Mulling the Mismeasure of Man  

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Inscribed on the gravestone of Philadelphia scientist Samuel Morton M1820 is the following phrase: “Wherever truth is loved or science honored, his name will be revered.” Beneath that is a Latin saying that translates, “He does not die; his fame endures.”

More than 150 years after those words were inscribed, Janet Monge Gr’91, an adjunct associate professor in the University’s anthropology department, displayed a picture of the tombstone on a PowerPoint slide to a crowded room at the Penn Museum’s Nevil Gallery. She couldn’t mask her bemused anger.

“When he died, his fame actually completely ended,” Monge said. “He is, by any measure, a flaming racist.”

Monge, a curator of physical anthropology at the Museum, is not alone in that assessment. Morton—who was a professor of anatomy at Penn from 1839 to 1843 and spent most of his career in the early 1800s amassing a huge collection of skulls from around the world and using measurements of those skulls to “prove” the superiority of some races and ethnicities over others—is sometimes referred to as the “Father of Scientific Racism.” And over the years, there have been others like him who have tried to use science to cement their own beliefs. That was the subject of an October symposium at the Penn Museum titled “From Skulls to Scans: How brain measurements have been used, misused and misunderstood in the study of racial differences.”

Joining Monge for the symposium were two people from different segments of the Penn community: Geoffrey Aguirre M’98, a professor in the neurology department, and philosopher Dorothy Robertson, a professor in the departments of sociology and Africana studies.

“It’s a little like the beginning of a joke: an anthropologist, a neuroscientist and a philosopher walk into a bar,” as the symposium’s program playfully put it. But there was no joke, only a structured and passionate rebuttal against those who have used skull or brain measurements to assess intelligence.

Monge focused much of her presentation on the Morton Skull Collection, which is the subject of an exhibit at the Penn Museum. Its premise is that although Morton’s assertion that Europeans were the superior race (and that Africans were at the bottom of the intellectual totem pole) on account of cranial capacity and head shape was “false and racist,” his scientific measurements were actually mostly accurate.

That finding, which was published in PLoS Biology in 2011 in a paper co-authored by Monge, is itself an emblem of how easily attempts to measure intellectual capacity can founder on the shoals of preconceptions. Monge’s analysis refuted an earlier assessment of Morton’s work by the late Harvard paleobiologist Stephen Jay Gould, who in 1978 wrote a paper in which he re-worked Morton’s data to arrive at different measurements.

“When we actually went back and analyzed Gould’s work, we found that Gould was as guilty, in a sense, of bias—but in a more right-minded kind of position—[as] Morton himself,” Monge said.

But in part because they were trying to debunk the work of someone who’d taken a stand against scientific racism, it took about a decade for Monge and her colleagues to get their paper published. And when it was, the response, she said, “was devastating to all of us,” as the paper was “hijacked by racists” and touted on the Internet as a defense of Morton’s bigotry. In reality, Monge was simply a defender of his actual raw data—but a staunch critic of his racist interpretation of it, which rested on arbitrary criteria lacking a basis in scientific methodology.

Here’s one example of how Morton went wrong: the size of Albert Einstein’s brain, Monge said, is “actually one standard deviation below the mean.” (Perhaps, in other words, a simple measurement of brain volume does not tell you much about its possessor’s capacity for intelligence.) Monge ran through other examples. If you chose as your measure of intelligence the brain’s size in proportion to the body, you might end up concluding that a mouse would be five times smarter than a human. Or consider that Neanderthals had bigger brains than modern humans. “And Neanderthals are often characterized as bumbling idiots—even though they have these massive brains on their shoulders,” Monge remarked, revealing how easily our hypotheses about the relationship between brain size and intelligence can shift according to the circumstances. “But I guess it’s OK to be prejudiced against Neanderthals, because none of them can come forward,” she quipped.

Piggybacking on Monge’s presentation, Aguirre added that “there’s a way for bias to creep into measurements simply because there are so many ways of making measurements.” He noted that, using modern imaging techniques, you can measure brain volume, grey matter thickness, and the relative sizes of different regions of the brain. “And that’s just part of the list,” he said. “If you are convinced there must be some difference between two population groups, and you look at enough measurements in enough locations, you will be able to find something.”

Aguirre allowed that there have been cases where accurate measurements revealing differences between cultural groups have been produced without what he called “random dumb luck.” He noted one study that claimed a group of people from Singapore had a “slightly bigger grey matter layer as compared to a group from Chicago,” and that the difference showed up in their cognitive processes. But that study failed to account for all kinds of factors that might influence the way people on opposite sides of the world might think differently from one another—like diet, climate, and culture. “The interpretations that the authors supply,” Aguirre concluded, “tell us much more about what the authors believe about the group differences.”

Speaking last, Robertson discussed the understandable motive among scientists to find explanations in concrete physical characteristics. “If we can explain social inequalities … with a biological explanation,” then those inequalities somehow seem more acceptable. But, she argued, it’s “much more plausible to find a social explanation” for why different social groups live and behave differently. And as someone who’s not part of the scientific community, Robertson believes there should be more multi-layered conversations like this one, in which anthropologists, neuroscientists, geneticists, sociologists, and legal scholars work together to discuss new ways of thinking about human genetic variation as it relates to social inequities.

“I think racial bias has been a huge impediment to scientists’ contributions about our understanding of the human being, in our brains and genes,” Robertson said. “We can come together and truly revolutionize the way science thinks about humans, so we aren’t doing what Samuel Morton did in a fancier way.”

Dave Zeitlin C’03

 

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