Franz Boas

Franz Boas

Franz Boas was born in Minden, Germany, on 9th July, 1858. His Jewish parents had been supporters of the 1848 German Revolution and he was brought up with progressive political views. Boas studied physics at the universities of Heidelberg and Bonn before completing his doctorate at Kiel in 1881.

Boas developed an interest in anthropology and took part in expeditions to Baffin Land (1883-84) and British Columbia (1885). Boas worked at the University of Berlin but resigned in 1887 after a new law required all staff to make a declaration concerning their religious beliefs.

In 1887 Boas decided to emigrate to the United States. He settled in New York and found work as assistant editor of Science Magazine. The following year he began teaching anthropology at Clark University. He was also the chief assistant for anthropology at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1892-93).

Boas joined Columbia University as a lecturer in physical anthropology in 1896. Promoted to professor in 1899, Boas became the world's most important anthropologist. It has been claimed that his work "changed the understanding of human nature by eliminating the predeterminism of instinct and heredity and making human institutions cultural, subject to human control for human ends."

Boas argued that it was necessary to study ethnology, linguistics, physical anthropology and archaeology before generalizations might be made about any one culture or comparisons about any number of cultures.

As well as teaching at Columbia Boas worked as curator of the American Museum of Natural History in New York (1901-05). He also established the American Anthropological Association and the journals, Anthropologist and the International Journal of American Linguistics.

Boas applied his knowledge of anthropology to social and political issues. In articles and books such as Anthropology and Modern Life (1928) and Race and Democratic Society (1945), Boas exposed the fallacies of racial prejudice. He completely rejected chauvinistic nationalism and was a life-long internationalist.

In his final years Boas spent much of his time battling against unscientific theories of racial inequality being used against African Americans in the United States and the Jews in Nazi Germany. Appalled by the emergence of fascism in Europe during the 1930s, Boas established the Committee for Intellectual Freedom, an organisation that gained the support of 10,000 American scientists.

Franz Boas died on 21st December, 1942.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Frank Boas, lecture at Columbia University (7th March, 1917)

My opinions are founded to a great extent on the truths taught by the retrospect upon the history of mankind, the study of which is the business of my life. We see in primitive society the feeling of solidarity confined to the small horde, while every outsider is considered a being specifically distinct, and therefore as a dangerous enemy who must be hunted down. With the advance of civilization, we see the groups which have common interests, and in which the bonds of human brotherhood are considered binding, expand until we reach the concept that all men are created with equal rights. Socrates, Buddha, and Christ are the milestones which indicate the birth of this great idea.

The 2,000 or more years which have elapsed since their time have not sufficed, however, to bring about the realization of these ideals. Based on this knowledge, it is my opinion that our first duties are to humanity as a whole, and that, in a conflict of duties, our obligations to humanity are of higher value than those toward the nation; in other words, that patriotism must be subordinated to humanism.

A second principle to which I hold is also based on anthropological knowledge. We see everywhere that the form of thought of man is determined by the prevailing emotions which are intimately connected with the traditional mode of thought. The fact that certain ideas are held sacred in a community and that they are upheld by intelligent thought is no proof of their truth; for we know that in every society the development of thought is shaped more or less by traditional attitudes; that men are more likely to justify their way of feeling and acting by reasoning than to shape their actions and to remodel their emotions on the basis of reasoning. Only the greatest minds can free themselves of this tendency, and they are the ones who in course of time revolutionize the course of our civilization. We should bear in mind all the time the difficulty of developing such strength of character and of reasoning power as to free ourselves of the prejudices that are the foundation of our whole life.

I consider it of fundamental importance to bear in mind all the time these conditions of human thought, and to watch that in the education of the young the respect and love for ideals be tempered by a rational understanding of the principles on which these ideals are based.

For this reason I believe that the purely emotional basis on which, the world over, patriotic feelings are instilled into the minds of children is one of the most serious faults in our educational systems, particularly when we compare these methods with the lukewarm attention that is given to the common interests of humanity. I dare say that if all nations cultivated the ideals of equal rights of all members of mankind by emotional means such as are now used to develop passionate patriotism, much of the mutual hatred, distrust, and disrespect would disappear.

The kind of patriotism that we inculcate is intended to develop the notion that the members of each nation, and that the institutions of each nation, are superior to those of all others. Under this stimulus the fact that in each country, normally, people live comparatively comfortably under the conditions in which they have grown up is too often translated by the citizens of that country into the idea that others who live under different conditions have a civilization or institutions of inferior value, and must feel unhappy until the benefits of his own mode of feeling, thinking, and living have been imposed upon them. I consider it one of the great objects worth striving for to counteract this faulty tendency.

(2) Frank Boas, The Problems of the American Negro (January, 1921)

Even if there is neither a biological nor a psychological justification for the popular belief in the inferiority of the Negro race, the social basis of the race prejudice in America is not difficult to understand. The prejudice is founded essentially on the tendency of the human mind to merge the individual in the class to which he belongs and to ascribe to him all the characteristics of his class. It does not even require a marked difference in type, such as we find when we compare Negro and white, to provoke the spirit that prevents us from recognizing individuals and compels us to see only representatives of a class endowed with imaginary qualities that we ascribe to the group as a whole. We find this spirit at work in anti-Semitism as well as in American nativism, and in the conflict between labor and capitalism. We have recently seen it at its height in the emotions called forth by a world war.

It is not by any means the class consciousness of the segregated group that determines this feeling. It is rather the consciousness of the outsider who combines a large number of individuals in a group and thus assigns to each the same character. The less feeling of unity the heterogeneous members of the group possess, the harder it is for them to bear the discrimination under which they suffer.

This is obviously the psychological basis of the present situation of the American Negro. To the popular mind, the Negro appears as a class, and the impressions made by the life of the poor Negro are generalized by the white man and are combined with dogmatic beliefs regarding the physical and hereditary mental makeup of the race.

Mankind has traveled a long road from the time when every stranger was an enemy. According to our modern theoretical standards, we maintain that justice should be given to the individual, that it should not be meted out to him as to a representative of his class. And still, how very far removed are we from the realization of this ideal! The natural habit of protecting ourselves against a supposedly hostile foreign group determines our life in great matters as well as in small details, and the life of nations as well as the life of the individual and of the family.

For this reason there is no great hope that the Negro problem will find even a half-way satisfactory solution in our day. We may, perhaps, expect that an increasing number of strong minds will free themselves from race prejudice and see in every person a man entitled to be judged on his merits. The weak-minded will not follow their example.

But the greatest hope for the immediate future lies in a lessening of the contrast between Negroes and whites which will bring about a lessening of class-consciousness. As I have already pointed out, under present conditions a penetration of the white race by the Negro does not occur, while the effects of intermixture in which the fathers are white and the mothers Negro will lead in all probability to an increase of the amount of white blood in the Negro population. This should allay the fears of those who believe that the white race might deteriorate by race mixture. On the other hand, intermixture will decrease the contrast between the extreme racial forms, and, in the course of time, this will lead to a lessening of the consciousness of race distinction. If conditions were ever such that it could be doubtful whether a person were of Negro descent or not, the consciousness of race would necessarily be much weakened. In a race of octoroons, living among whites, the color question would probably disappear.

There is absolutely no biological evidence which would countenance the assumption that race mixture of itself would have unfavorable results, that the children of white fathers and of mulatto or quadroon mothers would be inferior to their Negro ancestors.

It would seem, therefore, to be in the interest of society to permit rather than to restrain marriages between white men and Negro women. It would be futile to expect that our people would tolerate intermarriages in the opposite direction, although no scientific reason can be given that would prove them to be detrimental to the individual. Intermixture between white males and Negro females has been common ever since Negroes were brought to our continent, and the efficacy of the modern attempts to repress this intermingling is open to grave doubt.

Thus it would seem that man being what he is, the Negro problem will not disappear in America until the Negro blood has been so much diluted that it will no longer be recognized, just as anti-Semitism will not disappear until the last vestige of the Jew as a Jew has disappeared.