Controversial skull study gets a new spin

Janet Monge holds a skull from the collection at the Penn Museum. Scientists no longer focus on brain size, but the original researcher did not fudge and was not looking for racist propaganda.
Janet Monge holds a skull from the collection at the Penn Museum. Scientists no longer focus on brain size, but the original researcher did not fudge and was not looking for racist propaganda. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 14, 2011

Behind the "staff only" door at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, student interns are wheeling around carts of human skulls from nearly every corner of the globe.

The collection contains 2,000 of them, many with carefully printed labels across the foreheads - Icelandic, Peruvian, Mexican Aztec. They form part of a famous - and infamous - collection amassed by Philadelphia physician/scientist Samuel Morton.

Morton used them in the 1830s to make comparative measurements of skull volume - which were seized on by others to assert that whites were smarter than other races because they had bigger brains. The work was seemingly debunked by Harvard paleontologist and writer Stephen Jay Gould in his 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man.

Now Penn Museum anthropologists and colleagues are critiquing Gould's critique. Morton, they say, was right in his measurements, but racist statements based on his work were not. In a paper released last week, they say Gould selectively manipulated data to prove his point.

The paper marks the latest twist in a 180-year tale that touches on racism, bias, ego, the foibles of scientists and their critics, and the oversize shadows left by Samuel Morton and Stephen Jay Gould.

Museum anthropologist Janet Monge, one of the authors of the new paper, said she and Alan Mann, then a museum curator, saw a problem soon after the 1981 publication of Gould's book, which challenged a number of concepts related to race, categorization, and the ranking of humans by intelligence through IQ and other "mismeasures."

Monge said PBS producers called at the time because they believed Gould had remeasured Morton's skulls, and they wanted to film a reenactment.

The problem was, "Gould had never been to the Penn Museum," she said.

The collection passed to the museum in the 1960s. Morton, who had been president of the Academy of Natural Sciences, kept the skulls as a private collection.

Morton had explorers and scientists acquire them from burial mounds, battlefields, surgeon's offices, and penal colonies - anywhere he could get them.

There are women, children, even the skull of a fetus, delicate as an eggshell. Some Morton had marked up, delineating sections for phrenology, the pseudoscientific analysis of skull-bumps to assess personality traits.

There were also skulls labeled "idiot," "lunatic," and "insane," all acceptable terms in Morton's day.

Today, the collection is being reorganized after having been CT scanned at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

"It's become supervaluable," Monge said of the collection. "Maybe more useful now than in Morton's time."

That is because the skulls represent a snapshot of humanity in the 1800s, when there had been less mixing of people from different geographic regions.

Monge said that Morton made all kinds of measurements of the skull features, though the one that's remembered is his comparisons of "cranial capacity" - filling the skulls with mustard seeds or shotgun pellets to measure volume and estimate who had the biggest brains.

Morton, who was white, found Caucasians had the most voluminous skulls, followed by the various other groups - Asians, American Indians, and Africans.

Gould wrote that Morton's results were "a patchwork of fudging and finagling in the clear interest of controlling [prior] convictions."

After reviewing the case, Monge said Morton was not the racist villain that Gould made him out to be.

The scientific question at hand was how humanity could have become so diverse in skin color and other physical traits if they were descended from Adam and Eve just a few thousand years ago.

Charles Darwin was still exploring on the Beagle and organizing his thoughts on evolution during that period - his On the Origin of Species would not be published until 1859.

Morton subscribed to the theory that God created different groups of people separately, said Drexel University historian Michael Yudell. Since the abolition movement was gaining momentum, those who favored slavery latched on to this theory of "polygenism" to justify their views, he said.

In his book, Gould accused Morton of leaving out the smallest members of the white group but not the Africans to skew the results.

Then, Gould wrote that Morton showed clear bias in measurements that used mustard seeds, most likely packing them tighter in the Caucasian skulls and more loosely in the African ones.

A point Gould emphasized is one the Penn Museum team would agree with - that skull volume does not say much about anything other than a person's size.

Gould, who died in 2002, does not specify in his book that he remeasured the skulls.

But concerns over Gould's writings led Monge, Mann, now at Princeton, Jason Lewis, now at Stanford, and colleagues to reanalyze Morton from scratch. The effort took nine years.

Monge ordered some tiny plastic pellets as a more modern substitute for Morton's shotgun pellets. They remeasured the skulls and found that Morton had not fudged his data.

In fact, it was Gould who left out certain skulls or groups of skulls, said lead author Lewis.

Gould was also wrong, Lewis said, to attribute racist motives to Morton, whose work was spun that way by his followers. "This is something Gould makes up in a very overt way," Lewis said.

The one point everyone agrees on is there is no good evidence that brain size predicts intelligence.

So why bother? Monge said Gould's work left people with the impression that science was inherently biased. As Gould wrote: "If scientists can be honestly self-deluded to Morton's extent, then prior prejudice may be found anywhere."

"Gould was so biased in wanting to say all humans are the same," Monge said. "He had a responsibility to do this right," and by failing, she thinks he wrongly discredited science and gave fuel to critics.

The new paper debunking Gould started making waves as soon as it was published in the journal Plos Biology. While the scientists involved see this as a fight about science, others view it as a racial issue. One anthropologist's blog post praising the new paper has popped up on the white supremacist site

Historian Yudell said he worried that the paper addresses the wrong question. Gould was not trying to say everyone was the same, he said. "He was attacking the concept of race." And there, modern science has backed him, showing not only the close genetic relationships of all humans but the lack of any real boundaries between so-called races.

Yudell does not think that Gould's assertions - mistaken or not - discredit all of science.

"I don't think the scientific world is riddled with examples of biased, skewed results to the point that science is meaningless," Yudell said. Neither, he believes, did Gould. "Otherwise nothing would work."

See a video about the Samuel Morton Skull Collection at www.philly.


Contact staff writer Faye Flam at 215-854-4977 or

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