Blumenbach and the concept of race

Blumenbach – co-founder of biological Anthropology

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840) was a German naturalist and anthropologist known for manifold scientific achievements during his long and productive career. In 1776, he was appointed professor of medicine and curator of the Museum of Natural History at the Georg-August-University Göttingen. Blumenbach was one of the first to study humankind as part of natural history in a quantitative fashion, rendering him one of the founders of anthropology. Blumenbach explored the biodiversity of humans mainly by comparing skull anatomy and skin color. He is best known for establishing a five-part naming system in 1795 to describe what he called generis humani varietates quinae principes, species vero unica (five principle varieties of humankind, but one species). In his view, humans could be divided into varieties (only in his later work he adopted the term “races”) referred to as Oriental, American Indian, Caucasian, Malay, and Ethiopian. He assumed that all morphological differences between the varieties were induced by the climate and the way of living.
Blumenbach repeatedly emphasized that the differences in morphology were so small and gradual and transiently connected that it was not possible to separate these varieties clearly.

“All national differences in the form and colour of the human body [. . .] run so insensibly, by so many shades and transitions one into the other, that it is impossible to separate them by any but very arbitrary limits.” (Blumenbach [1825, 35−36])”

He also noted that skin color was unsuitable for distinguishing varieties. Nevertheless, he still used the differences to classify humanity into five different varieties, which he later called “races.” Although Blumenbach did not propose any hierarchy among the five varieties, he placed the Caucasian form in the center of his description as being the most “primitive” or “primeval” one from which the other forms “degenerated.” In the 18th century, however, these terms did not have the negative connotations they possess today. At the time, “primitive” or “primeval” described the ancestral form, while “degeneration” was understood to be the process of change leading to a variety adapted to a new environment by being exposed to a different climate and diet.

Blumenbach and the unity of humankind

Blumenbach strongly supported the theory of Monogenism, i.e. of a common origin and descent of all humans. This view was in stark contrast to the polygenist theory that numerous contemporary scientists proposed. They suggested multiple origins of humans and, consequently, several human species, some of which were even considered half animals. At the time, the polygenist argument was used to legitimize ethnic inequality and slavery, which Blumenbach vehemently and openly opposed. These discussions took place even within the Georg-August-University Göttingen, as a colleague, the philosopher and historian Christoph Meiners, advocated the polygenist view. At the same time, Blumenbach was also strongly influenced by this controversial colleague, as he adapted the name “Caucasian” from Meiners – and even his emphasis on beauty. Hence, Blumenbach used comparative anatomical studies to define varieties of humans but emphasized that they were all one species.

“Generis humani varietates quinae principes, species vero unica”, “Es gibt fünf Hauptvarietäten
des Menschengeschlechts, jedoch nur Eine Gattung desselben”, „within humanity there are five varieties, but only one species “ (Blumenbach [1795, 284]; [1798, 203]).

“That no doubt can any longer remain but that we are with great probability right in referring all and singular as many varieties of man as are at present known to one and the same species. (Blumenbach [1795] 1865, 275–276)”

Blumenbach, “Caucasian beauty” and racism

Nowadays, Caucasian is frequently used as a synonym for white – and Blumenbach is remembered as the first to give this designation scientific credibility. However, Blumenbach mentioned that Europeans exhibit a certain degree of “degeneration” from the “ideal Caucasian type” and also showed transitions to other forms. Furthermore, on several occasions, he expressed his conviction that all humans were equipped with equal (intellectual and moral) capabilities, and were just distinguished by different opportunities. Nevertheless, Blumenbach’s interpretation of the varieties shows his Eurocentric and Christian bias. He considered the Caucasian variety to represent the ideal form, an assumption not strictly based on objective measurements of divergence. Instead, this view was influenced by his religious belief and cultural background. He assumed that the first group of humankind was likely to have lived close to where Noah’s Ark was supposed to have landed (Mount Ararat, near the Caucasus), thus being most similar to the humans created by God.

“For in the first place, that [Caucasian] stock displays, [. . .] the most beautiful form of the skull from which, as from a mean and primeval type, the others diverge by most easy gradations on both sides to the two ultimate extremes (that is, on the one side the Mongolian, on the other the Ethiopian). Besides, it is white in colour, which we may fairly assume to have been the primitive colour of mankind, since, as we have shown above, it is very easy for that to degenerate into brown, but very much more difficult for dark to become white. (Blumenbach [1795] [1865], 269)

Furthermore, in his descriptions, Blumenbach was overly enthusiastic about the beauty of the Caucasian skull of a Georgian female. However, he extolled the beauty of Ethiopians and noted that ugliness could be found among Caucasians as well. Blumenbach’s statement on beauty provides striking insights into his thinking. One should note that these statements appear less pronounced in his original work than in some of the respective translations. Especially in a purposeful and strategically deceptive translation, Thomas Bendyshe, an outspoken race supremacist, translated several different Latin words that Blumenbach used to describe the symmetry of the skull with the English word “beauty,” leading to an indeed disturbing density of this descriptor.

Blumenbach opposed racial discrimination and it was not his intention to create the concept of a superior race of white people.

Alexander von Humboldt on his and Blumenbach’s view:
“While we maintain the unity of the human species, we at the same time repel the depressing assumption of superior and inferior races” (Humboldt [1858-59], reprint from 1997, 356, 358)

In the first half of the nineteen century, his writings were regarded as scientific anti-racism and Blumenbach considered an advocate of the abilities of black people.

“I am of the opinion that after all these numerous instances I have brought together of Negroes of capacity, it would not be difficult to mention entire, well-known provinces of Europe, from out of which you would not easily expect to obtain off-hand such good authors, poets, philosophers, and correspondents of the Paris Academy. And on the other hand, there is no so-called savage nation known under the sun which has so much distinguished itself by such examples of perfectibility and original capacity for scientific culture, and thereby attached itself so closely to the most civilized nations of the earth, as the Negro.” (Blumenbach [1795]. The Anthropological Treatises of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, trans. and ed. Thomas Bendyshe, London: Anthropological Society, 1865, 312.)

However, his appraisal of the aesthetic of whites as Caucasians was (ab)used to legitimize and inspire racist interpretations of his human racial taxonomy.


Collection of works assessing Blumenbach’s work in the historical context:

  • Rupke, Nicolaas and Lauer, Gerhard (Editors) (2019) Johann Friedrich Blumenbach - Race and Natural History, 1750–1850 Routledge, London, UK and New York, USA

  • Critical views on Blumenbach’s contribution to concepts used by racists:

  • Curran, Andrew S. (2011) The Anatomy of Blackness. Science & Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, USA
  • Fredickson, George M. (2002) Racism. A short history. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, USA
  • Painter, Nell I. (2010) The history of white people. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, USA
  • Smith, Justin E.H. (2015) Nature, Human Nature, & Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, USA