Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Gould, Morton and Anthropology

This story has already been around the blogosphere (particularly the bioanthropology blogs) but it does bear some further comment.  In a nutshell, the late Stephen Jay Gould had frequently commented on the work of 19th century researcher Samuel Morton as an example of how personal bias can skew scientific data.  Morton was famous for measuring the skulls of individuals from various world populations ("races"), which Gould claimed was intended to justify a racial hierarchy based on skull size.  Gould claimed, via re-examination of Morton's data, that Morton had fudged the numbers in order to justify Caucasian superiority.  Gould made this claim both in a 1978 article in Science and in his famous 1981 work The Mismeasure of Man.  What is often lost in Gould's narrative is that his conclusions are based on Morton data tables, NOT any reexamination of the original skulls.  Now, a team of anthropologists led by Jason Lewis has reexamined the skulls using Samuel Morton's methods, and the results don't bode well for Gould's legacy on this point.  It appears that Morton accurately measured the skulls in his collection, while it was Gould who fudged the numbers in order to paint Morton as a biased researcher.

The importance of these results cannot be overemphasized, since Gould's conception of Morton's work as an example of racial bias have become part of the popular narrative of the impossibility of "value-free science," especially when it comes to anthropometric and craniometric analysis.  I remember, as a newly minted graduate student, being essentially handed The Mismeasure of Man as required reading when the topic of race came up.  Of course, there are some very legitimate criticisms to be made of Mortons work from the standpoint of population biology and life history.  For example, many of the African skulls apparently came from slave populations, which would have been subject to greater disease load and nutritional insults.  But this only underlines the fact that Gould's fudging of data was both unnecessary and damaging to the overall cause of combating academic and pseudo-scientific racism.  I still remember a talk by intelligence researcher James Flynn at Binghamton University, where he referred to Gould's "awful" book.  Flynn, of course, is the discoverer of the "Flynn Effect" (the overall continuous rise in IQ scores worldwide), and is one of the most trenchant critics of the idea of race-based heirarchies. 

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