Thursday, November 6, 2014

Laughing at our ancestors. When is it legitimate?

We've recently posted on the subject of laughing at the arrogance or self-assurance, and sometimes societally hurtful but false reasoning that can pass as scientific truth when said from the pulpit, and presumed imprimatur of major universities.  We picked on WH Sheldon in one post, pointing out the problems with his photos of naked Ivy League university students with the aim of showing that humans came in discrete body types which were windows into individual personality--that is, into an individual's inbred, causally deterministic characteristics.

Sheldon did his work in the days when mainly white people attended major colleges, and women were widely treated as modified (or, perhaps, degenerate) men (after all, their designation is (wo)men).  'Political correctness' had not yet entered the vocabulary of our culture.  So one did not have to excuse his statements about how things were.  However, cultural context and biases influence even scientific statements, which many recognize (if you're a strict genetic determinist, it's highly likely that you're a right-winger; similarly, those who believe that environment is an important determinant of most traits are more likely to be lefties).  Scientists are not as objective as we might fancy.

But can we ridicule our historical predecessors in science, or is that unfair or cruel beyond reason? They did, after all, reflect their times and were as sincere about what they said (and as convinced of their correctness and even rectitude) as we are today, even if that had a subjective aspect.  As we noted in our earlier post, the beliefs of every age will seem risible to others at some future time.  So perhaps we should just say, in a flat voice, that they were wrong but only because they hadn't the data, technology, or experience that we have--and the same will be true of us in the future.  That fits history, but seems risky to anyone who rails against cultural relativism because it seems to say that neither we, nor anybody, knows the truth.  A debatable point, to say the least.

But is past science, though pronounced from on high (that is, the Ivy League, Michigan, Wisconsin, or Berkeley--or Oxbridge), ever more culpable than that?  Should it be subject to ridicule?  How about this example, from a contemporary of Sheldon, Carleton Coon?  He was at Penn and Harvard-trained, and thus considered a world expert on human evolution and human races.  Though his books were generally written as if they were sober, unemotional, objective science, he was a white supremacist in at least two senses.  It was found after the fact that behind the scenes Coon had lobbied against school integration, on the grounds that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites and, well, you can guess the rest.

Secondly, he was known for looking at human prehistory, fossils, and current racial variation and arguing that whites crossed the 'human' threshold before those of other geographic areas (Asia and, naturally last, Africa).  This differed from, for example, today's out-of-Africa hypothesis by which modern humans evolved first in Africa and then expanded both in Africa and out into Eurasia.

Now, in Coon's book The Living Races of Man (Knopf, 1965) which we all had as anthropology students and was widely consulted and used as a text, he makes several statements about personality. Among them are that
No one can express anguish more convincingly by his facial expression than an Italian.  A Negro's facial expression, on the other hand, consists largely of exposing his eyeballs and his teeth.  There is a good reason for this difference: the Italian's mobile and moving communication would be lost, under most lighting conditions, on a black face. . . .In sum, light-skinned Caucasoids and Mongoloids independently developed the same capacity for nonverbal communication through a change in the expression of their faces.
Need we restrain our smiles?  Well, here is Coon's illustration of the superior version of the facial muscles, offered as supporting evidence, which I remember very well because I saw it as a graduate student and remarked about it even then:

Coon's version of the 'sophisticated' facial muscles (European left, Asian right)

Note those finely crafted muscles!  Even as students--at the time--we found this worthy of derision. Yes, the eugenics era would be proud of such categorical statements, and we see an emergence of the same kind of stuff, now couched in (this time definitive, trust us) genomic causal terms, today.

Now it so happened that I had got my PhD at the University of Michigan, and was there as a post-doc in the Human Genetics department at their Medical School, where I was and taking gross anatomy. We used one of the leading texts of the time, written by a distinguished anatomist and the course's instructor, Russell Woodburne (Essentials of Human Anatomy, 1970, Oxford).  When we got to human facial musculature, here is the book's illustration (page 199; I added the coloration to help study for the exam):

Woodburne's choice of cadaver to illustrate the human facial muscles

The irony in this illustration should be obvious!

Now there are times when we have every right to ridicule what was said by past scientists, even if they were working within the cultural landscape at the time, but which reveals how clearly one's biases can cloud even what is purported to be objective scientific judgment. This is but one example. Stepin Fetchit may have been acceptable for the movies at that time (to the (white) people who could afford to go), but not for text-books, not then, not ever.  Coon must have seen all those old movies, but not realized the characters in movies are acting.

Let's make the point in another way.  In Coon's time, the typical white's stereotype of blacks was that they were naturally, that is inherently, subservient.  One reason given was that they evolved in steamy tropical Africa where being intellectually energetic would have been selected against.  Now, within one adult lifetime, the white's stereotype of African Americans would not be of subservience, but, if anything, it would be one of inherent violent or criminal tendencies.  Or, as many would have us believe, of inherent low intelligence. Why?  Because they evolved in steamy tropical Africa where being intellectually energetic would have been selected against.

And remember when the eugenicists were convinced of the inferiority of Jews or--what was it in the US?--that they were innate champion boxers?  These changeable 'essences' reflect the mistake of comfortably equating what a whole group seem to be, today, with what they must have been selected for.  In the tempting search for inherency, that mode of thinking is still widespread.

Anyone still clinging to the idea that scientists are really objective needs to read some history
No matter how sincerely most of us do, truly, try to be detached and objective, and open about our assumptions and biases, and no matter how some aspects of our methods and technology can be seen as objective, and disregarding politically motivated criticism of science by those who just don't like what scientists say (e.g., 'postModern' critiques), we are human and our work, including even the questions we choose to ask, has subjective elements.  When those elements color what is said in material ways, especially ways that can not only mislead science but also society (as, for example, undermining integration because of the purported primitiveness of some racial groups treated as discrete categories), in our opinion it deserves all the scorn and ridicule it can get.

No comments: