Plain statements on race, from Earnest Hooton (1936)

4 minute read

This seems to be “Race Month” on the internet. I thought some history might be enlightening, since most people seem to be just writing off the tops of their heads.

Earnest Hooton was the pre-eminent physical anthropologist in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. This status was partly attributable to his voluminous work and popular writing, and partly because he directly trained most of the important figures in the next generation of physical anthropologists. Most of us today can still trace our academic lineage to Hooton.

Much of Hooton’s work directly attempted to quantify racial characteristics and their distribution in the world. Hooton used an essentialist concept of race – races were “ideal types” expressed variably in living people – but emphasized that today’s humans are inevitably products of the mixture of different ancient populations. In his view, “pure races” do not presently exist, and different populations today reflect different blends of ancestral races.

I wanted to quote extensively from his 1936 essay in Science, titled “Plain Statements on Race,” because it serves as a good illustration of the way one prominent scientist who studied human races reacted to the social uses of the race concept in the 1930’s.

From immemorial antiquity hereditary variations of bodily form have been made the basis of charges of racial inferiority in mentality and in capacity for civilization. With this contemptible subterfuge our European ancestors justified their enslavement of the Negro and their virtual extermination of the Indian and of many other primitive peoples. The "White man's burden" has been mainly one of hypocrisy. With no more savage worlds left to conquer (save only Ethiopia), the White man has turned this same vicious argument to use against his own kind, committing more crimes in the name of race than have ever been perpetrated in the name of liberty.
Under these circumstances, a physical anthropologist, who has devoted most of his research activity to the study of race for nearly a quarter of a century, desires emphatically to dissociate the finding of his science from the acts of human injustice which masquerade as "racial measures" or "racial movements" or even "racial hygiene."
I do not claim to speak for all physical anthropologists, many of whom are either too wise or too timid to speak at all upon this subject, preferring to pursue their researches in academic seclusion, rather than cry their wares in the marketplace and run the risk of being pelted by the rabble. For myself, I prefer to be the target of rotten eggs, rather than to be suspected as a purveyor of that odoriferous commodity.

In his essay, Hooton argues that the description of human variation should not predicate proscription within society.

Within each and every race there is great individual variation in physical features and in mental capacity, but no close correlation between physique and mentality has been scientifically demonstrated. Knowledge of human heredity is still far from perfect ...
...Each racial type runs the gamut from idiots and criminals to geniuses and statesmen. No type produces a majority of individuals from either end of the scale. While there may be specific racial abilities and disabilities, these have not yet been demonstrated. There are no racial monopolies either of human virtues or of vices.

The modern biologist will find many conceptual errors within Hooton’s “plain words,” in particular his focus on ancestral races as products of a long process of isolation. But Hooton’s description of the social aspects and consequences of the race concept mostly overlap with those promoted by Ashley Montagu and others, which became dominant within postwar anthropology.

This is significant in Hooton’s words with respect to race, because with respect to human biological variation generally, he remained a committed eugenicist. Here’s the end of the essay:

I believe that this nation requires a biological purge if it is to check the growing numbers of the physically inferior, the mentally ineffective and the anti-social. These elements which make for social disintegration are drawn from no one race or ethnic stock. Let each of us, Nordic or Negro, Aryan or Semite, Daughter of the Revolution or Son of St. Patrick, pluck the beam from his own eye, before he attempts to remove the mote from that of his brother. Every tree that bears bad fruit should be cut down and cast into the fire. Whether that tree is an indigenous growth or a transplantation from an alien soil, matters not one whit, so long as it is rotten.

This is not exactly the soft touch approach.

Hooton concluded that race, as a practical matter, was not a fit criterion for sorting humans into groups with different intrinsic moral values. In practical terms, attempting to alter human nature by race eugenics was bound to be ineffectual. In moral terms, Hooton’s prose – in the early text referring back to Biblical example – shows his opinion that race was a “specious excuse” for immoral deeds.

This moral opinion was quite distinct from his view of human variation, in which he showed by his constant practice a belief that humans could be sorted into races on the basis of combinations of features, and that these groups were at a different level from “ethnicities,” “nationalities,” and other possible groupings. In his view, race and culture were potentially distinct – in that people of different races may adopt the same culture, and that racial characteristics have a different mode of transmission.

That’s one perspective from history. I’ll be adding some others this week.


Hooton EA. 1936. Plain statements about race. Science 83:511-513. doi:10.1126/science.83.2161.511