Carleton S Coon

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Carleton Stevens Coon, (23 June 19043 June 1981) was an American physical anthropologist best remembered for his books on race, often cited as definitive examples of "scientific racism", and the academic scandal that followed him later on in life.

Carleton Coon was born in Wakefield, Massachusetts to an old Yankee family. His strong personality manifested itself early when he flooded his local highschool's basement and was thrown out. At roughly the same time his interest in prehistory and his prodiguous skill in mastering it also became apparent — by the time that Coon transferred to Philips Andover he was studying hieroglyphs and by the time he had also developed an excellent facility with Greek. Coon went on to study at Harvard, where he began to study Egyptology with G.A. Reisner. However he, like many students, was swayed to the study of anthropology by Earnest Hooton and he graduated magna cum laude in 1925. Coon continued on in Harvard, making the first of many trips to North Africa in 1925 to conduct fieldwork in the Rif area of Morocco, which was still politically unsettled after a rebellion of the local populace against the Spanish. He earned his Ph.D. in 1928 and returned to Harvard as a lecturer and later a professor. His work from this period included a 1939 rewrite of William Z. Ripley's 1899 The Races of Europe. The book relied on an extremely typological view of race which was, even in its time, becoming seen as very much out of date.

Coon was a colorful character who both undertook adventuresome exploits and like his mentor Earnest Hooton he wrote widely for a general audience. He published several novels and fictionalized accounts of his trips to North Africa, including The Riffians, Flesh of the Wild Ox, Measuring Ethiopia, and A North Africa Story: The Anthropologist as OSS Agent. This last book was an account of his work during World War II, which involved espionage and the smuggling of arms to French resistance groups in German-occupied Morocco under the guise of anthropological fieldwork, a practice generally condemned by working anthropologists today, in the context the 21st century science ethics.

In 1948 Coon left Harvard to take up a position as Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, which had an excellent museum attached to it. Throughout the 1950s he produced a series of academic papers, as well as many popular books for the general reader, the most notable being The Story of Man (1954). Coon's own interest was in attempting to use Darwin's theory of natural selection to explain the differing physical characteristics of various racial groups.

In 1962 he published his magnum opus The Origins of Race. Unfortunately for Coon physical anthropology had changed greatly since his time as an undergraduate at Harvard. Contemporary researchers such as Sherwood Washburn and Ashley Montagu were heavily influenced by the modern synthesis in biology and population genetics, as well as a Boasian revolt against typological racial thinking. The human species was now seen as a continuous serial progression of populations rather than the five parallel genetically distinct races. Coon's hypothesis that modern humans, Homo sapiens, arose five separate times from Homo erectus in five separate places, "as each subspecies, living in its own territory, passed a critical threshold from a more brutal to a more sapient state", thus providing origins in deep time for his five races of mankind, no longer has wide currency among scholars, and his using this to rank different races struck many commentators of resembling the scientific racism of the early twentieth century (one page in Coon's book contrasted a picture of an Australian aborigine called "Topsy" with a Chinese professor, and was captioned "The Alpha and the Omega"). See Multi-regional origin for a discussion of theories of this type.

Furthermore, the 1960s were a controversial time for racial theories, and Coon's cousin Carleton Putnam suggested that Coon's work, among others, justified racial segregation. Coon stepped down as President of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in disgust after the association voted to censure Putnam's book Race and Reason: A Yankee view.

Coon continued to write and defend his work. He died on June 3, 1981, in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Works by Carleton S. Coon

The Origin of Races (1962)

The Story of Man (1954)

The Races of Europe (1939)

Races: A Study of the Problems of Race Formation in Man

The Hunting Peoples

Living Races of Man (1965)

Seven Caves: Archaeological Exploration in the Middle East

Adventures and Discoveries: The Autobiography of Carleton S. Coon (1981)

Mountains of Giants: A Racial and Cultural Study of the North Albanian Mountain Ghegs

Yengema Cave Report (his work in Sierra Leone)

Caravan: the Story of the Middle East (1958). A North Africa Story (1980)


Coon's legacy may be rehabilitated because discoveries of a hybrid Sapiens-Neanderthal child in Western Portugal in 1999 attest that Erectus and Sapiens did in fact hybrdize and that Multiregional hypothesis of whuch Coon was a proponent may in fact be solidly grounded.


"It is the retention by twentieth-century, Atom-Age men of the Neolithic point of view that says: You stay in your village and I will stay in mine. If your sheep eat our grass we will kill you, or we may kill you anyhow to get all the grass for our own sheep. Anyone who tries to make us change our ways is a witch and we will kill him. Keep out of our village." —The Story of Man, 1954, page 376

Further reading and sources

  • The Hybrid Child from Portugal [1]
  • Hybrid Humans? Archaeological Institute of America Volume 52 Number 4, July/August 1999 by Spencer P.M. Harrington [2]
  • Races of Europe by Carleton Coon 1939 [3]
  • Carleton Steven Coons, 23 June 1904 - 3 June 1981 (obituary). 1989. W.W. Howells in Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, v.58 108-131.
  • Two Views of Coon's Origin of Races with Comments by Coon and Replies. 1963. Theodosius Dobzhansky; Ashley Montagu; C. S. Coon in Current Anthropology, Vol. 4, No. 4. (Oct., 1963), pp. 360-367.

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