Human Variation Thesis

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Physical Anthropology

Human variation

Physical anthropology and racism: The interaction between supposedly objective science and cultural assumptions

Because of the sad history of human society, few academic disciplines are immune to accusations of racism. However, anthropology, because it purports to study world cultures, has one of the most troubling histories of all of the social sciences regarding the justification of racial prejudices. This paper will examine how physical anthropology has been used as a liberator as well as an inhibitor of social equality. Anthropologists have used the physical aspects of different human beings classified under 'racial categories' over the centuries to justify pervasive social inequalities and outright segregation and brutal colonialism, as is evident in this excerpt from an early 19th century lecture, quoted at length in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education in 2001: "It appears that in the Negro the growth of the brain is sooner arrested than in the European. This premature union of the bones of the skull may give a clue to much of the mental inferiority which is seen in the Negro race. There can be no doubt that in puberty a great change takes place in relation to physical development; but in the Negro there appears to be an arrested development of the brain, exactly harmonizing with the physical formation. Young Negro children are nearly as intelligent as European children, but the older they grow the less intelligent they become. They exhibit, when young, an animal liveliness for play and tricks, far surpassing the European child."

One of the earliest influences upon concepts of race and racism in the field of anthropology was that of the early 20th century anthropologist Franz Boas. Boas "struggled to reconcile the tension between cultural anthropology and the methodological rigors of physical anthropology," arguing that physically, the "the average African-American possessed the same mental capabilities as ordinary whites," but falling prey to the self-serving assumptions of his day, as Boas claimed there was a "dearth of 'men of high genius,' among African-Americans (Smithers 2008, p.32). Boas failed to recognize the effects of racism in American society upon African-American young people as well as intellectual luminaries who overcame racism such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. Boas also stated on other occasions that biologically "the mind of primitive man differed from that of civilized man" even while arguing "for a more rigorous approach to physical anthropology, incorporating political and social milieus into studies of race" (Smithers 2008, p.32).

As a physical anthropologist, "Boas was concerned primarily with biological process and with the formation of human physical types" but types that were invariably culturally coded during his era in a negative fashion (Gravely 2003). However, many racists, even those who broadly identified themselves as social Darwinists, believed that human populations were essentially unchanged, merely giving way in a broad and misunderstood 'survival of the fittest.' Boas argued instead for an "emphasis on process and individual variation" which "set Boas apart from most of his contemporaries and is central to his critique of race" (Gravely 2003). Boas believed that discriminatory laws were wrong because 'races' could 'improve.'

For example, while Anthropologists of Boas' day generally assumed that certain "distinct, fixed races or types" existed known as "permanent forms" had "lasted without variation from the beginning of our modem geological period up to the present time" Boas emphasized how immigrants had been changed by their new environment, contrasting the children's physicality from their parents' bodies (Gravlee 2003). However, to modern ears, his analysis has a deeply, uncomfortably pejorative tone. He writes that "the east European Hebrew, who has a very round head, becomes more long-headed; the south Italian, who in Italy has an exceedingly long head, becomes more short-headed; so that both approach a uniform type in this country, so far as the roundness of the head is concerned.... This fact is one of the most suggestive ones discovered in our investigation, because it shows that not even those characteristics of a race which have proved to be most permanent in their old home remain the same under our new surroundings; and we are compelled to conclude that when these features of the body change, the whole bodily and mental make-up of the immigrants may change" (Gravlee 2003) Reviewing these remarks, which were thought to be the height of physical anthropology's sophistical makes the fact that Boas was considered a relative liberal quite striking -- more typical, however, of conservatives was that of Professor Ulysses Weatherly, at Indiana University who argued against interracial marriages because "a mixed-race child would likely inherit the worst qualities of both races" (Smithers 2008, p.32).

Even more insidiously, during World War II, German anthropologists served in the Nazi government, justifying the anti-Jewish laws put into place by Hitler, and providing scientific justification for its propaganda. "Working at places like the Anthropological Institute of Vienna where their reputations added legitimacy to the practice of validating racial heredity certificates in compliance with Nazi policies….these anthropologists must have been aware that their efforts to preserve the physical measurements and social medical data on the Jews tied neatly with the exhumation of Jewish corpses from graves in other parts of Europe and the robbery of Jewish artifacts from synagogues, museums, and libraries" (Price 2005). Medical doctors were trained by anthropologists in 'racially hygienic' policies and the Nazi's version anthropology. Josef Mengele himself studied anthropology, and many anthropologists used the grisly remains of the Nazi's atrocities in their 'work.' This example is important to remember, not to defame the profession of biological anthropology, but as a reminder of how physical anthropology's objectivity as a science can be twisted for political ends (Price 2005).

Of course, it is true that "peoples who have occupied major geographical areas for much of the recent evolution of humans look different from one another. Sub-Saharan Africans have dark skin and people who live in East Asia tend to have a light tan skin and an eye color and eye shape and hair that are different than Europeans. So there is this kind of genetic - it is genetic - differentiation of some features of the body between people who live in Central Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, and South America" (Lewontin 2003). But the cultural weight given to these racial differences far exceeds the relatively minor genetic variation within the human species -- the difference between a human from Sub-Saharan African and Europe, more sophisticated and less biased anthropologists note today, is relatively minor when compared to genetic variation within other species. Only about 7% of all of human genetic variation can be ascribed to differences between races and about 75% of all the genes are identical (Lewontin 2003).

One fascinating study that literally depicts how racism is 'skin deep' was a comparative study of blood types. "Since the 20th century, it's been recognized that there's what's called polymorphism of blood type. There are type As and type Bs and type Os and Rh-positive and Rh-negative and so on in every group in the world" (Lewontin 2003). The initial hypothesis of a comparative study of peoples was that blood types would be highly concentrated amongst specific populations. "The assumption was that people in Africa would have a very different relative frequency of A and B. And O. than people would in North America or in Europe and in Asia. And what all these studies showed was that that wasn't true. That you couldn't really tell the difference between an African population and a European population and an Asian population by looking at the frequency, the relative proportions of the different blood types. They were essentially the same in all these groups" (Lewontin 2003).

Biological anthropologist Alan Goodman says that despite the occasionally ignominious history of anthropology in justifying racism, a true understanding of the scientific facts of human genetic variation can 'set us free' of racism: "facts of biology, the facts of non-concordance, the facts of continuous variation, the recentness of our evolution, the way that we all commingle and come together, how genes flow, and perhaps especially in the fact that most variation occurs within race vs. between races or among races" suggests that there is "no generalizability to race. There is no center there; there is no there in the center. It's fluid" (Goodman 2003). The fact that humans can easily intermarry points to our genetic similarity. Moreover, the way that the races have been 'measured' overtime by biologists has varied widely. It is often forgotten that once Jewish people were considered part of a race, not a religion by anthropologists, as were the Irish. Goodman says that his Jewishness is one reason he feels so passionately about doing away with the category of race in the field of anthropology, except as a misguided cultural construction: "there is no way to measure race first. We sometimes do it by skin color. Other people may do it by hair texture. Other people may have the dividing lines different in terms of skin color. What's… [END OF PREVIEW]

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APA Format

Human Variation.  (2009, May 25).  Retrieved February 23, 2019, from

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"Human Variation."  25 May 2009.  Web.  23 February 2019. <>.

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"Human Variation."  May 25, 2009.  Accessed February 23, 2019.