Carleton Coon was a great anthropologist. He was also one of the earliest victims of political correctness.
Born in Massachusetts in 1904, he received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from Harvard. He led field expeditions across much of the world and was a professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania from 1948 to 1963.
Anthropology is usually divided into two broad categories. Cultural anthropologists study the different cultures of existing and extinct human societies, seeking to understand how cultures arise and change over time.
Physical anthropologists delve into the origins of the human species, primarily seeking out fossils of our ancestors to determine how our species — Homo sapiens — arose from earlier creatures.
Coon worked both sides of the street, combining studies of fossil pre-humans with studies of varying human cultures.
I first became aware of his work by reading a book he wrote for the general public, “The Story of Man” (Alfred A. Knopf; 1954). This was essentially a history of the human race, not as an historian would write it, but as only an anthropologist could. Coon’s book dealt not with wars and conquests, but with the steadily growing ability of human beings to acquire and use constantly more powerful sources of energy. Instead of writing about kings and politicians, Coon wrote in the book’s introduction:
“I shall approach history with the tools of the anthropologist: human biology, archeology, and the study of living cultures, particularly those of ‘primitive’ men.”
While much of Coon’s book has been overtaken by six decades of new information and ideas, when I first read “The Story of Man” it opened my eyes to who we are, and why we behave the way we do. For me, it was a seminal book.
Coon was particularly interested in the question of how — and why — humankind consists today of different races. He identified five major racial groups among modern humans: Negro/Pygmy, Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Bushmen and Australoid/Negrito. These classifications are mostly obsolete today, but Coon used them to examine how the environment in which people exist affects their skin color and their physical bodies, as well as the cultures they develop to survive and flourish.
He hit upon the idea that the human race did not originate in one place and time, and then split apart into different races. Coon believed that human types arose in several different times and places, and are today merging into one, single, unified species: a species beyond racial differences.
Not only was this an unorthodox concept among his fellow anthropologists, it became anathema in the midst of the passions of the social revolutions of the 1960s.
Orthodox anthropological thinking is that Homo sapiens arose from earlier hominid species in eastern Africa and migrated out of Africa, into Asia, Europe, the Americas and Australia and the islands of the Pacific.
In the troubled sixties, with Vietnam War protests, the civil rights movement and other causes flaming across America, Coon’s ideas were seen as blatant racism. He was literally drummed out of his position at the University of Pennsylvania. Whether he was right or wrong didn’t matter; he was unpopular.
Coon took it all with reasonable grace. I had the good fortune to meet him in the mid-1970s; he was a jovial and extremely likable man. He died in 1981.
But was he right? Did our human species really originate in several different locations around the world?
The standard theory is still that we began as one species, in Africa, and spread across the world, dividing into different races as we moved into different climes.
Still, there are a lot of unanswered questions about our origins. Every now and then a new discovery brings up doubt about whether the prevailing theory tells the entire story.
Right or wrong, Coon never seemed to me to be a racist. He was an eminent scientist, and the conclusions he reached were based on what he considered to be solid evidence.
Even in science, though, convictions based on emotions can sometimes overwhelm the facts. Eventually, though, the evidence wins through and emotional objections are set aside.
Will it be that way with Carleton Coon’s ideas of our origin? Time — and more evidence — will tell.
Bova’s latest novel is “Leviathans of Jupiter.” His website is www.benbova.com.