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No. 429:
The Mismeasure of Man

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 natives.

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 taken.

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 our sin.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Gould, S.J., The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1981.

Note added August 28, 2023:  Yesterday's Acrostic puzzle in the NY Times was a delicious treat.  I was gifted with a quotation from Gould's book: "What craniometry was for then Nineteenth Century, intelligence testing has become for the Twentieth -- When it assumes that intelligence, or at least a dominant part of it, is a single innate heritable and measurable thing."