Ehm, Akshually Hrdlička…

The WaPo pieces mentioned by PZ about Aleš Hrdlička are damning. I cannot comment on their veracity since I do not have access to the evidence those articles are based on, however, there is no reason to doubt them, not really. His appalling ghoulish behavior is consistent with the time in which he lived, unfortunately. He was representing the rule, not the exception. What I find curious is that with all the illicitly amassed evidence, he almost, but not entirely arrived at the correct conclusion (emphasis mine):

“In 1898, Hrdlicka published a study of 908 White children and 192 Black children at the New York Juvenile Asylum and the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York. He measured and compared their body parts, including genitals. He wrote that “inferiorities” in the children were probably the result of neglect or malnutrition, not hereditary. But he noted “remarkable” physical differences based on race.”


So he did not find any inherent differences between the races that were more than superficial physical characteristics, like skin color, hair texture, etc. Yet he still persisted in holding racist views, which makes him a bad scientist – even if one were to wave away the immoral way in which he gathered data by stealing human remains (which I am not inclined to do so, although it appears to be standard for anthropologists of the time) he still has done shit science with it.

When I read PZ’s first article, I immediately looked up Hrdlička. I do not remember ever learning about him at the university, I studied biology, chemistry, arts, and psychology, not anthropology. He might have been mentioned at some point in biology, but the name definitively did not ring any bells.

And when I looked him up, all Czech sources that I could find online in the little time I was willing to give venerated him as a staunch anti-racist, in direct contradiction to the articles in Washington Post. I think this is for several reasons.

Firstly, we Czechs do suffer from a “small nation inferiority syndrome”. We feel so insignificant and ignored on the world stage that we latch onto any success achieved by any of our compatriots abroad and we are unwilling to let go. I think that it will take years, if not decades, for the true ghoulish nature of his research and his racist views to find their way into Czech media, and there will be a lot of resistance.

Secondly, I doubt that any Czech sources have had ready access to the same evidence that WaPo was using. There are inevitable limits to what can be learned about any Czech individual who lived most of their life outside of Bohemia, even if one were not inclined to ignore unfavorable evidence and overstate anything positive due to the first point.

And thirdly, it seems he was kinda anti-racist, just in a wrong, racist anti-racist way. From what I was able to find he did fight against anti-slavic racism. This is real racism and it still exists today – its latest consequential demonstration was Brexit, which was in part motivated by racism against Polish and Czech immigrants. The sentiment nowadays is not as prevalent and strong as it used to be, but there were times when the Slavs (and the Irish and probably some other nationalities) were not considered “white” in the same way as Anglo-Saxons and/or Aryans and were seen to be inferior. Apparently, Hrdlička was arguing – correctly – that all European people have common origins and he argued that they belong to the same racial group. The anti-racism bit was thus arguing against the discrimination of Slavs, and the racist bit was that he did not argue that all people are equal but that Slavs in fact are part of the “superior” race. This kind of reasoning makes his legacy even more susceptible to being spun positively if one has the bias mentioned in the first point, not to mention that there still is a lot of Czechs who argue the same.

However, I also peeked at the discussion under the WaPo article and I noticed in there one “anti-Hrdlička” argument that I strongly disagree with. Apparently, he was one of the proponents of the theory that humans arrived in the Americas via the Bering Strait Land Bridge and this theory was called “racist” and “bogus” by one of the commenters. That, to my mind, is nonsense.

Even if Hrdlička was proposing the theory for some racist reasons, that does not make the theory automatically wrong. And to my knowledge (which I admit is not completely up-to-date with modern science) there is a lot of evidence that at least some of the ancestors of North American Indians really did cross Beringia into the Americas. This includes studies of genetic markers of extant populations.

It is absolutely indisputable that Homo sapiens originated in Africa and spread from there to all the other continents in multiple migration waves. It might be that there was more than one migration wave to the Americas and it might be that some of those migration waves did not come over Beringia but sailed from Polynesia. It also might be true that humans arrived in the Americas much sooner than previously thought. But some very probably did arrive through Beringia no matter what other migration routes might have been taken. And as much as I think that Native American cultures, languages, and creation myths are just as worthy of preserving and studying as any others, they do not constitute hard evidence for how humans got to the Americas, because humans are just too good at making shit up and then believing it – even today people make nonsense theories whole cloth and believe them despite the evidence contrary, after all.

And there is simply too much other evidence that multiple migrations through Beringia happened, for both animals and plants. Just a few examples:

Bison and Wisents are so closely related that they still interbreed and produce fertile offspring despite being different species. The bovids, incidentally, originated in Africa too. American Grizzly is still the same species as the European Brown Bear. North American and Eurasian willows create a near continuum of hybridizing taxa that are a nightmare mess to untangle. Junipers on both continents are very similar to each other in appearance. And Juniperus communis is actually a circumpolar species. And a personal anecdote to underline the point – the flora of North America and Eurasia are so closely related and eerily reminiscent of each other that when I was in the USA, I confused native Heracleum maximum for invasive Heracleum mantegazzianum they are so similar. (edit – corrected accidentally swapped species)

This similarity between the ecosystems of North America and Eurasia, which is not present between any other two continents, is the biggest proof that there were easy-ish ways to migrate between the two in the not-so-distant (geologically and evolutionary-speaking) past. Saying that the theory that people migrated to North America this way is racist and somehow disproven because of it thus seems foolish to me.

It might not be complete, but no theory truly is, science is about refining our knowledge by finding things, not about having complete and inconvertible “truths” by fiat.


  1. Bruce says

    Charly, I agree with almost everything you said here. I add just one observation.
    You noted that you did not study anthropology. But the article noted indirectly that HE also never took a degree in anthropology.
    Of course with every new field, it must be founded by those who did not study it in school before it existed.

  2. Jazzlet says

    Yeah, people are complicated and as much as we might like to think of ourselves as enlightened, right on, progressive, woke or whatever we almost certainly have some views that our more enlightened descendants will look back on with disgust or disbelief or maybe even horror. Most of us will not have the kind of profile that means we will be discussed, but some will, and some of those seem obvious to us now -- climate deniers, racists, transphobes and their fellow travelers, misogynists etc. but of course we can’t actualy know!

    I could be remembering my reading wrong, but here goes anyway. I don’t think there is any doubt that there was more than one wave of settlement of the Americas, and that it started earlier than we had previously thought. My understanding is that the latest thinking is that at least some of those people came by boat around the coast of the Bering Strait Land Bridge, this meaning that there were more times when it was possible than simply when the Bridge was ice free.

  3. lumipuna says

    Charly wrote:

    And there is simply too much other evidence that multiple migrations through Beringia happened, for both animals and plants. Just a few examples:

    Bison and Wisents are so closely related that they still interbreed and produce fertile offspring despite being different species. The bovids, incidentally, originated in Africa too. American Grizzly is still the same species as the European Brown Bear.

    This is tangentially related to something I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about lately. I have decided to post a very long nerdy monologue, in three parts, in The Never-Ending Thread, since it’s otherwise stalling again.

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