Race and the Environment: Cerebral and Missionary Approaches to the Human Body

Brain images of a Simia Satyrus (Orangutan) and of a Simia Troglodytus (Chimpazee).
From Friedrich Tiedemann, « On the Brain of the Negro, Compared with That of the European and the Orang Outan », Philosophical Transactions, 1836.

On Monday 8th November, Sala del Torrino, Villa Salviati (Florence), Maxime Guttin (PhD Researcher, EUI) and Jan Becker (PhD Researcher, EUI) will present their projects on the making of racial hierarchies through the studies of the brain by European scholars (1770–1848) and the medical discourses and practices of missionaries in South-East Asia, respectively. Through their case studies, they shall particularly discuss the shifting relationship between the human body and its environment.

Racial theories and the environment share a closely intertwined history. Ethno-climatology constituted a scientific and medical topos to account for differences in human groups since Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. In the 18th century, the key concept to account for these differences, namely race, was perceived to be fluid, determined by climate, and thus dependent on external factors. In this framework the environment was considered the major agent of bodily changes. However, during the 19th century, medical sciences, such as anatomy, physiology, and bacteriology, began to challenge this influential scholarly tradition. These novel knowledges and disciplines redefined the conceptualization of the human body, diminishing its permeability to environmental influences and rendering racial differences fixed.

German missionary physician in Eastern Africa in the 1920s. From Müller, Samuel. Der Doktor in Bumbuli. Von den Anfängen der ärztlichen Mission in Usambara, 2. expanded edition. Bethel/Bielefeld: Schriftenniederlage der Anstalt Bethel, 1928, 3.

Maxime Guttin researches how the brain became a systematic determinant of race from the last quarter of the 18th century onward. During this period, European scholars produced a vast body of anatomical and physiological literature, linking the study of the brain its various parts and functionswith racial hierarchies. In this sense, studies on the brain constituted a way to incorporate the notion of race in the body and to redefine the knowledge involved in the anthropological inquiry. However, the brain remained one determinant of race among others. 

How did studies on the brain engage with the framework of the “theories of climates”? What was their place within the broader medical discourse on the human body?  How did these studies redefine the nature of race and integrate the debate on slavery? Under which conditions were experiments on brains especially on non-European brainsfeasible? The history of the sciences of the brain thus constitutes a way to assess the growing materialization of the notion of race as well as the permanence of the environmental factors in the definition of the human body.

While scientists in Europe looked for traces of race’s nature within the human body, Christian missionaries outside of Europe experienced the alleged potency of foreign climates and environments directly. Jan Becker’s work focuses on the shifting ways French and Dutch missionaries in South-East Asia experienced their own and their communities’ bodies as well as their respective embeddedness in their surroundings. 

Did missionaries approve of the scholarly tradition of ethno-climatological theories? What knowledge about race, the environment, and medicine resulted from their religious convictions and their intercultural context? And how were scientific theories such as germ theory translated and applied in the colonies? Whereas the scope of this argument is yet to be determined, germ theory arguably split the bond between the human body and its environment. Did germ theory also influence the relationship between race and place?


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