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Measuring the Master Race

Jon Røyne Kyllingstad

7. The Schreiners and the Science of Race

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  • 1 Biographical information on Alette and Kristian Emil Schreiner is taken from Otto Lous Mohr, ‘Krist (...)

1Kristian Emil (1874-1957) and Alette Schreiner (1873-1951) had a lifelong relationship as close scientific collaborators and as a married couple.1 They were ten years younger than Bryn and came from social backgrounds typical for academics: Kristian Emil’s father was a Kristiania merchant with Danish-German roots and his grandfather was a pastor in the Church of Norway; Alette was the daughter of the magistrate of a small town (Eidsvoll) about seventy kilometres north of the capital. As a woman, however, Alette was not at all a typical member of the academic class. In fact, women had only acquired the legal right to pursue university-level studies eight years before she became a student.

2The pair met while studying medicine in the 1890s. This was an era of great advances in biology and medicine during which many zoologists and anatomists turned their attention to the inner structure of cells, using laboratory experiments and advanced microscopy techniques to explore the mechanisms behind cell divisions, sexual reproduction and embryo growth. In the 1890s, these researchers began to understand that the chromosomes of the cell nucleus played a role in heredity, and after the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics in 1900, a number of scientists began to scrutinise chromosomes in order to understand the physical mechanisms behind the Mendelian laws of inheritance. The Belgian biologist Edouard Van Beneden was the first to show that sex cells have only half the normal number of chromosomes, and that fertilisation restored the double chromosome sets. This discovery was crucial for the synthesis of chromosome theory and Mendelism and for the rise of modern genetics.

  • 2 Inger Nordal, Dag O Hessen and Thore Lie, Kristine Bonnevie et forskerliv (Oslo: Cappelen Damm, 201 (...)

3Like Kristine Bonnevie, who was a close friend of Alette Schreiner during their student years, Alette and Kristian Emil Schreiner were pioneers in the introduction of laboratory-based biology in Norway. After obtaining their medical degrees, the couple went abroad, visiting the laboratories of leading embryologists and cell researchers and taking up cytological research. The Schreiners visited Van Beneden’s laboratory in Liège, as Bonnevie had, and like her they specialised in the study of chromosome behaviour during the formation of germ cells (a process through which the numbers of chromosomes are reduced). Kristine Bonnevie and Kristian Emil developed competing explanations of this phenomenon, and even though it was Schreiner’s theory of ‘parallel conjugation’ that finally gained currency, they both achieved international recognition for their work, making this an important starting point for their successful scientific careers.2

  • 3 Ibid.

4In 1900, Kristine Bonnevie became head of the so-called Zootomic Museum (later renamed the Zoological Laboratory), soon to develop into a core institution for biological research and education. In 1912, Bonnevie became the first female professor in Norway, two years later she took up genetic research and, in 1916, she created the Institute of Genetics as part of the Zoological Laboratory.3

5In contrast to Kristine Bonnevie, who was unmarried and worked alone, Alette Schreiner conducted her research in close cooperation with her husband. At the beginning of their careers, Alette’s research was absorbed into her husband’s projects and published under his name. Thereafter, she channelled her scientific work through her husband’s career, never holding an academic position, although she managed to carve out an informal role as a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and as a writer of textbooks and popular science.

  • 4 Torgersen, ‘Minnetale over Kristian Emil Schreiner’, p. 61.
  • 5 Lars Walløe, ‘Otto Lous Mohr’, in Norsk biografisk leksikon,

6In 1908 Kristian Emil was appointed head of the Department of Anatomy, succeeding Gustav Adolf Guldberg (see Fig. 13). He became head at a time when, after decades of stasis, the department was about to expand as a key centre of medical training. Kristian Emil was soon to play a major role in Norwegian academia as a teacher, textbook author, institutional entrepreneur and scientist. In the memorial address given at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters after his death, Kristian Emil was hailed as a ‘monumental figure in Norwegian science’.4 Among his achievements was his contribution to the establishment of genetics as a new research field in the Department of Anatomy. In 1912, he encouraged the medical graduate Otto Lous Mohr to go abroad to study cytology and embryology and to take up the study of chromosomes. As mentioned in chapter 5, Mohr later visited the famous genetics laboratories of Thomas Hunt Morgan in New York (1917-1918), returned with a colony of fruit flies, established a laboratory for genetics in the Department of Anatomy and, in 1919, became Norway’s second professor of anatomy.5

The Department of Anatomy and racial anthropology

7However, in spite of the Schreiners’ and Mohr’s achievements in embryology, cell research, chromosomal studies and genetics, it was racial anthropology that became the main research field of the Department of Anatomy under Kristian Emil’s leadership. But why did he abandon a career in the prestigious fields of cytology and chromosomal research and turn his attention to racial anthropology?

8In 1915 Kristian Emil led a major revamping of the Department and assigned ample space for anthropological research. This was, as discussed in chapter 3, the culmination of a process that had begun under his predecessor and was encouraged by, among other things, the rising number of archaeological excavations in the late nineteenth century and the resulting influx of skeletons to the anthropological collection. The expansion of archaeology continued after the turn of the century, and in 1905 (the same year as the dissolution of the union with Sweden) the Norwegian Parliament passed an act that gave archaeologists and archaeological museums legal authority over all physical-cultural remains dated prior to 1536, the year of the Reformation. Menwhile, the University’s Collection of Antiquities was relocated to expanded premises in the new Historical Museum.

Fig. 13 Professor of Anatomy Kristian Emil Schreiner, painted by Astri Welhaven Heiberg in 1949.

  • 6 Gustav Retzius and Carl M. Fürst, Anthropologia suecica: beiträge zur Anthropologie der Schweden na (...)
  • 7 C. M. Fürst’s archive: K. E. Schreiner to Fürst, 2 February 1912.

9By this time archaeologists were involved in questions about the origins, migrations and settlements of races, peoples and cultures. Schreiner himself claimed that his interest in anthropology was first aroused by archaeologists who sent him skeletons and asked his professional opinion. In 1912, in a letter to his Swedish colleague Carl Fürst (co-author of Anthropologia suecica, with Gustav Retzius),6 Schreiner declared that — as the only Norwegian professor of anatomy — he saw it as his duty to prevent Norway from lagging behind in this field of research.7

10During World War I, Kristian Emil began his anthropological research, which he undertook in collaboration with his wife and a number of assistants at the department. Most of the findings, however, were not published until the 1930s, when he issued two accurate and richly-illustrated monographs in which far more space was given to the detailed description of archaeological findings than to any overarching theory (see. Fig. 14). Skulls from ‘Norwegian’ burial sites were described and analysed in the massive two-volume work Crania norvegica (1939-1946), and skeletons from Sami graves were treated in the equally lengthy monograph Zur Osteologie der Lappen (1931-1935). These monographs were part of an anthropological tradition of extensive, minutely-illustrated books on the ‘craniology’ of nations, deriving from research on the collections held at museums and universities, with titles like Crania helvetica, Crania suecica antiqua, Crania prussic and Crania britannica. Schreiner’s monographs were a late but substantial contribution to these reference works, which were used by anthropologists as an international database for the mapping of the biological history of mankind.

Fig. 14 Zur Osteologie der Lappen contains about 300 pages of drawings and photographs of skulls. This image shows the 10 different curves drawn for each skull.

  • 8 Aftenposten, 3 September 1917.

11Schreiner and his assistants at the Department of Anatomy were mainly conducting ‘osteological’ research on skeletons from ancient burial sites. To compare the racial characteristics of past and present populations, however, Schreiner wanted to combine this archaeological research with anthropological studies of contemporary Norwegians. This is probably the main reason for Schreiner’s decision to collaborate with Halfdan Bryn. As we saw in chapter 4, Bryn’s first prize-winning anthropological work was in fact written in response to a call from the Faculty of Medicine for papers about the anthropology of Norway’s present-day population. Schreiner, who was likely the initiator of the call, assessed Bryn’s thesis and recommended it for the award.8

The racial history of the Sami

  • 9 See chapter 4.

12Under Schreiner’s leadership, the study of human remains from ‘Norwegian’ ancestors was supplemented with extensive studies of Sami skulls. However, these remains did not generally come from archaeological excavations because Norwegian archaeologists devoted almost all of their attention to what they considered to be the national prehistory, which in their view did not include the Sami. The exploration of Sami cultural heritage sites was not considered a task for archaeology, but for ethnography — a comparatively marginal discipline at the time.9 This meant that the anatomical collection held at the Department of Anatomy included only a limited number of Sami specimens; in order to explore the racial history of the Sami, researchers had to conduct their own excavations.

13There are probably a number of reasons for Schreiner’s growing interest in the Sami. Firstly, the racial biology of the Lapps attracted attention from racial hygienists, such as Mjøen and Lundborg, who, like Bryn, were highly concerned about the racial mixing that they imagined was going on in northern Scandinavia. ‘Bastardisation’ was a major research topic both at Mjøen’s private institution, the Vindern Biological Laboratory, and at the Swedish State Institute for Racial Biology, with both Mjøen and Lundborg directing their attention towards the Sami and the mixed offspring of the Sami and Scandinavians. The influential position of Mjøen and Lundborg in the international debates over racial biology meant that the Sami became a topic for discussion, thus stimulating the Schreiners’ interest. Secondly, the Sami had been discussed by scientists for many decades within the broader debate about the so-called Arctic peoples, their place in racial taxonomy, their links to other peoples and their origins and prehistoric migrations. As head of the only anatomy department in the country with the largest Sami minority, Kristian Emil was in a strategic position to take up research on such issues.

  • 10 Voldgiftssag mellem Norge og Sverige angaaende renbeite. Første afdeling angaaende tilveiebringelse (...)

14Thirdly, and most importantly, the interest in the Sami people’s biological history stemmed from a specifically Scandinavian political, cultural and academic context. For example, in both Norway and Sweden, disputes about the cultural and territorial rights of the Sami — such as the Norwegian-Swedish conflict over reindeer pastures which arose after the dissolution of the union and was discussed in chapter 2 — fuelled academic research on Sami history. Even before beginning his research in the field of physical anthropological, Kristian Emil was drawn into this debate as an expert advisor. Based on comparative studies of skulls from domesticated and wild reindeer, he attempted to elucidate whether the domesticated reindeer populations in Scandinavia had their origins in the local wild strand of reindeer, or whether they were related to the domesticated races used in nomadic reindeer husbandry in Siberia and northern Russia.10

  • 11 Jon Røyne Kyllingstad, ‘Menneskeåndens universalitet’ Instituttet for sammenlignende kulturforsknin (...)

15The issue of the origin of reindeer husbandry was related to questions concerning the prehistoric migrations of the Sami and thus the debates over the ethnic identity of the prehistoric inhabitants of northern Scandinavia. This was also a key issue in ideological and political struggles over territorial rights and minority policy. As shown in chapter 2, advocates of a harsh ethnic assimilation policy were likely to appreciate Andreas Hansen’s theory about a late Sami migration to Scandinavia, whilst those who supported a more liberal minority policy could defend Sami rights by referring to the indigenousness of the Sami population. This political significance, along with a general ethnographic interest in prehistoric migrations and in Arctic peoples, fuelled the academic interest in the prehistory of the Sami.11

  • 12 Ibid.
  • 13 Ibid.

16The founding of the Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture in 1922 gave new impetus to the study of Sami language, culture and history. This state-funded institution, which had an informal link with the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, gained a key role in financing and coordinating Norwegian research in the humanities. It was established in response to the breakdown of scientific internationalism after World War I and operated on a mix of academic and political agendas.12 By inviting leading humanities scholars from the belligerent countries to lengthy conferences on neutral Norwegian ground, the Institute helped counteract French, British and Belgian post-war attempts to isolate German academia. Through comparative cultural research, the Institute intended to explore the universal aspect of human cultural development and serve as a counterweight to the aggressive nationalism that was assumed to have paved the way for the war.13

  • 14 ISKF-archive: Ole M. Solberg, memorandum, 21 October 1923.

17The idea of the psychological unity of humankind was a key element in the political campaign for the establishment of the Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture. This idea was also a core element in the Arctic programme, which was the Institute’s main focus in the mid-1920s. The Arctic programme was initiated by the professor of ethnography Ole M. Solberg, who, as mentioned in chapter 4, saw the Arctic as the perfect place to study the basic mechanisms of the evolution of human culture. In the Arctic, he claimed, peoples of different linguistic, ethnic and racial origin had gone through parallel phases of cultural development because they had all been forced to adapt to the same harsh living conditions. All Arctic peoples shared a common ‘Arctic way of life’, and this demonstrated, according to Solberg, that behind all cultural differences lay one universal human psychology: all ‘peoples’ respond in the same way to the same environmental challenges.14 The Arctic programme studied the Sami and their ‘Arctic’ neighbours to the east from a variety of perspectives — linguistic, folkloristic, ethnographic, archaeological, historical and social-scientific as well as physical and anthropological. Race was relevant to the project, but Solberg saw race as a purely physical concept which could be used as a tool for tracing prehistoric migrations of peoples, but which had no impact upon cultural abilities and cultural differences.

  • 15 Kyllingstad, ‘Menneskeåndens universalitet’, pp. 172-76, 190-99, 334-60.

18For some years, the Arctic programme was led by the socially-engaged natural scientist and explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who had become interested in Arctic ethnography after a lengthy stay among the Greenland Inuit in 1888-1889. In collaboration with Franz Boas, who visited the Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture in 1925, Nansen made extensive plans for a series of international ethnographic expeditions to northern Russia. The project received financial support from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, an American philanthropic foundation, but had to be dropped due to unsuccessful attempts to collaborate with authorities and scientists in the Soviet Union. Instead, the American grant and the scientific staff of the Institute were directed towards a study of the Norwegian Sami. This context is key because Kristian Emil Schreiner’s own research into the racial history of the Sami was largely financed and published by the Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial.15

  • 16 P. Lorenz Smith, Kautokeino og Kautokeino-lappene: en historisk og ergologisk regionalstudie (Oslo: (...)

19It is important to note that although the basic ideology of the Institute, and the theoretical foundation of the Arctic programme, were rooted in the idea of the psychological unity of humankind, the attitudes to race among researchers working at the Institute were not always consistent with such an ideology. Some projects financed and published by the Arctic programme were even based on the notion of major inborn psychological differences between races. Two monographs about the Sami population of Kautokeino, a major reindeer herding community in Finnmark, are a case in point. The first of these studies, written by the local state physician (distriktslegen) Rolf Gjessing, was a physical and anthropological survey that described the contemporary Sami population as the product of racial mixing between Sami (‘lappiske’) and Finnish (‘kvenske’) elements. These findings were followed up in a work by the local pastor and philologist P. Lorenz Smith, who argued that there was a correlation between the uneven distribution of race-specific Finnish and Sami bodily characteristics in the Kautokeino population and the distribution of typically Finnish and Sami psychological characteristics. Thus, even if the whole population shared a Sami language and lifestyle, a Finnish-looking segment was characterised by psychological features assumed to be typical of the Finns: strength, vigour, introversion, brutality, cunning, ruthlessness and vengefulness. The fraction who ressembled Lapps, meanwhile, were described as unreflective, simple-minded, peaceful, modest, short-sighted, sensitive and with a nomadic mentality.16

  • 17 Kyllingstad, ‘Menneskeåndens universalitet’, pp. 304-477.

20This racial psychological ‘analysis’, which bore similarities to Bryn’s approach was however a minor element in Smith’s work, which otherwise addressed the history, culture and society of the Kautokeino Sami. The study’s elements of racial psychology were also atypical of the Arctic programme, dominated by humanities scholars who directed most of their attention towards the study of Sami culture, language and society. Much of this research involved lengthy field work among the Sami, longterm cooperation with Sami informants and extensive learning of the Sami language and culture. The efforts of the Institute helped preserve knowledge of the Sami culture and language that would otherwise have been lost. Many of the staff were politically opposed to, or critical of, the harsh assimilation policy conducted by the Norwegian government against the Sami.17

21Centred on the idea of the unity of humankind, the scientific and political programme of the Institute was radically different from the scientific and political programmes of people like Halfdan Bryn, Jon Alfred Mjøen and Herman Lundborg. Based on a review of the correspondence between Franz Boas and the Institute, it is clear that Boas saw the Institute as a potential partner in his campaign against scientific racism, and that he considered Kristian Emil Schreiner (whom he visited at the anatomy department) to have a reasonable attitude as far as racial questions were concerned. As will later become clear, Kristian Emil can hardly be described as an unambiguous anti-racist. However, he did not support the racial ideology espoused by Bryn and Lundborg; moreover, the Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture provided a context for his racial studies that was very different from the racial hygiene movement to which Bryn’s and Lundborg’s research was closely tied. The main goal of the Department of Anatomy’s anthropological research was not to map the distribution of inferior and superior racial elements, but to help explore the cultural history of the Sami and the Norwegians.

Kristian Emil Schreiner and Sami prehistory

22The starting point for Schreiner’s research on Sami skeletal remains was the unsettled question of the prehistoric settlement of northern Scandinavia. Of central importance to this discussion was Ole Solberg’s 1909 work on the two Iron Age settlements at Kjelmøya Island in eastern Finnmark. While Solberg dated them to approximately 700-1100 AD and claimed they were Sea Sami settlements, Hansen asserted that they had in fact been inhabited by ethnic Norwegian ancestors. Halfdan Bryn supported Hansen’s theory and, in his book Norwegische Samen (1932), claimed that the Sea Sami on the coast of northern Norway belonged to the same Alpine race as the Norwegian population along the coast of southern Norway, and that they were both unrelated to the newly-arrived, reindeer-herding Sami population of the inland.

  • 18 Kristian E. Schreiner, Zur Osteologie der Lappen II (Oslo: ISKF/Aschehoug, 1931), p. 74; Alette Sch (...)
  • 19 Audhild Schanche, Graver i Ur og Berg (Karasjok: Davvi girji, 2000), pp. 45-46.

23It was mainly in order to examine these questions that the Department of Anatomy undertook a series of excavations in Finnmark. In the aftermath of World War I, they dug up a number of presumed Sami pre-Christian burial sites along the fjords, as well as in churchyards in Sea Sami communities, in the typical reindeer-herding districts of the inland and in the district of the Skolt Sami, an ethnic group traditionally belonging to the Russian Orthodox church and inhabiting the borderland of present-day Finland, Russia and Norway. The department also examined an Iron Age site in Tysfjord in Nordland, the southernmost county of northern Norway, where they further undertook a racial survey of the present-day Sea Sami population.18 This undertaking was extensive and time-consuming. Several individuals were involved in excavating, registering, systematising, measuring, drawing and photographing the bones, calculating ratios, average values and correlation coefficients, and constructing tables and graphs of frequency, etc. In 1927 Kristian Emil published a preliminary work based on some of the material. In it, he claimed to have found remains of Sami progenitors in Iron Age graves along the coast of Finnmark and Nordland. He also argued that there had been close contact between the Sami and Norwegians in the Viking period. In the Tysfjord Iron Age burial mound, he claimed to have found a skull of mixed origin (see Fig. 15). According to the archaeologists, the skull came from a person who had belonged to the social elite in a Norwegian community and who Kristian Emil suggested was the offspring of a Norwegian chieftain and a Sami woman.19

Fig. 15 The Tysfjord skull. According to Kristian Emil Schreiner, both the braincase and the face were very similar to other Sami skulls. In addition, the face had strong Sami features; only the shape of the nose and the relative position of the cheekbone resembled the Nordic Iron Age type.

  • 20 K. Schreiner, Zur Osteologie der Lappen I (Oslo: ISKF/Aschehoug, 1935), pp. 261-75 (p. 273).

24The main results were published between 1931 and 1935, in the extensive two-volume work Zur Osteologie der Lappen. It was based on 582 more-or-less complete skeletons, and the skulls in particular were described in great detail. For each skull, 63 measurements and angles were measured and 37 indices calculated. On the basis of this large amount of data, Schreiner believed he could dismiss Andreas Hansen and Halfdan Bryn’s theory of the Sami as latecomers in Scandinavian history. According to Schreiner, the bones in the pre-Christian graves along the fjords were anatomically similar to the bones from the churchyards of typical Sami communities both along the fjords and in the inland. The Sea Sami on the coast and the reindeer herders in the inland had the same racial identity, Schreiner argued: the Kjelmøya Iron Age site was a Sami settlement.20

  • 21 K. Schreiner, Zur Osteologie der Lappen I, pp. 274.

25Schreiner even asserted that the Sami forefathers had been present in Finnmark since at least the Roman Iron Age. This claim was based on a study of human bones from a burial site in Nesseby in eastern Finnmark, excavated by the Sami amateur researcher Isak Saba in 1910-1912. Saba, who died before Schreiner published his work, was a teacher, the first Sami member of the Norwegian Parliament and a leading figure in an ethno-political movement intended to stir ethnic pride among the Sami and to counteract the national policy of cultural assimilation. Saba’s excavation was part of an attempt to demonstrate the deep historical roots of the Sami. The grave contained objects of iron and stone that had been typologically dated to the Roman period. It was considered the oldest known burial site in eastern Finnmark, and based on the bones Schreiner declared that it was of Sami origin.21

Schreiner’s view on ‘the Lapp race’

  • 22 Halfdan Bryn, ‘Raceblandingen i Troms fylke’, Norsk Tidsskrift for Militærmedicin, Vol. 26 (1922), (...)

26In his study of the racial mixing between the Sami and Norwegians in 1922, Bryn had proclaimed that the mapping of bodily racial traits in the northern Norwegian population was of interest only because such observable traits were correlated to invisible racial differences in the biological quality of the population.22 His research was aimed at establishing eugenically relevant data to document superior and inferior racial elements in the population. In contrast to Bryn’s work, Kristian Emil Schreiner’s research did not target issues of racial quality and racial hygiene, and he did not set out to look for evidence of Sami inferiority. It is still evident, however, that even Shreiner assumed that races could be ranked in a hierarchy of cerebral development; that differences in cultural achievement between nations and ‘peoples’ were, to a certain extent, the product of such inborn racial differences; and that once upon a time, in some distant prehistoric past, humankind had consisted of racially pure populations.

  • 23 K. Schreiner, Zur Osteologie der Lappen I, pp. 276-88.

27According to Schreiner, all the Sami findings from both Christian and pre-Christian times were characterised by racial admixture. An ancient ‘Lappoid’ element was to a varying extent mixed up with ‘Nordic’ and ‘East Baltic’ elements — the different Sami populations had had varying degrees of contact with neighbouring Finnish and Norwegian populations. Thus, even though he did not claim to have found any racially pure Sami populations in the past or the present, Kristian Emil still thought it was possible to identify a distinct and ancient ‘Lappoid’ race that constituted the racial core of the Sami people. His argument was that there were certain statistical patterns of anatomical likeness between the average skull from the Sami churchyards and the average skull from the pre-Christian Sami graves, and that there were certain characteristic differences between all the Sami skulls and the average ‘Norwegian’ Iron Age skull.23

  • 24 Ibid., pp. 182-96.

28One of the techniques he used for detecting this difference was to construct an average ‘Norwegian’ Iron Age skull based on a number of quantified anatomical characteristics. He then created a diagram in which the numerical values of the average Norwegian skull were set to zero. Thus, the typical ‘Iron Age’ skull was represented as a straight horizontal line in the diagram. Corresponding curves representing the skulls from the Finnmark excavations demonstrated their degree of anatomical deviation from the typical ‘Norwegian’ form. Employing a similar technique, he also constructed an average Sami skull and explored how skulls from different local burial sites deviated or coincided with this Sami type.24 Those aspects of the Sami skulls which deviated most from the features of the ‘Norwegian’ Iron Age skull, and which coincided with the skulls from different Sami burials, were characterised by Schreiner as typically ‘Lapp’. This was the basis for his claim that it was possible to single out a Lapp racial element within the racially-mixed Sami populations.

29There is no reason to doubt that Schreiner detected some statistical differences between the shapes of skulls from Norwegian Iron Age graves and those from Sami graves. But it is a long step from that fact to the claim that ethnic division in northern Scandinavia correlates to ancient biological divisions between clearly separable races. It is more likely that Schreiner started out by presupposing the existence of a primordial Lapp race and trying to identify it, and that he ended up finding what he was looking for. His approach seems to have been based on the implicit theory of a prehistoric concurrence between the biological entity of ‘race’ and the linguistic and cultural entity of ‘folk’ (people/nation), a theory most likely underpinned by belief in inherited racial differences between the primitive Sami and superior Norwegian psychologies.

  • 25 Ibid., pp. 277.

30Zur Osteologie der Lappen was almost exclusively dedicated to an exhaustively detailed description and comparison of the anatomy of bones. The issue of racial psychology was touched upon only once. When Schreiner tried to find a position for the Lapp race in an overall racial typology, it became clear that he envisioned a hierarchy of races in which the superiority or primitiveness of body and mind were interconnected. Summing up his findings, Schreiner claimed that the most racially pure Sami were characterised by traits such as low stature, relatively short legs, long arms, poor beard growth, dark brown eyes, yellow-brown skin and a low, broad face. Schreiner remarked that these typically Sami-looking individuals seemed rather ‘alien’, even Mongol-like, and suggested that their bodily characteristics implied that they belonged to a primitive (‘unspecialised’) race.25

  • 26 Ibid., pp. 288.

31By comparing average craniological measurements, Schreiner arrived at the conclusion that the primordial Lapp race, the ‘Protolapps’, had belonged to the same original race as the ‘Protoalpines’ and ‘Protomongols’. This would explain the physical resemblance between the Sami and the dark short-skulled Norwegian coastal dwellers. From their common area of origin, the Protomongols had wandered to the east and the Protoalpines to the west, while the Protolapps had been isolated for a long period south of the Ural Mountains before migrating to Scandinavia.26 Their isolation had protected them from the forces of evolution, and consequently the Sami had maintained their primitiveness. They belonged to the ‘childhood’ of humankind, and their infantilism was expressed not only in their bodily appearance but also in their psychology:

  • 27 Ibid., pp. 286.

[…] the carefree cheerfulness, that is often encountered among the Lapp, in one moment associated with childlike confidence, the next with great shyness and not infrequently with perfect shyness, corresponds to the somatic typus and points in the direction of the protomorph Eurasian races.27

Alette Schreiner’s philosophy of life

32Unlike Bryn, Kristian Emil Schreiner did not see the mapping of inferior and superior racial elements as the goal of anthropology. He did not regard racial anthropology as a tool for racial hygiene, but as an instrument for the exploration of prehistory. Yet it is clear that he still ranked races according to their level of evolutionary development. Did this also imply a normative ranking of their moral worth and, if so, with what consequences for his outlook on society and humanity? It is difficult to answer this question, since most of the texts that Schreiner left behind are factual scientific texts that do not reveal much about his views on these issues. Alette Schreiner, on the other hand, published a number of works in which she discussed the social, cultural and normative relevance of her science (see Fig. 16). She even put forward what she called a scientifically-based ‘philosophy of life’. The remainder of this chapter deals with Alette Schreiner’s views on human biology, race, society and culture, and compares them to Halfdan Bryn’s racial ideology.

Fig. 16 Alette Schreiner showing children an animal skull, ca. 1910.

  • 28 Hjalmar Broch, ‘Om noen av våre fremste zoologer’, Fauna, Vol. 21 (1968), pp. 1-6.
  • 29 Alette Schreiner, ‘Livsutvikling og livsanskuelse’, Kirke og kultur, Vol. 36 (1929), pp. 453-74.

33It is not easy to deduce from the available source material whether Kristian Emil Schreiner shared his wife’s views, but it is reasonable to assume that he did. In biographical sketches and obituaries, allusions are frequently made to the particular closeness of their professional and private relationship. According to one obituary written by a co-worker, Alette and Kristian Emil possessed complementary talents. While he was made for relentless, rigorous critique, she was a creative visionary.28 Besides her scientific work, which included a number of anthropological publications, Alette participated in public debate, wrote popular science books and gave public lectures on a broad range of biological topics. In these texts, scientific facts were often combined with moral, political and social-philosophical thoughts. Like Halfdan Bryn she used scientific theories to legitimate ideas of how people should live their lives; unlike Bryn, who seems never to have reflected on the justification for doing this, Alette explicitly claimed that a ‘philosophy of life’ could and should be based on exact scientific knowledge about the development of life.29 The biologically-founded societal theories of Alette Schreiner and Halfdan Bryn had much in common. There were important distinctions, however, and these distinctions coincided to some degree with differences in their attitudes towards basic biological questions.

  • 30 Reports on lectures by Alette Schreiner: Nidaros, 2 March 1922; Trondheim Adresseavis, 24 February (...)
  • 31 Alette Schreiner, Skapende kræfter i livsformenes historie; utsyn over et centralt omraade av den a (...)

34The following paragraphs discuss Alette’s two popular books on biology (1912) and on reproduction and family life among human beings (1916), reports from a series of lectures she held in Trondheim in 1922,30 and a lecture she gave, entitled ‘The Philosophy of Life and the Development of Life’ (1929). These texts had a common theme: she criticised Darwin’s single-minded followers and argued against the idea of an evolution driven solely by the survival of the fittest. In her opinion the essence of evolution was not blind selection, but what she called selvutfoldelsesdrift — the drive towards self-realisation or the tendency towards ‘a freer unfolding of spontaneous forces’ built into all living organisms.31 This teleological idea of evolution was a cornerstone in her evolutionary ‘philosophy of life’.

  • 32 Niels Bonde, ‘Moderne systematik -fylogeni og klassifikation’, in Niels Bonde, (eds.), Natur (...)
  • 33 Jonathan Harwood, Styles of Scientific Thought: The German Genetics Community 1900-1933 (Chicago, I (...)

35Some of Alette’s arguments came from palaeontology. Nineteenth-century taxonomists had constructed phylogenetic trees in which traced the organic growth of one form of life out of the previous one, all the way back to a single, common root. At the turn of the century, this idea was challenged. It became more common to portray the evolution of species as several parallel trunks that grew side by side and followed a specific direction in their own development. This pattern was explained by the theory of orthogenesis, which claimed that the evolution of a species is determined by certain built-in tendencies to develop in a certain direction.32 Alette combined this evolutionary theory with a dualist theory of inheritance. Such dualist theories were advocated by many biologists in the German-speaking world in the early twentieth century, and they implied a double genotype. All species-specific properties were thought to be inherited as a cohesive ‘building plan’, a ‘basic type’ or ‘idea’ which had its material basis in the cytoplasm of the cells. Only those properties that varied within a species were located in the chromosomes and were inherited in line with Mendelian rules.33

  • 34 Schreiner, Skapende kræfter, pp. 307, 316.

36According to Alette, the phylogenies of all life forms ran through the same set of stages from childhood to manhood, old age to death. The phylogenetic ‘youth’ of a species or lineage was characterised by a simple ‘building plan’ and then a great number of variable traits inherited according to Mendelian rules. As the life form grew older, these dynamic elements were moulded into the ‘building plan’ and became tied to the undifferentiated inheritable material of the cytoplasm. An old species had few variable properties left. It was inflexible and less able to adapt to changes in the environment. A disturbance of the environment, which for a younger and more flexible lineage would be an impetus to a stronger unfolding of life, could therefore lead to the death of old lineages.34 This meant that the struggle for existence ensured the extermination of the old, out-dated forms and the survival of the young, healthy and adaptable species. Alette thus maintained that although natural selection played a key role in species development, it did not determine the direction of evolution. The fundamental driving force was not self-preservation, but the ‘self-unfolding tendency’ which was embodied in all organisms.

  • 35 Schreiner, ‘Livsutvikling og livsanskuelse’, pp. 453, 456, 471.

37In a speech given in 1929, Alette Schreiner discussed the possibility of founding a humane philosophy of life upon the exact science of life. Her conclusion was that this was indeed possible, because science showed that evolution was not random, but rather moved towards a goal. The real machinery of evolution was not the struggle for survival, but a life-drive that strove towards the development of an increasingly advanced brain making possible the human capacity for autonomous reasoning. This implied that the exact natural sciences and the scientific urge for universal knowledge represented the very goal towards which evolution itself was striving. Even if she emphasised that science was unable to study ‘the inner meaning of things’ — the origin and the final goal of evolution — it is still clear that she considered scientists like herself to be in a very privileged position for expounding the meaning of life and how it should be lived. Not only did science represent the apex of evolution, scientists themselves, by studying the development of life, could reach the highest level of insight into life that any human could possibly achieve.35

Biological and cultural evolution

  • 36 Schreiner, Skapende kræfter, pp. 319-28; Slegtslivet, p. 147.
  • 37 Schreiner, Skapende kræfter, p. 324.

38Alette Schreiner made a basic distinction between animals and humans. Animals were totally determined by their inborn drives and were therefore involved in a battle of all against all, with each individual acting alone on behalf of its hereditary material. Only the human species had broken out of this iron cage; by taking the leap out of nature into culture, humankind was no longer determined by its biological drives.36 Alette defined ‘culture’ as the ability to understand the laws of nature and to control nature with the help of human tools. Culture was neither determined by hereditary material, nor controlled by individuals; culture was supra-organic and connected all civilised humans in an inseparable whole of which each individual is the instrument of life functions that extended far beyond their own sphere of life. Cultural progress was made possible by the human ability to learn, which meant that knowledge could be transferred and accumulated across generations. Therefore, cultural evolution — the growth of the supra-organic organism — was to a very great extent detached from the biological evolution of the human species.37

39Biological evolution and cultural evolution, however, are not totally detached, and Alette's understanding of the relationship between the two was closely related to her view on how culture is (and should be) produced, transferred and accumulated across generations. Alette understood the human capacity for learning as interconnected with the process of individual brain growth. During childhood, humans have a purely receptive mind allowing them to be deeply and unconsciously shaped by culture. In this phase of life, the individual is entitled to all the material and cultural support from society that is needed for the child to realise his/her full potential for cultural growth. According to Alette, it is only in the late teens that an individual develops his/her self-conscious will and ability to think independently. These are the abilities that make cultural creativity and human progress possible, and in this phase of life, society is entitled to make use of the individual for the benefit of the common good.

  • 38 Ibid., pp. 322-23.

40The relation between the development of the brain and of culture was at the core of Alette’s thought on culture and society. To this end, she believed that there are crucial biological differences between individuals, races and the sexes in their ability to create and acquire culture. According to her, the lower human races are offshoots from the main line of human evolution. As with the anthropoid apes, the ontogenetic development of the inferior races is similar to that of the superior races until the age of five or six. At that point, the development of an advanced personality, autonomous reasoning and free will sets in among the superior races, but does not take place to the same degree in the inferior races; from then on, their cerebral development is hampered, and they grow old at a much earlier stage. This implies that their brain growth came to a halt before they developed the capacity for cultural creativity and progress that was typical of civilised man.38

41Alette Schreiner’s ideas about primitive races resemble her husband’s notion of the infantile racial psychology of the Sami. It is important to note, however, that this was only a marginal topic in her popular scientific writing. The same goes for Kristian Emil’s brief remarks on the infantilism of the Sami in Zur Osteologie der Lappen. Both Schreiners seem to have taken for granted, as scientific fact, the inferiority and superiority of anthropologically-defined ‘races’, but there is nothing in the sources to suggest that this was a core idea in their outlook on society.

Eugenics and social reform

  • 39 Alette Schreiner, Slegtslivet hos menneskene (Kristiania: Aschehoug, 1914).

42Alette Schreiner held that cultural evolution entailed the realisation of certain universal human potentials that were embodied in humanity from ‘the beginning’, and she argued that society’s main task was to provide children and young people with a moral and material environment that enabled them to develop these potentials. ‘Learn to know the laws that govern the genesis of the fully-developed human personality’, she wrote, ‘and build culture and society upon them’.39 In line with this ideal, she was an advocate for improving the moral environment and material living conditions of children and adolescents. She argued for school reform. Along with her husband, she was involved in research on the diet and growth of schoolchildren. And she was a driving force behind the establishment of Blindern studenthjem, a home away from home for students in Kristiania who otherwise would have had to live in cramped and poor lodgings spread around the town.

  • 40 Ibid., p. 159.
  • 41 Ibid., pp. 158-85.

43Alette, however, also used the same type of argument when advocating eugenics: for an individual to become a valuable and happy member of humankind, he/she had to be endowed with the right potentials, and some children did not have these potentials. The forces of culture could nurture potential, but they could not reshape nature, and some human beings were destined from birth to live unhappy and unworthy lives as ‘parasites on the social body’.40 She declared that society had made more progress in the art of keeping young people alive than in the art of enabling them to make the best of their lives. In an ideal world, however, society should be striving towards one major goal: the creation of noble and upright human beings through deliberate interventions in the biological reproduction of members of society.41

  • 42 Ibid., pp. 164-65.
  • 43 Ibid., pp. 167-70.

44According to Alette, some people had inherited mental defects of an intellectual and moral nature that rendered them unable to become productive citizens in an ordered community. She therefore suggested strong measures to prevent the propagation of inferior qualities. Sterilisation was the most humane solution, but compulsory abortion should also be considered.42 It was nevertheless more important to enhance the propagation of the valuable lineages, through positive eugenics, than it was to weed out inferior elements. Education about sexual reproduction should be liberated from ignorance, prejudice and ‘pressure from an unnatural economy’. Birth rates were sinking among the upper social strata, and she feared the growth of the underclass. Even though she did not believe there was a perfect match between social stratification and the distribution of superior and inferior traits, she held that the upper classes were more likely to be of higher biological quality. The conditions for the physical and psychological development of children were also better at the top of the social hierarchy. In order to limit the breeding of the underclass, therefore, she wanted to make contraception and sexual education available to the populace.43

  • 44 Ibid., p. 166.

45To weed out pathological deviations and to safeguard normality and healthiness, were not, however, the final goals of eugenics according to Alette Schreiner. The ultimate goal was to improve mankind on a supposedly objective scale of biological quality. The value of genetic material should be evaluated not according to ‘normality’, but according to its relatively greater or smaller ‘human value’.44 The evolution of human culture would only continue if the reproduction of superior elements was enhanced and the number of inferiors reduced.

Alette Schreiner versus Halfdan Bryn: the unfolding of life versus racial struggle

46Alette Schreiner agreed with Halfdan Bryn that scientific knowledge of human nature should provide guiding principles for the organisation of society, but there were differences in the scientific ideas they advocated and in the moral lessons they took from these ideas. Both Schreiner and Bryn agreed that ‘culture’ is the defining attribute that distinguishes humans from animals. They both considered ‘culture’ to be a unified, quantifiable phenomenon. They agreed that some people had little culture while others had more, and that some therefore had lesser human value than others. Both believed that people with a low level of culture could become more human by acquiring more culture, but that different people had different natural aptitudes for cultural development.

47Alette and Bryn both wanted a society in harmony with human nature and felt that to achieve this, individuals had to adapt to society and society had to be adapted to humanity. However, society should not be adapted to the average human being, but rather to those at the top of the scale of cultural progress. This implied that individuals should adapt to a society dominated by the norms and values of an elite. Since differences in cultural level were seen as partly inborn, eugenics was an integral means to realising this vision of society. Cultural progress would only happen if the superior, culturally creative elements were allowed to procreate at the expense of the average and pathological elements in society.

48The eugenics of Bryn and Alette Schreiner was part of a broader argument for social reform in which biological, social and cultural issues were combined. In the years around World War I, they seem to have advocated views based on a similar understanding of the relationship between biology and culture. First and foremost, they wanted a society in which all people could develop their potential, but both saw the weeding out of lower human elements as a necessary aspect of this main project. In the 1920s, however, Halfdan Bryn moved towards a worldview that was far more biologically deterministic than Alette Schreiner’s. He began to describe cultural progress as mainly determined by biological evolution. Central to the racial ideology that Bryn advocated with increasing single-mindedness was the idea of a convergence between the social structure, a cultural hierarchy and the biological quality of the human ‘material’. This idea was less important to Alette. She doubted the existence of an exact concurrence between social stratification and genetic quality, but she agreed with Bryn about the existence of genetically inferior ‘dregs’ at the bottom of society and the threat they posed.

49The main difference between Bryn and Alette, however, is the importance they ascribed to anthropological race differences. The idea of racial inequality became more and more the cornerstone of Halfdan Bryn’s worldview. Alette Schreiner also believed that the races were unequal, but this was not a leitmotif of her outlook on society; above all, the superiority of the Nordic race was not an important building block of her worldview. She assumed that the superior individuals were those who propelled progress. These people were the result of happy genetic combinations, and Alette often spoke positively about great genetic variation, in contrast to Bryn's premium on racial purity.

50The ‘primitives’ — ‘peoples without culture’ — played a paradoxical role in the worldviews of both Bryn and Alette Schreiner. The two scientists depicted ‘primitives’ as backward and stagnant, but idealised them at the same time. Both positive and negative notions derived from the same theory: the ‘peoples without culture’ existed in equilibrium with their environment. They were perfectly adapted to a certain way of life in which psychological drives, cultural demands, social structure and natural environment all matched. This was the reason, the theory goes, why their cultural development had stopped, and it was also the reason why the primitives lived harmonious lives. Both Alette and Bryn idealised this supposedly harmonious state which they felt was lacking in modern society. Since Bryn presumed that people’s psychological dispositions were determined by their race, this meant that he idealised a racially pure society. Human beings could only live in harmony with their biological instincts in a society in which ‘the people’ coincided with the ‘race’. Alette perceived human psychology more as the product of cultural learning. According to her view, human beings lived in a divided world, but this division was caused not just by a tension between social structures and individual biological dispositions, but by tensions within culture itself.

51To sum up, both Halfdan Bryn and Alette Schreiner embraced an ‘evolutionary’ worldview in which different human groups were ranked according to their level of development and in which eugenic measures were necessary to maintain the biological evolution of the human species. However, there were clear distinctions between their approaches: Bryn was preoccupied with the idea of racial differences and racial mixing, and he advocated eugenic measures to uphold the purity of the Nordic race. Alette supported a racial hygiene focused not on ‘races’, but on individuals with ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ genetic traits. Bryn and Alette owed their differences partly to the distinct biological theories that underpinned each of their worldviews. Alette had a less deterministic view of race and biology, and held that the essence of human evolution was not the struggle for survival between races, but the gradual unfolding of certain universal human potentials. Bryn, on the other hand, argued that culture was determined by race and that cultural progress was driven by the gradual victory of the superior races over the inferior races in the struggle for existence. The difference in their respective approaches did not, however, prevent Bryn and the Schreiners from joining forces in a huge collaborative undertaking to map the racial character of the Norwegian nation.


1 Biographical information on Alette and Kristian Emil Schreiner is taken from Otto Lous Mohr, ‘Kristian Emil Schreiner’, in Jan Jansen and Alf Brodal (eds.), Aspects of Cerebellar Anatomy (Oslo: Johan Grundt Tanum, 1954); Jan Jansen, ‘Alette Schreiner’, in Norsk biografisk leksikon (Oslo: Aschehoug, 1954), pp. 520-22; Johan Torgersen, ‘Minnetale over Kristian Emil Schreiner’, Årbok, Det Norske videnskaps-akademi (Oslo: I kommisjon hos J. Dybwad, 1958), pp. 59-71; Jan Jansen, ‘Minnetale over Alette Schreiner’, Årbok, Det Norske videnskaps-akademi (Oslo: I kommisjon hos J. Dybwad, 1953), pp. 59-67; Hjalmar Broch, ‘Om noen av våre fremste zoologer’, Fauna, Vol. 21 (1968), pp. 1-6; Studentene fra 1892 (Kristiania: [n. pub.], 1917); Studentene fra 1892 (Oslo: [n. pub.], 1942).

2 Inger Nordal, Dag O Hessen and Thore Lie, Kristine Bonnevie et forskerliv (Oslo: Cappelen Damm, 2012).

3 Ibid.

4 Torgersen, ‘Minnetale over Kristian Emil Schreiner’, p. 61.

5 Lars Walløe, ‘Otto Lous Mohr’, in Norsk biografisk leksikon,

6 Gustav Retzius and Carl M. Fürst, Anthropologia suecica: beiträge zur Anthropologie der Schweden nach den auf Veranstaltung der schwedischen Gesellschaft für Anthropologie und Geographie in den Jahren 1897 und 1898 ausgeführten Erhebungen (Stockholm: [n. pub.], 1902).

7 C. M. Fürst’s archive: K. E. Schreiner to Fürst, 2 February 1912.

8 Aftenposten, 3 September 1917.

9 See chapter 4.

10 Voldgiftssag mellem Norge og Sverige angaaende renbeite. Første afdeling angaaende tilveiebringelse af oplysninger og bevisligheder. Forhandlinger og beslutninger i Kjøbenhavn 1909-1910 (Kristiania: S. M. Brydes boktrykkeri, 1910), p. 14ff.

11 Jon Røyne Kyllingstad, ‘Menneskeåndens universalitet’ Instituttet for sammenlignende kulturforskning 1917-1940. Ideene, institusjonen og forskningen (Ph. D. thesis, University of Oslo, 2008), pp. 3-122

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 ISKF-archive: Ole M. Solberg, memorandum, 21 October 1923.

15 Kyllingstad, ‘Menneskeåndens universalitet’, pp. 172-76, 190-99, 334-60.

16 P. Lorenz Smith, Kautokeino og Kautokeino-lappene: en historisk og ergologisk regionalstudie (Oslo: ISKF/Aschehoug, 1938); Rolv R. Gjessing, Die Kautokeinolappen: eine anthropologische Studie (Oslo: ISKF/Aschehoug, 1934).

17 Kyllingstad, ‘Menneskeåndens universalitet’, pp. 304-477.

18 Kristian E. Schreiner, Zur Osteologie der Lappen II (Oslo: ISKF/Aschehoug, 1931), p. 74; Alette Schreiner, Anthropologische Lokaluntersuchungen in Norge. Hellemo (Tysfjordlappen) (Oslo: ISKF/Aschehoug, 1932); Audhild Schanche, Graver i ur og Berg. Samisk gravskikk og religion 1000 til 1700 e. kr (Ph. D. thesis, University of Tromsø, 1997), p. 45.

19 Audhild Schanche, Graver i Ur og Berg (Karasjok: Davvi girji, 2000), pp. 45-46.

20 K. Schreiner, Zur Osteologie der Lappen I (Oslo: ISKF/Aschehoug, 1935), pp. 261-75 (p. 273).

21 K. Schreiner, Zur Osteologie der Lappen I, pp. 274.

22 Halfdan Bryn, ‘Raceblandingen i Troms fylke’, Norsk Tidsskrift for Militærmedicin, Vol. 26 (1922), p. 130.

23 K. Schreiner, Zur Osteologie der Lappen I, pp. 276-88.

24 Ibid., pp. 182-96.

25 Ibid., pp. 277.

26 Ibid., pp. 288.

27 Ibid., pp. 286.

28 Hjalmar Broch, ‘Om noen av våre fremste zoologer’, Fauna, Vol. 21 (1968), pp. 1-6.

29 Alette Schreiner, ‘Livsutvikling og livsanskuelse’, Kirke og kultur, Vol. 36 (1929), pp. 453-74.

30 Reports on lectures by Alette Schreiner: Nidaros, 2 March 1922; Trondheim Adresseavis, 24 February 1922 and 27 February 1924; Trøndelagen, 4 March 1922. Bryn’s archive: letter from Alette Schreiner to Bryn discussing the lectures.

31 Alette Schreiner, Skapende kræfter i livsformenes historie; utsyn over et centralt omraade av den almindelige biologi med særlig blik paa dyreriket (Kristiania: Aschehoug, 1912), p. 296.

32 Niels Bonde, ‘Moderne systematik -fylogeni og klassifikation’, in Niels Bonde, (eds.), Naturens historiefortællere (København: Gad, 1996), p. 133.

33 Jonathan Harwood, Styles of Scientific Thought: The German Genetics Community 1900-1933 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. 104-28.

34 Schreiner, Skapende kræfter, pp. 307, 316.

35 Schreiner, ‘Livsutvikling og livsanskuelse’, pp. 453, 456, 471.

36 Schreiner, Skapende kræfter, pp. 319-28; Slegtslivet, p. 147.

37 Schreiner, Skapende kræfter, p. 324.

38 Ibid., pp. 322-23.

39 Alette Schreiner, Slegtslivet hos menneskene (Kristiania: Aschehoug, 1914).

40 Ibid., p. 159.

41 Ibid., pp. 158-85.

42 Ibid., pp. 164-65.

43 Ibid., pp. 167-70.

44 Ibid., p. 166.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 13 Professor of Anatomy Kristian Emil Schreiner, painted by Astri Welhaven Heiberg in 1949.
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Légende Fig. 14 Zur Osteologie der Lappen contains about 300 pages of drawings and photographs of skulls. This image shows the 10 different curves drawn for each skull.
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Légende Fig. 15 The Tysfjord skull. According to Kristian Emil Schreiner, both the braincase and the face were very similar to other Sami skulls. In addition, the face had strong Sami features; only the shape of the nose and the relative position of the cheekbone resembled the Nordic Iron Age type.
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Légende Fig. 16 Alette Schreiner showing children an animal skull, ca. 1910.
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