Gould, Human Equality Is a Contingent Fact of History

for civilization. . . . The structure of his mind appears to be different from that of the white man. . . .They are not only averse to the restraints of education, but for the most part are incapable of a continued process of reasoning on abstract subjects."

Genealogy, the second argument. Evolutionary theory required a common origin for human races, but many post-Darwinian anthropologists found a way to preserve the spirit of polygeny. They argued, in a minimal retreat from permanent separation, that the division of our lineage into modern races occurred so long ago that differences, accumulating slowly through time, have now built unbridgeable chasms. Though once alike in an apish dawn, human races are now separate and unequal.

We cannot understand much of the history of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anthropology, with its plethora of taxonomic names proposed for nearly every scrap of fossil bone, unless we appreciate its obsession with the identification and ranking of races. For many schemes of classification sought to tag the various fossils as ancestors of modern races and to use their relative age and apishness as a criterion for racial superiority. Piltdown, for example, continued to fool generations of professionals partly because it fit so comfortably with ideas of white superiority. After all, this "ancient" man with a brain as big as ours (the product, we now know, of a hoax constructed with a modern cranium) lived in England--an obvious ancestor for whites--while such apish (and genuine) fossils as Homo erectus inhabited Java and China as putative sources for Orientals and other peoples of color.

This theory of ancient separation had its last prominent defense in 1962, when Carleton Coon published his Origin of Races. Coon divided humanity into five major races--caucasoids, mongoloids, australoids, and, among African blacks, congoids and capoids. He claimed that these five groups were already distinct subspecies during the reign of our ancestor, Homo erectus. H. erectus then evolved toward H. sapiens in five parallel streams, each traversing the same path toward increased consciousness. But whites and yellows, who "occupied the most favorable of the earth's zoological regions," crossed the H. sapiens threshold first, while dark peoples lagged behind and have paid for their sluggishness ever since. Their inferiority, Coon argues, is not their fault, just an accident of their situation in less challenging environments:
Caucasoids and Mongoloids . . . did not rise to their present population levels and positions of cultural dominance by accident. . . . Any other subspecies that had evolved in these regions would probably have been just as successful.

Leading evolutionists throughout the world reacted to Coon's thesis with incredulity. Could modern races really be identified at the level of H. erectus? I shall always be grateful to W.E. Le Gros Clark, England's greatest anatomist at the time. I was spending an undergraduate year in England, an absolute nobody in a strange land. Yet he spent an afternoon with me, patiently answering my questions about race and evolution. Asked about Coon's thesis, this splendidly modest man simply replied that he, at least, could not identify a modern race in the bones of an ancient species.

More generally, parallel evolution of such precision in so many lines seems a virtual impossibility on grounds of mathematical probability alone. Could five separate subspecies undergo such substantial changes and yet remain so similar at the end that all can still interbreed freely, as modern races so plainly do? So glaring are the empirical weaknesses and theoretical implausibilities of Coon's thesis that we must view it more as the last gasp of a dying tradition than a credible synthesis of available evidence.

Genealogy, the modern view. Human races are not separate species (the first argument) or ancient divisions within an evolving plexus (the second argument). They are recent, poorly differentiated subpopulations of our modern species, Homo sapiens, products at most of tens or hundreds of thousands of years, and marked by remarkably small genetic separations.

Geography, the first argument. When Raymond Dart found the first australopithecine in South Africa nearly sixty years ago, scientists throughout the world rejected this oldest ancestor, this loveliest of intermediate forms, because it hailed from the wrong place. Darwin, without a shred of fossil evidence but with a good criterion for inference, had correctly surmised that humans evolved in Africa. Our closest living relatives, he argued, are chimps and gorillas--and both species live only in Africa, the probable home, therefore, of our common ancestor as well.

But few scientists accepted Darwin's cogent inference because hope, tradition, and racism conspired to locate our ancestral abode on the plains of central Asia. Notions of Aryan supremacy led anthropologists to assume that the vast "challenging" reaches of Asia, not the soporific tropics of Africa, had prompted our ancestors to abandon an apish past and rise toward the roots of Indo-European culture. The diversity of colored people in the world's tropics could only record the secondary migrations and subsequent degenerations of this original stock. The great Gobi Desert expedition, sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History in the years just preceding Dart's discovery, was dispatched primarily to find the ancestry of man in Asia. We remember it for success in discovering dinosaurs and their eggs; we forget that it failed in its major goal because Darwin's simple inference was correct.

Geography, the second argument. By the 1950s, further anatomical study and the sheer magnitude and diversity of continuing discovery forced a general admission that our roots lay with the australopithecines, and that Africa had indeed been our original home. But the subtle hold of unacknowledged prejudice still conspired (with other, more reasonable bases of uncertainty) to deny Africa its continuing role as the cradle of what really matters to us--the origin of human consciousness. In a stance of intermediate retreat, most scientists now argued that Africa had kindled our origin but not our mental emergence. Human ancestors migrated out, again to mother Asia, and there crossed the threshold to consciousness in the form of Homo erectus (or so-called Java and Peking man). We emerged from the apes in Africa; we evolved our intelligence in Asia. Carleton Coon wrote in his 1962 book: "If Africa was the cradle of mankind, it was only an indifferent kindergarten, Europe and Asia were our principal schools."

Geography, the modern view. The tempo of African discovery has accelerated since Coon constructed his metaphor of the educational hierarchy. Homo erectus apparently evolved in Africa as well, where fossils dating to nearly two million years have been found, while the Asian sites may be younger than previously imagined. One might, of course, take yet another step in retreat and argue that H. sapiens, at least, evolved later from an Asian stock of H. erectus. But the migration of H. erectus into Europe and Asia does not guarantee (or even suggest) any further branching from these mobile lineages. For H. erectus continued to live in Africa as well. Evidence is far from firm, but the latest hints may be pointing toward an African origin for H. sapiens as well. Ironically then (with respect to previous expectations), it may well turn out that every human species evolved first in Africa and only then--for the two latest species of Homo--spread elsewhere.