Anthropologists have a hard life. They are expected to pronounce on matters as varied and as controversial as the utility of marriage and the difference between men and monkeys, and to do so with the scrappiest of information. This is why most of them learn at an early age to tread warily. They learn when it may be safe to advance a new theory of the provenance of a pattern on a broken cooking-pot, and when doing so may antagonize the professionals and bewilder the public. They address themselves to the really controversial issues only with measured delicacy, and repeatedly advertise their fallibility.
Evidently Professor Coon does not belong to this timorous school of cooking-pot anthropologists, for in his latest book professional prudence is thrown to the winds. In one brash swoop he has advanced a doctrine to account for the origin of human races that is at once a startling departure from accepted notions, a daring blend of internal inconsistencies, an offence to the zoologists, and a remarkable demonstration of how to make bricks without straw. In the process he has brought aid and comfort to those who would believe that Negroes are inherently inferior to other races and who will cry federal coercion if James L. Meredith does not flunk.
Coon’s subject is nothing less than the evolution of human beings in the last million years or so, and his particular interest is to see how racial differences in the human population now alive are mirrored by what may be racial differences in the scraps of fossil bone unearthed by archeologists. He follows a recent respectable trend in anthropology by supposing there to have been two distinguishable phases in the evolution of human beings, First came people differing from apes in their capacity to walk erect and from modern men in the size of their brains. These people are called Homo erectus, and are represented by fossil skeletons distributed over most of the Old World. Then came a transformation to more modern man, blessed with the specific name of Homo sapiens. So far, but with intricate qualifications of words such as “transformation,” so good.
The fun starts with the step in the argument at which Coon declares there to be five living human races; that is an act of simplification requiring more than mere courage. To recognize, as Coon does, that there may be anthropometric similarities between modern Chinamen, skeletons of Mongols dead within the last few tens of thousands of years, and the really ancient skeletons of people alive in China half a million years ago, is no great novelty. The shock comes only with his announcement that the five modern races sprang from five races of Homo erectus, and each of them independently “passed a critical threshold from a more brutal state to a more sapient state.” Homo erectus was transformed into Homo sapiens “not once but five times,” says Coon, and then appears in finer print the assertion that the Congoid or Negro races achieved sapient grace only rather late in the day, a mere 40,000 years ago. By then, the argument goes, the Caucasian white, had been sapient for 200,000 years.
No great imagination is needed to see how this conclusion has delighted the theoreticians of apartheid. Professor Wesley C. George of the University of Alabama leans heavily on Coon in a document called The Biology of Race, prepared for the governor of his state. So too does Mr. Carlton Putnam, who specializes in open letters to the President which are then reprinted in Southern newspapers and even as advertisements in The New York Times, with titles such as Race and Reason and Evolution and Race: New Evidence can be had by writing to the Putnam Letters Committee at a Grand Central Station mailing address. In these and other ways the campaign to suggest that race prejudice can be given a scientific foundation goes with a more vigorous swing than it has for many years.
The trouble, of course, is that the doctrine may well be wrong. Specialists disagree with many of Coon’s interpretations of the meaning of particular fossils, but even those who can hardly tell a femur from a tibia must be somewhat astonished by the light-hearted way in which he assigns a leg-bone or a piece of skull to erectus or to sapiens. Zoologists, such as Prof. Th. Dobzhansky, boggle at the demand that they should accept the five-fold repetition of an event as tortuous and improbable as the transformation of erectus into sapiens.
No specialism at all is needed, however, to see the hazards of concepts such as that of the “critical threshold” which Coon supposes there to have been between the two species of Homo, and the dangers of founding elaborate and vivid theories of the origins of races on the few scraps of bone in the museums. To be sure, racial differences may be as ancient as Coon claims, but this does not deny the more conventional view that the pre-human population advanced as a whole from erectus to sapiens (and it has yet to be shown that the distinction between these species is more than a convenient convention). If anthropometric measurements should suggest that erectus lingered on in Africa and Southeast Asia long after sapiens had turned up in Europe, the modest conclusion should be that the measurements are misleading or that the distinction between the two species of Homo is unreal.
This is not to suggest that the book has no value. The anthropologists are apparently delighted with Coon’s painstaking catalogue of fossil skeletons, even if they sometimes disagree with his account of what they mean, while the bibliography alone must be worth ten dollars to people working in the field. In themselves these virtues might suffice to earn the book a reputation as a work of scholarship marred only by wild speculation, though this may be more difficult because of the way in which a racy style seems frequently to carry the author away.
Occasionally, indeed, he seems to have a lewd preoccupation with his subject. There are, for example, the eleven skulls found at Ngandong in Java. Four of these are female skulls and some of them had been badly scarred before death. Coon volunteers that “their social life seems to have been active, and S1 may have been particularly popular.” Verbal nudges and winks of this kind are scattered through the book in a most unscholarly way.
Thus it is that Professor Coon may become a kind of Herman Kahn of anthropology, remembered for a great thick book distinguished most by its tactlessness. It will be no surprise if he does not have soon to take to print again to explain what he really meant to say. Since much of the confusion he has created turns on the meanings assigned to words, it should not be difficult for him to rejoin the ranks of orthodoxy. Yet it would be over-generous to think that Coon’s present book could be innocently tactless. The uses that would be made of it were, after all, entirely predictable. These are circumstances which compel responsible authors to pay the most meticulous attention to the possibility that they may be wrong.
February 1, 1963