Since its publication last fall, Carleton Coon's Origin of Races has been the subject of bitter, continuous attack. His critics have called him a racist, hinted that he was probably a Nazi, and have denounced his work as a return to obsolete, misleading anthropological techniques.
At the same time, the book has been praised by several eminent men. Ernst Mayr, Louis Aggasiz Professor of Zoology, has called the book a "milestone" of anthropological investigation. Professors George Gaylord Simpson and William W. Howells, although more reserved in their approval, have also received the book favorably.
The conflicting views of the critics indicate disagreement on Coon's interpretation of the fossil material, and also the depth of the emotional response of any individual, even of an objective scientist, to a book of this kind.
Scientific issues involving race are confused, both by the personal biases of the investigators, and by the inconsistencies and inaccuracies which surround scientific notions of the subject. In the 200 years since races were first studied, no one has been able to provide an adequate definition of "race." Many have been proposed. Skin color and hair texture were among the first racial criteria; head shape, height, and a myriad of other traits were added later, until the number of different races became cumbersomely large.
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Later, races were defined according to "types." There were the blond Nordic type, the dark Spanish type, the Semitic, Negro, and Mongoloid type. But individuals who differed markedly from the type--dark-haired Scandinavians, for instance--could not adequately be classed under this system, and the type system was eventually rejected.
In time, investigators became more cautious, and more obscure. Races were local populations, or subspecies, smaller groupings of men which had become sufficiently isolated from other groups to evolve in specialized ways. Often, the changes were simply alterations in gene frequencies of the groups: some societies had more blue-eyed, blond people than other societies. Observers disagreed sharply on the number of populations sufficiently differentiated to be called separate races. Learned estimates ranged from two to 200 races.
Problems of racial classification are still unsolved. It is only recently that we have begun to realize how profound many racial differences may be. But even more difficult than enumerating and classifying existing differences is the problem of explaining why these differences arose.
Origins and Adaptation
Coon considers the historical origins of racial differentiation, and also the problem of the adaptive significance of modern racial differences. In both cases his findings are stimulating, but unconvincing. He presents good evidence for the adaptive value of some racial differences; for instance, skin pigmentation decreases the amount of vitamin D produced in the body by sunlight, and this seems important for Negroid peoples living in areas of maximum solar radiation.
Certain other racial differences are less clearly adaptive. It is known that a newborn Negro baby has more advanced bone development than a white baby. The early lead of the Negro continues throughout growth, so that the adult Negro possesses a generally heavier skeleton than the white adult. Also, Negro babies seem to develop motor control more rapidly than white babies. Among Negro adults, there seem to be different endocrine mechanisms regulating body responses to stress.
Essentially, Coon's thesis for the origin of these racial distinctions is simply. Rejecting the conventional concept that races are rather recent--anywhere from several hundred years old to a few tens of thousands of years old--he postulates that racial differentiation took place early along five geographically separate lines. Each of these lines split from a single parent stock, homo erectus, and at different times independently developed into homo sapiens. "Homo erectus, then, evolved into homo sapiens not once but five times, as each subspecies, living in its own territory, passed a critical threshold from a more brutal to a more sapient state."
Coon draws three important conclusions from this theory. The first is that man evolved in different parts of the world separately, but along remarkably parallel lines. Many experts consider this unlikely, but it is certainly not impossible, and there are precedents for this kind of marked parallelism in zoological history. The second conclusion is that the differentiation of races took place much earlier than has been previously supposed. In this hypothesis, Coon seems reasonably justified.
His third conclusion is the most controversial. Coon suggests that the different racial lines became home sapiens at different times; thus, all though the Caucasoid stock became sapient relatively early, Negroes passed the threshold recently--perhaps only 50,000 years ago, or as much as 150,000 years later than Caucasoids. Racists have eagerly misinterpreted this as proof of the "primitiveness" of Negroes, although Coon suggests no such thing. Such an interpretation is disastrously false: there has never been any proof of social differences in intelligence, or mental characteristics of any kind, with the exception of certain non-biological, culturally conditioned aspects of personality. Coon himself does not discuss mental distinctions among races.
Unfortunately, his thesis lends itself to misinterpretation, and to the non-expert the terms in which the evidence is presented can be misleading. Furthermore, as might be expected in any book of its size, there are certain factual errors. Undoubtedly Coon's insistence on a "racial temperament" would not be upheld by a majority of anthropologists. It is too bad that the errors seem to strengthen the racist argument.
For better or worse, the book solves nothing. The fossils are too fragmentary, and the concepts too confused for a definitive study of races at the present time. Yet Coon's book is an important summary of existing evidence, and his theory is important, stimlating and provoking. Regretably he has, through occasionally imprecise statements, provided material for individends whose feelings are farthest from the scientific, open spirit of the book and its author