Morton versus Gould redux

While getting ready for my classes in Kenya, specifically for a discussion of the “scientific” and religious theories that justified racism and, in turn slavery and colonialism, I reviewed a law review article I wrote back in 2000: “Blood Will tell: Scientific Racism and the Legal Prohibitions on Miscegenation.” Most of what I wrote back then still holds up, but there is one intersting new twist.

In the article I discussed Stephen Jay Gould’s attack on Samuel George Morton, who developed the theory, published in “Crania Americana: Or: A Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America” (1839) that one could rank the races based on the size and other characteristics of the brain. I talked about Morton and what Gould had said about him in his “The Mismeasure of Man.” Gould concluded that Morton had manipulated the data to prove his preconceived theory of wjhite racial supereriority.

But there has been an interesting recent development in the debate between Morton and Gould.

The result of Morton’s extensive study of skulls placed Whites at the top, Indians in the middle, and Blacks at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. But, according to Gould, Morton’s results were completely wrong, although not the result of “conscious fraud.” It appeared to Gould that Morton’s results simply mimicked his preconceived convictions. What I wrote then was, “What is interesting is Gould’s assertion that he [Morton] did not realize his errors–had they been intentional misrepresentations, he would not have openly displayed his data in a way that allowed Gould to recalculate his numbers.” Implicit in my statement was something that just came out: Gould never actually looked at Morton’s skulls themselves but instead based his critique of what Morton did on Morton’s written data alone. In a paper released earlier this month, scientists did go back and look at the skulls, which were privately collected and owned by Morton but which eventually ended up at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology in Philadelphia. According to the paper published in an anthropological journal, Gould, who had accused Morton of manipulating the data to support his racial theory, actually was the one who manipulated the data to prove his (Gould’s) theory that scientists manipulated data to prove their preconceived views.

Of course in one sense the point is now moot since no one believes that there is a correlation between brain size and IQ anymore anyway, but that didn’t stop at least one White Supremacist web site from hyping the new findings as proof that Morton was correct and whites are superior.

Gould died in 2002 and Morton, of course, is long gone, so it is up to others to carry on the debate, but it is fascinating to see how the concept of race still riles the scientific community. If the new article is correct, Gould did exactly what he accused Morton of doing, misread neutral data to support his own preconceived notion.

But although it was Morton who found that whites had bigger skulls, further rehabilitation of Morton’s reputation suggests that it was Morton’s followers, not Morton himself, and racists of the time that embraced the data as proof of white superiority, although I don’t buy into this argument 100%. Morton did not hesitate to assign moral and intellectual characteristics to the various crania he surveyed, assigning the “highest intellectual endowments” to the White race and holding some tribes of the “Ethiopian” race to be “the lowest grade of humanity.” Surveying Blumenbach’s classification of five races, he found a hierarchy of brain volume: “Caucasian, Mongolian, Malay, American and Negro.”

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