In 1988, John S. Michael (who is me) published his undergraduate thesis in Current Anthropology. This paper described the results of my measurement of 201 human skulls collected by Dr. Samuel George Morton in the 1840s. All available records indicate that I was the only person in the 20th century who measured the capacity of the Morton skulls, which may sound strange but is actually true. My findings were that Morton’s measuring techniques were sound, which had been disputed by the well-known Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould. Gould never saw the skulls, though many authors assumed he did. My paper also concluded that the way in which Morton classified humans into races was arbitrary, a fact that has been overlooked by many people involved in the Morton-Gould controversy. Thus Morton’s statistical analysis (and Gould’s re-analysis) were meaningless.
My paper was largely ignored and I subsequently left academia for a career in environmental land planning. I though little about my research until until 2011, when a team of Ivy League professors again re-measured the skulls and more-or-less vindicated my work. You can read their articles here:
- Jason Lewis, et al. 2011 Re-measurement of the Morton Collection. Click here.
- David DeGusta and Jason Lewis, “Gould’s skulls: Is bias inevitable in science?” from New Scientist Magazine available. Click here.
Fortunately Lewis’s research was not ignored. It got quite a bit of publicity as noted here:
- To read the New York Times Article, June 2011, click here.
- To read the New York Times Editorial, June 2011, click here.
- To read Discover Magazine’s article, January 2012, click here.
I generally agree which most of what Lewis said, although I think he could have been more diplomatic in his tone. His statistical analysis of the skulls was much better than mine, but he went a bit overboard when it came to philosophical questions about how well science can remain objective (which kind of depends on how you define science and objective). As a result, Lewis pissed off some people and took some heat, as noted here:
- Jonathan Marks’ June 2011 blog (click here) was pretty scathing but raised some good points.
- Nature Magazine’s, June 2011, editorial (click here) editorial accepted Lewis’ findings, but suggested that he and his co-authors had an ax to grind.
- John Horgan’s Scientific American June 2011 blog, (click here) also accepted Lewis’ findings but defended Gould’s overall aims.
- But then Jerry Coyne’s June 2011 blog (click here) found fault with Horgan’s evaluation… and so on it went.
I won’t defend everything Lewis wrote, but at least he had the guts to take on a controversial subject: race. Everyone says we need to talk about race in this nation (and we do), but when it comes to starting the conversation, everyone silently waits for someone else to do it. Lewis deserves credit for refusing to pass the buck. He may have flubbed some of his interpretation of post-modern philosophy, but he did not duck or candy-coat what is a genuinely complex issue.
In the video below, Dr. Janet Monge of Penn discusses the Morton Collection. She knows more about the actual skulls in the collection than anyone else. Her decades-long work in maintaining the Morton collection does not get the credit it deserves.