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Pet Sins January 2002

Alleged Differences in Brain Size between the Races

Here are some readers' responses to the Chinese women's views on blacks article in which a Chinese woman remarked racial differences in brain size.

Quote from original article:

A Chinese woman said, "It is a fact that blacks are not as smart as Asians or whites. Just look at the test scores. Asians are always tops. Next are the whites. Blacks are always at the bottom. It is true that the brains of blacks are smaller. There is research that proves that."

Reader's comment in original article:

That comment about blacks having smaller brains is from an outdated piece of research done by some white guy with an agenda. This "researcher" deliberately stacked the samples with short non-whites and tall whites. Of course people of smaller built generally have smaller craniums than bigger people. And cranium size is not an accurate measure of intelligence anyway.

LJ, Oct 2001:
A quote from the article The Science of Racism:
"Rushton says that Mongoloids have bigger brains, on average, than Caucasoids, who have much bigger brains than Negroids. Brain size is most conveniently measured as cranial capacity: that is, the volume inside the skull... Rushton takes two different anthropologists' sets of figures and comes up with the following mean capacities: Mongoloid 1448, Caucasoid 1408, Negroid 1334. He ignores the sexual size difference (men exceed women of the same population by some 100- 150cc), and the very large differences within these gross categories (which of course he claims does not count)...Earlier anthropologists were fascinated by brain size differences, and have left us a vast corpus of data; assuming for the sake of argument that their measurements are always comparable...Restricting ourselves to just males, one of the largest mean capacities of any population measured is 1570cc, for the Xhosa (viva Mandela!); one of the smallest, 1359cc, for the Tyroleans (sorry, Adolf)."

CH, Apr 2001:
I think the biased study the first commenter mentioned [see B] is the one done by Philadelphia physician Samuel Morton. I found the following passage about Morton's study from Richard Poe's book Black Spark White Fire:

Like most Americans of his day, Morton was a proponent of the Master Race theory... Morton collected skulls of various races and filled them with mustard seed or lead shot to ascertain the amount of space available for the brain. In a series of books published in 1839, 1844, and 1849, Morton announced his conclusion that the brains of Germans and Anglo-Saxons were the largest of all, those of American Indians considerably smaller, and those of blacks smaller still...

Long after his death, Morton's work was cited as authoritative proof of white - and particularly Germanic - superiority. But Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould decided to take a second look at Morton's data in 1977. He made a surprising discovery. "In short, and to put it bluntly," wrote Gould, "Morton's summaries are a patchwork of fudging and finagling." Morton had, in fact, crudely weighted the evidence in favor of his Master Race theory.

To prove, for example, that the American Indian crania were smaller than white crania, Morton had exploited the well-known anatomical fact that taller people tend to have larger brain cases than shorter people. He therefore packed his Indian sample with large numbers of tiny Peruvian Indians, while keeping the number of tall, large brained Iroquois to a minimum. This dramatically lowered the average size for the Indian brains as a group. Morton was equally selective of his white samples, but in the opposite direction. The Hindus - whom Morton considered an integral part of the Caucasian race, were all but eliminated from Morton's Caucasian sample...

Morton's failure to correct for stature is only one of many methodological errors Gould discovered. Working from Morton's raw data, Gould made corrections for all the errors he found and calculated the average brain size for each race. The glaring differences Morton had claimed between white, black and American Indian brains shrank to insignificance in Gould's new figures.

In one respect, Gould's efforts were unnecessary. Modern scientist had long since recognized that brain size bore little or no relationship to intelligence. Even Morton himself had been troubled by the fact that the tiny-brained Inca built a high civilization, while the large-brained Iroquois did not. By the time Gould came along, mainstream scholars no longer cited Morton's data as proof of white superiority.

Nevertheless, Gould's exercise was important for another reason. It demonstrates how easily "hard" scientific data can be manipulated by a researcher's prejudice. Morton's personal commitment to the Master Race theory clearly influenced the "average" sizes of his sample crania.