Darwin sought to not only produce a new scientific truth, but also to put an end to polygenism, the current scientific discourse on human origins that gave tacit and at times explicit support for slavery: ‘... when the principle of evolution is generally accepted, as it surely will be before long, the dispute between the monogenists and polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death.’ (Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, p. 235)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The "Gould versus Morton" Debate -- Text II: Some Passages from the MisMeasure of Man, 2nd edition on Morton, the Value and relation of Science to Society, Agassiz, and John Collins


This is a set of passages from Stephan Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, 2nd edition.  New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.  It is t is a companion post to the text from Samuel G. Morton.

On The Relations of Science and Society
“Yet the history of many scientific subjects is virtually free from such constraints of fact for two major reasons. First, some topics are invested with enormous social importance but blessed with very little reliable information. When the ratio of data to social impact is so low, a history of scientific attitudes may be little more than an oblique record of social change. The history of scientific views on race, for example, serves as a mirror of social movements (Provine, 1973). This mirror reflects in good times and bad, in periods of belief in equality and in eras of rampant racism. The death knell of the old eugenics in America was sounded more by Hitler’s particular use of once-favored arguments for sterilization and racial purification than by advances in genetic knowledge.
Second, many questions are formulated by scientists in such a restricted way that any legitimate answer can only validate a social preference. Much of the debate on racial differences in mental worth, for example, proceed upon the assumption that intelligence is a thing in the head. Until this notion was swept aside, no amount of data could dislodge a strong Western tradition of ordering related items into a progressive chain of being.
Science cannot escape its curious dialectic. Embedded in surrounding culture, it can, nonetheless, be a powerful agent for questioning and even overturning the assumptions that nurture it. Science can provide information to reduce the ration of data to social importance. Scientists can struggle to identify the cultural assumptions of their trade and to ask how answers might be formulated under different assertions. Scientists can propose creative theories that force startled colleagues to confront unquestioned procedures. But science’s potential as an instrument for identifying the cultural constraints upon it cannot be fully realized until scientists give up the twin myths of objectivity and inexorable march toward truth. One must, indeed, locate the beam in one’s own eye before interpreting correctly the pervasive motes in everybody else’s. The beams can then become facilitators, rather than impediments.”
Mismeasure of Man, 2nd edition, 54-55.

Gould on Agassiz and Morton:
“Agassiz speculated freely and at length, but he amassed no data to support his polygenic theory. Morton, a Philadelphia patrician with two medical degrees --- one from fashionable Edinburgh --- provided the ‘facts’ that won worldwide respect for the ‘American School’ of polygeny.... Yet Morton gathered skulls neither for the dilettante’s motive of abstract interest nor the taxonomist’s zeal for complete representation. He had a hypothesis to test: that ranking of races could be established objectively by physical characteristics of the brain, particularly by its size.
Mismeasure of Man, 2nd edition, p. 83.

Morton’s work and its later use:
“Morton published three major works on the sizes of human skulls --- his lavish, beautifully illustrated volume on American Indians, the Crania Americana of 1839; his studies of skulls from the Egyptian tombs, the Crania Egyptiaca of 1844; and the epitome of his collection in 1849. Each contained a table, summarizing his results on average skull volumes arranged by race.... [The tables] represent the major contribution of American polygeny to debates about racial ranking. They outlived the theory of separate creations and were reprinted during the nineteenth century as irrefutable, ‘hard’ data on the mental worth of human races.”
Mismeasure of Man, 2nd edition, p. 85.

Gould’s brief against Morton’s work:
During the summer of 1977 I spent several years reanalyzing Morton’s data. (Morton, the self-styled objectivist, published all his raw information. We can infer with little doubt how he moved from raw measurements to summary tables.) In short, and to put it bluntly, Morton’s summaries are a patchwork of fudging and finagling in the clear interest of controlling a priori convictions. Yet--- and this is the most intriguing aspect of the case --- I find no evidence of conscious fraud; indeed, had Morton been a conscious fudger, he would not have published his data so openly.
Conscious fraud is probably rare in science. It is also not very interesting, for it tells us nothing about the nature of scientific activity. Liars, if discovered, are excommunicated; scientists declare that their profession has properly policed itself, and they return to work, mythology unimpaired, and objectively vindicated. The prevalence of Unconscious finagling, on the other hand, suggests a general conclusion about the 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 basic of measuring bones and toting sums.
Mismeasure of Man, 2nd edition, p. 88.

Gould on the quality of the illustrations in Morton’s work:
“The lithographs of this and the next figure were done by John Collins, a great scientific artist  unfortunately unrecognized today.”  
Mismeasure of Man, 2nd edition, p. 90.