Polygeny

In class on Tuesday we discussed the article “American Polygeny and Craniometry Before Darwin,” by Stephen Jay Gould. This article talks about the history behind the idea of biological determinism. This is the notion that people at the bottom of society are made up of inferior genetic material. In other words, blacks and Indians are less intelligent than whites. There were two types of people: the “hard-liners”- who believed that these minorities were biologically inferior and they deserved to be enslaved, and the “soft-liners”- who also believed that the blacks and Indians were biologically inferior, but freedom should not depend on intelligence. The article mentions famous Americans who in today’s standards would be as far left as can be, like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln, who spoke openly about black inferiority. In those days, however, scientists also assented that based on experimental evidence, whites prevailed biologically over all other races. No one questioned this belief. Scientists’ data agreed with society’s conventional rankings, but the data collected was not objective and did not look to answer an open question. They were simply proving definitively that whites are smarter than other races. They asserted that perhaps it was the climate in the area they originated that made them inferior and that maybe if they were placed in an appropriate environment, they would see gradual increase in intelligence. In the early 19th century, a distinguished physician and scientist named Samuel George Morton ran some experiments to test the polygenic theory proposed by Louis Agassiz. He collected more than 600 human skulls and sought to make a ranking of races based on physical characteristics of the brain- primarily its size. Today we all know that intelligence is not based on the size of your brain (Einstein had a significantly below average sized brain), but in the early 19th century, this was the belief. Morton measured the size of the cranial cavity by filling it with sifted mustard seed and then pouring that back into a graduated cylinder to find the volume of the skull. He later found inconsistencies with the mustard seeds and switched to lead shots. All of Morton’s results matched all of societies prejudices and he possessed one of the highest reputations among scholars in the world. It was later found, however, that all of his work was the result of fixing and manipulating the data in the interest of accepting the prior convictions. The most interesting thing, however, is that Gould didn’t think that Morton consciously changed any of his data. If he did, why would he publish his findings so openly? Gould states, “The prevalence of unconscious finagling […] suggests a general conclusion about the social context of science. For if scientists can be honestly self-deluded to Morton’s extent, then prior prejudice may be found anywhere, even in the basics of measuring bones and toting sums,” (pg. 102). I found this statement incredibly intriguing. If Morton honestly believed that he was collecting fair and reasonable data based on social preconceptions, who’s to say that any findings today are accurate. Of course, in modern society we do have more accurate and effective means of collecting data and we claim that all experiments are completely objective. It just makes you wonder if what we say is objective, really is.

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2 Comments

  1. What shot out to me in your blog post was the fact that scientists changed the way people think. It is a great power to have to be able to experimentally determine a racial superiority. Sometimes you get “bad science” in the news which then spreads to public opinion. “good science” will show that there isnt a difference genetically but cultural differences that were not tested may be a factor. Being able to test superiority is a horribly broad subject and also unethical. Who knows? Maybe they selected their participants by hand and disregared the scientific method all together based on stereotypes and biases.

  2. I recently watched the movie Gattaca that touches on this idea of biological/genetic determinism. I recommend it if anyone’s interested in a sci-fi movie about this topic. It is about a time where there is not racial discrimination, but genetic.

    This scene from the movie shows two brothers, one who was conceived normally and one who was conceived in a lab to have the best possible genes from his parents, about to see who can swim the farthest.
    I thought it was interesting that it brings up the same topic you do. The “genetically superior” brother is aware of this idea and thinks that even having this race is pointless. Without even doing the race he believes that he has already won because he has the superior genes. While this is a fictional movie it seems that a very similar situation really has taken place.

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