Re: Coon and the Middle East

karl h schwerin (schwerin@UNM.EDU)
Wed, 29 Nov 1995 14:02:52 -0700

On Thu, 23 Nov 1995, Ralph L Holloway wrote:

> On Thu, 23 Nov 1995, Rob Prince wrote:
> > As for Pat Shipman's book, from my perspective, what a disappointment. She
> > turns racism on its head, especially in the last half the book when she
> > tries to make Coon into a kind of martyr facing the wrath of overzealous
> > 'politically correct' liberal minded anthros making up for a half century
> > of having been silent about racism in anthropology. As they say, gimme a break
>snip< .
> I will never forget aas a graduate
> student, standing in one of the book stores in Berkeley looking at Coon's
> Origins of Races and wanting to buy the book because it had so much
> information on all of the fossil hominids, and I was saturated with Boule
> and Vallois's book. Behind me is Dr. Sherwood Washburn voicing his
> opinion that it was a terrible book and that I would be well advised to
> avoid it... Ditto for Ashley Montague's Textbook on Physical
> Anthropology.(Both were (are) ardent belittlers of Coon). This was in the
> early '60's, and Washburn was at that time one of my mentors. That was my
> first introduction as a grad student to the politics in PA.
> Ralph Holloway
While Ralph was a protege of Washburn at Berkeley, I was a T.A. for Joe
Birdsell at UCLA. Birdsell was equally critical about Coon's book, but
principally, as I recall, because its thesis had been taken up by a newly
initiated eugenics journal which used it to support *their* racist
views. (If I recall correctly after 30 years, it was "The Mankind
Quarterly"). So it wasn't so much that Coon was being a racist himself,
as that his *arguments* were being exploited to that end.

What is particularly ironic about Birdsell's distress is that he had earlier
co-authored with Coon and Stanley Garn what was at the time considered to
be the definitive study on "race." (Carleton S. Coon; Stanely M. Garn U
Joseph B. Birdsell. 1950. Races...A study of the problems of race
formation in man. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas). It is actually a
pretty fascinating discussion, as they attempt to explain some of the
physical features of "race" as representing adaptations to environmental
conditions - partial albinism among Northwest Europeans (Nordic blondes)
an adaptation to cool, damp and particularly cloudy conditions thus
facilitating vitamin D production. Dark pigmentation, helical and
spiral hair and thickened tissues a response to intense solar radiation
in the tropics (both Africa and the Indo-Pacific regions - the Americas
hadn't adapted yet because of the relatively recent occupation of the
American tropics by humans, though they do cite the Indians of Texas,
Southern California and the Southwest as being somewhat more deeply
pigmented than most); most characteristic Mongoloid features representing
adaptation through severe selection pressure to extreme glacial conditions
when a population was (hypothetically) trapped in northeast Asia during
the last glacial advance. They also had some interesting suggestions
about the impact of high protein diets, where meat (buffalo in the
Plains, guanaco on the pampas) produced large-bodied types (seemingly
replicated among contemporary N. American populations where a high meat
diet is
correlated with increasing body size among subsequent generations).
Opposed to this are "Mediterranean" types (Mediterranean in the Old
World, American Indian Central in the New World), characterized by small
faces, prominent noses, small jaws, often small toothed; with medium to
small extremities associated with a diet based on grains. Likewise the
diet based on polished white rice in East and Southeast Asia was
connected with their shortness of stature.

CG&B concluded by characterizing 30 "races" derived from "(1)
_Evolutionary status_, as reflected in differences in tooth and jaw size,
skull thickness, brow-ridge size, and the presence or absence of archaic
features. A number of races show considerable internal variability on
this scale. (2) _Body build_, as reflecting special adaptations to
deserts, mountains, heat, cold. (3)_Special surface featurres_, such as
black skin, flat faces, etc., which appear to be adaptations to heat,
light, and cold. This might be called a functional classification"
(1950:115). While their scheme may appear outdated today, to their
credit CG&B made no attempt to characterize 'pure' races, and in fact,
several of their categories represented recent *hybrid* populations:
North American Colored, South African Colored, Ladino, Polynesian and

Coon may have taken unpopular positions, and was probably sometimes
wrong, but he was always provocative and his ideas sometimes stimulated
further research. Though perhaps just as often he was ignored.

Along another line, he earlier tried (1948. A reader in general anthropology.
New York: Henry Holt) to develop a classificatory system for human
societies using a quantitative measure of complexity in which he examines
a whole range of phenomena (Appendix. 1948:563-614), including
symbols, energy, the division of labor, learning and teaching, mating,
sharing, leading and deciding, trading; rules, regulations,
ethics, standards; institutions etc. He concludes, however,
with four basic criteria for judging levels of complexity (1948:612):
"(a) The specialization of individuals, (b) Amount of consumer
goods obtained by trade, (c) Number of institutions to which an
individual may belong, (d) Complexity of institutions."

Karl Schwerin SnailMail: Dept. of Anthropology
Univ. of New Mexico Albuquerque, NM 87131

Much charitable endeavor is motivated by an unconscious
desire to peer into lives that one is glad to be unable
to share. . . . . Edward Sapir