Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Carleton Coon’s "The Origin of Races": Evil Turns 60


              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.

                Of 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).

                That 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.
                Carleton Coon was of sturdy New England Yankee stock, which is shorthand for it is hard to imagine anyone much whiter. He did his doctoral work with Earnest Hooton at Harvard, where he remained as an instructor until 1948, when he moved to Penn. In the mid-1950s, Coon was a regular on the early television show, “What in The World?”, a few episodes of which survive on the internet. My personal favorite highlights Coon’s erudition, as he identifies and rhapsodizes about a Scandinavian Neolithic tool, to the amazement of the other panelists, including the actor and art collector, Vincent Price (starting at 12:27).

                In 1961, Coon was elected President of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA).  He was working on the book, as well as corresponding with a relative named Carleton Putnam. Putnam had run Delta Airlines and was now a major propagandist against school integration.  Putnam’s little book, Race and Reason, was published that year, and was a huge racist hit; it was required reading for high school students in Louisiana, for example. The governor of Mississippi proclaimed October 26, 1961 to be “Race and Reason Day.” The point of Putnam’s book was that not only is school integration wrong, but the very idea that Blacks and Whites could even be intellectual equals is the product of an intellectual conspiracy led by Franz Boas. Normative anthropology was, to Putnam, “insidious propaganda posing in the name of science” (Putnam 1961:20). 

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 ends…”

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 every generation?


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 evolutionary genetics,[1] 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[2] 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


Collopy PS. 2015. Race relationships: Collegiality and demarcation in physical anthropology. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 51(3): 237–260.

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.

Gobineau, A. 1853. Essai sur l'Inégalité des Races Humaines, Tome I. Paris: Firmin Didot Fréres.

Howells, WW. 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.

Lasker GW. 1999. Happenings and Hearsay: Reflections of a Biological Anthropologist. Detroit, MI: Savoyard Books.

Margolis H.  1961. Science and segregation: The American Anthropological Association dips into politics. Science 134:1868-1869.

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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

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