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Eighteenth-Century Life 25.3 (2001) 94-102
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Anthropology, Race, and Englishness:
Changing Notions of Complexion and Character
Alan J. Barnard
Miriam Claude Meijer. Race and Aesthetics in the Anthropology of Petrus Camper (1722-1789). Amsterdam & Atlanta: Editions Rodopi, 1999. Pp. x + 251. $61. ISBN 90-420-0434-7
Roxann Wheeler. The Complexion of Race: Categories of Difference in Eighteenth-Century British Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2000. Pp. x + 371. $65/ $26.50. ISBN 0-8122-3541-X (cloth), 0-8122-1722-5 (paper)
Paul Langford, Englishness Identified: Manners and Character, 1650-1850. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. xii + 389. $39.95. ISBN 0-19-820681-X
The term "anthropology" occurs in the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1768-71), but it gets only a one-line entry: "ANTHROPOLOGY, a discourse upon human nature"; and Johnson's Dictionary (1755) defines it as "The doctrine of anatomy." Clearly, there was no anthropology as we know it in the eighteenth century, but both anthropological ideas and the terminology that would later define the discipline were emerging. To simplify somewhat, what we now call "social anthropology" or "cultural anthropology" was then known variously as "ethnography" (in the eighteenth century, usually but not always at the level of description), "ethnology" or Völkerkunde (in contrast to folklore [Volkskunde], at the level of comparison), or part of "moral philosophy" (especially in Scotland, at the level of theory). 1 Yet anthropology, ethnography, ethnology, and moral philosophy were really quite separate enterprises, and relations between moral philosophy and natural history were frequently ambiguous. Even more problematic were the ideas of "race" and "racism," so taken for granted in nineteenth- and twentieth-century political discourse.
Petrus Camper was the leading Dutch anatomist and anatomical illustrator of the mid-eighteenth century. He was among the first to mark out an "anthropology," or more precisely Menschkunde, which he distinguished from Natuurkunde (natural history). He believed that facial angle coincided with distinctions of "race" and sought to use this criterion to study and classify humankind. However, like many anthropological ideas of the eighteenth century, his were misunderstood and misused, both by his contemporaries and by his successors. Miriam Claude Meijer's book is, to a large measure, an attempt to correct such misunderstandings. [End Page 94]
The problem lies centrally in the fact that until fairly recently commentators on Camper have seen him through nineteenth-century spectacles. Contrary to the nineteenth-century understanding of Camper, he was not really a polygenist, he did not regard racial types as permanent, and he did not believe in racial superiority (or at least not in the same sense as later writers, and as far as can be discerned from his writings). In the 1980s a number of writers reinterpreted Camper's studies of facial angles to emphasize that they essentially have to do with aesthetics or are merely an aid to artists. 2 Meijer goes beyond them in suggesting that Camper's theory of facial angles propounded naturalness and equal worth of all varieties of human physiognomy, a conclusion that seems to be well documented in Camper's writings.
Also of interest is Camper's theory of skin color. 3 His treatise on the subject indicates clearly his monogenism. Where he disagreed with most other monogenists (notably Buffon in his essay on "The Degeneration of Animals" 4 ) was in his insistence that the skin color of original humanity (i.e., Adam and Eve) could not be determined. Buffon and others held that it was white, in Buffon's case for two reasons. First, blacks could bear white children (albinos), but not the other way around. Second, Buffon argued, Adam had been created in the temperate zone, and other races deviated from their supposed white ancestors because of exposure to extremes of heat and cold. In its disagreement Camper's view was virtually unique on the European Continent, though there were writers in Britain and America who agreed with him. 5 John Hunter and James Cowles Prichard (though the latter only in the first edition...