Ph.D. Octopus

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Conservatism, Skulls, and Hegel

with 6 comments

By Wiz

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.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

January 2, 2011 at 15:41

6 Responses

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  1. Reminds me of the human origins studies from my archaeology classes. The morphology of Neanderthals’ craniums are drastically different enough from Homo sapiens to determine an ancient evolutionary split and classify them as a different species. Yet archeological evidence shows both species were so close in cultural and technological advancement (they used the same types of tools, hunted with the same efficiency, both buried their dead, both practiced body adornment, etc.) that it’s thus far been impossible to determine whether Neanderthals were displaced and driven to extinction by Homo sapiens or simply interbred to the point of total diffusion. So much for skull science, I guess.


    January 2, 2011 at 17:11

  2. Yeah, but Hegel also has the whole hyper racist epidermalized skin thickness thing going on…


    January 2, 2011 at 23:24

  3. Not buying the Hegel and Haiti thesis, ZSW?


    January 3, 2011 at 10:12

    • It’s been about seven and a half years since i read that essay and it has not stayed in my memory. I think i mean to say that hegel and haiti yes, but also Paul Gilroy’s critic of Hegel’s racial politics in Against Race (i think it was against race, anyway.)


      January 3, 2011 at 22:46

  4. Yeah, these studies get way more hype than they deserve. The starting assumption should be that any regularity in how an individual interacts with their environment should show some correlation with neural activity. In that light, there’s no headline here.

    Of course, maybe someday our knowledge of neurobiology will allow us to say more, but in the meantime, cut the crap. And, even if that day comes, what will we be able to do without an understanding of the economic, social, political (and I would add psychological) forces? Drug people to vote for particular candidates?

    cf. Cleese (2008):


    January 3, 2011 at 13:41

  5. I think a big question is why science journalists still write these pieces and, if we assume they’re partly doing it because they “sell”, why the public seems to have such an appetite for them. Polygenism and the increasing political importance of racial classification in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries helps to explain why scientists once sat around measuring skulls. Our obsession with genetic determinism began in the late 1980s/1990s in part due to the promise of genetic medicines that might provide immediate/comprehensive cures [a good book on this: The Troubled Dream of Genetic Medicine: Ethnicity and Innovation in Tay-Sachs, Cystic Fibrosis, and Sickel Cell Disease by Keith Wailoo and Stephen Pemberton], resultant activism by biosocial communities and push advertising by pharma companies. But that dream’s long been crushed [see all the articles this summer marking the 10th anniversary of the Human Genome Project and decrying its failure to achieve any major medical breakthroughs], and I think there’s a trend against “easy” medical solutions [e.g. weight loss can’t just be achieved by a pill or a shake-weight–you need to totally reform diet/exercise habits; a hyperactive kid may need a different home or school environment, not or not just Ritalin].

    So if we’re increasingly suspicious of easy, mechanistic solutions for our bodily and psychological disorders, why do we seem to get a thrill when something once considered pretty much social [religion, politics] gets an easy, mechanistic explanation? Is it really just that in a chaotic, complex world we take comfort in the simplistic?

    Also Kyle, thanks for posting the Cleese podcast video, which has just introduced me to a new source of glorious procrastination.


    January 3, 2011 at 14:59

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