Conservatism, Skulls, and Hegel
Over at Pandagon, I found Amanda Marcotte’s excellent dissection of the latest scientific findings that claim to demonstrate that political beliefs are correlated to particular physical qualities in brains. “Scientists have found that people with conservative views have brains with larger amygdalas, almond shaped areas in the centre of the brain often associated with anxiety and emotions.”
Amanda is having none of it. “This kind of thing is inexcusable, both from a fact-based perspective and because the implication is that people who are conservative can’t help themselves. While it gives us a temporary thrill to think of conservatives as just being kind of broken, the implication of this is that they can’t help themselves. And I strongly disagree. “
I think Amanda is correct. And so, it seems would Hegel, who in the Phenomenology of Spirit argued that “it must be regarded as a thoroughgoing denial of reason to treat a skull bone as the actuality of conscious life.”
Hegel was arguing against the new fad of phrenology—the belief that the shapes and contours of the skull demonstrated inner dispositions of character and intellect. The skull supposedly developed in particular ways because the brain was pushing against it. I’m not going to try to summarize his argument, partly because I’m never very confident that I fully understand Hegel. But, at least according to Alasdair MacIntyre’s essay on the topic “Hegel on Faces and Skulls,” it partly has to do with history. “A particular historical situation cannot on Hegel’s view be dissolved into a set of properties.” Thus, the skull cannot explain actual activity in its historical circumstance, which involves too many complicated outer phenomena. In the context of Amanda’s post, that would mean that we cannot understand why the particular brain types we are looking at under the microscope correlate to conservatism without understanding the particular economic, social, and political forces that are operating on the individual.
Phrenology, the nineteenth century study of skulls, became a massive fad in America in the 1830s and later. Many of the original phrenologists were actually quite progressive—Walt Whitman was a big fan, for instance. As David Reynolds has pointed out, Leaves of Grass abounds in Phrenological terms. And Melville has a (tongue in check?) chapter in Moby Dick on the skull of the Sperm Whale.
But the study of brains and skulls also, of course, became completely wrapped up in a racist project of defending polygenism—the idea that there had been multiple creations and thus that Indians and African-Americans were inherently different species than white people. Thus a patriotic racist could still believe that “All men were created equal” since African-Americans, Indians, and others were simply not defined as “men.” The most influential of these “scientists” was Samuel Morton, of course, author of Crania Americana (analyzing the brains of Native Americans) and Crania Aegyptiaca (intending to prove that ancient Egyptians had different brain structures than modern Africans, and thus that Africans had never demonstrated the ability for civilization.) Morton’s crude experiments involved filing the skulls of various peoples with small ball bearings and counting the size of the cavities that way. The late Steven Jay Gould went back, by the way, and redid the experiments, demonstrating that, even on his own terms, Morton had done bad science, that there was no real difference in skull size between various races.
But the broader point is that there seems to be some sort of strong cultural desire, perhaps tied to the rise of nineteenth century celebration of science, combined with the desire to categorize, survey, and thus control the population, which has long sought to demonstrate clear links between the biological qualities of the brain and skull and some sort of outer truth about their immutable essence. As humanists we should reject this reduction of ourselves into our mere biological form, and as universalists we should be wary of the ways such categorization will inevitably be used to demean certain people. Even in this latest finding, the suggestion seems to be that conservatives have some sort of biological failing, are less human, in a sense, than others. I’m no fan of conservatism, but replace conservative with the word women, or black people, or whatever, and you can see where this logic can go, and why it should be rejected.
Perhaps all previous scientific attempts to do so have been ludicrous, and this one is the real thing. But count me as a skeptic.