More Coon et al

Sat, 25 Nov 1995 17:33:44 -0600

Mike Salovesh's story is fascinating. Still...

In a way, it is too easy simply to call Coon a racist and then because of
that, to dismiss his work out of hand. If you do that consistently, it would
difficult to read many pre-WWII anthros. With a few notable exceptions - Boas
in particular - most US Physical Anthropologists writing before 1950 (at
least the ones I have read) bought into and defended racist ideas. It was
in fact much more the rule than the exception. Some did it with considerable
zeal - Hooten, Wissler and Hrdlicka -. Coon certainly shared the same frame
of reference as these others.

What picks my curiousity is how the field could have defended such a paradigm -essentially the one developed
by Blumenbach - for so long and with such persistence into the 20th Century.
Modern scientific methods did not hake the approach - that humanity could be
`divided' into a number of discreet races - until after World War II. Read
today, what they had to say about Native Americans, Blacks, Jews and
increasingly after 1924 Mexican Americans is pretty scuzzy stuff. Until he
died Hooten put most of his intellectual energy into proving a la Lombroso
into proving the existence of a `criminal type'. Nor was it just Americans.
Arthur Keith and co. to say nothing of the entire field of Anthropology in
Germany were retty much working off of the same paradigm of human variation.

This paradigm thus was persistent and rather impervious to change for a
very long time. World War II appears as the great divide that
seemed to shake the field out of its passivity. Then the human variation
paradigm begins to change, but actually over a period of 20 or 30 years.
I expect some technological innovations - Watson-Crick breakthrough on the
structure of DNA and finally being able to zero in on the exact human
chromosome number of 46 (they thought it 48) had some impact as did some of
the dramatic work on variation within species by folks like Ernst Mayr. There are important
social changes as well - although it is by no means clear how they fed into
new understandings of human variations on a scientific level beyond creating
a new social atmosphere for the discussion. Whatever, by the 1960s and 1970s, Physical Anthro's
old guard were pretty distant memories. Their names are forgotten. What long
range impact did, for example, E. Hooten have on the field, although he
was a powerful man in his day perched as he was in his nest at Harvard?
What do we know about Arthur Keith's contribution besides his constant
sabotaging of Dart's australopithecus data and then perhaps his ultimate
humiliation - the Piltdown fraud - after which he did the only polite thing
under the circumstances: he died.

It seems to me that Physical Anthropology tried to move on rather quietly
into the new human variation paradigm, trying let the old views die out
without much discussion. As most of you know, it is not so easy to discuss
early anthropological views on race with some people even today. A certain
barrier and defensiveness remains. Very few Physical Anthro texts that I
have seen - and I have seen a good many - deal with any of the early views
in anything but the most cursory manner if at all. If Ralph Holloway knows
what I am talking about when I mentioned Hooten and eugenics, not many
other people do. The overwhelming majority of my students have never heard
of the word until I bring it up in class and even colleagues are generally
not particularly knowledgeable. And yet 75 years ago, that word was on
alot of people's lips - and it permeated not just Anthropology but Pyschology,
Psychiatry, Medicine, Law even Economics and Sociology.

I guess what I am looking for is a serious study that looks at these
historic changes and puts them in some perspective both within the framework
of Anthro's history and as a part of US socio-cultural history as well. From
my perspective, whatever positive qualities it had, Pat Shipman's book did
not really address what I think to be as these deeper questions. Perhaps
Lee Baker's book - if it ever gets published - will give us
some insights.

Enough, there is still skiing to do in the mountains before Monday.

Rob Prince