these are fundamental races.163

It is quite impossible to check up the data contained in the book because
the general tables are not given. This is obviously impossible in
a book which evidently is intended to appeal not only to the specialist
but also to the general reader, but furthermore, the summary tables
given on page 22 and those contained in the conclusion do not agree
and the numbers are so small that any general inferences drawn from
them seem rather risky.

In the final chapter Professor Dixon tries to prove that those groups
which agree in regard to the selected ratios also agree in regard to other
metric features. He uses for this purpose a series of fourteen measurements,
eight of which are the length, breadth and height of the head
and length and breadth of nose and the three ratios on which his whole
system is built up. He tries to show that the six remaining measurements
agree. One of these is the breadth-height index which is derived from
the same material as the length-breadth and length-height indices. The
others and the bizygomatic diameter, two facial indices, the gnathic
index and the capacity of the skull. It is not surprising that the measurements
on which his classification is based should agree fairly well.
However, in my judgment, the rest do not show any satisfactory agreement,
particularly considering the small number of individuals upon
which the comparisons are based.

A word should be said also in regard to Professor Dixon's general
attitude towards the question of the relation between racial ability and
anatomical form. In one place he expresses himself as quite convinced
that achievement proves hereditary ability (p. 518). I cannot consider
this argument conclusive. If it were valid, then at different periods
it would justify entirely different views. It is not very long since Russia
would have seemed in cultural achievement very much inferior to western
Europe. The conclusion as to racial inferiority is in this case contradicted
by the considerable number of eminent scientists and artists
produced by Russia since social conditions have changed. If the ancient
Greeks or still earlier the Egyptians or Chinese had used the same argument,
they would have classified the northern Europeans as belonging
to an inferior race, incapable of ever attaining cultural eminence. The
proof of racial superiority certainly has to be based on other evidence.
It is curious to note that when it suits the author's emotional attitude
he changes his argument completely and indulges in flings at the assumed
claim of racial pre-eminence on the part of the Germans — an
attitude which hardly helps to make convincing a treatise that attempts
to be scientific.164

11 Science, N.S., vol. 57 (May 18, 1923), pp. 587-590.

22 Fritz Sarasin, Anthropologie der Neu-Caledonier und Loyalty-Insulaner (Berlin,

31 O. Ammon, Zur Anthropologie der Badener (Jena, 1899).

42 “Mendelismus, Domestikation und Kraniologie,” Archiv für Anthropologie,
vol. 18 (1921), p. 225.

53 Familienkunde (Munich, 1923), pp. 75-109.

61 Studies on Inbreeding (Philadelphia, 1919).

72 W. Johannsen, Elemente der exakten Erblichkeitslehre (Jena, 1909).