The Implications of Scientific Misinformation on the 18th Century Biological Hierarchy

Stephan Gould’s The Measure of Man (1981) analysis and connection to my own research agenda.

Stephan Gould’s The Measure of Man (1981) sheds light on the 18th century scientific agenda of reinforcing racial or biological hierarchies in the United States. Through the manipulation of science, the data that was published and widely accepted perpetuated the racial agenda, maintaining the hegemonic power and relationship dynamics between whites and blacks. While other races were discussed and scientifically explored at the time, the greatest interest and discourse revolved around the intellects of blacks, and if their intellect should determine their social and political power.

Hierarchies have long been argued to be natural although they are consistently questioned and revamped to reflect contemporary political, social, and cultural perspectives and identities.  Thus, while hierarchies are constant, they dynamically transform and shift power within political, social, and cultural systems of identity. Aurora Levins Morales in Medicine Stories (1998) furthers this point with her position that those with privilege maintain that it is a “luxury they have earned by excellence, the natural way of life, the righteous and inevitable order of things” (p. 11). Morales (1998) also contends that hierarchies are used to “convince [those with privilege] that exploitation is not only justifiable but a kind and compassionate expression of their superiority” (p. 12).

While Gould (1981) demonstrates that 18th century scientific data was fabricated as a means of reinforcing biological hierarchies, he also states that “we must first recognize the cultural milieu of a society whose leaders and intellectuals did not doubt the propriety of racial ranking – with Indians below whites, and blacks below everyone else” (p. 31).  Those who supported the biological hierarchy of the time were divided into two groups. The first, “hard-liners,” believed blacks to be biologically inferior and their status in the racial hierarchy justified their enslavement and colonization.  Although the second, “soft-liners,” agreed that blacks were biologically inferior, they maintained that rights should not be contingent on intelligence (p. 31).

These groups were further divided into monogenism  and polygenism, those who maintained that all humans are the degenerative results of the lineage of Adam and Eve, as stated in the Bible, and those who contended that the human races began as separate biological species. Within the polygenist circle, there were two groups of scientists. The first group, the “lumpers” were scientists who focused on similarities between specimens to determine their biological relationship. The second group, the “splitters,” concentrated on minute differences as a means of establishing separate species.

Louis Agassiz and Samuel George Morton were strong proponents of the polygeny theory and were highly respected by contemporary scientists. While both men bolstered the polygeny theory differently, Agassiz by studying physical differences and Morton through craniology, the study of skull size, they reinforced the hegemonic understanding that blacks were closer to nature, and therefore inferior and not requiring equal rights.

However, it was Morton who manipulated his craniology data so extensively to support the biological stratification. Morton’s scientific process was to use ground mustard seeds to measure volume, as the assumption was that the more intelligent the person, the bigger the brain. Throughout his experiments, he omitted and miscalculated information as well as neglected to account for body proportions and sexual dimorphism (the typical physical differences found among the sexes) and their effects on brain size. He also systematically altered data to reinforce his subjective, prior understanding of the racial hierarchy.  Morton’s understanding and subsequent purposeful manipulation and misrepresentation of scientific data extended the long, unwavering shadow of science into the farthest discourses of race, biological hierarchy, human rights, colonialism, and slavery. To this day, the perpetuation of the hegemonic biological hierarchy is still masked by scientific data conducted and disseminated by those in positions of privilege and power.

The purpose of my research is to address racism that is paraded as science in the educational field. One illustration is that culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students “are grossly overrepresented in special needs categories” (Howard, 2011, p. 196). If the educational system has and continues to fail CLD students, especially under the guise of scientifically diagnosing them as special needs, research should be conducted into the causality of the failures. Through diagnostic research that is ethical and unbiased, in addition to accounting for diverse identities, the education system can broaden its myopic and misinformed practices of educating and addressing the needs of CLD students and communities. This, in turn, will initiate a more egalitarian political, social, and cultural structure that embraces diverse identities.


Garcia, S.S. & Ortiz, A. A. (2013). Intersectionality as a Framework for Special Ed Research.pdf. Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 13(2), 32–47.

Gould, S. J. (1981). The mismeasure of a man. New York, NY: Norton and Company.

Howard, C. (2011). Culturally Relevant for Critical Teacher Pedagogy : Ingredients Reflection. Theory into Practice, 42(3), 195–202.







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Brittani enjoys reading, experiencing and learning about culture, food, language, and travel as well as hiking with her beloved pooch. Her interests revolve around acculturation and educational issues encountered by American Indian students, particularly on reservations.

1 comment — post a comment


I’m intrigued by your discussion of CLD students and their disproportionate representations in special needs classrooms. My wife deals with that as a speech pathologist in a public school, and she tells me about it all the time. It seems many of her students deemed needing of speech help are facing issues with learning the English language, they really don’t have a problem with their speech, but then they get this label, and it’s a challenge to get them out of this special needs program.

I can already tell you’ll ace this doctoral program, so I hope you aren’t worrying about the coursework. Your writing is erudite, concise, and thoughtful. I’m excited to see how your research on graduation rates and Native Americans turns out. Best of luck!

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