Popular Science Monthly/Volume 25/September 1884/Aims of the Study of Anthropology

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647890Popular Science Monthly Volume 25 September 1884 — Aims of the Study of Anthropology1884William Henry Flower


By Professor WILLIAM H. FLOWER, F. R. S.

ONE of the great difficulties with regard to making anthropology a special subject of study, and devoting a special organization to its promotion, is the multifarious nature of the branches of knowledge comprehended under the title. This very ambition, which endeavors to include such an extensive range of knowledge, ramifying in all directions, illustrating and receiving light from so many other sciences, appears often to overleap itself and give a looseness and indefiniteness to the aims of the individual or the institution proposing to cultivate it.

The old term ethnology has a far more limited and definite meaning. It is the study of the different peoples or races who compose the varied population of the world, including their physical characters, their intellectual and moral development, their languages, social customs, opinions, and beliefs; their origin, history, migrations, and present geographical distribution, and their relations to each other. These subjects may be treated of under two aspects: first, by a consideration of the general laws by which the modifications in all these characters are determined and regulated—this is called general ethnology; secondly, by the study and description of the races themselves, as distinguished from each other by the special manifestations of these characters in them. To this the term special ethnology, or, more often, ethnography, is applied.

Ethnology thus treats of the resemblances and differences of the modifications of the human species in their relations to each other, but anthropology, as now understood, has a far wider scope. It treats of mankind as a whole. It investigates his origin and his relations to the rest of the universe. It invokes the aid of the sciences of zoölogy, comparative anatomy, and physiology; and the wider the range of knowledge met with in other regions of natural structure, and the more abundant the terms of comparison known, the less risk there will be of error in attempting to estimate the distinctions and resemblances between man and his nearest allies, and fixing his place in the zoölogical scale. Here we are drawn into contact with an immense domain of knowledge, including a study of all the laws which modify the conditions under which organic bodies are manifested, which at first sight seem to have little bearing upon the particular study of man.

Furthermore, it is not only with man's bodily structure and its relations to that of the lower animals that we have to deal; the moral and intellectual side of his nature finds its rudiments in them also, and the difficult study of comparative psychology, now attracting much attention, is an important factor in any complete system of anthropology.

In endeavoring to investigate the origin of mankind as a whole, geology must lend its assistance to determine the comparative ages of the strata in which the evidences of his existence are found; but researches into his early history soon trench upon totally different branches of knowledge. In tracing the progress of the race from its most primitive condition, the characteristics of its physical structure and relations with the lower animals are soon left behind, and it is upon evidence of a kind peculiar to the human species, and by which man is so pre-eminently distinguished from all other living beings, that our conclusions mainly rest. The study of the works of our earliest known forefathers, "prehistoric archaeology," as it is commonly called, although one of the most recently developed branches of knowledge, is now almost a science by itself, and one which is receiving a great amount of attention in all parts of the civilized world. It investigates the origin of all human culture, endeavors to trace to their common beginning the sources of all our arts, customs, and history. The difficulty is what to include and where to stop; as, though the term "prehistoric" may roughly indicate an artificial line between the province of the anthropologist and that which more legitimately belongs to the archaeologist, the antiquary, and the historian, that the studies of the one pass insensibly into those of the other is an evident and necessary proposition. Knowledge of the origin and development of particular existing customs throws immense light upon their real nature and importance; and, conversely, it is often only from a profound acquaintance with the present or comparatively modern manifestations of culture that we are able to interpret the slight indications afforded us by the scanty remains of primitive civilization.

Even the more limited subject of ethnology must be approached from many sides, and requires for its cultivation knowledge derived from sciences so diverse, and requiring such different mental attributes and systems of training, as scarcely ever to be found combined in one individual. This will become perfectly evident when we consider the various factors or elements which constitute the differential characters of the groups or races into which mankind is divided. The most important of these are:

1. Structural or anatomical characters, derived from diversities of stature, proportions of different parts of the body, complexion, features, color and character of the hair, form of the skull and other bones, and the hitherto little-studied anatomy of the nervous, muscular, vascular, and other systems. The modifications in these structures in the different varieties of man are so slight and subtile, and so variously combined, that their due appreciation, and the discrimination of what in them is essential or important, and what incidental or merely superficial, require a long and careful training, superadded to a preliminary knowledge of the general anatomy of man and the higher animals. The study of physical or zoological ethnology, though it lies at the basis of that of race, is thus necessarily limited to a comparatively few original investigators.

2. The mental and moral characters by which different races are distinguished are still more difficult to fathom and to describe and define, and, although the subject of much vague statement, as there are few people who do not consider themselves competent to give an opinion about them, they have hitherto been rarely approached by any strictly scientific method of inquiry.

3. Language.—The same difficulties are met with in the study of language as in that of physical peculiarities, in the discrimination between the fundamental and essential and the mere accidental and superficial resemblances; and in proportion as these difficulties are successfully overcome will the results of the study become valuable instead of misleading. Though the science of language is an essential part of ethnology, and one which generally absorbs almost the entire energies of any one who cultivates it, its place in discriminating racial affinities is unquestionably below that of physical characters. Used, however, with due caution, it is a powerful aid to our investigations, and, in the difficulties with which the subject is surrounded, one which we can by no means afford to do without.

4. The same may be said of social customs, including habitations, dress, arms, food, as well as ceremonies, beliefs, and laws, in themselves fascinating subjects of study, placed here in the fourth rank, not as possessing any want of interest, but as contributing comparatively little to our knowledge of the natural classification and affinities of the racial divisions of man. When we see identical and most strange customs, such as particular modes of mutilation of the body, showing themselves among races the most diverse in character and remote geographically, we can not help coming to the conclusion that these customs have either been communicated in some hitherto unexplained manner, or are the outcome of some common element of humanity, in either of which cases they tell nothing of the special relations or affinities of the races which practice them.

This subject of ethnography, or the discrimination and description of race characteristics, is perhaps the most practically important of the various branches of anthropology. Its importance to those who have to rule—and there are few of us now who are not called upon to bear our share of the responsibility of government—can scarcely be overestimated in an empire like this, the population of which is composed of examples of almost every diversity under which the human body can manifest itself. The physical characteristics of race, so strongly marked in many cases, are probably always associated with equally or more diverse characteristics of temper and intellect. In fact, even when the physical divergences are weakly shown, as in the case of the different races which contribute to make up the home portion of the empire, the mental and moral characteristics are still most strongly marked. As it behooves the wise physician not only to study the particular kind of disease under which his patient is suffering, and then to administer the approved remedies for such disease, but also to take into careful account the peculiar idiosyncrasy and inherited tendencies of the individual, which so greatly modify both the course of the disease and the action of remedies, so it is absolutely necessary for the statesman who would govern successfully, not to look upon human nature in the abstract and endeavor to apply universal rules, but to consider the special moral, intellectual, and social capabilities, wants, and aspirations of each particular race with which he has to deal. A form of government under which one race would live happily and prosperously would to another be the cause of unendurable misery. No greater mistake could be made, for instance, than to apply to the case of the Egyptian fellah the remedies which may be desirable to remove the difficulties and disadvantages under which the Birmingham artisan may labor in his struggle through life. It is not only that their education, training, and circumstances are dissimilar, but that their very mental constitution is totally distinct. And when we have to do with people still more widely removed from ourselves—African negroes, American Indians, Australian or Pacific islanders—it seems almost impossible to find any common ground of union or modus vivendi; the mere contact of the races generally ends in the extermination of one of them. If such disastrous consequences can not be altogether averted, we have it still in our power to do much to mitigate their evils.

All these questions, then, should be carefully studied by those who have any share in the government of people of races alien to themselves. A knowledge of their special characters and relations to one another has a more practicable object than the mere gratification of scientific curiosity; it is a knowledge upon which the happiness and prosperity, or the reverse, of millions of our fellow-creatures may depend.

  1. From the President's address, delivered at the anniversary meeting of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, January 22, 1884.