The Place of the Skulls–An (In)Glorious Enterprise–Part 4
Posted by Richard Conniff on July 3, 2012
The 1840s also saw the Academy achieve its most disturbing and unsavory influence on American life. According to one interpretation, Samuel G. Morton, a Philadelphia Quaker, physician, and naturalist at the Academy, was the founder of physical anthropology, the science of carefully measuring the physiological differences among human groups. But the other interpretation, championed by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould in the 1970s, characterized Morton as the father of scientific racism.
Morton studied human skulls and eventually accumulated 1000 of them from around the world, a collection his friends proudly described as “the American Golgotha.” (The name of the hill on which Christ was crucified meant literally “place of the skull”). He measured brain capacity by filling the inverted skulls with white mustard seed, at first, and later, for greater uniformity, with No. 8 shot, a methodology considered remarkably objective and scientific for its time. At Morton’s death in 1851, a New York newspaper remarked that “probably no scientific man in America enjoyed a higher reputation among scholars throughout the world.”
But Morton believed he could characterize human races by the capacity of their skulls, with a bigger skull meaning a bigger brain, a bigger brain meaning greater intellectual ability, and the biggest brains naturally belonging to Europeans. On reviewing Morton’s work, Gould acknowledged that he could find “no indication of fraud or conscious manipulation.” But he called it “a patchwork of assumption and finagling, controlled, probably unconsciously,” by the urge to put “his folks on top, slaves on the bottom.” A new study published last year disputed the charge of finagling and found that most of Gould’s own criticisms “are poorly supported or falsified.” But no one denies that Morton was a racist.
By seeming to provide a scientific basis for prejudice, Morton handed ammunition to bigots in the vicious racial politics before the Civil War. One Morton disciple, the Alabama physician Josiah Clark Nott, was endowed with an especially polemical frame of mind and a lynch-mob way with words. He distilled Morton’s research into lectures on what he called “niggerology.” A slave-owner himself, he believed, like Morton, that whites and blacks originated as separate species.
Nott piously declared that he loathed slavery in the abstract. But as a practical reality, it was a kind of public service, enabling a lesser human species to attain “their highest civilization.” He added that “the Negroes of the South are now … the most contented population of the earth.”
Rather than distancing himself from such twisted reasoning, Morton wrote of his “great pleasure and instruction” as Nott advanced his ideas where he himself had held back.
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