Important note added on 12 April 2022: If you like this essay so much that you feel the need to quote or cite it, please consult the official cleaned-up version published in the American Journal of Biological Anthropology, 178:193–195 (2022).
I was never taught Carleton Coon’s The Origin of Races as a text or a cautionary tale, although my first class in physical anthropology (around 1977) was called “Racial Origins” and was taught by a great old Lefty, Frederick Hulse. By the time I got around to reading it on my own, I understood the book to be “controversial” because of its reliance on parallel evolution.
course, it was much more than that. The book was a scientific manifesto for the
segregationists. Coon corresponded with them, sent them preprints of his work,
and brainstormed with them on how to use his work. And how do we know this?
Because we have his mail (Collopy 2015).
Carleton Coon was a racist is hardly noteworthy. He was certainly not the first
physical anthropologist to hold retrogressive social ideas, and he certainly
would not be the last. But what Coon tried to do in 1962 was to weaponize the
science of physical anthropology against the non-European peoples of the world.
It wasn’t the German scientists twenty years previously; it was American
physical anthropology, and in the present tense. That is what set him apart
from the rest of the field.
|Carleton Coon, in “What in the World?” circa 1952.
Vidcap courtesy of the Penn Museum.
And yet Putnam had a mole within
anthropology: “Besides intimidation there has, of course, been a false
indoctrination of our younger scientists, although some hope on this score may
be found in the following statement in a letter to me from a distinguished
scientist younger than I am, a scientist not a Southerner, who is a recognized
international authority on the subject we are considering: ‘About 25 years ago
it seemed to be proved beyond a doubt that man is a cultural animal, solely a
creature of the environment, and that there is no inheritance of instinct,
intelligence or any other capacity. Everything had to be learned and the man or
race that had the best opportunity for learning made the best record. The tide
is turning. Heredity is coming back, not primarily through anthropologists but
through the zoologists. It is the zoologists, the animal behavior men, who are
doing it, and the anthropologists are beginning to learn from them. It will take
time, but the pendulum will swing’” (Putnam 1961: 42).
Who might that anonymous babbling hereditarian
scientist be? Carleton Coon’s name did not even appear in Putnam’s book index,
while Franz Boas got seven mentions. Colleagues suspected and murmured, of
course (Lasker 1999:148), but without evidence, you couldn’t simply accuse the
President of the AAPA of colluding with the segregationists. In fact, though, the
quotation was a scrambled version of what Coon had written to Putnam on 17 June
1960, but didn’t want his name attached to in print. In a letter of 1 September
1960, Putnam pleaded with him: “Suppose I cut out the ‘prize-winning’ and the ‘physical’
and the ‘international reputation’ and simply referred to the writer as a ‘Northern
anthropologist,’ would you let that pass?
Suppose I referred to him simply as a ‘distinguished scientist, younger
than I am’ (since one of the issues is out-of-date doctrines), saying nothing
about anthropologist or North or South?” To which Coon responded, “OK. A distinguished scientist, younger than I am,
is broad coverage. I’ll buy it. But
doctor the words a bit to eliminate the Cornish element” (Carleton S. Coon Papers, National Anthropological Archives).
At the November 1961 meetings of the American Anthropological Association, a resolution denouncing Putnam’s book passed unanimously (Margolis, 1961). A few months later, Stanley Garn brought a similar resolution to the floor at the AAPA meetings, chaired by President Coon himself. “The vote for the resolution was something like ninety-one ‘aye’ and one ‘nay.’ ...but nobody joined Coon in the vote against the motion, and Coon stormed out of the room” (Lasker 1999:148-9). In Coon’s own pathetically self-interested recollection, he stormed off in disgust that no one in the audience had read the Putnam book they were condemning.
|Ironically depicting the four Linnaean,
not the five Coonian, races
At any rate, that was the context in which Carleton Coon’s The Origin of Races was published in October of 1962. It authoritatively reviewed the fossil evidence for human evolution and the processes by which microevolution and macroevolution take place. Coon’s presentation of evolution was what we would now call adaptationist, and he mentions, then dismisses, the role of genetic drift in human ancestry. Then Coon argues for a fairly normative proposition in the physical anthropology of the age: That there are five kinds of people, geographically localized. And yet Coon’s five races of people weren’t necessarily the ones you might expect. There were Whites (“Caucasoids”), Blacks (“Congoids”), and Oceanics (“Australoids”); but Native Americans were just a sub-group of “Mongoloids” and the Khoesan were their own race (“Capoids”). Moreover, argued Coon, there were five kinds of Homo erectus back in the Pleistocene as well, each of which corresponded to one of the modern races of Homo sapiens. And they evolved from Homo erectus into Homo sapiens in a linear sequence: Caucasoids, then Mongoloids, then Negroids, then Australoids and Capoids. In particular, 200,000 years of evolution separated the Caucasoids from the Negroids.
That 200,000-year gap was
eventually mitigated in Coon’s scenario by gene flow out of sapient Europe, as
the Europeans genetically elevated Homo
erectus populations elsewhere in the world up into the newer species.
However, since the transition to Homo
sapiens was also a transition to civilization (or at least to the potential
to become civilized, apparently unlike Homo
erectus), it followed that the Caucasoid peoples had also been civilized
for rather longer than the rest of the world. Coon thus constructed a chimeric
theory that fused elements of the reputable evolutionary ideas of Franz
Weidenreich (1947), who saw human evolution in terms of both local continuity
and gene flow, with the disreputable pseudo-historical racism of Arthur de
Gobineau (1853), who imagined civilization to reside in the blood of White
people. Coon’s stunning biocultural conclusion, of presumptive social
relevance, was coyly given in his preface: “it is a fair inference … that the subspecies
which crossed the evolutionary threshold into the category of Homo sapiens
the earliest have evolved the most, and that the obvious correlation between
the length of time a subspecies has been in the sapiens state and the levels of
civilization attained by some of its populations may be related phenomena”
(ix-x). It obviously afforded a broad naturalistic
defense of colonialism; but for the current events in America, it contained an
implicit naturalistic explanation both for why American Blacks were making all
this trouble about civil rights, and for why they didn’t really deserve full
equality, much less to be in the same schools as White children: Blacks had not
been members of our species for nearly as long as Whites had.
This set up a problem for the other
physical anthropologists of the day. What to do with a work by a distinguished
colleague that is, quite simply, evil? A work that seems to recall German
anthropology of a generation earlier, naturalizing a racial hierarchy; and is being
gleefully embraced for it by the most horrid reactionary American politicos of
the day? Scientists aren’t trained to grapple with evil. We are trained to look
at facts and arguments as if they are amoral, and not to imagine how we might
be being conned or manipulated by a smart, dishonest scoundrel. And that, obviously, is like a solid-gold
engraved invitation to a smart, dishonest scoundrel (see Hauser, Marc; Burt, Sir Cyril; Sibley, Charles; Man, Piltdown).
The most common reaction in the
physical anthropology community was to pretend that Coon himself was naïve,
that his conclusions were based on a few key misinterpretations, and that his
work was being somehow misused by the segregationists (Jackson 2001). Thus, Bill
Howells in The New York Times wrote “Even if Coon is correct in
his paleontological arguments – and I disagree with many – it is not possible
to use these standards to measure modern racial differences, and anyhow I see
no way of using such arguments to disprove the Constitution of the United
States. I am not going to apologize for Coon, but in fact his book is not
dealing with such matters…. He is making an effort to further the study of
evolution with a scholarly hypothesis. It is unfortunate if such efforts must
immediately be used, by context-strippers of any kind, for social and political
But was that really what Coon was
doing, merely presenting a value-neutral hypothesis? Or was he rather trying to develop a
biological rationalization for the oppression of the non-European peoples of
the world – and trying to make it look like a value-neutral hypothesis?
Obviously, Howells was striving to
be simultaneously both critical and polite. As he (and others, for example,
Wilfrid Le Gros Clark in The Nation) presented it, maybe Coon just
happened to come up with an idea that implicitly dehumanizes
non-Europeans. It’s a darned shame that
such an idea might be misused by racists. Because the dehumanizing idea is just
a hypothesis, right? I mean, can you prove that Europeans weren’t Homo
sapiens for hundreds of thousands of years while sub-Saharan Africans were
still Homo erectus? No, I thought not.
But let’s turn it around. Suppose,
for example, that Coon just stumbled on to this brilliant understanding of the
hominin fossil record, which “came to me one night, at 2 AM. It struck me like
a bolt of lightning, in a dream. I leaped out of bed and dashed to my study to
write it down” (Coon 1981: 340). And maybe it required a bunch of tendentious
assumptions about the fossil record and human variation, but it just happened
to be spot on, and it just happened to indicate, as Carleton Putnam (1967:33) put
it, “[…] that the Negro race is 200,000 years behind the white race on the
ladder of evolution.” Would you, as a progressive physical anthropologist of Those
Fabulous Sixties, really want to be in the position of having to try and
convince people that – just because evolution is dendritic, not scalar – therefore
Black and White kids should still be in the same schools with 200ky of cranial
evolution separating them?
I sure wouldn’t.
|"The Problem We All Live With" by Norman Rockwell (1964)
Coon’s idea about five races of one
species evolving at different times into five races of a different species was
treated as an abstract problem in evolutionary ecology by biologists like G. G.
Simpson and Ernst Mayr (Jackson and Depew, 2017). Mayr (1962:422) wrote in Science,
“There is little doubt that this volume will stir up more than one controversy”
but it’s nevertheless a great book, “regardless of how controversial it may be
in parts” without ever telling his scientific audience precisely what was so controversial about it.
Let’s try this. Is there anything
controversial about being beloved by Nazis? Or can we pretty much agree that if
the Nazis like you, you’re probably despicable?
This is, of course, a moral issue, which scientists are generally not
trained to think through. It’s just not their training; morality is something
scientists are expected to absorb osmotically.
Coon became something of a pariah
in the field by the 1970s (Shipman 1994; Wolpoff and Caspari 1997). So here is
a post-modern question, in an age that has gone beyond the facile idea that
science is value-neutral and that only its applications are evil. What is the
relationship between evil causes and evil science?
If the Nazis invoke your science as
somehow validating their evil cause, does that make your science evil? Or does
science transcend good and evil (a status which ethnographically would be
threatening in all known human societies)?
This is Carleton Coon on his best day: The segregationists are invoking his scientific work independently of his politics, which are irrelevant to the entire matter.
But now his day gets
worse. What if the segregationists are actually invoking his work not in spite
of his politics, but because of his politics? If the segregationists are
publicly claiming him illegitimately, then he must repudiate them,
forcefully and possibly repeatedly. And if they are publicly claiming him legitimately, well then he and his segregationist friends can just fuck right off, can’t they?
Why should the rest of us have to waste our time grappling with racist pseudo-science
Because it’s there? Because it’s our job? Because it’s the right thing to do?
Calling out Prof. Coon was a
dangerous business, given his stature in the field. The person who took him on
most aggressively was a friend of, and collaborator with, physical
anthropologists (in particular, with Sherry Washburn and with Ashley Montagu),
namely the Ukrainian-American fruit fly geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky. Not only was Dobzhansky the doyen of
but he was also very familiar with the bio-politics of both the Soviet version
of Lamarckism promulgated by Lysenko in his motherland and of the eugenics
movement in his adoptive homeland. Moreover, as Carleton Putnam and his circle
were rabidly blaming a conspiracy of anthropologists, communists, and Jews in
the Academy for the civil rights push, Dobzhansky was particularly immune,
being a geneticist, a Soviet émigré, and Russian Orthodox. And Coon went reciprocally after Dobzhansky
privately and publicly with great bluster, threatening litigation and
complaining to the president of his university. And all because Dobzhansky insisted that Coon stand
behind his words, or disown their “misuse” by the segregationists.
The upshot of The Origin of Races was to raise the question: To what extent are you, as a scholar, responsible for your words, and for how they are used? Even if, as he insisted in public, Coon had no responsibility for how the segregationists were invoking his work, the rest of the discipline seems to have felt that he did bear some responsibility. And of course, the segregationists actually had his blessing; Coon was turning physical anthropology into an instrument with which to bludgeon Black people. Physical anthropologists at the time bent over backwards to present Coon as something other than an overeducated segregationist hack. After all, if he spoke with any authority at all, it would make physical anthropology itself into little more than racist quackery.
Sixty years later, much has changed. Physical anthropology no longer exists as a professional science. What replaced it is more expansive, more self-aware, and more ethically conscious. Of course, those intervening decades also saw sociobiology, NAGPRA, the Human Genome Diversity Project, and animal rights, each of which presented moral challenges to the field. This was never science like chemistry, or even like fruit fly genetics.
Indeed, a few years later, Dobzhansky reviewed Carleton Putnam’s sequel to Race and Reason, called… (wait for it) … Race and Reality. The new reality was much like the old, involving anthropologists, communists, and Jews and a perfervid defense of the inherent stupidity of Blacks. But now, the text was sprinkled with references to Professor Coon’s work; in fact, with more references to Coon than even to Boas! Dobzhansky promptly called the question on Coon. “Regret[t]ably, Dr. Coon has not seen fit to state whether he approves or disapproves of his scientific hypotheses being used by Mr. Putnam, for the latter's very unscientific ends. Such a statement would be appropriate regardless of whether these hypotheses are judged valid or invalid by Coon's scientific colleagues. It is a duty of a scientist to prevent misuse and prostitution of his findings” (Dobzhansky 1968:103).
And despite both the political left and the political right appreciating the political value of Coon’s work, Coon steadfastly maintained its value-neutrality; and in his plummet to scientific obscurity, if not infamy, he actually wrote something we can all agree with. “Were the evolution of fruit flies a prime social and political issue, Dobzhansky might easily find himself in the same situation in which he and his followers have tried to place me” (Coon 1968:275).
I would suggest that a few
intellectual generations later, normalizing that very recognition has helped to
distinguish the scientific pretensions of the older physical anthropology
from the scientific ambitions of biological anthropology. This is not like the
science of fruit flies. It is bio-political, and always has been. That gives
biological anthropology responsibilities that other sciences don’t have to bear,
and makes Carleton Coon’s The Origin of Races a tremendously important
work, although fortunately not in the way the author intended.
|Fred Hulse's (1962) version of Weidenreich's trellis
2015. Race relationships: Collegiality and demarcation in physical
anthropology. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 51(3):
Coon CS. 1968.
Comment on “Bogus Science.” Journal
of Heredity 59(5):275.
Coon CS. 1981. Adventures
and Discoveries. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Dobzhansky T. 1968. More bogus 'science' of race prejudice. Journal of Heredity 59:102-104.
A. 1853. Essai sur l'Inégalité des Races Humaines, Tome I. Paris: Firmin
1962. Our family tree. The New York Times Book Review, 9 December.
Hulse, FS. 1962. Race as an evolutionary episode. American Anthropologist, 64, 929-945.
Jackson JP, Jr.
2001. "In ways unacademical": The reception of Carleton S. Coon's The
Origin of Races. Journal of the History of Biology 34:247-285.
Jackson JP & Depew DJ. 2017. Darwinism,
Democracy, and Race: American Anthropology and Evolutionary Biology in the Twentieth
Century. New York: Routledge.
1999. Happenings and Hearsay: Reflections of a Biological Anthropologist.
Detroit, MI: Savoyard Books.
H. 1961. Science
and segregation: The American Anthropological Association dips into politics. Science
Mayr E. 1962.
Origin of the human races. Science 138:420-422.
Putnam C. 1961.
Race and Reason. Washington, D. C.: Public Affairs Press.
Putnam C. 1967.
Race and Reality. Washington, D. C.: Public Affairs Press.
Shipman P. 1994.
The Evolution of Racism. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Weidenreich F. 1947. Facts and speculations concerning the origin of Homo sapiens. American Anthropologist, 49:135-151.
Wolpoff M. and Caspari R. 1997. Race and Human Evolution. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Thanks to Karen Strier, Graciela Cabana, Lauren Schroeder, Trudy Turner, and some other folks for their comments along the way.
 Without getting into the niceties of professional credentialing, Dobzhansky had written authoritatively on human genetic diversity. He was a member of anthropological societies and published insightfully on such topics, especially later in life, but his primary research was always on Drosophila, not Homo.
 As an ironic footnote, Carleton Coon’s scientific pretensions were such that the book was initially titled, On the Origin of Races, specifically to invoke you-know-who.