a couple of interesting articles for you to read

Both from the pen keyboard of Brian Switek, on his blog Laelaps.

The first begins with a quote from Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, recounting the genocidal approach of an Argentinian general towards some of the local indigenous tribes. Darwin found this approach horrifying, but also doubted that there was much that could be done about it. Brian goes on to propose an historical hypothesis about how these experiences might have influenced Darwin’s thinking on extinction (which he recognised went hand-in-hand with evolution).

The second – on Saartje Baartman – rang a bell with me when I saw it, because some years ago I’d read an article about Saartje by Stephen Jay Gould. In fact, on checking my library just now I find that Gould wrote about Saartje at least twice: she gets a brief mention in The Mismeasure of Man – an excellent book that examines the history of our many attempts to measure ‘intelligence’, & makes it clear that the various hypotheses underpinning these efforts are often – too often? – informed by underlying prejudices. And there’s a much longer treatment of her story in The Flamingo’s Smile.

I’ve always enjoyed Gould’s writing, not least because of the historical perspective that he puts on things. It’s important to remember that we’re all shaped by the culture that we live in; too often, I think, people look back at previous scientists’ work with a feeling of superiority, & forget that their work & their conclusions were influenced by the tools, understandings, & attitudes of their time. But having said that, I still think that Saartje was treated abysmally back in the early 1800s, when she was regarded as a zoological & anthropological curiosity, exhibited publicly in sideshows in England and France, and privately to eminent men of science in those countries.

Saartje was treated this way because she was a Khoikhoi woman, one of the ‘bushmen’ of South Africa, and as such regarded as sitting somewhere on the evolutionary path between the apes and ‘proper’ humans. And also because of her physical characteristics – she was familiarly known as the ‘Hottentot Venus because, like other Khoikhoi women, she was extremely steatopygous, having accumulated a very large amount of fat in her buttocks. (There’s a contemporary image of her here.) This made her a fascinating figure to both the curious & the prurient; after all, she was paraded almost naked on the stage for all to see. 

And certainly commentators of the time, in both the popular & scientific press, seem to have gone to a lot of trouble to emphasise the ‘animal’ qualities of Saartje herself and the Khoikhoi people in general. This despite the fact that Georges Cuvier himself stated that Saartje was an intelligent woman with general proportions that would not lead connoisseurs to frown… [[She] possessed an excellent memory, spoke Dutch rather well, had some command of English, and was learning a bit of French when she died (Gould, 1985). (Yet at the same time he could describe her face as ‘brutal’ – animal-like.) There was also an almost grotesque fascination with Saartje’s genitalia, due to reports that these were enveloped by a curtain of skin – another feature setting the Khoi-San apart from ‘regular’ people in the eyes of many scientists of the time. But Saartje refused to satisfy their curiosity.

So, sadly, when she died in 1815, she certainly didn’t get to rest in peace. Like another ‘oddity’, the conjoined twins Ritta-Christina, she was destined not for a quiet burial but for the dissecting table. Cuvier himself performed the dissection, presenting her genitalia in a jar to the French Academy of Science – an ignominious end to Saartje’s life. That jar, together with her skeleton & another jar containing her brain, is still in the Musee de l’Homme in Paris. At the time the living woman, and later her earthly remains, nicely fitted the current prejudices about ‘inferior’ races (with Europeans at the top of the tree, naturally).

Yes, things have changed. But it’s as important as ever for us to recognise our beliefs & prejudices, and try to put them aside. (Recognising that they exist is half the battle!) As Brian says

The tragedy of Saartje Baartman painfully illustrates that those who were convinced that dark-skinned races were deficient and inferior found just what they were looking for, and I do not think scientists have suddenly become immune from being influenced by racial prejudice. We might like to think ourselves as more objective than scientists of the past, that we have somehow freed ourselves from all racial biases, but there is perhaps no area of research so influenced by our own beliefs and convictions than the study of humanity.

S.J.Gould (1985) The Flamingo’s Smile. W.W.Norton

3 thoughts on “a couple of interesting articles for you to read”

  • Her remains are not still on display. They have not been since the 1970s. They were returned by France to her place of birth (for a proper burial) in order to acknowledge the wrongdoing and try to make things right.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    That’s good to hear. Even knowing that in her day European society accepted quite different standards & attitudes towards people of other races, she was still treated badly,

  • **she gets a brief mention in The Mismeasure of Man – an excellent book that examines the history of our many attempts to measure ‘intelligence’, & makes it clear that the various hypotheses underpinning these efforts are often **
    Unfortunately, there is little in that book that is correct.
    Gould’s allegation that Morton had doctored his skull collection was re-investigated by John Michael. Michael found very few errors & those that were found were not in the direction Gould claimed. (Michael JS 1988. A new look at Morton’s craniological research. Current Anthropology 29: 349- 54). In the 1996 edition of his book Gould completely avoids Michael’s study.
    Galton (1888) observed a brain size/cognitive ability relationship. Modern MRI imaging confirms a positive correlation. Gould managed to omit a major literature review on the correlation between brain size and cognitive ability by Van Dalen (1974). In his 1996 version Gould simply deleted the whole section as the MRI evidence on brain size & IQ was obviously damaging to Gould’s position.
    For an up to date analysis for the biological correlates of intelligence, see the paper by UCLA Neuroscientist, Paul Thompson, and Yale Psychologist Jeremy Gray,
    “Correlations between intelligence and total brain volume
    or grey matter volume have been replicated in magnetic
    resonance imaging (MRI) studies, to the extent that
    intelligence is now commonly used as a confounding
    variable in morphometric studies of disease. MRI-based
    studies estimate a moderate correlation between brain
    size and intelligence of 0.40 to 0.51 (REF. 28; see REF. 29
    on interpreting this correlation, and REF. 30 for a
    meta-analysis).” *
    * ‘Neurobiology of intelligence: science and ethics’ Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5, 471-482 (June 2004)
    Gould’s criticism of factor analysis (and ‘g’) is flawed: see John Carroll’s review Intelligence 21, 121-134 1995 and also Jensen Contemporary Education Review Summer 1982, Volume 1, Number 2, pp. 121- 135.
    David J. Bartholomew, from London School of Economics, who has written a textbook on factor analysis, also explains in “Measuring Intelligence: Facts and Fallacies” explains where Gould goes wrong in this area.
    Gould suggests that Jews tested poorly in the 1920’s & this lead to the Immigration Act 1924. These claims are incorrect.
    The idea that Jews tested poorly is actually based on a misrepresentation of a paper authored by Henry Goddard in 1917. Goddard gave IQ tests to people suspected of being mentally handicapped. He found the tests identified a number of such people from various immigrant groups, including Ashkenazi Jews. Leon Kamin in 1974 reported that Goddard had found Jews had low IQ scores. However, Goddard never found that Jews or other groups as a general population had low scores.
    Journal of Biosocial Science 38 (5), pp. 659-693 (2006).
    The other misconception is that this contributed to the 1924 Immigration Act. However, Herrnstein & Snyderman found this was not the case (Intelligence Tests and the Immigration Act of 1924′ American Psychologist 38, September 1983).

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