Oscillator

I got a long email from one of the authors of the skull measuring study and I want to make some clarifications to my previous post. It seems that I was not as clear and thorough as I could have been in my argument.

First, my sincere apologies to all physical anthropologists and other researchers who routinely measure skulls that I may have offended with my off-hand comments. I did not intend to cast doubt on a whole field, and I am aware that there are lots of reasons to look at skulls besides comparing cranial capacity of different races, many of them very valuable to medicine and understanding human evolutionary history.

I also do concur with other bloggers that the paper was very straightforward in its methodology and writing and I found it very easy to read despite cringing every time I read the word “objectivist.” I do not doubt that the authors’ work was carried out objectively, showing that the original measurements were accurate. Indeed, I think it is important that criticisms of the actually old-timey and racist skull measurements are empirically accurate, and I think it is valuable to question Stephen Jay Gould’s analysis of the actual numbers. When I ask “how can anyone make objective measurements on categories that are inherently not objective?” I did not mean that one could not objectively judge previous work and already existing labels. I do not think that this objectivity translates back to Morton, however, and I think the authors could have been clearer on this point. Morton categorized people in a way that is not objective, so any measurements he made, however accurate, do not necessarily give an objective picture of what different populations are like.

So perhaps this is the deeper point. Even if Morton was correct in his measurements, these measurements don’t mean anything objective about races, in the 1840′s or today. I am deeply upset (as the authors should be) by how I have seen their very straightforward paper interpreted in places like blog comments, where many people seem to be making the leap between cranial capacity and intelligence. I know that blog comments aren’t necessarily an accurate picture of anything, but many people will likely interpret this result as objective, scientific proof that not only are racial categories stable entities on which it is possible to make measurements, but that these measurements can be linked to things like average intelligence. I believe that the authors are not actually racists, and could have been clearer in making these points so that their paper would not be interpreted as objective support for racially biased beliefs.

While measurements can be made free of bias according to scientific methods, the social realities of different people and the subjectivity of drawing racial circles around a continuously varying population of humans makes it very difficult for these measurements to be interpreted in an objective way free from social factors that may include bias. Scientists like Gould understood this, however flawed his numbers, and I believe that there can be a common ground where we don’t have to misrepresent data in order to understand this crucial point.

Comments

  1. #1 Greg Laden
    June 10, 2011

    Morton categorized people in a way that is not objective, so any measurements he made, however accurate, do not necessarily give an objective picture of what different populations are like.

    But you can use carefully done measurements divided into categories that are made up to later prove that your made up categories are real!!! Falsely but, apparently, often effectively.

    While measurements can be made free of bias according to scientific methods, the social realities of different people and the subjectivity of drawing racial circles around a continuously varying population of humans makes it very difficult for these measurements to be interpreted in an objective way free from social factors that may include bias.

    Nicely put.

  2. #2 A Careful Reader
    June 10, 2011

    Your key point is that, “Morton categorized people in a way that is not objective….” But his classifications are, in fact, reasonably objective because he generally gave the specific population affinity of the skulls. So, to take just one example of many, he lists skull #52 as, “Celtic Irish from the Abbey of Buttevant, county of Cork, Ireland.” That’s an objective description of the population affinity of that individual.

    In fact, Morton’s descriptions of many of the Native American crania in his collection were sufficiently precise that a number of those remains have been repatriated to their tribes under federal law (NAGPRA). Pretty objective.

    Plus, when Morton did use broader groupings, he specifically stated that, “As our means of comparing the races of men become more extended, our classification will of course improve; and meanwhile we must rest content with an approximation of accuracy.” (Morton, Crania Americana, 1839, p. 4). So he anticipated your point.

    The problem with the race concept is not so much that the categories are subjective, it’s that the categories don’t have much biological meaning (for reasons already well-discussed by Laden and others). Those are different problems. So it means that Morton’s results are objective, but not particularly interesting or informative from a biological point of view.

  3. #3 A Careful Reader
    June 10, 2011

    You state that, “I believe that the authors … could have been clearer in making these points so that their paper would not be interpreted as objective support for racially biased beliefs.”

    Yet here’s what the paper says on that count: “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 [11],[17]. 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 [18].”

    Isn’t that what you were asking for?

    In fact, in your original post, you quoted the same statements to make your point about the lack of biological reality of races, so they were clear enough for you then ….

  4. #4 Christina Agapakis
    June 10, 2011

    Careful Reader, perhaps as an author of the paper in question, instead of astroturfing you can help clear up what may be my misunderstanding of your interpretations and intentions. As someone who is familiar with and understands the social construction of race and how racial categories are not informative or interesting from a biological point of view, was your goal to ensure that Gould’s basic message about race isn’t lost as a result of his inaccurate and misleading numbers? If our racial classifications don’t have biological meaning, what do we gain when, as you quote from Morton, “our means of comparing the races of men become more extended”? Are you troubled when you see others interpreting your work to perhaps imply something biologically relevant about race, in particular about the objectivity of any measurements of the “innate intelligence” of racial groups without regard to the complex social issues involved?

  5. #5 CK
    June 10, 2011

    ***”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 [11],[17]. ***

    Studies have shown that you get small discontinuous jumps in genetic distance across continental clusters (across oceans, the Himalayas, and the Sahara etc).

    ***The problem with the race concept is not so much that the categories are subjective, it’s that the categories don’t have much biological meaning***

    I thought that sub population groups within species were meant to reflect the major patterns of variation found within the species? That is what the major clusters do. See Risch et al. ‘Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease’.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC139378/

    describe the major patterns of variation found within a species.”

  6. #6 Corbett
    June 10, 2011

    “Scientists like Gould understood this, however flawed his numbers”

    The “correct” intentions matter more than scientific fraud.

    “many people seem to be making the leap between cranial capacity and intelligence”

    It’s not a leap.

    “I believe that the authors are not actually racists”

    That’s good to know!

  7. #7 Corbett
    June 10, 2011

    “the social construction of race and how racial categories are not informative or interesting from a biological point of view”

    You mean not interesting from a particular political point of view.

  8. #8 Roberto
    June 11, 2011

    No matter how you read Morton or Gould and Lewis et al., the facts remain: too few skulls for each category, it is impossible to determine sex and age subcategories, differences in volumes are insignificant for the number of skulls used, and the methods: seeds and lead shots are both flaky.No failsafe conclusions can be drawn from this study. The other facts that remain are that Morton, by today standards, was a “racist” and he promoted a white agenda, and that it cant be shown from this analysis, that SJ Gould was a liar or something of that nature.

  9. #9 JL
    June 11, 2011

    I believe that the authors are not actually racists, and could have been clearer in making these points so that their paper would not be interpreted as objective support for racially biased beliefs.

    I don’t see how the authors could possibly have made their anti-racist bona fines more clear.

  10. #10 CK
    June 11, 2011

    ***it cant be shown from this analysis, that SJ Gould was a liar or something of that nature.***

    Really? It seems pretty hard to avoid that conclusion.

    http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/meta/gould-morton-lewis-2011.html

  11. #11 Roberto
    June 12, 2011

    From lewis et al: ” “Overall, Gould concludes that his reanalysis of Morton’s shot-based data produces the “remarkable” result that there are no notable differences in mean cranial capacity between Morton’s groups, with Caucasians firmly mid-pack at 85 in3 and the overall range being 83 to 86 in3 [1]. However, Gould’s Caucasian figure was in error and should really be 87 in3 rather than 85 in3 [5].” !!!!
    You realize the differences are trivial in this example. The whole paper is lke so. Look at the tables (datasets), count skulls: that was my point, too few crania for too much hoopla. It seems that all: Morton, SJ Gould and Lewis et al were “excessive”. And John Hawks’ “opinion”?, well, HIS opinion (he didnt analyzed the data, he rumbled, thats why he got his garage destroyed by SJ ghost: his analysis).

  12. #12 Wrongo Roberto
    June 12, 2011

    Roberto claims, “too few crania for too much hoopla.” But the paper reports a power test that shows statistically that their sample size is actually larger than it needs to be.

    Roberto claims, “it is impossible to determine sex and age subcategories.” Wrong about age – it’s easy to tell adult skulls from kids (even Gould agreed with this). As for sex, there is a whole section of the paper that shows how Morton could not have used sex to fudge the results, contra Gould.

    Roberto claims all methods for measuring skull volumes are flaky. But this is contradicted by the low measurement error for lead shot and plastic beads.

    Roberto claims, “it cant be shown from this analysis, that SJ Gould was a liar or something of that nature.” Really? So when Gould claimed that Morton never calculated the cranial capacities for specific Native American populations, but Morton did present that many times (as discussed in the paper), that wasn’t a lie??

    I could continue, but Roberto is just desperately making stuff up with no relationship to reality.

  13. #13 C. Sullivan
    June 14, 2011

    I read “The Mismeasure of Man” several years ago, and found Gould’s critique of Morton quite convincing. It’s interesting, and a bit sad, to find out from Lewis et al. that many aspects of Gould’s analysis were either dishonest, subconsciously biased or simply careless. Perhaps a charitable interpretation would be that he let his egalitarian zeal run away with him.

    I agree that the repeated use of the word “objectivist” in the article was a bit strange, but it’s pretty clear what Lewis et al. meant: that Morton made an effort to test ideas about human variation “by systematically measuring large numbers of actual specimens”. To the extent that his measurements were unbiased, he was indeed gathering objective data about the individual skulls he studied. He was also making objective statements about average values for groups of skulls that he assigned to different racial categories.

    Because anthropology has moved on since Morton, we now know that those categories are just vague labels attached to different parts of a continuum of variation. However, I think Morton still deserves considerable credit for the objectivity of the measurements and averages themselves. They may not tell us anything about races, but they do tell us something about particular sets of skulls in Morton’s collection. Suitably rearranged and reinterpreted, they might also tell us something interesting about human variation and evolution, although I imagine they’ve been superseded by a much larger and better data set (and if they haven’t, what are we paying physical anthropologists for?!).

  14. #14 Tristan Smith
    June 14, 2011

    Exactly right, C. Sullivan. Plus, “objectivist” was the term that *Gould* used several times to describe Morton’s initial reputation. This blogger didn’t bother to read Gould’s paper before posting.

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