(Un)Biased?: Gould Vs. Morton
    By Gunnar De Winter | June 9th 2011 03:30 AM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Samuel George Morton (1799 – 1851) was an American physician and scientist, perhaps best known for his Crania Americana, in which he described the results of the measurements, with a focus on cranial capacity, he performed on his ‘American Golgotha’, a collection of almost one thousand human skulls.

    Figure 1: The Crania Americana, flanked by its writer, Samuel George Morton (Sources: and

    Stephen Jay Gould (1941 – 2002) was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and science historian. Known (together with Niles Eldredge) for his theory of punctuated equilibrium, he was also a proponent of the idea that scientists (un)consciously manipulate their data, due to cultural influences, an idea that has gained popularity in the social sciences.

    In fact, he used Morton’s work to prove his point, culminating in the book The Mismeasure of Man, making Morton’s work a primary example of scientists skewing data in favor of preconceived notions.

    Figure 2: The Mismeasure of Man, flanked by its writer, Stephen Jay Gould.
    (Sources: and

    But did Morton’s a priori racist notions (sadly fairly common in the 19th century) really influence his results? A recent study (Lewis et al., 2011) set out to answer this question by reexamining some of the original skulls. Morton started out by measuring the cranial capacity of the skulls by filling them with seeds. Later, he switched to lead-shot based measurements. This change in measurement method, according to Gould, led to different rates of increase for different populations.

    Findings by Lewis et al. (2011), however, suggest that this change in method caused both increases and decreases, which do not appear to be patterned by group. In his further reanalysis, Gould used some seemingly arbitrary restrictions, such as omitting skulls from populations with fewer than 4 samples, or grouping seed and lead-shot based measurements in some groups (which Morton did not do).  Morton’s measurements also showed some mistakes, but these contradicted his a priori notions rather than strengthened them.

    After their analysis the researchers respectfully note that “…were Gould still alive, we expect he would have mounted a defense of his analysis of Morton. We are saddened that his passing precludes such an exchange. While we differ with Gould in regards to his analysis of Morton, we find other things to admire in Gould's body of work, particularly his staunch opposition to racism. We trust that Gould, having reevaluated the work of Morton long after Morton's passing, would find our reevaluation of ‘Gould on Morton’ an appropriate exercise, even if he would likely have differed with our conclusions.”

    The overall conclusion of this study can be best summarized by quoting the article once more. “That Morton's data are reliable despite his clear bias weakens the argument of Gould and others that biased results are endemic in science. Gould was certainly correct to note that scientists are human beings and, as such, are inevitably biased, a point frequently made in “science studies.” But the power of the scientific approach is that a properly designed and executed methodology can largely shield the outcome from the influence of the investigator's bias. Science does not rely on investigators being unbiased “automatons.” Instead, it relies on methods that limit the ability of the investigator's admittedly inevitable biases to skew the results. Morton's methods were sound, and our analysis shows that they prevented Morton's biases from significantly impacting his results.The Morton case, rather than illustrating the ubiquity of bias, instead shows the ability of science to escape the bounds and blinders of cultural contexts.”


    Lewis, J.E.; DeGusta, D.; Meyer, M.R.; Monge, J.M.; Mann, A.E. and Holloway, R.L. (2011). The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Norton on Skulls and Bias. PLoS Biology. 9(6): e1001071. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001071. (Click here for the complete article).


    Samuel George Morton! The father figure of the American School of ethnology, which promoted Polygenism. I read about this recently in When Science and Christianity Meet, edited by DC Lindberg and RL Numbers (ISBN 0226482162). The following extract is from the relevant chapter.
    Morton, the patriarch of the group, provided the first empirical support for the theory of the plural origins of humans, evidence that served as the center piece of the polygenistic argument. A practicing physician and respected professor of anatomy in Philadelphia, Morton in the 1830s began measuring the interior volumes of the skulls from his personal collection of hundreds of specimens. Taking several series of skulls, one for each race, he determined their volumes by stopping up the openings, filling them with tiny pellets of shot, and then measuring the volume of that shot with a graduated cylinder. The resulting data indicated that Caucasians possessed the largest mean cranial capacity at 87 cubic inches, followed by Mongolians, Malayans, and Americans (that is, Indians), with Ethiopians (black Africans) at the bottom with 78 cubic inches. Morton’s racial prejudices, reflective of Euro-American views in general, unconsciously but clearly influenced his results. For example, he favored small- brained individuals in calculating the size of American Indians but eliminated small skulls from his Caucasian sample. Nevertheless, Morton believed in his own objectivity, and his detailed descriptions of his meticulous procedures and the quantitative character of his data deeply impressed other men of science.
    They include Gould’s work among their references. But does the assertion that Morton eliminated skulls from his samples come from Gould?  Maybe one should follow it up.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    Further information on the Samuel George Morton Cranial Collection is available here -

    Images of the collection can be found here -

    The Morton case, rather than illustrating the ubiquity of bias, instead shows the ability of science to escape the bounds and blinders of cultural contexts.
    It does not consistently escape the blinders, but it's the best methodology we have.
    Taking a snapshot in time as a failure is not valuable to anyone but detractors do it a lot.  It's like criticizing Henry Ford because he did not make today's car or Bell because he did create know the cell phone to do so.  

    Gould was wrong on too many points to count.  GDW generously considers him a biologist but he is only in the sense that I am - knowing just enough to be wrong.   He was widely criticized for his positions and I hope he gets more favorable treatment in the future because he will be placed in the context of his day, like Ford and Bell and Morton.   Morton's views were not racist in the 19th century because there was no evidence to know otherwise the way there is now.   Read any English geopolitical writer of the period and we see that the entire culture of the greatest Empire in the world was one of benevolent superiority over Africa and Asia.   They had a Christian duty, in what they considered its most positive sense, to make those places more English. 

    Social 'sciences' crave science legitimacy and the only way they can get it is to take the postmodernist tack that there is no fact because all data is subjective, so therefore sociologists taking surveys can be science too.

    These guys in the article can criticize Gould but who ever heard of them?  And they were writing in PLoS for 300 people.   Gould got millions to think about science.