Carleton Coon

Mike Salovesh (t20mxs1@CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU)
Fri, 24 Nov 1995 02:02:54 -0600

It's funny to hear people saying that they never heard Carleton Coon
making racist statements. I did -- in his office at Penn, and elsewhere,
during the 6th International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological
Sciences in Philadelphia in 1956. I was about to begin my second year of
fulltime graduate courses in anthro, and was overwhelmed at the chance to
meet so many great anthropologists whose works I had been reading. Coon
was one of those I wanted to talk with because he had such a broad range
of descriptive knowledge of fossil hominids. Besides, by then he was one
of the Grand Old Men of Anthro.

I was part of a three-way conversation with Coon and a genetics-inclined
physical anthropologist from Italy when Coon suggested we continue the
subject up in his office. (I'm rotten on names, and this was a long time
ago: could that have been Cavalli-Sforza? I don't remember . . . ) After
close to an hour of the visitor's earnest and enlightening discussion,
Coon said--and the quotation has stuck with me ever since!--"Thank you
very, very much. You know, I never understood this genetics shit."

We turned to more general talk. Coon spoke of a "Jewboy" studying in his
department who was pushy and bright but he hoped to discourage him. He
said he was worried about the race mixture he saw in Philadelphia, which
surely was going to lead to trouble as white blood was diluted. What
he said, then and later, made it clear that he believed that not only
were "races" separate entities with independent histories reaching back
hundreds of thousands of years, but that they should stay apart today
and in the future. There were more remarks that strongly disillusioned me
about Coon, because his words and attitudes were so strongly racist.

It didn't surprise me to see Coon quoted repeatedly by the National Putnam
Letters Committee (a notoriously racist group). There was, after all, a
well-known family link, and to my knowledge he did not disavow their use
of his materials. Other racists also found Coon's work a treasure trove
of support for their views, particularly after the publication of his
"Origin of races".

That book is the oddest mixture of solid, authoritative description of
fossil materials and off-the-wall interpretations written by a physical
anthropologist in the last half-century. I bought it when it was
published, and used it for years as a reference I found first-rate for
the details it provided on what was then known of the anatomy of our
predecessors. I also joined in the standing ovation given to Sherry
Washburn when he gave his presidential address to the American Anthro-
pological Association. At the request of the AAA Board, Sherry devoted
that address to ripping apart the stupidities of Coon's interpretations
in "The origin of races".

As Washburn pointed out, arguing for the near-total reproductive
isolation of European and Asian populations simply cannot stand up to
the known historical facts about Ghengis Khan, not to mention ancient
Rome's trade with China or the clear evidence of linguistic connections
between Turkish, Hungarian, and Finnish on the one hand and Central
Asian languages on the other. And what, pray tell, were Marco Polo's
uncles doing on long, cold nights in China? There are descendents of
Atilla the Hun's Asian cohorts identifiably present today in isolated
Swiss towns. The so-called "Mongoloid spot" and epicanthic eyefolds have
been seen in Europe for many centuries. Similar evidence exists for
longterm mixture throughout the Old World, even including Australia.

The record makes it impossible to believe that there are now, or ever
were, "pure" phenotypic races in human history. Neither is it reasonable
to believe that cultural differences are determined by race, or that
evolution has made Europeans culturally superior because they are
biologically superior. Carleton Coon believed just that. He argued in
support of the idea, and made that argument one of the themes of "The
origin of races". In other words, he WAS a racist. He also was just
plain wrong.

mike salovesh <> PEACE!
anthropology department
northern illinois university