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Im Dokument The racial world of Aleš Hrdlička (Seite 68-101)

“O Indra, find out who is an Aryan and who is a Dasa and separate them.”1 (Rig Veda)


In 1943, “Mr. Smith” of Detroit wrote to Aleš Hrdlička seeking expert race advice.2 In 1941, Smith and his wife adopted a baby girl, but as she grew they noticed that her skin was “darker than usual,” and they began to discern “negroid [sic] features.”3 Mr. Smith told Hrdlička that her appearance was creating, “considerable comment amongst our acquaintances and friends,” who assumed that she “must be of negroid parentage,” or that one of her natural parents “must be

colored.”4 Before writing to Hrdlička, the Smiths had reinvestigated the entire matter. The baby was born in New York City, and the authorities there reassured the Smiths that the biological parents were, “a young Jewish couple with good background,” who gave up their baby due to financial difficulties, and there was “no question” of any “colored strain in the family.”5 For a while, the Smiths were satisfied and hoped that this authoritative report would “still the gossip.”6 It did not, and apparently the child’s appearance continued to draw attention. Mr. Smith told Hrdlička that instead of quieting, “the rumors and talk” had only increased.7 Eventually the family doctor recommended that the Smiths write to Hrdlička because he was an “outstanding anthropologist,”

whose expertise could “dissolve all doubts” about the race of their adopted daughter.8

1 Francis Watson, “Indus Civilization and the Aryan Invasion,” in Readings in World Civilizations, vol. I., Second Edition, ed. Kevin Reilly, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 36-40.

2 I have changed the name because the case involves an adopted child, who would be approximately 79 years old in 2020. The documents are found in box 23, “FO-FRE, 1913-1943,” Correspondence.

3 Letter, Mr. Smith to Aleš Hrdlička, 21 July, 1943, Correspondence.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

The Jewish Social Service Bureau of Detroit sent an accompanying letter to Hrdlička to support the Smiths. When the child was adopted, stated the bureau, “there was no question in the mind of the physicians, attorneys, or adoptive parents but that the child was Jewish and white.”9 The child, according to the agency, was doing well and the Smiths were excellent parents, but

“there has always been a question in the community as to the child’s racial background. The

reaction of strangers to the child is obvious.”10 The bureau was hoping that science could clarify the girl’s race and save it from the embarrassing work of prying into the sexual history of the natural parents.

In the exchange of correspondence that followed, Hrdlička and the Smiths made plans for an examination. Hrdlička informed the Smiths that no medical test existed that could settle the issue.

The only way was for the couple to bring their baby girl to Washington. If possible, they should collect pictures of her natural parents, but otherwise, “the examination would have to be based entirely on the physical appearance of the child and a few other related matters.”11 Hrdlička instructed the parents that they should “leave her hair absolutely natural and without any oils or lotions” for the appointment.12 The cost of the examination was $100. Apparently, the parents made the trip from Detroit to Washington and paid the fee because Hrdlička’s judgment, dated 25 August, 1943, is preserved in the archival record. It states that Hrdlička “examined [the girl’s name], 23 months old adopted daughter of [Mr. and Mrs. Smith], of Detroit, and found definitely that she has a negro admixture.”13

The most disturbing part of this troubling episode is that the fate of the child is unknown, at least from archival evidence gathered thus far. None of the statements from Hrdlička, the parents, or the Jewish Social Service Bureau offer certainty that the parents were committed to raising the

9 Letter, Pauline Gollub to Hrdlička, 16 July, 1943, box 23, “FO-FRE, 1913-1943,” Correspondence.

10 Ibid.

11 Letter, Hrdlička to Mr. Smith, 21 July, 1943, box 23, “FO-FRE, 1913-1943,” Correspondence.

12 Letter, Hrdlička to Mr. Smith, 2 August, 1943, box 23, “FO-FRE, 1913-1943,” Correspondence.

13 Letter, Hrdlička to “whom it may concern,” 25 August, 1943, box 23, “FO-FRE, 1913-1943,” Correspondence.

child. According to the bureau, “if the child is white, the Smiths are eager to retain it and are

excellent parents.”14 However, “if the child is not white … it is best, if possible, to find a solution in Detroit.”15 Hrdlička’s correspondence was also ambiguous. In his first letter to Mr. Smith, he wrote,

“I hesitate to accept the case, which involves a great deal of responsibility.”16 Although he agreed to examine the girl, he wanted “to be assured that in case of untoward finding, the child’s future would not be jeopardized.”17 This seems reassuring, but his next words were uncomfortably enigmatic:

“should the findings prove unfavorable it would of course be best to attend to matters now, before the child becomes conscious of conditions.”18 The father agreed to Hrdlička’s stipulations, but he stopped short of declaring a clear obligation to the child. “As far as the child’s welfare is

concerned,” wrote Mr. Smith, “that is the thing closest to the hearts of Mrs. Smith and myself.

Under any circumstances, even the most unfavorable report from you, we could do nothing but look out for the child’s welfare because we have become so attached to her.”19 It is impossible to know how much gossipy friends and racial fantasy affected the Smiths’ understanding of the “welfare” of the child.


Many Americans, like the Smiths, had questions about how to tell the races apart, and they expected science and its experts to provide definitive answers. As one of America’s premier anthropological authorities, part of Hrdlička’s job description at the Smithsonian was “the

comprehensive biological study of the many and diverse racial elements of the American nation.”20 By the 1920s he had earned a reputation as an expert who could place individuals in race categories simply by observing their physical traits. Not only did he help in high profile legal cases, but he

14 Letter, Gollub to Hrdlička, 16 July, 1943, box 23, “FO-FRE, 1913-1943,” Correspondence.

15 Ibid.

16 Hrdlička to Mr. Smith, 21 July, 1943, box 23, “FO-FRE, 1913-1943,” Correspondence.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 Letter, Mr. Smith to Aleš Hrdlička, 29 July, 1943, box 23, “FO-FRE, 1913-1943,” Correspondence.

20 Frank Spencer, “Aleš Hrdlička, M.D., 1869 – 1943: A Chronicle of the Life and Work of an American Physical Anthropologist” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1979), 248.

also frequently gave interviews to journalists as an expert on race. The Papers of Aleš Hrdlička are full of letters from government officials, lawyers, and interested citizens who had heard about the great anthropologist’s abilities and wrote to him hoping that science could give clear answers to their vexing race questions.21 Hrdlička warned them that telling the races apart was difficult, yet he always issued a verdict, sometimes based on no more than a photograph or a description. Whether or not he really used a scientific methodology, his pronouncements gave scientific authority to the idea of distinct and identifiable races. It is therefore important to examine the theoretical

foundations that supported his race judgments.

Hrdlička was not naïve; he knew it was difficult to place human individuals within idealistic race classifications, yet he claimed to accept traditional race categories for the sake of convenience and as a matter of common sense. By the 1920s, many scientists began to notice the “endless irresolvable inconsistencies and contradictions” inherent in the premise that all human individuals must fit into a few idealized racial categories.22 Yet even as empirical data undermined the race divisions, race remained influential as a legal and social concept, and many scientists continued to support it, without evidence.23

For a scientist with a reputation for empiricism, it is astonishing how casually Hrdlička accepted the idealistic tri-partite racial division of humanity. When asked about racial classification, he openly admitted that the issue was not settled, there was no definitive conclusion on how many races there were, and there was no completely reliable way to tell them apart, especially in difficult cases. In a typical response to an inquiry, he wrote, “there is no satisfactory recent publication which would give the classification of races according to our latest knowledge.”24 He frequently

21 On racial ambiguity in American history, see Gary Nash, Forbidden Love: The Secret History of Mixed-Race America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999).

22 Elazar Barkan, The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 3.

23 Jonathan Marks, Human Biodiversity: Genes, Race, and History (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995), 55, 102-108.

24 Letter, Hrdlička to Herman J. Doepner, 24 May, 1927, box 20, “DE, 1906-43,” Correspondence.

encouraged inquisitive correspondents to study the complexity of the problem for themselves by reading the works of R. B. Bean, J. Deniker, A. H. Keane, and A. C. Haddon. After 1930, he recommended his own article called “Human Races,” which he published in Edmund V. Cowdry’s Human Biology and Racial Welfare, as a quick and succinct guide to race classification. However, he nonchalantly reassured inquisitive Americans, like Herman Doepner from Minnesota, that even without a scientific consensus, “such a classification is rather simple, until we come to details.”25 Without many “details” or much academic fuss, he divided humanity into three great races, which he labeled “White,” “Yellow-Brown,” and “Black.”

Despite his intentions, Hrdlička’s chapter on “Human Races” obfuscates rather than clarifies the lines between race categories and betrays his own uncertainties about racial classification. As Jonathan Marks comments, “the challenge to the scientist” at that time “was racial ‘diagnosis’ – to discern from the complexities of a person’s appearance their race. And it was tricky, because one could look white and really be black.”26 Hrdlička knew very well that an individual might have features from any race, and “all the racial characters, of whatever order, appear in more or less wide ranges of individual and of group variation, and the extremes of the group variation as a rule largely overlap or interdigitate with those of other racial units.”27 When determining race, he told his readers to be careful, for “nothing” is “wholly apart from the rest.”28 This was a wise observation, but it also undermined the usefulness of the very traits that he proposed as the indicators of race. In close cases, which trait was more important; eye color, stature, nose shape, hair texture, or the cephalic index? Was there a mathematical formula for assessing the relative significance of each characteristic?

25 Ibid.

26 Marks, Human Biodiversity, 107.

27 Hrdlička, “Human Races,” in Human Biology and Racial Welfare, ed. Edmund V. Cowdry (New York: Paul Heber, 1930), 160.

28 Hrdlička, “Human Races,” 162.

Hrdlička claimed there were five broad categories of racial indicators: “Physical,”

“functional,” “chemical,” “mental,” and “pathological.” He specified these in a table of 49

characteristics distinguishing the “White” (Caucasoid), “Yellow-Brown” (Mongoloid), and “Black”

(Negroid) races. However, because he correctly understood that many individuals have a variety of traits pointing to different categories, his racial markers had to remain flexible. This undermined their helpfulness in diagnosing race. Admittedly, some individuals fit easily into one of the idealized categories, but the job of the scientist was supposedly to make objective decisions about the difficult cases, of which there were many. In close decisions, there was plenty of room for subjectivity. For example, a white man’s beard was: “moderate to rich and long, slightly wavy to loosely curly.”29 A Mongoloid beard was “scanty to moderate, straight to slightly wavy.”30 Some of the indicative characteristics were so vague and ambiguous that it is hard to imagine any objective standard of measurement. For example, the “body” of a white person was “shapely,” that of a yellow-brown individual was “less shapely,” and black bodies had “excellent proportions.”31

Hrdlička had obviously committed himself ideologically to the existence of three physical race categories, even when the evidence was lacking or pointing in other directions. One peculiarity of the article “Human Races” is how frequently Hrdlička admitted that there was no scientific evidence for the racial differences he assumed to exist. One of his favorite rhetorical tactics was to insist on the existence of racial differences in a particular trait, admit that there was no scientific evidence for his assertion, and then predict that research was on the verge of validating it.

Science, he was certain, was soon going to corroborate the racial divisions that everyone already believed in. He imagined, for example, that there were “important differences” in the brains of the different races. Yet he did not know what they were because they “await further

29 Hrdlička, “Human Races,” 167.

30 Ibid.

31 Hrdlička, “Human Races,” 168.

investigation.”32 Hrdlička guessed that there were “functional” differences between the races in pulse, temperature, and “the eruption of teeth,’ but he presented no evidence to support his assertion.33 He assumed there were “doubtless many others [differences],” which scientists were just about to discover, but, he had to admit, “a great deal remains to be learned through further research.”34 He speculated that there were “chemical” differences between the races in blood, sweat, and probably “various internal secretions.”35 He never even tried to explain the latest scholarship on sweat. The mysterious “internal secretions” supposedly differed between the races, but how exactly Hrdlička knew this is a mystery because, in his own words, “almost nothing is known” about them.36 Later in the chapter, he confessed that science had failed to find any racial differences in blood. He expressed “hope” that “agglutinin tests of the blood might be helpful, if not decisive, in racial classification, but that hope has in a large measure failed.”37 Never fear, Hrdlička reassured his readers, there were now new and better tests which, “may effect more in this


This exercise in imagining ways in which science might soon confirm physical racial categories continues throughout “Human Races.” According to Hrdlička, there were mental

differences between the races, and they were “numerous” and “important.”39 The only problem was that nobody knew what they were because they “elude thus far direct and precise specification.”40 There were “sensory differences” between races, “but their exact nature and degrees remain to be established.”41 There were “substantial differences” in “higher psychical processes,” but

32 Hrdlička, “Human Races,” 159.

33 Ibid.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 Hrdlička, “Human Races,” 176.

38 Ibid.

39 Hrdlička, “Human Races,” 159.

40 Ibid.

41 Hrdlička, “Human Races,” 160.

predictably, “they have not yet been precised [sic]”.42 How could Hrdlička know about so many racial differences for which there was no scientific evidence?

Hrdlička’s list of eleven “mental characteristics” differentiating the races was, by Hrdlička’s own admission, little more than racial gossip. He even added a warning tag for his readers: “To be taken with reservation, until more scientifically determined.”43 Not surprisingly, the “mental characteristics” were nothing more than racist stereotypes and folklore. Whites, for example had

“strong ambitions and passions” and a “highly developed” sense of “idealism.”44 In comparison to whites, yellow-browns were less developed in “egoism” and “individuality.” Blacks were “active and jolly,” “not very ambitious,” good at music, and “rather careless and free from lasting worries, but ridden by superstitious fears.”45 Lack of scientific validation did not persuade Hrdlička to omit these “mental characteristics” from his scientific classification of the races.

It seems clear from “Human Races,” as well as from other sources, that Hrdlička’s beliefs about race arose not from empirical research but from popular beliefs, experience, and “intuition.”

Although this chapter is not about racial hierarchy, Hrdlička’s treatment of the subject illustrates this point. He admitted that the idea of racial superiority might be an illusion arising from subjective cultural bias, but he argued instead that the very fact that some people have an

“intuition” about racial hierarchy made the idea credible. Especially when “based on a prolonged direct experience of one group with another,” the “intuition” of superiority and inferiority,

“deserves careful attention,” he conjectured.46 Sometimes even common knowledge was good enough. For example, Hrdlička thought, “it is an old truism that a malarial region,” as in equatorial Africa, “breeds few talents.”47

42 Ibid.

43 Hrdlička, “Human Races,” 169.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid.

46 Hrdlička, “Human Races,” 179.

47 Ibid.

For the reader seeking to understand racial classification on the basis of the latest scientific research, the conclusion of “Human Races” is likely to disappoint. In truth, Hrdlička admitted, the science of racial classification had not really changed much in the past 150 years. From the

perspective of a critical reader, this is especially ironic because Hrdlička so frequently grounded his arguments on what scientific research was allegedly on the verge of proving, presumably because it was making daily breakthroughs in the study of race. Yet in the end, Hrdlička simply adopted racial street wisdom that was well over 100 years old. Once again, Hrdlička was no fool, and he knew the intricate history of race categories; he acknowledged that over time there were “as many schemes of classifications of the races of man as there were students of the question.”48 He even summarized them. According to Virey, there were two races, Morton thought there were 22, Huxley and Topinard opted for 19; Deniker found 29, and Burke preferred 63. After all of this, Hrdlička

casually adopted the system of Linnaeus, who died in 1778. Linnaeus in fact thought there were six races, although two of them were his obscure Homo ferus and Homo monstruosus. The other four were the European, Black, Asian, and American. Hrdlička reduced these to three by combining Asian and American as “yellow-brown.” Twenty-seven pages of explaining the differences in races brought Hrdlička to the summation that “the substance” of Linnaeus’ 150-year-old classification

“holds true to this day.”49 He was satisfied that his article gave “the gist of human classification.”50 In fact, further elucidation would just make matters worse: “To go into further details would in this place be unprofitable, and also more or less uncertain.”51 It is easy to agree with him on this point.

Before condemning Hrdlička too harshly, it is necessary to recognize that he also made some keen insights, even if he failed to recognize their significance. In some ways, Hrdlička’s observations pointed toward the study of population groups distinguished by inductive evidence, and away from the deductive assumption that human individuals must be classed into idealistic race

48 Hrdlička, “Human Races,” 169.

49 Hrdlička, “Human Races,” 165.

50 Hrdlička, “Human Races,” 175.

51 Hrdlička, “Human Races,” 176.

groups. For example, Hrdlička thought that pathologies, like certain blood disorders, could differentiate the races. In fact, his explanation of diseases undermined his belief in the three race categories. Hrdlička almost realized the meaning of this, and he astutely noted that pathological differences “are mostly environmental, and local rather than racial,” and “correlate but little with other racial features.”52 Modern research strongly suggests that certain diseases, for example sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis, are significantly higher in population groups with ancestries from specific regions, but, just as Hrdlička noticed, they do not correlate to the traditional race

categories.53 Amazingly, he still drew the wrong conclusions and used pathology as a distinctive physiological marker of race, even though he knew, and even stated plainly, that it did not correlate with race.

It is also appropriate to remember that Hrdlička’s skill set allowed him to make real contributions to areas of physical anthropology that are not the topic of this study, for example in forensic anthropology. Since this is a highly specialized field, it is best to defer to the words of an expert. Jonathan Marks, a prominent anthropologist with a grounding in biology, explains forensic anthropology and its connection to race this way:

Contemporary forensic anthropologists are often asked to identify skeletal remains as to race. Here, knowing the ways in which people vary around the world can assist us in establishing the ‘race’ of an unknown skeleton. Obviously we use the word ‘race’ guardedly: we are simply saying that if we divide the ancestors of living Americans into three categories, we can make a better-than-random guess about which of them an unknown skeleton falls into.54

52 Hrdlička, “Human Races,” 160.

53 Marks, Human Biodiversity, 211-13.

54 Marks, Human Biodiversity, 158.

Im Dokument The racial world of Aleš Hrdlička (Seite 68-101)