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.

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