Monday, December 5, 2022

Fire, Corn, and Creationism

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 people  by 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 say.

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”) did.

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.

                Moreover, 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.

                People 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 being inaccurate.

Then you can share a bowl of popcorn with your new friend.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

You tell me that it's evolution, well, you know...

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 courtroom. 

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 creationist narratives.

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 racist elements.

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 another. 

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.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Guest post: Carleton Coon made me do it, by Barry Bogin


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 development.  

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’[1] 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 website provides 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 understand the 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 Rainey, 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 offer.

Barry Bogin

Member, UCSD/Salk Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA), USA

Professor Emeritus of Biological Anthropology, Loughborough University

Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of Michigan-Dearborn, USA, Member Diversity Scholars Network


Bogin, B. (2021). Patterns of Human Growth (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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), 87–91.

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 Bücherei, K.G.

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.

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).

Miller, R. L. (1966). Chemotaxis during fertilization in the hydroid Campanularia. Journal of Experimental Zoology, 162(1), 23–44.

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), 2840–2844.

[1] 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.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

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

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.

                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.