Some recent criticisms of physical anthropology

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Some recent criticisms of physical anthropology  (1899) 
by Franz Boas
American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 1, No. 1 (January, 1899), pp. 98-106.
SOME RECENT CRITICISMS OF PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY
By FRANZ BOAS

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 generaly appearance,—the coor of the skin, the form and color of the hair, the form of the face, etc. Later his 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.

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 living.

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 distinguisheed 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 skeletons 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 in classifying individual forms? The problem must be considered in the following way:

Each social unit consists of a series of individuals whose bodily form depends 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 musuclar development may exert an important influence on the forms of bones, but it does not seem likely that it can bring about en 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 for 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 of 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, where 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.

It seems to me that, under present conditions, it is best in the study of the anatomical characteristics of man not to start 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 found 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 racial 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 proportion 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 relation 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 proportion 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 this 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, gives 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 dishomogeneous 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 dishomogeneity 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 very 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 farther than it has proceeded up to the present time; this done, and I believe we shall obtain a means of determining 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. Insofar 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.

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.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1942, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.