Quote: Phillip Tobias on Sherwood Washburn

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I have been reading through Phillip Tobias’ memoir, Into the Past, and ran across this passage about Sherwood Washburn. Washburn was a very influential figure in American physical anthropology during the 1950s and later.

Washburn’s 1951 paper, “The New Physical Anthropology”, presented the argument for an integrative science that attempts to understand human biology and evolution through the study of ecology and environment as well as anatomy and function. In his view, the “old” physical anthropology was principally based on technique, measurement, and description. By contrast, the “new” approach brought insights from many different fields, attempting to understand the process of evolutionary change through population genetics, rather than merely classifying types.

Tobias discussed Washburn in the context of describing Tobias’ own interactions with T. Dale Stewart. Tobias visited the United States in 1956, and spent some time at the Smithsonian with Stewart and also at the University of Chicago where Washburn was then a professor. Tobias noted the “clashes” between Washburn and Stewart, and then begins a discussion of the importance of referring to earlier work (pp. 138-139):

Sherry gave the impression of having cut himself off, very consciously and pointedly, from all -- or virtually all -- earlier work in his subject. Even on those aspects on which he had worked, he did not know -- or professed not to know -- the earlier work. It was this denial of past work that had led Henri Vallois to comment that Washburn's 'New Physical Anthropology' might be 'anthropology' but it certainly was not 'new'.
In the same vein, I recall my astonishment at a remark made by Washburn in commenting on one of my seminars to his graduate students: he noted, apparently with surprise, how a 'new' and 'peculiarly South African' approach in physical anthropology was growing up, drawing its sources not from Sir Arthur Keith and England, but from Bolk, Sergi, Frasetto -- people I had cited in my seminar. Yet, it did not strike me as at all odd: my philosophy was that, with physical anthropology so young and relatively restricted a field, a scientist should quote not only English-medium but also foreign workers who had made relevant and significant contributions. I should have thought it inescapable to take their views into consideration. Science does not function in a vacuum. Stewart mentioned to me that one of his students had written to Washburn on a subjct on which the latter had published: the student had wished to do some research on a similar line and asked Washburn for references to earlier work. Washburn replied that he did not know any.
What struck me as alarming about all this was that Washburn was training a great proportion of the future physical anthropologists of America, and that these folk were being given a 'party line', with little or no attempt to acquaint students with the views and works of other authors, especially foreign scholars and earlier contributors. It was this aspect of the 'New Anthropology' that gave me most cause for alarm.

Tobias during that trip was only 31 years old, and Washburn was approaching the height of his scientific power, already having been president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, and serving at that time as editor of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Tobias’ comments here strike me as less than charitable, and I’m sure that most people remember Washburn quite differently. But the timing in the context of Tobias’ career, and his emphasis in the book, show that his reaction to these encounters were part of his own formation as a celebrated international scientist. Tobias defined his role as something he considered to be the opposite of Washburn’s approach.

It is a powerful comment on the importance of citing widely, particularly internationally. Paleoanthropology is a global science. The network of people who build connections between scientific colleagues in different countries still relies on good scholarship.


Tobias, PV. 2005. Into the Past. Picador Africa, Johannesburg.

Washburn, SL. 1951. The new physical anthropology. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences 13 (7): 298-304. doi:10.1111/j.2164-0947.1951.tb01033.x