Coon's Work Remains Valuable

January 11, 2011

Those who dislike the findings and racial classifications of early anthropologist Carleton S. Coon will try to write him off as outdated, argue that his research is superficial, or that all of his data should be thrown out because some of his theories were wrong. An appreciation written a few years after his death by a modern anthropologist disproves these claims and affirms the continuing value and influence of his work. It also shows that he was already dealing with the kind of unscientific race-denial that's so rampant today, and defending himself against the accusations of "racism" that go with it.

An enormous intellectual vigor allowed him to follow up hypotheses without becoming wedded to them. Never a writer of small papers, he looked for the larger significance. It may be said that Coon's major contributions to science were the fruitful formulations that followed from his assimilation and organization of massive amounts of information.


Carleton Coon's The Races of Europe (1939) began as a revision of W. Z. Ripley's 1900 work but ended as a new opus that used every scrap of published information on living populations and prehistoric human remains — and much recorded history besides. Though some of Coon's hypotheses seem dubious today, they allowed him to structure a mass of material in a way that remains impressive. This book was reprinted some years later and is still regarded as a valuable source of data.


Coon's desire was to use Darwinian adaptation to explain the physical characteristics of race. He defined these as the physical features that distinguish modern populations and in 1950 published, with S. M. Garn and J. B. Birdsell, Races: A Study of the Problems of Race Formation in Man. He was exasperated by what he called the "hide-race" attitude of people who, from social or philosophical motives, seemed to deny the existence of obvious biological differences. He became indignant at any suggestion that his interest in race derived from racist motives. Although a good many articles had been written about environmental adaptation of such traits, this book was the first to address the problem as a whole.


After holding several serious ailments at bay for some years, Carl died on June 3, 1981, at his West Gloucester home, shortly before his seventy-seventh birthday. His brilliance left a lasting mark on a generation of anthropologists.

W. W. Howells. "Biographical Memoirs V.58". National Academy of Sciences, 1989.