Mismeasuring Man

“American Polygeny and Craniometry before Darwin” is chapter 2 in “The Mismeasure of Man” by Stephen Jay Gould.  The chapter provides detailed information about how nineteenth century science and research were used to support a position that was broadly held at the time, rather than advance knowledge through discovery.

In the nineteenth century, the prevailing view among Caucasians was that they were superior to other races.  This was not a new position.  Writings the author presents by revered American figures, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln would be considered racist today.  The author provides information about two views that were both used as justifications for racial ranking: monogenism and polygenism. Monogenism (origin from a single source) is the belief that human races are degenerations from the perfection of the bible’s Eden.  Even though all peoples descend from Adam and Eve, some races have declined more than others according to this view.  By contrast, polygenism is the belief that human races are separate biological species and descendants of different Adams.  Of the two, monogenism was probably the more popular, perhaps because it was consistent with common interpretation of scripture.

Much of the chapter is devoted to a critical review of the beliefs of Louis Agassiz and the research of Samuel George Morton, both of whom were staunch supporters of polygenism.

Agassiz, an esteemed Swiss naturalist, moved to America and became a leading spokesperson for polygenism.  His position on polygenism was bolstered his personal theory and methods.  First, he developed a theory of “centers of creation” while studying the geographic distribution of animals and plants.  Agassiz believed species were created in their proper places and didn’t stray far from these centers.  Secondly, he focused on minute distinctions to establish species based on small peculiarities of design, which is known in taxonomic practices as an extreme splitter.  Agassiz speculated freely about his beliefs but didn’t have any data for support.

Morton, an aristocrat from Philadelphia with two medical degrees, provided data that won worldwide respect for the American view of polygeny.  He had a reputation as a great data-gatherer and objectivist of American science.  His hypothesis was that races could be ranked by measuring the size of the brain.  Morton published data and findings that supported his hypothesis.  Gould, the author of this chapter, reanalyzed Morton’s data and found four categories of problems: 1) Large subsamples were included or deleted to match group averages with prior expectations, 2) Some measures were sufficiently imprecise to allow for a wide range of influence by subjective bias (e.g., blacks fared poorest and whites best when results could be biased towards expectations), 3) Procedural omissions (e.g., Morton believed skull size recorded mental ability but didn’t consider sex or stature, both of which effected the results), and 4) Miscalculations and omissions that added justification to Morton’s position.

Fear played a prominent role in these biases: fear of the unknown, fear of losing control, fear of those who were different, and fear of not being safe.  The chapter was a reminder that racism was pervasive and broadly accepted in America as recent as the mid-nineteenth century.  Today, the prejudicial views of our founding fathers would be unacceptable to most.

The chapter provided a vivid example of how bias can influence research.  Because Morton’s views were extreme compared to current societal norms, it’s easy to see how bias influenced his approach and findings.  Morton attempted to add credibility to his position by using an objective and methodologically sound approach, which was later debunked by Gould.

How can we know that research we conduct is balanced?  What about our own biases today?  We must be vigilant about objectivity in our research.  Elliot Eisner has some practical advice about objectivity in educational research including: striving to eliminate bias, focusing on the world rather than ourselves, being fair and open to all sides of an argument, using objective methods, and seeing things as they are.


Gould, S. J. (1981). American Polygeny and Craniometry before Darwin. In The Mismeasure of Man (pp. 30–72). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Eisner, E. (1992). Objectivity in Educational Research. Curriculum Inquiry, 22(1), 9–15.

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Phil Schlesinger

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Your blog hits on some very interesting points about how research can be used or created by a source to validate an otherwise invalid point of view. Your examples are prefect reasons why researchers need to be vigilant about what they do and how they use their research. It also brings up the importance of insuring that researchers are well-trained in their fields. In the article about Reclaiming Education’s Doctorates: A Critique and a Proposal, it talks about the importance of becoming a knowledgeable researcher and the positive impact that good researchers can have to improve society for the better.


Thanks, Laura. I look forward to the journey ahead in our EdD program.

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