Re: More Coon et al

Ralph L Holloway (rlh2@COLUMBIA.EDU)
Sun, 26 Nov 1995 16:46:20 -0500

I think Rob Prince's reflections are pretty accurate regarding the basic
undercurrent of "classical physical anthropology" and its occupation (if
not preoccupation) with biological differences within and between various
human groups. I am not sure the book that Rob wants is out there yet, but
I do know that an Encyclopedia of History of Phys Anthro is on the way,
edited by Frank Spencer. I know as I will have a chapter in it on the brain.
This thread (and please do correct me if I am mistaken) started by
someone asking about Coon's book on the Middle East. As I recall, I
reacted to the charge of him being a racist when the person asking was
told that they shouldn't bother reading Coon's Middle East book 'cause he
was regarded as a racist. Wasn't it then Ruby who declared that she had
been taught just that back in the late 'thirties when she was a graduate
student here in NY? To this very moment, and despite perhaps two direct
calls for evidence of Coon's racism in the Middle East book , we have had
conflicting personal testimonials regarding Coon's bigotry or lack of it,
and the prior assertion remains unanswered. To me., this smacks strongly
of thought policing, as did Ruby's post regarding Dr. Franklin and her
work in crystallography and breaking the pattern of DNA regularities thru
diffraction, as if this too were some devilish male plot to deny women
their equality. What had Coon written back in the late 'thirties that
provoked the academic community in NYC to teach that Coon was a racist?
My own education was ironic in this context. I first encountered
Physical Anthropology as an undergraduate Geology major at the University
of New Mexico where I was trying to recoup my academic senses after 3 1/2
years of engineering studies. My first teacher was Dr. Harry Baseheart
who taught osteology and statistical methods, and our text was Hotten's
"Up From the Ape". Harryu Baseheart was Harvard educated and took his
physical anthro from Coon. Baseheart was a cultural anthropologist who
specialized on the SW Indians (I want to say Navaho, but I'm not certain,
because I think Nibs Hill did that group). It never entered my mind (did
I have one in those days?) that Hooten was a "racist", and Up From the
Ape has a lot of contradictory stuff in it regarding racial differences.
It's damn interesting reading, even today, and their hasn't been a
physical anthropology textbook yet with that level of erudition, even if
a lot of it was half-baked '30's and '40's PA. You can still go to its
pages and learn something about the actual biology of human variation,
and something about the endicrine system, eTc. Furthermore, Hooten wrote
with zip and warmth.
It is worth remembering that Hooten trained most of the physical
anthropologists of SL Washburn's generation in the US. A good source for
this can be found in Frank Spencer's "History of Physical
Anthropology,1930-1980".1982, NY: Academic Press. My very first encounter
with Washburn was my first semester as a graduate student at Berkeley,
when I met him and he asked my what I was interested in. Like a bufoon, I
said "constitution" and he simply replied that it was so much tommyrot,
or words similar. I was stunned, because Baseheart had pretty well
criticised Sheldon's approach, and I thought that was still something of
potential value in it, but not the psychometric stuff. Work is still
being done in constitution albeit with frameworks more advanced that
Sheldon's stuff, most of it nonsense (Sheldon's).
And here I am again, having read a fair amount of Coon, finding
these charges of his overt racism difficult to place in the context of his
obvious love of human variation and its geographic distribution.
Mike Salovesh comes on and describes his office visit, and its hard to
avoid that "R" label for Coon. But then again, Mike, I grew up in
Philadelphia, and most of my early friends were Jewish, and I received
any number of Goy-Boy jabs, and encountered it in NY as well, where one
would get credit for saying something by a Jewish colleague as"..not bad
for a non-Jew, or " OK for a Goyim".. I'm not at all convinced this stuff
is "racist", but hey, who says any one group has a patent on bigotry?
What is beginning to offend me considerably is the high degree of
political correctness that has come into anthropology in the last
decade, such that every statement becomes a test of whether one is a
a bigot, a sexist of one gender or another, and where basic research into
variability is difficult to entertain unless it is at some "neutral"
molecular level.
And Rob Prince has another good point in his post when he suggests
that by labeling these earlier works as "racist" and thus to be shunned,
we lose essential knowledge about our past roots as professionals, not to
mention the data and analyses themselves. I wonder, whether, as a
profession, we are big enough to avoid the thought policing that seems to
me to becoming more and more common. It's one of the major reasons why
my membership in AAA is suspended (by my choice), and, I believe, why
there is so much hostility between our subdisciplines.
Just musing....
Ralph L. Holloway