Reply to Peter Frost (part 5): anthropology as the science of race

In discussing the history of anthropology, Sarich and Miele (in Race: The Reality of Human Differences) find it useful to:
highlight three critical junctures in which science, politics, and personality interacted: the disputes between Ernst Haeckel and Rudolf Virchow, between Franz Boas and Madison Grant, and finally between Carleton Coon and Ashley Montagu.
Of the two cases that played out in America, both involve race-denialist Jewish immigrants opposing "northeastern WASPs" with colonial roots (Coon's ancestry is 3/4 colonial New England and 1/4 Cornish; all of Grant's ancestors were in America before 1790, at least half of Grant's ancestry can be traced back to New England).

Darwinism in Britain, whether in the early days or today, has fo­cused on individuals, with groups emerging from them. British evolutionism has always had the shopkeeper’s sober obsession with keeping a good set of books. In Germany, however, Darwin­ ism took on a collectivist, romantic tone. There the great apostle of Darwin, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1913), imbued the theory of nat­ural selection with the spirit of German Romanticism. [. . .]

Haeckel and all he came to champion were opposed by his former professor, the distinguished biologist Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902). The conflict between them was both personal and political. The two men were polar opposites in appearance, ancestry, and tempera­ ment. Haeckel was tall, blond, German in name and appearance, with a strong love of the out-of-doors, and a generalist looking for one grand theory to account for everything. Virchow, whose name and appearance betrayed a Slavic ancestry, was a detail man and a pedantic laboratory taskmaster. Haeckel was charismatic and devel­oped a huge, almost religious following; Virchow was respected, even feared, but rarely liked. Haeckel was a strong supporter of the German Volk and Reich; Virchow was a radical advocate of social reform who fought at the barricades in the revolution of 1848. Vir­chow was a member of the German Progressive Party and opposed Bismarck’s policies. The Iron Chancellor, having already dispatched or intimidated earlier opponents with saber or pistol, challenged the professor to a duel. Virchow declined— unless they agreed to fight with scalpels. [. . .]

Between 1863 and Virchow’s death in 1902, Haeckel and his former professor clashed at scientific conferences and in print. Haeckel’s evolutionism was progressive, moving from lower to higher forms. Without any physical evidence, Haeckel went out on a limb and predicted fossil hunters would soon discover a crea­ture he dubbed Pithecanthropus, the ape-man or missing link. In­spired by Haeckel’s prediction, one of his disciples, Eugène Dubois, found the fossil he termed Pithecanthropus erectus (now classified as Homo erectus) in Java in 1891. For Virchow this finding entailed pointless speculation. He rejected the fossils, saying they were the result of pathological degeneration. As his repugnance grew at what he saw as the associations and implications of monism, Vir­chow came to reject evolution altogether. Any change in individ­uals or species that could be observed rather than hypothesized, he argued, was evidence of degeneration, not progress. [. . .]


When Galton died in 1911, eugenics was widely accepted not only in Britain and Germany but in the United States as well. Raymond Pearl, professor of biology at Johns Hopkins University (then a supporter of eugenics but later an opponent), noted that by 1912, “eugenics was catching on to an extraordinary degree with radical and conservative alike.” [. . .]

At the start of the twentieth century, most American anthropologists came from wealthy Brahmin families and were educated at Harvard University. They were solidly in the eugenics camp, agreeing with Galton on both individual and race differences. And then, as one author put it, Along Came Boas. His name is hardly a household word, but it is no exaggeration to say that Franz Boas (1858-1942) remade American anthropology in his own image. Through the works of his students Margaret Mead (Coming of Age in Samoa and Sex and Temperament in Three Soci­eties), Ruth Benedict (Patterns of Culture), and Ashley Montagu (innumerable titles, especially the countless editions of Man’s Most Dangerous Myth), Boas would have more effect on American intellectual thought than Darwin did. For generations, hardly anyone graduated from an American college or university with­ out having read at least one of these books. They all drew their inspiration from Boas’s The Mind of Primitive Man.

Franz Boas came from a German Jewish home, steeped in the “sentiment of the barricades” of the 1848 revolutions that swept across Europe. He originally obtained his doctorate in physics but later turned to geography. After fieldwork with the Greenland Es­ kimos, he took up anthropology— Virchow’s brand, not Haeckel’s. Virchow, in the words of one biographer, “had perhaps the greatest influence on Boas.” [. . .]

Appointed chairman of the department at Columbia University in 1899, Boas transformed anthropology from the leisure study of a few well-to-do WASPs into a highly credentialed discipline that pumped out Ph.D.’s. By 1915 his students had a two-thirds con­ trolling majority on the executive board of the American Anthropological Association. In 1919, Boas could boast that “most of the anthropological work done at the present time in the United States” came from his former students at Columbia. By 1926 they headed every major department of anthropology in America.

Before Boas, anthropology was the study of race. After Boas, anthropology in America became the study of culture, defined as “personality writ large,” [. . .]

Like his mentor Virchow, Boas was skeptical of evolutionary explanations, genetic or cultural. He even entertained a sympa­ thy for Lamarckism. What turned him into the godfather of cul­tural determinism in America, however, was the growing popular appeal and political power of the eugenics and anti-immigration movements. [. . .]

Franz Boas was a dark-haired Jewish immigrant from a leftist milieu, educated at German universities steeped in the ideals of the Enlightenment. Madison Grant, an archetypal Nordic, was a lawyer turned amateur biologist and a pillar of America’s WASP establishment. Grant claimed that his fellow American Nordics were committing racial suicide, allowing themselves to be “el­ bowed out” of their own land by ruthless, self-interested Jewish immigrants, who were behind the campaign to discredit racial re­ search. Yogi Berra’s words would have been apt: “It was déjà vu all over again.” Haeckel’s monism had driven Virchow from skepti­ cism into rejecting biological evolution. Nativist, proeugenic, elitist tracts such as Grant’s drove Boas from skepticism into re­ jecting the evolutionary perspective on culture and even linguis­ tics (which he had earlier advocated).

In his book In Search of Human Nature (1991), which is subti­ tled The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought, Degler concluded that Boas’s substitution of cultural for genetic determinism was not the result of

a disinterested, scientific inquiry into a vexed if controversial ques­ tion. Instead, his idea derived from an ideological commitment that began in his early life and academic experiences in Europe and continued in America to shape his professional outlook. To as­sert that point is not to say that he fudged or manufactured his evi­dence against the racial interpretation—for there is no sign of that. But, by the same token, there is no doubt that he had a deep inter­est in collecting evidence and designing arguments that would rebut or refute an ideological outlook— racism—which he consid­ered restrictive upon individuals and undesirable for society.

Coon vs. Montagu:

The Boasians were outsiders. Papa Franz and many of his stu­dents were Jews, though “the preponderance of Jewish intellectu­als in the early years of Boasian anthropology and the Jewish identities of anthropologists in subsequent generations has been downplayed in standard histories of the discipline.” Some, like Boas himself, were immigrants to boot. Montagu was born Israel Ehrenberg in the working-class East End district of London, En­gland. He was so leery of anti-Semitism (“If you’re brought up as a Jew, you know that all non-Jews are anti-Semitic . . . It’s a good working hypothesis”) that he reinvented himself as Montague Francis Ashley-Montagu from London’s well-to-do West End fi­nancial district, complete with a posh public school accent. When he came to the United States, Montagu played the role of the British headmaster, lecturing American audiences before a re­ceptive media on the foolishness of their prejudices. Later he dropped the hyphen and became simply Ashley Montagu.

Mead and Benedict could point to WASP pedigrees as pure as Madison Grant’s, but Mead was bisexual and Benedict a lesbian. At that time, those sexual orientations were far more stigmatized than they are today. Their sexual preferences are relevant, be­ cause developing a critique of traditional American values was as much a part of the Boasian program in anthropology as was their attack on eugenics and nativism. [. . .]

Whatever their individual origin, the Boasians felt deeply es­tranged from mainstream American society and the male WASP elites they were displacing in anthropology. Gene Weltfish, an­ other student of Boas, epitomized this sense of alienation when she said she felt that her generation had only three choices— go live in Paris, sell The Daily Worker (the U.S. Communist Party newspaper) on street corners, or study anthropology at Columbia. [. . .]

According to Degler, “Boas almost single-handedly developed in America the concept of culture, which, like a powerful solvent, would in time expunge race from the literature of social science.” In fact, Boas achieved his goal only with help, including a great deal from a most unwelcome source— Hitler and the Holocaust. After World War II, “race” and “eugenics” became very dirty words. The University of London’s Department of Eugenics changed its name to the Department of Genetics; the Eugenics Society became the Galton Institute; the Annals of Eugenics was renamed the Annals of Human Genetics; and Eugenics Quarterly became Social Biology. In 1949 the United Nations Educational, Social, and Cultural Organi­ zation (UNESCO) was called upon to adopt “a program of dissemi­ nating scientific facts designed to remove what is generally known as racial prejudice.” For the drafter of the first UNESCO statement, Ashley Montagu, this was an opportunity to deny the reality of race.


The preliminary match in anthropology’s fight over race was Vir­chow versus Haeckel. Then there was Boas versus Madison Grant. The final match in anthropology’s dispute went the distance. It was almost as lengthy as the names of its participants— Montague Francis Ashley-Montagu versus Carleton Stevens Coon.

Again there was a personal element to the clash. Coon was from a New England family that could trace its roots to colonial times and before that to Cornwall, ancestral home of the leg­ endary King Arthur. Coon was quite proud of his ancestry. Those sympathetic to Coon believed his personal dislike of Montagu was because he thought everyone else should dislike him as well. Why the need to pass oneself off as something one is not? Mon­ tagu, as already noted, had his “good working hypothesis” about non-Jews and anti-Semitism. [. . .]

Coon believed that race was a central issue and his job as an anthropologist was to study race; Montagu felt his was to banish race to the periphery and replace it with the concept of “ethnic group.” He began his effort to have the word “race” replaced by “ethnic group” in his 1942 book, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. When he was selected to draft the initial (1950) UNESCO Statement on Race, Montagu was given a plat­ form from which to present his view to a much larger, non-acade­mic audience. [. . .]

In his autobiography, Adventures and Discoveries, Coon ex­ plained how younger members wanted a special meeting at the 1961 AAPA convention, supposedly to discuss new business but in fact to censure Putnam’s book. [. . .]

Coon asked for a show of hands on how many attendees present had read the book they were about to censure. Only one. Then he asked how many had even heard about it before the ses­ sion. Only a few. Nonetheless, the resolution condemning Race and Reason passed.

In Coon’s words, “The Communists did not need to fight us. They could rot us from within. I could see it all as in a horrid dream.” (Remember, this was 1961 when both the Cold War and the civil rights movement were at their peaks.) He refused to have his name appear on the resolution as president of AAPA and resigned.

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