Caucasian Eden

Tom Tomorrow has posted an excerpt of an article on race by Jack Hitt, a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine. Here is an excerpt of the excerpt, on the history of the term “Caucasian”:

It was not until the Age of Reason that scientists tried to figureout empirically what race meant and how it came to be. The signal year was 1776, with the publication of a book called On the Natural Varieties of Mankind, by German biologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. At the time, Blumenbach’s theory had a certain symmetry that made it the very model of good science. These days, his theory seems insane. He argued that Native American Indians were the transitional race that eventually led to Asians. (Don’t try to work out the geography of this: it will make your head explode.) And another group— which Blumenbach simply conjured from a faraway people, the “Malayans”—evolved over time to become Africans. (Again, if you’re puzzling out the geography, watch your head.) At the center of all this change was the white race, which was constant. Blumenbach believed darkness was a sign of change from the original. All of mankind had fallen from perfection, but the darker you were, the farther you had fallen. As a result, the best way to locate the original Garden of Eden, according to Blumenbach, was to follow the trail of human. . . beauty. The hotter the women, the hunkier the men, the closer you were to what was left of God’s first Paradise. Here is Blumenbach explaining the etymology of the new word he hoped to coin:

I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighborhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian . . .

Blumenbach’s theory is totally forgotten today by everybody (except maybe Georgian men). All that remains is a single relic, the word he coined for God’s most gorgeous creation—”Caucasian.” The word itself is lovely. Say it: Caucasian. The word flows off the tongue like a stream trickling out of Eden. Its soothing and genteel murmur poses quite a patrician contrast to the field-labor grunts of the hard g’s in “Negroid” and “Mongoloid.” Caucasian. The exotic isolation of those mountains intimates a biblical narrative. You can almost see it when you say it: the early white forebears walking away from paradise to trek to Europe and begin the difficult task of creating Western Civilization.

10 thoughts on “Caucasian Eden

  1. Funny, I was going to post this, and just minutes later youu did! I’ll be interested to read the whole article, which seems to be on the “right” saide of the race issue. But there’s a pattern to the Great Race Debate, and nothing here seems to indicate a break from that: state that race seems obvious, indicate the historical roots of the concept and how tied they are to ways of thinking that made sense then but no longer do, show how recent genetic data does not support the tradtional breakdown of peoples into races, and suggest that people learn to see each other for who they are, not what they are. Lather, rinse, repeat. Gould did this his entire professional life, and where did it get us — Gould is regularly cited by the people he disagreed with most in his life to support the ideas he spent his career attacking.

    I think the issue is that we mean different things when we talk about race — the scientific accounts of genetic diversity and adaptation and clinal distribution and all that seem so counter-intuitive to laypeople that they simply cannot believe it, and to conservatives they seem like so much elitist obfuscation. Also, there seems to be a very strong need in Western culture to track identities down to the body — and so any “clumpiness” in the data is seized on to show that yes, indeed, there are races. Many African-Americans react well to a certain medical treatment? Well, there you go — race in action! You can see this at work in the common response to race-as-social-construct arguments — “you liberals want to deny that there’s any biological differences between people” which is, of course, an absurd argument, if we were making it. which we’re not. I’m clearly biologically different from my brother, from my parents, and from Nelson Mandela. But however much this argument misunderstands the constructivist position, it does express an anxiety about a world in which it were true — a fear of a world in which clear biological differences cannot be identified — and that anxiety can only be explained, I think, by the aforementioned need to use biology, prefereably of the sort that has clearly visible effects, to predict the behavior of people. Because the alternative is a world in which every person’s identity is ambiguous and fluid (the world Rex described in his post on Markell), and then where would we be?

  2. *ehm, the term ´race` actually and presently is a nonquestioned category to classify all species, except one.
    Concerning this one species, which is our own, we claim, the application of the term ´race` is correct not in biological regards but as social and/or cultural construction, which is bound to certain contexts.
    Anyone surprised, this doesn`t work in practice?
    (Not yet having said anything on ´cultural identities` of human beings.)
    I more and more understand the function of inventing neologisms.

  3. Ooops. Don’t know what happened there. This stuff never seems to work for me. THe quote I tried to include was

    “Following the terminology of his time, Blumenbach referred to these changes as “degenerations”–not intending the modern sense of deterioration, but the literal meaning of departure from an initial form of humanity at the creation (de means “from,” and genus refers to our original stock).”

    And the hyperlink was only supposed to be “in his own article”, which didn’t even appear up there. hmmmph.

  4. Orange, I’m afraid I don’t follow. As far as I know, most anthros don’t claim that the application of the term race is a socially constructed category, period, not that it’s correct in the social sense. My understanding is that people create these categories based on their percepion of physical differences.

  5. Thanks for posting on this! Hitt’s piece was a really enjoyable (and very funny) essay, though I think Dillehay is going to be *irate* about implicitly being lumped in with some “whites settled the americas first” crackpots. Dillehay only argued for a pre-Clovis site, nothing about the settlers in question being anything other than Amerinds.

    I would agree that Hitt’s discussion of race was squiffy. It actually made my heart sink when I got to it cause I’d been thinking what a fun teaching essay the piece would be up to that point — and then he makes these sort of boneheaded pronouncements that make for nightmare classroom moments. But the overall article — fun, interesting, smart.

    it made me think about public intellectualism — we anthros are always bemoaning that no-one wants to read our complicated takes on race and multiculturalism, and/or that none of us are producing sufficiently snappy versions of same for public consumption. But what I think would be even better would be if we had our own legions of popularizers, like geneticists and physicists do. I am sure geneticists and physicists sort of cringe at some popular accounts of their work. but at least there is a community of writers and an audience of readers for it, and a lively public discussion about which popularized versions are stupid and wrong and which popularized versions are admirable and accurate. simultaneously, the research itself marches on. looks like a pretty enviable arrangement to me.

    One thing that excited me a LOT about Hitt’s article was that here was a writer acting as “our” popularizer. he got some stuff wrong – of course – but that same loosey-gooseyness allowed him to produce a popular account. It’s hard for me to imagine a professional anthro attempting the same without pouring on wagonloads of scare quotes. anyway. glad you remarked the article’s publication.

  6. Speaking of Gould, on Blumenbach’s taxonomy he specifies that Blumenbach made no claims toward moral or mental inferiority of non-Caucasians. In fact, according to Gould, B. saw racial differences based on “beauty” as rather superficial and simply a result of adaptation to different environments.

    Yeah, but it was rather naive of him to think that his ideas wouldn’t immediately be used to justify oppression of the clearly inferior lower races. Yeah, hindsight is 20/20, but come on, people were already oppressing each other, and then along comes this shiny new scientifistic theory explaining how the oppressors were aesthetically superior to the oppressed.

  7. Jesse; Sure, it may have been naive of him to think that his theory wouldn’t be misconstrued. (By the way, I wasn’t saying the opposite, I was just adding commentary to the above for the benefit of those who may not have read Gould’s article . . .besides, I found it interesting!)

    What is also interesting is that this ties in to recent comments on other threads about whether the scientist is responsible for future uses of her work . . .

    Anyway, I honestly wonder if the possibility crossed B’s mind at all that his taxonomy could be used to justify oppression. I don’t see how it couldn’t have either but, who knows.

  8. I know that you were just adding commentary, Nancy, it’s just that claims of Blumenbach’s innocence have always bugged me for that reason. I mean, yes, it was the Enlightenment and the whole science = progress = good thing was practically an article of faith, and the idea of science being used for EEEVILL wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen, but come on, racism seems like such an obvious next step.

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