Ouch

Crania Americana illustration

Illustration from Crania Americana, 1839 (PLoS Biology)

Sixty years after the death of Samuel George Morton, Aleš Hrdlička of the Smithsonian wrote to Edward Nolan of the Academy of Natural Sciences:

The actual value of the anthropological work of Samuel G. Morton lies only in the fact that it has drawn, more than any other work, the attention of scientists to the American man, and that it has stimulated further research. His measurements and observations are of only very little value today. He started, as you know, on the premises of phrenology, which later in the century had to be abandoned as entirely groundless.

The 2 May 1911 letter has the latest date of any of the materials in the APS’s Samuel George Morton Papers. The juxtaposition is surprising and a little sad: boxes of letters, a journal, numerous sketches, the work of many years…and then this strikingly complete dismissal of Morton’s work.

Striking in context only. I already knew the ending, as it were: institutions of higher learning are not rife with Phrenology Departments, and Morton’s name in particular has not withstood the test of time. He is now part of the history of social science, not a late social scientist. But the scope of this exile is contested. When we read The Mismeasure of Man in Anthro 101, the professor discussed the debunking of Gould’s debunking of Morton’s cranial measurements.* So I have long felt a certain protectiveness, as though Morton’s honor must be defended from inaccurate attacks. Whatever else one might say, the man could measure.

And one could—and should—say much else. The nineteenth century scientific community’s approach to race was…shall we indulge in understatement and deploy the term “problematic”? Suffice to say that Morton was racist, and the retirement of theories prevailing during his lifetime is a good thing. It’s nice that it was happening within a couple generations, would’ve been nicer if it had happened earlier and more completely.

The Hrdlička letter is a disconcerting reminder that modes of thought—entire fields of study—can disappear or transform. It’s an exhilarating thought as well, offering the promise of stimulation and improvement. But disconcerting because, even though I am often unfond of the status quo, rapid change is still intimidating…and it might not go in the right direction.

Fields of interest to me are relatively new, and I sometimes wonder about their shelf life. I am uncomfortably aware that future generations will regard us as backward, inexplicable, alien. (Though that thought is not so uncomfortable as the alternative: that future generations will not exist or, less melodramatically, will lack the resources or inclination to examine the past.) Fundamental aspects of life—not just daily material life, but deep-seated intellectual, social, and emotional assumptions—are contested. Remaining ignorant of that does not change the fact, but the reminder is somewhat existentially terrifying.


* At that point (it’s been a while) Monge would have been referring to J. S. Michael’s research in the 80s. A new study revisiting Morton and Gould is detailed in PLoS Biology. The article was pinged by The New York Times, with bonus Janet Monge.

This is one of many reasons that I’m glad I do not live in the nineteenth century. It is one of many reasons that I’m not so keen on the twenty-first, but unfortunately I do not a) possess a time machine or b) naively assume future humanity will clean up its act.

History as a professionalized field? Nineteenth century.§ The modern approach to archives? The French Revolution’s a handy dividing line, but it should be dated considerably later in the U.S. And for less academic concerns? My dogs are (more or less) English Springer Spaniels, a breed distinction that only dates back to the nineteenth century. Some of my favorite genres of literature? Frankenstein‘s the textbook answer for SF and fantasy’s as old as forever, but for recognizable commercial forms you’re looking at the twentieth century. Adoption? You could make arguments that modern American practices began in the nineteenth century or just the past few decades, for certain important grace notes relating to race, citizenship, birth parents, etc.

§ It is somewhat disturbing to consider the number of things that can reasonably be defined as beginning in the nineteenth century.

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