Race and Aesthetics in the Anthropology of Petrus Camper (1722-1789) Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999
(Studies in the History of Ideas in the Low Countries Volume 4) ISBN: 90-420-0434-7
US $40.00

by Miriam Claude Meijer, Ph.D.
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Alan J. Barnard, Review Essay: “Anthropology, Race, and Englishness: Changing Notions of Complexion and Character,” Eighteenth Century Life 25 (2002): 94-102.


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.

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 of his Researches into the Physical History of Man), agreed with Buffon’s sentiment about albinos, but reversed the argument: plants and animals tend to be darker at first, then to become lighter through breeding.6

Other questions examined by Camper were, in his drawings, the relations between different apes and the varieties of humanity, and the place of the “Orang Outang” in theories of the origin of speech. To my mind, Meijer’s treatment of the latter topic is slightly misleading as she glosses over the crucial distinction between the orang-utan as we know it today and the eighteenth-century notion of “Orang Outang,” which could include, for example, Linnaeus’ virtually imaginary cave people, as well as the African chimpanzee and Asian orang-utan. The latter was treated by several writers, most notoriously Scottish judge Lord Monboddo, as a non-speaking branch of humanity.7 Just as Monboddo’s writings on the origin of language were becoming widely know, the President of the Royal Society of London invited Camper to lecture on whether this creature was capable of speech. Camper’s contribution seems to have distanced the “Orang Outang” from humanity. He noted that those he had dissected, which were Asian orang-utans, had laryngeal pouches which should, he argued, prevent speech from developing.8 In a later monograph, however, he did note that the same could not be said of the African species, thereby helping to differentiate not only humans from apes, but apes, as we know them today, from each other.9

A great advantage of Meijer’s book is that she explores Camper’s writings, especially some of his relatively obscure Dutch anthropological writings, in greater depth than others have done. She cites 137 original publications by Camper (excluding translations) as well as about 300 of his manuscripts and drawings. While Meijer does not offer us a biography as such, there are interesting biographical asides. Camper’s teaching load, for example, was heavy even by eighteenth-century standards: 7 a.m. History and Properties of Plants, 10 a.m. The Physiology of the Human Body (and sometimes The Art of Obstetrics or Medical Subject), 11 a.m. Surgery (and sometimes Medicine), 3 p.m. Disease and Defects which are Cured by Surgery According to Boerhaave, 4 p.m. Anatomy of the Human Body. Apparently, he gave most of these classes six days a week, plus (at least for two years) on Thursdays treating “People Suffering from External Defects” in the presence of his auditors.

Meijer offers good arguments for her reanalysis of Camper’s writings, namely that they have been misinterpreted, mainly in the nineteenth century, and that by focusing on Camper’s ideas in the context of his own time a quite different view from the traditional one emerges. Although relatively short, her book is full of detail and well referenced, and the inclusion of a translation of Camper’s important 1772 “Lecture on the Origin and Color of Blacks” is a great bonus.

Alan J. Barnard
University of Edinburgh


1. “Ethnography” and “ethnology” here are loan translations of actual German, Latin, and French usage. All these terms except “moral philosophy” were first recorded in the writings of German-speaking individuals and came into English only in the 19th century. German Ethnographie and Völkerkunde date from 1771 and possibly earlier; German Volkeskunde from 1782, Latin ethnologia from 1783 (in Vienna), and German Ethnologie and French ethnologie from 1787. See Hans F. Vermeulen, “Origins and Institutionalization of Ethnography and Ethnology in Europe and the USA, 1771-1845,” in Fieldwork and Footnotes: Studies in the History of European Anthropology, ed. Hans F. Vermeulen & Arturo Alvarez Roldan (London & N.Y.: Routledge, 1995), pp. 39-59. Vermeulen dates the origins of institutional anthropology to ca. 1791. For a more ideas-centered view, see my History and Theory in Anthropology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 15-26.

2. Meijer cites Robert P.W. Visser, Pol-Pierre Gossiaux, Stephen Jay Gould, & Claude Blanckaert.

3. “Redevoering over den oorsprong en de kleur der zwarten” [Lecture on the Origin and Color of Blacks], De Rhapsodist 2 (1772): 373-94. Meijer includes an English trans. of this essay in an app.

4. Georges Louis LeClerc, comte de Buffon. Natural History: General and Particular, trans. William Smellie (London: W. Strahan & T. Cadell, 1785), 7: 392-452.

5. John Hunter & James Cowles Prichard in Britain, and John Mitchell & John Winthrop IV in America. See Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina, 1968), pp. 246-48.

6. John Hunter, Observations on Certain Parts of the Animal OEconomy (London: Sold at 13, Castle-Street, Leicester-Square, 1786), p. 100. James Cowles Prichard, Researches into the Physical History of Man (London: J. & A. Arch, 1813), pp. 233-39.

7. See my “Monboddo’s Orang Outang and the Definition of Man,” in Ape, Man, Apeman: Changing Views Since 1600, ed. Raymond Corbey & Bert Theunissen (Leiden: Dept. of Prehistory, Leiden Univ., 1995), pp. 71-85, and “Orang Outan and the Definition of Man: The Legacy of Lord Monboddo,” in Fieldwork and Footnotes, pp. 95-112.

8. “Account of the Organs of Speech of the Orang Outang,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 69 (1779): 139-59.

9. Natuurkundige verhandelingen over den orang-outang; en eenige andere aap-soorten Over den Rhinocerus met den dubbelen horen; en over het rendier [Essay on the Natural History of the Orang-utan and Other Monkey Species. On the Double-horned Rhinocerous; and on the Reindeer]. (Amsterdam: Meyer en Warnars, 1782), p. 89.

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