I feel a low and despicable pleasure having read a recent article.  (Mismeasure for Mismeasure NATURE vol. 474 no. 7352 June 23, 2011 page 429)  Years ago I read in a book The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould a description of a study done in the nineteenth century by Samuel Morton.  Morton had taken a large number of skulls of different people and measured their cranial capacity by pouring in millet seeds; then he would pour the seeds out and weigh them.  His conclusion was that the Caucasians he had measured had bigger brain cases than the others.

Of course the result was claimed to mean more than it did.  In this day and age it takes little cleverness to ask things like: What about nutrition?  Granted some minimum size for a human brain is needed, how does it follow that bigger is always more powerful?  If you cannot show a functional difference isn’t a smaller, less energy demanding and lighter brain superior?  If the Caucasian brains were donated the wills of philanthropists and the others found their way into collections by being on the short end of the food chain stick, would that influence the result even if there were perchance an advantage to the bigger brain?  Does not modern research indicate that a smaller brain has enough advantage by virtue of shorter neural connections and greater speed such that human brains will not, even if selected for quality, increase in size?  And so forth and so on.

But in those days it seemed self evident that the industrial revolution was a major accomplishment, and since it had been available for eons but had happened among Caucasians there might be a Caucasian advantage.  Sneer not.  There is plenty that we deem self evident, such as that marrying cousins is a Bad Thing, which are also utter nonsense. 

Gould got into it and reasoned that political correctness had not been invented in the nineteenth century so Morton had to be prejudiced and had strenuously crammed more millet into skulls he knew to be Caucasian. 

I saw purple.  At a stroke he had abandoned every other consideration.  His take home message was, “If indeed Caucasians had bigger brain cases then we ought all to be card carrying racists.”  The guy seemed to me to be a closet bigot. 

No matter how you cut it, it was unvarnished prejudice.  Gould had offered his trendy conclusion without actually putting any evidence on the table.  If he really thought it mattered, why in the world did he not repeat the study using a technique he trusted?

Well somebody has now gone back and done just that and the answer is Morton right, Gould wrong.  (Jason Lewis and his team at the University of California, J. Lewis et al. PloS Biol. doi:10.1371/journal pbio.1001071;2011)  The fact that almost every serious advance in technology prior to the industrial revolution was made by non Caucasians can’t be explained by brain size. 

Personally I think it is a matter of marrying cousins.  The more you do so, the longer your society is likely to last and the farther it can advance.  That puts us at sign-off of course unless we actually care.  That’s a very rough summary of now thousands of pages of web log. 

So I am gratified to see the record put straight. 

But I have a more personal grudge.  I went to Harvard Medical School.  Once I realized that there was a question about kinship and fertility, the obvious place to turn was to my old alma mater.  Surely someone there could straighten me out or if I was right put things before the world.  But on going back to Harvard I found all genetics roads led to Gould and he wasn’t answering letters from me.  It did not help that I had serious questions, now vindicated, about his intellectual honesty, but I kept my trap shut on that.

Since then I have asked for help in so many places that I now see that dismissing the likes of me is quite routine.  Gould was not different although in fact I had more right to claim his attention than I had to anyone else’s attention.  It still stings.

So the record is straight.  It is not that all is right with the world.  But at least one obstructionist has been discredited.

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