There’s new evidence confirming bias of the “father of scientific racism”

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Enlarge / The Morton skull collection at the University of Pennsylvania. (credit: Steve Minicola/University of Pennsylvania)

Newly discovered handwritten documentation sheds new light on an ongoing scientific controversy regarding a famous collection of nearly 1,000 skulls amassed by a 19th-century Philadelphia physician. Dubbed the “American Golgotha,” the collection is the work of Samuel Morton, who used them to compare the brain size of different racial groups in the 1830s and 1840s.

Paul Wolff Mitchell, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where the collection is stored, believes his analysis could help settle the often acrimonious debate over whether the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould was correct in his assessment of the role of unconscious bias in science, particularly with regard to race. Mitchell concludes that Gould incorrectly accused Dr. Morton of inaccurately measuring the cranial capacity of his skulls but was nonetheless correct with regard to Morton’s implicit racial bias. Mitchell’s findings have just been published in PLOS Biology.

An American Golgotha

Morton is widely considered the father of scientific racism, and his controversial ideas about the intellectual superiority of the Caucasian people provided a handy defense of the continued enslavement of African-Americans in the US just prior to the Civil War. He bolstered those views with a broad analysis of 1,000 skulls he collected from all over, sometimes even scavenged from battlefields and the occasional catacomb. At the time, it was widely believed that skull size, or cranial capacity, was a marker of superior intelligence and advanced cognition.

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