Research about the Science of Craniology
The science of "craniology" may seem a bit simplistic to us today, but flourished in the eighteenth century. This discipline, considered the latest in scientific advances at the time, consisted of the study of the shape and features of the skull to extrapolate new information for the purpose of learning about the differences among various races, ethnicities, and genders. While there are certainly skull characteristics that relate to ethnicity and ancestry, scientists in the eighteenth century, according to Wertheim, were using craniology in large part to create a scientific argument for what they perceived to be the differences between men and women. The social climate, in which women were agitating for more rights and freedoms, especially of the intellectual variety, greatly influenced the rise of craniology, which can be seen as an attempt by male scientists to reaffirm the prevailing social mores of their time: specifically the contention that men are intellectually superior to women.
Just a few years before, the idea that men were superior to women would have had few detractors, even in very educated circles. But change was coming. In the eighteenth century, perhaps influenced by the Enlightenment ideas in the air, women began to agitate for a place for themselves in the intellectual life of the times, especially in Britain. Women like Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Women served as a rallying cry for her generation, had been well-educated and believed that they had every right to join the burgeoning worlds of science, technology, and intellectual pursuits. England was the world's leader in scientific thought and innovation, these women reasoned, and as Englishwomen, they deserved a piece of the intellectual pie just as much as their husbands, fathers, and brothers did.
The men of letters, thinkers, and scientists these women were challenging were by no means disrespectful of women: in fact, most believed that women had an important role to play in complementing men. These "complementarians" (Wertheim 148) believed in a social order ordained by God and science that was as true and immutable as Newton's laws of physics. They felt that women and men were totally separate beings with different capabilities and strengths, and that the two genders were created to complement each other. Both werAe necessary and both had great work to do in the world, but their roles were entirely apart from one another, and neither gender should intrude into the natural sphere of the other. Women were meant, physically, emotionally, and intellectually, to be in the home, nurturing and mothering future generations. They were considered spiritually superior to men and often considered to have more innate goodness. Along with these positives, however, came the beliefs that had Woolstencraft and her compatriots up in arms: that women were neither capable of entering nor meant to enter into scientific or intellectual discourse in any serious way, certainly not in a way comparable to that of men. Enlightenment-era thinkers as illustrious as Rousseau and Kant felt that women did not have the intellect or temperament necessary to be successful scientists, and believed that it was inappropriate for them even to try any kind of intellectual work.
These male scientists and thinkers used the findings of craniology as one of the major arguments in favor of their viewpoint. After much study, it was found that women's heads were smaller than men's, over all, when measured in proportion to their bodies. A smaller head, male scientists pointed out, must mean a smaller brain: thus, men must clearly be intellectually superior, by virtue of their larger crania.
This assertion was turned literally on its head, however, when it was found that women's heads are, in fact, larger in proportion to their bodies than are those of men. Not to be deterred, the male scientists switched gears, deciding on a new conclusion to fit their prevailing theory of male superiority. Women's larger heads, they now theorized, must mean that women are closer, physiologically, to children (whose heads are also large in proportion to their bodies.) Therefore, the thinking went, women are intellectually closer to children as well-their brains and skulls must not have matured to the point of those of their male counterparts. These ideas may seem ridiculous today, but at the time they were powerful enough to play a large part in shutting women out of not just the scientific establishment, but also intellectual pursuits in general, and this continued well into the nineteenth century (Fee 315).
Looked at in a pure scientific light, it is clear that many of the assumptions underlying craniology have no basis in fact. One of these is that the size of a creature's brain has any bearing upon its intellectual ability. While clearly the brain of a human is bigger than that of a mouse (and a human is more intelligent), it is not the case that size and intelligence correlate. Large animals, such as whales and elephants, routinely have larger brains than humans-and yet it has been demonstrated over and over beyond a doubt that humans are more intelligent than these species. Another wrongheaded assumption of craniology is the idea that there are brain-related differences between men and women to begin with. Of course, there are hormonal differences (although eighteenth-century scientists were not aware of hormones per se), but male and female brains, both in terms of size and capacity, are overall similar. The differences that do exist between one person and another relate to other factors concerning intellectual ability, not at all to the size of the brain. Skull formations such as shape and protrusions on the skull can just as easily be the result of childhood trauma, ancestry, or another factor, and do not have to do with intellectual ability either.
Clearly, craniology was useful for eighteenth century scientists, since it served their agenda: it conveniently gave them a way to "prove" that women were intellectually inferior to men, and they were able to use this supposed science to argue that point no matter what the facts showed. However, looked at from a purely scientific perspective, it is clear that craniology is invalid as a scientific discipline. While skulls are useful to study for a myriad of reasons, comparing and contrasting intellectual ability between genders or among races and ethnicities is not one of their uses. The study of skulls to determine characteristics, for example, of extinct peoples, has a place, but even scientists who continued to work on these matters into the twentieth century confess that "concise statements regarding the significance [of cranial measurements] are scarce" (Moss and Young 281). Ultimately, craniology is simply not a scientific discipline that can be considered valid by today's standards.
Fee, E. "Nineteenth-Century Craniology: The Study of the Female Skull." Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 53.3 (1979): 415-433.
Moss, Melvin L. and Young, Richard W. "A Functional Approach to Craniology." American Journal of Physical Anthropology 18.4 (1960): 281-292.
Wertheim, Margaret. Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender War. New York: W.W. Norton and Co, 1997.