Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The “Threat” of Broader Faces

April 20th, 2009 · 4 Comments

A century ago, the Dillingham Commission was charged with investigating the societal impact of immigration, particularly from Eastern and Southern Europe. The Congressional panel duly churned out a 41-volume report that, for all its regal language and intricate graphs, contains some of the vilest pseudoscientific drivel ever committed to print. Of particular interest to Microkhan is Volume 38, a 580-page behemoth entitled Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants. The report’s author, the well-known anthropologist Franz Boas, argues that certain European races possess unusually broad faces and short heads, which were then thought to be indicators of low intelligence and criminal tendencies. But Boas assures us that, after a generation or two in America, these races can become more, uh, “normal”:

The head form may conveniently be expressed by a number indicating the transversal diameter (or width of the head) in per cents of the diameter measured from forehead to the back of the head (or the length of the head). When the head is elongated (that is, narrow when seen from the front, and long when seen in profile), this number will be low; when it is rounded (that is, wide when seen from the front, and short when seen in profile), this number will be high. The width of the head expressed in percents of the length of teh head is about 78 per cent among Sicilians born in Sicily and about 83 per cent among Hebrews born in eastern Europe. Among Scilians born in America this number rises to more than 80 per cent, while among east European Hebrew born in America it sinks to 81 per cent.

This fact is one of the most suggestive discovered in the investigation, because is shows that not even those characteristics of a race which have proved to the be the most permanent in their old home remain the same under the new surroundings; and we are copelled to conclude that when these features of the body change, the whole bodily and mental make-up of the immigrants may change.

This drivel would be much more entertaining if it hadn’t had such serious policy consequences, including the eventual prohibition of all Asian immigration to the U.S.

When Microkhan comes across pseudoscientific relics of this nature, one question pops to mind: A hundred years hence, which of today’s most cherished scientific “facts” will be regarded as laughably backwards and misguided?


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4 Comments so far ↓

  • alison c

    that’s a total misinterpretation of boas! boas argued that any “racial” differences between groups of people weren’t biological, as the eugenicists claimed, but instead were environmental, and that’s why after two generations, the children of immigrants were indistinguishable from “white” americans, after they’d had the same nutrition and medical care and everything, which they often wouldn’t have had in the countries that they left to come to america. boas’ research helped to undermine the spurious biological essentialism of the eugenicists, who used biometric measurements like the size of the skull as a basis for racist policies. the reason boas used biometrics (skull and face measurements) was to prove that the eugenicists’ arguments weren’t valid even on their own terms.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @alison: While I agree that Boas was an avowed opponent of racial superiority/inferiority arguments, he didn’t quite make the intellectual leaps you ascribe to him (at least in this document, dated 1907-1910).

    For starters, let’s keep in mind the underlying assumption in this report: That these anthropometric measurements correlate to intelligence and criminality. I think we can all agree that this is not valid.

    Secondly, remember, the purpose of the Dillingham Commission was to shape immigration policies. Boas’s data clearly concludes that first-generation immigrants have cranial/facial characteristics that would mark them as undesirable. And that data (along with that compiled in the Commission’s 40 other volumes) led to severe curtailment of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, based on fears that these people were of poor stock.

    I do see your point about the influence of environmental factors in making cranial/facial characteristics “normal”. Yes, Boas was correct about this. But he couldn’t escape the fact that the intellectual air he breathed at that time was poisoned by pseudoscientific beliefs in anthropometrics. And it would all be quaint if it hadn’t led to such profoundly misguided policymaking.

  • alison c

    i think boas’ point was that even if you think these measurements correlate to intelligence and criminality, the fact that they change across generations based on environmental factors shows that there is no biological or hereditary basis for racial categorizations.

    the immigration policy that you refer to is based on the eugenic assumption that there are discrete, biologically distinctive races, such as “white” or “asian.” eugenicists felt that in order to preserve the biological uniqueness (racial hygiene) of the “white” race, it was necessary to limit immigration of people who were considered less racially desirable, who would “pollute” the american gene pool.

    boas, on the other hand, argues that race is not a biological essence that can be transmitted by reproduction, as demonstrated by the generational changes in facial morphology that he describes. so according to boas, there is no such thing as people of racially “poor stock,” there are only people who are born and raised in more or less environmentally advantageous surroundings (such as severe poverty and famine in southern or eastern europe). this logically leads to the idea that immigration of groups to more advantageous and resource-rich environments would be beneficial for future generations.

    boas’ research directly undermines the eugenic reasoning (i.e. the existence of biologically discrete races, “degeneration” through reproduction) that immigration quotas of this era were based on.

    the restrictive immigration policies of this era were passed in spite of, not because of boas’ work.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @alison: Thank you for the thoughtful and intelligent reply. This is why I love blogging.

    Again, let me reiterate that Boas’s heart was in the right place, and that he was certainly correct about the correlation between environment and physical robustness. But I don’t believe it’s right to hold him blameless here.

    The Dillingham Commission was convened in response to nativist fears about 1) competition for employment and 2) criminality (particularly among the two “races,” “Italian” and “Hebrew,” that Boas focused his studies on ). As Boas makes clear in the report’s introduction, intermarriage between immigrant groups and native-born Americans was a true rarity at this point–and almost unthinkable in the case of Italians. So I think it’s fair to say that he knew he hadn’t been called upon to combat eugencists who feared the dilution of the gene pool. He was being asked, first and foremost, to provide data and analysis that would help Congress revamp immigration policy, with an eye toward appeasing nativists who worried about their jobs, and about becoming crime victims.

    The big question, then, is whether Boas knew how his report would be used/misused by politicians. By providing evidence of the intellectual inferiority (and potential criminality) of first-generation immigrants, Boas should have known this would play right into nativist hands.

    But, to be fair, did he think his following observation, re: the impact of environment, would trump this initial observation? In other words, how do we peer into Boas’s mind and understand how he thought his work would be perceived? What was his degree of political awareness?

    I wish the report itself contained some sort of hint, but there is nothing of the sort in there. It really is dry reading, save for the smattering of humorous anachronisms. And there’s no real conclusion in which Boas opines on the impact of his research on immigration policy.

    I don’t know enough about Boas’s subsequent work to know how he viewed his Dillingham report in retrospect–or, more importantly, how he thought of the role it played in stoking nativist (and racist) passions. If he ever became aware, I’m sure he disapproved. But that’s doesn’t mean he earns a pass.