Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

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Johann Friedrich Blumenbach


German Anthropologist, Anatomist and Naturalist

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach had a primary role in founding the science of modern anthropology, was a pioneer in the field of comparative anatomy, and was a respected researcher and renowned teacher. Blumenbach advocated the unity and equality of the human race as a single species and directly attacked any use of anthropology as a means to promote social and political racial discrimination or abuse. He viewed the human species as a product of its natural history, and his publications provided a reliable survey of human geographical distributions and characteristics. Blumenbach wrote the first scientifically objective anthropology and comparative anatomy textbooks, both of which had tremendous influence on the course of development of these sciences for several generations.

Blumenbach's father was an assistant headmaster of a grammar school in Gotha, Germany, his mother's father was a city high official, and her grandfather a respected theologian. Thus Blumenbach began life in a well-to-do and cultured family, and was exposed to literature, the sciences, and a formal education from a young age. Later, when Blumenbach married in 1778, it was to the daughter of an influential administrator at the University of Göttingen, and his brother-in-law was Christian Gottlieb Heyne, a noted classics scholar.

During his education at the University of Göttingen, Blumenbach was greatly influenced by the natural historian Christian W. Büttner and his lectures on ethnography, exotic peoples, and cultures. This influence affected the direction and nature of Blumenbach's M.D. dissertation and the initiation of his ethnographic collection that became widely admired and celebrated, and included a large selection of literature by African writers. The first edition of Blumenbach's dissertation was published in 1776, and eventually included a third edition in 1795, becoming world famous as the most influential text on anthropology of its time. Blumenbach was appointed curator of the natural history collection at Göttingen in 1776, became a full professor of medicine in 1778, and in 1816 he became Professor primarius of the Faculty of Medicine. In the course of his career many of Blumenbach's students became successful in their own right, and Blumenbach was a member of over 70 academies and societies, as well as a scientist widely respected and consulted by his contemporaries.

Blumenbach was not the first to describe and classify the various "races" of mankind, and he was greatly impressed by the works of Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), Georges Buffon (1707- 1788), and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). However, he did base his work on objective physical characteristics, especially of the skull, and he used verified records of the geographical distributions of the known human groups. Blumenbach modified previous classifications to create a five-family distribution of the human species that has been tremendously influential and introduced the term "Caucasian" to define the group of Europeans. He hypothesized that the American and Mongolian families branched in one geographical direction and the Malaysians and Ethiopians branched in another. He stated that humans arose in the area of the Caucasus Mountains, spread out over the world, and acquired variations in physical characteristics such as skin color, which are simply gradations of the same character. The scientific objectiveness and the quality of his work in his De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa Liber (1795) marks this text as the foundation of scientific anthropology.

Blumenbach was much more objective than previous scientists in his analysis and concluded without question that all human races belonged to one species and that all of humanity resided on the same level, regardless of cultural differences. Blumenbach regarded man as an object of natural history, though he did describe humans as "the most perfect of all domesticated animals." He argued against the prevailing opinion of European superiority and their divine selection, instead insisting that all races, especially African, were fully equal to Europeans. Blumenbach supported his assertion of equal intellect and morality of mankind with his famous collection of anthropological and ethnographical specimens, which included skulls, artwork, and literature of various peoples, and particularly of African writers and artists.

Blumenbach also published landmark comparative anatomy and physiology (1824) and natural history (1779) texts, which helped usher in new eras of modern zoology, natural history, and ecology. Blumenbach recognized that fossils represent extinct species, and he believed in a long geological history of nature and Earth, as well as the variability of nature, including the addition of new species over time. Blumenbach also worked on another of the great debates of the Enlightenment period, providing additional research evidence in favor of the theory of epigenesis and against the prevailing belief of preformation. Thus, Blumenbach's influence goes well beyond his scientific evidence and active stance in favor of racial equality, and includes his then-superior works of comparative anatomy and physiology, natural history, and human reproduction. His historical position in the period of the Enlightenment is as one of the most celebrated and honored scientists of his time, with reverberations and discussions that have continued into this century.


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Johann Friedrich Blumenbach

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