Whilst researching my postgraduate degree in 2000s, I became fascinated by the physiognomical pseudosciences which emerged at the end of the 18th century. Originating as parlour game entertainment, by the middle of the 19th century they developed into a much more sinister body of academia which sought to categorise individuals purely based on external physical features. Many were of a racist nature, but the studies were also applied to women, children, immigrants and the poorer classes who were all deemed prone to moral failures and criminal tendencies. The rise in popularity of these pseudosciences was borne out of the inherent prejudices and fears of the upper echelons of society of the period. By moving these issues into the academic arena, it gave the reassuring idea that one could systematically spot troublesome individuals who could then be dealt with accordingly.
THE PILTDOWN SKULL
The painting ‘Discussion on the Piltdown Skull’ by John Cooke (1915) depicts a group of scientists analysing the second reconstruction of the skull of Piltdown Man at a meeting at the Royal College of Surgeons on 11 August 1913. Piltdown Man was one of the most notorious scientific hoaxes of the early 20th century, when Charles Dawson (standing, under the image of Darwin) claimed to have recovered the remains of a human skull from a reputedly ancient gravel bed located at Barkham Manor, near Piltdown in Sussex. The skull’s features and suggested age, based on the fossils found alongside, meant that it was interpreted as the long predicted ‘missing link’ between apes and modern humans. The fragments were first shown at the Geological Society on 18 December 1912, but weren’t exposed as a fraud until 1953 when the then new dating techniques determined that the cranium was only 500 years old and the jaw came from an orangutan. It has been claimed that the Piltdown fraud set back research on the evolution of man by decades, but how was this amateur antiquarian (with techniques involving the liberal use Van Dyke brown paint and dental cement) able to pull the wool over the eyes of most of the scientific community at the time?
A clue to the probable answer can be found in the painting. In Arthur Keith’s hands (seated, white coat) and on the table are measuring instruments and a brain cast associated with a physiognomical pseudoscience. ‘Craniometry’, which was popularised by the American physician Samuel George Morton (1799-1851) and later the French scientist Paul Broca (1824-1880), involved analysing and measuring the shape of the head and size of the brain in order to perceive supposed signs of moral character and intelligence.
Craniometry is now quite obscure, but the use of the head to determine personality traits may sound familiar because of phrenology. Phrenology was craniometry’s older but poorer cousin. It was brought to Britain in the 1810s and although it was extremely popular and shared many conceptual ideas with craniometry, it was never accepted by the scientific elite who instead poked fun at it. Much of this was down to class and intellectual snobbery as most of phrenology’s practitioners were lower middle class men who saw it as a vehicle to improve their social standing. Interestingly, this strive for bettering oneself was embodied in the proposed use of phrenology itself. By a proper reading of the fine contours of the skull (which phrenologists stated took on the form of the brain underneath) one could find which moral faculty or ‘organ’ one was deficient in, then actively try and improve it.
Craniometry, on the other hand, was very much accepted by the scientific establishment. It surmised that the shape and size of the skulls of other races, women, children, immigrants, etc, indicated they were more ‘savage’ [that is lower on the evolutionary scale] and less intelligent in comparison to the Caucasian male head which was considered to personify the pinnacle of evolved humanity.
THE CRANIOMETRICAL IDEAL
The diagram below, from a scrapbook in the archives compiled by Walter William Smithett between 1910-1930 (Ref: LDGSL/1020), dates from December 1912. It superimposes over the first reconstruction of the skull of Piltdown or ‘Sussex Fossil Man’ a profile of what is termed ‘a highly developed Type of modern European cranium’. To make clear that Piltdown is closer to the ideal than what has been found before, at the top of the page this superimposition is applied to other examples of early hominoid skulls including Java Man and a Neanderthal. At the bottom of the page, the prejudicial nature of the craniometrical study becomes evident as the profile is also laid over a ‘Skull of African with Prognathus Jaw’ and a chimpanzee.
Supremacist theories such as these were embedded into the science and culture of the period and in the case of Piltdown are likely to have directly influenced the supposition of not only what the missing link would look like but where it should be found (ie in Western Europe) and all but laid the ground for Dawson to commit his fraud.
END OF CRANIOMETRY
Whilst phrenology had its own internal mechanism to both diagnose and fix society’s supposed ills, craniometry and the other physiognomical studies did not. Instead a different practical solution emerged – eugenics. Its aim was to ‘improve the human race’ by eradicating elements which were perceived as degenerative. Eugenics’ association with the Holocaust of the Second World War led to the other prejudicial studies, such as craniometry, disappearing from mainstream view. Its influence still pervades our language to this day, however. Next time you refer to culture as ‘high brow’ or ‘low brow’, you might want to consider where these terms came from.
High brow = the higher angle of the Caucasian forehead in comparison to the jaw
Low brow = the lower angle of the supposed inferior races’ forehead in comparison to the jaw