1.1 History as a Beaker of Mustard Seed

Posted on September 16, 2010

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From Featherfolk, a work in progress.

Part I:  Historical Parables:   Beginning a Discussion of Aboriginal History

A.  History as a Beaker of Mustard Seed

This book is about Aboriginal people, about Aboriginal history, spoken from the point of view of someone who is himself Aboriginal.  Its argument is two-fold.  One, that what is commonly known about Aboriginal people and their history is not sufficient for understanding them.  (There is not even enough there for them to understand themselves.)  And two, that much of what already passes for understanding is mistaken.  It is mistaken about Aboriginal people; sometimes it is mistaken about people in general; almost inevitably, it is mistaken about history.

They did an experiment once.  They gave a group of teachers a list of IQ scores for their students, a bogus list, randomly generated, which had nothing to do with the actual IQs of the students.  The experimenters came back at the end of the term and discovered—lo and behold—that the marks the students received more or less reflected their (phony, randomly generated) IQ scores.  The teachers had seen skill where they had expected to see it, missed it where they had not.  The fictional IQ scores, filtered through the presumptions and expectations of their instructors, had more or less predetermined the students’ failure or success.

Now, should we suppose that this sort of thing only happens under experimental conditions?  Maybe it only happens over there, and not to us.  We’re all sensible folk here, not like them at all.

Well, maybe.  But in case this cautionary tale applies to us just as much as it does to them, perhaps we should be careful about what we accept to be true about other people.  Presumptions about people have a habit of becoming a reality—like the oracle of Oedipus which became true precisely because it was known and heard.

People rise to the expectations we have of them, because a reputation is a precious thing to lose.  Similarly, unfounded doubt can create the failure it expects, because reputation is a kind of mirror by which people see and define themselves.  People act as they are expected to act because that is the very definition of society.  Anybody naive enough to believe that what other people think doesn’t matter has never felt the burden of a frown or the delectation of a smile.

A.1  The Doctor & the Shrinking Skulls

Here’s a scientific parable available to us from the researches of Stephen Jay Gould.  In his book, The Mismeasure of Man, about science and its application to questions of race and human intelligence, Gould discusses the case of Samuel George Morton[1].

Morton was a nineteenth century American scientist who gained considerable fame in his era based on his studies of human skulls.  He set about demonstrating the superiority of Europeans over other people by assembling hard data showing that Europeans in general had larger brains.  The assumption, of course, was that larger brains meant greater intelligence.  Bigger was better, and intelligence could be measured by the cubic inch.

In studies published in 1839, 1844 and 1849, Morton presented data demonstrating that the braincases of Caucasians were consistently larger than those of Africans, East Asians, or Indigenous Americans.  The charts summarizing his findings were reprinted widely in the nineteenth century—even in university texts—as solemn, scientific proof of Caucasian superiority.  The instructive part of this story resides in how Morton went about generating his results.

Morton began with certain social and scientific presumptions.  He was a polygenicist, meaning in this case that he believed Africans, Indigenous Americans, Mongolians, and Malays to be separate from Caucasians—distinctly different human species, in fact, distinct and inferior.  He also accepted a particular ranking of these peoples.  Europeans were always on top, Indigenous Americans in the middle, and people of African descent on the bottom.  What Morton expected to find was that the skull capacities of these various groups would directly reflect their relative rankings in his hierarchy of human ‘species’.  What he discovered, and the data he eventually produced, fit his presumptions like shackle and wrist.

How did he arrive at his results?  He measured skulls using, at first, sifted mustard seed, and then, later on—after deciding that the first method was too unreliable—BB shot.  In Morton’s first study, Crania Americana, 1839, he filled human skulls to capacity with mustard seed, then poured the seed from each skull into a graduated beaker.  In this way he measured the skulls of various ethnic groups, and charted average skull capacities for each of his proposed “human species.”  Thus Morton was able to show that the average Caucasian skull, for instance, was five cubic inches more capacious than the average Indigenous American skull, and a full nine cubic inches more capacious than the average African skull.

“How could sentimentalists and egalitarians stand against the dictates of nature?” Stephen Jay Gould writes in regard to these findings.  “Morton had provided clean, objective data based on the largest collection of skulls in the world.”


[1] Revised & expanded, 1996,  WW Norton, NY, 82-106.

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