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Joseph Deniker, Species, and the “Northern Race” (Part 1) May 4, 2011

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Joseph Deniker

Joseph Deniker’s (1852-1915) human geography and ethnography illustrates the eternal persistence of old debates and the various uses of canonical authors, Cuvier and Darwin among them.  There has been in my estimation no satisfactory narrative of the species problem from Cuvier through Prichard, Darwin, and turn of the century anthropologists, ethnologists, and human geographers.  Nor has there been a consistent appraisal of the appropriation of the “canon” of naturalists and ethnologists by late nineteenth and early twentieth century naturalists, ethnologists, and anthropologists.

Historians have generally narrated turn of the century ethnological debates in France, Britain, Germany, and the United States solely in terms of their contributions to eugenics or the rise of statistics.  David Livingston, among others, has written Whiggishly about the development of human geography as a discipline or inquiry.  It is unclear whether any of the authors surveyed at the turn of the century considered themselves as contributing to any kind of discipline. I am certain that any division between a “racial” and “scientific” human geography, emerging in the inter-war period is terribly overdrawn.  Deniker’s work illustrates the live nature of many nineteenth century debates at the turn of the century.  His influence on as diverse figures as Madison Grant, A.C. Haddon, and Julian Huxley, each representative of eugenics, “becoming scientific,” and “post-Boasian” ethnology, respectively, points to the ambiguous uses of turn of the century ethnology and the astonishing breath and depth of the ethnographic canon.

Deniker’s Races of Man, like almost everything written in nineteenth century ethnology, is a disordered heap.  Ethnologists, political economists, anthropologists, and human geographers, tended not to have a thesis, but a number of related arguments.  Nineteenth century texts (and twentieth century works, perhaps) were juggling acts developed out of unsure compromises with avalanches of cultural, biological, and linguistic evidences.  Ethnographic theory even after Darwinian evolution was under-determined throughout the nineteenth and even into the twentieth century, meaning that the varieties of evidences available about “primitive peoples” could support a variety of antagonistic theories.

The works of Ellen Semple, Ellsworth Huntington, Brooks Adams, and others I have discussed here contain passages which historians have labeled “economic” or “geographical” determinism.  In response to these labels, I have proposed instead that the ascription of “determinism” has to do with the privileging of one argument among many in a nineteenth century text.  One can only call Brooks Adams an economic determinist if one ignores his arguments about blood or decadence.

Historians diminish the significance or otherwise ignore other arguments since  “determinism” is a particularly useful category for the construction of disciplinary histories.  Historians, through the use of the category of determinism, can narrate the prehistory of the profession as defined by ideology, necessity, and false first principles.  Historians narrate the emergence of a profession as the departure from first principles, ideology, and necessity, to an emphasis on methods of data collection, induction, and “objectivity.”

The problems of this up from ideology narrative are legion.  Robert Redfield, for example, presents his own work as thoroughly modern due to his use of  “sociological categories” and due to his focus on the transition from village to urban life.  Far from being modern, Redfield’s sociological constructions depend upon a number of nineteenth century conventions and dichotomies, including a volkish account of the peasant.  Redfield’s work, like many practitioner’s narratives, presents itself as novel, revolutionary, and scientific, while simultaneously depending on the “prehistory” of the profession.  Redfield, while highlighting Boas’ revolutionary accomplishments, makes prodigious use of Tonnies, Bagehot, Tocqueville, Sumner, Maine, and others.

Deniker’s work is stuck between narratives.  His skepticism regarding the applicability of “species” to human beings and his emphasis on language and material culture garner him a place among the “pre-Boasians” and among the prophets of the “evolutionary synthesis.”  Deniker’s intentions notwithstanding, his account of the “Northern” or “Nordic race” was critical to Madison Grant’s racial absolutism.  Future ethnologists and anthropologists adopted Deniker’s writings due to the multiplicity of his arguments and the uncertain formulations of his concepts.  I’m less interested in, for now, how Deniker was utilized for the “evolutionary synthesis” — the answer is enough of his writings complicated the notion of race.  In the words of Larry T. Reynolds and Leonard Lieberman (Race and Other Misadventures), Deniker “objected to the concept of race on the grounds that problems arise in applying zoological nomenclature to humans.”  Instead, Deniker referred to “ethnic groups” formed by language, religion, and culture (149.)

What Reynolds and Lieberman do not quote is the remainder of the definition, in which Deniker contends that ethnic groups, are those encompassing a variety of races, sub-species, and types, bound together by a common civilization, language, or religious beliefs.  Manners and customs of individuals were important in delineating ethnic groups; however, an ethnologist was also able to define “through minute analysis” a number of discrete “somatological  units” an “aggregation of physical characteristics combined in a certain way.”  These somatological units were zoological “types,”  idealizations which did not represent exactly the features of any one individual but was an approximation of the whole.  In highly civilized populations, there was a great inter-mixture of somatological units, while in more primitive locales, fewer units defined a population.  In the most primitive communities, somatological units corresponded to a zoological type or “species.”  Deniker’s discussion of “types” could be found in any antebellum ethnographic tract or pro-slavery work.

Deniker was quick to note that a species, defined by Cuvier as the fertility of individuals within a given population with specific morphological characteristics, could not be as rigorously delineated with human beings as with animals or plants.  This was the case since the fertility of human beings from morphologically dissimilar groups was not experimentally verified.  “No one,” Deniker asserted, “has ever tried cross-breeding between the Australians and the Lapps (The Races of Man, “Introduction.”)”

Deniker complicated the notion of species and made due allowances for cultural determinants.   He also considered the delineation of ethnic groups according to morphological characteristics and a more rigorous understanding of species among the human genus to be limited not simply by conceptual difficulties but also through lack of evidence.  Deniker did not argue against a racial basis for ethnology.  He contended, rather, that our lack of knowledge about the fertility of specific populations precluded a precise delineation of what constituted a human species.

Deniker took great stock in the importance of cranial measurements for physical anthropology. His claim that his science was distinct from that of phrenology, but there nevertheless was a “remote connection” between the size of the cranium walls and that of the brain.  As importantly, the size and shape of the skull “exhibits the greatest number of well-marked variations,” and “the differences in the form and the dimensions of the skull in correlation with those of the brain and the masicatory organ (the jaw and teeth,) serve to distinguish races and species, both in man and in other vertebra” (54.)  The skull, furthermore, has preserved the features of human beings throughout history. Deniker, much like Samuel Morton and Josiah Nott, begins to discuss cranial capacity.

The races of Europe possessed a cranial capacity of 1500 to 1600 cubic centimeters while Australian “bushmen” had a cranial capacity of 1250 to 1350 cubic centimeters (56.)  The differences in cranial capacity point to differences in brain weight, which Deniker arranges in a sliding scale from European to Australasian, with the notable exception of the Eskimo, who has the largest cranium capacity.  This difference holds true even with differences in weight and stature (100.)  It was not merely the weight of the brain which affected “psychic processes,” nor the size of the cerebral cortex, but the number of “sinuous folds” in the cortex.  A study of the distinctiveness of “sinuous folds” had yet to be attempted for all races (101.)

The “Northern Race” — later critical for Madison Grant, author of “The Passing of the Great Race” — was “fair, dolichocephalic, and of very high stature,” and found in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, as well as England and Scotland.  (325-328.) Deniker does not explicitly argue that there is an exact correspondence between cranial measurements and what we would now consider “intelligence” nor does he unambiguously deem non-white races inferior to Europeans.  However, a bias towards European whiteness runs throughout his text.

Deniker is neither a forbearer of Boas nor of the evolutionary synthesis.  Deniker is very much a nineteenth century ethnologist.  In his work, some passages point to the future of anthropology as the study of culture, while others suggest biological reductionism.  While not a racial theorist on the level of Josiah Nott, Deniker still bequeaths virulent materials for future racial theorists, among them Madison Grant, whom I will discuss in the next post.



1. EJ Sampson - November 26, 2012

Was wondering if you would probe a bit at the various meanings of ethnic groups based on Deniker’s thought. Have recently noted that Ashley Montagau in the 1940s is very busy quoting from Huxley and Haddon who base their work in part on Deniker’s, and uses ethnic almost as a sub-species. Yet later on Montagau seems to use the word in more of its cultural sense that still arguably maintains a tie to race.

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