A Story of Skulls and Bias

Facing a problem, a questioning or uncertainty, men always found great teaching in history. Hence, this interesting and controversial episode in the history of Science this article wishes to narrate.

The first character of today’s tale is called Samuel George Morton. This natural scientist, issued from a 18th century Pennsylvanian colony of quakers, wrote between 1839 and 1849 his three volumes of Crania Americana. As this title suggests, its work focused on measuring size of skulls from people of America. It earned him a grim reputation, as it remained in memories as an attempt to prove that Caucasian having larger skulls, they were intellectually superior to other humans. A first shade of truth manipulation could be noted here, as a slight further investigation on Crania Americana reveals the objective of Morton was in reality to prove there were several different human species, and not just one. Just as wrong as the previous assumption, but carrying a different type of message.

(photo Samuel Morton, credit : Engraved frontispiece of Samuel George Morton from Types of Mankind by Josiah Clark Nott and George Robbins Gliddon)

Our second act brings us to the 70’s in Massachussets: Harvard University. Stephen Jay Gould, an American anthropologist and one of the most recognized scientist worldwide, answered with more than a hundred years delay to his elder Samuel Morton. In The Mismeasure of Man (1981), Gould undertook a review of Morton’s work measuring skulls, denouncing manipulation in samples, mismeasurement and other errors in Morton’s work. Gould’s main point was to assert that Morton’s results were biased by a simple reason: racism.
It might not even be caused by some evil intention from Samuel Morton, according to Stephen Gould, but his way of thinking would have unconsciously caused a racist bias in his approach of science.

(photo Stephen J Gould, credit : B&W photographic portrait of Stephen Jay Gould.)

Final chapter: an article published in PLOS Biology, co-written by six anthropologists in 2011. The Mismeasure of Science : Stephen Jay Gould vs Samuel George Morton, on skulls and bias is work with surprising but nonetheless interesting conclusion. In fact, the six partners-in-crime decided to re-recheck the work of Samuel Morton on skulls, and analyse the critical review Gould made of it. What they state in their work is that Morton was not biased, as its results were indeed misinterpreted, and did not show any evidences for larger skulls of Caucasians, or any further scatty theories. On the other hand, Stephen Gould’s work, in his readiness to condemn what could be called “racist science”, was himself biased: he manipulated Morton’s results to stand taller against them. At least that is what this article says, and it is accessible for those who wants to read the complete version of this scientific saga.

If you read until there, you surely starts to be confused and maybe even slightly irritated by this term of bias. Where does bias starts? Where is it, and most importantly where is it not?
Cease fire, and let’s just say that it encourages to look upon scientific work (even the highest profiled ones) with critical thinking and thorough judgement. Let’s also draw out from this story that bias in science can be linked to our personalities, like our voice, our smell, or our deep-rooted idea of the world.

Jean

Cited :
Lewis JE, DeGusta D, Meyer MR, Monge JM, Mann AE, et al. (2011)Correction: The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias. PLOS Biology 9(7): 10.
Link : http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1001071

Comments

  1. Very interesting indeed Jean. I am curious though, how can someone's smell influence the bias in science?

    Yours faithfully,
    Jack Sparrow

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