John P. Jackson Jr. and David J. Depew. Darwinism, Democracy, and Race: American Anthropology and Evolutionary Biology in the Twentieth Century. 240pp., index. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Concurrent with the recent rise of far-right populism and authoritarianism has been a troubling reemergence of scientific racism. New tools for sequencing genomes and identifying “genetic clusters” have enabled this revival both in academic circles and on social media. The return of “race realism” is best exemplified by the research of Nicholas Wade, who in A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (2014) argued in favor of racial determinism while also claiming that the anti-racism pushback of the post-World War II era was ideological rather than scientifically-based. John P. Jackson Jr. and David J. Depew explicitly reject this idea. In Darwinism, Democracy, and Race: American Anthropology and Evolutionary Biology in the Twentieth Century (2017), they revisit the anti-racist arguments of the twentieth century in order to re-present and reaffirm the scientific basis for racial egalitarianism and democratic equality, an admirable goal given the current political climate and ongoing fight for racial justice in the United States.

Jackson and Depew specifically focus on the mid-century alliance between American evolutionary biologists and Boasian anthropologists, analyzing leading figures in this alliance and their arguments in favor of democracy and against racism. What was—and from the authors’ viewpoint still is—important about these arguments is that they emerged out of the interactions between scholars in both fields drawing on then-current scientific evidence and anthropological critiques of the racist theories of the time. Through each figure, the authors present an episodic history of a “particular line of argument that arose at the intersection of population-genetic Darwinism and Boas’s approach to anthropology” (18). Chapter 2 begins with Franz Boas, the so-called “father of American Anthropology,” specifically highlighting his debates with Otis T. Mason over how to display museum collections (since such practices had an impact on knowledge production and public perceptions) as well as his research criticizing the prevailing eugenicist and nativist ideology of the time.

Chapter 3 explores the arguments against scientific racism put forth by Boas’s student, Alfred Kroeber, the most central of which was his idea of the superorganic. Jackson and Depew reframe this as a direct challenge to “racialist anthropologists” and other social scientists who followed “Lamarckian ideas about biological and social heritability” (67). The other side of the evolutionary biology-anthropology alliance is examined in Chapter 4 with Russian naturalist and geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky. Dobzhansky’s position was that while heritable differences exist, they are “too modulated by culture and too independent from other traits” (101) to carry the kind of implications claimed by eugenicists and racialists. Culture, he argued, is our most salient adaptation. The focus of Chapter 5, physical anthropologist Sherwood Washburn, pushed to unify physical anthropology with the other subdisciplines in order to move the field away from race-based classifications and non-selectionist ideas about evolutionary causes (137).

In Chapter 6, Jackson and Depew shift to Carleton Coon, whose views were contrary to the other figures discussed in the book. Although a physical anthropologist like Washburn,[1] Coon argued in favor of race-based anatomical differences, claiming that Homo erectus split and evolved into different races of Homo sapiens (172-73). While Coon’s arguments failed to become the received view, they were often popularly cited by mid-century segregationists and certainly have an influence on the racialist ideas reemerging today. Finally, the epilogue (Chapter 7) looks at how the critical theory of Modern Synthesis has been misapplied in the latter twentieth century, especially in the fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. The problematic assumption in both is that humans evolved hard-wired cognitive “modules” during the Pleistocene era that have not changed much since then. However, in essence what they are doing is projecting modern stereotypes about culturally contingent human behavior (specifically sexuality and gender) into a speculative past (213-14). Moreover, as Jackson and Depew point out, much of the data on which evolutionary psychology relies, for example, is drawn from American college students, highlighting deep flaws in the research itself. Revisiting geneticist Richard Lewontin’s arguments against sociobiology and genetic determinism, the authors argue that evolutionary psychology, like sociobiology, misuses the basic concepts underlying population genetic theory to perpetuate “racist, classist, and imperialist fantasies” that could be easily avoided by taking culture and cultural diversity into account (215).

In organizing the book, Jackson and Depew assign different rhetorical strategies (e.g., kairos, ethos, pathos, logos, etc.) to the subjects of each chapter (19). While an interesting framework, it is not clear how much this conceit actually helps readers to navigate the arguments as presented. Although seemingly intended primarily for an audience with advanced knowledge of anthropology, biology, genetics, and/or the histories of these fields, it would be worthwhile to translate these arguments for a wider audience given their usefulness for combating the resurging race realism and scientific racism. Overall, the authors successfully re-present the historical and scientifically based arguments for racial egalitarianism and why these ideas remain valid to this day. The book is a good demonstration of why being too discipline-bound can hamper not only our ability to cross-collaborate, but also how we understand the histories of our fields of study. According to Jackson and Depew, in being so constrained by discipline, previous histories of anthropology and evolutionary psychology, respectively, often overlooked the very fruitful interactions as well as “transgenerational affinity” that have taken place between researchers in both fields (14), a problem they seek to redress with this book. At the same time, acknowledgment of the more problematic aspects of the figures discussed here, such as recent criticism of Boas and Kroeber’s scholarship on Indigenous groups in the United States, would have provided a more nuanced picture of both the arguments and their stake in these larger debates. As Jackson and Depew make clear throughout, although the arguments made by these scholars of anthropology and evolutionary biology were previously successful in combating scientific racism, the recent return of supposedly “science-based” racial realism makes it clear that they are necessary once more.

[1] Both Washburn and Coon were students of Earnest A. Hooton. Washburn’s arguments would put him in direct conflict with his thesis advisor.

Marijke M. Stoll: contributions / website / / University of Indiana-Bloomington