Anthropologists Hurl Skulls at Stephen Jay Gould

27 Mar

Read The House of Violence for 1.99

A June 2011 article from the New York Times entitled Scientists Measure the Accuracy of a Racist Claim says Stephen Jay Gould got it wrong.

The renowned Gould tracked roots of scientific racism, claiming that scientists who have attempted to measure man as a racial and genetic entity have through the decades unconsciously skewed and misinterpreted findings.

Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, a heady and difficult read to be sure, takes up the measuring of skulls and bodies, the nativity of Stanford Binet testing, as well as immigration screening; it renders “factor analysis” understandable to the layman.  Gould held that scientists bent on discovering genetic reasons for differences in intelligence have continually come up with results to match their prejudices, reflecting in turn class and culture.

In the example in question, nineteenth century physician Samuel George Morton, who filled skulls from his grisly collection of 600-some-odd specimens with mustard seed and later with shot, measured and compiled results that fit “every good Yankee’s prejudice—whites on top, Indians in the middle, and blacks on the bottom; and, among whites, Teutons and Anglo-Saxons on top, Jews in the middle, and Hindus on the bottom”.  Morton reached his  conclusions by unconsciously fudging the data, says Gould

University of Pennsylvania anthropologists, upon re-measuring the skulls, asserted that, ”Our results resolve this historical controversy, demonstrating that Morton did not manipulate his data to support his preconceptions, contra Gould.”

The researchers claim that Gould’s “attack” on Morton was marred by a premise that Morton intended to correlate intelligence with brain size.  Such an intention, says J. E. Lewis, who headed the study, cannot be proven.  Rather, Morton was engaging in a comparatively innocuous exploration of “human variation”—that is— in connection with polygeny, “an inquiry into whether God had created the human races separately.”

Why, then, should God have created putative races separately?  Referring to his empirical findings on skulls from Egypt, Morton had speculated that blacks had generally always served whites.  One surmises (without proven correlation?) that Morton might not want to be associated by blood, however distant, with the Greenland “Equimaux”.

They are crafty, sensual, and ungrateful, obstinate and unfeeling, and much of their affection for their children may be traced to purely selfish motives. They devour the most disgusting aliments uncooked and uncleaned, and seem to have no ideas beyond providing for the present moment . . .    Their mental faculties, from infancy to old age, present a continued childhood.

In any case, the researchers who exculpated Morton claim that their measurements of “half” the skulls “falsify the claim that Morton physically mismeasured crania based on his a priori biases.”  Gould, they point out, half as an accusation, did not measure the skulls himself.  The contradiction seems to elude them.  While Gould may have mused about whether seed-based measurements suffered because of under or over-filling, an argument about whether the skulls were measured correctly is never a central component to Gould’s contention.  The hullabaloo stirred by the straw man of the actual measurements is therefore surprising.

Actually, Gould’s central arguments are that the sample was flawed and the data misinterpreted.  For example, he shows that Morton ignored that the Indians in the sample were over-represented by small-bodied Incas.  Small bodies mean smaller heads .  If Morton were innocently tracking human variation, he could have noted that Incas are smaller, heads and all, and therefore maybe God created them for a special purpose.

Among other flaws, when calculating the mean for Caucasians, Morton simply eliminated the “Hindoo” sample with its smaller craniums.  This is the kind of fudging that Gould refers to.  To my thinking, the authors of this study, rather than “resolving” anything, have simply strung out the dirty laundry of their own prejudices.  That is, as scientists, they can’t stand to hear anyone assert that science is colored by culture and that scientists are susceptible to the same flaws as the rest of us.  Quibbling over a miserly set of claims about Gould’s ostensible miscalculations, they leap to their conclusion that science is relatively immune to the “bounds and blinders of cultural context”, a hasty, jejune, common-sense-defying summary.

If they had intended to restore science to its immaculate pedestal, protecting it from Gould’s charge ofcultural susceptibility, they might have done better than prick away at the dozen or so pages in The Mismeasure of Man that address the figures in Morton’s study.   The book is more than 400 pages long, and the list of scientists who more or less unintentionally fueled scientific racism is long.  The conclusions they vaunt and their criticisms of the eloquent, humane, and untiring Gould are not at all matched by the scope of their investigation.  The agitation following their study might well be attributable to axe grinders over readers of Gould. 

Finally, the arrogance of this study is distressing in another sense altogether, a sense which is most damning to the cause of science, to anthropology in particular, and certainly to the authors of this study.

In again handling “half” the skulls, the authors set out upon extremely dubious ethical ground.  In the moving Recovering the Sacred, Winona LaDuke outlines the continuing efforts of Native Americans to recover the artifacts of their cultures and the bones of their ancestors.  Approximately one million skulls of Native Americans have been collected and stored in museums, contrary to the wishes of Native Americans.  “The ethics of collecting buried bodies and cultural properties finds its origins in the paradigms of imperialism, science, racism, and the bounty of war,” says LaDuke.

One wonders how they died, these human beings whose skulls have been handled with such a sense of proprietorship.  One wonders if requests of Native Americans have been ignored while the authors, insulated from cultural concerns by the prerogatives of their metier, went about measuring skulls.  At the same time, one may applaud Mr. Gould for knowing better than to unconsciously revisit and abet the American Holocaust. 


3 Responses to “Anthropologists Hurl Skulls at Stephen Jay Gould”

  1. Jonathan Kaplan May 5, 2013 at 5:41 am #

    Sorry to be coming to this so late. Thanks for a great post — I think you are right on target in your analysis here.

  2. rachelrabbit16 June 25, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

    Hi, thanks for the great article. I wanted to write because I’m a student at UPenn currently working in the NAGPRA (repatriation) office. I’ve worked with the Morton collection before and the whole issue is as horrifying as you describe. I thought you made a great point about the decision to re-measure the skulls being ultimately participating in Morton’s horrible legacy. That is most definitely true.

    I agree that the study’s end statement about culture not affecting science is utterly wrong. But their claim that Morton measured his skulls correctly is probably correct, and unlike you said, they actually do refute Gould’s claim that the data was manipulated in their article. (I’m not sure if you actually read the article?)

    I also want to point out that the requests of Native Americans to repatriate their ancestors have definitely NOT been ignored. I’m currently working to help file claims now, and many Native American remains have already been returned to their rightful homes. Native American remains are actually housed in a separate section of the museum, and tribes can request certain protocols for how they are kept until they are returned. While NAGPRA isn’t perfect by any stretch, the museum is definitely complying with it.

    I think your blog post has some important points but you also make some obvious mistakes (like tagging this as Penn State, and making the claim that the Museum isn’t complying with NAGPRA laws). You should do a little more background research on your posts, cause I fundamentally agree with you and it will make your argument so much stronger! Still, I’m glad people are talking about this issue since it’s obviously really important. In the US we tend to think of science as objective and free of criticism, but people like Morton demonstrate that that is absolutely not true. It would mean a lot to me if I could hear your own thoughts on my blog post about Samuel Morton!

    • Finley J. MacDonald June 29, 2013 at 1:24 am #

      Hi Rachel–Thanks for commenting. I don’t have the background or the data to be able to crunch Gould’s figures. However, I tried to address the study on a range of issues where it doesn’t pass the mustard. Most obviously, as you mentioned, the study is unethical. I tried also to point out that it zooms in on a small part of Gould’s work to cast wide aspersions and that it makes the hasty generalization that science is a kind of ironclad sanctuary, more or less immune to cultural bias. It strikes me that this very assumption was a set of blinders that influenced not only the way these scientists interpreted their results but also the liberties they afforded themselves in terms of the ethical issue of treating native bones as artifacts. I’m sure you’re aware that Gould specifically pointed out this psychological tendency in scientists while also illustrating the role of “reification”. On another note, I still feel that museums in general and this one in particular are complicit in a kind of chronic offense against native peoples. A self-justifying and cloistered mentality, buttressed by the prerogatives of science, made it possible in the nineteenth century to put live human beings on display as exhibits. Have you read Give Back the Body of my Father? It’s an account of Minik, a Greenland native who discovered his father’s stripped bones on display at The American Museum of Natural History. The measuring of heads has a history too in Western society, as you may know, with the massacre of the Herero people in Western Africa prefiguring the holocaust and having a scientific side as well, featuring the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics.

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