June 10, 2007

Phrenology Repudiates Oligarchy

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny

-Incorrect, if pithy, statement by Ernst Haeckel from the early days of evolutionary thought

Often it’s remarked how a cult, a thought, or a fad suddenly becomes hugely popular, and decades later it’s wondered why.

Hula hoops? Eugenics? Ayn Rand?


Sometimes, we forget to consider the environment that the idea was formed in – or at least the environment when the thought became suddenly popular. We look at the idea, and can flat-out dismiss it with a wave and a laugh, whereas some otherwise very intelligent people of the time would be devoted adherents.

As an example: if I were to tell you that I could tell you what you were like, in exacting detail, by measuring 37 different points on your skull, including the distance from the tip of your nose to the tip of your chin; or the width of your forehead; or how high up your skull the tops of your ears end, would you believe me?

We look at phrenology now, and think: bumps on the head are indicators of personality?


The best take on it that I’ve seen was good old Terry Pratchett describing a troll in his fantasy setting of Ankh-Morpork opening a retro-phrenology shop: the customer explains what traits they want, and the retro-phrenologist applies mallets of various sizes to the correct locations of the skull… They could truthfully say that the procedure “won’t hurt a bit.”

Hilarious, and oddly close to the truth.

All through the 19th century, phrenology not only had thousands of practitioners around the world regarding it as medical science, but it had entered the rest of culture just as decisively: novels began describing the characters by their head shape as much as their clothes or manner. People reading the book would know what a squarish forehead or widely set eyes meant about a person’s character, and few other clues were needed. Phrenology’s popularity in the popular culture was vast: now, we’re left to wonder why.

Simple enough: it was the YMCA.

Okay, so not exactly; but the idea of “improving yourself” was one that had a fevered grip on western society. The idea of change itself had been growing, from revolutions that overthrew entire governments to religious schisms, but those things were, as often as not, of little concern to the daily life of most people. Even as radical a change as monarchy to democracy doesn’t stop the crops from growing.

But as the middle class grew, and the upper classes grew wealthier and better educated (generally speaking), ideas that did come down to the so-called common man were generally focused on one theme: what do we do with all these miserable bastards who were moving to the cities?

Well, let’s improve them!

Radical dietary, health, spiritual and even architectural movements sprang up (or were rediscovered) all over the place, and as many as could be encouraged to go, went. Most faded quickly enough, though some (like the Atkins Diet, or Christian Science) are still around to annoy us in modern times. Many had their disciples, usually in local strongholds where the charisma of the leader of a particular group held sway, the group vanishing when the leader did. Most were recognized as being… well… a little “off” by the majority and never attained widespread acceptance.

So why would something as patently ridiculous as head-lumps?

Because of what phrenology promised: change. Not just a change in the body, with improved health and renewed vigour et al, but intellectual change. This was radical – the idea that people were born into their established roles was still very strong, and race and class were shackles to any kind of advancement. Of course, the opposite was also true: those “to the manor born” (ahem) were given roles that frequently far exceeded their abilities simply because of their birth. People changing their fortunes was a virtually unthinkable concept: life was a non-religious form of predestination.

The reasoning behind phrenology, however, held that as you “exercised” certain aspects of your personality, those parts of your brain responsible for them would increase in size, making your skull thinner; eventually so thin that it could be pushed slightly out of place as the region swelled. If you didn’t exercise certain areas of your brain enough, they shrunk in size, letting your skull grow thicker. The joy of hearing this news was that your fate wasn’t inevitable! You could, under the care and tutelage of your local phrenologist, change your personality until your brain was perfectly balanced!

Naturally, whatever traits were found among the rich and famous were considered the best originally, as it would not do for those of lesser ability (proven to be physically measurable too!) to have attained a high standing; descriptions made at parties were all nicely complimentary, and head-measuring became a light diversion for the moneyed set.

But then a funny thing happened to phrenology: people believed in it.

As more and more people drew calipers and strings across their skulls, certain patterns started to emerge: that there was little difference between the faces of the rich and those of the poor. Criminals were found to have the craniums of clergy. Intellectuals and idiots alike were proven to have similar brows, duplicate eyes.

And a very exciting thought played across the western world: that anyone could become anything. Clearly, a science as proven as phrenology couldn’t be wrong: so if those great men had overcome the handicaps of their cranial capacities, surely the lesser ones could as well! Suddenly, people of all social orders flocked to place themselves under the advisement of these professionals, sure in the knowledge that with just a little advice they could work their way up the ladder. The practice became a fetish of the masses, following the population as they followed their dreams.

Sadly, the relation between physical shape and mental acuity was soon enough shown to be false, and the only people to seriously rely on this quackery were those who wanted to prove their own superiority.

But even with the discrediting of the science behind phrenology, the accidental philosophy it released would last, joining of the tenor if the times. Whether an idea helped to form the political movements of the era or was a symptom of societies itching to embrace personal freedoms is always a tricky thing. The rapid rise of a strong middle class undoubtedly allowed far more people the time to be concerned about the welfare of themselves and of others; plus the shock of seeing old titled gentry being outstripped by the sudden cash of merchants would have reduced the awe of nobility that was the norm.

Still, whichever was the cause or the symptom, it delights me no end to think that such an astoundingly silly belief could have contributed to the radical changes in thinking and political and social upheaval that occurred in that century.

What that says about me, I don’t know. Maybe I need some calipers


posted by Thursday at 10:20 pm


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