Personal Commentary on Morton & Gould 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.

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