Awesome People in History: Franz Boas

Franz Boas image from NNDB

You may recall in a recent editorial here on Cat Flag, I briefly mentioned Franz Boas as an Awesome Person in History. This man is virtually unknown outside a few academic circles, which is a real shame, because he helped to create the modern world and reshape our values and beliefs. How? By scientifically disproving racism.

When we talk about racism, we are really talking about a fundamental assumption about human beings: that biological factors of our physical appearance, such as skin color or eye shape, are linked to our intelligence and our behavior patterns. Racists categorize people and then make stereotypes about those people in order to prejudge them without actually getting to know them. Often, they also assume their own “race” is superior to all the others, and interpret the world through this lens. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe and North America, racism was so widely accepted that most people, even in the scientific community, treated it as simple, plain fact. In the Cal Poly library, I once read a copy of an edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica from the 1890s, and it was so strange to read how outright obsessed the encyclopedia was with categorizing each ethnic group and ranking them on some arbitrary racial gradient of “civilization” vs “savagery”.

It was into this world that Boas was born in Germany in 1858. As a Jew, he would have been considered “white”, but would also certainly have been no stranger to the receiving end of prejudice and discrimination. In spite of this, he grew up in a fairly privileged position, and was able to go to college. Studying at two universities over the course of his college career, he had a knack for two things: changing his mind on what major he wanted to study, and getting into sword-fighting duels with his peers over perceived insults to himself, his fraternity, or his religion. Eventually graduating from Kiel University with a doctorate in physics, he spent a mandatory year in the German army as all young men were required to do. It was here where he met a young woman named Marie Krackowizer, whom he would eventually marry. Once he got out of the service, he signed up for an Arctic expedition to explore Baffin Island.

Arctic exploration is nothing to sneeze at today, let alone in the 1880s, with no motor vehicles, no electric generators, and no modern medicine. During his year on Baffin Island, Boas and his team frequently faced freezing to death, starving to death, dying of disease, or being killed by the local wildlife.

Yeah, this face looks totally friendly.

Yeah, this face looks totally friendly.

These hardships led Boas to a realization that would shape his future career, and the world with it. Writing in his diary, he mused that if the supposedly “superior” and “civilized” Europeans were struggling to survive, yet the supposedly “primitive” and “savage” Inuit people they encountered were not only able to survive here but make their living here, then perhaps in the particular circumstances of the Arctic it was the Inuit who were the superior ones. Boas began studying and recording the lifestyles, tools, behaviors, and other adaptations of the Inuit people they met, publishing his findings in his book The Central Eskimo when he made his return.

Boas’s study of the Inuit led him to take up anthropology, the study of human cultures, as his new career. Soon, he was signing up for even more expeditions, this time to visit Native American groups that lived along the coast of British Columbia. It was his study of these Pacific Northwest tribes that would come to be his defining achievement.

The peoples of the Pacific Northwest all lived a broadly similar lifestyle, with fairly similar cultures that were based around salmon fishing and whaling. Their material culture, such as their tools, buildings, and famous totem poles, were pretty consistent, with some variation from tribe to tribe, all along the Pacific Northwest coast. Their societies all had a very similar, hierarchical structure. According to the prevailing views of the time, all of this could only mean that the Pacific Northwest peoples all belonged to the same sub-race of Native Americans, and this particular sub-race had a level of intelligence that predisposed them to achieving this particular level of civilization.

But that’s not what Boas found. After careful study of the Pacific Northwest peoples’ skull shape, eye shape, skin color, hair color and texture, languages, and so on, he found that the Pacific Northwest Indians were actually extremely diverse. Far from being all part of some racial category, Boas could only conclude that each tribe had a very different origin and arrived in the area at a different time from a different place. So why such cultural similarities between them? Boas could only conclude that the culture of the Pacific Northwest Indians had nothing at all to do with their race or ancestry, and everything to do with the spread of ideas from person to person and tribe to tribe that were well-adapted to the specific environmental circumstances of the British Columbian coastline.

The way he demonstrated his findings to the public, though, were a bit... eccentric.

The way he demonstrated his findings to the public, though, were a bit… eccentric.

Boas published his theories in such classic works as The Instability of Human Types and The Mind of Primitive Man. He argued that all humans, regardless of race, were fundamentally equal in our physical and cognitive abilities. No one race was inherently superior to any other. Instead, he proposed that the vast cultural differences between, say, Western Europeans, Chinese people, and some African hunter-gatherer tribe were the result of cultural diffusion – the spread of ideas from person to person, and those ideas that were best suited for survival in a given environment “sticking”.

He backed up his theories with mountains of data, not only from his work with Pacific Northwest Indians, but later experiments that found that even “white” people respond differently to different environmental pressures. Boas had immigrated to the United States in 1887, and in the early 1900s he began an experiment on immigrants such as himself. He studied the skull size and shape of thousands of immigrants and native-born Americans of many different races. He found that, regardless of race, the skull shapes of native-born Americans were different, on average, than those of immigrants. This, he argued, was a result of environmental differences between America and Europe, such as diet, pollution, and so forth. Thus, Boas concluded, the human body is shaped not only by ancestry, but environment, and differences that his peers would have categorized as “racial” were often, in fact, environmental.

To say that Boas’s theories were controversial would be an understatement. His ideas were often dismissed because he was Jewish, and his works were among those burned by the Nazis when they took power in the 1930s. Still, he began to gather a following among young anthropology students, many of whom would come to be important and successful scientists in their own right, such as Alfred Kroeber, Margaret Mead, and Claude Levi-Strauss. He was also an influence on the still-quite-young civil rights movement in America, which saw in his theories a justification for abolishing racial segregation. Figures like W. E. B. Du Bois were influenced by Boas’s arguments for tolerance and acceptance of cultural differences.

Although few people today have even heard about Franz Boas, we live in a world shaped by his pioneering scientific work. By refusing to let the prejudices of society blind him and focus only on the hard facts, Boas demonstrated that race really doesn’t matter, and that people are, well, people. He showed that we are shaped more by the environment we live in, both physiologically and culturally, than by some arbitrary genetic ranking system. He pushed for a more inclusive, less judgmental world, where people focus on humanity’s similarities instead of our differences. While he may not have lived to see the fruits of his labor, these ideas proved powerful enough to grow, spread, and take on a life of their own. They created the world we live in today, and I believe all of us are living better lives because of it.

Information from a Native American History class I took in college, supplemented by the sources linked to above.