American physical and cultural anthropologist Carlton Coon dealt with the origin of races within the species Homo sapiens sapiens. Born and raised in Wakefield, Massachusetts, Coon’s early developmental progress was within the patriotic, yet segregated, New England community. A community where religion was the principal factor in the determination of social status, the religious dichotomy often created a hostile environment. Considered an intelligent and a high-spirited youth, Coon’s destructive and intolerable behavior was the cause of legal problems. Much to his parent’s dismay, these behavioral problems were carried over to Wakefield High School, where an incident caused him to be expelled. Finishing his education at Andover, the environment was well suited for a person of his demeanor. After graduating from Andover, Coon went to Harvard. At Harvard, Coon was exposed to anthropology under Earnest Hooton, American anthropologist. This resulted in an academic shift from English to anthropology, thereby continuing his anthropological education until his graduation in 1925. Coon remained at Harvard to continue his education in anthropology. During his term at Harvard, he married Mary Goodale in 1926, siring two children within the marriage. Mary accompanied him throughout his travels as Coon did research for his dissertation. Coon received his PhD from Harvard in 1928.
After receiving his PhD, Coon remained at Harvard to teach until the outbreak of World War II. During the war, he served with the Office of Strategic Services in Africa. Returning to Harvard after the war, Coon found himself in disagreement over several issues, particularly concerning the topics of race and culture. For Coon, a full professor, the possibility and eventual leaving from Harvard was seen as a relief from the academic politics within the department. Approached by Ephraim Speiser of the University of Pennsylvania, Coon soon accepted the position of curator of the University Museum in 1948. While curator, he constructed the Hall of Man (1949-1950). Within this presentation, his contribution was a logarithmic chart depicting time against human energy use. Essentially, innovations in technology stem from the organization of human society. Besides research and duties as curator, Coon partook in the TV series Summer School and What in the World, along with being a consultant for Life. He finished his career with a combined 20 books and monographs, mostly known for Tribes of the Rif (1931), The Races of Europe (1939), Races (1950), and The Origin of Races (1962). After an illustrious yet controversial career, Coon died on June 6,1981.
Contributions and Perspectives
Even though human classification (for example, races) has been utilized scientifically for over 100 years, the issue is wrought by either scientific obscurity or cultural bias. Thankfully, modern science within an evolutionary framework is beginning to unravel the mystery concerning genetic variation. Coon, venturing on a teetering scale between scientific truth and biased predetermination, understood the essential contributing factors among climate, culture, and genetic variation. In an evolutionary framework, these factors surely contribute to the process of adaptation. However, Coon supported not only the traditional “man the hunter” but also the erroneous process of natural eugenics. From these superior and intelligent individuals, a band or small tribe may become what is now termed a race.
Though today the term race is noted as being a social construct, Coon took a liberal or radical view concerning it. Associating individual specimens with places, breeding habits, and behavior, the term race begins to take on the more known social stigma. The nature of genes, genotypes, blood groups, and mutation were known by Coon; yet the majority of racial determining factors and associated accomplishments always seemed to possess some Caucasoid phenotypic features. These attributes were not assigned arbitrarily, but conceived by the interpretation of the process that accounts for all life, that being evolution.
Understanding the importance of bipedality, Coon drew the sharp distinction among the varieties of Homo erectus and the geography of modern human populations. Viewing the arterial grooves, cranial capacity, and complexity can be used to draw sharp distinction among Australopithecus, Pithecanthropus, Negro Homo erectus, and Sinanthropus. Within the continent of Africa, the primary races are Caucasoid, Capoid, and Congoid, whereby the other races evolved from their perspective geographical hominid form. The progression from Homo erectus to Homo was not seen in a Darwinian sense. Coon stated a clear jump from one form to another, saltation via supervention. This process resulted in the deciding factor that gave our species an advantage, the large and complex cerebral hemisphere. These complexities led to greater complex thought and social organization. According to Coon, evolution places the Caucasoid as the oldest sapiens race, followed by Capoids and Congoid. Although the origin of modern human in the Far East is obscured and polarized by two positions, evolution of regional forms and occupation by Neandertal migration, the biological and cultural adaptations resulted in the division or classification of modern Homo sapiens sapiens.
In Coon’s later works, he held the belief of five distinct races: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Australoid, Congoid, and Capoid. Each race held certain phenotypic traits that determined their classification. Caucasoid possesses skin whose tones varies from pinkish to nearly black; hair color ranges from varying degrees of blonde, red, and black; eye color ranges from blue, grey, brown, and black. Morphological features include narrow nasal passages and deep eye sockets. The Mongoloid and Capoid races possess varying degrees of yellow skin; black hair; eye color is either brown or black; low nasal passages and flush eyes. The Australoid and Congoid races posses skin color that ranges from brown to black; eye color is either brown or black; hair color is black and curly. Variations among these attributes are due to the evolutionary principles that created the variation and the selective forces found within nature. It was held that this process, along with the added element of culture, decreased his number of races from 30 to 5.
Whether or not Coon’s view can be determined as possessing extreme prejudices or just simply overstated, the contributions of his research and insights are incontrovertible. His eye for detail, intelligence, and adventurous spirit furthered the knowledge concerning the detailed analysis of variations in phenotypic expressions of our own species. However, his evolutionary principle was determined by cultural and unknown biological factors, essentially taking an evolutionary principle from scattered and differentiated leaps in biology and culture via energy. Causality always being problematic, the combined view serves only to skew the unity of our species and its own created ontology and self-directed teleology.
- Coon, C. S. (1977). Overview. Annual Review of Anthropology, 6, 1-10.
- Coon, C. S. (1981). Adventures and discoveries. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Coon, C. S. (1982). Racial adaptations. Chicago: Nelson Hall.