Wide Hats and Narrow Minds

Wide Hats and Narrow Minds - 13 i Wide Hats and Narrow...

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Unformatted text preview: 13 i Wide Hats and Narrow ,! Minds - 7 IN l 8 6 l , r R 0 M _February to,june‘,--the ghost of Baron Georges Cuvier haunted the AnthropolOgF cal; Society of ,Paris.i:'l‘.he great;CuVier,~ Aristotle-jot? French ' biology (an immodest designationJrom which he did nOt shrink), died in 1832, but the physical-vault of his spiritglit‘fed on as Paul Broca and Louis Pierre Gratiolet quared off to debate. whether or not the size of a brain has anything to do best and brightest could not be recognized by their big 7 heads. (Gratiolet, a confirmed monarchist, was no egalitarian. He merely sought other measures to affirm the superiority ofwhite European males.) Broca, founder‘of the Anthropological Society and the world‘Ts'greatest;crani- ometn'cian, or head measurer, replied that af‘study of:the brains of human races would lose most of its interest and utility" if variationin size counted for nothing;;;Why;;h'e asked, had anthropologists spent so much time'm‘eas'uring’ heads if the results had no bearing upon what heregarded as the most important question of all—the relative worth-of different peoples: , , -~ in», ;, s~ Among the questions heretofore discussed within the Anthropological Society,-none-is equal in interest and importance to the question before us now. . . . The great importance of craniology has struck anthropolo- 145 146 5 THE PANDA’s THUMB gists with such force that many among us have neg- lected the other parts of our science in order to devote ourselves almost exclusively to the study of skulls. . . . In such data, we hope to find some information relevant to the intellectual value of the various human races. Broca and Gratiolet battled for five months and through nearly 200 pages of the published bulletin. Tempers flared. In the heat of battle, one of Broca’s lieutenants struck the iowest blow of all: “I have noticed for a long time that, in general, those who deny the intellectual importance of the brain’s volume have small heads." In the end, Broca won, hands down. During the debate, no item of information had been more valuable to Broca, none more widely discussed or more vigorously contended, than the brain of Georges Cuvier. I I Cuvier, the greatest anatomist of his time, the man who revised our understanding of animals by claSSIfying them according to function—how they work—rather than by rank in an anthropocentric scale of lower to higher. GuVier, the founder of paleontology. the man who first established the fact of extinction and who stressed the importance of catas- trophes in understanding the history both'of life and the earth. Cuvier, the great statesman who, like Talleyrand, managed to serve all French governments, from revolution to monarchy, and die in bed. (Actually, Cuv1er passed the most tumultuous years of the revolution as a private tutor in Normandy, although he feigned revolutionary sympa- thies in his letters. He arrived in Paris in 1795 and never left.) F. Bourdier, a recent biographer, describes Cuvxer s corporeal ontogeny, but his words also serve as a good metaphor for Cuvier’s power and influence: Guvrer was short and during the Revolution he was very thin; he be- came stouter during the Empire; and he grew enormously fat after the Restoration.” _ I ” Cuvier’s contemporaries marveled at his “massive head. One admirer affirmed that it “gave to his entire personan undeniable cachet of majesty and to his face an expreSSion WIDE HATS AND NARROW MINDS |‘147 of profound meditation." Thus, when Cuvier died, his col- leagues, in the interests of science and curiosity, decided to open the great skull. On Tuesday, May 15, .1832, at seven o’clock in the morning, a group of the greatest doctors and biologists of France gathered to dissect the body of Georges Cuvier. They began with the internal organs and,rfinding “nothing very remarkable,” switched their attention to Cuvier’s skull. “Thus,” wrote the physician in charge, “we were about to contemplate the instrument of this powerful intelligence." And their expectations were rewarded. The brain of Georges Cuvier weighed 1,830 grams, more than 400 grams above average and 200 grams larger than any nondiseased brain previously weighed. Unconfirmed re- ports and uncertain inference placed the brains of Oliver Cromwell, jonathan Swift, and Lord Byron in the same range, but Cuvier had provided the first direct evidence that brilliance and brain size go together. v:~ Broca pushed his advantage and rested a good part of his case on Cuvier’s brain. But Gratiolet probed and? found 'a weak spot. In their awe and enthusiasm, Cuvier’s doctors had neglected to save either his brain or his skull. More- over, they reported no measures on the skull at all. The figure of 1.830 g for the brain could not be checked; per- haps it was simply wrong Gratiolet sought an existing sur- rogate and had a flash of inspiration: “All brains are not weighed by doctors,” he stated, “but all heads are measured by hatters and I have managed to acquire, from this new source, information which, I dare to hope, will not appear to you as devoid of interest.” In short, Gratiolet presented something almost bathetic in comparison with the great man’s brain: he had found Cuvier's hat! And thus, for two meetings, some of France’s greatest minds pondered seri- ously the meaning of a worn bit of felt. Cuvier‘s hat, Gratiolet reported, measured 21.8 cm in length and 18.0 cm in width. He then consulted a certain M. Puriau, “one of the most intelligent and widely known-hat- ters of Paris." Puriau told him that the largest standard size for hats measured 2] .5 by 18.5 cm. Although very few men wore a hat so big. CuVier was not offscale. Moreover, Grati- 148 i THE pANDA’s THUMB olet reported with evident pleasure, the hat was extremely flexible and “softened by very long usage.” It had probably not been so large when Cuvier bought it. Moreover, Cuvier had an exceptionally thick head of hair, and he wore it bushy. “This seems to prove quite clearly,” Gratiolet pro— claimed, “that if Cuvier's head was very large, its size was not absolutely exceptional or unique.“ Gratiolet’s opponents preferred to believe the doctors and refused to grant much weight to a bit of cloth. More than twenty years later. in 1883. G. Hervé again took up the subject of Cuvier’s brain and discovered a missing item: Cuvier's head had been measured after all. but the figures had been omitted from the autopsy report. The skull was big indeed. Shaved of that famous mat of hair, as it was for the autopsy, its greatest circumference could be equaled by only 6 percent of“scientists and men ofletters" (measured in life with their hair at that) and zero percent of domestic servants. As for the infamous hat, Herve pleaded ignorance, but he did cite the following anecdote: “Cuvier had a habit of leaving his hat on a table in his waiting room. It often happened that a professor or a statesman tried it on. The hat descended below their eyes." Yet, just as the doctrine of more-is-better stood on the verge of triumph, Herve snatched potential defeat from the jaws of Broca’s victory. Too much of a good thing can be as troubling as a deficiency, and Herve began to worry. Why did Cuvier's brain exceed those of other “men of genius" by so much? He reviewed both details of the autopsy and records of Cuvier's frail early health and constructed a cir- cumstantial case for “transient juvenile hydrocephaly,” or water on the brain. If Cuvier’s skull had been artificially enlarged by the pressure of fluids early during its growth, then a brain of normal size might simply have expanded— by decreasing in density, not by growing larger—into the space available. Or did an enlarged space permit the brain to grow to an unusual size after all? Hervé could not resolve this cardinal question because Cuvier’s brain had been measured and then tossed out. All that remained was the magisterial number. 1.830 grams. “With the brain of .—... —.. -‘W—W __ .______._......~~. .. WIDE HATS AND NARROW MINDS l 149 Cuvier," wrote Herve, “science has lost one of the most precious documents it ever possessed.” On the surface, this tale seems ludicrous. The thought of France’s finest anthropologists arguing passionately about the meaning of a dead colleague’s hat could easily provoke the most misleading and dangerous inference of all about history—a view of the past as a domain of naive half-wits, the path of history as a tale of progress. and the present as sophisticated and enlightened. But if we laugh with derision, we will never understand. Human intellectual capacity has not altered for thousands of years so far as we can tell. If intelligent people invested intense energy in issues that now seem foolish to us, then the faiiure lies in our understanding of their world, not in their distorted perceptions. Even the standard example of ancrent nonsense—the debate about angels on pinheads— makes sense once you realize that theologians were not discussing whether five or eighteen would fit, but whether a pin could house a finite or an infinite number. In certain theological systems, the corporeality or noncorporeality of angels is an important matter indeed. In this case, a clue to the vital importance of Cuvier’s brain for nineteenth-century anthropology lies in the last line of Broca’s statement, quoted above: such data, we hope to find some information relevant to the intellectual value of the various human races.” Broca and his school wanted to show that brain size, through its link withintelli- gence, could resolve what they regarded as the primary question for a “science of man"——explaining why some in.- dividuals and groups are more successful than others. To do this, they separated people according to a priori convic- tions about their worth—men versus women, whites versus blacks, “men of genius” versus ordinary folks—and tried to demonstrate differences in brain size. The brains of emi- nent men (literally males) formed an essential link in their argument—and Cuvier was the créme de la créme. Broca con- cluded: 150 I THE pANDAfs THUMB ‘, In general, the brain is larger in men than in women, in eminent men than in men of mediocre talent, in superior races than in inferior races. Other things equal, there is a remarkable relationship between the development of intelligence and the volume of the brain. Broca died in 1880, but disciples continued his catalog of eminent brains (indeed, they added Broca’s own to the list ———although it weighed in at an undistinguished .1,484 grams). The dissection of famous colleagues became some- thing of a cottage industry among anatomists and an- thropologists. E.A. Spitzka, thermost prominent American practitioner of the trade, cajoled hiseminent friends: “To me the thought of anlautopSyiis certainlyrless. repugnant than I imagine-the process of c‘adave‘ricidecomposition in the grave to be."'The two premier American ethnologists, john Wesley Powell and W] McGee made awager over who had the larger brain—and Spitzka Contracted to'r’esolve the issue for them posthumously. (It was a toss-up. The brains of Powell and McGee differed very little, no more than varying body size might require.) By 1907, Spitzka could present a tabulation of 115 emi- nent men. As the list grew in length,.ambiguity of results increased apace. At the upper end, Cuvier was finally over- taken when Turgenev broke the 2,000-gram barrier. in 1883. But embarrassment and insult stalked the other end. Walt Whitman managed to hear'the v’an'edccarols of Amer- ica singingiwitheonly 1,282 g. Franzjosef Gall, afounder of phrenology—the origina "science"~>”z of "judging mental worth by the size of localized=brain areas—could muster only 1,198 g. Later, in 1924, Anatole France almost halved Turgenev‘s 2,012 and-weighed. in at a mere 1,017 g.= - Spitzka, nonetheless, was undaunted. In an outrageous exampleof data selected to conform with‘a priori prejudice, be arranged», in order, a large brain from an eminent white male, a bushwoman from Africa, and'a gorilla. (He could easily have reversed the first two by choosing a larger black and a smaller white.) Spitzka concluded, again invoking the WIDE HATS AND NARRow‘MrNu‘s | 151 shade of Georges Cuvier: “The jump =from ‘a‘Cuvi'er 6143 Thackeray to a Zulu or a Bushman isino greater than-from the latter to the gorilla or the orang." "r i V i" Such overt racism is no longer common among scientists and I trust that no one would now try to rank races or sexes by the average size of their brains. Yet our fascination with the physical basis ofintelligence persists (as'it should), and the naive hope remains in some quarters that sizeor some other unambiguous external feature might capture the'sub- tlety within. Indeed, the crassest form of more-is‘ibetteré usmg an easily measured quantity to assess improperly a far more subtle and elusive quality—is'Still with us.’ the method that some men ‘use to judge the Wor't'li‘of their penises or their. automobiles is still'being applied-taibrain's‘f This essay was‘ inspired _:by‘e_ :ré'c'enraefiértstéfiéiiiéiwnééa abouts of Einstein’s brain. Yes; " Einstein’sé‘.tbr§inaswas removed for study, but a ’quarter’Céntfiry’aif‘er'liiE defia‘tlifthé‘ ‘ sank-cw" ' .2: 4,. results have not' been published;‘*¥Tlié2rematntng‘$i “Ci others were farmed om toivarioiist‘spECialisths . a _Mason jar ‘Packed in a cardboard}be‘iiiarktediflébstf Cider” and housedvin an office inEWichitaf, Kanéii‘siiNotl'ilhig' h s be it published because noihing unusual 'ihasi been found. “So far it’s fallen within normalllimits forta‘iman’his age,” remarked the owner of the Masbn jar. "A" I 1‘ Did I just hear Cuvier and Anatole LFrance'laughingfin concert from on high? Are they repeating a-‘fa‘rnbu‘s 56?th oftheir native land: plus {a Mange,pr atiztlmmaz/zariitf'i more things change, the more they remain: I "is physical structure of the brain must record“iht311i§§fidg§h' some way, but gross size and external \sha'pearemotililfé’ly'r to capture anything of value. I‘am, Somehow’éléss‘interegfbflr‘ 1n the weight and ‘convolutionsof Einstein’s; Brain‘1.tli§'n“.‘ihi" the near certainty that people of eQual talent have'liye'dfial'fd’. died in cotton fields and sweatshops. ' ’ : l 38>": : . ...
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This note was uploaded on 10/08/2009 for the course SOCI 205 taught by Professor Evans during the Fall '08 term at Texas A&M.

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Wide Hats and Narrow Minds - 13 i Wide Hats and Narrow...

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