Today, we fool ourselves with would-be science. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
By 1840 scientists had
learned to measure things -- as if numbers alone
could lead to understanding. Stephen Jay Gould
takes us on a terrifying trip through 19th-century
attempts to reduce the human mind to numbers. He
begins with two ideas rampant in the mid-1800s. One
was the absolute conviction of white supremacy. The
other was a mania for ordering and ranking.
The 1850s found Louis
Agassiz, a Harvard professor of zoology,
creating a new American field of anthropology. He
set out to classify humans by their moral and
physical traits. He created an appalling set of
stereotypes: proud, courageous Indians, obsequious,
imitative Negroes, and tricky, cunning Mongolians.
Then Agassiz met a physician named Samuel Morton.
Morton had collected a huge set of skulls -- Black,
White, Red, and Yellow. He'd poured lead shot into
them to measure their volume. He worked with great
care, and he left full records of his work.
Morton's data fit Agassiz's theories perfectly.
They also fit 19th-century prejudice. Whites had by
far the largest brains. Malays and American Indians
were next, followed by the Chinese. Last of all,
and far behind, were African and Australian
Agassiz's and Morton's work fed the pro-slavery
forces. European scientists were fascinated.
Indeed, these ideas were still feeding Nazi
thinking 80 years later. So Gould went back to read
Morton's data more closely. Here's what he found:
Morton threw out some of the skulls that didn't
seem normal, but he kept others. Sometimes he even
worked backward and used skull size to determine
the race of the skull. Since shorter people usually
have smaller heads, Orientals, pygmies, and women
did far worse than white men. Morton made selective
errors in his arithmetic as well as in his
sampling. He didn't try to hide any of this. He
wasn't trying to fool anyone. He simply let his
subconscious mind lead him where he wanted to be
Today we know that minor variations in skull size
have nothing whatever to do with how well our
brains work. Even if Morton's rankings had been
accurate, his data were worthless. Yet this kind of
stuff fairly poured out of the 19th century.
Gould begins his story with a remarkable quotation
from Darwin, who seems to have seen the mischief
coming. Darwin says:
If the misery of our poor be caused not by the
laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is
Today, we're still overzealous about rating people
with numbers. The mischief goes on. We force our
young to worry about SATs and GREs and ACTs. Too
often we let our children forget the magnitude of
the great birthright of creative ability, which we
all hold in common.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds