It’s not every day that you read about measuring skulls in the contemporary scientific literature. It’s kind of a quaintly old-timey, quaintly racist kind of thing to do. But here we are, with a brand new paper about skull measuring in PLoS Biology. Already quite a few blog–words have been written in support of this new paper, which disproves Stephen Jay Gould‘s assertion in The Mismeasure of Man that George Morton’s 1839 skull measurements were fudged intentionally or unintentionally by his racist bias.
I haven’t read a lot of Gould, and I’m pretty convinced by the numbers in the paper that show that Morton measured correctly, so I don’t necessarily want to defend Gould or get into any specifics on how to best measure skulls, but I do want to point out how completely the authors seem to miss the point about race, “objectivity,” and the social studies of science. The authors do appear to be familiar with the modern social science literature on the social construction of race, which does not mean that there are no differences at all between different people from different parts of the world, but that the way we understand and label these differences change over time and depend on the social and cultural context. The results section of the paper begins with a paragraph where they address these issues directly:
In reevaluating Morton and Gould, we do not dispute that racist views were unfortunately common in 19th-century science  or that bias has inappropriately influenced research in some cases . Furthermore, studies have demonstrated that modern human variation is generally continuous, rather than discrete or “racial,” and that most variation in modern humans is within, rather than between, populations ,. In particular, cranial capacity variation in human populations appears to be largely a function of climate, so, for example, the full range of average capacities is seen in Native American groups, as they historically occupied the full range of latitudes . It is thus with substantial reluctance that we use various racial labels, but it is impossible to discuss Morton and Gould’s work without using the terms they employed.
The authors are reluctant to use the racial labels because they understand that those labels are not objective categories, that the way people were defined in Morton’s time is different than it is today, and that there is more variation between individuals of a given “race” than there is between different populations. So here is the point: how can anyone make objective measurements on categories that are inherently not objective? How does stating the average cranial volume of an African skull vs. a European skull show, as the authors state, “the ability of science to escape the bounds and blinders of cultural contexts,” when we know, through scientific studies on the variation between and within groups, that these categories are subjective and subject to change depending on the cultural context?