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)

Friday, July 8, 2011

Comment II on “Gould versus Morton”: Morton’s Crania Collection in the Context of the Final Decades of Natural History, Part One.


At the very beginning of his great Animal Kingdom, Cuvier puts Natural History into its intellectual context, a context that framed Samuel George Morton’s work.  It was the moment of the what seemed to be the ascendance of Natural History, which seemed to be on the verge of decoding the design of nature and so the will of its supposed Designer.  In other areas, philology and geosophy were demonstrating a connection between languages, populations, histories and territories.  This was also a period of great foment for Natural Historians, a moment when geology and the recognition of fossils provoked rational and religious disputes and radical interpretations of the history of the earth and its inhabitants.  The study of human variety stood as a central concern of the time, because it was believed that the variation of humans held the key to the variation across nature.  At this time, the most popular means of understanding human behavior, and one endorsed by many scientists, were the various theories of phrenological studies.  Psychology as we know it did not exist and the explanations for deviate behavior or madness were thought to be found in changes to the body of the person.  This is not a strange idea.  Aristotle argued in his Politics and in De Anima that the appearance of the body corresponded to the goodness of the soul and so one could see in the bodies of slaves their slavish nature, while the body of free man would be of necessity, beautiful.  This distinction between freeman and slave was a essential aspect of government.  The later pseudo-Aristotelian Secreta secretorum is another example, though in its case, the medieval author took care to note that the types of man described were never found in a pure form, and that the real purpose of the King’s knowledge of human varieties was to be able to determine who was speaking the truth.  The story of these views is fascinating and too involved for even a long digression, but well worth exploring at a later time. 

Secreta secretorum      
Aristotle instructs the king, in Pseudo-Aristotle's 'About the Secrets of Secrets'
To return to the Animal Kingdom, Cuvier presents three fields of inquiry into nature.  Notably, Cuvier does not refer to science, but to his subject being instead the “Study of Nature.”  Science and the pursuit of scientific inquiry today is something very different, and so the designation science and scientist would not have the meaning it does today.  Cuvier, Morton, Audubon, Linneaus, Blumenbach, etc., were Naturalists engaged in the study of Nature.  One would have to wait a few decades before the study of life emerge along with the scientists and social scientists engaged in its study.  So Cuvier’s, and Natural History’s object was not life and the living world, but Nature and its history.  This was no same change in outlook, as has been pointed out by Francois Jacob, Wrightman, Singer, Canguilhem, etc.  That said, Cuvier’s three fields of Natural History correspond to three meanings that are given to Nature:


First, Nature refers to “qualities a being derives from birth.”
Second, Nature is used to describe “the entire mass of beings which compose the universe.”
Third, Nature is understood as “the laws which govern those beings [i. e., the “mass of beings”]. It is in this latter sense particularly that we usually personify Nature, and through respect, use its name for that of its Creator.”

The study of “these three relations” comes under the heading of “Physics [as opposed to metaphysics] or Natural Philosophy” under which we find:

A.] GENERAL PHYSICS --- which “examines abstractly each of the properties of those moveable and extended beings we call bodies.”
a1. Dynamics --- a special branch of General Physics which “considers bodies in mass, and proceeding from a very small number of experiments, determines mathematically the laws of equilibrium, and those of motion and its communication.” Dynamics is further divided into the fields of Statics, Hydrostatics, Hydrodynamics, Mechanics, Optics, etc.

B.] CHEMISTRY --- the second branch of General Physics and devoted to how “elementary molecules” act on each other, combine, and separate, and reunited and how through experimentation we can understand changes in the “various circumstances” effect these actions. Dynamics, Cuvier wrote, “is purely a science of experiment and is irreducible to calculation.”

This being said, the study of an object or “body” can be undertaken from more than one perspective, as in the case with Heat or electricity, both of which can fall under Dynamics or Chemistry “according to the point of view in which they are being considered.”

Cuvier found a “ruling method” for these various branches of General Physics and Chemistry: they all begin by “isolating bodies, reducing them to their greatest simplicity,” they study their “properties” in isolation by either “reflection or experiment, and by observing or calculating the results, and finally, in generalizing and connecting the laws of these properties, so as to form codes, and, if it were possible, to refer them to one single principle into which they might all be resolved.”

Now C.] NATURAL HISTORY, which Cuvier wrote was synonymous with with “Particular Physics,” is a very different kind of study from General Physics and Chemistry. It is less about calculation and experimentation and is instead grounded in observation. Natural History sought to apply the Laws of General Physics “to the numerous and varied beings which exist in nature, in order to explain the phenomena which each of them presents.”

Were the practitioners of Natural History really different from the scientists of today in their approach to the rational study of the world? Well, of course the answer is yes and no. Yes, because they both recognized that observation, and hence the observer, were potential sources of error that make the discovery of general laws quite difficult. No, in that there were no scientists, and certainly no biologists as we know them today during Morton’s time. Nothing resembling the infrastructure and division of labor that characterizes contemporary science existed then. Naturalists communicated through societies, letters, and occasional monographs, though as the pursuit of naturalist studies became the domain of the wealthy amateur, the number of societies and publications steadily expanded. By the middle of the 19th century, Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston stood as the centers for the study of nature in America, and were swiftly rising to international prominence as polygenism gained respectability in circles of naturalists and their societies, associations, and private research. In the midst of this rise of what came to be known as the American School, no one denied the relationship and antagonism between the study of nature, the church, and the institutions of slavery.

Morton as an “Objectivist”
It is correctly noted by both Lewis, DeGusta, et al. and by Gould that Morton’s distinguished himself from his contemporaries by his pursuit of empirical studies on human diversity. It is probably difficult to appreciate the degree to which Morton’s polygenism broke with the “sciences” of his day, such as phrenology, but one should not overstate the possibility of a break. Morton sought to put phrenological knowledge and polygenism on an empirical footing while supporting the Biblical account of creation. Morton was not trying to overcome Natural History, nor did he inadvertently inaugurate a “paradigm shift” in Natural History. The break would soon come with the publication of Darwin’s monogenist theory of life and variation.

Morton was well acquainted with the very popular phrenologist George Combe and Combe writes the afterword to Morton’s Crania Americana. Friendship, of course, does not establish the continuity between Morton and phrenological analysis, his measurements do.  When known to him, Morton carefully notes individual biographical data that is keeping with phrenological and pathological analysis. He notes in the introduction to his Catalog of Crania that while variation was his principle interest, phrenological analysis was also important. Two of the crania in the collection are phrenologically marked and the Crania Americana contains extensive tables of phrenological measurements on each skull. The accuracy of Morton’s measurements would of course be rather inconsequential to the question of the scientific legitimacy of phrenology, however, but would perhaps further rehabilitate him in some eyes and for their own reasons. Few if any return to Morton’s collection seeking to vindicate phrenology, of course, but Morton at the time of writing the Crania Americana was doing his work comfortably within the domain of phrenology.

In the Crania Americana, Morton writes that 
 “I was from the beginning desirous to introduce into this work a brief chapter on phrenology; but conscious of my own inability to do justice to the subject, I applied to a professional friend to supply the deficiency. He engaged to do so, and commenced his task with great zeal; but ill health soon obliged him to abandon it, and to seek a distant and more genial climate. Under those circumstances, I resolved to complete the phrenological table, and omit the proposed essay altogether. Early in the present year, however, and just as my work was ready for press, Geo. Combe, Esq., the distinguished phrenologist, arrived in this country; and I seized the occasion to express my wants to that gentleman, who, with great zeal and promptness, agreed to furnish the desired essay, and actually placed the MS in my hands before he left the city.”
Morton wrote to his assistant John Phillips that “I am free to acknowledge that there is a singular harmony between the mental character of the Indian and his cranial developments, as explained by phrenology.” The quote comes from the first pages of Crania Americana. Here it is in its context:

My Dear Sir:—Having now completed a task which has cost me some years of toil and anxiety, it gives me great pleasure to record the many obligations I owe you in the prosecution of these inquiries. To your ingenuity I am almost wholly indebted for the means of obtaining the elaborate measurements appended to this work ; which, without your personal aid and untiring perseverance, would have remained in a great measure unaccomplished. It may, perhaps, be thought by some readers, that these details are unnecessarily minute, especially in the Phrenological Table; and again, others would have preferred a work conducted throughout on Phrenological principles. In this study I am yet a learner; and it appeared to me the wiser plan to present the facts unbiassed by theory, and let the reader draw his own conclusions. You and I have long admitted the fundamental principles of Phrenology, viz: That the brain is the organ of the mind, and that its different parts perform different functions : but we have been slow to acknowledge the details of Cranioscopy as taught by Dr, Gall, and supported and extended by subsequent observers. We have not, however, neglected this branch of inquiry, but have endeavored to examine it in connection with numerous facts, which can only be fully appreciated when they come to be compared with similar measurements derived from the other races of men. Yet I am free to acknowledge that there is a singular harmony between the mental character of the Indian, and his cranial developments as explained by Phrenology.
Morton to John S. Phillips, Esq., Crania Americana

A reviewer in the American Journal of Arts and Sciences also noted the continuity between Morton’s work and phrenology, actually noting that Morton’s empiricism owed its due to phrenology rather than representing a break with it. “Dr. Morton gives also measurements of particular regions of the brain as indicated by the skull; and in this portion of his work, the phrenologists alone can claim precedence of him.”

And further:

“We have adduced these proofs and authorities in support of the proposition that size [of the brain] influences power, because we conceive it to be a principle of fundamental importance in every investigation into the natural history of man, founded on the physiology of the brain; and also because in the hasty zeal of many of the opponents of phrenology, to undermine the discoveries of Dr. Gall, it has been denied with a boldness and pertinacity more allied to the spirit of contentious disputation, than to that of philosophical inquiry. Its importance in a dissertation on national crania is very apparent. One of the most singular features in the history of this continent is, that the aboriginal races, with few exceptions, have perished, or constantly receded, before the Anglo-Saxon race, and have in no instance either mingled with them as equals, or adapted their manners and civilization. These phenomena must have a cause; and can any inquiry be at once more interesting and philosophical than that which endeavors to ascertain whether the cause be connected with a difference in the brain between the native race and their conquering invaders? Farther, some few of the American families, the Auracanran, for instance, have successfully resisted the Europeans; and the question is important, whether in them the brain be in any respect superior to what it is in the tribes which have unsuccessfully resisted?

It is true that Dr. Gall’s fundamental principle, the size of the brain (other conditions being equal) is a measure of the power of mental manifestation, is directly involved in these inquiries; but we can discover no reason why it should not be put to the test of an extensive and accurate induction of facts. The unphilosophical prejudice that every proposition and fact in physiology must be neglected or opposed, because it bears on the vexed question of phrenology, has been too long indulged. The best interests of science require that it should be laid aside and we commend D. Morton, for having resolutely discarded it. He does not enter the field as a partisan, for or against Dr. Gall’s doctrines, but as a philosophical inquirer, and states candidly and fearlessly the results of his observations.”

Combe’s illustration of the phrenological measurement of the “great divisions of the faculties in the different regions of the brain.” p.16. American Journal of Science and Arts, No. 2, Vol. 38, p. 1-41
One of Morton's Phrenological Tables from Crania American



As with Cuvier, to whom Agassiz would later compare him, Morton sought to reconcile his polygenic views with the biblical accounts.  The age of the earth was an issue in the riddle of human variation, but it was also a key.  The Egyptian skulls were of interest not simply for comparisons of cranial capacity, but because Morton believed that they represented a group whose historical records date back to near the time of Creation.  As with Cuvier, Morton would turn to the Biblical accounts of creation and flood to lend support to his views whenever the crania were not sufficient to demonstrate the separate creation of the races (see Cuvier's Memoire d’Ibis, appended to The Animal Kingdom) and especially his view that all the new world tribes were one race distinct from the Mongolian race, with the exception of the “Esquimaux.”  But Morton also turned to a new and wildly popular field of Egpytology for support for his polygenist view that the races are fixed primordial forms.  One can argue with Gould over his assertion that Morton was interested in measuring intelligence, but Morton also is clear that cranial capacity has a relationship to moral judgment.  However one wants to interpret that view, it is certain that Morton believed in the fixity of species and that the races were separate species (see Morton Text I).  Here are two immediately relevant passages from Meigs essay:

The extraordinary doctrine of a uniform American type of skull originated, as is well known, with the late Dr. Samuel George Morton. He was also the most enthusiastic and persistent advocate of this scientific dogma. A variety of circumstances combined to give unusual acceptance to his views. He began his craniographic researches two years after the completion of Blumenbach's Decades Craniorum, by accumulating what was then, as far as I can learn, the largest and most diversified collection of human skulls in the world.  These he long and attentively studied, until he acquired the right to speak authoritatively concerning them. No one was in possession of so many native American crania as he, and so little interest was manifested in human craniography at that time, that but few if any persons ever examined his collection with the object of testing the validity of his conclusions. Moreover, prior to the publication of Crania Americana Dr. Morton had already acquired the double reputation of a naturalist and a physician, and for several years before his death occupied the most prominent, official position in the Academy of Natural Sciences. In view of these facts, it is not at all surprising that his opinions, instead of being controverted, as they now are, found ready adherents ; and that one of the most eminent of living naturalists should have employed them, as well established facts, in his attempt "to show that the boundaries, within which the different natural combinations of animals are known to be circumscribed upon the surface of our earth, coincide with the natural range of distinct types of man.''["Sketch of the Natural Provinces of the Animal World and their relation to the different Types of Man." by Louis Agassiz. See Types of Mankind, p. Iviii.]

Dr. Morton's last contribution (“Physical Type of the American Indians," in Schoolcraft's Information respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States. Part 2, p. 315. ) to craniographical science, which was published after his death, shows conclusively that his views respecting the homogeneity of the aboriginal American races had undergone no change whatever. In this paper he still maintains the doctrine of a uniform, cranial type for these races, with the same arguments and in language almost identical with that which he employed in his Inquiry ten years before.  I make these references to his published opinions to show that Dr. Morton perseveringly inculcated this doctrine from the inception to the very close of his ethnological studies, comprising a period of about twenty-one years; that he was thoroughly convinced of its truthfulness, and regarded it as one of the best established and most readily demonstrable of all the conclusions at which he had arrived after a long and unwearied study of his cranial collection. 
Meigs, J. Aitken, M.D.  1866.  "Observations upon the Cranial Forms of the American Aborigines, based upon Specimens contained in the Collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia." Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, p. 198- 212

Meigis, whose work I will post as another document in the near future, notes the contemporary critiques of Morton’s views, critiques that indicate that Morton’s views were already being critiqued on the basis of his data and his conclusions, especially on the uniqueness and uniformity of the Native American crania --- it was contemporaneous with Emerson’s American Scholar proclamation of American exceptionalism, by the way. 

Just as important, not all polygenists supported the Biblical account.  For many the biblical account had already been overturned by the fossil record and by Lyell’s gradualism.  Cuvier’s catastrophe theory was both under assault and being constantly modified.  Those who clung to the Biblical accounts were more often monogenists who saw the “unity of humans” in terms of the Biblical stories of creation and deluge.  Their monogenist views were often, though not always allied with the abolitionism of the churches.   The unity of humans was a powerful anti-slavery argument, obviously.  The notable exceptions to the linking of monogenism and abolitionism included Morton’s primary antagonist, the monogenist naturalist and Lutheran minister John Bachman of Charleston .  Bachman was a scientific rival, not a religious one.  He was a close friend and co-author with James Audubon.  His wife, Maria Bachman, contributed her considerable talents to Audobon’s paintings. ( http://until-darwin.blogspot.com/2010/12/audubons-birds-and-some-often.html ; http://until-darwin.blogspot.com/2010/12/brief-additional-note-to-audubons-birds.html ; http://until-darwin.blogspot.com/2011/02/maria-martin-bachmans-sketches-and.html )

Bachman was noted for his innovations and social reforms during the decades leading up to emancipation and Civil War.  He baptized free Blacks and allowed them into the congregation.  The congregation remained segregated, as was its school, but by 1860, free Blacks constituted 35 percent of the congregation.  Bachman trained and ordained the first three African-American Lutheran ministers, one of whom would become president of Wiberforce University and another the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia.  Bachman opposed succession, but he supported what he termed “the institutions of South Carolina.”  He recited the opening prayer of the secessionist session of the South Carolina legislature.  His essay “The Duty of the Planter to his Family, to Society, and his Country” deplored profiteering and warned planters and manufacturers that “If you join the extortioners in high prices, you will effect our subjugation by your avarice, and bring destruction on our beloved Southland.  We are all engaged in the same noble, patriotic, and Christian cause.”  He declared the important role of Natural History in supplying the knowledge of nature and agriculture that would be essential for a Confederate victory and pledge to put his knowledge at the disposal of the Rebel cause.  In the 1860 census, John and Maria Bachman are recorded as owning five slaves. ( "A Short Biography of John Bachman" http://until-darwin.blogspot.com/2011/07/short-biography-of-john-bachman-1790.html)

Naturalists such as Josiah Nott ( http://pratt.academia.edu/BRicardoBrown/Papers/250266/Josiah_Nott_2007_ ) used the polygenic theory to support both the institutions of Southern slavery and to further the freeing of inquiry from the influence of religious dogma.  Morton was generally quite reluctant to even admit that his views might contradict the authority of religion, but his acolytes Josiah Nott and George Gliddon were not so shy about their ideological commitments and it is Gliddon to whom Morton dedicated his Crania aegyptiaca.  After all, Gliddon had supplied many of the skulls either directly or indirectly through intermediaries and grave robbers while he and later his nephew served as American diplomats in Egypt.

So, Morton’s social milieu of the middle 19th Century was complex, and his reason's for collecting his data nd his interpretations of that data, like those of his rival Bachman take note of these complexities.  Why else, indeed, would he have undertaken the collection and study of crania if it were not that the understanding of human variety had become a pressing problem of society and the rational administration of its populations? 

While there is a continuity between Morton’s work and phrenological studies, it the connection would become strained over time as Morton moved away from the needing the umbrella of authority that phrenology then offered.  And again, as noted in the previous comment, there are also deep fractures and breaks between Morton’s work and later work in criminal anthropology, eugenics, and intelligence testing.  Gould overstates the degree of continuity between these, but the attempt to revise Morton as an objectivist also glosses over the degree to which the questions Morton sought the answer were asked within his specific social and intellectual milieu. It is a bit dodgy to maintain that the new study proves that Morton had NO interested in differences in intelligence between races of humans that he thought represented separate primordial forms. He certainly believed that the capacity of the cranium was correlated with mental and moral endowments as well as an indicator of the creation of humans as separate primordial forms. On the other hand, he certainly did not understand intelligence as we might today, and intelligence testing in relation to biological determinism in the late 2oth century was Gould's concern.

That Morton’s measurements were accurate is important, but so too is understanding the manner in which the collection was created and the purposes it was intended to serve.  The discussion of which will be the subject of a later posting.


Previous Posts:
Comment I: The New York Times Article and Editorial. Comment I on "Morton vs Gould"

Document I:  The "Gould versus Morton" Debate -- Text I: Samuel George Morton’s Description of his Collection of Crania

Document II:  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

References
Anonymous.  c1840.  Review of Morton's Crania Americana.  American Journal of Science and Arts, No. 2, Vol. 38, p. 1-41

John Bachman
http://pratt.academia.edu/BRicardoBrown/Papers/250267/John_Bachman_2010_
http://until-darwin.blogspot.com/2011/07/short-biography-of-john-bachman-1790.html

http://until-darwin.blogspot.com/2010/12/audubons-birds-and-some-often.html

http://until-darwin.blogspot.com/2010/12/brief-additional-note-to-audubons-birds.html

http://until-darwin.blogspot.com/2011/02/maria-martin-bachmans-sketches-and.html

Josiah Nott
http://pratt.academia.edu/BRicardoBrown/Papers/250266/Josiah_Nott_2007_


Cuvier, Baron.  The Animal Kingdom, arranged in conformity with its organization.  New York: G. & C. & H. Carvill, 1832.

Meigis, J. Aitken, M. D. 1866.  Observations upon the Cranial Forms of the American Aborigines, based upon Specimens contained in the Collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, p. 198- 212.

At a later time I'll compile a more complete bibliography, but it did not seem appropriate for a series of blog posts at this time.  I also need the time to chase down the links to the appropriate digital copies of some of the works.