Man and Superman

The Living Races of Man

by Carleton S. Coon, by Edward E. Hunt Jr.
Knopf, 344 pp., $10.00

An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species

by Samuel Stanhope Smith, edited by Winthrop D. Jordan
(Reprinted from the second edition of 1810) Harvard, The Belknap Press, 336 pp., $7.50

Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race

by Ashley Montagu
Meridian, 499 pp., $2.65 (paper)

Taxonomy provides one of the oldest and most persistent philosophical problems. Should we assume that the things in the world belong to natural kinds which have existed from the beginning, or should our categories vary according to our special interests? Formal zoologists may feel that since a whale is a mammal it cannot possibly be a fish; mariners might hold that its fishlike aptitudes are entirely obvious. Communication between the two sides is very difficult. Much of the argument about human races is like that and things have been that way for nearly two centuries. The persistence of such cross-talk is especially unfortunate because in the case of human classification, true objectivity is quite impossible. If Professor X maintains that human beings fall into n natural kinds (races) then one of those races contains Professor X himself. Professor X is then bound to believe that, in some perhaps not very clearly defined way, that particular race is superior to all others. In short, Professor X becomes almost without knowing it a “racist” in the most derogatory sense.

One of the very early proponents of the view that the varieties of man are so different from one another as to be virtually distinct species was a certain John Augustine Smith who, in a lecture delivered in New York in 1809, claimed to demonstrate that the anatomical structure of the European was superior to that of the Asiatic, Indian, and Negro “or at least that it is farther removed from the brute creation.” In 1962, amid a formidable apparatus of non-science, Processor Coon advanced an almost identical theory, only substituting Bushman for Indian and throwing in the Australian Aborigenes for good measure. Coon’s formula was: “Homo Erectus evolved into Homo Sapiens not once but five times, as each sub-species, living in its own territory, passed a critical threshold from the more brutal to the more sapient state.” In Coon’s system the Negro (Congoid) is apparently even now “more brutal” than the European (Caucasoid) because he evolved later into Homo Sapiens. This particular passage from Coon’s The Origin of Races (1962, p. 656) has been the object of much derisive comment (see e.g., Montagu, supra, Chapter 4). The Living Races of Man is a sequel to the earlier book and takes its argument as proven. Since Coon explicitly denies adherence to “any dogma, cause, emotion, personal interest or preconceived idea” we must conclude that his repetition of Dr. Smith’s phraseology is just another case of independent and convergent evolution! Like any good Jesuit, Professor Coon cites his scientific authorities in profusion; must be most comforting to find that all the new evidence so consistently supports his 150-year-old hypothesis. His book is a mine of heavily interpreted (or misinterpreted?) information, but he is scrupulous in indicating his sources. Any skeptic can always look up the original; alternatively he can seek his information from some other more frankly prejudiced expert such as Professor Montagu.

The Dr. Smith who pronounced on …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.

Letters

Prejudice March 17, 1966