In Gods of the Upper Air, Charles King illuminates the anthropologists who broke the rules of 20th century culture, and the science that upended society's assumptions about race, gender, and sexuality.
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David Gardner: What makes you normal or not in your society? Is there a normal? If there is one, what makes it so? Well, a rule-breaking renegade group of academics, adventures, researchers, and authors began to redefine these things a century ago, and the world has never been the same. In fact, despite our past and present troubles, the world is clearly today, to me, anyway, a lot fairer, a lot more compassionate, and a lot more tolerant than anytime in recorded history. I think a lot of that has to do with Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, and they are ilk. Franz Boas. Will you, like me, unaware of that name? Well, I was at least having never taken any courses in anthropology in my university days and pretty much being in the dark ever since, if Franz Boas is a name you do not yet recognize, dear listeners and fellow Fools, you will come away about an hour from now with a much deeper understanding of how rule-breaking and rule breakers really do open our eyes with the risks that they take, challenge our preconceived notions, and yes, leave the world, the campfire, much better off than when they first showed up. Our new friend author Charles King is here to help us learn his book, Gods of the Upper Air, our focus only on this week's Rule Breaker Investing.
Welcome back to Rule Breaker Investing, a delight to have you with us this week. It is Authors in August. Earlier this month, I featured Shirzad Chamine and his book Positive Intelligence, and then last week, we got to meet Michael Bungay Stanier and his book, Do More Great Work. Both of those executive coach types coaching you and me, how to see things more positively and how to do more great work. Well, this week, a horse of a different color, and that's what I love about this podcast. Our opportunity to go anywhere, anywhere our whimsy takes us as Dorothy Sayers once wrote, Lord Peter Wimsey, one of my favorite sets of detective books. But our whimsy this week is taking us to the world of anthropology. Now, I never did take a single course, and anthropology as an undergrad and I feel much of the poor for it. But one of the things we can do as adults is we can correct any mistakes we made, any blind spots we had in our formal education by reading, and reading about the world, whether the world today or the world of the 20th century or well before that. We're going to be covering some of the 20th and 21st century in today's interview.
I'm joined now by a marshal scholar, a Fulbright Scholar, Phi Beta Kappa degrees from Oxford for 25-years. Charles King has taught at Georgetown University, Professional of International Affairs and Government and recipient numerous times of teaching awards which is greatly to as credit to my eye, as well as previously serving as the Chairman of the faculty of Georgetown's [inaudible 00:03:03] School of Foreign Service. Now, Charles has written numerous books, often focused on Eastern Europe, which is in some ways what makes the focus of this week's podcast a bit surprising because his 2019 book, Gods of the Upper Air, seems something of a departure for him, newer ground, not just for him perhaps, but for many of us me included, this book is on the Rule Breaking development of anthropology and its emergence in the 20th century. Not only that, but Charles struck gold. Well, at least I hope some stipend was an order because Gods of the Upper Air won the Francis Parkman prize in 2019 awarded by the Society of American Historians for "The Best Book in American History Each Year." Charles, I'm delighted to be joining with you.
Charles King: Thank you so much. It's a real honor to be with you. Thanks for inviting me.
David Gardner: The award was actually granted, I think, in June of 2020 for your 2019 book. Charles, did you in fact come away with any goal, any stipend as your book won the Parkman prize?
Charles King: Well, the folks who organized the prize do include a stipend with it, and I was very grateful for that. But even beyond that, just the recognition, the list of previous partner winners is just who of American historians myself not actually being an American historian, and it really met a lot that they would have put me that number.
David Gardner: I first got to meet you because our mutual friend Keith Hennessy, who is a wonderful book club here in Washington, DC, and somehow managed to pull the authors in. Maybe it's because we take out a private room in a nice restaurant and invite the author, and that's when I got to meet you Charles on January 9th of 2020. It was five months later that you won that award. I didn't know at the time you are going to win it, and I don't think either of us knew at the time that a global pandemic was coming on, and boy, has the world changed a lot since January, 9th of 2020. But I want to thank Keith again for the introduction, and Charles, the subtitle of your book pretty explicitly shows your focus. That is, how a circle of renegade anthropologists reinvented race, sex, and gender in the 20th Century. But would you first of all, just explain how you selected your title, Gods of the Upper Air.
Charles King: Well, there is a bit of a story to that because the book was originally called something else. I had sold the proposal to my publisher, double day with a different title. The publisher didn't really care for the one that I had originally chosen [laughs] because titles are really important. They are the thing that initially tells a reader what your book is going to be about. As the publication day was steaming toward us, we didn't really have a title. Then I was reading the memoirs of Zora Neale Hurston, the novelist and social scientist who star of the Harlem Renaissance who turns out to be very important character in the book. She used this phrase, Gods of the Upper Air at one point in her memoir, and my wife, who is sitting on the couch the time as I was reading this aloud said, "Well, there's your title." In fact, what Hurston is getting at in that phrase is learning to see the world from the perspective of on-high, going up to a level where all of the carriers and categories of our everyday life begin to disappear and you begin to see humanity as one undivided thing, and that of course, is really the big theme of the book, and the theme of the people who's work I'm trying to focus on.
David Gardner: I really love that point and we'll definitely return there later. Let's go to the start of, well, it's the dawn of the 20th century. It's where your book is, so certainly, you cover the latter portions of the 19th century, which really set up in so many ways the 20th century. But Charles, I think we really have to put the shoes on, wear the clothes, pop on the pans nay, of the person there at the dawn of the 20th century, you'll truly see through their eyes at what the world looked like around them. The mindset of an educated person was so very different from the present day. Charles, I want to share an excerpt from your book and then ask more comment from you. Here it is. I quote "Concepts such as race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality, and disability, remains some of the most basic categories that we used to make sense of the social world. We asked about some of them on job applications, we measure others on census forms, we talked about all of them, incessantly, in 21st century America and liberal arts classrooms and on social media. But what we mean by them is no longer the same as in the past."
Charles King: If you were an educated person at the beginning of the 20th century, you took certain things for granted, because they were visions of the world that you would see if you walk into a museum, if you took a world history course. Perhaps even in a sermon [laughs] if you were in church on Sunday, and they were the following that; the world is divided into greater and lesser types of human beings. That the basic division of humanity is a thing called race, and race is both inheritable, meaning that you receive a race from your parents and then you pass a race down to your children, and that the thing that you have received is hierarchically ranked around the world, meaning that there are some racial categories that are inherently suited to be world conquering and artistic and creative, and owning businesses and running the world and other races that are fated to be backward. You believe that gender came in pre-packaged varieties and there were only two of them, and that those two were hierarchically ranked that your gender assigned you to a set of life possibilities based on which one you happen to be born with.
All of these ideas were there in museum displays. If you went to the Smithsonian, you saw it, you took a tour through human history, and saw the ways in which people at the time of Northern European heritage and descent were the ones that were running the world and everybody else was ranked somehow below those folks. In fact, if you go to the Library of Congress, I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill right at the moment. If you go to the Jefferson building, the big one, a beautiful building of the Library of Congress, you can walk around the outside of the building and take exactly that tour of human history. If you look up at the keystones of the second story windows, you will see a bunch of human heads, all of the men, by the way, human heads that are meant to represent the basic types of humanity. There are 33 of them that go ringing around the building. As perhaps not surprising, knowing that that building open in the 1890s, that people who are recognizably of Northern European heritage are on the front of the building. People who're visibly Asian heritage wrap around the size and then people on the back of African and Melanesian descent. We were so sure of this ranking of races in America that we literally carved in stone on the front of our greatest institution of human knowledge.
David Gardner: It is shocking to think about that, and yet it is so recent when you just look back over the recent cast of history, just a century ago, a lot of the things we'll be talking about in yours and my lifetime. Of course, a lot of the national conversation today is about how some of these things persist even into the present. We hope not the future. Foreign affairs, the prestigious and influential journal in our world today was originally called Journal of Race Development. I learned that from your book, Charles, the first published editions of the OED last century, did not have, as you pointed out, entries for the words colonialism, homosexuality, or racism. Say what you will about the broken world we live in today. But I think to our credit, our eyes are at least open to all these things, we have words for them.
Charles King: That's right, and there is absolutely no doubt that an educated personnel, world aware, open-minded personnel, thinks about the world differently from how such a person would have done a century ago. In fact, that's the great paradox of the moment that we live in. That it is both a time of awakening to these realities in our own history. The conversations we have about everything from the Civil War to reconstruction to the civil rights movement, to the place of people who think about gender or sexuality differently from others. All of these things are part of this awakening in the moment that we happen to live in, at the same time, that we live in a moment of backlash against exactly those ideas. That dynamic would have been very familiar to the people I'm talking about in the book because living in the 1920s and 1930s as they were, it was also a time of incredible progress on each of these issues; race, gender, sexuality, you name it, how we think about the world and other cultures. At the same time, as the world was experiencing anti-immigrant backlash, the rise of Nazism in Germany, the continuation of Jim Crow in the United States. That dynamic that give and take would've been very familiar to them.
David Gardner: Fascinating. As you point out, and certainly the central figure in my mind of your book, although you so colorfully illustrate so many of the figures of this history, and that's something I deeply appreciate about Gods of the Upper Air, but Franz Boas, who was he? What was the Boas Circle?
Charles King: Franz Boas was a German-Jewish immigrant to the United States who arrived in the 1880s, having spent time trying to be an amateur adventurer on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, living for about a year-and-a-half with Inuit populations there. He didn't really have any plan for his life other than he wanted to write some newspaper articles, maybe some learned journal pieces, hopefully become a professor somewhere. But he had a fiance who is in the United States and so moved here really to join her and bounced around a whole set of different jobs, from being an editorial assistant at Science Magazine to working on the Chicago World's Fair. By the end of the 1890s, finally secured a position as a part-time professor at Columbia University and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. From that point, his career slowly begins to take off and he eventually becomes recognized as the founder of American anthropology and gathers around him, circle of genius', as it turns out, initially undergraduates and graduate students. But people who would go on to become the 20th century, some of the great social scientific minds from Margaret Mead on.
David Gardner: I love the application of the scientific method to humanity, which isn't a lot of ways how I read or how I parse anthropology. Again, I'll confess one final time, I never did take a single course in anthropology going through university. I didn't really think about it too much. But closer to home, something that's always meant a lot to me was the application of the scientific method to baseball and baseball statistics done by Bill James, somebody contemporaneous with us. It's a much smaller world, the world of baseball versus well, the whole world. But both Boas and James and their LLC basically created revolutions by doing things like putting forward hypotheses, not accepting received trues, gathering data, and creating theories and in a lot of ways that's what Boas was doing. You point out as an explorer basically on Baffin Island and itinerary at somebody who says that he showed up there. So many of the 19th century explores were interested in the climate. They were fascinated by it's the fifth largest island in the world, it's way up there in Canada, in the Arctic, I was checking today, they are about 13,000 people living on Baffin Island even today. But a lot of them still in to it. But so many of the people who'd come through before Boas were fascinated by the ecology and the geography. He was fascinated by the people, and that made him very different from the people who proceeded them. What if Franz Boas has learn from the Inuits?
Charles King: Look, he was spending time in this very inhospitable environment where you had to know how to survive. Someone had to show you how to survive. What was good to eat? How you build a shelter in the middle of winter. It's struck Boas at some point during his time there that even though he had degrees from some of the best universities in the world, German Scientific University, you see, he had a doctorate in physics. Here in this place, in the middle of winter in an Inuit village, he was really stupid. He wasn't even a fully formed human being. He didn't know the things that you needed to know to be a proper adult in this environment. From that personal experience, we began to spin out what would turn out to be by the later 20th century, an entire of human society. That who we are depends very much on where we are, the social context we grow up in, the institutions that surround us, the habits that we inherit from parents and friends and colleagues, all of these things go into shaping who we are as individuals. Even though that seems like a very normal commonsensical way of thinking now, [laughs] it wasn't at the time because, again, we go back to what you are being told in a museum or on the facade of the Library of Congress. You are being told that there is something inherent in you that you have inherited from your parents and their parents and their parents and so on, that naturally makes you more fit or less fit in the world. Boas begins to say, actually, that's not the case. There is a thing called in his language that a culture, we might call it society or habits or institutions that begin to shape us. From that germ of an insight grows what will become the entire field of American cultural anthropology.
David Gardner: It was an active humility on the one hand because his takeaway from Baffin Island was, we're no better than them. In fact, in a lot of ways, he was, as you mentioned, completely inadequate in the circumstances in which you've found themselves. But it wasn't just humility, it was science.
Charles King: Frostbite and starvation concentrate [laughs] the mind as it turns. He realized, of course, that the stakes are very, very high. He could function really well in a tweed suit at the lectern. [laughs] He could function perfectly well in that culture, if you want to put it that way, in that environment, but taking out of that. He was a very different kind of person. In fact, he wasn't the same human being. He was a different human being when placed in a different context. It's in fact, that insight that then defines what we come to call anthropology, the study of human beings in their cultural and social context.
David Gardner: I love the takeaway. I find myself quoting you. I'm going to keep doing it throughout the hour together because it's just so beautifully written. This is how you put it near the end of that section. I quote, "If it is now on remarkable for a gay couple to kiss goodbye on a train platform, for a college student to read the Bhagavad Gita in a Great Books class, for racism to be rejected as both morally bankrupt and self-evidently stupid, and for anyone regardless of their gender expression to claim workplaces and boardrooms as fully theirs. If all of these things are not innovations or aspirations, but the regular, taken-for-granted way of organizing a society, then we have the idea is champion by the Boas circle to thank for it."
Charles King: That's right. I mean, what we saw over the course of the 20th century, and this is why I wanted to write this book, is a revolution in common sense. We often think about the progress that has been made on questions of race or ethnicity, nationalities, sexuality, gender, ability, disability. We sometimes narrate those changes as being moral transformations. The world has come to think about each of these categories in more ethical capacious morally defensible ways. But I think the way that Boas and his circle would have described it and the way that it seems to me was actually the case, wasn't it began with a scientific revolution that overturned our concept of common sense. By that, I mean, to take it for granted that the world is not ranked according to race or gender [laughs] or sexuality. That different societies think about these things in different ways that the social context that you grow up in or work in determines how you behave to a very great degree. Again, in virtually every field in the social sciences and business schools, all of these insights have had a deep impact on how we see the world. That began with the scientific changes that I'm trying to chronic with the book.
David Gardner: Well said, Charles, thank you. I want to move back again to some more of the 20th-century mentality because it's just so informative. I think not just for our conversation, but for contrasting 21st-century mentality with it. But before we go there, why did you write this book? Charles, I'm looking back here. History, what you've written, where you focused, this came out of nowhere from my standpoint. What was the germ or genesis of this book for you?
Charles King: Well, I think there are two, one is that in 2008, I happened to marry an anthropologist. [laughs] Maggie Paxson, who is absolutely brilliant the smartest person I know. Let me give you one little story about that. Our breakfast stable or our dinner table, they tend to pay [laughs] social science seminars with two members. The two of us talking about big ideas [laughs] on there, it's wonderful. I don't know how any visitor would see it, but we think that it's wonderful. We were having a conversation as couples do about something ridiculous, about drawing, that I'm terrible at drawing, she is very good as an artist.
I said, "It's really hard to draw a horse. Why are horses so hard to draw?" I couldn't draw a horse if my life depended on it. She paused for a moment, she said, "Horses are no harder to draw than any other animal, it's just that we care what they look like." [laughs] I thought, "Oh, my God. That's exactly right." That is what a PhD in anthropology, it will [laughs] give you an insight like that, which is exactly right. That it is the culture that tells us getting this thing right is more important than getting the drawing of an amoeba. [laughs] Anthropology has so many mind-blowing insights about that, that in fact, people are now applying to how organizations work, how businesses run. There's a lot of insights that can come into that. But the second thing is that I spent the 1990s and the early 2000s watching countries fall apart. I began graduate school just at the time the Soviet Union was collapsing. I traveled in the former Yugoslavia when that place was falling apart. I've been in the Caucasus driven by ethnic civil war. Places where nationalism and questions of personal identity in backlash against changing social orders where all of those things became matters of high politics to the detriment of the countries. In the run-up to 2016 and 2014, '15, as I was thinking about this book project, it struck me that my own country has its own versions of exactly those problems. Now, we didn't call it nationalism, we call it raised and racism. We didn't call it ethnic politics, we call it something else. But the same dynamics, this fear of change, the demographic transformations in a country, and the backlash against those natural transformations and social orders, I begin to see that happening all around me. I wanted to delve into the history of this country to see if there was an American response to American-produced chauvinism and prejudice. The story of the Boas circle is the story of American solutions to, particularly, American problems.
David Gardner: Brilliant connection. It gave rise to this book of history, which now is history. Speak of history, a key part of the early 20th-century mentality Charles was captured. In this short passage early in your book, I'm quoting it because let's talk about it. "The idea of a natural ranking of human types shaped everything, school and university curricula, court decisions and policing strategies, health policy, and popular culture. The work of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and US Colonial administrators in the Philippines, as well as their equivalents in Britain, France, Germany, and many other empires, countries, and territories." To what then, what is anthropometry, and what was the cephalic index?
Charles King: Anthropometry, not to be confused with anthropology, anthropometry was the attempt to measure human bodies and then to correlate those measurements with intelligence or fitness for creativity and civilization and so on. It was all the rage in the late 19th and even into the early 20th century. The cephalic index was a measurement of your head shape that was thought also to relate to propensity for criminality or intelligence and so on. There was a belief at the time that the outward physical body, the way your body appeared to somebody else was a clue to what was going on inside your deepest persona. Of course, we wouldn't believe that now, but there was a massive literature about that time.
David Gardner: Charles, is there much I can learn from the shape of your skull?
Charles King: I don't know, I think I have a very big head but I don't know [laughs] what type, I don't know. At least, every time I buy a hat, I always have to go to the [laughs] large. We know it has nothing to do with intelligence or creativity or anything like that. It just has to do with genetics.
David Gardner: Thank you. Let now move on to what I think is a hugely important subject in your book, of course, great cultural importance in our world today. One word, race. Let me start by asking you as you tell the story in your book, and I lazily had never bothered inquiring. Why are so-called white people referred to as Caucasians?
Charles King: Well, it's an interesting story and it makes absolutely no sense other than [laughs] as part of the weird inheritance of this thing called race. It all goes back to the 18th century to one German anatomist named Blumenbach, who in the attempt to determine how many races there were in the world and this among anatomist and people who you will later call biologists weren't called that at the time. This was all the rage. Trying to divide the world into natural races in the same way that we would divide other species into species kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species all of these different categories. He in studying a collection of humans skulls that he had at his university in Germany came across one skull that he found to be just perfect, just so beautifully formed. It had to be the one that God had originally created from which every other type of human being had descended. These people by the way, in the 18th century were what we might call devolutionist rather than evolutionist. They believe that God who created perfection and everything else had devolve from that. It turned out the skull was from a young woman from the Caucuses Mountains at the intersection of Turkey, Iran, and the Russian empire at the time. He used this label Caucasian from the Caucasus Mountains for people we would later come to call white and that simply became the scientific term that stock and its fit with all other ideas of the time that maybe the garden of Eden lay there somewhere and that's where the original act of creation had taken place. Then every other type it descended from that original perfect white person.
David Gardner: Race as you write on page 80 was never just a matter of classifying people by appearance. However, it has long been associated, we've already talked about this, but with other traits such as your physical ability, your intelligence, your language, and your level of civilization. Now, there was an incredibly influential book that I'm sure you've read at least parts of that I had never heard of before, called the Passing of the Great Race. The author was Madison Grant and I think in particular what jumped out to me about his work and I would love for you to share a little bit more about, for those of us who had never heard of Madison grant before the Passing of the Great Race, we need to learn from you right now. But it was fascinating to me that most of all, he was drawing distinctions important to him about the better and worse variations in quotes, "Better and worse variations of white people themselves."
Charles King: Madison Grant was an American Philanthropist, do good one of the founders of the Bronx Zoo friend of Teddy Roosevelt at the beginning of the 20th century and living in New York at the time and having spent time in the American West, understanding the ways in which natural habitats can be destroyed by incomers and invading species. He was drag that there was some parallel to what he was witnessing in New York. This was at the time, of course, of the great immigration serves the time of Ellis Island and so forth coming to the United States of people from a Southern and Eastern Europe. He began to be worried about what would happen to the Noble American species, just like the Bison and the Elk, with all of these newcomers coming in. Of course to him, the great Noble American species happened to be people exactly like him. People of Anglo-Saxon as people we've set at the time descent inherent. He wrote this book called the Passing of the Great Race, published in 1916, which became a huge bestseller. Everybody read it. It was one of those books, there are a few books every year that have to be on your coffee table [laughs] or your bookshelf. This was one of those big books of the moment in which he argued that countries that restrict immigration of lesser types, of course, it went without saying to him that non-white races were lesser types, but even within that umbrella category of white, restricting people who weren't of Anglo-Saxon background or Nordic or North European background, that the country would preserve itself best, the fewer number of those other types you led into the country.
It became central to debates in the 1920s about the immigration reform and in fact, the anti-immigration laws that came into force by the middle of the 1920s. That book went on to have a huge, in fact, global impact. Because in country after country, if you were looking for an argument for how to restrict immigration and how to preserve your racial essence, particularly in Northern Europe, you turned to Madison Grant. As part of the research for this book, I went to the Library of Congress in the rare books room. If you go there today, you can do the same thing. You can hold in your hands. Adolf Hitler's copy of the Passing of the Great Race signed to Adolf Hitler. This turned out actually really important in Hitler's thinking because of the book was translated into German exactly at the time the Hitler was writing mine comp. This goes back to the point we were making earlier that these ideas we're not French. [laughs] They were actually the scientific and political consensus of the day. That's how you have to understand everything from Jim Crow to anti-immigration legislation in the '20s. This was what the power structure at the time believe to be true.
David Gardner: That was such an eye-opener for this American that in 1925, Austrian radical Adolf Hitler, inspired by the Passing of the Great Race, wrote a letter to Grant calling it and in quotes "My bible."
Charles King: I mean, historians have done a terrific job in the last few years. A number of really wonderful historians focusing on the American influence on German politics in the development of Nazi ideology. In fact, it turned how much that in the 1930s. Nazi lawyers and biologists and demographers we're deeply studying the United States and that makes sense when you think about it because they were in the process of building a racially ordered state. Why wouldn't you study the country that as Hitler actually says in mind comp, the country that comes close to getting race right is the United States. Because no country in the world had a more perfected system of racial categorization. We asked about it on census of segregation in schools and train cars and theaters and you name it and the segregated United States, not just in the old South by the way, but across the United States. No country had a more widespread system of preventing marriage across racial lines and by the way if we think this is an ancient history, it was the year it was born, that it became fully legal in the United States and all of the United States for people to marry across racial lines. When people talk about re-narrating the history of race in this country, we're not talking about a radical idea. Were actually just talking about coming to a more clear-eyed understanding of the way in which race has worked historically in the United States.
David Gardner: It is stunning, Charles, and to put a cap around that, again, I just quote this line from you concluding that section, "The Germans we're working diligently to understand how the United States had gotten racism so right."
Charles King: That's exactly right. You might say that Nazi Germany created some of the first areas studies programs in the United States that they were going abroad to study how this foreign country had done things so that they could emulate it in Germany itself. They had a study abroad programs, they had scholarships for doctoral students who could come to the United States, particularly to Southern University to study how Jim Crow work.
David Gardner: One of the things that's always confounded me is there were all, or so many of us are [inaudible 00:35:45] and there's a default assumption in our culture it seems that were measured and I'm thinking about US 21st century right now that were measured sometimes by our whiteness. Let me explain. Actually, I don't need to because page 90 makes it clear where this came from. Madison Grant's book a century ago set this emotion and I quote, "The cross between a white man and an Indian, is an Indian. The cross between a white man and a Negro is a Negro. The cross between a white man and a Hindu is a Hindu and the cross between any of the three European races, so it turns out there three in Europe and Jew is a Jew." Here's a question for you, Charles. How many human races are there? [laughs]
Charles King: That's a great question and it's one that my students sometimes ask. I teach a course on races, ethnicity, and nationalism. They always want to know what the right answer to that question is. [laughs] Of course, the only right answer to that question is zero. In fact, what we mean by race is the early 20th century version, which is a biologically real and inheritable essence to you, called a race. That then you pass down to your children along the lines of the quote from Madison Grant that you were just reading, that is absolute nonsense. There is no such thing. If we mean, on the other hand, in a way race is a verb. That is how do you get raced or how do you get assigned to a category? What is race as a social concept? Of course, that's very real, at least in the United States and different countries do it in different ways but there is no universal number of races that is applicable in every country. In fact, as the book tries to show, all of those categories are products of a specific history set of power relations, culture if you want to call it that. In fact, if you go back to Darwin and I think it's The Descent of Man, he has a whole passage in which he makes fun of the attempt to determine how many races there are. He has this beautiful paragraph where he says, "Well, some people say there are two," and he gives a citation. [laughs] "Some people say there's" [laughs] and then he gives a citation. "Some people say there are 21," gives another citation. [laughs] So we ought to be skeptical about whether human beings are naturally divided into these categories.
David Gardner: So well said. I'm glad that you said that and I'll tell you after reading your book, the few times I've filled out forms since reading your book in 2019, I no longer answer the race question because I think it's a silly question. I realized that's a radical stand in some ways and in other ways, it's completely historically and scientifically defensible. That's my own little stand brought on by you.
Charles King: Well, I got back and forth on this because on the one hand, I hate those questions. I absolutely hate them. The fact that we still have pre-determined boxes on a census, for example, just reinforces this biological idea. For example, students come into my classroom at Georgetown. These are fabulous students, these are some of the best students in the country. They have learned in school to say, race is a social construct, they know that to be true. But what that means in practice, or they still want race somehow to be biological, to have like a biological reality to it, and to be fundamentally different from a thing like ethnicity or nationality. I gave them a little quiz, a whole set of things, race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, membership in the Star Trek fan club. [laughs] [MUSIC] Which one of these categories is the easiest thing to change, which is the hardest? They always put race is the hardest and then I ask them why and somebody will always say, "Well, because race is biological, it's inherited from your parents." We still teach kids that idea and it's things like those boxes on the census that reinforce that. On the other hand, I am a person who would be identified as white in any social context and in a way, I want that to be recorded. I want that fact to be acknowledged from a social or power or privilege point-of-view, and so I'm always torn on how to answer that question. It's a product of our history, it's a product of the continuing ways in which we believe that race has this biological essence to it even though we've learned better and we've learned to say that it doesn't.
David Gardner: Maybe the most important paragraph, for me anyway, in this whole section, and I'll quote this reads as follows. "Without homogeneous, easily identifiable 'races', the entire edifice of racial hierarchy crumbled." Quote, and this is quoting Boas, "The differences between different types of men are on the whole, small as compared to the range of variation in each type." Boas concluded, I keep going here, "Not only was there no bright line dividing one race from another, but the immense variation within racial categories called into question the utility of the concept itself. Once you really tried to define what a race was, much less quantify it with calipers or measuring tapes, you found that you were holding ashes in your hands."
Charles King: Exactly right, and this goes back to Boas being employed by Congress at the beginning of the 20th century to do a series of studies to try to understand how immigration, this massive LSI and immigration was affecting the American body politic, if you like. We're Americans physically becoming different because of reproduction across racial or ethnic lines and what he found published in a rather obscure, but as it turns out very important report in 1911 was that children born in the United States had more in common physically, if you took all these body measurements, they had more in common with other American children than they did with members of the same racial type who still lived back in their country of origin. Now, to us, this seems obvious, meaning that of course, maternal nutrition and prenatal care and all things and then what happens in the first six months or year of a child's life is hugely important in determining the physical structure of that body as the child grows up but that wasn't understood at the time. In fact, it struck a blow at the idea of the physical reality of race. Because just as in that passage you just quoted, if in fact you can assign people to obvious racial categories based on their physical structure, then how could you attribute intelligence or civilization or any other thing to this? It crumbled in your hands as soon as you were trying to do it. But my the way one final point on this, we look back and smile wryly at those silly people in the early 20th century who believed differently but keep in mind the new story from just a few weeks ago that the NFL was still doing race norming on questions of the cognitive impact on players being bashed and beaten during a football game. This idea of the biologized nature of race is not at all ancient history. It's still very much around. By the way, the place that I really wish [laughs] would require anthropology courses along these lines is medical schools. Because I think that's an area where the old racist ideas are really still there and deeply ingrained in the ways that people don't see as obvious.
David Gardner: Compelling point. I had not thought of that. I love how you ended this section. You referenced this line earlier. It speaks to me anyway, that's why I double underline it on page 310 the simple sentence, "The strongest moral schemas rest on the proven truth that humanity is one undivided whole."
Charles King: That's right. This book is about science and scientists and how they change our common sense but it has a moral point at its core. In fact, I think their theories and their ideas and their research also had a moral point. But the morality follows from the science, not the other way around that the reason you be an anthropologist or your throw yourself into a situation like on Baffin Island where you intentionally make yourself stupid, is so that you begin to get off your own high horse to see your own society and it's foibles and it's weirdnessess and the things that it takes for granted as being not universal, as being very specific to your time and place. That opens up an incredibly capacious sense of morality, because you then begin to understand other societies and places and cultures on their own terms and begin to make sense of them. That doesn't mean you have to agree with everything that is happening in some other place, but you do first need to understand why it's happening.
David Gardner: I love that point and I see it reverberating through a lot of things around me. Listeners of this podcast can think back just a couple of weeks ago when Shirzad Chamine talked about one of the sage powers that we can all bring to bear that we have within us that we should be using is curiosity, is exploring. He says specifically, be a cultural anthropologist in a situation where you find yourself behaving in some strange manner or you don't like somebody else's actions or what they are saying, step back and be curious about that. Or I think about a lot of the power behind Amazon.com, which has been powered for most of its history by Jeff Bezos who has championed the idea of beginner's mind, not making assumptions about how people want to buy, what they want to buy, or how your user interface should look but being curious about it, taking the Franz Boas on Baffin Island approach of being a beginner by intention.
Charles King: Yeah. We would want other people to behave with us in exactly that way. We would want people to think that we did things for a reason, that our behavior made sense to us. That our gods and our obsessions were there because they did something for us not because we were idiots or not [laughs] because we were being evil. In any social situation, or for that matter, political situation or a business situation or organizational transformation situation, beginning with trying to understand human motivations and mindset as your starting point. That's all I think being a cultural anthropologist meant to these individuals. By the way, their method was simple but revolutionary, especially in the context in which they were doing it and the method was just this, shut up. [laughs] Be quiet for a moment, live in a place, listen to why people are doing things, try to understand things from their perspective, and then write all of that up in an empathetic way. That's social science at its best. I think it has a lot to teach us in the world of morality and ethics too.
David Gardner: Thank you for that. Zora Neale Hurston, who by the way, a graduate of Washington, DC zone Howard University very much in the headlines have Howard is the stock, I'm buying that stock today. Great to have their presence as historically black university here in the nation's capital, Zora Neale Hurston, you quota as calling herself a child that questions the gods of the pigeon hole. That's a lot of the theme that runs underneath our conversation today. Pigeonholing and questioning, pigeonholing, she wrote and you're quoting her, I'm quoting you quoting her wrote, "Negroes, we're supposed to write about the race problem. I wasn't, I'm thoroughly sick of the subject." She later wrote, "My interest lies in what makes a man or a woman do such and so regardless of his color, it seemed to me that the human beings I met," she wrote, "Reacted pretty much the same to the same stimuli." Different idioms? Yes. Inherent differences? No.
Charles King: Well, she was she in so many ways. Hurston is the beating heart of this book from the title on down because people know her as a novelist. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel that high school kids in the United States read, is one of the great works of American literature. But in this book she's a social scientist because having studied that Howard then graduating from Barnard College in New York, she fell into the Boas circle at Columbia and started to do a PhD in anthropology. She never finished it, but she did go on expeditions of her own to Jamaica and Haiti and New Orleans and other parts of the American South to try to study local cultures there. She is a brilliant nonfiction rider in addition to being a novelist. She has this ability, I think, to jump off the Boas and high dive, [laughs] if I can put it that way. You'd like to really trying to suspend your disbelief and try to inhabit another cultural place. She is, by the way, the first-person ever to photograph as zombie. A photograph that appear in life magazine and then in Waterford books on Haiti. What she meant by that, she met a woman who was described locally as a zombie, and for Hurston, this meant trying to understand what that category in the context of Haiti at the time really meant, not trying to think of the supernatural or extra worldly versions of that category. But why does a society create a category of the living dead for people seem to use that category in important ways? Of course, for Hurston, a woman who grew up in Jim Crow, Florida, who lived in Washington, DC, working as a waitress at the exclusive Cosmos Club here in DC, then leading light of the Harlem Renaissance, who was just unknown then to the other students. Once you would come into that seminar room at overwhelmingly, almost exclusively white, Colombia and Barnard at the time, she knew what it meant to be the living dead. She knew what it meant to be a person who is invisible to everybody else around you. That's what I mean by the high dive, beginning to see things, categories that look really weird and strange to you as meaningful in their context. The passage you read from Hurston, by the way, if you think American categories aren't weird, you mean this biological thing called race that I inherit from my parents and then passed down to my children. I don't know where it lives. I can't describe it, but it seems to have an impact on my intelligence and my ability to get a job and the ability to vote. That looks like supernatural [laughs] category to me. That's what they were so good at pointing out. Not the way in which other societies are always models for ones own society that might not be at all. But the way in which we can change the way we do things by making ourselves weird.
David Gardner: She was one of the bright lights of the 20th century who studied under Franz Boas and was at Columbia. At a certain point, Boas starts to lose his social capital at its own university and starts getting defunded. But one of the interesting things to me about that time is that it seemed like the women studying under him specifically more so than the men, it was a woman-led circle that all of a sudden starts to popularize him and they start to get publishing their Margaret Mead and their Ruth Benedict. It's a fascinating thing to reflect on. Why was Boas losing social currency at his own university?
Charles King: Well, Boas was the person who always made administrators not mad. I've been a department chair [laughs] and there are sometimes difficult colleagues and Boas was absolutely a difficult colleague then that went along with his billions in some ways. But he would write letters to the editor of the New York Times on various outrageous subjects having to do with the politics or international affairs of the day. It was a great opponent of the First World War. He couldn't figure out why the United States was preferring British imperialism to German imperialism. That just didn't make any sense to him. By the way, in the two world wars, the two bids of his identity, were targets. He was German and Jewish, and so in the First World War, he experienced living in the United States what it was like to be a deeply unloved minority. That's not often told story about what happened to German America during the First World War, their exclusion that are being targeted by the United States government and so on. He experienced that firsthand. Then of course, during the Second World War being the most hated and unloved minority as a Jewish man, although living safely in the United States in his own homeland as the Nazi Party rose in Germany. All of these folks in one form or another were outsiders. That turned out to be really important to the way that they saw the world. The revolutionaries do not come from the people at the center of power. The revolutionaries come from the people who have a view at the corner their eye of what's going on, and it's a clearer way of seeing things. By the way, all of them at some point in their lives had exactly the same experience. Boas as a German-Jewish immigrant at a time of anti immigrant backlash, Hurston as the only black student at Barnard, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, by the way, to the other characters in the book who are in this loving same-sex relationship at a time when that had to be kept quiet. They all experienced the same thing. At some point they said, wait a minute, all the struggles I'm having in life are either because of my own deviance and ineptitude. There's something wrong with me that is causing me to have problems in my job that I can't move forward in my profession. Or there's something about the relationship between me and the institutions, culture, society of which I happen by chance to have been born. That I'm fine. I'm okay, I'm an integral, fully formed human being. But there's something about my fit into where I happen to have been dropped by fate. That is the beginning of this idea, that where we are is a big part of determining who we are and our life chances. The study of that, you might say is a huge leap forward in American social science and for that matter, American common sense.
David Gardner: American common sense indeed. On the one hand, it seems so commonsensical that we're so based on unrelated to and influenced by where we happen to be born and yet, it's also so hard to remember that sometimes even at the national conversational level. As we move toward closing, Charles, I definitely want to open it up briefly to sex and gender. You just did it there with Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, so I want to get there. We're running out of time, of course. But before we go there, I do want to just mention that in part of my preparation for this interview, Charles King, I went back checking Columbia University, having it on my mind. Did you know that there was a university president in 19th century named Charles King of the Columbia University? [laughs]
Charles King: Yes, in fact. There was also a rider on the American West, and so occasionally on my Google scholars citations. [laughs] Some obscure work about the planes wars that will pop up as in Google scholars, like it should just be honest.
David Gardner: Speaking of therefore being a descendant and genetics, and unless you are not to confirm, not a descendant of Charles King, the university president of Columbia.
Charles King: So far as I know, but I was adopted [laughs] when I was three days old. Who knows? [laughs]
David Gardner: Well said. Now, I want to share with you yet another quote from your book. This one jumped out to me as we start to talk a little bit about DVMC, if you will, whatever that means in sex and gender. I quote, "Western society was obsessed with seeing people as types of some deeper innate reality, gender was no more than another version of race or head-shape. One more way of reducing individual ability by corralling it. Margaret Mead concluded in her work, sex and temperament, a civilization might take it's cues, not from such categories as sex, race, or hereditary position in a family line. But instead of specializing personality along such simple lines, recognized, trained, and make a place for many and divergent, temperamental endowments," that's a little bit of a mouthful, but you just continue on a little bit from there. "To do otherwise wasn't a base, a matter of injustice or oppression as it will later be labeled, although it produced plenty of both. It was just a terrible waste, a vast squandering of talent, energy, and aptitude all bottled up inside people who were forced to live their lives as tragically less than. "
Charles King: She was trying to get at the idea that if we would just take off what Boas has called our culture umbrella, our cultural lenses for a moment and begin to see people as people and talents as talents and the abilities as abilities. We will look around us and discover suddenly, all of the walls that we have created, both mental cognitive as well as literal walls to keep people from realizing that potential. We've had a transformation in the United States on questions of sexuality. Over the last decade, we've had a transformation or continuing transformation over questions of gender. Mead was at the forefront of helping us see those things. We've had a transformation over the question of disability over the last 30 years in the United States. Once you begin to see the problem, not as a moral one primarily, but to see it as a matter of how do we make my organization, my country, my business, my school, better by unleashing the talent that I have because of my culture lenses [laughs] put behind the wall, that's the people way of seeing things. For example, you think of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the revolution in common sense. That through the bravery and activism of so many people for so long helped other Americans begin to see. That, for example, if the only thing preventing the expression of talent in an organization is a staircase, why wouldn't I remove that staircase and make a ramp? Is the only thing that is preventing kids being loved in a secure and beautiful and loving environment. A particular vision of what constitutes from up state point-of-view, I think called marriage. Why wouldn't I make that more capacious? This revolution in the common sense was a thing that the Boas circle need and others we're really trying to get us to see and we're beginning, I think, to see how that might work in lots of domains of American lives.
David Gardner: What do you think are present day national conversation, if you will? Charles, what do you think we see really well now, perhaps for the first time. What don't you think we're seeing?
Charles King: Well, I think in the same way that we look back on those museums displays from a century ago, or look at the obvious over racist like Madison Grant from a century ago and either shake our heads, or laugh at them. Of course, our grandchildren and great grandchildren will do exactly the same thing to us. We are all in our way, museum pieces. Trying to have a sense of what that might be down the road. I think the thing that immediately comes to mind is of course the environment for that matter, non-human animals. We will not think the same way a century from now if we make it about the other creatures that inhabit this planet and about the plan itself in exactly the same way we think about it. Now our hierarchy of those things will be different, our sense of what is urgent and morally correct I think will be very different too. All of these things are scary. [laughs] They really are because they take us from the top of the pile and say, "No, we're actually situated in history," and we change overtime. Our sense of right and wrong does in fact change over time, it's not timeless. But they are senses of right and wrong, there are things called ethics and morality. It's just that they're shaped by a whole variety of different factors, from the ones that we often think. The core of that is the belief in an undivided set of human beings who have the capacity, because [laughs] of our brains, to change the world that we live in. We don't have to accept our social world as we find it. We have the capacity to change it.
David Gardner: Beautifully said. I want everybody listening to me right now to know that while I'm often reading from excerpts from Charles' book or I'm reading my own questions that I've scripted out ahead of time. Charles is simply speaking off the comp throughout this entire interview and you can hear the eloquence of demand and why indeed, he is more than worthy, I think of the Parkman Prize awarded just last year. I'm so honored and delighted to have been sharing this hour with you, Charles. I love the final paragraph of your book. Charles will get to that in a second, but I do want to say, when you talk about whole aspects of humanity being unleashed that stored up potential energy of the ignored, the downtrodden, those who didn't rank in the past. Then you think about them being opened up and all of a sudden becoming entrepreneurs, becoming people who have capital, whether financial, human, or social to do stuff in the world. It's part of the reason I've been such a bull for the last 25 years. As a stock market investor and why I will remain so over the next 25 years. In particular, I think one of the great unleashing of energies of our time is women and women in the workplace. When you and I were born, Charles, right near each other somewhere in the mid-60s, perhaps. Women didn't really have jobs and weren't welcome. They'd only gotten the vote a few decades before, but you think about taking about, well, actually slightly more than half of all humans on planet Earth and not every society is getting this yet. You start saying they have incredible value to add professionally in addition to all the other things they do. Yeah, that makes it pretty bullish for conscious capitalism. Well, as I mentioned, I love the final paragraph of your book and I feel like I've been stealing your fire all hour along by reading your own stuff to you. I hope everyone knows Charles is writing these things not I, but I wanted the final paragraph to just appear here on the pockets. I thought let's have Charles himself read, the way he ended his Parkman prize award-winning book: Gods of the Upper Air. Charles, would you share with us the final paragraph?
Charles King: You bet hear it goes. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see racial science, eugenics, colonialism, and the excesses of nationalism for the misguided things they were and in their modern guises still are. The more difficult thing, even for committed cosmopolitan is to recognize in oneself the errors that Boas and his students were trying to correct. "I have seen and heard," Hurston wrote in a passage deleted from her autobiography. "I have said in judgment upon the ways of others and in the voiceless quiet of the night, I have also called myself to judgment. The most enduring prejudices are the comfortable ones, those hidden up close. But seeing the world as it is require some distance, a view from the upper air. Realizing the limitations of your own culture, even if it claims to be culture-less and global. Feeling the power of prayer, if you reject someone else's god. Understanding the inner logic of bewildering political preferences, sensing the worry and depression, the disquiet and rage caused in other people by the very outlooks on reality that seem holly natural to you. These are skills built up over a lifetime. The promise is that with enough effort, we might come to know humanity in all its complexity in fits and starts with dim glimpses of a different world appearing through the midst of custom. Changing us, unseeding us in a way destroying us, the baffling, terrifying liberation of home truths falling away." I wrote that paragraph in that way and I wanted to end the book that way. In some ways as a message to other world aware, people who believe themselves [laughs] to be cosmopolitan. Because this book is also for people who already think of themselves as living in a culture-less or capacious or open-minded way. Because you will always be able to identify people, whether it's folks of different political persuasion or people who believe different things from you. Who's ideas about the world seem either abhorrent or strange or bizarre. The lesson of the Boas circle is to do the hard work of trying to understand those people too. Think about how ridiculous it seemed in the early 20th century to go around the world and suggest that folks on Baffin Island or an American Samoa where Margaret Mead went. I have something to tell enlightened to 20th century America. While there are lots of places in the world and ways of seeing the world that I think we need to sharpen our ability to understand. It doesn't mean you have to end up agreeing with it. But understanding why people believe what they do is important for liberals and for a world [laughs] where cosmopolitan people who believe themselves to be that, just as much as it is for people that we might think of as benighted in then the thrall of tradition.
David Gardner: Charles King, thank you for joining us this week on Rule Breaker Investing.
Charles King: Thank you so much. I'm just delight to be with you.