1.4 History as a Beaker of Mustard Seed 4 – Deciphering the parable

Posted on January 31, 2011

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Dr. Morton and the Parable of the Mustard Seeds

The parable of Samuel George Morton—as suggested in the story told in the previous three parts of this essay—shows how theory can shape data.

There is no evidence that Dr. Morton consciously fudged the truth.  In the opinion of Stephen J. Gould, Morton published his raw data too openly for it to be consistent with conscious manipulation.

It was Morton’s worldview, his cultural viewpoint, which caused skulls to grow and shrink within his laboratory.

Culture is powerful stuff, his example tells us; it can redefine the normal properties of matter.

Culture is to some extent a theory of the world, an explanation of society by society itself.  The theory draws for its explanatory power on science and religion, philosophy and history, tradition and psychology, and much else.  Cultural response is also a matter of politics and of social relationships.

Dr. Samuel George Morton was a “man of his time” to use a modern historical catchphrase.  He was an American of a certain class and a certain era.  To a large extent, his cultural viewpoint was determined by that class and era.

There are limits to how much one can rely on the idea of “a person of their time” to explain human behaviour.  The idea can be abused—stretched and expanded beyond all reason by persons wishing to rehabilitate an era or a culture or a personal hero.  But the case of Dr. Morton is one where the idea would seem to validly apply, that is, where it actually provides some explanatory value.

Morton began to assemble his famous collection of skulls in the 1820s.  This was some thirty years after the invention of the cotton gin on Mrs. Nathaniel Greene’s slave plantation in Savannah, Georgia.[1] Eli Whitney’s invention enabled a slave to produce 50 pounds of cleaned cotton a day, which translated as huge profits for Mrs. Greene and other plantation slave-owners.  And it almost immediately transformed the cotton industry in the United States.

The cotton gin was invented in 1793.  The year before, in 1792, the US exported 138 thousand pounds of cotton; by 1820, it was exporting 35 million pounds.  This represented a 25-fold increase in less than three decades.  Because of the cotton gin, cotton became—and for a century remained—the United States’ leading export.

The demand for slaves naturally went up, as did the demand for land on which to grow the cotton.  By 1825, after an era of continuous increase, the slaves in the United States came to represent a third of all the slaves in the Americas.  During the 1830s, large sections of Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia were taken from their Indigenous American owners and given over to cotton growing.  From 1835 to 1842, the United States engaged in its longest and costliest Indian war against the Seminole in Florida.  The war was fought in order to eliminate a sanctuary for escaped slaves.[2]

The prosperity brought by the cotton industry was very good news for people of European descent, and bad news for people of African or Indigenous American descent.  But it also, given the realities of the situation, demanded an explanation for some morally questionable behaviour.

Human beings are intrinsically moral animals.  You cannot enslave one group of people and take land from another group of people without providing a reason why.  Since neither of these groups had done any particular harm to Europeans, the favoured explanations tended to fasten upon notions of European superiority, on racism.

Samuel George Morton lived in an era prospering mightily from human oppression, and came from a social class naturally reluctant to surrender that prosperity.  Racism as a theory had the advantage of not only excusing the crimes done, but of permitting them to continue.  As a leading and loyal citizen of an oppressive society, Morton did his part to provide that society with a continuing justification for its acts.

The underlying formula was simple:  as superior beings living in a superior society, Europeans were entitled to all that they could take.

Morton was one voice in a continuing discourse on racism which began with Columbus, and continues—thankfully diminished—until today.  As Morton was a person of his time, so are all of us.

Explicit racism as a worldview has fallen into disrepute, largely as a result of Hitler and his murder factories.  However, 500 years of pernicious racial theorizing will not blow away in the wind simply because it is no longer fashionable in polite circles.  Many people over a long period of time were involved in refining and disseminating the doctrine, and many people we would not think of as racists have grown up immersed in it.  You may know some of them.  Remember that Pogo cartoon:  “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Over the era during which it flourished, an era which only began to close within the memory of people living today, racism became the background chorus of an entire culture, and shaped that culture’s thinking in ways we will never erase unless we examine and address the matter directly.  If we do not study how one privileged population asserted its superiority over all others, if we do not study the structure of the arguments made, and the conclusions thereby reached, if we do not challenge the thinking which underlies racism, it will return to us again and again—wearing jackboots. And real lives will be damaged and destroyed because of it.

Deciphering the Parable

I called Dr. Morton’s story a parable because I think it has particular things to teach us.

The danger of imprecise measure. Consider mustard seed.  By using mustard seed as his measure, Morton allowed an error of 5% to creep into his figures, which, given his preconceptions, was sufficient to distort and invalidate his conclusions.

Consider history.  As a measure of human accomplishment, history is even less precise than mustard seed.  Herodotus is known as the father of liars as well as the father of history.

We have to be more than careful about our presumptions if we wish history to lead us toward the truth.  And away from racism.

The evidence chosen can determine the outcome. Remember the gerrymandered skulls.  It is easy to produce the impression that one group is superior to another group if we salt the record with all that is good and great in respect of one group and reverse the process in respect of the other.  We tell history this way.  In the West, history—in our popular culture and in our schools—proclaims the deeds of Europeans and remains silent about the accomplishments of others.

It goes further.  We pass over and decline to account for the parallel record of European infamy, while allowing to stand unchallenged ancient historical perjuries contained in word-pairings like civilization and savagery, religion and magic, science and superstition.

Neat verbal dichotomies don’t measure truth.  They really may be nothing more than verbal illusions, jabberwocky, pretending to have meaning.  What if “civilized” and “savage”, for instance, are simply code-words for “us” and “them”?  To the Greeks, remember, all non-Greeks were barbarians.

Encountering civilization

Assumptions shape evidence. If a person believes that Europeans are uniquely rational and scientific, then the historical evidence such a person sees will contain numerous examples of Europeans discovering things, inventing things, figuring things out, and, parallel to this—as a natural corollary of the idea—will show the utter inability of non-Europeans to similarly discover things, invent things and figure things out.

If we do not look for it, if we simply accept that it does not exist, non-European rationality will remain unseen and undiscovered.  And in the absence of evidence to the contrary, evidence proving that rationality is not exclusive to Europeans (evidence which is there, actually, but which we have refused to see) then racism and the doctrine of European superiority will remain unchallenged.

More than one theory is almost always possible. Dr. Morton only had one theory, and all his presumptions fed into it.  If he had another, if he had alternatives, he might not have reached the conclusions that he did.  There are indications, after all, that he was struggling to be a real scientist.  Instead, blinded by his one great theory, blinded by his ego and his cultural arrogance, he produced data but not truth. All his charts and researches—his fame, his posterity, his gift to knowledge—are today no more than embarrassing scientific curiosities.

Alternative Histories

What this tells me is that we have to discover alternatives to the kind of cultural pride which hides or ignores the worth and contributions of others.  We have a positive duty as a society to search out tools of understanding, to use them and share them.  We have to provide alternative explanations for the evidence of history—sometimes we have to  provide alternative evidence as well—or else the human tendency to theorize may lead us back once again to racism.  The matter is too important to ignore.

Hitler’s ovens no longer function, but the prisons of Canada are filled with Indigenous people just as the prisons of the United States are filled with African-Americans.  Suicide rates among Aboriginal teens would be a hand-wringing national emergency if occurring among non-Indigenous Canadians.  Despite having treaty rights to education which are protected in the Constitution of Canada, Aboriginal youths in Alberta are more likely to wind up in jail than to complete high school.

Aboriginal people are in general poorer, shorter lived and less healthy than other Canadians.  Aboriginal people are an order of magnitude more likely to be shot by peace-keeping authorities, and their children are an order of magnitude more likely to be removed from their families by child welfare authorities.  For too many, drug use and alcoholism undermine any chance of change or progress, and Canada’s skid roads are all too often their last home.  The effects of history, discrimination, and ongoing government paternalism—the idea that aboriginal people are not mature enough to make decisions about their own lives—continue to ravage Indigenous lives and communities.

Don’t kid yourself.  History is not over and racism is not dead.


[1] Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade. Picador, London, 1997, pp.569, 570.

[2] James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me. Simon & Schuster, NY, 1995, p.151.

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