Washburn, Sherwood Larned

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(b. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 16 November 1911;

d. Berkeley, California, 16 April 2000), physical anthropology, primatology, human evolution.

Washburn is regarded as the most influential North American physical anthropologist of the postwar decades. A sharp and incisive thinker who transcended narrow disciplinary boundaries, he reshaped physical anthropology from a formerly race-ridden discipline to a modern field of evolutionary research. Fascinated by what the behavior of monkeys and apes might reveal about human origins, he was also instrumental in the emergence of American primatology. Though he never wrote a book, did little primary research, and was not a specialist in any particular field, his forty years of teaching at Columbia, Chicago, and Berkeley left their mark on generations of students. The hunting hypothesis, his principal theory of human evolution, however, has been largely discarded.

Upbringing and Education (1911–1940). The second son of a well-to-do New England family, Sherwood (“Sherry”) Washburn grew up in an intellectually privileged environment. His father, Henry Bradford Washburn, a minister and former professor of church history, was dean of the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge. Young Washburn was impressed by his father’s oratory qualities, but felt little urge to follow in his religious footsteps. As a boy, he was fascinated by natural history and kept captive hawks and three great horned owls. Weekends and school holidays were spent at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology where he helped to prepare birds and small mammals. He was sent to private schools at Belmont Hill and Groton and went on to Harvard, the university also attended by his brother, father, and uncles. Family connections helped in this early stage: the anthropologist Alfred Tozzer, Washburn’s freshman advisor, was an old family friend. His appealing mixture of biological evolution, cultural anthropology, and prehistoric archaeology steered Washburn’s interest from zoology and medicine to anthropology.

Completing his BA in 1935 summa cum laude, Washburn enrolled for graduate school at Harvard with Earnest A. Hooton and attended courses on comparative anatomy and vertebrate paleontology. At the end of his first year, an opportunity arose to participate in the legendary Asiatic Primate Expedition of 1937. The Sheldon fellowship granted by the university allowed him first to travel to the University of Michigan where Wilfrid Taylor Dempster introduced him to the functional anatomy of joints and bones, and then to Oxford where the great morphologist Wilfrid E. Le Gros Clark taught him a more systemic, pattern-based approach to primate anatomy. These perspectives were to become crucial in Washburn’s work.

The expedition took him to Sri Lanka, Singapore, Thailand, and Borneo and has been described as “one of the last of the nineteenth-century-style colonial collecting ventures and the first of the new primate behavior field trips” (Haraway, 1989, p. 205). The expedition was led by the zoologist and conservationist Harold J. Coolidge. Washburn worked most closely together with Adolph H. Schultz, the Swiss primate morphologist for whom he dissected and prepared fresh kills. Schultz focused on bio-metrical aspects of growth and variation with proboscis monkeys, gibbons, and orangutans, while he let Washburn study the smaller monkeys. For a couple of weeks Washburn helped the primate behaviorist Clarence Ray Carpenter with his groundbreaking observational study of gibbons—one of the first successful studies of primate behavior in the wild—but he later recalled that “it was just the wrong time to expect me to shift gears from anatomy to behaviour” (DeVore, 1992, p. 415).

Upon his return to Harvard, he used the material from the expedition for his doctoral dissertation, which he completed in 1940 under the title “A Preliminary Metrical Study of the Skeleton of Langurs and Macaques,” the first in anthropology on nonhuman primates. Paraphrased in a twenty-eight-page article two years later, it was the longest of all the single-authored papers he would write throughout his life. His supervisor Hooton was the most influential and popular physical anthropologist of his generation. Hooton was generous to Washburn, Washburn was loyal to Hooton, but the intellectual differences between them were frankly enormous. The guiding principle of Hooton’s work, as witnessed in his witty, if race-based classic Up from the Ape(1931), was the validation of existing racial typologies through metrical and statistical procedures. That races were not fixed and clearly delineated biological entities, but at best fluid populations that only differ in gene frequencies, was something Washburn could not get across to him. Washburn thought in terms of adaptations, Hooton in terms of traits. Nonetheless, Washburn could “appreciate his undergraduate teaching, his support of evolutionary studies, and his interest in behavior, but repudiate[d] his concept of race, research methods, and his applications of physical anthropology” (Washburn, 1983, p. 2).

Experimental Research at Columbia University (1939–1947). After an early teaching experience at Harvard, Washburn was hired in 1939 by Samuel Detwiler as an assistant professor at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. The move to New York proved important in several respects. As an experimental embryologist, Detwiler helped Washburn with a series of laboratory experiments with live animals. In one of them, the eye of a large amphibian embryo was put into the developing eye socket of a smaller species. Washburn observed how the bony structure of the socket could grow by 140 percent. On other occasions, the cheekbone, parietal bone, or temporal muscle of rats were removed, so that the skull growth could be studied.

These “Frankensteinian” experiments demonstrated that the skull’s bony structure—the very basis on which many racial typologies had been based—was not determined by genetic design, but was something highly malleable. Muscles were the form-determining element in bone growth, while “bone was, next to the blood, the most plastic tissue in the body” (Washburn, 1983, p. 7). For many physical anthropologists, experiments on rats and amphibians seemed like a long way from home. But Washburn’s surprising results showed that the scalpel could be as useful to anthropology as the calipers.

This research would eventually cumulate in a forceful theoretical reorientation of the field, which found its apogee in the 1951 article “The New Physical Anthropology.” While the old school of Hooton was descriptive, speculative, and impressionistic, Washburn pleaded for a new physical anthropology that was explanatory, experimental, and theoretical. An integrated approach was needed:

Bones, ligaments, muscles have to be discussed together, not as separate entities, and I argued that this was equivalent to the kind of change that Malinowski brought to ethnology. The goal is to look for functional patterns, trying to see how the thing works as a system. It isn't as though one is going to do a distribution of paddles around the Pacific and talk about the reconstruction of history only from paddles. (DeVore, 1992, p. 418)

Much like Bronislaw Malinowski believed that societies should be understood as functional wholes rather than as poorly conceptualized trait lists, Washburn argued for a physical anthropology that considered the organism as a functional whole rather than as a series of anatomic features. If Malinowski provided a metaphor (paddles were to society what cranial indices were to the body, i.e., observations with little explanatory power), the modern evolutionary synthesis the substance. This synthesis of Darwinian evolution with Mendelian genetics evolved in the 1930s and 1940s and became the twentieth century’s leading paradigm in biology. Instead of considering species as abstract entities with distinct traits, it focused on populations with their dynamic adaptations. Almost single-handedly, Washburn introduced this neo-Darwinist synthesis into physical anthropology which, for a while, he preferred to label “biological anthropology.” Once the organism is no longer understood as a set of fixed features, but as a dynamic and functional whole, the unit of analysis no longer becomes the individual organism but the population with all its variability. For Hooton, this variability was a nuisance, for Washburn it was the essence of a more dynamic view of biology.

Next to Columbia’s laboratory facilities, New York in the 1940s also offered numerous encounters with intellectuals from all over the world. The city was teeming with exiled scholars from Europe. At the American Museum of Natural History, Washburn repeatedly discussed fossils with Franz Weidenreich, a German paleontologist who had earned worldwide recognition for his excavation of Peking Man but who, as a Jew, had fled Germany in 1934. He equally befriended Theodosius Dobzhansky, the Ukrainian-born geneticist who had come to the United States in 1927 and whose work on the fruit fly was essential for the modern evolutionary synthesis. Two other architects of that synthesis, the German-born Ernst Mayr (who settled in the United States in 1932) and George Gaylord Simpson, were at the Museum of Natural History and Washburn became well acquainted with the latter. At Columbia’s Department of Zoology, he discussed ideas with the great comparative anatomist and paleontologist William King Gregory, whose emphasis on function left a lasting impression. Gabriel W. Lasker, one of the founders of a more modern physical anthropology, became a close friend. Washburn was never immediately involved with the war, but these contacts made him sharply aware of the role science had played in paving the way for political racism.

Most importantly in the light of his further career, Washburn encountered Paul Fejos, the flamboyant Hungarian American film director and anthropologist who was the first director of the Viking Fund, later called the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. Benefiting from an important endowment by the Swedish industrialist Alex Wenner-Gren, the Viking Fund was to become a major force shaping North American anthropology. Washburn called its director “one of the most imaginative and creative people I have ever known” (1983, p. 20). Fejos invited Washburn to his monthly supper conferences, supported Washburn’s summer schools on physical anthropology, and invited him on travels to Africa. In 1948 Washburn flew to Uganda to collect cercopithecine monkeys and then to South Africa to study the first australopithecine fossils discovered by Raymond Dart and Robert Broom.

At the crossroads of this new physical anthropology, the modern evolutionary synthesis, the Viking Fund, and the former British colonies in East and South Africa, during the following decades a research program would unfold in which australopithecine fossils, savanna baboons, the Kalahari Bushmen, and the hunting hypothesis provided a new, inclusive, antiracial story of human origins (Haraway, 1989, p. 187). In line with the UNESCO declarations on race and the “unity of mankind” and the sense of “universal brotherhood” that emanated from Edward Steichen’s contemporary monumental photograph exhibition The Family of Man, Wash-burn’s research program stressed that all of humanity shared the same deep ancestry in which hunting was the quintessential adaptation. Ironically, the prime financier of this program, the multimillionaire home-appliance patriarch and fridge patriarch Alex Wenner-Gren, one of the world’s wealthiest men in the 1940s, was accused of affinities with the Nazis and friendship with Hermann Goering.

Behavioral Research at the University of Chicago (1947–1958). In 1947 Washburn moved from Columbia to Chicago to replace Wilton Krogman at a joint appointment in anthropology and anatomy. When the anatomy department withdrew its support, Washburn was deprived of access to a laboratory. It was in Chicago, however, that Washburn achieved his apex as a theoretician for the radically new physical anthropology. With Dobzhansky he organized the landmark symposium Origin and Evolution of Man at Cold Spring Harbor in 1950. One year later, the publication of his essay “The New Physical Anthropology” confirmed his stature as the leading physical anthropologist of his generation. That year he was elected president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. He was forty and full of ideas.

Chicago was an extraordinary place. “The people there were very active, very imaginative, very widely read, completely different and yet they got along marvelously” (DeVore, 1992, p. 418). The anthropology department— the famous “Chicago school” with Sol Tax, Fred Eggan, and Robert Redfield—was strongly influenced by the British functionalism of Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, while the rest of the country was still largely Boasian. Functionalist anthropology believed that society is a dynamic system of functional elements in which social phenomena act as adaptations, pretty much as Washburn regarded an organism and its features.

In 1955 Washburn participated at the Pan-African Congress in Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), organized by the British archaeologist J. Desmond Clark. While the 1937 expedition to Asia had been critical to his anatomical work, the 1955 trip in Africa would steer his research toward behavior.

After the Congress [...] I arranged for a small collection of baboons. But much more importantly, as it turned out, there were troops of baboons close to the Victoria Falls Hotel where I was staying. The supply of baboons was irregular, and I spent any extra time watching the local troops. This was so much more rewarding that I closed out the collecting and spent my time watching the tame baboons. [...] Almost at once the animals ceased to be just baboons; they became personalities. (Washburn, 1983, p. 16)

Imbued with British functionalist anthropology, Washburn observed locomotion, group structure, and dominance hierarchies, and soon came to believe that “Malinowski’s functional theory probably works more usefully for monkey than for human beings” (Washburn, 1983, p. 17). Back home, he urged graduate student Irven DeVore to join him on a more extensive fieldwork project with olive baboons in the Nairobi and Amboseli National Parks in Kenya. DeVore, who was trained as an anthropologist, recalls Washburn’s instructions: “My marching orders were very straight-forward. ‘DeVore, you’ve absorbed Murdock, Radcliffe-Brown, and Malinowski. Go out and tell us what it’s like with the baboons’” (Har-away, 1989, p. 219). Phyllis Jay (later Dolhinow), another of Washburn’s first graduate students, started to study hanuman langurs in India.

Primatology was still in its infancy then. Apart from Carpenter’s work on howler monkeys and gibbons and Stuart and Jeanne Altmanns’ work on baboons, little naturalistic observations on wild primates had been done. Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey had not yet begun their research; Hans Kummer, Thelma Rowell, Adriaan Kortlandt, and George Schaller were only starting; and Eugène Marais was forgotten. Family reasons prevented Washburn from undertaking much fieldwork himself, but his style of primatology was explicitly organized from the perspective of human evolution. “The greatest contribution of the study of the nonhuman primates,” he later wrote, “might be to free us from some of the traditional limitations and points of view” (Washburn, 1973, p. 178). In a series of papers around 1960, he successively explored how the behavior of baboons could help to understand the primeval stock from which humanity had sprung. As the enormous variation of primate social life was still unclear, for Washburn the baboon simply embodied a generic primate pattern.

Teaching at University of California, Berkeley (1958–1979). Having revolutionized physical anthropology with a few critical papers and having stimulated primatology with a handful of graduate students, Washburn had become a cardinal figure in American science. After a year as a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto, he was offered a professorship at Berkeley in 1958. He served as president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in 1962 and became a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1963. He was awarded the Viking Fund Medal by the Wenner-Gren Foundation in 1960, the CIBA foundation Annual Lectureship Medal in 1965, and the Huxley Medal from the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1967. In 1972, the Fourth International Congress of Primatology was dedicated in his honor, and a year later the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, which he had edited from 1955 to 1957, dedicated an issue to him. From 1956 to 1960, he had also been the editor of the Viking Publications in Anthropology.

During the last two decades of his professional career, he undertook little primary research, though his influence continued to grow. His presidential address on race with which he opened the AAA’s annual meeting of 1962 made a profound impact. Fiercely attacking Carleton Coon’s The Origin of Races (1962) while praising Dobzhansky’s Mankind Evolving (1962), he set the record straight by telling a packed auditorium with more than one thousand delegates in his typically unadorned prose: “Races are products of the past. They are relics of times and conditions which have long ceased to exist. [...] Racism is based on a profound misunderstanding of culture, of learning, and of the biology of the human species” (Washburn, 1963a, pp. 528, 531). He received a standing ovation that lasted several minutes. Thirty years later, he drew a clear line between his scientific stance and the postwar context:

An attack on typological race was in a way an attack on physical anthropology itself, and specifically on the way a lot of people were teaching it then. If I had it to do again, I would handle it the same way, despite the negative impact on some. The amazing thing to me was that here were people living that close to Hitler and that close to the war who really hadn't changed their teaching. That was the shocking thing to me, and I think it has been very bad for anthropology. (DeVore, 1992, p. 422)

His statement was courageous, but by stressing the biological basis of humanity while dismissing cultural differences, it did not equal the subtlety of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s contemporary argument on race and culture. For Washburn, humanity was universal and unique. Universal, because of the very old shared biological descent. Unique, because hunting and language set us apart from the other primates. He was as infuriated by the older racial theories as by the new sociobiological doctrine that belittled, in his view, the uniqueness of humans.

Conferences proved an important tool for developing the discipline. Between the closed gatherings of nineteenth-century-style learned societies and the mass meetings of contemporary academia, in the middle of the twentieth century small specialist conferences were often milestones of scholarship. In 1959, Washburn organized a Wenner-Gren Conference on “The Social Life of Early Man” at Burg Wartenstein in Austria, followed by another on “Classification and Human Evolution” in 1961. These were true international and interdisciplinary encounters. The latter, in particular, was revolutionary as it was the first time that the relevance of immunology and molecular biology to human evolution studies was realized. Washburn had never been a fossil fetishist and realized that genetics was to become essential. The Primate Project, which he established in 1962 and 1963 with psychiatrist and close friend David Hamburg at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences in Stanford resulted in a state-of-the-art appraisal of knowledge of primate behavior.

Washburn also enthusiastically supported Irven DeVore and Richard Lee with their “Man the Hunter” conference in Chicago in 1966, where he developed the full-fledged version of his hunting hypothesis for human origins. Hunting, in that view, was what had made us human; it was the total adaptation responsible for anything human: “The biology, psychology, and customs that separate us from the apes—all these we owe to the hunters of time past” (Washburn and Lancaster, 1968, p. 303). In the 1980s, this influential theory was discarded as the archaeological and ethnographic evidence on which it rested was eroded. Ironically, Washburn, the champion of antiracism, was associated with a man-the-hunter hypothesis deemed by some to be sexist.

At Berkeley, Washburn was charged with teaching an introductory course on human evolution that became extremely popular, sometimes attracting more than twelve hundred students. In 1975 he was given the prestigious title of university professor at the nine-campus system of the University of California. Securing extramural money from the Ford Foundation and National Institutes of Health, he assembled a very successful, truly interdisciplinary research group on human evolution in Berkeley. In addition to some of his former Chicago graduates (prima-tologists Irven DeVore and Phyllis Dolhinow, primate morphologist F. Clark Howell), it consisted of two Paleolithic archaeologists, J. Desmond Clark and Glynn Isaac, the Bushmen ethnographer Richard Lee, as well as the molecular anthropologist Vincent Sarich. There was even a facility for studying nonhuman primates.

His graduate students were numerous, his impact enormous. Of the first nineteen doctorates in primatological anthropology in the United States, fifteen were supervised by Washburn. And twenty out of forty-seven anthropological doctorates on primate behavior before 1979 were completed in Berkeley (Haraway, 1989, p. 218). Among his graduates were people such as Russell Tuttle, Ralph Halloway, Adrienne Zihlman, Ted Grand, Jane Lancaster, and Shirley Strum. Washburn was an inspiring supervisor, full of ideas and always interested in new tendencies, but “his shoot-from-the-hip approach to alternative ideas and his toughly competitive spirit frustrated and angered protégés” (Tuttle, 2000, p. 867). Always the son of a preacher, he was never quite freed from proselytism in his arguments with colleagues. Nonetheless, Washburn’s intellectual progeny populated American physical anthropology and primatology until well into the twenty-first century.

Impact (1979–2000). After his retirement in 1979, Washburn received numerous awards, such as the Berkeley Citation for meritorious service, the American Anthropological Association’s Distinguished Service Award, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists’ Charles Darwin Lifetime Achievement Award, and an honorary doctorate from Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg, in 1985. He was honorary Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland and a founding member of the L. S. B. Leakey Foundation. In 1989, Ann and Gordon Getty donated 15 million dollars to the University of California, the largest gift ever received at that time, in honor of Washburn, for the refurbishment of the biology facilities. After his death, the American Association of Physical Anthropology created the Sherwood Washburn Prize.

Epitomizing the generation that had come to intellectual maturity during World War II, Washburn’s long career was motivated by a disavowal of racial thought. He proposed a universal narrative for human origins in which cultural differences were just a very thin icing on the cake of our shared biology. Yet unlike Stephen J. Gould or E. O. Wilson, he never was a public intellectual who spoke out in defense of particular issues. When he saw the student riots on the Berkeley campus in 1964, he preferred to observe the crowd in the street as if it was a troop of baboons rather than to overtly sympathize. A positivist by default and a postwar scholar by accident, his hopes were not with the past: “The less we trust the past, the more likely we are to be useful in the present” (Washburn, 1973, p. 182). Ironically, that useful present had to contain a better understanding of our remote past.


Washburn donated his archive (1932–1996) to The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Its online inventory can be accessed at the Online Archive of California, http://www.oac.cdlib.org.


“The New Physical Anthropology.” Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, series 2, 13 (1951): 298–305. Landmark paper.

With Irven DeVore. “Social Behavior of Baboons and Early Man.” In Social Life of Early Man, edited by S. L. Washburn. New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, 1961. First exploration of baboons as models for human evolution; the book publishes proceedings of a conference.

“The Study of Race.” American Anthropologist, n.s., 65 (1963a): 521–531. His most forceful statement on race.

Ed. Classification and Human Evolution. Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, no. 37. Chicago: Aldine, 1963b. Conference proceedings that Washburn edited.

With C. S. Lancaster. “The Evolution of Hunting.” In Man the Hunter, edited by Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore. Chicago: Aldine, 1968. The hunting hypothesis in a nutshell. Washburn’s most cited paper.

With P. Dolhinow, eds. Perspectives on Human Evolution. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.

“The Promise of Primatology.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 38, no. 2 (1973): 177–182.

With R. Moore. Ape into Man: A Study of Human Evolution. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974. A popular textbook.

With E. R. McCown, eds. Human Evolution: Biosocial Perspectives. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin Cummings, 1978.

“Evolution of a Teacher.” Annual Review of Anthropology 21 (1983): 1–24. A good autobiography.

The New Physical Anthropology: Science, Humanism, and Critical Reflection, edited by Shirley Strum, Donald G. Lindburg, and David Hamburg. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999. Contains all the classic papers by Washburn and some of his students, as well as the complete bibliography (pp. 277–285).


Coon, Carleton Stevens. The Origin of Races. New York: Knopf, 1962.

DeVore, Irven. “An Interview with Sherwood Washburn.” Current Anthropology 33 (1992): 411–423. Illuminating and personal.

Dobzhansky, Theodosius Grigorievich. Mankind Evolving: The Evolution of the Human Species. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1962.

Gilmore, H. A. “From Radcliffe-Brown to Sociobiology: Some Aspects of the Rise of Primatology within Physical Anthropology.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 56 (1981): 387–392.

Haraway, Donna. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. London: Verso, 1989. Chapter 8, “Remodelling the Human Way of Life: Sherwood Washburn and the New Physical Anthropology, 1950–1980,” offers a valuable if poorly written deconstructivist perspective, placing Washburn in the context of international, colonial, economic, and gender politics.

Howell, F. Clark. “Sherwood Larned Washburn 1911–2000.” Biographical Memoirs, vol. 84. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 2003. Available from http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/biomems/. A useful introduction.

Marks, J. “Sherwood Washburn, 1911–2000.” Evolutionary Anthropology 9 (2000): 225–226.

Tuttle, R. H. “Sherwood Larned Washburn (1911–2000).” American Anthropologist 102 (2000): 865–869.

Zihlman, A. L. “In Memoriam: Sherwood Washburn, 1911–2000.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 116 (2001): 181–183.

David Van Reybrouck