Racial Anthropology in the World Question, 1897-1942


Western conceptions of world history during the hockey-stick were strongly conditioned by a thick reading of racial anthropology. World order was explained by ‘the natural hierarchy of the races’ not only through static causal maps from systematics to world order, ie from racial anthropology to ‘the orders of rank of the States’, or from racial anthropology to the social order, but also dynamically, via racial catastrophism; a philosophy of history which held that the rise and fall of civilizations and the rise and fall of great powers were explained by population history. The motor of world history was the struggle for survival between races: more vigorous races expanded their dominion at the expense of more primitive races. This was the iron law of history in the discourse of racial catastrophism. The weakest races from ‘the uttermost ends of the earth’ were expected to ‘vanish upon approach’ by the stronger. The once vigorous Asiatic races in decline were expected to come under the rule of the more vigorous races of Europe.

In a roomful of gentleman in New York, London, Paris, or Berlin any time in the period under study, it would prompt a murmur of agreement if one were to remark that the reason why the Anglo-Saxon, and not the Teuton, had ‘world control’ was because he had vigorously displaced the weaker races from the world’s prime temperate lands outside Europe — for, of course, the White race can’t help but eventually lose vigor in the tropics. The doctor in the armchair would wonder aloud whether the darker races — who were, of course, irrelevant to the world question — could be lifted up by the judicious application of scientific eugenics. The conversation would then turn to whether there were any scientific racial/world historic grounds for worrying about a threat (to the Anglo-Saxon world order) from the east. Was the Hindoo far too cross-bred with darker races to be redeemable? Could the Han regain his vigor? Could the evidently vigorous Japanese race organize the Mongoloid races of the Far East? Could Soviet Man defy the iron laws of racial history? These were all speculations for the future. The world question, in the Western discourse with the onset of the hockey-stick from the turn of the century onwards and particularly as it came to bear on grand-strategy at midcentury, was whether the Teuton could kick-out the Anglo-Saxon from the cockpit of history.

The world question was in this way rigidly framed within a paradigm of Germanic racial supremacism anchored on seemingly incontrovertible scientific evidence from physical anthropology, archaeology and linguistics. This discourse was not only central to the hegemonic ideology of the West, high racialism, it played an absolutely extraordinary causal role at midcentury. The Germans of course attempted to exterminate the Slav and reenact the Anglo-Saxon achievement in western Eurasia in a single act. Earlier, Chamberlain had vetoed a triple alliance that would’ve deterred Hitler because, as he explained in a letter to his sister, ‘I put as little value on Russian military capacity as I believe the Germans do.’ The catastrophic failure of Western intelligence assessments in 1941 attests to the rigidity of this discourse. For there was in fact no disagreement between Hitler, Churchill, and FDR on the rank-ordering of the races or the iron laws of racial history. That the Slav could defeat the Teuton was practically unthinkable. We cannot interrogate midcentury perceptions in the aftermath of the World War without understanding the hold of racial catastrophism on the Western mind.

The cobwebs of racial catastrophism would be dispelled in the American intelligence community by Boasian antiracists working for the Office of Strategic Services — the greatest community of scholars ever assembled; it was all hands on deck at midcentury. Robinson, a Columbia History Professor who led the Eastern European Division, would tell the President and Churchill at Quebec in 1943 that ‘considering the measure of Russia’s power revealed in this war,’ there was no doubt as to whether she had to be given ‘a coordinate place in a three power scheme of world control.’ More urgently, a western front was necessary not because of German strength but because of Soviet strength.

Robinson was relying on the insights of Max Werner, a now-forgotten member of the rare species of the transnational democratic socialist defense intellectual who alone in the West predicted the outcome of the Soviet-German War. As the New York Times noted in his obituary, he briefly became quite famous for his insight. Werner was robbed of a chance to puncture the monoculture of the ‘Megadeath intellectuals’ that would emerge later in the decade for his heart failed him in 1951. But before his death he made a sustained and highly-effective critique of the Anglo-Saxon overreliance on the air weapon, and later the air-atomic weapon that was then being contemplated.


Long before the world question emerged at the turn of the century, in 1848, Retzius had constructed the cephalic index to explain the European Order and the rise of European civilization. The logic was seductive: Physical anthropology could help you track people, pots were people, so you could “show” that higher levels of civilization were achieved with the arrival of more vigorous races. Jon Røyne Kyllingstad explains in Measuring the Master Race: Physical Anthropology in Norway, 1890-1945,

Retzius and Nilsson’s migration theory was not only an account of the origin of the Swedes, it was also a grand theory about the rise of European civilisation. They proposed that the Sami and the Basques were the descendants of inferior Stone Age peoples that had originally inhabited all of Europe. These short-skulled autochthones had later been overrun by successive waves of Indo-European invaders who brought increased levels of civilisation to Europe: the Celts introduced the Bronze Age, and the Germanics the Iron Age. Thus, the growth of European civilisation was explained by the successive invasion of races with increasingly advanced brains. Retzius’ views were extraordinarily influential (see Fig. 2 [reproduced as Figure 1]). The racial-succession scheme shaped linguistic, archaeological and ethnological debates on European prehistory from the 1840s to the 1860s, and the system of classifying skulls and human races into dolichocephalics and brachycephalics had an even greater and more long-lasting impact. Indeed, the cephalic index became a key factor in most of the numerous racial typologies that were put forward by European scientists over the next 100 years.

This was well before 1859 when ‘the theory of the antiquity of man burst upon the scientific world with an irresistible force’ (Thompson 1877) and the races were inferred to have great time-depth; even longer before the mid-1890s, when Massin (1996) [quoted in Glick (2007)] tells us, ‘the fundamental question of the ‘hierarchy of races’ and ‘existence of superior and inferior races’ acquired again a central position in anthropology’. For it is no surprise to find Ripley resurrect the discourse of ‘the races of Europe’ in 1899. Well beyond anthropology, we find geopoliticians in Europe and America marry cartography and racial anthropology from the turn of the century onwards to triangulate and quantify world power. Mackinder’s philosophy of history is a cartographic version of racial catastrophism — the deep order of history is the repeated invasions of the civilized societies of the Eurasian rim by vigorous barbarians from the steppe. Racial geopolitics would be turned into a fine art by Karl Haushofer, whose influence on Hitler can be read off the Second Book. What Mahan had been to the Kaiser, Haushofer was to Hitler. We have to wait until Spykman in 1942 to see the severing of racial anthropology from the logic of strategic cartography.

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Figure 1. Ripley, The Races of Europe, 1899. Source: Kyllingstad (2014).


The discourse of racial anthropology did not come to an end in 1942. Neither did the specific discourse of racial catastrophism. For as late as 1969, we find the doyen of evolutionary biology, Sewall Wright, reproducing the logic:

There is also no question, however, that populations that have long inhabited widely separated parts of the world should, in general, be considered to be of different subspecies by the usual criteria that most individuals of such populations can be allocated correctly by inspection (Wright, 1969, vol. 4, p. 439). The initiation of agriculture and livestock breeding was a revolutionary advance from the hunting and gathering way of life, which could hardly occur until the genetic basis for intelligence had reached an advanced grade. It is fair to assume that the regions in which these appeared first were at the peaks in the genetic basis for intelligence (p. 456). … If any appreciable advance has occurred since, it has probably consisted more in the worldwide diffusion of the level attained by the most advanced peoples than in the further progress of the latter (p. 454). … The success of the tribes thus probably depended to a greater extent on capabilities, determined by their genes, than on the possession of techniques not known to their neighbors (p. 455). … The state of culture has been to a considerable extent an index of the rank of populations genetically in the distinctive human line of evolutionary advance in its later stages. Aspects of culture are continually being borrowed, but whether such borrowings are effectively integrated into the existent culture to form new peaks (as most conspicuously in the recent period in Japan), or are adopted only superficially and to the detriment of the previous culture, is also an index of genetic capability (p. 455).

Indeed, even in post-racial anthropology, under the onslaught of the molecular anthropology revolution, it has been resurrected as ‘demic diffusion’. The issue seems to be that since physical anthropology can only track population history, it (together with the paleoclimate) has to do all the explanatory work in paleoanthropology and prehistory. In forthcoming work, I will show that racial anthropology was not abandoned in paleoanthropology until the mid-1980s, whereupon racial catastrophism morphed into demic diffusion for populations classified as Sapiens, while outright racial catastrophism, now disguised as interspecific catastrophism, was projected onto the Neanderthal question.




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