Physical Anthropology in 1950

flores(Observations on intellectual history and ideological struggle)

I recently took a look at a book which gives a standard account of what physical anthropologists thought they knew about race immediately postwar.  If this book is any indication, “naive twentieth-century racial theories” is a bolshevik slur on excellent, careful, and appropriately modest anthropological claims which closely anticipated many findings archaeogenetics has now proven conclusively.

Races: a study of the problems of race formation in man brings together chapters originally given as lectures by the authors (Coon, Carn and Birdsell).  I picked it up for three reasons: (a) To learn how physical anthropology supplements the new DNA studies. (b) To familiarize myself with the sins of naive 20th century racial theories for which 21st century race-realists are held responsible.  (c) And, as the flip side of the same concern, to see where the old physical anthropology was accurate or misleading and precisely which physical evidence (or which interpretations of it) led them off track.

This post focuses on three topics that are interesting in light how how later anthropologists and biologists portray the work from this era: how the authors connect races to species, the sophistication of their evolutionary concepts (particularly, polygenesis and atavism), and the nature of the Nordic/Alpine/Mediterranean distinction.

I. What is race? 

Race, say Coon et al., is the first identifiable step in a process of divergence between two related populations — the same sort of divergence between isolated populations that in other cases leads to speciation.  What caught my eye was the spin they put on their explicit definition of racial divergence: “when one group has become sufficiently distinct from another group so that the majority of its member are easily identifiable, we call it a race.” They immediately contrast this easy identification to the endless acrimony among scientists about higher orders of classification: “Taxonomists argue about [species, genera, and so on] but on race they agree.”

In 2016, we usually use the opposite approach to sell people on race-realism: something like, “If you believe in species – and you do believe in species, right? species are a basic biological concept – you’ll have no trouble with race, since race is just somewhere between family and species on the continuum of closely-related populations”.  However there are two ways of thinking about race: one presents species as the common ground we can agree on and race as an ambiguous extension of the concept, while the other presents race as the common ground we can agree on and species as an ambiguous extension of the concept.  These two ways offer us a trade-off between the validity of the concept and the precision with which it can be applied.  “Easy identification of the distinctive traits of two groups” does not define a precise concept, because ease itself is a fuzzy concept, so the many clear-cut cases of “an easy identification” will always be surrounded by borderline cases that are nearly as 2375702_d4a2f3d3easy (just as with “a bald man” or “a heap of stones”).  Despite this fuzziness, “easy identification of differences” is logically (and evolutionarily!) prior to whatever degree of difference marks a difference in species, so any questions about the validity or reality of racial categories are ruled out in advance.  In 2016 we have a great deal of excellent and mathematically precise data on the (genetic) traits of human populations; it’s understandable to want to disassociate race from any implications of fuzziness.  But by approaching race as the more intricate, informationally-richer classification, we give up the idea that it is the simpler, logically prior of the two.  In 1950 they couldn’t quite see/quantify the intricacies, so they automatically went for the other horn of the dilemma.

Of course, even if there is a rhetorical trade-off between the two ways to frame the relationship between race and culture, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t use both.  Most people who talk about race already use a line like “What, you’re telling me you can’t tell whether someone’s black or white?” now and then, and that’s just a hop, skip and a jump away from treating race as easy-identification.  It may seem like cheating to switch back

Fine, maybe not always. Fuzzy concept, right?

and forth between framings as opportunity presents itself, but I’ll let you in on a secret: your fuzzy experience of easy identification is just peripheral awareness of a highly-trained perceptual heuristic which collects, processes and flags intercorrelations between clusters of related traits… the same intercorrelated clusters which we can now explicitly quantify with principle components analysis.

II. There was nothing naive about physical anthropology’s understanding of evolution in 1950.

When science is under siege for political reasons, the anti-science faction is endlessly bringing up older, imperfect versions of theories to bring their most recent versions into disrepute.  However, on at least two counts the common narrative appears to be false.

fourmodelsPolygenesis.  The bolshevik line on polygenesis: “Once upon a time, heapbad racist supremacists thought non-human hominid species spread all over the world, and in every region the populations started evolving, and in every region they evolved into a new species, but always the same new species (Homo sapiens).”  (Impossible, of course: every isolated population of an ancestral species that evolves into a new species must evolve into a different species.) “But,” the bolshevik continues, “Now We Know™ all Homo sapiens came Out-of-Africa, and very recently, and were fully behaviorally modern before the Africa/Eurasia split, and couldn’t possibly have evolved much in the last hundred millennia, anyway.”  — Not just wrong, wrong in every particular!  Evolution can happen very quickly, for one thing.  And most significantly, many modern populations have DNA from non-human hominids (Homo neanderthalensis and Homo denisova confirmed, others suspected), so even if polygenesis was as crazy as the bolsheviks say, monogenesis is also wrong.

When I’ve had to explain the new multi-hominid theory, I’ve leaned on a just-so story: once upon a time, there was a polygenesis-camp and a monogenesis-camp, and each focused on one part of the evidence, each developed a simple model that captured their insights, but ultimately the adherents of each were too rigid to see that the possibility-space for human origins is actually all of the possible linear combinations of these two pure models.  This parable seems to work pretty well (not great, to be honest), but its pox on both your houses attitude implies a false equivalence and reinforces a bolshevik smear against the polygenists.

Lifelike figure of a Neanderthal Man in the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann by Duesseldorf, Northrhine-Westphalia, Germany. Image shot 2006. Exact date unknown.
Stand proud, stand ‘thal

According to Coon et al., “polytypical theory” hypothesizes that “several primates, evolving in parallel fashion, all became men, and the living races are descended from more than one kind of subhuman primate.” (p. 85)  Note that they do not say whether or not they descend from more than one species of primate: in the 1950s at least, polygenesis took no stance on whether the parallel hominid populations were separate races, species, or what.  (Cf. the comment I quoted on the difficulty of delineating species, from the same chapter.  The footnote on Gates’ research into the “question of division into species” as a separate issue appears to emphasize this point, but I have not looked at that citation to verify.)  However, the authors do stake out a position on movement between populations: “Whichever of these theories may be true, … mixture [has] been going on from the earliest times.” (They note three different population movements into Australia, a model genetics has only recently confirmed.)  Thus some big movement out of Africa, they take take for granted; among their contemporaries, polygenesis just meant modern traits are a linear combination of traits spread by these large movements and traits that evolved locally over hundreds of thousands of years, while monogenesis denied any traits were locally evolved.  Unless the presentation in Races is atypical (yet somehow uncannily prescient!) this means the polygenetic camp’s views were always quite sophisticated and have now been vindicated.

517px-apomorphy_-_homoplasy-svgDerived/innovative.  It is one of life’s little incongruities that bolsheviks, who in the study of history and culture ruin everything they touch by projecting “progressive” and “regressive” tendencies onto wholly inappropriate objects, fling the exact same accusation back at biologists and anthropologists who study evolving species which really can be traced back to ancestral forms.  Bolshevik biologists never deny human evolution (it was always one of their pet projects to use evolution to undermine faith in revelation, and unfortunately certain fundamentalists took the bait) or denounced the concept of phylogeny, but they did accuse any and all researchers applying phylogenetic concepts to mankind of believing that evolution progressed towards some goal (!!!) and of judging whether races had “approached” or “evolved towards” this goal with inherently evaluative terms like “primitive” and “advanced”.  In other words, the bolshevik indictment of the scary nineteenth- and twentieth-century racialists was not that they cared about hominid phylogeny, but that they were hopelessly naive about it, and used naive dichotomies like primitive/advanced where any non-idiot would be thinking in terms of ancestral/derived (or conservative/innovative or homologous/apomorphic…).  This is an embarrassing accusation!  But I am even more embarrassed, because I believed the accusers long after I knew they were deeply dishonest.  The authors of Races clarify what “primitive” and “advanced” mean in evolutionary theory (on p. 87, if you’re interested), and it turns out they mean… exactly what “ancestral” and “derived” mean in 2016.  The racialists were pretty sophisticated after all.

16xPolygenesis and primitivism are only two of the alleged errors of the old science of races.  Some of these allegations, I hope, are true.  It would be pathetic if the Cathedral castrated biologists to the point that no of theory of 2016 improves over the best of evolutionary thought, pre-1950.  But in the future I will try to reserve judgments about these allegations, since the track record of the accusers is so poor. — In a loose sense Coon, Carl, and Birdsell simply fell victim to something like a euphemism treadmill (we need ever-more neoteric jargon to distinguish strict senses of words from connotations they invariably carry), which is itself a subset of changes in linguistic context which make old books opaque to us.  Those who read little find pre-war books stilted, eighteenth-century books distressingly convoluted, and everything else impossible.  But even a reader who savors an old book’s style may find the concepts opaque: or rather, he will find the substance forbidding because of the false clarity of words (“the mony of fooles”) with which he is familiar, and which he never suspects he has not understood.  The function of a significant amount of bolshevik propaganda and cultural politics is to accelerate this process, to cut potential opponents off from the arsenal of reaction.

III. Tetchy racial distinctions and the politics of early anthropology.  Whenever race realists try to assert that just maybe there might be some kind of biological differences between, say, Sub-Saharan Africans and Eurasians, bolsheviks bring up all the intra-European racial distinctions 19th and 20th century anthropologists proposed: for example, Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean.

The relevance of the objection is somewhat unclear, and several of its uses (possibly the main ones) have no special connection to Races.  Sometimes bolshies exaggerate how large the N/A/M differences were claimed to be while minimizing how large they actually are, to tar the whole business of racial categorization with a history of error.  This does not seem to be party line: among anthropologists and biologists not even the most radical leftists deny intra-European biological differences (indeed, many insist on it).  Sometimes they seem to be threatening some kind of slippery slope, a regress into ever-more minute racial categories, either as a half-baked reductio or simply to slander categorization.  It could be an attempt to appeal to an American audience’s misleading biases. Americans, after all, are mostly euro-mutts.  Our ethnic self-identifications reflect neither genealogy nor physical traits.  (They are a result of memetic competition between the maternal clan and the paternal clan, just like Americans’ recipes, heirlooms, and denominations.)

But the major thrust of bringing up these apparently tetchy racial distinctions has always been a sort of divide-and-conquer strategy.  “Nordics”, the (((critical theorists))) tell us, are sort of like the white race within the white race; evil white supremacist Anglo-Saxons and (shudder!) Germans, having first vented their fantasies of racial domination by imagining a white race that is superior to the black, now go on to imagine a Nordic race superior even to other Europeans.  Thus (the bolshevik seems to be implying) any racial theory at all that starts making distinctions between white and not-white is heading towards expelling the Sicilians and the Greeks into the not-white category; the Sicilians feel insulted and worried about where all this “race” business might be headed, the Englishman starts to second-guess himself (“Am I being a trifle unsporting to those swarthy chaps?”) and the bolshevik rubs his hands in glee.

White race in green (?!)

The problem is that (judging on the basis of Races, anyway) these insinuations about the N/A/M racial types are all wrong: in fact nearly backwards.  N/A/M were not part of some obsessive trend to chop races ever finer; if anything, they were the opposite, an attempt to make overly broad sub-categories.  They were not an attempt to fortify white supremacy by bringing a more-white/less-white hierarchy inside the white race itself; if anything, they were an attempt to gerrymander the populations of Europe and its periphery to downplay white Europeans as a distinct race.  Far from trying to push anyone out of being “truly white”, the only race-politics dynamic that might have been at work was an attempt to neuter the social implications of race science… and perhaps even to make sure (((certain ethnicities))) couldn’t possibly be excluded from a Europe-centered white race.  The scope of the “Mediterranean race” which Coon et al. assume says it all!  This concept includes not just Southern Europe, not just the Balkans, not just the residents of the entire littoral of the Mediterranean Sea, but even extends into Iran.  In fact, the plates in the chapter on racial typology use an Iranian man as the illustration of the typical Mediterranean characteristics.

I don’t want to delve too far into the N/A/M classification; I don’t have examples as glaring as the Iranian plate for the Nordic and Alpine races and I don’t have time right now to study 1950s physical anthropology in depth.  But it interests me because (if my suspicions are correct) the classification hints at a broader lesson about how progressives orchestrate their cultural offensives.  If you’ve heard of KMac at all you know (((Franz Boas))) and his (((students))) politicized research, faked findings, and hid inconvenient data to promote the Left’s egalitarian ideology.  Given the triumph of Boas’ descendants (and of their cousins in other academic disciplines) and the resulting demonization of their opponents, we could easily get the impression that these opponents were hard-nosed, reactionary, anti-democratic, truth-loving WASP racists.  What heroes!  The reality may be more nuanced.  Many of the physical anthropologists studying racial difference were probably progressive (or even Marxist, tendance hônnete).  Many of them were probably jewish, and would have brought the same Boasian anxiety to normalize their own ethnic status to their research.  Many were simply normal men swept up in the currents of the times, I assume, and tuned their way of thinking to the Cathedral choirs.  What are the consequences?  First, Cthulhu is guaranteed another meal, since he has sway over both sides; second, whatever leftist deformations have been introduced into the “conservative” side of the argument to advance leftist goals can now be exposed, ridiculed, and imputed to the density of the conservative mind; third, any subsequent dissidents who see past the demonization of the defeated faction will be saddled with subtle leftist memes whose creators’ subsequent demonization they take as a proof of integrity.

This memetic pandæmonium is a simple manifestation of a dynamic I referred to today in my reply to EB’s interesting question.  In reality no historical movement, faction, or tendency is all shitlib or all shitlord.  Avoid attribution error!  Coalitions recruit talent wherever they can, and a group which dominates one side may still be present, even overrepresented, on the other.  Different people have many different loyalties, including loyalty to the paycheck. Two people with identical goals may still end up on different sides due to disagreement about how to attain the goal; they may even agree to pursue a mixed strategy[pdf].  Inference from someone’s team to his underlying goals/principles/loyalties is risky, not because the team-to-goal correlation isn’t 1.0 (true of any inference) but because the contrast between the two teams can blind you to the complexity of the team’s structure.

335px-francisco_de_goya2c_saturno_devorando_a_su_hijo_281819-182329Even if you wouldn’t have phrased it exactly as I have, you probably already recognize that one major purpose of bolshevik agitprop has always been to encourage this fallacy wherever they can: to get the herd to see everything through the lens of left/right, progress/regress, us/them.  Not until I read Races did I grasp how well demonizing defeated opponents serves this rhetorical strategy.  Demonization encourages conflation of different types of opponents, and this conflation can include not only people who were your enemies for different reasons (fairly obvious) but also people who were not strictly speaking your enemies at all (that is to say, people on the other side with whom you shared some goals, to some degree).  “The Revolution, like Cronos, eats its own children” is easily the best-known of all reactionary dicta; maybe we should add that it vomits this meal back onto the pages of History to frustrate human understanding.

[Thanks for reading. If you’d like to indulge my curiosity about whether people read the whole post, please click on this 26kb portrait of Carleton Coon.]


5 thoughts on “Physical Anthropology in 1950

  1. […] After Physical Anthropology in 1950, I had a few requests that I clarify evolutionary terms I had used and distinctions I had drawn, plus a request for an explanation of one of the illustrations for the article.  Hopefully people will continue to read that article, and hopefully I will write more on biology in the future, and if so it would be useful to answer these kinds of questions in a central location. […]


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