In a recent note on his facebook page, John Hawks describes an AAA panel on “Biological Anthropology and the Public”, organized by Caroline VanSickle and Natalia Reagan. Citing Jess Beck (whose excellent academic blog gets orders of magnitude more views than mine), he focuses on the question of the damage done by the prevalent notion that public engagement in anthropology (and in academia more widely), is often seen as service work, often performed by women academics. Service is the least rewarded of the three main areas for which academics are responsible, the other two being scholarship and teaching.

The truth is that service work is punished rather than rewarded, especially when it comes to hiring, tenure and promotion. I regularly encounter this. I have had to defend to some colleagues and administrators the public engagement of my students as an integral and necessary part of their academic activities rather than as a distraction from their “proper” dissertation work.

Hawks says that “Public engagement was always a part of anthropology’s past, and without effective public engagement, anthropology will have no future”. I will go one further: In the past, public engagement was a key part of the work of anthropologists (including, and perhaps especially, of physical anthropologists). It was not seen as distracting and burdensome service work. It was at the core of the mission. What happened?

Pre-war era

In 1942, prominent society columnist Elsa Maxwell recounts a luncheon with Franz Boas, “who, in my estimation, was the most important man in the whole United States. It was Papa Boas”, she reminds us, “who established beyond reasonable doubt, that there is no such thing as ‘mental difference between the human races’”. The whole short piece is very much worth reading. We learn that “I consider Anthropology one of the most important of the sciences relating to society, and that anthropology museums “are among the most significant of all the forces contributing toward a saner and more democratic world”.

I would be very surprised if any society columnist today considers any anthropologist to be the most important person anywhere. I would be surprised if any popular society columnist could be bothered to knowledgeably discuss anthropology’s main contributions to society.

While Boas of Columbia favoured museums (at least initially) for bringing the Good News of anthropology to the masses, his partner and rival, Hooton of Harvard, preferred popular books with clever and provocative titles (For example: Apes, Men and Morons 1934 and Why Men Behave Like Apes, and Vice Versa 1940) and public addresses to radio audiences. Hooton was a famously entertaining writer and speaker, and he was widely read. Boas and Hooton disagreed on almost everything. They agreed, however, that anthropologists had a key role to play in public discourse.

Far from making his popular books too academic, Hooton could never resist public engagement in his academic writings. In the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, he preaches to his colleagues that “The lay patrons of the sciences, exact and inexact, natural and social, should be educated to realize that final answers to great problems cannot be bought for cash down with delivery guaranteed within thirty days.” And then: “millions for research and not one cent for publication is a policy which condemns scientists to the punishment of the daughters of Danaus – a perpetual pouring of water into sieves” (Hooton 1935:515-516).

Both Hooton and Boas strongly encouraged their students (men and women) to engage with the public, and both were active public figures in the great debates of their day on race, eugenics, immigration restriction, and the reduction of poverty, among many others. One wonders how any of them ever found time for serious scholarship.


Anthropologists, especially physical anthropologists, were deeply involved in the traumatic public debates of the 1920s and 1930s. Boas and Hooton are merely two iconic examples. As the war got closer, and as the ideas of race classification and the determining influence of biology on culture became associated in the public mind with Nazi ideology and the enemy, it was clear that a whole section of anthropology, represented by Hooton, was on the wrong side of history.

Since at least Boas’ 1911 work on the plasticity of so-called human types, it had been increasingly obvious to academics in general, and to ever-growing sections of the public, that the racialist and eugenic ideas of much of physical anthropology were scientifically untenable. By the time the Germans rolled into Poland, they had also become ideologically and politically impossible.

After the war, there is a noticeable retreat from physical anthropology within the discipline, as well as a disengagement from the public conversations. According to Google Ngrams, after decades of lagging behind the term physical anthropologist, the term cultural anthropologist becomes more prevalent in 1948 and never looks back (figure 1).


Figure 1: I added biological anthropologist to the graph just in case physical anthropologist was merely being replaced by a hipper term after the war. It seems not.

By the end of the war, Hooton, whose ideas on race were actually more subtle than his critics acknowledge, is sidelined and quietly repurposed as the father of anthropological primatology (Man’s Poor Relations 1942 and The importance of primate studies in anthropology 1954). Boas has passed away. His students have carefully polished up their cultural anthropology credentials. Carleton Coon holds Fort Hooton at Harvard for a while. He selectively but sometimes cryptically engages in public debate. He notoriously (and some would say thankfully) refuses all opportunities to publicly engage on the implications of pre-war anthropological race theory for the raging post-war civil-rights and desegregation debates.

Race theory was and remains the nuclear physics of anthropology. It is interesting to note that in the post-war period, physicists, who had been such dominant public figures (Einstein, Fermi, etc) invent a physics which in the public mind becomes the epitome of the ethereal ivory tower, unconcerned with mundane human realities, a theological caricature of academia, actively shunning temporal power. Anthropology and physics close in on themselves after becoming tainted by the brutal wartime embodiments of their core ideas and theories. It seems as if anthropologists and physicists are afraid to ask whether they can help or do anything useful, and society, in return, agrees not to ask them.

Broader forces are also at work. This period sees the origin of the funding-publishing-tenure-track complex with which we still live today. It creates an academic rat-race in which energy can’t be wasted on such frivolous pursuits as public engagement. It coincides with the expansion of universities and the rise in public funding for research, which makes academics dependent on government support, and discourages them, as a matter of self-preservation, from publicly engaged critique. McCarthyism and its descendants will see to that.


The past ten years have seen an explosion in the means available for scholars to engage with the public. What used to be complicated, expensive, and energy intensive, such as publishing and marketing trade books, has now become as simple, cheap and quick as posting on a blog and putting a link on twitter.

We live in an echo of the 1930s. Identity, equity, and discrimination are key issues, and they have been reconstructed in part as issues of race. There is great anxiety about rising hate, intolerance, nationalism, and civil liberties. War feels closer and optimists are fewer and farther between than they were a decade ago. A techno-totalitarianism that Orwell could scarcely imagine threatens to descend over us.

In the 1930s, anthropologists participated vigorously in the public conversation on these very issues. Some were proponents of ideas that we now consider abhorrent and that contributed in no small part to real catastrophes, local and global, individual and collective. Some championed ideas that were fledgling at the time but have now become normal. The sum total of anthropology’s public engagement in these debates, the vector that resulted from their combined forces, good or ill, was positive in the end: it was the rejection of scientific racism and more.

Whether they were ultimately right or wrong, these academics researched, argued, and participated in good faith in the important debates of their day. Disengagement, by some or all, would have left the field open to the dangerously uninformed and to the willfully predatory. Boas, Hooton, their colleagues and their students knew that. They acted accordingly. So should we.


Hooton EA 1934. Apes, men and morons, New York: GP Putnam and sons.

Hooton EA 1935. Development and correlation of research in physical anthropology at Harvard University, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 75:499-516.

Hooton EA 1940. Why men behave like apes and vice versa; or, body and behavior. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hooton EA 1942. Man’s poor relations, Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Hooton EA 1954. The importance of primate studies in anthropology, Human Biology 26:179-88.

Maxwell E 1942. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 26th :17.

5 thoughts on “The fall of the public physical anthropologist

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