My training was in laboratory-based biological anthropology, but I was always interested in the (checkered) history of the field. So back in 1986, when I was a genetics post-doc at the University of California, Davis (during the first generation of DNA sequencing), I also co-taught a graduate anthropology seminar in the history of bio-anthropology.

A couple of years later, when I obtained my first faculty appointment, it became a seminar I taught regularly. I also discovered that I rather enjoyed reading dead people’s mail. And yet it was difficult to come up with a reading list in the area, for the historiography of biological anthropology always seemed remarkably thin. Historians of biology were so entranced by Darwin that they rarely ventured beyond him. My serious reading in that area was stimulated by Michael Ruse’s The Darwinian Revolution (1979) and Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought (1982). And histories of anthropology tended to cordon off socio-cultural anthropology and archaeology. Although I was hugely influenced by the work of Stephen Jay Gould in graduate school, it struck me as soon as I read The Mismeasure of Man (1981) that it was oddly limited to a history of psychology, with hardly a mention of physical anthropology.

In the late twentieth century, the history of physical anthropology was dominated principally by Frank Spencer (who died in 1999 at the age of 58). Misia Landau’s highly original work on the narrative structure of human evolutionary science came to an abrupt end when she left academia in the 1990s. There were a few old class historians, such as Cornell’s Kenneth A. R. Kennedy and Michigan’s C. Loring Brace. But the pickings—aside from the occasional heroic biography in paleoanthropology or primatology—were pretty slim.

The inter-disciplinarity of bio-anthropology probably contributed to its late start as a subject for historians of science. Primatology, having been visited fairly early on by Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour, spawned wonderfully insightful historical analyses like Gregory Radick’s The Simian Tongue (2008) and Amanda Rees’s The Infanticide Controversy (2009). A focus on the history of human genetics in the shadow of the Human Genome Project (by historians such as Daniel Kevles and Susan Lindee, and sociologists like Dorothy Nelkin and Troy Duster), on race (by scholars such as Evelynn Hammonds and Veronika Lipphardt), and paleoanthropology (including Peter Bowler’s classic, and more recent work by scholars like Tom Gundling and Richard DeLisle) have helped triangulate a history of bio-anthropology in the early twenty-first century.

Today I am reading the work of Marianne Sommer (History Within), Joanna Radin (Life on Ice), and Christa Kuljian (Darwin’s Hunch), and looking forward to new books by Terence Keel (Divine Variations) and by John P. Jackson and David Depew (Darwinism, Democracy, and Race). But it is still amazing to me that the history of a science focused on such fundamental questions—who we are and where we came from—and so intertwined with race and colonialism, would lie for so long, so under-developed.

The edited volume called Histories of American Physical Anthropology in the Twentieth Century (2010) suffers from the general limitations associated with scientists writing their history, but is a good starting point for a young scholar in this area. And it is worth noting that even today biological anthropology grapples uneasily with its past. The AAA, the NSF and Wenner-Gren Foundation, all the textbooks and nearly all practitioners refer to the field as “biological” anthropology; while the journal and the association itself (founded in 1918 and 1930, respectively) still call it “physical”—reflecting its early exclusive focus on racialized bones. There are scientific issues, such as the incorporation of non-“physical” subjects, notably primate behavior and DNA over the last half-century; and social issues, notably racism and colonialism, that have affected the practice and content of the science and are now foregrounded. The possibility of a change of name now comes up annually at the business meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, and is increasingly and enthusiastically supported by its younger members.


Read another piece in this series.


Classic Sources for the History of Biological Anthropology:

American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 56 (4), 1981, devoted to an historical retrospective of the 50th anniversary of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

Bowler, P. (1986) Theories of Human Evolution. A Century of Debate, 1844-1944. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Landau, M. (1991) Narratives of Human Evolution. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Little, M. A. and Kennedy, K. A. R., eds. (2010) Histories of American Physical Anthropology in the Twentieth Century. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Spencer, F., ed. (1996) The History of Physical Anthropology: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland.

Van Riper, A. B. (1993) Men Among the Mammoths. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jonathan Marks: contributions / website / / University of North Carolina, Charlotte