Hooton's complexity

5 minute read

Eugene Giles has an article in the new Yearbook of Physical Anthropology that will be of great historical interest to many in the field: “Two faces of Earnest A. Hooton” Giles:2012. Hooton was a central character in physical anthropology, and ultimately his students would come to populate most of the positions in physical anthropology in the United States. It is often said that every student who learns osteology in American schools today is fundamentally taking Hooton’s course in the subject. He was born in Wisconsin and received his Ph.D. here at the University of Wisconsin, in classics, after a time in the U.K. as a Rhodes Scholar. In other words, he was scientific royalty. Unlike most, he took that status and became a public intellectual of substantial note, publishing popular articles throughout his lifetime on the topics of evolution, race, and eugenics.

Giles has accumulated a rich record of biographical details about Hooton, who was a complex figure. I might describe him as embodying the apotheosis of racial science – dividing up human groups by an involved scheme of “major” and “minor” races, he attempted to categorize human variation into types purported to represent historical connections among peoples. It is not enough to say that this was typical of physical anthropology, because up until 1950 or so, this simply was physical anthropology. Hooton’s students were the first generation to really take an alternative approach, and most of them did so only after a substantial period working with racial categories in a nineteenth-century framework.

Giles approaches crucial questions: Can a racial scientist be a non-racist? Could one be a eugenicist and yet oppose the doctrine of “race hygiene”? Hooton is such an interesting figure because he, more than anyone, stood at the center of established race science during the 1920’s and 1930’s.

By 1930, Hooton made it clear he believed something had to be done about what he saw as our increasing lack of biological fitness. [I]n spite of the infinitesimal quantity of our knowledge [of their genetic bases], we are completely justified in urging that measures be taken to prevent the insane and the mentally defective from reproducing. Segregation and sterilization of the unfit ought to be promoted by scientists and by instructed laymen (Hooton,1930b:103). But at the same time, he goes on to warn that we have no data which justify the raising of racial issues as a part of eugenics propaganda. We know nothing at all about inherent superiorities or inferiorities of the several races and the many nationalities. If eugenics is to be made the vehicle of bigoted race prejudice, it must be ditched To me, eugenics in the United States represents too much ill-considered talk and too little careful scientific research (Hooton,1930b:103). Those in the eugenics movement in the United States who were in fact displaying bigoted race prejudice became role models for German racial hygienists before Hitler's ascension in 1933 and admirers afterward, for a while (Khl,1994).

Giles is in the end a defender of Hooton, in opposition to recent public presentations (in particular the “Understanding Race” project by the American Anthropological Association) which Giles sees as having tarnished Hooton’s scientific reputation.

For another view of Hooton, Jon Marks returns to blogging: “A Rootin’ Tootin’ Blog Post”. Marks is writing in partial reaction (or addendum) to Giles, accentuating the negative. Marks acknowledges that Hooton was a complicated character – speaking out against some of the worst instances of scientific racism, but ultimately rooted himself in a typological scheme of human classification that was losing its value.

Anyway, back to Hooton. His ideas about race, and about human biology generally, certainly werent the worst ones around at the time, but thats faint praise. I think my biggest problem with Hooton, since its 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.

However, Marks adds a number of quotes and historical cases in which Hooton presents a less sympathetic side. It is clear that if words are actions, Hooton’s record is complicated.

Hooton’s racial typological scheme was just as complicated as his position in the history of science. I’m interested in the theory as well as the social impacts of the theory, and this is a great case in the history of science where social change and changes in scientific theories were linked. Like Ptolemaic epicycles, Hooton’s classification was an attempt to shoehorn the growing data on human diversity into a theoretical scheme that was losing its value. His typology was full of dozens of “minor races” as variants of the “major” three. Yet the scheme of clinal variation that would come to dominate in postwar anthropology left much unexplained.

I think the Copernican revolution is in some ways a good analogy – replacing epicycles with heliocentric orbits was in the long run the correct choice, but circular orbits as predicted by Copernicus did not fit the data as well as the overly complicated Ptolemaic scheme. In astronomy, this problem was solved by Kepler and elliptical orbits. But the transition from the geocentric to heliocentric view wasn’t easy, with many heavyweight holdouts for a long time, and hybrid systems like Tycho Brahe’s geo-heliocentric model.

In human biology, clines were indeed more correct as a description of the pattern of variation. As Hooton and his contemporaries began to appreciate, typological races would have to be endlessly subdivided to adequately account for variation. Any typological theory is weighed down by this complexity.

But the clinal perspective is not as simple as generally presented – clines of variation in humans are not random, nor equally distributed, and some human populations really have undergone long periods of very low gene flow from others. The advent of genetics in the 1950s promised to make human classification simple – as simple as blood type frequencies. In fact over time genetics has reinforced the complexity of our history as a polytypic species.

So Hooton, a representative of the Old Guard as his students began to pursue a new kind of human classification, is tremendously interesting. I recommend Giles’ entire article, and will be looking forward to seeing more.