When anthropology emerged as a science in the mid-to late 1800s, it was almost immediately corrupted by the biases of some of the individuals who pioneered it. The politics in Europe at the time had shifted heavily toward anti-Semitism. Because anthropology was a fledgling science, it was easy for these prejudices to infiltrate because there were no scientific precedents to refute them. Initial scientific classifications of the human species were ridden with racism as well as social and religious biases. Presented as scientific fact, these prejudices became established in the ideology of European society.
While there were anthropologists trying desperately to refute these racist notions, they found themselves deprived of support and funding because they did not share the views of those in power. Although many scientists in the field of anthropology were of Jewish decent, few of them spoke out for fear of being further repressed. Many of the dissenters were innovators in anthropology who emphasized the role of cultural and social environments over biology and inheritance. Scientists such as Franz Boas, Melville Herskovits, and Margaret Mead realized that racism was used as a political tool, distorting the scientific facts regarding the physical variations within our human species.
The new science of anthropology was used by some to justify already established prejudices against certain ethnic groups, in particular the Jews. Some claimed that the Jews were not only inferior but also not even a part of the species. These radical racial classifications made it easier to look at those that are physically different as being genuinely subhuman. Even Darwin’s theory of evolution, with its explanatory phrase “survival of the fittest,” was seen as a reason for the Jews to be eliminated in order for European culture and society to prosper. This context can in some way help to explain how so many sat by as an entire group of people were being systematically killed off.
At the beginning of the 20th century, it was argued that there were between three and five (or more) distinct races within Europe; this discrepancy in number indicates that the facts behind these claims were less than reliable. Textbooks published in the 1920s varied greatly, but contained similarities in the ways in which they presented characteristics of each race. Surprisingly, very specific details were often provided as to the physicality of a person in each of these classifications. These texts provided average heights, weights, and even cranial circumferences for entire groups of people. Such measurements could never have been taken using the appropriate scientific method to make such generalities, particularly within an evolutionary framework.
Five of the most common groups described were the Nordic, Mediterranean, Alpine, Dinaric, and East Baltic races. It is evident from reading such descriptions in early 20th-century literature that there were obvious biases. The Alpines and Baltics were often described as dull in appearance, the Dinaric race looked defiant, and the Nordics and Mediterraneans were characterized as sophisticated and elegant. Each description carries connotations that create a definite hierarchy with the Nordics and Mediterraneans on top and the Alpines and Baltics below.
This hierarchy was not restricted to the five European races. Jews were listed as a subdivision within each group. Jews were depicted as being shorter and narrow chested, with a diminished lung capacity. They were said to be brunettes with thick, hooked noses and bushy eyebrows. Their skin was often described as swarthy and their chins were said to be pointy beneath a mouth filled with oddly shaped teeth. The general characteristics that describe those of Jewish decent were ridden with negative overtones that diminished the status of Jews within every society.
The intermixing between Jews and the rest of the European races is what angered some people the most; it is what the Nazi party used as propaganda in Germany to gain support for their anti-Semitic policies. Hitler himself stated that he felt Jews and humans shared a common evolutionary path. Yet, he believed that at some point that common path split, placing the humans and Jews on separate branches. By integrating scientific concepts, such radical statements can sound plausible to a naive society. Unfortunately, many physical anthropologists and biologists of this time period used their science to spread biases that were beneficial to the Nazi cause.
Other new fields of science, such as genetics, were emerging, and they would eventually provide information that would be used to dispute these racial classifications. The genetics revolution in racial theory shifted the focus from physical characteristics (phenotype) to the DNA molecule (genotype); however, with the onset of World War II, some people that were able to experiment in these fields were the Nazis themselves. It has been discovered since that their methods of experimentation were even more atrocious than the theories that fueled them. The horrors of the Holocaust motivated some in the scientific community who had previously refrained from voicing opposition to take serious action. Fortunately, the field of genetics continued to advance and began to amend the public’s perception regarding race and racism.
Today, anthropology has a more comprehensive view of our human species. By incorporating the studies of the physical and cultural aspects of humanity, one is able to see that humankind as Homo sapiens sapiens is a unified species sharing the same genetic foundation, but manifesting major sociocultural differences. No longer can groups of people be placed into a hierarchy based on physicality. As anthropologist and philosopher H. James Birx states: “There is only one human race, or there are over 6.5 billion human races on earth.”
- Boas, F. (1940). Race, language, and culture. New York: Macmillan.
- Gershenhorn, J. (2004). Melville J. Herskovits and the racial politics of knowledge. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Gunther, H.F.K. (1927). The racial elements of European history. London: Methuen.
- Ripley, W. Z. (1919). The races of Europe: A sociological study. New York: D. Appleton.