American physical anthropologist Sherwood Washburn’s greatest contribution to the field of anthropology was promoting genetics to explain both human variation and as an acting guideline for the basis of a New Anthropology (1951). He was also instrumental in both the fields of primatology and forensic anthropology. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to a highly educated and religious family, Washburn’s intellectual capabilities and naturalism were encouraged at an early age. Although the young Washburn showed no interest in theology, his father Henry Bradford Washburn, dean of the Episcopal Theological School, encouraged him to explore other academic interests. Cultivating his youthful interests in zoology, and then biology, would later be instrumental in his synthesized anthropological approach. Among the foundational schools of Buckingham, Belmont, and Groton, the director of Belmont, Herber Howe, was a source of particular encouragement and support for Washburn’s scientific interests in genetics. Besides his studies while still in high school, he also worked and gained valuable experience at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. This association with Harvard would accumulate into both an academic and professional relationship, whereby he eventually received both his BA (1935) and PhD (1940) in anthropology. With the profound influence of Harvard’s faculty, particularly that of professors Cline, Hooton, Tozzer, and Ward, Washburn’s scientific and theoretical framework would solidify and greatly benefit anthropology.
During his professional career, Washburn taught at Harvard, Columbia Medical School, the University of Chicago, and the University of California, Berkeley. With an aggressive and resolved demeanor, he brought both his experience and his wide knowledge base to the classroom. Stressing the scientific method, open to new scientific evidence and dialogue among all scientists, the resulting dynamic approach would both improve and expedite scientific advancements in all fields of science. As this perspective was applied to the field of anthropology, the resulting inquiry would lead him to the conception of a New Physical Anthropology. Besides this theoretical perspective, contributions made by his experiments are also impressive. Due to the nature of his experimentation, the impressive significance of his work with primate anatomy, the effects of paralysis of facial muscles, the significance of muscles for bone growth, and general muscle-bone relationships, the substantial and invaluable knowledge becomes overlooked or minimized. The ethical concerns aside, the information gained during his intellectual pursuits involving anatomy and primate behavior has benefited anthropology. He published an impressive collection of articles and served as a profound book editor. Washburn’s most noted publications include Thinking About Race (1945), Social Life of Early Man (1961), Classification and Human Evolution (1963), Perspectives on Human Evolution (1968), and Ape Into Man: A Study of Human Evolution (1974). Although retired from the halls of academia at the time of his death, Washburn’s influence and contributions to physical anthropology remains noteworthy.
Washburn’s contributions, as a reflection of his perspectives, encompass a wide array of scientific research and related disciplines. With scientific rigor and rational thought based upon available evidence, Washburn entered the field of anthropology during an unsavory time when anthropology held a less than scientific view of human variation. Although today race is considered a social construct, the influences of Hooton concerning eugenics and purity of races was profound during those days, however misguided and erroneous these views had become. Furthermore, Washburn felt that the application of craniometry and morphology to classify human populations were both outdated and erroneous. Nevertheless, Washburn’s interest in genetics led him to understand human variation in terms of genetic populations. This perspective concerning outdated techniques held by physical anthropologists was expressed in his call for a reconstruction of anthropology. Perhaps with foresight concerning the fracturing of the traditional four field approach to anthropology (fifth field when including applied anthropology), Washburn’s conceptualization for anthropology’s move toward the area of biology would provide a solid foundation, including for the areas of culture. Although conceived and expressed as a discipline-wide approach, this focus of interest accumulated into the subdiscipline of biological anthropology.
Stemming from his biological perspective within an evolutionary framework, Washburn sought to both establish our own species’ relationship among the primates and also to use primate’s expressed behavior as essential characteristics of our common hominid ancestors. In this manner, he held that the field of primatology was a practical method to accomplish these ends. In an evolutionary framework, the relationship among the primates holds the key understanding to our origin and ancestral behavior. Using the method of DNA hybridization given by biology, supported by both immunology and molecular methods, he stated that all apes share a common ancestor, whereby the human primate is closer to the chimpanzee and then gorilla. The orangutan and, to a greater extent, the gibbon, are more distant than either chimp or gorilla. When establishing this relationship, the more distant or primitive the relationship becomes the more apt the behavior will reflect that of our shared common ancestors (for example, australopithecines). His interest in primates was not new, although previously anatomy and not behavior had been the point of focus.
Viewing primatology as a subdiscipline of biological anthropology, his research into behavior of primates led to understanding the biological or physiological underpinning of aggressive behavior. Extending this concept in an evolutionary perspective, this aggressive behavior from a functional perspective had contributed to the sustaining concept of Man the Hunter. By observing the adaptive behavior of baboons in different contexts (for example, remote verses interaction with humans), Washburn saw that behavior reflected the perception and dynamics of group action. In this manner, it can easily be applied to the environmentally motivated behavior of, for example, the australopithecines. Working in unison, the behavior of these bipedal hominids must have been organized in a way for them to survive being surrounded by large carnivores. Reflective of baboon behavior and circumstance, the ratio between hominid to carnivore is not sufficient to support the commonly held belief that our ancestors were primarily scavengers.
Similar to the assessment of australopithecines, the abilities of Neandertals become a central point in question. Proceeding from the assumption that hominid taxonomy is beyond genetic analysis, Washburn’s biological approach to anthropology does possess some frailties; yet his understanding of anatomy’s form and function allows for an interpretative stance. For example, although Neandertal’s expressed behavior (art and burial) may be considered human, the degree of behavioral complexity (nonmaterial) becomes doubtful. This complexity is expressed in the nature of language. In Washburn’s opinion, the complex features of language are essential to behavior. Because cranial capacity does not reflect intelligence, the language of the Neandertals was probably not comparable with modern Homo sapiens. At this point, the only indication of behavioral differences remains in the complexities of their respective material culture. Failure to deal with the fossil record appears to be the most problematic aspect of his anthropological approach. Although contributing to primatology and relating these factors to hominid evolution are astounding, the strength of his contributions involved his experiments within an anthropological and evolutionary framework.
Advancements from his experiments at both Columbia and Chicago, although controversial, remain to be scientifically valued. While at Columbia, Washburn’s experiments revealed the influencing factors in the development of the mammalian skull. Washburn uncovered the influence of muscles and nerves on bone development: For example, premature closure of the sagittal suture in human beings results in a change in the length, breadth, and height of the cranium. In contrasting these experiments with his previous graduate research involving gibbons for Carpenter during the Shultz’s Asiatic Primate Expedition, Washburn’s interest in locomotion (bone, muscle, and joint operations) could be satisfied by his ability to dissect and study these primates. From these invaluable experiences, the relationship of muscles, cartilage, and bone become evident when comparing and contrasting our species and other primates within a functional framework (for example, hyoid bone in vocalization and muscles involved in facial expressions). At Chicago University, Washburn proceeded with experimentations to find out about skull growth. With two contending theories about growth, the first theory states that growth is at the sutures, and the second contends growth on the outside with inside absorption. Washburn’s experimentations with pigs yield results that confirmed both processes are present. The results expressed that animals with thin skulls primarily developed at the sutures, whereas thick-skulled animals primarily developed on the outside with inside absorption. This combination of processes can also be applied to the growth of brow ridges. If applied to different parts of the cranium (for example, nuchal crest), it becomes apparent how plastic and complex these features are in their composition.
Furthermore, Washburn used the same approach to the development and implementation of scientific evaluations for the emerging field of forensic anthropology. Being well versed in anatomy and biology, Washburn’s keen eye for detail and understanding of population and gender differences resulted in the creation of ischiopubic index for the determination of sex and race of skeletal remains. Utilizing these points of view, the emergence of a considerably enriched foundational perspective of forensic anthropology is unquestionable.
In the final analysis of his professional and academic contributions, Sherwood Washburn made great contributions to the field of anthropology. Scientific inquiry tempered with critical thought and a broad base of knowledge allowed for his greatest achievements. Anatomy, biology, and a sense of mechanical aptitude were the driving force behind his academics. Relating this information within an evolutionary perspective, Washburn’s conception for anthropology brought a renewed direction and possibilities. Influencing the emerging fields of primatology, biological anthropology, and forensics, his methods, experiments, and theoretical foundation provided a solid foundation for the future of anthropology. As for the future generations of our species, and perhaps responding against views held by Hooton, Washburn held that education was the deciding factor to promote an equitable social system. He stressed the critical need for up-to-date material that complemented an involved teaching method that invoked personal meaning or purpose. Through this process of education, especially the teaching of evolutionary theory within an anthropological framework, future generations could both express our humanity and understand our species within a dynamic universe.
- De Vore, I. (1992). An interview with Sherwood Washburn. Current Anthropology, 33(4), 411-423.
- Washburn, S. (1961). Social life of early man. New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.
- Washburn, S. (1963). Classification and human evolution. New York: Viking Fund.
- Washburn, S. (1968). Perspectives on human evolution. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
- Washburn, S. (1974). Ape into man: A study of human evolution. New York: Little Brown & Company.
- Washburn, S. (1975). Ecology and Australopithecine taxonomy. American Anthropologist, 77(3), 618.
- Washburn, S. (1978). Human evolution: Biosocial perspectives. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin Cummings.
- Washburn, S. (1983). Evolution of a teacher. Annual Review of Anthropology, 12, 1-24.