In response to:
Man and Superman from the February 3, 1966 issue
To the Editors:
Edmund Leach’s review of my book The Living Races of Man in your February 3 number is inaccurate and silly. He says, for example: “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.”
The photographic supplement contains 183 photographs, not 128. None of the persons depicted have haircuts that could not be found on allegedly civilized individuals in London today. If we add conservative to civilized, we find only 15 unusual coiffures, nine of which are on Caucasoid heads and not one on a non-Caucasoid African. As for shirt-sleeves, the upper body is clothed in all but 35 pictures, and in most of these only the face, neck, and portions of the upper chest are showing. Bare female breasts appear in seven, mostly inhabitants of warm regions. Only four are bare-arsed: one Negrito baby whose mother is fully clothed; two pictures of Andamanese; and one of a Hottentot.
Even if Professor Leach’s statement were true, what difference would it make? His argument reminds one of people who propose to put clothing on nude statues.
Aside from scanning the pictures there is no evidence that he read the book except for a few pages of the introduction. Otherwise he could not have failed to see the chapters of genetics and physiology, or to have known that I did not discuss mental agility or musical capacity. His quotation of a sentence from The Origin of Races could not have been taken from the book itself, but only from Montagu’s book, because he repeats Montagu’s error in citing the page. It is not on page 656, as both Montagu and Leach state, but on page 657. This mistake makes a critical difference. Page 656 is about Africa, page 657 about mankind in general. Also Leach’s innuendo that I may have cribbed my ideas about racial classification from the lecture of John Augustine Smith delivered in 1809 is false and misleading. I had never before heard of either Smith mentioned in the review.
His main argument against the pursuit of racial studies is that since everyone belongs to a race, and each person secretly or openly considers his own race superior to all others, all writers on race are therefore “racists” and works such as mine a waste of time. By the same token, Professor Leach participates in a culture, secretly or openly considers that culture superior to all others, and is thus a “culturist.” By his logic, his earlier works, which I have been quoting and recommending for many years as models of procedure and objectivity in cultural anthropology, are also a waste of time. I cannot bring myself to believe that they are and shall go on recommending them.
Carleton S. Coon
Edmund R Leach replies:
The issues are so contentious that it is almost impossible to offer criticism without appearing to imply hostility. The point I sought to make that the making of taxonomies is “a waste of time” unless the resulting classification will provoke illuminating questions is a very general one. It has its negative side in that any particular taxonomy tends to inhibit the asking of various kinds of possibly interesting questions. I would criticize all systems of human race classification on both these grounds, namely that by cutting up the human cake into slices as it were they tend to inhibit the asking of precisely those questions about humanity which might be most interesting.
I readily accept the point made at the end of Professor Coon’s letter. As an Englishman speaking English I am a highly prejudiced person who finds it extremely difficult not to believe my English culture is superior to all others. I would on this account deplore any attempt to set up a worldwide classification of cultures on precisely the same grounds that I object to a classification of human races. My writings have been quite consistent on this point since one of the main themes in my anthropological writing has been that the tribal distinctions of ordinary ethnographic literature tend to inhibit precisely the kind of inquiries which are most interesting. This is the main theme of my book Political Systems of Highland Burma.
Although my criticism of Professor Coon’s photographs was exaggerated in its condensation, the point I made is one which I would adhere to. Since the book is concerned with physical anthropology in a strict sense, that is with human beings as physical animals unmodified by culture, the only fair kind of visual comparison would be a set of posed photographs in which the individuals concerned are in the nude with similar haircuts and posed in similar positions. As a student of culture, I am well aware of how tremendously prejudiced people can be about small differences of appearance. In Borneo for example, where the different tribes distinguish themselves by their haircuts, it would be easy to select photographs which would convince the unsuspecting layman that a Kayan was of entirely different “race” from an Iban. Professor Coon himself would not support such an argument; nevertheless by exhibiting photographs in which “Congoids” are naked while “Caucasoids” are clothed, seems to me to lend quite unjustifiable support to the thesis which runs through both his books that Caucasoids are a more developed subspecies of humanity than are Congoids. Had his Europeans been posed naked this impression would not have been given.
The rest of Professor Coon’s letter is surely simply polemic. I have read his earlier work; I did not check Professor Montagu’s page reference; I did not imply that the new book discusses “mental agility and musical capacity,” but only that these are factors which may be worth classifying for some purposes—though they are no more likely to demonstrate the descendants of the “original races of mankind” than are Professor Coon’s own criteria. I did not suppose that Professor Coon was familiar with the work of John Augustine Smith; my point rather was that the illusion that some men are by nature “more brutal” than others is a very ancient dogma and that Professor Coon’s modern-dress version of the story suffers from all the defects of prejudice which have been embedded in the argument right from the start.
March 17, 1966