The aesthetic evaluation of skulls : Blumenbach’s Georgian female
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (Figure 9.7) was the most influential and widely read naturalist at the turn of the nineteenth century. His dissertation, De generis humani varietate nativa, was published in 1775 (reprinted in 1776), the year he received his medical degree. The book went through two further editions (1781b, 1795) and many translations, into English, French, Dutch, and German. The same is the case for his many other publications. His interlocutors included Kant, Humboldt, Herder, and Goethe, in addition to numerous anatomists and physiolo- gists of the period. His classification of the races became standard, used by those friendly to his persuasion that race was fluid and a matter of environmental conditions (e.g., Tiedemann) and those who disputed his view, naturalists who regarded race as fixed and typically impervious to environmental alteration (e.g., Morton). Blumenbach’s collection of skulls, numbering some 240 at his death in 1840, was famed and continued to expand at Göttingen even after he died, the tradition of collecting being continued by colleagues. Those skulls revealed something of a hierarchy, based not on cranial capacity but on beauty.
Blumenbach received his medical degree from Göttingen University in 1775. He was obviously a favored student, for the next year, 1776, he was appointed extraordinarius professor of medicine and curator of the university’s natural history museum. With the publication of his dissertation, he was recognized immediately as an important scholar, and in 1778 he became ordinarius (full professor) in the medical faculty. His real interest, however, was natural history, especially comparative anatomy, with a focus on human beings and their skulls. As his net- work of correspondents grew, so did his skull collection. He asked these interlocutors, especially those in distant lands, if they would mind sending him a skull or two. He received such gifts from the likes of Humboldt and Goethe, the latter sending a cast of Raphael’s skull. Joseph Banks, of the Royal Society of Lon- don, provided him skulls from Cook’s voyages. Even the Bavarian king Ludwig
I made him the present of an Etruscan skull. His greatest supplier was probably Georg Thomas Ash, military surgeon to the Russian czar and graduate of Göttingen. Ash typically responded with enthusiasm: “No effort will be spared to acquire for you the requested skulls from the Asiatic peoples. It will make me very happy if I succeed in enlarging your excellent collection.” Though in a letter the same day to one of Blumenbach’s colleagues, Ash confessed that “considerable patience will be required until that request can be fulfilled” (Dougherty and Klatt 2006‒2015, II, 312–313).
Blumenbach recognized the great variability of skulls and the way environmental impact could further alter them. For instance, he noted that Germans tended to have block heads, because their mothers had the habit of keeping infants on their backs with their heads usually flat against a firm surface. He was aware, as well, that ancient peoples often manipulated infant skulls, as if they were wet clay, to produce a pleasing shape; and he assumed with the Hippocratics that these alterations could be inherited by subsequent generations (Blumenbach 1795, 214‒221). Yet through the varieties of possible alterations, Blumenbach, like other anatomists of race, believed he could still detect racial types, but not in terms of cranial capacity – rather in their aesthetic features. In the third edition of Degeneris humani varietate (1795), he included a spectrum of aesthetically arranged skulls of the five races he had discriminated (this volume, Figure 5.1).
Blumenbach arranged his series of skulls with the central figure that of the Georgian girl, whose skull he thought “exquisitely symmetrical, rather globular, with a forehead moderately expanded, the zygomatic bones a bit narrow but not protruding” (Blumenbach 1795, 206). This “most beautiful cranium” he situated between two extremes: the Mongolian skull, which was “like a block, with zygomatic bones extending prominently,” at one end, and the Ethiopian at the other end, with “narrow head compressed laterally, and forehead bumpy [tuberosa] and arched [fornicata]” (Blumenbach 1795, 207‒208). Blumenbach confessed that given his experience with the varieties of skulls, he could find no quantitative measure to distinguish the races ‒ certainly not the facial angle devised by Camper. Yet there were fairly constant differences distinguish- ing the races. He thought this could best be perceived by looking vertically down on the skulls of the Mongolian, Georgian, and Ethiopian (this volume, Figure 5.2).
In Blumenbach’s judgment, the Georgian skull was “highly symmetrical and most beautiful [maxime symmetricum et venustissimum], while on either side were skull bones quite opposite and different from it.” The skull of the Georgian female had
the sides of the orbits, as well as the zygomatic bones more elegantly nar- rowed; they and the mandible itself are concealed under the periphery of the moderately expanded forehead; the former [Ethiopian], by contrast, has the maxillary bones compressed and protruding, and the latter [Mongolian] the zygomatic bones are placed on the same horizontal plane as the small bones of the nose and the glabella [bridge of the nose], and they extend enormously and are prominent.
(Blumenbach 1795, 205)
Why did the skull of the Georgian female strike Blumenbach’s fancy, and what other values did his aesthetic judgments imply for the five races that he discriminated? Klatt has observed that Blumenbach likened the Georgian skull to the ideal of female beauty in ancient art (Klatt 2008, 90). The elegant symmetry and the cool marble-like whiteness of the female’s skull seem to have evoked from Blumenbach such comparisons with classic statuary. He did on occasion men- tion that his judgment was based on our standards of beauty, but at other times he described the beauty of the Georgian female’s skull in more absolute terms (Blumenbach 1795, 289). The backstory of a captured young woman and her mysterious death undoubtedly made the aesthetic experience even more piquant (see Rupke’s introduction to this volume and the beginning of this essay). Add to that the reputation of the Georgian women for comely beauty (Blumenbach 1795, 303), befitting a race connected by legend to the area where Noah’s ship beached after the flood, and Blumenbach’s judgment is rendered more comprehensible. As in Dinesen’s story, the skull of the Georgian female became the repository for a history of singular personal meaning to the great naturalist. But what did Blumenbach’s aesthetic judgments imply for the other races? Strangely, very little.
A year after the publication of the third edition (1795) of his De generis hum- ani varietate, Blumenbach began issuing a series of pamphlets with illustrations of natural historical objects (Blumenbach 1796). In the first series, he provided faces of known individuals ‒ copper etched portraits ‒ who were to represent the different races, thus giving flesh to each of the skulls he had described the previous year. Each individual pictured was a member of one of the five races, and each had either been raised in Europe or spent significant time there. The visages were certainly less prim- itive than those usually depicted by other authors. But Blumenbach also intended, by the brief accompanying biographies, to suggest that the various races had individuals of conspicuous talents who exercised those talents in European pursuits.
The Negro Jacob Johan Eliza Capitein, for instance, had been taken as a child from Ghana, raised by a Dutchman, and given an early education in classical languages and mathematics (Blumenbach 1796, no. 5). He attended the University of Leiden and became a theologian and preacher in the Dutch Reformed Church. His sermons and Latin poetry revealed to Blumenbach the innate capacities of the African race. In another essay, occasioned by a trip to Switzerland in 1787, he mentioned several other cases of Africans living in Europe whose features varied as to skin color and other traits and who demonstrated obvious talents (Blumen- bach 1787). He was especially admiring of a young Congolese woman whom he met while visiting a chateau in Yverdun, at the southern end of Lake Neuchâtel. The naturalist’s eye immediately fell on “features that had they been in white skin would certainly have been regarded quite agreeable” (Blumenbach 1787, 3). Moreover, she was learned in obstetrics and had become noted in the region for her abilities in midwifery. Blumenbach insisted that his interactions with a variety of Negros and an investigation of their abilities made him realize that “Negros, in respect of their natural mental capacity and abilities, certainly do not appear inferior to the other human races” (Blumenbach 1787, 4). What the Negroes generally lacked, as did other races, were opportunities of civilized living and education. Hence, in Blumenbach’s mind, the great evil of slavery.
Carus and the aesthetics of Schiller’s skull.
Carl Gustav Carus was a physician, an anatomist, an artist ‒ a friend of the Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, with whom he would travel on painting excursions ‒ and a protégé of Goethe, who greatly admired his magnificent treatise on comparative anatomy, Von den UrTheilen des Knochenund Schalengerüstes (1828).
As a young physician, Carus helped direct the field hospitals during the Battle of Leipzig (October 16‒19, 1813), the bloodiest of the Napoleonic campaigns. After his retreat from Moscow, the emperor recruited a second Grand Army to secure his earlier German acquisitions. The largest and deadliest of his efforts occurred in and around the city of Leipzig. French forces totaled almost a quarter of a million men, and the coalition facing them ‒ composed of German, Aus- trian, Russian, and Swedish troops ‒ numbered about 350,000. After four days of slaughter, the French fell back into a costly retreat, leaving the battlefields littered with 90,000 casualties from both sides. Carus himself almost died from the typhus that blazed through the forests of wounded. In his autobiography, he reflected on this experience:
I understood for the first time [. . .] how little a human life seemed to count in the account-books of the world. A rich country was drained of the blood of its young men. Thousands of families must send off what had been cultivated for long years with love and care and full of hope ‒ so that they would be tossed aside without a thought. [. . .] Whole generations were cut down by the merciless angel of destruction and there was no one there who seemed to have noticed. [. . .] Certainly it is not possible to have attained the elevated concept of the wonderful structure of man and of the value of the character of the human spirit and not feel a deep shudder when one ‒ one cannot express it otherwise ‒ becomes aware of the contempt had for humanity in its masses.
(Carus 1865‒1866, I, 122‒123)
After Napoleon’s forces fled Germany, a measure of peace returned to the land, and Carus again took up interests cultivated in medical school – namely, research in anatomy and physiology – ultimately composing during his lifetime some eight or so major monographs and numerous lesser studies. His field of interest expanded to psychology and natural philosophy, the latter reflecting his reading of the works of Schelling and his friendship with Oken. In 1862, his scientific eminence brought him the presidency of the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher (Leopoldina), a position he held until his death in 1869. And through his long, rich life, he pursued drawing and painting, especially landscapes in a Romantic style. He expressed his artistic talent also in his science, in the anatomical drawings illustrating his numerous monographs. The depictions that crowded the plates of his great work Von den Ur-Theilen won the praise of Goethe.
In the decade after the completion of his Von den Ur-Theilen, Carus’s energies did not flag. He was occupied with travel, considerations of aesthetics ‒ especially Goethe’s Faust (Carus 1835) ‒ a second edition of his manual of comparative anatomy (Carus 1834), and a comprehensive study of human physiology. This latter effort yielded his System der Physiologie, three large volumes (1838‒1840) that explore the different animal systems ‒ the vascular, muscle, pulmonary, nerve, skeletal ‒ and that pay considerable attention to the origins of human beings, their races, and their psychic life.
In Volume 3 of the System der Physiologie, which he completed in June 1840, Carus had begun a study of skulls that would be expanded the next year into his Grundzüge einer neuen und wissenschaftlich begründeten Cranioscopie (Foun- dation of a new and scientifically grounded cranioscopy; finished on in Febru- ary 1841). Several events seem to have initially stimulated him to work out a theory of cranioscopy. In 1833, the third edition of Combe’s System of Phrenology, an explication of Franz Joseph Gall’s theory, appeared in a German translation (Combe 1833). Carus specifically mentioned the book in his System der Physiologie (Carus 1838‒1840, III, 350). He thought the phrenologists had made a good start, but exhibited a distinct lack of significant anatomical and physiological knowledge of the human brain and skull. Then in spring of 1840, Carus obtained four illustrations taken from George Morton’s Crania Americana, though not the book itself. Initially he was intrigued by the images of Peruvian, Mexican, and Carib Indian skulls that had been distorted by artificial means (Carus 1838‒1840, III, 351). A few months later, in August 1840, he read a detailed account of Morton’s work in a German medical journal (Anonymous 1840); the long, three-part article included Morton’s table comparing average cranial capacities of the dif- ferent races, measurements Carus would cite in his subsequent work. In passing, the article also mentioned Tiedemann’s skull measurements, and criticized his conclusion that the average African skull fell within the range of the average Caucasian skull (Anonymous 1840, 212). The images and the literature pushed Carus a little further along a path he had already begun.
In his System der Physiologie and in his Cranioscopie, Carus developed a theory of skull measurements directly tied to brain formation. He contended that his theory was grounded in the most recent science and that it was far superior to any- thing suggested by Gall or Combe. He first distinguished three brain areas, which were quite evident in lower animals and in the early human fetus: the hindbrain, or cerebellum; the midbrain, or corpora quadrigemina; and the forebrain, or cerebral hemispheres (Carus 1838‒1840, III, 341). Ablation experiments and postmortem pathology examinations indicated the functions of each: the hindbrain governed willful behavior, desires, and sexual impulses; the midbrain gave expression to feeling, especially self-feeling (Gemeingefühl), and, in humans, self-awareness (Gemüth); and the forebrain received perceptions, constructed images, and was the locus of intellect in humans (Figure 9.9, on the left). As one passed from more primitive creatures to more advanced ‒ or from the early stages of the human fetal brain to that of the adult ‒ marked changes in brain morphology could be observed. First, the three brain areas gradually became more tightly bound together through a multitude of nerve connections, such that functions initially characteristic of one area would be distributed throughout the whole brain; and second, the cerebral hemispheres, in the human adult, had grown to cover the midbrain and most of the hindbrain (Figure 9.9, on the left).
Shielding these three brain areas were the three plates of the skull, those trans- formed vertebrae whose development through lower species to higher Carus had traced in his Von den Ur-Theilen (Figure 9.9, on the right). He maintained that the dimensions of those three plates ‒ their length, breadth, and height ‒ might be diagnostic of racial capacities and individual abilities. Here then was the basis for a truly scientific cranioscopy ‒ or so Carus argued. Yet, if that were the main thrust of Carus’s science, it would seem no better than that of Gall, perhaps even less refined – for in the adult human, for example, if the cerebral hemispheres covered most of the other two areas, how could the mid-skull plate and the hind-skull plate be indicative of any features of those parts of the brain they no longer covered? Moreover, why would one suspect in the first place that those three transformed vertebral skull plates could tell you anything about the brain underlying them and be diagnostic of psychological abilities? None of this would make any sense in the absence of the Romantic metaphysics that does provide answers to these questions. We may no longer be receptive to Carus’s particular metaphysical views, but they were not foreign to his place and time.
Carus’s metaphysical assumptions derived ultimately from Spinoza, but more proximately from Goethe and Schelling (Carus 1865–1866, III, 134–135). The one substance in existence was Deus sive Natura ‒ the divine spirit and nature were two expressions of that underlying substance. Organisms embodied this dual character and more fully expressed it over time, so that all of nature moved from more primitive stages to more developed stages. The human individual as well as the human species underwent continuous development. The individual moved, both bodily and psychologically, through stages of fetal life, childhood, and adulthood. The person’s inner life began at the unconscious, barely feeling stages of embryogenesis, moved through the childhood stages of the dawning of consciousness, and finally achieved the mature stage of rational life. The human species itself went through comparable developmental periods, from the misty obscurity of prehuman life, through the more primitive races of mankind, to the more advanced races, and finally to the most elevated individuals, those geniuses who came closest to realizing the ideal of humanity (more of this ahead). Like Schelling, Carus held that the abstract idea of humanity inclusively contained the ideas of the various levels of organic development; and like Goethe, he under- stood this idea to be creative, yielding over time the various physical manifestations of organisms, from simplest up through the races of man (Carus 1838–1840, I, 349). In a given individual, development of the body would be mirrored by the development of that divine idea of humanity, now in its particular instantiation as the human soul. At the very beginning of life, the fetal brain, its nascent skull covering, and its concomitant psychic idea (the soul) were, in Carus’s theory, bound to one another, such that the skull plates would be impressed with that original binding.
So, for example, even though in the adult, the midbrain lay below the cerebral hemispheres, the mid-skull plate would still reflect the mental dispositions with which it originally corresponded at the beginning of fetal life; the psychic energies of the various brain areas (die Energie des Hirns) would thus manifest themselves in the dimensions of the skull plates of the adult (Carus 1838–1840, III, 342). Carus’s idealist metaphysics would be shared by the likes of Goethe, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, but certainly these indi- viduals did not set that metaphysics to do the kind of intricate physiological work that supported Carus’s cranioscopy. His developmental theory of race would also rest on idealist metaphysical assumptions.
In his System der Physiologie and later in his Denkschrift zum hundertjäh- rigen Geburtsfeste Goethe’s (Memorial for Goethe’s hundredth birthday, 1849), Carus distinguished four races of the one human species (Carus 1838–1840, I, 122–123): men of the day (Caucasian-Europeans), men of the night (Ethiopians), men of the eastern twilight (Mongolian-Mylan-Hindus), and men of the western twilight (Americans). He assumed the original Caucasian race appeared after the age of the great lizards, and, with Blumenbach, suggested that the origi- nal group first appeared on the high Asian plateau, around Mount Ararat. Ulti- mately whether humans arose from a more primitive form was, Carus admitted, lost in “a mysterious darkness” (Carus 1838–1840, I, 113). He yet thought sev- eral propositions could be established with certainty: (1) that the development (Entwicklung) of humanity was essentially and necessarily spiritual (geistig); (2) that the development had occurred through the social action of individuals manifesting different attributes (especially the duality of the sexes); (3) that its highest expression was in particular individuals (e.g., Goethe); and (4) that this development had occurred in different regions of the earth in different ways (Carus 1838–1840, I, 113–117). Like Blumenbach, Carus assumed the original Caucasian group spread to different parts of the world and adapted to different regions. Citing Herder’s essay on language, Carus maintained that crucial to the development of humankind were the advent of language and the interactions of individuals within a society. The different races represented a progressive scale, with the people of the night at the lowest rank, then the people of the western twilight, then those of the eastern, and finally with the most developed being the people of the day. In this developmental scheme, the people of the night were still at the fetal stage, though with progressive potential, while people of the day exhibited the most advanced form of humanity (Carus 1838–1840, I, 114–115). Carus’s developmentalism came very close to an authentic biological evolution- ism, yet at the end of his life, when he was fully apprised of Darwin’s theory, he would not take the final step.
Carus justified his classification of the races through the kinds of measurements his cranioscopy suggested, though later he would seek additional support from Morton’s measurements (Carus 1849, 19). These measurements also permit- ted him to determine the cognitive gifts of particular individuals, such as Kant, Napoleon, and Schiller (Figure 9.10). The empirical sampling of skulls on which his measurements were based and from which conclusions were drawn was mini- mal, however. In the Cranioscopie, Carus recorded measurements of a motley of seventeen skulls, some of which were not even the original skulls but plaster casts (e.g., Napoleon, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, and Schiller), and others still harbored a living soul (e.g., Ludwig Tieck and Carus himself ). The measures were done with calipers, which could give the length, width, and height (this last from the ear-opening to the highest part of the plate). Here is a sampling of the measures (Table 9.1).
What do these measures purportedly mean? Carus reckoned that the low meas- ures for the frontal plate of the Negro slave meant a low intelligence; his mid-plate likewise showed deficient sensitivity and self-reflection. The hind-plate, though, indicated a strong will and sexual impulses ‒ even having a greater height than Schiller’s. Napoleon’s measures revealed an extremely strong intelligence, great sensitivity, and an iron will. Schiller’s skull, in contrast to the others, showed that “the regions of intelligence, feeling, will, and desire are quite harmoniously developed [sehr harmonisch entwickelt]. The first two regions are significant and the relationships are quite felicitous throughout” (Carus 1844, 48). What is it that makes a poet’s skull? For Carus, a head, developed generally in “beautifully har- monious structures [schönen harmonischen Formen], with a well-formed front head, a modest rear head, but a decidedly powerful middle head ‒ these features indicate a poetic human being” (Carus 1841, 57). None of the other skulls that Carus examined exhibited the graceful harmony of Schiller’s, not Napoleon’s and not Kant’s. The more a skull would deviate by reason of a one-sided development in either height, breadth, or length of the skull plates, “the more generally the form would represent a lower, unbeautiful [unschöne] and, in its psychic significance, an unfavorable form” (Carus 1841, 59). In all of Carus’s six works devoted to cranioscopy, Schiller’s skull served as the standard by which to evaluate all of the other skulls, just as the Georgian girl became the aesthetic standard for Blumenbach.
Carus based his cranioscopy on exacting anatomical descriptions and on powerful generalizations from that anatomical work. These latter contributions entered the mainstream of biology during the mid-part of the nineteenth century, especially through Richard Owen’s conception of homology. Carus’s developmental- ism stopped just short of a fullblown evolutionary conception, and represents a stage in German scientific life that prepared the way for a rapid acceptance of Darwinism. Carus’s empirical measures of skulls won the admiration of many for their precision, but the effort to derive portraits of intelligence and talent from such measurements seems to us little better than the efforts of the phrenologists ‒ perhaps even less availing, since Carus’s interpretations of skull plates had to be justified by a metaphysics in overdrive.