Of Skulls and Buttocks

February 23, 2010 Topics: Society Regions: Americas Tags: UndefinedRacismSociology

Of Skulls and Buttocks

Mini Teaser: Europeans came to believe everything beautiful emanated from the Caucasus. The journey of their swarthy Mediterranean forebears was transformed into a caricature of the white marble statues they left behind.

by Author(s): Anthony Pagden

Carlyle, who combined what the historian John Burrow has called a "Hebraic-Christian pattern of idolatry and retribution" with German idealism, was one of the most persuasive architects of the Anglo-Saxon myth. In luscious Germanic prose, difficult for his contemporaries to understand and virtually unreadable today, he represented the Teutonic or Saxon peoples, of whom the English were the best example, as industrious, freedom loving, honest and, above all, virile, "round, ruddy, and handsome."

Emerson-to whom Painter dedicates three chapters of her book-is best remembered today as a reformer, a champion of women's emancipation and an enemy of slavery. And so, in good part, he was. Not that his view of the Africans themselves was exactly enlightened. Like many moralists since the days of Cicero, what he most disliked about slavery was the debilitating moral effect it had on the slave owners. "The absence of moral feeling in the whiteman is the very calamity I deplore," he wrote in his journal, "The captivity of a thousand negroes is nothing to me." He was also, however, in Painter's words, "the philosopher king of American white race theory." And like Carlyle, Emerson saw himself as an Anglo-Saxon, a member of a master race cobbled together from Scandinavians, Norsemen, Normans, Jutes and Saxons. This was a race, he claimed in what was perhaps his most popular work, English Traits of 1856, "moulded for law, lawful trade, civility, marriage, the nurture of children, for colleges, churches, charities, and colonies." (A string of nouns which would seem to have little in common except their alliteration.) They were a "handsome race," these "broad-fronted broad-bottomed Teutons . . . in solid phalanx foursquare to the points of the compass. They constitute the modern world." (The notion that the ideal of masculine vitality involved hefty buttocks was widespread. Scottish anatomist Robert Knox's influential 1850 The Races of Man describes the English as if they were race horses, as "broad-fronted, broad-bottomed, best for depth, range and equability.") As Painter says, "To be American was to be Saxon."

The other races of Europe, descending from the "apelike" French (dangerous revolutionaries), through the slippery Italians, indolent Spanish and unreliable (modern) Greeks, arrived finally at those whom Emerson called the "guano" races-peoples of dried bird shit-the worst of whom were the Celts. For most English, and all Americans, this meant the Irish-that "human swinery," as Carlyle had called them. The Scots, romantic Highlanders, the warrior caste of the Empire as they emerged from the pages of Sir Walter Scott, although indubitably Celts, largely, if not entirely, escaped opprobrium. (Carlyle was himself a Scot, although a Lowlander, and therefore-like philosopher David Hume-a "north-Briton," and thus, by his own reckoning, an honorary Englishman.) The Welsh seemed to have been beneath notice altogether. The Irish were another matter, for they had been a colonized, and thus in the eyes of their masters, subservient people since at least the early seventeenth century. They were also, of course-unlike either the Scots or the Welsh-Roman Catholics; and, also unlike the other Celts, thousands of them had poured into the United States following the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s. Like most other immigrants, they were poor, and as Painter argues, race distinction was fast becoming not only a means of sorting out native born from foreign, colonizer from colonized, slave owner from slave; it was also becoming a means of stigmatizing poverty.

The poor, the argument went, were so, not because of unfortunate circumstances, but because of deficiencies in their genetic makeup. The poverty which these Celtic immigrants brought with them from Europe would therefore remain even when they had reached the far side of the Atlantic. Worse, it would fester and might even-the perennial anxiety of all race theorists-come in time to contaminate the native-born masses. "In Irish districts," wrote Emerson who had seen them in Concord, Massachusetts, there were "men deteriorated in size and shape, the nose sunk, the gums were exposed, with diminished brain and brutal form."


AS A country of immigrants, it was natural, if not depressing, that America became obsessed with the potential deleterious effects of flaws in the gene pool that would pass down and promulgate from sea to shining sea. This led to a long love affair with an elaborate and self-contradictory pseudoscientific apparatus, developed in some of the best universities in the country. The goal was to distinguish clearly between "Native-Americans"-a term which until recently referred not to the "Indians" but to the descendants of the original English settlers-and the riffraff arriving from the far edges of Europe. Emerson had spoken of race largely as a matter of character. The members of what Painter calls "the mean-spirited school of ‘American anthropology'" chose more ostensibly "scientific means." Most popular among these was a return to that skull-measuring method with its dubious claims to rigor. "Skulls," as Painter puts it, "ruled the day in American anthropology."

So too did statistics. Something called the cephalic index (the breadth of the head, divided by the length, times one hundred-a measure first devised by the Swedish anthropologist and anatomy professor Anders Retzius in 1842) was used to parse humanity into two groups: those with long heads, termed dolichocephalic, and those with broad heads, called brachycephalic. The former-characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic peoples-was indicative of beauty and intelligence, determination, fortitude and so on; the latter, found among Basques, Finns, Lapps (itself a term of abuse; their true name is Sami) and Celts, was indicative of inertia, lack of determination, stupidity and ugliness. Why this should be the case was never fully explained. The assumption seems to have been that more gray cells could be crammed into long heads than into narrow ones. To the general public, already eager to believe in the inferiority of a growing immigrant population, the new racial anthropology, with its numbers and charts and graphs, had the aura of true science.

In 1899, William Z. Ripley, a professor of economics at Harvard who spoke proudly of "our original Anglo-Saxon ancestry in America" and contrasted it sharply with that of the "motley throngs now pouring in upon us," published a book called simply The Races of Europe. It had 624 pages of text, 222 portraits, 86 maps, tables and graphs, and a bibliography of over two thousand sources in several languages. Ripley used the cephalic index ("one of the best available tests of race known"), together with data about height and pigmentation, to arrive at three broad categories: the Teutonic, the Alpine and the Mediterranean. (The fact that the first of these describes a number of peoples or, as it would soon come to be called, an "ethnic group," and the other two geographical locations, was passed over without comment.)

Like most such texts, The Races of Europe is deeply contradictory. The samples are far too small to support any of the conclusions which Ripley claims to have reached, even assuming the premises on which they are based to be consistent-which they frequently are not. He seems uncertain about just where Europe is supposed to end, stretching it, on some occasions, as far east as India. Africans appear in the chapter on the Mediterranean race, although they would seem to have no place in the book at all, and the data is not infrequently muddled up with the kind of aesthetic judgments Emerson and Carlyle used. The Finno-Ugric language group (language was taken to be evidence of racial affiliation), which links together the Sami, the Finns, the Turks and the Magyrs from central Europe, could not, Ripley declares, possibly have any validity because: "The Magyrs, among the finest representatives of a west European type, are no more like the Lapps than the Australian bushmen."

The tome was hailed as a breakthrough. The Races of Europe had, said the New York Times, finally dispelled the "schoolroom fallacy that there is such a thing as a single European or white race." Here were secure scientific grounds for turning back the seemingly endless flow of those from what Ripley called "the political sinks of Europe," that "great horde of Slavs, Huns and Jews" now seeking "asylum on our shores." Unless something were done, this-and the miscegenation which would inevitably follow-would lead inexorably to a "complete submergence" of the Anglo-Saxon Americans.

Ripley's views, and Ripley's anxieties, were shared by many, but they did not go unopposed. Painter draws a very sympathetic portrait of Franz Boas, one of the founding fathers of modern American cultural anthropology. Boas was himself an immigrant and a Jew. He found most of the work of the physical anthropologists flawed, when not hopelessly confused and ideologically perverse. He argued that "civilization" was a matter of upbringing and education, not race. Peoples changed in response to their cultural environments. To prove this by using the physical anthropologists' own tools, in 1911 (funded by the United States Immigration Commission), he prepared a massive collection of statistical analysis entitled Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants. What this claimed to demonstrate-although the data, if rather more consistent, was no more reliable than Ripley's-was that the longer a woman remained in the United States, the more the shape of the heads of her American-born offspring differed from those of her progeny who had been born abroad. Nurture, it would seem, could transform even nature.

Essay Types: Book Review