Development and Degeneration: Classification and Evolution of Human Populations and Languages in the History of Anthropology

Part of the Interdisciplinary Evolution Research book series (IDER, volume 4)


This contribution shows that evolutionary thought which dominated the discourse on the development of human populations, cultures, and languages in the nineteenth century (1) dates back to pre-Darwinian concepts that emerged in the times of the Enlightenment, (2) was only possible due to an ongoing interdisciplinary exchange between different branches of anthropology, and (3) was bound to the idea that lateral exchange of “racial,” linguistic, or cultural traits would contribute to degeneration instead of “progressive” development. Specifically, we would like to draw the reader’s attention to two quite contradictory strains in the history of science:

Evolutionary thought dominated the discourse on the development of human populations, cultures, and languages in the nineteenth century. According to this “leitmotif,” inheritance took place in unilinear trees of descendence, with selection and processes of vertical descent leading to development in consecutive stages. Horizontal or lateral transfer, on the contrary, for example, of words between languages, or interbreeding between different species, populations, or “races” would ultimately lead to degeneration instead of development, spoiling the supposedly “pure” lineages of descent.

On the other hand, the development of evolutionary theory that had come to dominate scholarly thought in biology, anthropology, linguistics, and sociology could only emerge due to an ongoing interdisciplinary exchange between different branches of the sciences and the humanities, with a decisive role played by anthropology and allied disciplines. This means evolutionary theory favoring pure lines of vertical descent could only develop due to frequent and ongoing “interbreeding” between different scholarly disciplines, thus “spoiling” the pure lines of scientific descent! This interdisciplinary, “horizontal” descent is illustrated by the fact that the idea of biological evolution dates back to pre-Darwinian concepts that emerged in the Enlightenment and was first introduced to sociology and the humanities before being applied to the newly emerging discipline of biology in the early nineteenth century. While natural history can be traced back much further, the term “biology” was only established at that time by physicians and naturalists like Beddoes (1799), Burdach (1800), and Lamarck (1802).

This “horizontal transfer” of ideas transgressing the borders between the sciences and humanities persisted even in periods of rejection of evolutionism in both biology and cultural anthropology. We refer to “anthropology” in a broad sense, combining sociocultural anthropology with biology-derived physical anthropology and also including the neighboring disciplines of archaeology and linguistics in accord with the four field approach of North American anthropology. While the borders of “anthropology” in this sense prove to be hard to define, we understand this as just another indication for the transgression of academic borders and interdisciplinary networking between scholars – a central topic to be put forward in our paper.


History of Anthropology Theory of Anthropology Evolution Degeneration Primordialism Racism Linguistics 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of the History, Philosophy and Ethics of MedicineUlm UniversityUlmGermany
  2. 2.Department of Medical Ethics and History of MedicineUniversity Medical Center GöttingenGöttingenGermany

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