Montagu, Dobzhansky, Coon,
and the Divergence of Race Concepts
I gave this talk on April 4, 2009 at the Joint Atlantic Seminar for the History of Biology at Drew University.
This is a story of three scientists: the anthropologists Ashley Montagu and Carleton Coon, and the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky. My focus will be on the conceptualizations of human race each espoused, and on the relationships between the three men.
I’m going to begin with a fourth man, though. In 1961, Carleton Putnam published Race and Reason, applying the ideas of racialist anthropologists to the segregationist cause. Putnam was not a scientist—he was an airline executive by profession—but his book was a successful work of popularization and advocacy. The governor of Mississippi declared a “Race and Reason Day.” The Louisiana Board of Education put the book in its high school curriculum. David Duke would later describe it as the “book that would change my life” and “make me realize another scientific viewpoint existed.” Among those who shaped this viewpoint was Putnam’s cousin, the University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Carleton Coon. Coon advised Putnam as he wrote Race and Reason, and was even quoted in it as a “distinguished scientist younger than I am… who is a recognized authority on the subject we are considering.”
Race and Reason also prompted a negative reaction, including resolutions against racism from the American Anthropological Association and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Coon was president of the latter, and resigned for a brief period in protest of the resolution. The next year he published The Origin of Races, a hefty book on human evolution. In addition to its account of hominid fossils, The Origin of Races included an argument that five different “races or subspecies” of Homo erectus had independently evolved into Homo sapiens, and that “the subspecies which crossed the evolutionary threshold into the category of Homo sapiens the earliest have evolved the most.” The “Caucasoid” subspecies became sapient first, while the “Congoids” followed 200,000 years later, or only 50,000 years ago. It was this polygenism, as well as the political uses to which it was put, that prompted Theodosius Dobzhansky to become Coon’s most vociferous critic. Dobzhansky and Coon would debate not only the nature of race, but the mechanisms of evolution and the responsibility of scientists for the political repercussions of their work.
The early 1960s were a pivotal period in the history of scientific racism. The Civil Rights Movement and debates about integration made the work of anthropologists and geneticists relevant to public policy. This increased relevance added fuel to already fiery debates about the nature of race. Although they had been amicable in the decades before, tension between Coon, on the one hand, and Dobzhansky and Montagu, on the other, increased as their ideas about race were mobilized in the debate about integration.
The backdrop for this debate had been set by Ashley Montagu, who enlisted Dobzhansky in his antiracist campaign in the 1940s. Montagu, born Israel Ehrenberg on the East End of London, had a lifelong interest in race. He would later say that he acquired it through two constant childhood experiences—antisemitic bullying, and seeing sailors from all over the world at London’s ports. After studying physical anthropology and anatomy in England, Montagu earned a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Columbia University, where he was supervised by Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, the great anthropological antiracists of earlier generations.
Montagu expressed his antiracism in both academic and popular venues. In 1939, he argued in a letter to the New York Times that racial differences are superficial and that racism could be countered by education in anthropology. In 1941, Montagu announced his belief that race was socially constructed with a paper on “The Meaninglessness of the Anthropological Conception of Race.” The next year, he included the paper in his book Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, which eventually went through six editions.
There was one other key component of Montagu’s antiracism: opposition to the use of the word race itself. In their 1936 book We Europeans, Julian Huxley and A. C. Haddon had argued that “the term race as applied to human groups should be dropped from the vocabulary of science.” Instead, they said, biologists should write of “ethnic groups.” Since Huxley and Haddon didn’t actually define ethnic groups, Montagu did so in Man’s Most Dangerous Myth. Ethnic groups, he wrote, are populations “which individually maintain their differences, physical and cultural, by means of isolating mechanisms such as geographic and social barriers.” The concept of race, in contrast, was “based upon an arbitrary and superficial selection of external characteristics.”
Montagu’s preference for the terminology and concept of ethnic group over that of race formed a major part of his antiracist project. In 1943, for example, he wrote RCA about their marketing of records. He suggested that they use the word ethnic instead of the phrases “Race Entertainment” and “Race Artists” to describe African American music.
It was also in 1943 that Montagu began corresponding with Theodosius Dobzhansky. The next year Dobzhansky suggested that his work on races in Drosophila had implications for human biology, and Montagu proposed that they write something together on the topic of race. The two agreed that contemporary anthropological understandings of race were both deficient and racist, but disagreed about how to solve the problem. Dobzhansky believed that it was possible to ground a new concept of race in population genetics. More immediately, he saw no value in the terminology of ethnic groups. “The only way,” he wrote to Montagu, “is to divest the word race of its emotional contents; and if we biologists can help in this, we shall justify our existence.” He also thought that education in genetics would combat racism, serving much the same role Montagu assigned to anthropological education.
Dobzhansky carried out the approach of teaching first about genetics and then about race in his book Heredity, Race, and Society, which he cowrote with his Columbia colleague L. C. Dunn in 1946. The first four chapters of the book covered human diversity and heredity, while the fifth was on the topic of race. Dobzhansky and Dunn argued that race definitions are often “ideological, not biological,” but again rejected the term ethnic group as ineffective. “Unfortunately ‘ethnic group prejudice’ is easily exchangeable for ‘race prejudice,’” they wrote, “and one can hate ‘ethnic groups’ just as venomously as real or imaginary races.”
Dobzhansky and Montagu saw their differences as minor, though, in comparison to their common opposition to typological thinking about race. They did collaborate on an article, “Natural Selection and the Mental Capacities of Mankind,” which was published in Science in 1947. They argued that human evolution had probably selected for “the genetically controlled plasticity of mental traits,” rather than for specific traits. This article built on earlier work in which Dobzhansky argued that natural selection would favor plasticity when a population evolved in a variable environment. “The effect of natural selection in man,” they concluded, “has probably been to render genotypic differences in personality traits, as between individuals and particularly as between races, relatively unimportant compared to their phenotypic plasticity.”
Both Montagu and Dobzhansky expected the article to draw “squalls” of criticism, and Dobzhansky went so far as to write to Montagu that “I flatter myself (or fool myself) by believing that this is perhaps the most important single idea that ever occurred to me.” In fact, it was rarely cited in writings on race. Montagu anthologized the article multiple times and incorporated it into later editions of Man’s Most Dangerous Myth. When he was compiling the book Race and IQ in 1974, he wrote to Dobzhansky asking, “Do you think that article had much influence?… I have never seen a reference to it in the relevant literature.”
In 1949, Montagu was given a new platform as rapporteur for UNESCO’s Statement on Race. The committee to write the statement was formed by the Brazilian anthropologist Arthur Ramos, and was made up of anthropologists and sociologists. Geneticists were also invited, but were unable to attend. Ramos died before the committee met, leaving them with little guidance, and they decided to give Montagu responsibility for the final wording of their statement. Although he used the word race more liberally in the Statement on Race than in his own writing, Montagu was not a consensus builder; he went so far as concluding with the idiosyncratic positivist claim that “biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood.” Dissenting scientists prompted UNESCO to form a second committee, this one made up entirely of geneticists, with the exception of Montagu, and chaired by L. C. Dunn.
The First Statement on Race was released in 1950. In the same year, Carleton Coon published a new book on race, the topic with which he’d made his reputation in 1939 with The Races of Europe. Coon cowrote his new book, Races… A Study of the Problems of Race Formation in Man, with a former student, Stanley Garn. The book expressed a tentativeness uncharacteristic of Coon, who would later write that Garn “had a slightly moderating influence on my natural exuberance.” The authors described both monogenism and polygenism as legitimate theories of human origins, for example. More surprisingly coming from Coon, the book stated that “in the past, when evolutionary status was discussed, it was often assumed that white Europeans were of the most ‘advanced’ types and therefore were ‘highest’ in evolutionary rank. The fact that the judging was done by white Europeans may have had something to do with the decision.”
Upon reading the book, Montagu wrote to Coon with what were apparently “kind words”; five years later, he praised it in an article on neoteny. By 1958, the two had apparently formed less positive opinions of each others work, but remained sufficiently amicable that Coon declined to review a book by Montagu, on the grounds that Montagu “has shown an extraordinary forbearance in reviewing MY books for the last few years, and I am a bit loath to break up this ecological arrangement.”
The ecological arrangement broke up in 1962, however. Carleton Putnam had published Race and Reason in 1961, but Coon’s contributions to the book had been secret. Indeed, the two Carletons had negotiated about how to quote Coon so that his identity would not be revealed. When the American Association of Physical Anthropologists met in May 1962 and voted to condemn the book, its members didn’t know that their president had a hand in writing it. Their focus instead was on the use of the book in Louisiana high schools. Stanley Garn, Coon’s student and his coauthor on Races, introduced the resolution:
We, the members of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, professionally concerned with differences in man, deplore the misuse of science to advocate racism. We condemn such writings as Race and Reason that urge the denial of basic rights to human beings. We sympathize with those of our fellow teachers who have been forced by misguided officials to teach race concepts that have no scientific foundation, and we affirm, as we have in the past, that there is nothing in science that justifies the denial of opportunities or rights to any group by virtue of race.
When the psychologist Anne Roe interviewed Coon six months after the meeting, he was still upset about the AAPA resolution, and spoke about it at length. Here’s just a short excerpt of his recollection: “I said, how many of you have read the book? One! I said you’re going to censure a man’s book that you haven’t read—and you don’t know the man. I said, I know the man, I read the book, and he’s my cousin, and I’m damned if I’m going to let you do this.” When they did it anyway, Coon resigned from the presidency of the AAPA and left the meeting. The AAPA actually refused his resignation, and he learned the next day that he was still president.
Around the same time, Dobzhansky sent Coon a copy of his new book, Mankind Evolving, inscribed “with warmest regards from the author.” Coon had finished The Origin of Races but hadn’t published it yet, and was pleased by the similarity between the two books.
When Dobzhansky was asked to review The Origin of Races for the literary journal Saturday Review in September 1962, though, his reaction was more qualified. He praised the descriptions of hominid fossils which Coon provided, but objected to the idea that subspecies of Homo erectus had evolved into sapiens independently. For Dobzhansky and Coon, the debate about race concepts was also about evolutionary mechanisms. In The Origin of Races, Coon suggested a mechanism for the parallel evolution of isolated subspecies through the simultaneous elimination of unfit genes from multiple populations. In his review, Dobzhansky rejected this mechanism, writing that such parallel evolution would require a “mystical inner drive that propels evolution.”
More importantly, Dobzhansky argued that Coon’s treatment of polygenism amounted to “semantic mischief” which could easily be taken advantage of by racist propagandists. As a professional courtesy common among scientists, he sent his review to Coon as well as to the editor of the Saturday Review. Coon was upset by the review, reading into it an allegation of political intent. “You accused me of ‘mischievously’ altering my style so as to provide easy quotes for political people,” he wrote to Dobzhansky. “That is libel.”
When Anne Roe interviewed him a month later, Coon expressed his anger at Dobzhansky somewhat differently. “I wrote him a very nice letter about his book,” he said. “I thought it was rather trivial, but I wrote him a nice letter about it and in reply I got this nasty attack. I think he’s just a baby.” A few minutes later, he returned to the topic: “Dobzhansky’s joined the pack of hounds, which was a terrible surprise to me that he should do that—I thought he was a scholar. And I think actually Montagu is behind them.”
In the end, the Saturday Review didn’t publish Dobzhansky’s review, perhaps because he had violated their editorial standards by sharing it with Coon. When the review finally appeared in print, in the February 1963 issue of Scientific American, Coon wrote Dobzhansky to threaten him with a lawsuit:
On the advice of an eminent jurist whom I consulted on this matter I am writing to ask you to end your campaign of defamation against me.…
When you accuse me of irresponsible writing you forget your own irresponsibility in exposing a fellow scientist to what I have had to undergo as a result of your own actions.
Why have you done this?
When will you stop?
Nevertheless, Dobzhansky’s review appeared again that October in Current Anthropology, published alongside another by Montagu and responses to both by Coon. In this version, Dobzhansky clarified his attack on Coon’s style, writing that “Professor Coon states some of his conclusions in a way that makes his work susceptible to misuse by racists, white supremacists and other special pleaders. This misuse began even before the book was published, and it is continuing.” The rest of Dobzhansky’s review was a fairly focused attack on polygenism, coupled with a proclamation of the responsibility of scientists for the political uses of their work. Coon’s reply, and Dobzhansky’s reply to it, focused on mechanisms of speciation: Coon suggested that the differences between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens could be hormonal and developmental rather than genetic; Dobzhansky attacked Coon’s entire conception of species as outdated and typological.
Montagu’s review was less focused. He critiqued a number of Coon’s claims about genetics and brain size. His key sentence, though, was this one: “I altogether fail to see why a subspecies—granting the very doubtful proposition that it is a subspecies—which has been in the sapiens state longer than another subspecies has evolved the most and is obviously going to have a higher level of civilization.” Montagu pointed out that Coon ignored varying rates of evolution and assumed that biological and cultural evolution were correlated.
The chain of replies between Montagu and Coon stretched long, eventually including an unpublished reply by Montagu to Coon’s reply to Montagu’s reply to Coon’s reply to Montagu’s review of Coon’s book, but it consisted almost entirely of bickering over minutiae. This did leave room for a fair amount of name-calling and sarcasm. Coon wrote of Montagu, for example, that “were it not for the possibility that some readers who do not know him might take him seriously, I would not bother to answer.” In response to disagreement about the conclusions of a book on brain size and intelligence, Montagu simply quoted the book’s summary in full.
The Current Anthropology review marked the peak of conflict between Montagu, Dobzhansky, and Coon, but the three continued to speak of each other and correspond occasionally. In 1974, Stephen Jay Gould passed on to Montagu a letter that Coon had written to Natural History in protest of one of Gould’s columns. Montagu wrote back, “As for Coon, he is a racist and an antisemite, as I know well.… So when you describe Coon’s letter to the editor of Natural History as ‘amusing’ I understand exactly what you mean—but it is so in exactly the same sense as Mein Kampf was ‘amusing.’ This is an area in which one must never let up, for the racists are ultimately the only genuine enemies of humanity.”
Coon’s opinion of Montagu was no greater. He regarded Montagu as an antiracist activist who compromised his science for political reasons, and attacked honest scientists who did not. In 1977 a colleague mentioned to Coon that Montagu had recently visited him. Coon responded, “You had Ashley Montagu in your office? And you didn’t shoot him?”
Coon was kinder towards Dobzhansky. As he was writing his autobiography in 1975, he wrote to Dobzhansky to suggest that they bury “the now-rusty hatchet.” Dobzhansky died seven months later without replying. Coon didn’t bury the hatchet, and indeed devoted a whole chapter of his autobiography to his disagreements with Dobzhansky, even quoting his 1975 letter in full. “I have said more than I said I would say,” he wrote, “because it belongs to history.”
I’d like to conclude by drawing attention to the relationships in this story between theoretical biology, its application to human evolution, and public policy. In attacking Coon’s book, Dobzhansky was primarily concerned with racist interpretations of it. Dobzhansky also argued, though, that “some of the points that cause the trouble are rather subtle,” and consisted of flaws in Coon’s ideas about evolution. In the ensuing debate Dobzhansky and Coon used the abstractions of theoretical biology, including evolutionary mechanisms, to support claims about the nature of human evolution and answer questions about the biological unity of humanity. These answers in turn supported political arguments for segregation from Putnam and for integration and equality from Dobzhansky and Montagu.