At the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May 2018, the Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry sermonized on the power of love and fire. On the latter subject, he invoked the writings of the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
[According to Teilhard] the
discovery or invention or harnessing of fire was one of the great scientific
and technological discoveries in all of human history. Fire to a great extent
made human civilization possible. Fire made it possible to cook food and to
provide sanitary ways of eating which reduced the spread of disease in its
time. Fire made it possible to heat warm environments and thereby made human
migration around the world a possibility, even into colder climates. Fire made
it possible, there was no Bronze Age without fire, no Iron Age without fire, no
industrial revolution without fire.
Fire was indeed a great biocultural
development in human evolution, for the apes have neither sufficient brains nor
sufficient thumbs to create and control it. The direct ancestors of humans were
doing it hundreds of thousands of years ago; we know this because they left us
the remains of their hearths.
The Greeks, who knew nothing of
prehistoric archaeology, at least knew where fire came from. It was given to
peopleby Prometheus, against the wishes
of Zeus, who punished him for the deed in a classically Zeusian way: by
chaining him to a rock and having an eagle peck out his liver on a daily basis.
Ha! Those silly Greeks! But did you
ever wonder what the Bible says about where fire came from?
The answer is easy. Nothing. Fire
was such an obvious part of being human that the Bible doesn’t even have an
origin myth about it.It was just always
there with people. They didn’t have to discover it, or learn to control it. The
Book of Jubilees, which expands on Genesis and figures prominently among the
Dead Sea Scrolls, has a detail that Genesis doesn’t. After getting expelled
from Eden, Adam and Eve make “an offering of frankincense, galbanum, and myrrh,
and spices,” which implies the control of fire, since God generally doesn’t
take raw offerings, only roasted offerings. If we go just with canonical books
of the Bible, the first offerings are those of Cain and Abel.
The problem is that there is no
learning curve. Neither Adam and Eve, nor their children, apparently have to
experiment with fire, or are even given fire. One day they are just using it.
Perhaps they simply cadged it from the cherubim brandishing the flaming sword
at the entrance to the Garden of Eden; or perhaps they just ate from the fruit
of the Tree of the Knowledge of How to Make Fire – but if so, the Bible doesn’t
The anti-intellectualism of the
biblical literalist has tended to be focused on biological narratives, specifically
denying that our species is descended from ape ancestors over last few million
years. But the battleground of archaeology is even more problematic for a 21st
century believer in the inerrancy of the Bible, but one rarely confronts it because
of the blinding light of Darwin and biology.
Consider the economic prehistory of
the human species. The early 1860s saw the publication of two important English
works on the subject: Charles Lyell’s The Antiquity of Man (1863) and John Lubbock’s Pre-Historic Times (1865). Between them, they cemented a
significantly non-biblical story about human ancestry: namely, that the
earliest state of humanity was a long time of living off the land, without
agriculture, as contemporary hunter-gatherers (whom they regarded as “savages”)
Now, of course, the discovery and
spread of food production is one of the most fundamental issues in archaeology.
Humans began to transform animals and plants from wild to domesticated forms,
by controlling their breeding, starting around 12,000 or so years ago, thus
ensuring a stable supply of food. The problem faced by scholars in the mid-19th
century is this:
The Lord God took the man and
put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Genesis 2:15)
According to the Bible, there was
never any hunting and gathering. People were farming from day one; or rather,
from Day 6. And the disparity between archaeology and the biblical text created
a problem for anyone wanting to understand contemporary foragers in places like Australia
and South Africa and America in the 19th century. If farming was
invented and learned, then contemporary foragers were just people who hadn’t
learned it. If, on the other hand,
farming was there from the beginning, then they were degenerates who had abandoned
that God-given knowledge. So which was it – were living foragers primordial or
devolved? Lyell and Lubbock settled the matter: Hunting-and-gathering was how
our ancestors long ago made a living off the land, and only subsequently was
agriculture eventually developed. The alternative idea is not only
anti-empirical, but also a bit racist.
agriculture arose in different parts of the world, using different available
wild resources: In one place wheat; in another, rice. And that leads to an important and
incontrovertible conclusion from modern archaeology: God did not make corn.
made corn. In particular, people of Mesoamerica made corn over the course of a
few thousand years, from a grass called teosinte, which is still capable of hybridizing
with corn. We have their learning curve, in the form of dated ancient cobs. The
learning curve for food production is critical, since the Bible directly
implies that there shouldn’t be one. Moreover, all the evidence for early corn
is in Mesoamerica; there was no corn in the Garden of Eden. (And of course,
wherever the King James Version says “corn,” you should read “grain” – because
what the Bible says and what the Bible means are often not the same. And while
you’re at it, where you encounter the word “unicorns” in the King James, you
might want to read “wild oxen”.)
With both the creationists and evolutionists
transfixed on Darwin, perhaps the scholarly community might take a step back
from apes and DNA, and try attacking biblical literalism/inerrancy on a
different battlefield. Make the creationist explain fire and corn. Any
explanation will necessarily be unbiblical, at the very least, in addition to
Then you can share a bowl of
popcorn with your new friend.
It has been a frustrating several decades for science since
John Whitcomb and Henry Morris published The
Genesis Flood in 1961, the book that laid the groundwork for modern
biblical literalist creationism. Those authors just flatly denied what science
had appreciated since the early 1800s: that the earth is very old, and has been
populated at different times by diverse creatures that were quite different
from living ones, although frequently resembling them. While there has always
been religiously-based resistance to Darwinism, it was a rare anti-intellectual
who dared venture into “young-earth creationism”. Even William Jennings Bryan,
Clarence Darrow’s antagonist in the famous Scopes trial, volunteered the fact
that he was an “old-earth” creationist, to the surprise of both sides in the
DARROW: Would you say the earth was only 4,000 years old? BRYAN: Oh no, I think it is much older than that. DARROW: How much? BRYAN: I couldn't say. DARROW: Do you say whether the Bible itself says it is older than that? BRYAN: I don't think the Bible says itself whether it is older or not. DARROW: Do you think the earth was made in six days? BRYAN: Not six days of twenty-four hours. DARROW: Doesn't it say so? BRYAN: No, sir.
In other words, “young-earth creationism” was too stupid even for William Jennings Bryan in 1925.
The Genesis Flood,
on the other hand, began in 1961 with the premise that the Bible relates
literal history; the Bible says that the Earth is merely thousands of years old;
therefore it must be; and therefore all species lived at the same time, not so
long ago. Almost as an afterthought, evolution must be false as a simple
consequence of this biblical revisionism. This begged the question of how
animals actually came to be fossilized, short of having been magically
petrified by the visage of the gorgon Medusa; or how particular fossils came to
be very consistently deposited in similar formations of rock layers, in spite
of all that sloshing of the flood waters. It left you to wonder how the modern
lemurs made it to Madagascar, and nowhere else; or how the koalas made it from
Mount Ararat in the Near East all the way to Australia, without eucalyptus
forests in between.
Most importantly, though, The Genesis Flood enjoined the reader to simply reject lots and
lots of real and scholarly geology in favor of some dopey alt-geology. Where
might such a bizarre suggestion come from? Saying that science has gotten
something wrong is not in itself threatening. After all, when we teach that
science is self-correcting, that is quite specifically what we mean: Science
has gotten something wrong and we are correcting it.
The context of modern biblical literalist creationism bears
some examination. Today it is fashionable to regard creationists along with anti-vaccinators,
anthropogenic climate-change deniers, and flat-earthers, as part of a vast
conspiracy of stupid. But there are two problems with this view. First, science
is, and has sometimes famously been, wrong. When American geneticists of the
1920s said that we needed to sterilize the poor and restrict immigrants on
account of their “bad germ-plasm,” it was the anti-science mobilization of the civil
libertarians, social scientists, political conservatives, and religious
Catholics that we can admire in retrospect for standing up to the geneticists.
And second, we don’t know the degree of overlap among the anti-vaccinators,
anthropogenic climate-change deniers, flat-earthers, and creationists.Although some of them rationalize their
beliefs with Bible verses, only the creationists are actually religiously
motivated. In fact, even the creationists think the flat-earthers are nuts.
St. Augustine, a Hippo
In other words, creationism represents a special kind of
anti-science, rooted in a particular hermeneutic treatment of the Bible: selective
biblical literalism. It’s selective because, as even St. Augustine of Hippo recognized,
when you read that Adam and Eve’s “eyes were opened” after eating the fruit in
the Garden of Eden, you simply can’t imagine that they had been walking around
the Garden with their eyes closed, bumping into things. It has got to be a
figure of speech, not to be taken literally.
There is a different context for looking at creationism,
however. Scarcely a decade before The Genesis
Flood, the scientific world was scandalized by a Bible-based book of a
different sort. It was called Worlds in
Collision, written by psychoanalyst named Immanuel Velikovsky.
Velikovsky was not a literalist, nor was he concerned with
the book of Genesis. His interest lay in Exodus, but his biblical focus was
rooted in an equally ridiculous premise: Since all myths and legends are
ultimately based upon real events (rather than just being stories, like Cosette
and the Thenardiers, or Oliver Twist and Fagin, or Luke Skywalker and the Death
Star) then what actual circumstances might have been the inspiration for the
miracle-infused biblical Exodus from Egypt? In particular, what might have started
things off by turning the Nile to blood, Plague Number One of Ten – or at least to something that Bronze
Age yokels might have mistaken for blood? The subsequent plagues of Egypt would
also receive naturalistic explanations too – frogs making their own amphibious
exodus from the now-toxic river, then hosting insect vermin as disease made its
way up the food chain, eventually culminating in mass deaths – hazily misremembered
and misrecorded as merely the Egyptian first-born.
But what started it off, turning the Nile river to blood?
Velikovsky had an answer, and peppered his biblical exegesis
as well with tendentious renderings of ethnographic and archaeological texts.
What had turned the Nile red and undrinkable was red matter that had fallen
into the Nile from the surface of the planet Venus. How did it get there? The
planet Venus had just come into existence, having been expelled as a comet from
the Great Red Spot of Jupiter; and was shooting through the solar system,
eventually banging into Mars before both planets settled into their separate
orbits just a few thousand years ago. It was an ingenious theory, with only one
obstacle in its way: astronomy.So
Velikovsky invented his own alt-astronomy and settled into the #1 slot of the
New York Times best-seller list in the Spring of 1950.
Needless to say, astronomers did not take this at all well. Sadly,
though, they did a spectacularly poor job of engaging with Velikovsky’s work,
beginning with threatening its publisher. Their fulminations were properly
dismissive, necessarily technical, sometimes ad hominem, and occasionally
incoherent. Eventually, though, Worlds in
Collision faded from view, and today you can generally only find Velikovsky’s
ideas by searching for them on the internet. Nevertheless, both Worlds in Collision and The Genesis Flood prominently cast
themselves against science, and in favor of their particular interpretations of
the Bible. One bluntly opposed astronomy, the other opposed geology. Yet the
biblical text figures prominently in both, as misunderstood “history” in the
colliding planets narrative, and as properly-understood “history” in
We (in the human evolution community) have engaged most commonly with biblical literalist
creationism as a false theory of biology, or as an archaic remnant of older
modes of thought; but it is reactionary, not primitive, and treating it as a
false story simply replicates the astronomers’ frustrating engagement with Worlds in Collision. It will always
prove unsuccessful to engage with creationism as “our story is true and yours
is false” – since at very least, many aspects of any story of human evolution
are debatable or downright inaccurate. Indeed, both evolutionist and
creationist narratives of human origins have at times freely incorporated
But Velikovsky had fashioned a mold: a Bible-validating
narrative, and the replacement of real science with his own. And he largely
succeeded in focusing the resulting debate on the nature of the story he had to
tell – science had theirs, and Velikovsky had his.
That was 1950. The
Genesis Flood was 1961. And a decade after that, Erich von Däniken
published his best-seller, called Chariots
of the Gods?Once again, the Bible
figured prominently, but this time with God’s presence as mis-remembered and
mis-reported visitations by ancient astronauts. And the only thing standing in
its way was archaeology.
Yet while the colliding worlds astronomy scenario has all
but vanished, young-earth creationism and the ancient astronauts are very much
still with us. Creationism’s biology scenario is touted in evangelical churches across
America, and the ancient astronauts archaeology scenario is touted on The
History Channel. Approximately as any people believe it as believe creationism,
and we have no idea how much those 40% or so of Americans overlap with one
It’s not simply the rejection of science, but the arrogant construction
of a different science, based in some measure on an idiosyncratic
interpretation of the Bible. That is what connects the colliding worlds,
young-earth creationists, and ancient aliens. And one thing seems clear: arguing over whose
story is right is not a successful strategy. “You” may believe that the planets
have been more-or-less as they presently are for billions of years, but “we”
believe that Venus is only 3500 years old. And why are you trying to disabuse
us of that? Don’t we have a right to believe it? Come to think of it, aren’t you just being an
intolerant archaic throwback to colonialist hegemonic practice?
The joint possession of secret knowledge is, after all, a pretty obvious form of social bond. People who believe the Jets are going to the Super Bowl have something to agree on and to hope for together, regardless of any basis it might have in reality.
Would it give you pleasure to try and convince them otherwise? To me, that's a bit sadistic. I agree rather with H. L. Mencken, who said something like: Everyone is entitled to the belief that their spouse is attractive and their children are smart.
Talking people out of their delusions can be fun, don't get me wrong. I just don't think it should be the goal of science education. It's one thing to teach what scientists believe, and quite another to insist that everyone believe as you do.
Instead, we should be focusing on how scientific stories get
made, and why their odd beliefs aren’t science. How do we explain appropriate
scholarly practice to those who have never experienced it? That's the pedagogical challenge. But this is the
complementary intellectual domain of the humanities: turning
the conversation away from the content of the science itself, and towards the
nature of scientific epistemologies. That is to say, what makes something scientific knowledge as opposed to unscientific knowledge.
And sure, if you want to go for broke, why, in most contexts, scientific knowledge is more reliable than unscientific knowledge.
But this will necessarily be a
humanistic conversation, and it may not be one that scientists are comfortable
with, but it is probably a conversation that has a better chance of making a
difference than just insisting that they’re wrong and you’re right.
Or, to put it in the non-scientific domain of morality: Don't be an asshole.
I loved Jonathan Marks’s Legacy Review of The Origin of
Races(Marks, 2022). The
review is good history with an important lesson that academics must take
responsibility for their research in terms of the way we interpret our findings
and the way that others use or misuse our work. Marks is spot-on when he says
that Coon’s writings on ‘race’ were, “…quite simply evil…” and that, “Scientists
are not trained to grapple with evil.” We need such training, as many evils such
as racism, sexism, and ethnic cleansing are ever-present.
Marks's Legacy Review dredged-up memories of how I became an
anthropologist and this is the theme of this letter. Perhaps my story will
resonate with others. My start toward anthropology had little to do with
combating evil, but did involve reading another book co-authored by Carleton
Coon, Anthropology A to Z(Coon & Hunt, 1963). More about this book in a
moment but first I want to state that like Marks, I was never taught The
Origin of Races. I do not recall that Coon was even mentioned in any of my
anthropology courses. I learned about ‘Races’ sometime after earning my
Ph.D. in 1977 and purchased a used copy. The perverse nature of the book’s argument
was, I thought, a fascinating footnote in the history of anthropology. When
relevant, I explained to my students Coon’s proposals and classroom discussion
often became animated with incredulity! About
10 years ago, I gave away ‘Races’ and my few other books that tried to
make ‘race’ a serious anthropological topic (e.g., Garn, SM 1960 Readings on
Race; Mead M, Dobzhansky T, Tobach E, Light RE 1968 Science and the
Concept of Race). The pseudo-scientific concept of ‘race’ had long since become
an embarrassment to anthropology and, besides, I needed the shelf space for
more useful books.
I purchased a new, paperback edition of Anthropology A to
Z in in 1969, near the end of my junior year of university in Philadelphia.
At that time I was miserable. I was the third member of my immediate family to
attend a university. Previously two aunts had completed courses in elementary
education and physical therapy. My parents expected me to pursue a similarly
applied vocation, especially medicine. Being mostly naïve, I thought that a
major in biology was the only route to success in medicine. The biology of the
late 1960s was strongly molecular and my instructors lectured toward genetics.
I appreciated the marvels of the genome, but whole organisms held more
interest. One lecturer was RL Miller, a developmental biologist who was the
first to discover fertilization by sperm chemotaxis in an animal (Miller, 1966).
Human sperm chemotaxis toward ova was shown 25 years later (Ralt et al., 1991). In my junior year (1969) I enrolled in Prof.
Miller’s marine biology course, did well, and was able to secure a job in
Miller’s lab. My work was to tie to glass slides male and female hydrozoans of
the genus Campanularia, then feed and care for them until needed for
further experiments. Later, I was trained analyze film images recorded by means
of dark-field cinephotomicrography and trace the paths that spermatozoa from
male animals followed toward the female gonangium (the reproductive members of
the hydrozoan colony). Doing so allowed me to observe fertilization and the
formation of new hydroids. This job stimulated my interest in growth and
In other third year courses I was failing. At the end of the
semester the university placed me on the ‘Dean’s List’, the one for students
threatened with dismissal. A few weeks
into the second semester I had physical-emotional meltdown. I missed three
weeks of classes, the lab work and two other jobs I had at that time, and all
social life. A physician prescribed a barbiturate tablet, to which I developed a
nasty allergic reaction, but it did help to regulate my emotions. When I
returned to the university I went to the bookstore and discovered Anthropology
A to Z. The text is mostly about ‘race’ and ‘constitution’ but there are
sections on growth and development, paleoanthropology, primates, demography,
and social anthropology. The material on fossil and non-human primates grabbed
my attention. I bought the book ($2.95) and decided to change my major to
anthropology. I took the three required introductory classes (Social,
Biological, Archeology) in the summer term between my junior and senior years.
My performance went from failing to As and Bs. I found my place and my profession.
Anthropology A to Z was translated, with new material
added, from the original German book Anthropologie. Das Fischer Lexikon(Heberer, Kurth, & Schwidetzky-Roesing, 1959). The German book was designed
as single-volume encyclopedia (the meaning of the German word ‘lexicon’).
There is an ‘A Z’ artistic design on the cover, but not used in the official
title. The authors were Gerhard Heberer, Gottfried Kurth, and Ilse
Schwidetzky-Roesing. Heberer was a zoologist and anthropologist who was a
member of the Nazi Party SS and was a high ranking "racial researcher
" for the SS ‘German Ancestral Heritage (Ahnenerbe) Research
Association’. Heberer was interned after the war because of his SS membership,
but was declared ‘reformed’ in 1947. From 1949 to 1970
he was director of an "anthropological research center" at the
Georg-August University in Gottingen. Gottfried Kurth was an anthropologist who
studied the ‘races’ of German villages and paleoanthropology. His publications
contributed to Nazi ideology on ‘racial hygiene’ and education. Years later, Kurth
edited a festschrift to the professional life of Heberer, which was given a
mostly positive review by C. Loring Brace (Brace, 1963).
Ilse Schwidetzky-Roesing was an anthropologist who in the 1930s was assistant
to Egon Freiherr von Eickstedt, one of the leading ‘race theorists’ of the
Third Reich. After the war she worked at Mainz University from 1946, eventually
succeeding Eickstedt as Mainz Professor of Anthropology in 1961 until her
retirement in 1975. I found no information that either Kurth or Schwidetzky-Roesing
were interned or ‘reformed’. Instead, both seemed to have assumed traditional
academic lives after the war and Schwidetzky-Roesing was even an honored member
of several European academic societies and in 1974 the Vice President of the International
Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences.
Both in its original German and in English translation, Anthropology
A to Z is a neo-Nazi racist diatribe. In English it includes the racist
ideology of Carleton Coon that is exemplified by Marks’ Legacy Review. On page
129, for example, Coon and Hunt write, “The hypothesis to be presented here was
suggested by Franz Weidenreich in 1947, and has been much elaborated since by
C. S. Coon in The Origin of Races (1962).” A few sentences later, Coon and Hunt succinctly
precis the hypothesis by writing that Coon’s elaborations boil down to, “…some
racial differences seen today can be traced all the way back to Homo erectus.”
Much of the text of Anthropology A to Z, both before and after page 129 is
a summary of material first published in The Origin of Races (A to Z
is 277 pages long). The work of Franz Boas, towards whom Coon was personally
and professionally antithetical (Jackson, 2001), is mentioned one time in Anthropology A to Z,
with a sentence on Boas’ studies of the offspring of immigrants. There is no
citation of that work, but Coon and Hunt dismiss the importance of Boas’
research and explain it away by stating that the plasticity of phenotypes Boas
reported was merely due to selective migration. It is an understatement to say
that it is ironic that Coon and Hunt’s Anthropology A to Z helped me
become an anthropologist who dedicated his professional work to Boasian-style research
and ideology. In the latest edition of my book
Patterns of Human Growth (Bogin, 2021),
I devote a paragraph to Coon’s hypothesis and show that his ‘evidence’ from
anthropometric studies was incorrect. More importantly, I devote many pages to
explaining and critiquing the on-going research by contemporary genetic
determinists from biology, psychology, bioinformatics, medicine, and other
fields who promote claims of biological, cognitive, and emotional differences
between ‘races’, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic classes.
There is one more anecdote to relate about how I came to
read Anthropology A to Z. This story begins with Coon’s television
career and ends with a possibly racist high school guidance counsellor. I grew-up in
Philadelphia. About the time when I was 10 years old (1960ish), it was
difficult for me to get out of bed on school days, but I was up and running by 6
AM on Saturday. I ate some breakfast in front of the TV and often watched a repeat
showing of What In The World (WITW), which was a co-production of
the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia TV station WCAU. The Penn Museum websiteprovides the basic history of WITW. Watch the video at that site, with its dry ice ‘smoke’, mysterious flute music excerpts from Stravinsky’s The Rite
of Spring, and images
of worlds in space, and you will
show’s impact on my 10-year-old mind! WITW won the Peabody Award for
television in 1951, was shown by 89 affiliates of the CBS television network, and
ran for 16 years (1950-1966). This is incredible for show that was based on a
panel of academic ‘egg-heads’ trying to guess the identity of an archeological
object held by the University’s Museum of
Archaeology and Anthropology. The host of the show was Froelich
director of the Museum. One regular panelist was Carleton Coon, who was
then Curator of Ethnology at the Museum. I marveled at the wisdom of Coon and
the other tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking professors as they debated the symbolism,
beauty, and use of the mysterious object. Today, I suspect that the objects
were selected by Rainey and Coon and that Coon may have prepared some text for
the other panelists to help make the show more entertaining.
The show must
have made a lasting impression because when it came time for me to think of
life after high school, I went to my guidance counsellor to ask about a career
as an archeologist. I still recall that she looked at me with a condescending
expression and said, “There is only one place you can study archeology – the
University of Pennsylvania, and you cannot get in there.” I guess that WITW made a lasting
impression on her as well! As a 16-year-old I interpreted her words to mean
that I was too stupid to successfully apply to the Ivy League University of
Pennsylvania. I did attend Temple University, a public, state-supported university
in Philadelphia. In the 1990s I had occasion to reminisce about my high school
counselor’s words and realized that what she really meant was that Penn would
likely reject me because of its desire to be international and cosmopolitan. Many
elite universities had admission quotas for local residents, so that the
student body would be geographically diverse. There were also quotas for ethnic
and religious ‘diversity’ – meaning lack thereof in most cases – and my counselor
may have thought that I was too Jewish for that quota. In fact, Penn never had
a ‘Jewish quota’ and was the Ivy League school with the highest percentage of
Jewish students. Was my guidance counselor an anti-Semite? Was she trying to
promote her favorite students for admission to Penn? I will never know. But the impact of WITW
stayed with me and when I saw Anthropology A to Z in the Temple
University bookstore the name Carleton Coon must have stirred something that
lead to my life-long excitement for biological anthropology and all it has to
Bogin, B. (2021). Patterns of Human Growth (3rd
ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108379977
Brace, C. L. (1963). Review of Evolution und
hominisation:Evolution and hominisation. Edited by Gottfried Kurth. 228
pp.; 43 figures; 3 tables. Published by Gustav Fischer Verlag, Stuttgart,
Germany. D.M. 45,50. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 21(1),
Coon, C. S., & Hunt, E. E. (1963). Anthropology
A to Z. New York, NY: Grosset & Dunlap.
Heberer, G., Kurth, G., & Schwidetzky-Roesing, I.
(1959). Anthropologie. Das Fischer Lexikon. Frankfurt-Main: Fischer
Jackson, J. . (2001). "In Ways Unacademical”: The
Reception of Carleton S. Coon’s The Origin of Races. Journal of the History
of Biology, 34, 247–285. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1010366015968
Marks, J. (2022). Legacy review: Carleton S. Coon
(1962) The origin of races . New York: Knopf. American Journal of Biological
Anthropology, 178:193–195 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1002/ajpa.24482
Miller, R. L. (1966). Chemotaxis during fertilization
in the hydroid Campanularia. Journal of Experimental Zoology, 162(1),
Ralt, D., Goldenberg, M., Fetterolf, P., Thompson, D.,
Dor, J., Mashiach, S., … Eisenbach, M. (1991). Sperm attraction to a follicular
factor(s) correlates with human egg fertilizability. Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 88(7),
The term used in the 1940s was
‘denazified’. That word is used by Putin as part of Russian aggression against
Ukrainian people and has taken on a new, evil meaning.
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).
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.
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).
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
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
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 TheNew 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’tHomo
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.
1968. More bogus 'science' of race prejudice. Journal of Heredity
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.
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.
1947. Facts and speculations concerning the origin of Homo sapiens. American
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.