Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Rootin', Tootin' Blog Post

The newest issue of the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology contains some provocative material (including my own article, “Why Be Against Darwin? Creationism, Racism and the Roots of Anthropology”), but one other article in particular is provoking this rant – “Two Faces of Earnest A. Hooton” by Eugene Giles.1

Giles’s ambition here is to clear the air about Hooton, who was a leading public intellectual at Harvard during his term there (1913-1954), and trained the first generation of “modern” (i.e., post-WWII) biological anthropologists.  Hooton was also the leading scientific authority on race in the US, and a long-term advocate of the science of eugenics (along with nearly all the other natural scientists in the US), and Giles sets himself the task of defending Hooton from the charges of being a racist and a eugenicist.

Was Hooton a racist?  Well, obviously that’s a term that doesn’t translate well across the generations.   Giles correctly notes that Hooton was the mentor of an African American M.A. student, Caroline Bond Day, and had a good relationship with both Howard University and the NAACP.  But first things first.  Who says Hooton was a racist (whatever that term might mean, applied retrospectively to someone who indeed worked with Franz Boas against Nazi anthropology)?  Giles blames the American Anthropological Association’s “Race: Are We So Different?” website.

Opening of "Race: Are We So Different?"
at the Discovery Place in Charlotte, last year. 

Disclaimer: I had nothing whatsoever to do with that website, or the traveling museum exhibit (although I have no idea why Peggy Overbey didn’t invite me into it). I do like it, though. I was quoted in it, and attended its opening in Charlotte, and did a public radio show to promote it.

Giles does catch some inaccuracies, to be sure, but they are fleas on a big dog.  In the first place, there is no definitive work on Hooton, and those of us with historical interests have been waiting for many years for Giles himself to provide it.  Perhaps if he had done so, the AAA exhibit would have been able to get their facts straighter.

Washburn blowing out the candles
on his birthday cake for the last time.
But more significantly, the AAA Race website certainly was not the ultimate source of the accusation that Hooton was a racist.  His former student (and AAA President in 1962-3), Sherwood Washburn, had been saying that for half a century.  By the time I met Washburn, just a few years before his death, if I mentioned Hooton, Sherry would say, “He was a racist, you know”.  

There are two things that come through clearly about Hooton.  First, he did not take himself all that seriously.  And second, his views evolved.   Consequently, although it may be tempting to try and find a “real” Hooton behind all the verbiage and sometimes the outward silliness, that is probably an essentialist fallacy.  My reading of his work is that although his ideas about the meaning of race evolved – I allow students to compare his 1926 and 1936 papers on race in Science, in the latter of which he is desperately trying to differentiate his good American racial anthropology from bad German racial anthropology2,3 – he consistently maintained an anachronistic view that there was a direct and deterministic relationship between how you looked and how you thought.  This is what united Hooton’s interests in race, criminal anthropology, eugenics, and constitutional anthropology; and what his later students rejected after World War II.

I think that, like a lot of Americans, Hooton took a swing to the right after World War II.  In the case of the “constitutional anthropology” of William H. Sheldon, which asserted a direct connection between body build and personality, Hooton should have been smart enough to see through it, like his later students, but couldn’t; and he was actually hurt when it got back to him that he was being called a fascist.  Washburn, with whom he was still on good terms,  wrote him quite poignantly, “To put the matter bluntly, none of your pupils think that you are at all a fascist.  But, anyone reading Sheldon’s last book, taking the last 100 pages for what they say, and then hearing that you believe in Sheldon’s system, might call you a fascist with some justification.  What we need is the separation of the sane study of body-build from Sheldon’s system.”4

But Hooton was also genteel and non-confrontational, preferring to criticize someone behind their back rather than to their face.  Madison Grant’s 1916 The Passing of the Great Race was a bestselling classic of scientific racism, called “my bible” by Hitler, and invoked at the Nuremberg Trials as evidence that the Germans accused of war crimes had been inspired by American ideas; but Hooton, like many scientists, served under Grant in the American Eugenics Society.  In 1918, Hooton writes a little throwaway line in the context of a review of a different book in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, “Only the Prussians and Madison Grant now believe that the Nordics are a race of supermen and archangels.”5  Cute, huh?  But he never uses his stature as a Harvard expert on race to challenge Madison Grant.  And when Grant sends him a copy of his 1933 book, The Conquest of A Continent (i.e., more of same), Hooton writes him back politely after reading only the first chapter, “I don’t expect that I shall agree with you at every point, but you are probably aware that I have a basic sympathy for you in your opposition to the flooding of this country with alien scum.”6

Of course, he is referring to my grandparents there.  So fuck him.

After Grant’s death, Hooton had some race-nerd fun at his expense:
Madison Grant had a vivid personality and a long head, but, as I remember him, rather a swarthy complexion.  I was curious about his conception of Nordicism; so I tackled him on the subject of my own racial type.  I said, “Mr. Grant, I have a round head with a cephalic index of 85, brown hair, mixed eyes, a moon face and a blobby nose – all these attractive features going with a muddy complexion.  How would you classify me as to race?  I should call myself a mixed Alpine.”  He asked, “Are you not of purely British ancestry?”  I replied, “Yes, my father is an Englishman and my mother is a Scotch Canadian.”  He said, “Then, damn it, you’re a Nordic.”  That is the only occasion when I have been so classified.7
(I published that last bit in my Current Anthropology paper earlier this year.)8

Anyway, when it came to eugenics, Hooton’s views were not very nuanced, but he believed that all races had comparable proportions of the unfit, and they should all be extirpated.  It took him till 1936 to resign from the Advisory Board of the American Eugenics Society, and even then, he kept up his membership.  The American Eugenics Society lost most of its members by 1933, with the Great Depression and the accession of the Nazis.  Even its Secretary-Treasurer, Leon Whitney, had to quit in 1932 because they couldn’t afford to pay him (Whitney went on to become an authority on animal breeding) – but it limped along, with stalwarts like Hooton. 

21 Feb 1937
21 March 1937
So, yes, Hooton was a eugenicist, and to his discredit, he continued to be one long after it fell out of fashion in the scientific community.  In 1937, Hooton gave a talk at the Harvard Club in Kansas City, which made the front page of The New York Times.  He called for a biological purge upon the unfit. Oh, sure, he was just being a wry wag, wishing he were James Thurber, but this was 1937 already, and the Nuremberg Laws were already on the books.  You think Hooton read the newspapers?  A month later, the Times got a hold of that elderly cultural anthropologist from Columbia, Franz Boas – with whom Hooton had a respectful relationship – to slap him down.

(And yet, the Times also covered Hooton’s 1944 NAACP address, with the headline, “Dr. Hooton Assails Racial Prejudice.”  As I say, he was complicated.)

I think it was my old professor, Hermann Bleibtreu, who first showed me Hooton’s illustration of the Jewish face.9  No, that definitely hasn’t aged well.  In fact it is so bizarre that it's hard to believe he intended for it to be taken completely seriously.  As Hooton wrote a few pages later, "Without going into excessive detail, these are then my impressions of the cause of the physical distinctiveness of many Jewish individuals.  I may be wrong.  This subject has not been completely or scientifically explored, and I am recording impressions rather than the results of detailed surveys."  (Washburn was also quick to identify Hooton as an anti-Semite, but Hooton’s first student was Harry Shapiro, later a long-time curator at the AMNH.  I once heard a story that Hooton brought Shapiro to the notoriously anti-Semitic Galton Society in New York, to educate them as to what a “good Jew” was.)

Hooton’s  doggerel in “Subverse” is far more horridly sexist than racist.  But he clearly aspired to be the Dorothy Parker of old-school physical anthropology:

The Bushman’s stature is not great,
His jaw is quite prognathous;
Within his yellow, wool-starred pate
His skull is not capacious.
His seamed membranous lips are thick;
His molars are protrusive;
He sprays his words with dental click,
His speech is most effusive.
He squints with epicanthous eye
Across a nose prodigious;
He likes his ostrich-eggs quite high,
His women steatopygeous.

That’s better than I could do, and it’s a guilty pleasure of mine, even if there are some errors of physical anthropology in there.  But as long as we’re on the subject, Hooton was definitely not in Ogden Nash’s league – here is Ogden Nash on anthropology:

Why does the Pygmy
Indulge in polygmy?
His tribal dogma
Frowns on monogma.
Monogma's a stigma
For any Pygma.
If he sticks to monogmy
A Pygmy's a hogmy.

Anyway, back to Hooton.  His ideas about race, and about human biology generally, certainly weren’t the worst ones around at the time, but that’s faint praise.  I think my biggest problem with Hooton, since it’s hard to know exactly what he did believe at any point in time, is that he did not use his position as an authority to confront and repudiate the worst elements of racial science in America. He went after the Germans, which was safe, and although he tried to differentiate his racial science from theirs, he ultimately was not very successful, because his physical anthropology was in fact only subtly different from theirs. 

Sherry Washburn once told me a story about the time he first met Theodosius Dobzhansky, both of whom were on the faculty at Columbia.  Washburn visited  Doby, who eyed him warily, and asked, “So you were a student of Hooton’s?  So what exactly does he mean by “racial type”?  I just don’t understand it .”  And Sherry replied, “I have no idea, and I think neither does he.”  At which point Doby shook his hand, and they became fast friends.

(Probably bullshit, of  course, but Sherry did tell it to me.)

I think Giles’s main mistake was in trying to defend Hooton rather than trying to complexify him.  And there is a certain irony in Giles going after the AAA’s race website, rather than real source of the harsh judgment of Hooton, which was from Sherry Washburn.  Washburn got on quite badly with Hooton’s first two students, Harry Shapiro and Carleton Coon, both of whom were fiercely loyal to Hooton.  Shapiro was cold to Washburn when he taught at Columbia Medical School, and was studying the growth of rat skulls.  Coon was giving clandestine assistance to the segregationists, and was a target of Washburn’s 1962 AAA Presidential address,10 which consigned racial anthropology to the dustbin of history, as Washburn had been arguing for a decade.  (In fact, Washburn also recalled Dobzhansky, at the time a member of the American Anthropological Association, rushing up to be the first to shake his hand after the address.)

That was the point of Washburn’s famous, paradigmatic paper on “The New Physical Anthropology” (1951).11  I’m sure you can guess who embodied the old.

  1. Giles, E. (2012) Two faces of Earnest A. Hooton.  Yearbook of Physical Anthropology (Supplement of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology), 149, Supplement 55:105-113.
  2. Hooton, E. A. (1926) Methods of racial analysis.  Science, 63:75-81.
  3. Hooton, E. A. (1936) Plain statements about race.  Science, 83:511-513.
  4. Washburn to Hooton, 20 August 1951, Earnest A. Hooton papers, Harvard University.
  5. Hooton, E. A. (1918) American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 1: 365.
  6. Hooton to Madison Grant, 3 November 1933, Earnest A. Hooton Papers, Harvard University.
  7. Hooton, E. A. (1940) Why Men Behave like Apes and Vice Versa.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  8. Marks, J. (2012) The origins of anthropological genetics.  Current Anthropology, 53:S161-S172.
  9. Hooton, E. A. (1939) Twilight of Man.  New York: Putnam.  (plate opposite p. 236).
  10. Washburn, S. L. (1963) The study of race.  American Anthropologist, 65:521-531.
  11. Washburn, S. L. (1951) The new physical anthropology.  Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, Series II, 13:298-304.