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 the brutality of Negroes and the multiple genesis of mankind was the contemporary and opponent of the Rev. Samuel Stanhope Smith, President of Princeton. The latter believed passionately in the natural unity of Man on strictly theological grounds. He did not delude himself into thinking that he ought on that account to treat the Negro as his social equal, but, even so, in order to defend himself against the attacks of his namesake, he was forced to develop a surprisingly modern style of cultural relativism. He remarked that children of “White” families captured by Indians and reared to an Indian way of life became almost indistinguishable from Indians. Smith’s inference was not that our racial judgments are really based on social and cultural criteria but rather that genuine racial attributes can adapt rapidly to their environment. He also claimed that Negro servants in White households were coming to look more and more like their White masters. He predicted that as a result of further improvement they would ultimately become White! The paradox is plain. Smith was prepared to affirm as a matter of dogma that the human species is a unity capable of rapid modification, but he felt quite satisfied that, as things now stand, human races form a hierarchy with White men at the top and Black men at the bottom. President Smith can hardly be defended as an outstanding scientist but many of the views that he advanced are advocated today (for quite different reasons) not only by Professor Montagu, who is primarily an anatomist, but also by a wide spectrum of biologists and genetically orientated physical anthropologists for whom he here stands as spokesman. They too believe in the unity of the species and its continuing adaptive plasticity and sometimes they too, even if unwittingly, are inclined to write as if the only solution to the black man’s problems is that he should get himself a white skin. This last comment does not apply to Montagu himself but it does apply to a number of eminent authorities who might ordinarily be expected to hold liberal opinions (see e.g., Montagu, supra, p. 229).


Man’s Most Dangerous Myth was first published in 1942 and each of the three subsequent editions has been radically revised. It remains a splendid piece of liberal polemic but in the course of developing a two-sided battle against the illusions of popular prejudice on the one hand and the delusions of the “scientific” racists on the other the book has become tougher to read and rather out of balance. It remains a marvelous source book—the bibliography alone now runs to sixty pages—but the reader of this review who wants to understand just why he should not accept Professor Coon’s persuasively lucid arguments would do better to look elsewhere, in particular to a collection of essays edited by Professor Montagu himself and published under the title The Concept of Race (The Free Press of Glencoe, 1964).

Needless to say the whole matter is very complicated. Taxonomists of the human species have varying interests and proceed from different premises. If you set out to classify men into groups the result will depend upon the criteria you use. Unsophisticated laymen naturally go by what they can directly observe. Secular racial theory relies heavily on such attributes as language, skin color, hair form, gesture, and general appearance. It is to Professor Coon’s discredit that he should seek to support his purportedly scientific classification with 128 photographs in which the Caucasians are posed in shirt sleeves and “civilized” hair-cuts whereas most of his other categories appear as bare-arsed savages. As propaganda this may be effective; as science it is indefensible. Professional physical anthropologists, because of their links with archaeology and their interest in human origins have traditionally laid stress on the criteria which their skeletal evidence provides—e.g., skull shape, limb form, peculiarities of dentition. Geneticists, who are scientists in an altogether more sophisticated sense, concern themselves with characters which are mostly quite inaccessible to direct observation, such as the chemistry of the blood, taste responses, resistance to particular diseases. It is perfectly right that scholars should investigate all these characteristic ways in which men may differ from one another. They can also properly study many other variables—e.g., mental agility, musical capacity, physical endurance. But the fundamental error, which is shared both by unsophisticated laymen and by professionals of Professor Coon’s way of thinking, is to suppose that these various styles of classification can somehow be superimposed so as to produce an end result which is a true set of natural kinds—the original races of Mankind. Professor Montague calls this the “omelet conception of race” and he affirms that it is meaningless because it is inapplicable to anything real. I myself would not denounce it for quite this reason. A great many other classifications, including the fundamental ones of geometry, do not correspond to “anything real.” My objection is on the different ground that this view of race is utterly useless for any purpose whatsoever except as ammunition for deplorable political causes. That being so, and despite all his protestations of sincerity, I judge Professor Coon’s volume to be a total waste of time.

Let me end this sour review on a not of commendation. The production and editing of the reprint of President Smith’s essay is a model of what such things should be. For anyone interested in the history of scientific thought at the end of the eighteenth century the volume is a veritable gold mine.

This Issue

February 3, 1966