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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T17


The Relations Between Physical and
Social Anthropology 1

During the last decades physical anthropology and social anthropology
have drifted more and more apart. This seems unavoidable
on account of the difference in subject matter and the
necessity of a thorough biological training for the one branch, while the
other requires a knowledge of ethnological methods. With the wide
extent of either field it is hardly possible to combine the two adequately.

Nevertheless some method must be found, if the important borderland
between the two is not to be neglected — much to the detriment of

It may be conceded that the purely morphological study of early
forms of man and of races is a matter that should be treated by the
morphologist. It is more doubtful whether the study of living races can
be left entirely to him. He must include in his study the determining
factors that stabilize or differentiate racial types: heredity, environment,
and selection as well as the occurrence of mutations. The social
anthropologist is interested in the history of society and for this reason
he has to know the origin and history of each type. Its distribution may
throw important light upon historic events. The physical anthropologist
has to answer many questions asked by the student of society. Is the
similarity of types living in remote countries due to genetic relationship
or to parallel mutations? Is, for instance, the type of the Ainu due
to an old genetic relationship with Europeans, or is it a spontaneous
mutation in the Mongoloid race? What role has domestication played in
the development of races? In how far have anthropometric measures a
taxonomic value showing genetic relationship, or in how far are they
determined by environment or selection? When the biologist — for so
we may call the physical anthropologist — wants to answer these questions,
he must be familiar with ethnic data. The attempts of certain
anthropologists to analyze on the basis of measurements and observations
172a population and to discover the constituent races is, at present at
least, a hopeless task. Without the most detailed knowledge of the laws
of heredity of each feature considered, as well as of the effects of environment,
the task is like that of a mathematician who tries to solve
without any further data a single equation with a large number of
unknown quantities. If anything is to be done on these lines the historical
composition of the population has to be known in detail.

Any attempt at a morphological classification of races, excepting the
very largest groups, like Negroes, Mongoloids, Australians, does not lead
to satisfactory results without knowledge of the conditions that have
made the type what it is. A purely taxonomic description of local types
determined by means of those traits that strike the observer as most
frequently occurring in the population in question, or that may be
proved to be so, do not clear up the history of the population. We might
claim that the frequency of various values of the head index in southern
Italy indicates descent from distinct hereditary groups and state that
a certain percentage of “Alpine” types have intermingled with the
“pure” Mediterranean strain; or we might claim that the frequency of
blue eyes in Sicily corresponds to the amount of Norman blood. These
conclusions are valueless if it cannot be shown that the cephalic index
is solely determined by heredity and that in a “pure” race its variations
do not exceed very narrow limits, and that blue eyes may not originate
by mutation, as they certainly must have done at one time, and that
this mutation may not occur again in any one of the strongly depigmented
European populations.

Added to these difficulties is that of an adequate definition of type.
Actually the type of a population is always an abstraction of the striking
peculiarities of the mass of individuals which are assumed to be represented
combined in a single individual. What the striking peculiarities
are depends largely upon the previous experiences of the observer, not
upon the morphological value of the observed traits. This explains the
diversities of opinion in taxonomic classification. They all contain so
many subjective elements without necessary morphological checks that
conclusions based on them have slight value. A result of historical significance
can be obtained only by a study of the many genetic lines constituting
the population, not selected from the arbitrary point of view of
which is “typical,” but with due consideration of the variety of forms
that occur, of their frequencies in succeeding generations, and of their
response to varying environmental influences.173

Classifications made on the basis of a selected number of traits, like
those of Deniker and many others, have an interest from a purely
statistical point of view, showing how certain traits are distributed, but
they do not give us any right to differentiate between racial strains.

These difficulties are the greater the less marked the difference between
two populations, either on account of their genetic relationship or
on account of intermingling of types. They disappear only in those
cases in which no overlapping of types occurs.

A purely subjective selection of racial types according to their local
distribution, and even more so the attempts to select by subjective judgments
typical forms as constituent elements of a population, will never
give us a true picture of racial history.

Where it can be proved historically that a population is mixed, such
as the American Mulattoes, the half-blood Indians, or the half-castes of
the Orient, biological questions arise that require a thorough knowledge
of social conditions. If it were true, as has been claimed so often, that
mixed bloods are inferior in physique to their parents of pure stock, or
that disharmonies of forms will develop that have detrimental effects,
it must still be asked who were the parents? Were they of normal value,
or of inferior strains in the race to which they belong, and are the conditions
under which the mixed population live equal to those of the two
parental stocks? Without an answer to these questions, which require
sociological knowledge, the biological inferences have little value. Data
like those available on American Negroes show the strong influence of
unfavorable social conditions, while those obtained from Pitcairn Island,
from the South African Bastards, from Kisar, or from North American
Indians show that mixed populations may preserve full vigor.

The considerations relating to the significance of taxonomic differences
are the more important the greater the environmental influences
upon the feature studied. Among bodily traits this is true, for instance,
of stature and weight, which are quite variable under varying conditions.
Still more significant is this variability in the study of physiological
and psychological functions.

While the physical anthropologist is liable to look at functional phenomena
as expressions of structure, the ethnologist will bear in mind
the varying conditions influencing functions. Undoubtedly these are, to
a certain extent, determined by structure, but they vary in the same
individual according to conditions, so that in a large population, containing
many distinct hereditary lines, similar outer conditions may
174produce functional similarities that may give the impression of being
determined by racial descent, while actually they are due to similar
conditioning. The interpretation of such phenomena requires the greatest
caution, on account of the constant danger of considering as causally
related anatomical and functional characteristics that are only accidentally
related. This is particularly true of the attempts to correlate
mental characteristics of populations and bodily form. It may be that
differences in personality exist in races fundamentally distinct, but no
convincing proof has been given so far that the observed differences are
actually structurally determined, while the modification of various aspects
of personality of members of the same race who live under changed
conditions has been proved.

In this field particularly a clear understanding of the meaning of
social conditions is essential if the grossest errors are to be avoided.
Sameness of conditions is altogether too readily either assumed or overlooked.
If Davenport and Steggerda assume equality of all social groups
in Jamaica they overlook group differences which can be evaluated
only by those intimately familiar with the social life of the people. On
the other hand the experimentally determined similarities in very simple
reactions of identical twins are overvalued when applied to complex
activities dependent upon cultural situations.175

1 Essays in Anthropology in Honor of Alfred Louis Kroeber (University of California
Press, 1936).