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."
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
28 NATURAL HISTORY