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“Even the Most Careless Observer”: Race and Visual Discernment in Physical Anthropology from Samuel Morton to Kennewick Man
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“Even the Most Careless Observer”:
Race and Visual Discernment in Physical Anthropology from Samuel Morton to Kennewick Man

In a classic essay, folklorist Alan Dundes argued that the popular metaphor that “seeing is believing” codes a broader series of cultural attitudes that Americans bring to their engagement with vision, reason, and truth. He observed that, notwithstanding our society’s professed commitment to objective science, “American science is not culture free.” That is, this visual preoccupation often escapes the realm of metaphor to influence the interpretation of phenomena that cannot, in fact, be discerned through the simple act of looking.1 Dundes essay focused on cross-cultural ethnography, but his observation can also be applied to the subdiscipline of physical anthropology. Today, modern statistical methods trace changes in the physical type of human populations across time and space. This establishes a standard of proof that tends to hinge more on statistical regularities that emerge within a large sample than on physiognomies that can be discerned through the visual examination of individual faces and bodies. However, the idea that things like racial heritage can be discerned through the act of looking at individual faces continues to figure in vernacular publics’ engagement with the results of physical anthropology, a phenomenon that has important implications for the larger social and political ramifications of this science.

The work of Samuel Morton provides important insights into the intellectual and cultural history that gave rise to these tensions within modern physical anthropology’s public role. Morton is best known for the illustrated monographs Crania Americana (1839) and Crania Aegyptiaca (1844), in which he argued [End Page 5] that immutable human racial varieties had existed since the time of creation, and that these races were distinguished from each other by fundamental differences in intellectual and moral capacity. These two books are most often cited today as prime examples of ideologically motivated “scientific racism” that was displaced by modern understandings of human variation. But they also embody a crucial moment in the relationship between analyses based on visual discernment and those rooted in more abstract statistical methodologies.

Although Crania Americana and Crania Aegyptiaca were both written more than half a century before the advent of modern approaches to population statistics, each included tabulated data sets and some observations based on the mean of measurements from different subsets of Morton’s collection. Most treatments of Morton by working biologists and anthropologists have focused on the degree to which he did or did not manipulate his numerical data to justify his polygenist and white supremacist beliefs.2 However, these histories have tended to overstate the importance that numerical data had in Morton’s argument, and they say relatively little about the role that he posited for vision. Many of Morton’s most definitive arguments—and the ways in which his “method” was described by his contemporaries—owed more to the visual discernment of features on individual skulls and faces than to the regularities that emerged from the rather basic statistical operations that he applied to his collection. In several cases, Morton found himself sidelining the statistical material, or finding ways to explain why it diverged from conclusions that he derived through other means, and in which he seemed to place far more faith. What is more, the way in which his books were marketed and reviewed placed great emphasis on the reader’s ability to reproduce Morton’s conclusions by examining the highly detailed illustrations of his collection to “see and believe” for themselves. In this sense, Morton’s use of metrical tables might seem to prefigure the kind of statistical analysis that would become important to the science of later generations, but most of his conclusions were epistemologically grounded in the more humane idiom of “seeing.”

Contemporary encounters between professional physical anthropology and vernacular audiences suggest that the awkward relationship between statistical proofs and visual discernment that marked Morton’s writing was never entirely resolved in American popular culture, even if statistical analysis had scored a series of decisive victories in the realm of institutionalized science by the end of the nineteenth century. One of the most striking recent examples of this tension between modern physical...