William White Howells

William White Howells (born 1908) was an American anthropologist specializing in human evolution and variation. A major focus of his researches was the anthropology of Oceania.

William White Howells was born on November 27, 1908, in New York City, the son of the architect John Mead Howells (1868-1959) and the grandson of William Dean Howells (1837-1920), the literary critic, novelist, and close friend and adviser of Samuel Clements (Mark Twain). After attending St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, he entered Harvard University, where he studied anthropology under Earnest Albert Hooton (1877-1954), and in 1934 he received the Ph.D. degree in physical anthropology for his dissertation. The Peopling of Melanesia as indicated by cranial evidence from the Bismarck Archipelago.

Following a period as a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York (1934-1939), Howells was appointed assistant professor in the then Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin (Madison). In 1943 he was commissioned a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and assigned to Naval Intelligence (Far East Division) in Washington, D.C. He returned to Wisconsin in 1946 as an associate professor and was made a full professor of anthropology there in 1948. He left Wisconsin in 1954, upon succeeding Hooton as professor of anthropology at Harvard University. After 1974 he was anthropologist emeritus at Harvard.

A particular characteristic of academic anthropology in America is the blending of its biological, social, and archaeological elements into a uniquely holistic science. While its practitioners receive this all-encompassing view of the discipline in their training, the vast majority, inevitably, succumb to specialization; few aspire successfully to dominate the entire field. Howells, however, distinguished himself by writing critically acclaimed texts in the three sub-areas of anthropology, and as such he was justly regarded as outstanding both as a general anthropologist and as a physical anthropologist.

While at Wisconsin Howells produced three of his most successful and influential books, namely Mankind So Far (1944), The Heathens (1948), and Back of History (1954), which reflect the breadth of his anthropological knowledge and interests. During the same period he became involved in the affairs of national organizations such as the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA), as well as the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and Section H of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Between 1939 and 1943 he served as secretary-treasurer of the AAPA, and from 1949 to 1954 as editor of its publication, the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. In 1951 he was elected president of the AAA. He also played an active role in the affairs of the Division of Anthropology and Psychology of the National Research Council and was later a member of the first advisory panel for anthropology (Division of Biological and Medical Sciences) of the National Science Foundation.

It is possible to identify two major research foci within the wide range of Howells' anthropological interests: the anthropology of Oceania and general human evolution. With regard to the first, Howells, after his student years, gathered large amounts of metrical data on cranial series from Oceania as well as other regions of the world in an effort to shed light on the question of the origin and variation of Pacific populations. Between 1966 and 1972 he participated in the Harvard Solomon Islands Project and was responsible for conducting an intensive study of the medical and biological variation of several native communities, such as Lau Lagoon and Baegu. Drawing on the results of his own researches and those of other workers in physical anthropology, as well as the discoveries of recent archaeological and linguistic investigations, he published in 1973 a major synthesis of the prehistory of the Pacific region: The Pacific Islanders. His later work involved multivariate analysis of cranial series in studies of the origins of the Chinese (1983) and the Japanese and Polynesians (1981).

As these and related studies indicate, Howells throughout his career gave critical attention to the improvement of methods applied to the study of both skeletal and living populations. Drawing attention to the need for more reliable analytical techniques in anthropometry, he began with the demonstration in the early 1950s of how factorial analysis may be applied to anthropometric data to specify parameters of components making up the human physique. Later in the decade he applied this approach to the problem of variation in cranial morphology and showed that "10 measurements account for virtually all of the correlation in the cranial vault proper." Shortly thereafter he turned to multivariate analysis and embarked on a long-range program of research to determine racial affiliation of human crania and their respective ranges of variation. This work culminated with the publication of his book Cranial Variation in Man (1973).

Since then, he has published Skull Shapes and the Map (1989); Getting Here: The Story of Human Evolution (1993); and Who's Who in Skulls (1995). He received the Charles R. Darwin Lifetime Achievement award in 1992.

Intimately interwoven with the above studies was Howells' ongoing interest in the topic of general human evolution. Here he focused on the question of the origins of anatomically modern (a.m.) humans, and in particular on the issue of whether all living populations had a single origin (in the late Pleistocene), or whether they evolved in many different regions from local archaic populations. In contrast to the views of such workers as Franz Weidenreich (1873-1948) and Carleton Coon (1904-1981), who argued for an essentially polycentric origin for a.m. Homo sapiens (1976), Howells contended that the variation of recent people is primarily the result of dispersion from a common source. In taking this position, he was critical of the idea of a polytypic Neanderthal stage as the antecedent to modern humans. While acknowledging the possibility of some admixture between Neanderthals and essentially a.m. Homo sapiens populations of the Upper Paleolithic (as indicated by the presence of Neanderthaloid features among the Skhul skeletons) Howells considered this admixture as modest—if at all. The presence of such traits at Skhul have been taken by some workers as evidence of direct descent from Neanderthals or of hybridization with Neanderthals. Commenting on this, Howells wrote: "Though it is entirely likely that Neanderthal genes survive, general aspects of facial and cranial shape fail completely to sustain either idea. In fact, multivariate analysis of measurements makes a strong distinction between Neanderthals and modern crania." (Evolution of the Genus Homo, 1973)

Howells received a number of prestigious awards, including the Wenner-Gren Viking Medal in physical anthropology (1955), the AAA Distinguished Service Award (1978), and the Société d'Anthropologie de Paris Broca Prix du Centennaire (1980). He also received honorary doctorates.

Further Reading on William White Howells

Although there is no biographical study of William Howells, some background information (including a bibliography covering the period 1934-1975) can be found in the introduction to a festschrift marking his retirement from Harvard, written by colleagues and former students, entitled "The Measure of a Man: William White Howells." This volume was published in 1976 under the title The Measure of Man: Methodologies in Biological Anthropology, edited by Eugene Giles and Jonathan S. Friedlaender. A brief evaluation of Howells' osteometric work can be found in T. D. Stewart, Essentials of Forensic Anthropology (1979); see also F. Spencer (editor), A History of American Physical Anthropology, 1930-1980 (1982). References to Howells' paleoanthropological studies can also be found in this latter work and in F. H. Smith and F. Spencer (editors), The Origin of Modern Humans (1984).