Sitting on Top of the World



The European enlightenment, the belief in rational thought, gave long term impetus to scientific investigation of the world and humanity’s place within the scheme of things. However, the spur which led to classificatory systems for plants and animals, to taxonomies of heavenly bodies and the investigation of human origins also led to spurious science when linked to the prevailing needs of those in power. First and foremost of those needs is the maintenance of power and, it often appears, by generating ‘rational’ evidence as required. All it needs is the correct criteria. Thus in 1879, when equal suffrage for English women, for example, was still half a century away, is was possible for one of the founders of social psychology to state with complete assurance and seriousness:


“In the most intelligent races, as among the Parisians, there are a large number of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brains... they represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and that they are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilised man...


Without doubt there exist some distinguished women, very superior to the average man, but they are exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as for example, of a gorilla with two heads, consequently, we may neglect them entirely.”

Thus cranial capacity (physical and measurable) is asserted as the index of intelligence (however that is to be defined). Women, children, savages and gorillas are excluded from the category that counts. The subtlety of ‘science’ in a context like this is not to be underestimated. An example from a work with ethnological (and imperial) aspirations: “This well-to-do farmer of Northern Tirol represents the fine highlander stock, which has been found to possess the largest average brain capacity of all races yet closely studied by men of science.”

The reliance on animal breeding terminology is in period (and linked to other important issues) but what is most relevant here is the emotive constellation in the description - ‘fine highlander stock’, ‘largest average brain capacity’ and ‘well-to-do’. All characteristics attach themselves to the male farmer. The poor need not apply.