Morton Collection of Skulls at Center of Controversy

Scientist Stephen Jay Gould's Accusations against Samuel Morton's Methodologies are Tested and Refuted
Penn Museum's Scientific Morton Collection of 19th Century Skulls 
Center of Controversy around History, Methodology of Science

Curators with the Morton CollectionPHILADEPHIA, PA—The scientific integrity of one 19th century Philadelphia scientist has been reaffirmed—but at the decided expense of a prominent late 20th century scientist who had discredited him.

Such was the conclusion reached by a group of anthropologists working collaboratively to re-examine, and perform anew, scientific measurements on a famous collection of nearly 1,000 skulls from around the world, the "American Golgotha" collected and studied by Philadelphia physician Samuel George Morton (1799-1851). Today, much of the collection resides at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, where members of the anthropology team performed their analyses.

The team was responding to accusations made by Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), prominent evolutionary biologist and science historian, who charged, first in a 1978 Science paper and later in The Mismeasure of Man (1981), that Morton had selectively reported data, manipulated sample compositions, made analytical errors, and mismeasured skulls in order to support his prejudicial views on intelligence differences between human groups.

Skulls from the Morton Collection at the Penn MuseumIn "The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias" (a new paper, published June 7, 2011, 5 pm EST in the online journal PLoS Biology), the six scholars agree that there was bias-but the bias came from Gould, who failed to examine, let alone remeasure, the crania to determine Morton's level of accuracy. Jason E. Lewis, lead author, Stanford University, Marc R. Meyer, Chaffey College (both formerly students at the University of Pennsylvania), David DeGusta, Stanford University, Janet M. Monge, Acting Curator and Keeper of the Physical Anthropology Collections, University of Pennsylvania Museum, Alan E. Mann, Princeton University (and Emeritus Curator, Physical Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania Museum), and Ralph L. Holloway, Columbia University, all contributed to the study.

This study is just one of multiple projects carried out on the Morton Collection in the past decade (for an article on the collection and recent work being done with it see a past issue of Expedition Magazine).

While alive, Morton was hailed as one of the earliest objectivists, employing a rigorous scientific method and carefully acquired data to arrive at his conclusions. As the decades went by, many of his ideas surrounding intelligence differences between human groups, and the concept of polygenesis (whereby different human populations were viewed as separate species hailing from multiple divine creations) were discredited, and his work went out of favor. It was not until Stephen Gould's accusations, however, that Morton's scientific methods were seriously questioned.

The general discrediting of Morton's scientific methods has had wider ramifications, as Gould used Morton's alleged failure to argue that "unconscious manipulation of data may be a scientific norm" since "scientists are human beings rooted in cultural contexts, not automatons directed toward external truth" (Science 200: 503-59)—a view that has achieved substantial support in social studies of science.

Related Articles
Flam, Faye (June 14, 2011). "Controversial skull study gets a new spin"The Philadelphia Inquirer

Wade, Nicholas (June 13, 2011). "Scientists Measure the Accuracy of a Racism Claim". New York Times

Davis, Heather A. (June 13, 2011). "Penn Museum’s Morton Skull Collection at Center of Scientific Dispute". University of Pennsylvania Spotlight

Crimmins, Peter (June 9, 2011). "No skulduggery, but Penn scientist’s conclusions still invalid". Newsworks.org

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 400 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage.

Penn Museum is located at 3260 South Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104 (on Penn's campus, across from Franklin Field). Penn Museum can be found on the web at www.penn.museum. For general information call (215) 898-4000.

Photo captions: (top) Dr. Alan Mann, Curator Emeritus, Physical Anthropology, Penn Museum, and Dr. Janet Monge, Acting Curator and Keeper of the Physical Anthropology Collection, both authors in the new paper, examine some of the skulls in the Morton Collection. Photo by Penn Museum. (bottom) Skulls from the Morton Collection. Photo by Steven Minicola.

 

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