Dr. Charles Loring Brace is a paleoanthropologist best known for his research on controversial topics such as cultural and biological impacts on dental reduction in modern populations, the fate of the Neandertals, and the biological race concept. He is curator of biological anthropology for the Museum of Anthropology, and professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Brace was born on December 19,1930, in Hanover, New Hampshire, to Gerald Warner Brace, an English professor, and Huldah Laird Brace, a biologist. Brace became interested in prehistory in the ninth grade, when his mother introduced him to Andrews’s 1945 book, Meet Your Ancestors. Brace entered Williams College and, since there was no anthropology program, majored in geology (BA, 1952).
Brace earned his MA (1958) and PhD (1962) degrees in anthropology from Harvard University. At Harvard, he studied with Earnest A. Hooton and William W. Howell, both paleoanthropologists interested in issues of race, morphometrics, and human origins. Brace taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of California, Santa Barbara, before joining the faculty of the University of Michigan in 1967. Over several decades, he has compiled one of the largest and most regionally diverse datasets of hominid cranial and dental measurements. He uses this dataset to study cultural and biological impacts on dental reduction in hominids, to study the fate of the Neandertals, and to dismantle the biological race concept.
Dental Reduction and the Probable Mutation Effect
Brace is concerned with tying anatomical changes to natural selective forces to explain hominid evolution and the patterns of variation seen in modern human populations. In 1963, he observed that Darwin’s remarks that once-adaptive traits can become reduced due to relaxed selection could explain the reduction in robusticity and size of hominid skeletal and dental dimensions. He called the genetic mechanism for this reduction the probable mutation effect, or PME. When once-adaptive traits, such as skin color or tooth size, experience a relaxation in selective forces, then mutations can occur without being detrimental to the individual’s survival. According to the PME, the accumulation of these random mutations will ultimately result in reduction of the trait in question. For example, Brace reasons, if large tooth size is maintained in hominids by natural selection, and this selection becomes relaxed, then individuals with smaller teeth with survive, and over time the mean tooth size in the population will decrease.
Brace was interested not only in what can happen when selective forces are relaxed but also why they can become relaxed. The major factor, he argues, is the “cultural ecological niche,” which buffers natural selection. Dietary changes and the evolution of cooking technologies acted to reduce the amount of chewing needed to process foods; Brace documented that geographic areas with a long history of obligatory cooking (thawing frozen foods) or food processing techniques (such as grinding stones, pottery, and earth ovens) have experienced dental reduction at the rate of 1%—2% per 2,000 years.
The Fate of the Neandertals
In the first half of the 20th century, research in the origins of modern human beings was influenced by the image of Neandertals as brutish and primitive— an unlikely ancestor to modern humans, who must have invaded Europe from elsewhere. In 1964, Brace challenged this image of Neandertals, arguing instead that the differences between Neandertals and modern humans were due to general robusticity of the skeleton and teeth. He explained that technological and behavioral changes could cause trait reduction in modern humans, and advocated a Neandertal stage of human evolution.
However he argued, many human paleontologists seemed to think that none of the fossil forms differing from modern humans could be ancestral to modern humans but that, instead, ancient modern forms would be always be found to represent the proper ancestors. He characterized models that required a modern invading ancestor to be antievolutionary and similar to the essentialist position known as “catastrophism” first proposed by Georges Cuvier in the 19th century; he called these models examples of hominid catastrophism. This paper proved to be highly influential, and, as a result, Brace is considered by some to be the intellectual father of the regional continuity model of modern human origins.
The “Race” Concept
Perhaps Brace’s most influential work has been his four decades of research on the biological concept of race. Brace argues that the concept of “race” has no biological reality but rather is a social construct. Biological traits affected by natural selection create an unbroken gradient from one region to another; these gradients are called “clines” and respond to changes in selective pressure. Each cline is under a different set of selective forces, and therefore the clinal pattern differs for each trait; these clines cross typologically defined racial categories. Furthermore, many features that cluster people into similar-looking groups, he argues, are due to random genetic drift and have no adaptive significance. For these reasons, it is impossible to define racial categories with any biological meaning. Brace’s argument influenced a great many anthropologists and has forced the rewriting of many textbooks.
Brace is one of the few truly synthetic scholars and a vocal proponent of the four-field approach to anthropology (integrating physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics). His lifetime of work on modeling the mechanisms shaping human origins and biological variation, the integration of biological and cultural factors in human evolutionary models, as well as philosophy and history of science, is a significant legacy to the field of anthropology.
Brace is also known for writing anthropology-themed poetry (which he often calls “doggerel”) to drive home his arguments. He wrote this limerick for this encyclopedia entry:
Helped by a brilliant wife, And despite academic strife,
I’ve been lucky indeed
To be able to lead A long and productive life!
Sometimes met with words of disdain, My efforts have not been in vain;
And it could be said
That my work has led To anthropological gain.
- Brace, C. L. (1963). Structural reduction in evolution. American Naturalist, 97, 39-49.
- Brace, C. L. (1964). The fate of the “classic” Neanderthals: A consideration of hominid catastrophism. Current Anthropology, 5, 3-43.
- Brace, C. L. (2005). Race is a four-letter word: The genesis of the concept. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Falk, D., & Seguchi, N. (2006). Professor C. Loring Brace: Bringing physical anthropology (“kicking and screaming”) into the 21st century! In Derek Brereton (Ed.), Michigan Discussions in Anthropology (Vol. 16).
- Ferrie, H. (1997). An interview with C. Loring Brace. Current Anthropology 38(5), 851-869.