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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T16


Some Recent Criticisms of Physical
Anthropology 1

During recent years a number of severe attacks against the methods
of physical anthropology have been made, Which are directed
mainly against two points — (1) the possibility of classifying mankind
according to anatomical characteristics, and (2) the practicability of
description of types by means of measurements.

Before we attempt to reply to these criticisms, it may be well to make
a few brief remarks on the development of the methods of physical
anthropology. The living representatives of the various races of man
were originally described according to their general appearance — the
color of the skin, the form and color of the hair, the form of the face,
etc. Later this general description was supplemented by the study of
the skeletons of various races, and a number of apparently characteristic
differences were noted. One of the principal reasons that led to a more
detailed study of the skeleton and to a tendency to lay the greatest stress
upon characteristics of the skeleton, was the ease with which material
of this kind could be obtained. Visitors to distant countries are likely
to bring home skeletons and parts of skeletons, while not much opportunity
is given for a thorough examination of a considerable number
of individuals of foreign races. The difficulty of obtaining material
relating to the anatomy of the soft parts of the body has had the effect
that this portion of the description of the anatomy of man has received
very slight attention. In comparatively few cases have we had opportunity
to make a thorough study of the characteristics of the soft parts
of the body of individuals belonging to foreign races. The desire to find
good specific characters in the skeleton has also been stimulated by the
necessity of studying extinct races. The conditions in these cases are
the same as those found in paleontological studies, where the osseous
remains alone of extinct species are available. Researches into the
earliest history of man must be based on studies of the skeleton.165

Studies of the human skeleton had not. been carried very far when it
was found to be not quite easy to determine racial characteristics with
sufficient accuracy by mere verbal description. This led to the introduction
of measurements as a substitute for verbal description. With the
increase of the material, the necessity of accurate description became
more and more apparent, because intermediate links between existing
forms were found with increasing frequency. These conditions have led
to a most extensive application of the metric method in the study of
the human skeleton and also in the study of the external form of the

The results of the minute studies that have been carried on in this
manner appear discouraging to many students, because we have not
been able to find any criterion by which an individual skeleton of any
one race can be distinguished with certainty from a skeleton belonging
to another race, except in a very general way. A typical full-blood Negro
may be distinguished from a White man, and an Indian of Florida from
an Eskimo; but it would be difficult to distinguish the skeleton of a
Chinaman from that of certain North American Indians.

This lack of definite individual descriptive features has led many
investigators to conclude that the method is at fault, and that the skeleton
cannot be used as a satisfactory basis for a classification of mankind.
This view has been strengthened by the belief, frequently expressed,
that the characteristic features of each race are not stable, but that
they are influenced to a great extent by environment, geographical as
well as social.

It seems to me that these views are not borne out by the observations
that are available. The first objection, which is based on the lack of
typical characteristics in the individual, does not take into consideration
the fact that anthropological study is not a study of individuals, but of
local or social varieties. While it may be impossible to classify any one
individual satisfactorily, any local group existing at a certain given
period can clearly be characterized by the distribution of forms
occurring in that group. I do not hesitate to say that, provided we had
satisfactory statistics of the distribution of human forms over the whole
globe, an exhaustive description of the physical characteristics of any
group of individuals belonging to one locality would enable us to
identify the same without any difficulty. This clearly emphasizes the
fact that anthropological classification must be considered as a statistical
study of local or social varieties. But it will be asked, How does this help
166in classifying individual forms ? The problem must be considered in the
following way:

Each social unit consists of a series of individuals whose bodily
forms depend on their ancestry and on their environment. If the
opinion of the critics of physical anthropology regarding the predominant
effect of environment is correct, then we cannot hope to make any
discoveries as to ancestry of local or social groups by means of anatomical
investigations. If, on the other hand, it can be shown that heredity
is the predominant factor, then the prospects of important discoveries
bearing on the early history of mankind are very bright indeed. It seems
to the writer that a biological consideration makes it very probable that
the influence of heredity should prevail, and thus far he has failed to
find conclusive proof to the contrary.

The critics of the method of physical anthropology will of course
concede that a Negro child must be a Negro, and that an Indian child
must be an Indian. Their criticism is directed against the permanence
of types within the race; for instance, against the permanence of short
or tall statures, or against the permanence of forms of the head. It must
be conceded that muscular development may exert an important influence
on the form of bones, but it does not seem likely that it can
bring about an entire change of form. The insufficiency of the influence
of environment appears in cases where populations of quite distinct
types inhabit the same area and live under identical conditions. Such
is the case on the North Pacific coast of our continent; such was the
case in successive populations of southern California and of Utah.

While this may be considered good evidence in favor of the theory
of predominance of the effect of heredity, the actual proof must be
looked for in comparisons between parent and offspring. If it can be
shown that there is a strong tendency on the part of the offspring to
resemble the parent, we must assume that the effect of heredity is
stronger than that of environment. The method of this investigation
has been developed by Francis Galton and Karl Pearson, who have
given us the means of measuring the degree of similarity between parent
and child. Wherever this method has been applied, it has been shown
that the effect of heredity is the strongest factor in determining the
form of the descendant. It is true that thus far this method has not
been applied to series of generations, and under conditions in which a
considerable change of environment has taken place, and we look forward
to a definite solution of the problem of the effect of heredity and
167of environment through the application of this method. In the study
of past generations we cannot, on the whole, compare directly parent
and offspring, but we have to confine ourselves to a comparison between
the occurrence of types during successive periods. The best available
evidence on this subject is found in the populations of Europe. It
does not seem likely that the present distribution of types in Europe can
be explained in any other way than by the assumption that heredity
had a predominant influence. Much has been made of the apparent
change of type that takes place in the cities of Europe in Order to show
that natural selection may have played an important part in making
certain types of man predominant in one region or another. Ammon
has shown that the city population of southwestern Germany is more
short-headed than the country population, and concludes that this is
due to natural selection. All the phenomena of this character that have
been described can be explained satisfactorily by the assumption that
the city population is more mixed than the country population. This
point has been brought out most clearly by Livi's investigations in Italy.
He has proved that in regions where long-headed forms prevail in
the country, in the city the population is more short-headed; while in
regions in the country in which short-headed forms prevail, in the city
the population is more long-headed.

Under present conditions, it seems best not to start the study of the
anatomical characteristics of man from far-reaching assumptions in
regard to the question of the effect of heredity and environment, but
first of all to ascertain the distribution of types of man. This is a
definite problem that requires treatment and investigation just as much
as the study of languages or the study of the customs of various tribes.
At the present time we are far from being familiar with the distribution
of types on the various continents. No matter what the ultimate explanation
of the distribution of types may be, we cannot evade the task
of investigating their present distribution and of seeking for the explanation
of the reasons for such distribution.

Before entering into this subject more fully, it may be well to take
up the second criticism of the method of physical anthropology, which
has been made with increasing frequency of late years. A number of
investigators object to the metric method of anthropology, and desire
to bring about a substitution of description for measurements. This
proposition is based on a misunderstanding of the function of measurements.
The necessity of making measurements developed when it was
168found that the local varieties of mankind were very much alike — so
much so that a verbal description failed to make their characteristics
sufficiently clear. The process by means of which measurements have
been selected has been a purely empirical one. It has been found that
certain measurements differ considerably in various races, and are for
this reason good classificatory criteria. The function of measurements
is therefore solely that of giving greater accuracy to the vague verbal
description. It is true that in the course of time a tendency has developed
of considering as the sole available criteria of race the measurements
which by experience have been found to be useful. This is true
particularly of the so-called cephalic index; that is, the ratio of width
to length of head. There are anthropologists who have subordinated
everything else to the study of the cephalic index, leaving out of consideration
altogether the forms of the skull and of the skeleton as expressed
by their metric relations or as expressed by means of drawings or
diagrams. It has frequently been pointed out that the same cephalic
index may belong to forms that anatomically cannot be considered as
equivalent. We find, for instance, that the same cephalic index belongs
to the Eskimo, to the prehistoric inhabitant of southern California, and
to the Negro. Still these three types must be considered as fundamentally
different. Anthropologists who limit their work to the mechanical
application of measurements, particularly of single measurements,
and who try to trace the relationships of races by such means,
do not apply the metric method in a correct way. It must be borne in
mind that measurements serve the purpose only of sharper definition
of certain peculiarities, and that a selection of measurements must be
adapted to the purpose in view. I believe the tendency of developing
a cast-iron system of measurements, to be applied to all problems of
physical anthropology, is a movement in the wrong direction. Measurements
must be selected in accordance with the problem that we are
trying to investigate. The ratio of length and breadth of head may be a
very desirable measurement in one case, while in another case it may
be of no value whatever. Measurements should always have a biological
significance. As soon as they lose their significance they lose also their
descriptive value.

The great value of the measurement lies in the fact that it gives us
the means of a comprehensive description of the varieties contained in a
geographic or social group. A table that informs us of the frequency
of various forms as expressed by measurements that occur in a group
169gives us a comprehensive view of the variability of the group that we
are studying. We can then investigate the distribution of forms according
to statistical methods; we can determine the prevalent type and the
character of its variation. The application of rigid statistical methods
gives us an excellent means of determining the homogeneity and the
permanence of the type that is being studied. If a group of individuals
who present a homogeneous type is not subject to changes, we must
expect to find the types arranged according to the law of probabilities;
that is to say, the average type will be the most frequent one, and positive
and negative variations will be of equal frequency. If, on the other
hand, the homogeneous type is undergoing changes, the symmetry of
arrangement will be disturbed, and if the type is heterogeneous we
must expect irregularities in the whole distribution. Investigations of
this character require the measurement of very extensive series of individuals
in order to establish the results in a satisfactory manner. But the
character of the distributions that may thus be obtained will furnish
material for deciding a number of the most fundamental questions of
physical anthropology.

I may now revert to the question previously under discussion. I
have tried to show that the metric method may furnish us material
proving the homogeneity or heterogeneity of groups of certain individuals.
This test has been applied to a number of cases. I have examined
from this point of view the North American half-bloods, that is,
individuals of mixed Indian and White descent. I have shown that the
transverse development of the face, which is the most distinctive difference
between Indian and White, shows a tendency in the mixed race to
revert to either of the parental races, and that there is no tendency
toward the development of an intermediate form. Bertillon has shown
similar irregularities to exist in France. On the other hand, extensive
series of measurements of enlisted soldiers of Italy show in many parts
of the kingdom a comparatively homogeneous series. Hand in hand
with this phenomenon go remarkable differences of variability. In
places where we have reason to believe that distinct types have intermingled,
we find a great increase in variability, while in regions occupied
by homogeneous populations the variability seems to decrease.
These facts are strong arguments for the assumption of a great permanence
of human types. It is necessary that the analysis of distributions
of measurements be carried much further than it has proceeded up
to the present time; this done, I believe we shall obtain a means of
170determining with considerable accuracy the blood-relationships of the
geographical varieties of man.

I wish to say a word here in regard to the question of the relationship
between the earliest prehistoric races and the present races. In so
far as the reconstruction of the characteristics of prehistoric races can
be based on extensive material, there will be a certain justification for a
reconstruction of the soft parts, if a detailed comparison of the osteological
remains of prehistoric types and of present types proves them
to be conformable. Where, however, the similarity is based on a few
isolated specimens, no such reconstruction is admissible, because the
attempt presupposes the identity of the prehistoric race with the present.
Since remains of the earliest man are very few in number, it is hardly
possible to gain an adequate idea of what the characteristics of the soft
parts of his body may have been except in so far as the forms of muscular
attachments allow us to infer the size and form of muscles.

When we base our conclusions on the considerations presented in
this paper, we must believe that the problem of physical anthropology
is as definite as that of other branches of anthropology. It is the determination
and explanation of the occurrence of different types of man in
different countries. The fact that individuals cannot be classified as
belonging to a certain type shows that physical anthropology cannot
possibly lead to a classification of mankind as detailed as does the classification
based on language. The statistical study of types will, however,
lead to an understanding of the blood-relationship between different
types. It will consequently be a means of reconstructing the history of
the mixture of human types. It is probable that it will lead also to the
establishment of a number of good types which have remained permanent
through long periods. It will be seen that that part of human history
which manifests itself in the phenomena that are the subject of
physical anthropology is by no means identical with that part of history
which manifests itself in the phenomena of ethnology and of language.
Therefore we must not expect that classifications obtained by means of
these three methods will be in any way identical. Neither is it a proof
of the incorrectness of the physical method if the limits of its types overlap
the limits of linguistic groups. The three branches of anthropology
must proceed each according to its own method; but all equally contribute
to the solution of the problem of the early history of mankind.171

1 American Anthropologist, N.S., vol. 1 (January, 1899).