Scientific racism is the use of ostensibly scientific techniques and hypotheses to support or justify the belief in racism, racial inferiority, racialism or racial superiority; alternatively, it is the practice of classifying individuals of different phenotypes into discrete races. This practice is now generally considered pseudoscientific, yet historically it received much credence in the scientific community.

As a category of theory, scientific racism employs anthropology, anthropometric, craniometry and other disciplines or pseudo-disciplines, in proposing anthropological typologies supporting the classification of human populations into physically discrete human races that might be asserted to be superior or inferior. Scientific racism was common during the New Imperialism period (1880s – 1914) where it was used in justifying imperialism, and it culminated (or yet pontificating a trickle now and then) in the period from 1920 to the end of World War II. Since the later 20th century, scientific racism has been criticized as obsolete and has historically been used to support or validate racist world-views, based upon belief in the existence and significance of racial categories and a hierarchy of superior and inferior races.

Criminal Castes

Whereas early European ideas on phrenology were applied to identify mental traits of individuals, advocates of scientific racism used what they considered to be more refined anthropometric measurements to identify castes. Edgar Thurston (1855-1935) was one such person. He believed that intelligence was inversely proportional to the breadth of the nose and claimed that he scrutinized this as well as handwriting when recruiting clerks in his office. He gave lectures to the students of the Madras University and sometimes to the Madras Police on practical anthropology during the 1890s, and he trained the Madras Police in the use of anthropometry for criminal identification. The Bertillon system had already been incorporated in the Bengal and Madras Police departments by the 1890s and Thurston’s training was intended to help the police identify membership of what were then termed as “criminal castes”.

Bertillon system of Criminal Identification 

Alphonse Bertillon was a French criminologist who first developed the anthropometric system of physical measurements of body parts, especially components of the head and face, to produce a detailed description of an individual.  This system, invented in 1879, became known as the Bertillon system, and quickly gained wide acceptance as a reliable, scientific method of criminal investigation. In 1884 alone, French police used Bertillon’s system to help capture 241 repeat offenders, which helped establish the system’s effectiveness. Primarily, investigators used the Bertillon system to determine if a suspect in custody had been involved in previous crimes. Law enforcement agencies began to create archives of records of known criminals, which contained his or her anthropometric measurements, as well as full-face and profile photographs of the perpetrator (now commonly known as “mug shots,” which are still in use today).

Bertillon’s anthropometric measurement system never quite recovered its exclusive status as the preferred criminal identification system. It was eventually displaced by fingerprint analysis, although Bertillon measurements were commonly used in conjunction with fingerprinting into the early decades of the 20th century. Today, fingerprint analysis is used by law enforcement agencies all over the world to track down criminals and conclusively identify them.

Ethnographic Survey of India

In 1901, Thurston was appointed to the Ethnographic Survey of India project, established at that time following the success of H.H.Risley’s Ethnographic Survey of Bengal. Risley was an adherent to the theories of scientific racism and had been appointed as director of Ethnology in India. Thurston worked as a part of this project to collect accurate anthropometric measurements. These included a number of measurements of the skull and derived indices or proportions such as the nasal index.

Among other published works, Thurston wrote the seven volumes of Castes and Tribes of Southern India published in 1909 as part of the Ethnographic Survey of India. In that work he was assisted by K Rangachari, a colleague from the Madras museum who had also assisted him in a 1906 ethnographic study, Ethnographic Notes in Southern India. Rangachari had supplied most of the forty photographs used in this earlier study. The September 1910 edition of Nature described the 1909 publication as a monumental record of the varied phases of south Indian tribal life, the traditions, manners and customs of people. Though in some respects it may be corrected or supplemented by future research it will long retain its value as an example of out-door investigation, and will remain a veritable mine of information, which will be of value.

Thurston also authored The Madras Presidency, with Mysore Coorg, and the associated States, being the third volume of the four-volume series “Provincial Geographies of India” which was published during 1913–23 by the Cambridge University Press under the editorship of T H Holland.

The People of India

John Forbes Watson and John William Kaye compiled an eight-volume study entitled The People of India between 1868 and 1875. The books contained 468 annotated photographs of the native castes and tribes of India.

The origins of the project lay in the desire of Lord Canning to possess photographs of native Indian people. Photography was then a fairly new process and Canning, who was Governor General of India, conceived of the collection of images for the private edification of himself and his wife. However, the Indian Rebellion of 1857 caused a shift in mindset of the London-based British government, which saw that events had come close to overturning British influence in the country and countered this by placing India under more direct control than had been the case when it relied on the capabilities of the British East India Company to perform such functions.

The colonial imagination had seized upon caste identities as a means of understanding and controlling the Indian population after the blow to administrative complacency occasioned in 1857. Initial attempts at ethnographic study by the British in India had concentrated on the issues of female infanticide and sati, which were thought to be prevalent in the northern and western areas of the country – especially among the Rajputs – and which the colonial rulers wished to eradicate by a process of social engineering. Following the rebellion, officers then serving in the Indian Civil Service, were of the opinion that if future unrest was to be avoided then it was necessary to obtain a better understanding of the colonial subjects and in particular those from the rural areas. Early efforts in the sphere of British ethnography in India were concentrated on obtaining an understanding of Indian folk-lore, but another early consequence was that The People of India became an official British government publication.

The photographs compiled by Watson and Kaye were not the first to be taken of Indian people but the project was organized within the framework of attempts by officials to document the people in a methodical, statistically and ethnographically oriented manner, later expressed by  Denzil Ibbotson in his 1883 report on the 1881 census of the Punjab,

“Our ignorance of the customs and beliefs of the people among whom we dwell is surely in some respects a reproach to us; for not only does that ignorance deprive European science of material which it greatly needs, but it also involves a distinct loss of administrative power to ourselves”

The collection was an attempt at a visual documentation of “typical” physical attributes, dress and other aspects of native life that would complement written studies, although it did itself contain brief notes regarding what were thought to be the “essential characteristics” of each community. Thomas Metcalf (historian of South East Asia) has said that, “Accurate information about India’s peoples now mattered as never before … [although imperfect] for the most part the work marked out a stage in the transformation of ethnological curiosity …”

Educated Indians were unimpressed with the outcome and with the general undertone that their people had been depicted both unfairly and dispassionately.

Almost all of the British in India at that time related to the society around [them] through three conduits: first, through other English officers and institutions; second, through office clerks, peons, and domestic servants; and third, through the recourse of the intellectual – anthropological and orientalist literature.

As time passed after the 1857 rebellion, British ethnographic studies and their resultant categorizations were embodied in numerous official publications and became an essential part of the British administrative mechanism, and of those categorizations it was caste that was regarded to be, “the cement that holds together the myriad units of Indian society”. An English administrator in the Indian Civil Service also saw India as an ethnological laboratory, where the continued practice of endogamy (marriage within a community or clan) had ensured that, in his opinion, there were strict delineations of the various communities by caste and that consequently caste could be viewed as identical to race. Whereas others saw caste as being based on occupation, he believed that changes in occupation within a community led to another instance of endogamy “being held by a sort of unconscious fiction to be equivalent to the difference of race, which is the true basis of the system.”

In 1908 Risley published his book, The People of India. By this stage in his career he had been, among other roles, Census Commissioner for the 1901 Census of India, and he had for many years been a keen ethnographer and proponent of the anthropometric theories of Paul Topinard (French Physician and anthropologist). Although Risley had acknowledged the earlier book of Watson and Kaye as being “famous in its day”, he did not refer to it in his 1908 work. Risley had produced earlier works, including the four-volume The Tribes and castes of Bengal, and continued his ethnographic writings and studies until his death in 1911.

The 25 illustrations contained in the book were Lithographic prints – based largely on the photographs of Benjamin Simpson – that had been used to illustrate E T Dalton’s 1875 book, Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal. This meant that the illustrations were predominantly of hill tribes from one area of the country rather than the broad range that had been shown by Walton and Kaye.

Those like [Sir William] Hunter, as well as the key figures of H. H. Risley (1851–1911) and his protégé Edgar Thurston, who were disciples of the French race theorist Topinard and his European followers, subsumed discussions of caste into theories of biologically determined race essences, … Their great rivals were the material or occupational theorists led by the ethnographer and folklorist William Crooke (1848–1923), author of one of the most widely read provincial Castes and Tribes surveys, and such other influential scholar-officials as Denzil Ibbetson and E. A. H. Blunt.

A memorial edition of The People of India was produced in 1915, edited by William Crooke, who had also served in the Indian Civil Service and was interested in anthropology. It contained an additional 11 illustrations and an ethnological map of the country.

Risley’s career and works have been interpreted as “the apotheosis of pseudo-scientific racism”, which was a theory prevalent for a century from around the 1840s that “race was one of the principal determinants of attitudes, endowments, capabilities and inherent tendencies among human beings. Race thus seemed to determine the course of human history.”  D F Pocock describes The People of India as… almost the last production of that great tradition of administrator scholars who had long and extensive experience in the Indian Civil Service and had not found their arduous activity incompatible with scholarship.

Caste in India

The last such work, according to Pocock, was J. H. Hutton’s Caste in India, published in 1944. The multi-volume series of books published from 1992 under the auspices of the government-run Anthropological Survey of India (ANSI) adopted the same title as the colonial works of 1868–1875 and 1908. The project was more detailed than the official ethnological surveys of the British Raj, which had a policy of ignoring communities of less than 2000 people and which laid much emphasis on anthropometry. The AnSI adopted a cut-off point of 200 members and preferred blood groups to be “the crucial indicator of physical difference”.

Kumar Singh, a tribal historian and officer in the Indian Administrative Service who held posts including that of Director-General of the ANSI, had responsibility for the organization, compilation and oversight of the survey and publications. The intent was to produce an anthropological study of the differences and linkages between all of the communities in India. The survey involved 470 scholars and identified 4694 communities during its period of fieldwork between October 1985 and 1994. Singh notes a total of 3000 scholars, which figure appears to include those involved at various seminars and workshops. The full results of the survey, comprises 43 published volumes, of which 12 had been produced at the time of Singh’s death.

The volumes were produced as two collections, with the first eleven comprising the National series and the remainder being known as the State series.

Criminal Castes and Criminal Tribes

Budhan Theatre takes its name from Budhan Sabar, a tribal man who was labeled a criminal, targeted, and murdered by the police in West Bengal. One of the iconic plays performed by Budhan Theatre is called Budhan. During the play, actors reenact the death of Budhan Sabar and demand justice for his murder.

Having been labeled by the British as a “Criminal Tribe” in 1933, the members of Budhan Theatre proudly declare that they are “born actors” not “born criminals.”

One of the most important books is Castes of Mind; Colonialism and the making of modern India in which India’s contemporary caste system was largely a colonial invention. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t something called caste before colonialism, just that caste in its present form was shaped by the colonial process. Nor was this shaping of caste purely a top-down matter, but something that happened through a process that heavily involved the Indian people themselves. The Brahmins who worked closely with the British to encode the caste system in the new bureaucracy, as well as the ordinary people, organized politically to ensure that their caste status was listed favorably in the census. While the “invented” nature of caste is still a matter of considerable academic debate, much of the debate is over how extensive and how formalized caste was in pre-colonial India. Most scholars accept that caste was profoundly altered as a result of the colonial encounter.

The Criminal Man

When Bram Stoker wrote the novel Dracula in 1897, people were in a panic about crime. They had difficulty understanding why—in an era blessed with prosperous empires, flourishing arts and sciences, and a burgeoning consumer culture—crime rates were rising throughout Europe and the United States. For answers they turned to science, itself one of the glories of the Victorian age.

One popular theory, devised by the Italian psychologist Cesare Lombroso, was that criminals were born that way. Lombroso spent his career searching for the roots of criminal behavior, interviewing and examining thousands of living criminals and dissecting the brains of thousands who had been executed. One gloomy day in December 1871, he found what he was looking for. He was conducting an autopsy of the notorious robber Giuseppe Villella when he noticed an unusual malformation: a small hollow at the base of the skull under which was an enlarged portion of the spinal cord. He had never seen this before in human beings, only lower animals and certain “inferior races.”

… All this led Lombroso to suggest the existence of a kind of a subspecies of human, which he called “Criminal Man.” Possessed of congenitally criminal brains, these creatures roamed the modern world like savages misplaced in time, lacking any sense of civilized morality. “Theoretical ethics passes over these diseased brains as oil does over marble, without penetrating it,” wrote Lombroso.

Of course, it isn’t quite that simple. Like fingerprinting, the colonial experience shaped what was happening in Europe as well. After all, the Criminal Tribes Act was passed in 1871, the same year as Lombroso’s “discovery.” But the main point is that the concept of a “Criminal Tribe” was very much a colonial invention, based on the modern science of eugenics, and not something easily blamed on the Indian caste system.

Just how much does human DNA vary from group to group?

DNA does not necessarily differ between different groups in any recognizable way. You cannot distinguish any group called a race by their DNA. Again, there are more similarities in DNA between human groups than among them. DNA varies because of environmental, disease, etc. types of adaptations. Thus, gene frequencies for sickle cell will differ because of where an individual was born (and the frequency of malaria in that region) and might be the same for someone born in Africa and for someone born in the Mediterranean. Genetic pathways for dark skin are different in Tamil Nadu and in Nigeria. Genetic traits do not correlate with one another.

Why do human populations look so different?

All human populations differ from one another, even within families. People develop different adaptations over time and these make us look different. There are also geographical influences on our appearance. People are darker who live, or are derived from people who live, in very sunny environments due to adaptations to prevent skin cancer, for example. People in different environments have different types of genetic differences; the genetics of skin color are very different from the genetics of blood type, or hair shape, or structure of the mouth.

People with “similar” skin color might have very different shapes of nose due to different adaptations to climate. These differences are called “clines.” Clines are genetic adaptations to environmental factors over a geographic area; different genetic adaptations over different geographical regions. There are no specific races and clinal (A gradual change in an inherited characteristic across the geographic range of a species, usually correlated with an environmental transition such as altitude, temperature, or moisture) differences vary in different ways.

As a result of the genes they carry, different populations can face different vulnerabilities-for example, their risk of suffering from certain diseases. Do certain populations have specific physical or intellectual attributes?

The writer is currently watching the PBS TV series Indian Summers. The lowlife British Civil Servants depicted in the series draws parallel to the Ethnography studies of The British rule of India. The writer was researching on the subject of the Culture of India and strayed in to the stimulating subject matter of Ethnography in India.

This entire writing was woven with materials on the internet especially Wikipedia articles on the science of Race and Ethnography.


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