This essay is one of a series of “Participant Observations” on the removal of the Samuel Morton Cranial Collection from public display and legacies of scientific racism in museums. Read more reflections from this series here.
Physical anthropology began as a science of skulls. As the Italian practitioner Giuseppi Sergi put it in 1893, “The skull chiefly furnishes the characters of classification; it shows the external shape of the brain, the most important and the highest organ of man; the skull is the means of the classification of the brain.”
Phrenology, on the other hand, is remembered as a pseudo-science of skulls, entirely distinct from a true science of skulls.
In the early 19th century, pioneer physical anthropologists like Samuel George Morton and James Cowles Prichard could find a space of legitimacy for phrenology as well. Both physical anthropology and phrenology appealed to the material basis of thought in the brain as validation for their claims. They shared the philosophical attraction of materialist monism—that is to say, that thoughts are the products of nothing but the brain, and there is no ultimate separation between mind and matter. This is hardly a controversial position today, but it aligned one with intellectual radicals in the mid-19th century.
Further, both appealed to the same cutting-edge science of comparative anatomy for validation as well, sometimes inappropriately. On the “pseudo-scientific” end, a phrenologist could casually misrepresent a dog skull as that of a monkey (Fig. 1), an error of almost unfathomable incompetence, given the subject matter. And on the other hand, mental materialist and Darwinian champion Thomas Huxley could invoke the intermediacy of the African brain in between the European and the ape, as an argument for evolutionary continuity, an error of greater subtlety, but greater consequence, if science is to be taken as relevant to a conversation about human equality.
The phrenologist examined a skull to identify aspects of individual personality: amativeness, self-esteem, mirthfulness, etc. The physical anthropologist examined a skull to identify aspects of its ancestry. Both ambitions were mythological. Thus, Armand de Quatrefages (1872) could re-fight the Franco-Prussian War under the banner of science, and deny the essential Germanness of the Prussians: “In reality, from an anthropological point of view, Prussia is almost entirely a foreigner to Germany.” There was certainly plenty of baloney in both phrenology and physical anthropology.
Phrenology was allied with physiognomy, reading the individual personality from the contours of the face; while physical anthropology allied itself more closely with ethnology, examining heads along with the other exotic materials from diverse peoples. There remained, nevertheless, an underlying motivation among prominent early 20th century physical anthropologists to try and link up, in some sort of deterministic fashion, what people looked like with how they thought. This is, obviously, a core assumption of crude scientific racism, but was present in more subtle forms as well.
In particular, it was manifested after World War II in the Harvard physical anthropologist Earnest Hooton’s sponsorship and promotion of the somatological studies of psychologist William H. Sheldon. Sheldon tried for decades to document associations between body form and personality, under the aegis of Hooton. Facing a furious backlash from his doctoral students, Hooton wrote despairingly to his former student Sherwood Washburn, who responded,
To put the matter bluntly, none of your pupils think that you are at all a fascist. But, anyone reading Sheldon’s last book, taking the last 100 pages for what they say, and then hearing that you believe in Sheldon’s system, might call you a fascist with some justification. What we need is the separation of the sane study of body-build from Sheldon’s system.
What the early physical anthropologists had expected to find through their researches was more or less racial phrenology. Aleš Hrdlička, who was dismissive of phrenology, nevertheless leapt at the opportunity to study and publish on “An Eskimo Brain”—in particular, that of Qisuk, one of the “New York Eskimos” brought to civilization from Greenland. That Hrdlička never followed the publication with “An Eskimo Esophagus” or “An Eskimo Liver” suggests that he held brains in special regard. And he concluded, perhaps in the voice of Boris Karloff: “The marked differences of the specimens described by Chudzinski and in this paper from those of the whites, as well as among themselves, makes a future acquisition of Eskimo brains very desirable.”
The Civil War had pretty much killed off physical anthropology in America, given that the science seemed to be aligned with the losing side. It would only be reinvented at the end of the 19th century, as Native Americans, no longer a threat to American expansion, became scientific objects. American museums recruited Franz Boas and Aleš Hrdlička (both trained in Europe) specifically for their expertise in the bodies of Native Americans. This physical anthropology was disconnected from phrenology, however. Boas would focus his physical anthropology on the non-genetic influences on human form. Hrdlička (and later, Earnest Hooton) worked toward a more descriptive role for human skulls, while never quite untethering physical anthropology from its core assumptions as a science of racial phrenology.
A convergence of factors transformed physical anthropology after World War II. First, the recognition that “evil” Nazi physical anthropology wasn’t really quite so different from “good” American physical anthropology. Second, the increasing acknowledgment that empirically, race and human variation do not map onto one another. And third, the life experiences of a new generation of white physical anthropologists, having served with Black soldiers during the war, and who became tenured during the Civil Rights Movement.
The dam broke in 1962, when Carleton Coon, an early student of Hooton’s at Harvard, and an elder statesman at the University of Pennsylvania and sitting president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, published a book called The Origin of Races. Pretentiously titled precisely to evoke Darwin, Coon’s book was for all intents and purposes a scientific manifesto for the segregationists. It made the authoritative argument from physical anthropology that whites had evolved from Homo erectus into Homo sapiens 200,000 years before Blacks did. The segregationists, with whom he had been secretly working, added the rest: therefore, they should not attend the same schools.
Some biologists, like G.G. Simpson and Ernst Mayr, naively tried to evaluate Coon’s book as if it were apolitical. But the vast majority of the academic community followed Theodosius Dobzhansky and Ashley Montagu in identifying the book simply as shoddy science in the service of immoral politics. By 1970, Coon had become a pariah in the field.
Simultaneously, in parallel with the reinvention of human genetics after World War II, another of Hooton’s former students, Sherwood Washburn, began working to reinvent physical anthropology. Washburn’s “new physical anthropology” would decenter race and refocus the field on the subjects of human variation and human evolution. Washburn also recognized that the scientific study of human variation and human evolution would invariably incorporate skeletal anatomy, but would also increasingly include other kinds of data that were not quite “physical”—such as primate behavior and genetic analysis.
Physical anthropology today remains a fairly small and continually evolving intellectual specialty, with plenty of generational struggles on the path from racial phrenology to evolutionary anthropology. But as a biological component of anthropology, it is compelled to grapple with its past and its politics to a greater extent than the less reflexive natural sciences are. That is a major reason why the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, founded by Aleš Hrdlička in 1931, concluded its April 2021 annual meeting as the American Association of Biological Anthropologists.
Being the custodians of the scientific narratives of human origins and diversity is not, and should not, be easy. The name-change, however, signals the emergence of a science that is born of paradoxes. Biological anthropology is descended from both the “old” and “new” physical anthropologies, but is self-consciously distinct from them. It denotes a science that strives not to objectify the objects of its study. It marks a 21st century science of empathy and compassion, which continually interrogates the very reasons for collecting its data, and which endeavors to fulfill the Baconian promise of enriching people’s lives.
 Sergi, G. (1893). My new principles of the classification of the human race. Science, 22: 290.
 Livingstone, D. (2008). Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
 Quatrefages, J.-L. A. de. (1872). The Prussian Race Ethnologically Considered. London: Virtue.
 Rosenbaum, R. (1995). The great Ivy League nude posture photo scandal. The New York Times Sunday Magazine, January 15: 27-31, 40, 46, 55-56.
 S. L. Washburn to E. A. Hooton, 20 August 1951. Earnest A. Hooton Papers, Harvard University.
 Hrdlička, A. (1916). 1916 or 1816? Science, 44:921.
 Hrdlička, A. (1901). An Eskimo brain. American Anthropologist, 3: 454-500.
 Blakey, M. (1987). Skull doctors: Intrinsic social and political bias in the history of American physical anthropology. Critique of Anthropology, 7: 7-35.
 Hooton, E. A. (1936). Plain statements about race. Science, 83:511-513.
 Livingstone, F. B. (1962). On the non-existence of human races. Current Anthropology, 3: 279-281.
 Frederick S. Hulse, personal communication.
 Putnam, C. (1961). Race and Reason. Washington, D. C.: Public Affairs Press.
 Jackson, J. P. (2001). “In ways unacademical”: The reception of Carleton S. Coon’s The Origin of Races. Journal of the History of Biology, 34: 247-285.
 Jackson, J. P. and Depew, D. J. (2017). Darwinism, Democracy, and Race: American Anthropology and Evolutionary Biology in the Twentieth Century. Taylor & Francis.
 Pending approval by the state of Kansas, which is apparently where Hrdlička incorporated the AAPA.