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The Place of the Skulls–An (In)Glorious Enterprise–Part 4

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 3, 2012

Skull Man Morton

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.

3 Responses to “The Place of the Skulls–An (In)Glorious Enterprise–Part 4”

  1. I’m glad you end this with Morton’s support for Nott; this is who Morton was, despite a revisionist trend to paint him as the empiricist he pretended to be. I’ve read a couple of the recent texts purporting to debunk Gould’s reading of Morton and found them wanting. Jane E. Buikstra, a shrill apologist for Morton, wrote an error-studded introduction to a 2009 reprint of Crania Americana; in her hagiographic summary biography Morton, she claims among other absurdities that “Baron Humboldt” (Alexander von Humboldt) was among the champions of Morton’s work. Humboldt did praise Crania Americana in a letter to Morton upon receiving a free copy of what was a very expensive and beautiful book, only to later criticize Morton’s brand of science publicly, something Buikstra fails to mention. The PLOs One study by Lewis and colleagues last year, which also cites Buikstra, warms over a more cautious paper critical of Gould’s Morton work, published in 1988. Lewis, with adds what critic Jon Marks, with whom I am inclined to agree, calls “paranoid positivist rhetoric mixed with slovenly-argued bombast … not a significant new contribution to knowledge. If it were, it might have been publishable in a real journal, like Current Anthropology.” Ann Fabian’s book “The Skull Collectors” is a somewhat more even-handed contribution to the study of Morton and probably the closest thing to a biography out there.

  2. Thank you, Jennie. Readers who do not know Jennie Erin Smith’s excellent book Stolen World, should pick up a copy. I highly recommend it.

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