Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel George Morton: A Personal Commentary, Part 4


Gould’s most unjustified misrepresentation of a historic figure focused on the Enlightenment period German anatomist Johann Blumenbach who, like Morton, studied skulls. Blumenbach, who wrote his major works in Latin, did not use the word “human races” but instead used generis humani varietatum,[1] which means “the varieties of human kind.”[2] Blumenbach did not believe that humans could be separated into distinct races, but rather that there were innumerable interrelated varieties that flowed into each other. [3] For him, human “varieties” were all parts of one unified entity, like the world’s oceans which are, in reality, simply locations in what is a single interconnected body of water. Blumenbach viewed racial differences as what we would now commonly call a spectrum, which in in biological terminology is referred to as a cline.

Morton, who read Latin, wrote that his research was based on Blumenbach’s. However, Morton explained that within his own writings, “the word race is substituted for variety.”[4] Thus Morton misrepresented Blumenbach’s ideas. It was Blumenbach who first used the word “Caucasian” to describe white Europeans. He famously described the shape of one skull specimen from the Caucasus Mountains as venustissimam which is often translated as “very beautiful,” although its literal translation would be “most comely/graceful.”[5] Gould and many others have interpreted this to mean that Blumenbach harbored racist ideas that whites were the most beautiful race.[6] Even Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health has accepted Gould’s claim.[7] However, this claim is somewhat of an exaggeration since the Latin text could be interpreted a number of ways. Blumenbach could just as easily have been saying that Caucasians were a most beautiful variety, which would be more consistent with his racially tolerant outlook. Far from being a racist, he collected books written by black Africans and educated former slaves to demonstrate that all people had the same intellectual potential. [8] He was an active anti-racist whose argued that human racial differences were mere superficial alterations within one species and not the major differences such as those which separate humankind from all other animals, most notably apes. [9]

In 1996, when Gould updated The Mismeasure of Man, he added an article about Blumenbach.[10] It included a drawing of skulls which Gould claimed to be an illustration from one of Blumenbach’s books. In this graphic, a Caucasian skull is situated higher than those of other races. When a paper by University of Tubingen historian Thomas Junker demonstrated that the original drawing placed all the skulls at the same level, Gould blamed the mistake on his editor saying, “I don’t think that I even knew about the figure when I wrote the article, for I worked from a photocopy of Blumenbach’s text alone.”[11] Gould dismissed this error as “inconsequential” and faulted Junker for misstating “the central thesis of my article—a misinterpretation that cannot, I think, be attributed to any lack of clarity on my part.” 

This incident has parallels to Gould’s conflict with Morris. First Gould commits exaggeration by accusing Blumenbach of being a culturally predestined racist, and therefore having a limited conceptual space. Then Gould accuses Junker of not understanding Gould’s central thesis, which certainly seems to suggest that Junker also has limited conceptual space. In the end, Gould disengaged with Junker just as he did with Morris and me.

I am not the first to propose that Gould was prone to periodically castigating anything he disagreed. In 1983, Bernard Davis came to a similar conclusion when he described the contents of Gould’s book, the Mismeasure of Man as “neo-Lysenkoism.” Tofrim Lysenko was the Soviet-era Russian scientist who rejected Mendelian genetics, and through political connections suppressed it from being taught on the basis that it was anti-communist.[12] Davis wrote that through The Mismeasure of Man, Gould was similarly engaging in “an effort to outlaw a field of science because it conflicts with a political dogma.”[13]

But unlike Lysenko, whose government connections permitted him to end the careers of those who disagreed with him, Gould held no such power. However, he did have the bully pulpit of his considerable fame, and was willing to publicly brand people with the moral crime of racism, such as the authors of the Bell Curve.[14] In that respect Gould was more akin to Abu Ḥamed al Ghazali, the 12th century Seljuq Persian Islamic scholar whose philosophy proposed that mathematics was the work of the devil. Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has noted that al Ghazali’s proclamation had a detrimental effect on Islamic scholarship, most notably astronomy.[15] Gould’s impact is not remotely comparable to al Ghazali’s; however, Gould did link morality with a specific field of study. Instead of associating math with the evil of Satan, Gould connected the examination of human racial differences with the evil of racism. Thus Gould could label Blumenbach as inherently unconsciously racist, simply because Blumenbach accepted that there were physical variations in human populations.

In 1983, Davis proposed that Gould’s outlook (and others who infuse science with political ideology) might one day squelch future research. As Davis put it, “A chilling atmosphere is quite sufficient to prevent funding agencies, investigators, and graduate students from exploring a taboo area.”[16] And indeed Davis’s words proved prophetic. In 2002, Wolpoff and Caspari wrote that Natural History magazine refused to publish critiques of Gould articles.[17] In 1986, my advisor, the Antarctic paleontologist Gerald Webers, wisely told me not to be too critical of Gould, or else I might not get published. And so I self-censored my work, limiting the discussion of Gould. Two years later, I was published in a leading journal. Jason Lewis, another undergraduate who measured the Morton skulls, did not self-censor his critique of Gould. His paper was repeatedly rejected despite being co-authored by some of the nation’s leading anthropology professors. By the time it was finally published, Lewis had become a PhD. According to an editorial in Nature magazine, Lewis’s criticism of Gould:

… was rejected by the journal Current Anthropology, and spent eight months in the review process at PLoS Biology. And although an undergraduate did publish a more modest study scrutinizing Gould in 1988, it is remarkable that it has taken more than 30 years for a research group to check Gould’s claims thoroughly. Did Gould’s compelling writing and admirable anti-racist motivations help to delay scrutiny of his facts? Quite possibly, and this is regrettable.[18]

Once it was published, Lewis’s paper was for all practical purposes accepted as valid, even by those who did not like its tone. It defies common sense to believe that Lewis’s paper could have been rejected for an entire decade because of a lack of quality scholarship. I therefore propose that multiple journals rejected Lewis’s paper because they were afraid of critiquing Gould. Like me, they self-censored themselves. Indeed, Gould is not the only one responsible for creating a climate of fear. He was but one part of a community, including his publishers, and the Harvard University administrators who benefited from Gould, the controversialist, the brand. Gould was a celebrity, sought out by audiences and magazine editors for being bold and revolutionary. They all had a vested interest in letting him get away with writing things they would not accept from other scientists, a practice which Mandy Garner thoroughly documented in her 2002 paper on Gould entitled “Biology’s unedited crusader.”[19] 

Furthermore, when Science magazine published Gould’s poorly-documented historic evaluation of Morton, they lent legitimacy to it by presenting it as scientific research, which it was not. Nature magazine did the same when it published Gould’s even more speculative critique of Blumenbach.[20] Anthropologist John Hawks wrote that Gould’s publications about Morton are:


…very widely read and cited by people who will never examine the primary evidence. Gould owed us a responsible reading and trustworthy reporting on that evidence. In its place, he made up fictional stories, never directly examined the evidence himself, and misreported Morton’s numbers… I don’t think that Gould’s errors can be written off as “unconscious bias.” Reading back over his 1978 article, I cannot believe that Science published it.[21]


The field of anthropology also bears some responsibility for permitting Gould to disseminate incorrect information for such a long period of time. As noted above, professional anthropologists are often more prone to critique each other than cooperate. Without a unified voice they are poorly equipped to defend themselves against ill-informed theories proposed by well-known non-anthropologists. If an anthropologist were to write a paper about snail evolution, the invertebrate paleontological community would rally to point out that an anthropologist is unqualified to make such statements. Yet Gould was permitted to write about the evolution of the brains in Cro-Magnons. No anthropologist would write a paper about ants, yet ant expert Edward O. Wilson wrote about human behavior.[22] Based in sheer speculation, Richard Dawkins has proposed that the transfer of ideas from one person to the next, which he calls mimetics, operates much like genetics. This is not surprising given that is his area of expertise is genetics.[23] None of these men, who may genuinely excel in their chosen fields, have any more qualifications to make statements about anthropology than I do. And yet they have been able to gain a wide audience because actually-qualified anthropologists have been too Balkanized to stop them.


If both Gould and Morton were “wrong,” then who is “right?” Is brain size related to intelligence? The answer begins with this: brain size typically relates to body size. Neanderthals never learned to make or use bows and arrows and their tool kits were not nearly as sophisticated and varied as those of Cro Magnons, but because they had bulkier bodies than modern humans, they had larger brains.[24] Conversely, the pygmies of the Congo, whose brains and bodies are small, hunted birds with poison-tipped blowguns darts, a complex technology that requires a highly advanced mind.[25] In all societies, women are shorter than men, and thus have smaller brains than their male relatives.[26] And ethnic groups from colder climates are usually taller, stockier, and, yes, larger-brained than those from equatorial zones. This phenomenon, known as Bergman’s Rule, is also true for rabbits, foxes and other mammals.[27]

The notion that Congolese pygmies might be more intelligent than European Neanderthals is something that does not fit in with Gould’s view on anthropology. He held that Neanderthals were just another race of modern human beings, saying, “Neanderthal is not an intermediate form – it’s us.”[28] As Gould saw it – through the lens of punctuated equilibrium – we humans evolved quickly from a small population that had become different from their pre-human ancestors, and we then stopped evolving. “Think of Cro-Magnon people 50,000 years ago,” Gould said, “They were us. There’s no difference in the brain capacity and intellectual abilities. What’s happened is all cultural evolution.”[29] So according to Gould’s scenario, humans formed long ago in one brief burst of change from pre-human to human, and ever since then entered a period of no change, which in the language of evolution is called stasis. Such a view is consistent with Gould’s unwavering belief in the pervasiveness of punctuated equilibrium. Thus Gould was engaged in confirmation bias.

Ironically, Morton also was a proponent of stasis. Late in his career he concluded that each race of humans was created specifically adapted to the climate in which it lived, and that each had not changed (that is, each remained in stasis) since their initial creation.[30] He noted (with his italics) that, “the races of the human family are primordially distinct,” and that “Man was aboriginally suited by his Creator for the various locations in which he has placed him.”[31] While Gould held that ever since the dawn of human formation, all men were, and have always been, of equal intelligence and brain size. Morton argued just the opposite. But both were mistaken, since – bluntly stated – small brained pygmies are smarter than large brained Neanderthals ever were. Furthermore, it was Morton’s contention that the different human races were actually different species, but that they could interbreed like horses and donkeys. His theory was that geographically closer races were more likely to produce fertile offspring, thus Englishmen and Native Australians were the least likely to produce children.[32] There are certain animals, like the various species of larus gull, in which this phenomenon does in fact occur. Animals with this characteristic are called a ring species.[33] However, contrary to Morton’s claims, humans varieties are not ring species.

There are no separate races of human beings. Recent DNA studies suggest that genetic variation does indeed exists between different populations, but it is like the colors of the spectrum, with differing features grading into each other, constantly intermixing like the waters of the oceans.[34] It would appear that Blumenbach was “right” in accepting that there are racial differences, but not distinct races. There are subtle shades of grey in nature that some scientists, inclined to classifying things into neat black and white categories, fail to accept. Gould did not find much value in the grey zone, instead preferring that the concept of objectivity be completely jettisoned, and that stale theories be declared stone dead. His favorite quote from Charles Darwin was, “How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”[35] In short, Gould had a rigidly dualistic (and thus exaggerated) view of the word which closed him off (and thus disengaged him) from all of the fascinating ambiguity and uncertainty that still characterizes the scientific discussion of human racial diversity.

It is safe to say that Gould and Morton were subject to normal confirmation bias, as are Lewis and myself. Confirmation bias is part of human nature. However, speculating that Morton’s errors or Gould’s errors show a pattern that exhibits a complex unconscious bias is simply unwarranted based on the historic record. When it came to the Morton skulls, both Morton and Gould made many errors. Gould saw Morton’s errors as indicating unconscious racial bias. But the historic record, which includes the skulls, suggests that Morton’s mistakes were random with with no pattern. Furthermore, the historic record indicates that Gould was a man prone to making serial charges of unconscious bias against people living and long dead. Thus Morton’s case was not, and is not now, an especially good example of unconscious racial bias in science. Rather he is just another antiquated scholar stereotyped by Gould based on an insufficient review of the historic record.

In remembering Gould, Ian Tattersall wrote, “Indeed, he was capable of committing in his own writings exactly the kinds of error of which he had accused Samuel Morton.” And it appears that time has shown this to be the case. Morton was mistaken in his belief in that someone can say something significant about people based on the volume of their cranial capacity, while Gould was equally as mistaken in his belief that someone can say something significant about people based on their limited conceptual space. To paraphrase Darwin’s critique of Morton, there was “want in exactness” in the manner Gould gave the facts.

In the final analysis, the Morton-Gould Affair, which has been popularized as a diagnostic example of the role of unconscious bias in science, is simply a case of two over-eager scholars jumping to conclusions based on a small amount of data. It is unfortunate that the discussion of Morton’s work has occupied so much energy over the past 30 years, when a more important issue is Gould’s historically inaccurate misrepresentation of Blumenbach’s work, which unlike Morton’s was a foundational element of modern physical anthropology and public policy regarding racial variation that still impacts us today. A proper representation of Blumenbach’s theories and an accurate translation of his major Latin publications into modern English and German are long overdue and would be of great benefit to science and society at large.

[1] Johan Blumenbach, De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa, 3rd Edition, (Gottingen: Vandenhoek und Ruprecht, 1795).

[2] This translation is based on an Latin dictionary dating to Blumenbach’s era which is John Entick, The New Latin and English Dictionary, (London: Printed for Edward and Charles Dilly, 1771), pp. (unnumbered but with letter headings) GEN, HUM, and VAR.

[3] Thomas Junker, “Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, Stephen Jay Gould und die naturliche Einheit der Menschen,” Verhandlungen zur Geschichte und Theorie der Biologie, Vol 13, 2007, pp. 17-28.

[4] Morton, Crania Americana, p. 5.

[5] Entick, The New Latin and English Dictionary, p. VEN. This dictionary defined the adjective venustus as “comely, graceful, genteel, fine, gallant, pleasant, happy, lucky.” 

[6] Recent scholars who have critiqued Blumenbach based on Gould’s misinterpretation or Bendyshe’s mistranslation of his works (or both) include: Conrad Quintyn, The Existence or Non-existence of Race, p. 21; Nell Painter, The History of White People, (W. W. Norton and Company, 2010), p. 80; Sara Figal, Heredity, Race, and the Birth of the Modern, (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 79; and Raj Bhopal, “The beautiful skull and Blumenbach’s errors: the birth of the scientific concept of race,” in The British Medical Journal (December 22, 2007), pp. 1308–1309,, accessed December 2012.

[7] Francis S. Collins, The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine, (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), p.145.

[8] Brace, “Race” is a Four Letter Word, pp. 44-47.

[9] Junker, “Johann Friedrich Blumenbach,” pp. 17-28.

[10] This article was adapted from Stephen Jay Gould, “The Geometer of Race: In the eighteenth century a disastrous shift occurred in the way Westerners perceived races. The man responsible was Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, one of the least racist thinkers of his day,” Discover Magazine, (November 1994), online edition, accessed December 2012

[11] Stephen Jay Gould, “Critiques and Contentions: On Mental and Visual Geometry,” ISIS, 1988, 89:502.

[12] Jacob Hamblin, Science in the Early 20th Century: An Encyclopedia, (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2005), p. 188.

[13] Davis, “Neo-Lysenkoism and the press,” p. 58.

[14] In The Mismeasure of Man (1996), pp. 379-390, Gould’s essay “Ghosts of Bell Curves Past”  presented parallels between the Bell Curve and the works of the white supremacist 19th century writer Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau.

[15] Neil DeGrasse Tyson, “Naming Rights,” a lecture given as part of the Beyond Belief: Science, Reason, Religion & Survival Lectures given at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, November 5, 2006., (accessed 2013). Tyson notes that there are an abundance Arabic-named stars and mathematical concepts, like algebra and algorithm, which date to the era before al Ghazali, but few that come after.

[16] Davis, “Neo-Lysenkoism and the press,” p. 58.

[17] M. Wolpoff and R. Caspari, Letter to the Editor, Human Nature Review, Vol. 2, 2002, p. 297.

[18] Editorial, “Mismeasure for Mismeasure,” Nature.

[19] Garner, “Biology’s unedited crusader.”

[20] It warrants noting that ISIS also published works by Gould; but ISIS, as a history journal, has never claimed to publish scientific research. Furthermore, ISIS also published Junker’s critique of Gould’s evaluation of Blumenbach which documented Gould’s misrepresentation of the historic record.

[21] John Hawks, “Gould’s “Unconscious Manipulation of Data,””John Hawks Weblog, June 8, 2011,

[22] Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1975), pp. 547-575.

[23] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, (Oxford University Press, 2009, 1976), p. 192.

[24] Clive Finlayson, Neanderthals: An Ecological and Evolutionary Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 83, and Victoria Gill, “Oldest Evidence of Arrows Found: Researchers in South Africa have Revealed the Earliest Direct Evidence of Human-made Arrows,” BBC News Online. 2010, (August 26).

[25] Rory Nugent, Drums along the Congo: On the Trail of the Last Living Dinosaur, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), 191.

[26] T. White and P. Folkens, Human Bone Manual. (Burlington, MA: Elsevire Academic Press, 2005), p. 386.

[27] W. Leonard and P. Katzmarzyk, “Body Size and Shape: Climate and Nutritional Influences on Human Body Morphology,” in Michael Muehlenbein, ed. Human Evolutionary Biology. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 157.

[28] Quoted in Gleick, “Breaking Tradition with Darwin,”

[29] Ibid.

[30] Cook, “The Old Physical Anthropology and the New World,” p. 38.

[31]Samuel Morton, “Notes from the meeting of January 14, 1851,” Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 5:7, 1851, p. 33

[32] Bronwen Douglas, “Climate to crania: science and the racialization of human difference,” in B. Douglas and C. Ballard, eds., Foreign Bodies: Oceania and the Science of Race 1750-1940 (Canberra, Australia: Australian National University E Press, 2008), p. 67.

[33] Martin Rowland, Biology (Walton-on-Thames, Surry: Thomas Nelson and Sons Limited, 1992), p. 555.

[34] Spencer Wells, Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project, (Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2007), p.106.

[35] Allmon et al., Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on His View of Life, p. 4.








15 thoughts on “Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel George Morton: A Personal Commentary, Part 4

  1. Interesting blog! But asking whether Blumenbach was a racist is a bit like asking whether Plato was a Christian. The term didn’t exist in his time. The political context was also different, as was the scientific context. He was a man of the Enlightenment who just wanted to understand the world and everything in it.

    But, yes, he did feel that European women were the most beautiful of all women. In “On the Natural Variety of Mankind”, he wrote:

    “Caucasian variety. Colour white, cheeks rosy, hair brown or chestnut-coloured […] In general, that kind of appearance which, according to our opinion of symmetry, we consider most handsome and becoming”.

    Is this “racist”? Perhaps. But I would rather ask whether it’s true. Is it reasonable to believe that the pressures of sexual selection have been identical in all human populations? The intensity of sexual selection varies with the ratio of men to women on the mate market, which in turn varies with the polygyny rate and sex differences in mortality — both of which have differed greatly among human populations.

    I could provide other “racist” quotes from Blumenbach’s works, but frankly I couldn’t be bothered. The search for “racists” is not a scientific endeavour and is little more than a witch hunt. At one time, patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel. Now it’s antiracism.

    • Good point.Some authors have interpreted the quote: “Caucasian variety. Colour white, cheeks rosy, hair brown or chestnut-coloured […] In general, that kind of appearance which, according to our opinion of symmetry, we consider most handsome and becoming,” as a critique of those scholars of Blumenbach’s university (particularly Prof. Meiners) who though whites were “universally” regarded as beautiful. With this interpretation, Bluamnbach was stressing the “OUR” on “our opinion” of beauty. Thus he saying that ideas of beauty were all relative. In his German text he actually puts the word “unser” meaning “ours” in italics. I’m in the process of having a Latin scholar translate parts of Blumenbach’s more controversial Latin text into English. It will be interesting to see how he fares on the “racist-o-meter” given a new translation.

      • I will provide other quotes when I review your blog. For now, I’d rather not feed the “racist-o-meter”.

        There was a time, not so long ago, when people argued back and forth whether Charlie Chaplin was a “Communist”. It was a stupid argument because “Communist” is not a term that Marxists normally use to describe themselves. It’s an outsider’s term, and as such reflects an outsider’s imperfect understanding of what is going on.

        The same applies to Blumenbach. He was an honest observer who collected data on the world he lived in. His comments on the beauty of European women were a tiny fraction of the many observations he made. I don’t doubt that he believed what he wrote, but these beliefs were not specific to him.

        • Your point about “an outsiders imperfect understanding,” is well put. I think there is a need for scientists and anthropologist to do a better job of communicating their “insider” understanding to the public. Gould was actually good at that and I give him credit for being willing to reach out to the non-scientific community, like few others do. Unfortunately, I think the celebrity went to his head and he pretty much cut himself off from collaborating with anyone who would question his views.

          As for Blumenbach, I still think he got a raw deal. I’m reading his work in English with the Latin and German versions close by so I can see what words he used rather than the way he was translated. It’s slow going.

          But here’s a thought: I find it interesting that Blumenbach chose a Georgian female to be his “type specimen” for whites instead of a German or a Greek. If he felt that whites (which is a fair term for his era) to be superior, one would think he would celebrate the Greeks or his own nationality rather than someone from the humble mountains of Georgia, a land that produced no great ancient civilization or works of literature and science (and this is not meant to be a put down of the Georgians who I’m sure have their share of things to be proud of). Could it be that he was saying that the the great minds of Europe started with simple tribal people, thus all the simple tribal people of the world have the potential to become great minds? That would be in keeping with his tolerant and environmentalist views.

        • Morton didn’t go into detail about races that’s just slnedar. Darwin was a lot more racist than Morton any day of the week, yet he gets held up as some kind of paragon. The reason being that it’s politically convenient to applaud him because he is the trump card of atheists in their misguided war against a made up straw man religious right who all believe in strict creationism.Second, the correlation is .4. That’s not weak at all. Further, there’s a correllation between certain genes and between both IQ and brain size. Case closed, intelligence is genetic and it is more evident in some groups than others. And if you do believe in natural selection obviously this HAS to be the case.Back to darwin, he believed less advanced peoples would inevitably be exterminated. But it doesn’t have to work like that. Selection on critical genes is very strong. Just one person in a group gets it and it’s almost guaranteed to become fixed in a population even if nothing else is being transfered along with it. That is the gene is transfered without the demographic changing much, the other genes are largely preserved. This is happening right now with brain related genes from europe, cardiovascular genes from amish community, and likely many other genes we don’t know about. And the process is pretty fast, fixation could be achieved in less than 10k years into every remote corner of the world, especially now that travel is so easy.

  2. Pingback: Interesting commentary on the Morton/Gould affair | Living Biology

  3. Blumenbach may have been influenced by Buffon who thought humans originally were all Europeans living in the Caspian region. Maybe that is why Blumenbach chose a Georgian skull as representative of the Europeans. By my way of thinking Blumenbach would be unlikely to select a more specialised or extreme European type, such as a German, to representing the higher development of the Europeans, because his classification centred around the idea that Europeans represented the original human stock from which other races had diverged.

    Just as Blumenbach shouldn’t be credited for refraining from making Germans the supreme type of European, or Europeans as the endpoint of evolution, he can’t really be faulted for saying that Europeans were beautiful. His views about whites were the result of his belief that the Europeans had been the taproot of humanity, and had been modified into other races by different environments; it followed that Europeans were the race with the least non-aesthetic modification of the original human type.

    “‘Think of Cro-Magnon people 50,000 years ago,’ Gould said, “They were us. There’s no difference in the brain capacity and intellectual abilities. What’s happened is all cultural evolution.’ ”

    If they were only as clever as Europeans today, then the Cro-Magnon ancestors of the great minds of Europe must have had inferior quality brain matter, because they had far more brain according to John Hawks: “Over the past 20,000 years, the average volume of the human male brain has decreased from 1,500 cubic centimeters to 1,350 cc, losing a chunk the size of a tennis ball”. Losing a lump of brain the size of a tennis ball could only have meant no change in intellectual abilities if there was better organisation of the brain.

    • Interesting. I knew we had smaller brains than Neanderthals but had not heard about Cro-magnons. I wonder if dogs have smaller brains that wolves. I find it funny that in TV and movies they portray super advanced aliens as having giant brains and tiny bodies. How would such aliens give birth, trying to force that big head through their mother’s birth canal?

      But more to the point. I am still not convinced that Blumenbach’s Latin text says that Europeans were “beautiful,” but rather he was saying the individual skulls he chose to be the type specimen were beautiful. I found some early (pre-Bendyshe) translations that I have yet to read and hopefully that will help me come to a conclusion. Also, I found out that in the early 19th century “beautiful” had a different meaning than it does today (at least in English and possibly on German). Back then it meant “having an assemblage of graces” meaning a good collection of parts or “well decorated.” The word “fair” was closer to what we now call beautiful. Dr. Morton once described a dissected brain as “beautiful” and I don’t think he was comparing it to the Mona Lisa.

      • Dogs do have smaller brains than wolves. In fact, it happens with all domesticated animal breeds, or nearly all. I recall having read something like, an adult dog of a similar size of an adult wolf, having the brain of a 6-month old wolf. It’s supposedly related with selection for retention of infantile propensities, that’s one idea.

        About “Cro-Magnons” and us, I think it’s very likely that they were pretty much “us”. I think I’ve read once something like women have a similar number of neurons, but only more densely packed, perhaps it’s the same mechanism, supposing that the difference of neuron number would make a relevant difference. “Too large” neurons are supposedly less effective though. But I’d guess that upper-paleolithic humans were just on the upper range of normal modern variation in size.

        I’d not rule out totally the possibility of something more significant than that, but nothing as drastic as those ideas of a biological “saltation” for modern behavior or something like that.

  4. The Latin is ‘pulcerrimae formae’ which Baker in his ‘Race’ (1974) p 26 renders as ‘of pleasing form’. I suppose an male expert could look at a female skull and speculate the owner had been unusually feminine or attractive in life, thereby influencing his choice of it as the type specimen for a species.

    From what I can gather, Blumenbach had no idea of humans having evolved from ape like ancestors although he understood that climate and domestication could affect the appearance of animal species. It seems to me if Blumenbach thought differing climatic extremes and level of domestication explained the differences of human groups, then he would have to have seen the the original ‘Varietas primas’ (European) type to be the least modified by non aesthetic changes from the species at creation. So maybe Blumenbach did think the specimen type skull was beautiful, and didn’t think Caucasians beautiful (though still believing them to be closest to the original version of the human species). As Peter says, it was quite common for Europeans to openly say that Europeans were more physically attractive in Blumenbach’s time.

    However, Blumenbach must have noticed that Germans were quite a bit different in appearance to Georgians and hence whatever his motivation, he was downgrading north Europeans by making a Georgian skull his specimen type.

    That does not get him off the hook with Gould, because he is ‘making classifications by beauty’. According to Gould this was the root cause of all manner of evildoing (Nazis).

    ” Blumenbach lived as a cloistered professor all his life, but his ideas have reverberated in ways that he never could have anticipated, through our wars, our social upheavals, our sufferings…I therefore end by returning once more to the extraordinary coincidences of 1776–as Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence while Blumenbach was publishing the first edition of his treatise in Latin. We should remember the words of the nineteenth-century British historian and moralist Lord Acton, on the power of ideas to propel history”

    Nonsense. The year Blumenbach published, North African commerce raiders of the Barbary coast were still enslaving white Europeans taken from ships and coastal villages to be worked to death in galleys, ransomed, or if female sold as sex slaves (though boys were not safe from that fate either), They had been preying on Europeans for hundreds of years previously (including raids on England in the 16th century). In 1776 they started taking US ships, (because American ships were were no longer protected by the British) and extorted huge payments from the US state. It was the opportunity presented by a favourable balance of forces, not some racial or religious theory as rationale, which caused north African commerce raiders to target Europe.

    In my opinion Gould’s popular writing overestimates the power of scientific ideas to influence history, just as his critics overestimate the influence of Gould’s narrative hermeneutics of ideas. Gould did not create a political climate that influenced science, he just articulated and took advantage of the opportunity presented intellectual climate that already existed. The popularity and status of his writing was and remains a useful index of received wisdom, but he was a symptom rather than a cause.

  5. Quite interesting read, this blog/series of posts. Someday I got to take the time to read it all and review Gould and this 2011 paper myself, even though I don’t expect Gould to be 100% accurate and free from bias (unconscious or not), when I read that paper for the first time, and “media” coverage, I had the impression that it focused just on Gould’s on mistakes but leaving some parts off, which I imagine that perhaps were still right. Like Morton’s Caucasoid average supposedly discarding the small-headed Hindus (while small headed native-Americans were over represented), that’s the main recollection I have from Gould on this subject, and to me it seems more relevant than the hypothetically biased disparity of the measures with seeds and lead shots, which seems to have been the central matter, if I recall.

    “Neanderthal is not an intermediate form – it’s us.” – SJ Gould

    “They’re not ‘them’ anymore; they’re ‘us.'” – J. Hawks

    Funnily similar phrasing, I imagine Hawks becoming sick in disgust of nearly quoting Gould.

    • Morton didn’t go into detail about races that’s just slenadr. Darwin was a lot more racist than Morton any day of the week, yet he gets held up as some kind of paragon. The reason being that it’s politically convenient to applaud him because he is the trump card of atheists in their misguided war against a made up straw man religious right who all believe in strict creationism.Second, the correlation is .4. That’s not weak at all. Further, there’s a correllation between certain genes and between both IQ and brain size. Case closed, intelligence is genetic and it is more evident in some groups than others. And if you do believe in natural selection obviously this HAS to be the case.Back to darwin, he believed less advanced peoples would inevitably be exterminated. But it doesn’t have to work like that. Selection on critical genes is very strong. Just one person in a group gets it and it’s almost guaranteed to become fixed in a population even if nothing else is being transfered along with it. That is the gene is transfered without the demographic changing much, the other genes are largely preserved. This is happening right now with brain related genes from europe, cardiovascular genes from amish community, and likely many other genes we don’t know about. And the process is pretty fast, fixation could be achieved in less than 10k years into every remote corner of the world, especially now that travel is so easy.

      • I’ve been researching Morton more in depth this past year and hope to post that info in a few months. But I can tell you now, Morton was a big racist, anti-black, anti Irish and anti low cast Indian. Darwin was actually friends with two blacks during his life, and that counts for something, even though he said some racist things. I know of no evidence that Baka pygmies are not intelligent, and I invite you to go live with them in the dense jungle and see how long you survive. I know I wouldn’t last a week and my hat size is quite large. My point is, study humans and how they live… not just tests and reports. If you want to understand Paris, you need to go there and see it with your own eyes and not just read what others say about it. You should not accept academic hearsay.

  6. I think I’ve read once that there has been one racial taxonomy that was entirely based on beauty. There was the “beatiful race” and the “ugly race”. But I suspect it’s just a caricature and it were probably like racial super-groups or something like that. It’s still funny, though.

  7. Pingback: Mismeasuring Gould in "The Mismeasure of Science"

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *