Theories of Race

Samuel George Morton, George Combe

  • Samuel George Morton's portrait

    Samuel George Morton


  • George Combe's portrait

    George Combe



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The work of Samuel George Morton, the immensely popular and respected president of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, represents a significant advance in the effort to make race into a subject for scientific investigation. The first and decisive step Morton took in this project was to reject skin color as an indicator of race, turning with a remarkable zeal to the increasingly sophisticated study of craniology, the careful measurement of skulls, as a way of distinguishing one group from another and also, more consequentially, of accounting for intellectual and cultural differences among groups.

Morton was committed to empirical science as a way of understanding human differences. He believed, moreover, that the size and shape of the skull, “the organ of the mind,” were the most reliable indicators of the intellectual and moral capacities of individuals and groups. Possessing nearly nine hundred skulls—the largest collection in existence at the time—Morton undertook an elaborate series of measurements along twelve different axes, using a variety of instruments including the “Facial Goniometer” (see below). He produced his results, along with a number of extraordinary lithographs and hundreds of other illustrations, in his major work, the immense folio Crania Americana (1839). Even after this publication, Morton continued to collect skulls, and by 1849 he was able to produce a three-volume treatise representing results from measurements done on his entire collection, which by then had grown to over thirteen hundred skulls. This collection has been housed at the Museum at the University of Pennsylvania since 1966.

Like most other scientists of his day, Morton was conventionally religious and did not question the authority of the Book of Genesis with respect to the creation of the world and the descent of all humanity from a single pair. But he posited that after the beaching of Noah’s Ark, which he dated at 4,179 years before the present, the three sons of Noah had dispersed, each one launching what Morton called in a subsequent publication “a primordial organic form,” resulting in races—the Caucasian, Mongolian, and Ethiopian—that functioned almost as separate species. His research had persuaded him that mulatto women bear children only with difficulty, suggesting a genetic barrier of some kind between races, which could on this basis be understood as being biologically distinct from each other. He accepted the practice of “the grouping of mankind into Races” (citing, in his Preface, Buffon, Blumenbach, Prichard, Virey and others) and while he acknowledged the authority of Blumenbach’s five-part division of humankind into Caucasian, Mongolian, Malay, American, and Ethiopian, he indicated greater approval of a three-part division that denied the status of race or “primary variety” to the “American Family” and the Malay but presented fewer problems in reconciling science with the Biblical narrative (3, 2).

The differences between races were, Morton argued, God-given and “aboriginal” rather than products of climate, diet, geography, or any other external circumstance. “It is,” he wrote,

indeed difficult to imagine that an all-wise Providence, after having by the Deluge destroyed all mankind excepting the family of Noah, should leave these to combat, and with seemingly uncertain and inadequate means, the various external causes that tended to oppose the great object of their dispersion: and we are left to the reasonable conclusion, that each Race was adapted from the beginning to its peculiar local destination. In other words, it is assumed, that the physical characteristics which distinguish the different Races, are independent of external causes. (3)

In essence, Morton interpreted statistics he gathered about skull size and shape as information on the means by which God had accommodated human beings to their stations in life.

Morton prefaced Crania Americana with a ninety-five-page essay “On the Varieties of the Human Species,” in which he described the dominant features of the various groups, canvassing not only geographical distribution but physical, linguistic, cultural, intellectual, and moral characteristics. In this essay, Morton readily acknowledges virtues and strengths in the groups he describes, even defending American Indians against various charges, and expressing considerable sympathy for a people so harshly dealt with by European immigrants; on the other hand, he does not hesitate to register disapproval or even disgust at practices he finds degraded or vicious.

Morton did not, however, base his distinctive approach on moral or social judgments. Crania Americana is a monument to the empirical method. Morton was interested in many kinds of measurements—the longitudinal, parietal, vertical, and zygomatic diameters, the occipito-frontal arch, and horizontal periphery among them, as well as the “facial angle” proposed by “the learned Professor Camper”—but he was primarily interested in one statistic: the “internal capacity” of the cranial cavity. To determine this, he developed an elaborate method for filling the crania in his possession with seeds and then pouring the seeds back into a graduated cylinder. Eventually, finding seeds to be too imprecise and susceptible to settling, he substituted lead shot. He correlated his results with the growing body of ethnological research, with which he had a remarkable familiarity, and implied that the latter was explained by the former. The result was a purely statistical system for ranking the races on the basis of measurable facts, a goal toward which Charles White had striven before him.

According to Morton’s immensely influential findings—announced in a single footnote!—Caucasians had the largest brains, followed by Mongolians, Malays, Americans, and Ethiopians. Among the Caucasians, the Teutons and Anglo-Saxons had the most capacious skulls while the Semitic and Nilotic (Egyptian) groups had the smallest. Among the Ethiopians, Native Africans had the largest and Hottentots and Australian aborigines the smallest.

Despite his adherence to the Biblical account of creation, Morton rapidly became known as the leader of the “American School” of craniometry-based racial theory, and his work was considered by many to be exemplary science. Among those who praised it were the ethnologist James Cowles Prichard and Anders Retzius (1796-1860), a distinguished Swedish anatomist who had been instrumental in turning the study of race from a preoccupation with skin color to a study of skull size and shape, focusing on the “cephalic index” as a way of distinguishing between “dolichocephalic” (narrow-headed) and “brachyocephalic” (broad-headed) races. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the cephalic index eclipsed Camper’s “facial angle,” becoming by far the most important measure of head shape and thus of racial variation.

Crania Americana was also praised by others who approved not only the integrity of his methods but the conclusions he reached about the relative capacities of the various races. Although Morton’s book focused on North and South American Indians, the placement of Ethiopians at the bottom of the scale of humanity in the essay “On the Varieties of the Human Species” with which the book began appealed to many in the American South and to Southern sympathizers in England, who could justify slavery on the bases that the Negro was not genetically related to whites, that the Negro adapted well to slavery whereas the Indian did not, and that the cultural differences between the races reflected “natural” or organic distinctions. The Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, a fervent believer in Negro inferiority and opponent of miscegenation, congratulated Morton for having “at last furnished science with a true philosophical definition of species.” Morton’s admirers also included George Gliddon, who became the co-author with Josiah C. Nott of Types of Mankind (1854). Gliddon distributed copies of Morton’s book to several of his Southern friends, who regarded it as a scientific justification of slavery.

This interpretation of Morton’s work was strengthened by the 1844 publication of Crania Aegyptiaca; or, Observations on Egyptian Ethnography, Derived from Anatomy, History, and the Monuments, where Morton extended his analysis of human races to ancient Egypt, claiming that the differences shown in modern “Caucasoid” and “Negroid” crania were equally pronounced in the distant past, and that the rulers of ancient Egypt had been Caucasian, while the slaves had been Negroid. (For a response to this argument, see Firmin.). Like George Combe, a highly regarded Scottish phrenologist who contributed an appendix to Crania Americana at Morton’s invitation, Morton himself was convinced of the intellectual inferiority of the Negro but staunchly opposed to slavery and colonial rule in India and elsewhere. It is striking that the strongest and, to many recent readers, most dubious and reprehensible general statement of Morton’s argument—that cranial capacity indicates intellectual capacity and that conclusions about races can be drawn on the basis of such measurements—is made in Combe’s appendix, while Morton’s text is occupied almost entirely with ethnology, methodology, statistical tables, and illustrations. Indeed, at one point Morton actually argues against the idea that cognitive capacities are determined by cranial volume (82).

The compatibility of Morton’s work with American theories of Negro inferiority was further confirmed by the dedication by Nott and Gliddon of their Types of Mankind to the memory of the recently deceased Morton. That book included in its prefatory material a memoir by Henry Stuart Patterson in which admiring letters from Morton to Nott were cited, including one in 1843 in which Morton had hailed the “triumphant manner” in which Nott presented his case for white supremacy and polygeny (see Types, xlx). Morton may have opposed the traffic in slaves but he had, it would seem, little to say against those who did not.

In 1981 the historian of science Stephen Jay Gould reanalyzed Morton’s data, reporting his results in The Mismeasure of Man. Gould found fault with some of Morton’s numbers but found “no evidence of conscious fraud” inasmuch as Morton had scrupulously documented his methods and his results, virtually inviting others to replicate his measurements. What Gould did allege was that Morton’s “a priori convictions” concerning racial groups had resulted in a perhaps unwitting “finagling” of the evidence and a general “crudity” of interpretation. Interestingly, Gould himself has been accused of unconscious bias by John S. Michael, who re-measured some of Morton’s skulls in 1998. And in 2018, Paul Wolf Mitchell considered unpublished data from Morton’s experiments that confirmed Morton’s results. (See also C. Loring Brace, in Further Reading)

Regardless of any methodological deficiencies or unconscious biases in Morton’s work, however, there were other problems with the project. The number of skulls, while large, was far from adequate to draw conclusions about races, nor were the skulls identified by sex, age, or body size. The most fundamental issue with Morton’s project is, however, its basic premise, that intelligence and moral character can be correlated with cranial capacity.

While Morton’s particular approach to racial difference was extensively reviewed and immediately controversial—see, for example, the withering critique of Crania Americana by Frederick Douglass in this volume—and has since been entirely discredited, its historical importance cannot be denied. Craniology, like phrenology, supported a tendency to make skull measurement the primary project in the science of physical anthropology. Morton’s attention to ethnographic context combined with his deployment of sophisticated forms of measurement established him as a pioneer in the discipline. And his belief that individual and racial characteristics were traceable to differences in the dimensions of the brain took other forms, all animated by the belief, as one historian puts it, that “some technique—whether the measurement of cranial capacity, facial angle, cephalic index, brain volume, or brain weight—would provide a true indication of innate ability, and that by such a measure the races of mankind would be found to form a scale of beings.”* Morton’s example proved to be remarkably durable. E. B. Tylor’s 1881 Anthropology, considered the first textbook of the new field, cited Morton’s studies of cranial volume as evidence of racial differences in intellectual capacity.

The passages reproduced below include a selection from the many ethnological descriptions Morton had gathered from travelers’ reports, and a partial description of his methods. Also included are passages from Combe’s Appendix, in which the author mounts a vigorous riposte to what he takes as the consensus of non-scientific thinkers in favor of the argument that human capacities are universal and differences are attributable to circumstance. The truth, Combe insists, is that capacities are different and fixed, and that skull size is an indicator of limits and a predictor of intellectual ability, personality traits, and national character.

Combe was already, and would continue to be, a well known and highly regarded figure. His Constitution of Man (1828), which argued that humans were subject to natural laws, sold 350,000 copies by 1900 (by which time Darwin’s Origin of Species had sold 50,000). It was even given an appreciative mention by Douglass in “The Claims of the Negro, Ethnologically Considered.”

Combe’s discipline of phrenology has long been regarded as a pseudo-science oriented toward essentialist and innatist arguments for determinate identities, but it is worth noting that at the time Combe wrote, it was more widely associated with liberal and humanitarian principles inasmuch as it stressed environmentally-influenced flexibility rather than biological determinism. This flexibility was reaffirmed by Franz Boas who proved, in studies done at the beginning of the twentieth century, that after a generation or two in a new environment, the skulls of the children of immigrants displayed a different shape. And indeed, some of the strongest resistance to Morton’s work was registered by contemporary British phrenologists, who disputed the notion that brain volume or weight was connected to intelligence.

*Nancy Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain 1800-1960 (Houndsmills: Macmillan, 1982), 28. 

Crania Americana; or, a Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America



Much has also been written in reference to the unity of the human species: the affirmative opinion is sustained by Linnaeus, Blumenbach, Cuvier, and many other distinguished naturalists; yet, on the contrary, Virey has divided mankind into two species, Dumoulin into eleven, and Bory into no less than fifteen. Finally, a French professor, overstepping the harriers of reason and nature, has attempted to establish several subgenera.

Such wide differences of opinion have led some persons to reject all classification in Anthropology; but the same objections would apply with equal force to the whole range of Natural Science, which, divested of arrangement, presents an uninviting chaos. As our means of comparing the races of men become more extended, our classification will of course improve; and meanwhile we must rest content with an approximation to accuracy. It may here be remarked, that two leading features constitute the basis of most of the attempted classifications of the human species: one of these is called the physical, the other the ethnographic method. In the former, mankind are grouped in great divisions characterised by similarity of exterior conformation; while on the last mentioned plan, the arrangement is based on analogies of language. Each of these systems has its advocates to the exclusion of the other; but it is reasonable to suppose that method most natural and comprehensive which is derived from both these sources, as well as from all others which tend to establish analogies among men. In order to combine, as far as possible, all these advantages, it is proposed in this place to consider the human species as consisting of twenty-two families.

It is necessary, however, to premise, that these families are not assumed as identical with races, but merely as groups of nations possessing, to a greater or less extent, similarity of physical and moral character, and language. . . .

Believing, however, as I do, in the primitive distribution of mankind into races in the sense already explained, yet being unprepared to offer any thing new on the subject, I shall, for the present at least, adopt the arrangement of Professor Blumenbach as respects these great divisions: for although his system is obviously imperfect, yet it is, perhaps, the most complete that has hitherto been attempted.


The Caucasian Race is characterised by a naturally fair skin, susceptible of every tint; hair fine, long and curling, and of various colors. The skull is large and oval, and its anterior portion full and elevated. The face is small in proportion to the head, of an oval form, with well-proportioned features. The nasal bones are arched, the chin full, and the teeth vertical. This race is distinguished for the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments.

1. The Caucasian Family.

2. The Germanic Family.

3. The Celtic Family.

4. The Arabian Family.

5. The Libyan Family.

6. The Nilotic Family.

7. The Indostanic Family.


This great division of the human species is characterised by a sallow or olive colored skin, which appears to be drawn tight over the bones of the face; long, black, straight hair, and thin beard. The nose is broad, and short; the eyes are small, black, and obliquely placed, and the eye-brows arched and linear: the lips are turned, the cheek bones broad and flat, and the zygomatic arches salient. The skull is oblong-oval, somewhat flattened at the sides, with a low forehead. In their intellectual character the Mongolians are ingenious, imitative, and highly susceptible of cultivation.

8. The Mongol-Tartar Family.

9. The Turkish Family.

10. The Chinese Family.

11. The Indo-Chinese Family.

12. The Polar Family.


The Malay Race is characterised by a dark complexion, varying from a tawny hue to a very dark brown. Their hair is black, coarse and lank, and their eye-lids drawn obliquely upwards at the outer angles. The mouth and lips are large, and the nose is short and broad, and apparently broken at its root. The face is flat and expanded, the upper jaw projecting, and the teeth salient. The skull is high and squared or rounded, and the forehead low and broad. This race is active and ingenious, and possesses all the habits of a migratory, predaceous and maritime people.

13. The Malay Family.

14. The Polynesian Family.


The American Race is marked by a brown complexion, long, black, lank hair, and deficient beard. The eyes are black and deep set, the brow low, the cheek-bones high, the nose large and aquiline, the mouth large, and the lips tumid and compressed. The skull is small, wide between the parietal protuberances, prominent at the vertex, and flat on the occiput. In their mental character the Americans are averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war, and wholly destitute of maritime adventure.

15. The American Family.

16. The Toltecan Family.


Characterised by a black complexion, and black, woolly hair; the eyes are large and prominent, the nose broad and flat, the lips thick, and the mouth wide: the head is long and narrow, the forehead low, the cheek-bones prominent, the jaws projecting, and the chin small. In disposition the negro is joyous, flexible, and indolent; while the many nations which compose this race present a singular diversity of intellectual character, of which the far extreme is the lowest grade of humanity.

17. The Negro Family.

18. The Caffrarian Family.

19. The Hottentot Family.

20. The Oceanic-Negro Family.

21. The Australian Family.

22. The Alforian Family.


This family, the type of the Caucasian Race, derives its name from the mountainous region of Caucasus, between the Black Sea and the Caspian, a spot to which history and tradition refer the primeval family of man. The spontaneous fertility of this tract has rendered it the hive of many nations, which extending their migrations in every direction, have peopled the finest portions of the earth, and given birth to its fairest inhabitants. . . .

1. The Caucasians proper are confined to the valleys and mountains of Caucasus. They are extremely numerous, and embrace many primitive tribes which differ in language, yet possess, in common, certain prominent physical characters. Independent of these aboriginal nations, it is said that five great immigrations of foreigners form as many epochs in the history of this country. These nations are the Lesghi, the Ghasazes, the Mongols, the Arabs, and the Tartars. . . .

A few only of the most prominent of these nations will be noticed on the present occasion.

The Circassians have long been celebrated for superior personal endowments. The men are distinguished by the elegance of their shape: their stature seldom exceeds the middle size, yet they are athletic and muscular without being corpulent. The women have attracted the attention and commanded the admiration of all travellers; nor can there be a question that in exquisite beauty of form and gracefulness of manner, they surpass all other people. They are distinguished by a fair skin, arched and narrow eyebrows, very long eyelashes, and black eyes and hair. Their profile approaches nearest the Grecian model, and falls little short of the beau-ideal of classic sculpture.

Of all the Circassians the tribe called Nottahaizi presents the most general diffusion of personal beauty. Mr. Spencer asserts, in his late travels among them, that every individual he saw was decidedly handsome. . . .

The Ossitinians, or Ireen, are a mere horde of rapacious banditti, speaking a language allied to the Persian.

The Inguches and Kists are also lawless communities, who live by hunting and plunder, and rob for honor as well as from necessity. They worship one God, without either saints or idols. Similar to these are those mountaineers of Daghestan, called Tawlinzi and Lesghi: living in inaccessible retreats, they descend into the valleys for mutual depredation, and to pillage travellers. Their language is peculiar to themselves, excepting a few words which resemble the Samoyede tongue.

It is difficult to form a just estimate of many of these tribes, who are, on the one hand, degraded by the Mahomedan faith, and on the other oppressed by the grasping policy of the Russians. Of their intelligence and bravery there can be no question; and their moral perceptions, under the influence of an equitable government, would no doubt assume a much more favorable aspect.

2. The Persians, who constitute the eastern branch of the Caucasian family, have been celebrated from remote antiquity for their high civilization, their nation pride and their successful valor. . . . They are a fine, athletic people, with good yet strong features, which travellers compare to those of the Highlanders of Scotland. (4-9)

3. The Pelasgic Branch [Caucasians living in Afghanistan] derives its name from the Pelasgi, who are first mentioned in history as the inhabitants of Thessaly. Enterprising and migratory in their habits, they spread over all Greece, and passing thence into northern Italy, gave birth to the Etruscans. For political reasons they assumed the name of Hellenes, and were the lineal progenitors of the Greeks or Acheans. It has been observed by a late writer, that the Greeks had no sooner obtained the elements of literature and the arts from the Phoenicians, than they advanced rapidly to the highest state of civilisation, until they may be said to have become, in their descendants, the masters of the world. We are taught even from our infancy to study their letters and their arts, which are justly regarded as models of perfection, seldom equalled and still more rarely surpassed. (11)


The Germans are familiar to us by their middling stature, their robust form inclining to obesity, their fair, florid complexion, and their light hair. . . . The moral character of the Germans is marked by decided personal courage, great endurance of fatigue, firmness and perseverance, and a strong attachment to their families and their native land. Intellectually they are conspicuous for industry and success in the acquisition of knowledge: with a singular blending of taciturnity and enthusiasm, they rival all modern nations in music, poetry and the drama; nor are they less conspicuous for their critical attainments in language, and the exact sciences. (13)


[Celts] are slow but laborious, and endure fatigue beyond the sufferance of other men. In disposition they are frank, generous and grateful, yet quick-tempered, pugnacious and brave to a proverb.

In some localities their physical traits, their moral character and their peculiar customs, have undergone little change since the time of Caesar. It is probable that the most unsophisticated Celts are those of the southwest of Ireland, whose wild look and manner, mud cabins and funereal howlings, recall the memory of a barbarous age. (16)


The habits of the Arab are strictly pastoral and wandering. His tent is his home, and he perpetually varies its location as his wants or caprice may prompt him.

The moral character of this race blends some very opposite elements; they are the children of impulse, at one moment raising the sword against the unresisting traveller, and the next receiving, with open hospitality, the stranger whose necessities have driven him to their tents. They are indolent excepting in their wars and pastimes, and remarkable for their covetousness and duplicity. Vanity is characteristic of all classes, from the chief of a tribe to the humblest Bedouin. Their politeness is extreme, and sobriety is a national trait.

Their intellectual character is conspicuous for a fertile imagination, and the successful cultivation of music, poetry and romance. (19)


The Tuariks are perhaps the best known of all the Berber tribes. Captain Lyon describes them as the finest men he ever saw; tall, straight and handsome, with an imposing air of pride and independence. Their features resemble those of southern Europeans; their natural complexion is nearly white, much darkened, however, by exposure to a hot sun, and their hair is long, black and glossy. They are said to be less treacherous than the Arabs, yet passionate, cruel and revengeful. They are fond of war, and plunder both their Arab and Negro neighbors, and reduce the latter to slavery. They are chiefly pastoral in their mode of life; and although they have horses, they mostly travel and fight on foot. (22-23)


The NUBIANS constitute the second division of the Nilotic family. They call themselves Nouba, or Kenous, but are known in Egypt by the name of Berâbera. The figure of the Nubian,” says Mr. Stevens, “is tall, thin, sinewy, and graceful, possessing what would be called in civilized life an uncommon degree of gentility. His face is rather dark, though far removed from African blackness; and his features are long and aquiline, decidedly resembling the Roman.

The hair of the Nubian is thick and black, often curled either by nature or by art, and sometimes partially frizzled, but never woolly. In fact, judging from the painting and sculpture of their temples, the ancient Nubians, like the modern, were in no respect analogous to the Negroes, excepting in the occasional blackness of their skin: and it is also worthy of remark, that their most frequent scenic decorations represent their triumphs over the Negroes, who uniformly appear as menials or as captives. (26)


The moral character of the Hindoos varies much in the different sections of India, whence the discrepant statements of modern travellers. They appear by nature to be a mild, sober and industrious race, warm in their attachments and fond of their children. But their love of the marvellous, fostered as it is by a fantastic religion, is almost without a parallel among nations. They are of a timid disposition, and not inclined to cruelty, yet their avarice, which is extreme, leads them readily to commit murder for the most trifling acquisition. Notwithstanding the apparent mildness of their manners, says Bishop Heber, the criminal calendar is generally full of gang-robberies, incendiarism, and analogous crimes; “and the number of children who are decoyed aside, and murdered for the sake of their ornaments, is dreadful.” They practise deception with infinite art, to which falsehood and perjury form no obstacles. (32-33)


The Baschkirs dwell on the rivers Oural, Volga and Kama. They have the large ears and small eyes of the Mongols, and their hair is often red or chestnut color. Among them are individuals of the most repulsive physiognomy, while the manners of the horde are gross and brutal in the extreme. “They have natural good sense, but not the least inclination to cultivate their intellectual faculties: they are courageous, suspicious, obstinate, severe and consequently dangerous. If they were not well looked after, they would none of them follow any other trade than that of pilfering and plunder.” (40)


The Chinese skull, so far as I can judge from the specimens that have come under my inspection, is oblong-oval in its general form; the os frontis is narrow in proportion to the width of the face, and the vertex is prominent: the occiput is moderately flattened; the face projects more than in the Caucasian, giving an angle of about seventy-five degrees; the teeth are nearly vertical, in which respect they differ essentially from those of the Malay; and the orbits are of moderate dimensions, and rounded.

The moral character of the Chinese is thus summed up by Dr. Morrison, whose opinion is derived from long and intimate acquaintance with these people. “The good traits of the Chinese character, amongst themselves, are mildness and urbanity; a wish to show that their conduct is reasonable, and, generally, a willingness to yield to what appears so: docility, industry, subordination of juniors; respect for the aged and for parents; acknowledging the claims of poor kindred.” (45)


The moral character of the Siamese appears to be at a very low ebb. The intelligent voyager first quoted, describes them as suspicious, vacillating and cruel. Cringing and servile to their superiors in the extreme, they are arrogant and tyrannical in regard to those who are below them in rank. Their virtues and their vices are venal; and the services of the judge and the assassin have each their price. “I regret,” says Mr. Gutzlaff, “not to have found one honest man: sordid oppression, priestcraft, allied with wretchedness and filth, are everywhere to be met with.” They are remarkable, nevertheless, for filial respect, and regard for their rulers. (49)


On the icy shores of the great island of Greenland, are seen the easternmost tribes of this singular race [the “Eskimaux”]. Their features do dot [not] materially differ from those already described, but their complexion is decidedly darker, varying from brown to olive, while at Oppernivick they are as dark as mulattoes. It is needless to add that many are much lighter, and others quite fair. In the moral scale they rank extremely low. Crantz, the missionary, who lived many years among them, reluctantly declares that “it is no injustice to allow them no true virtue, and only the absence of certain vices. They are crafty, sensual, ungrateful, obstinate and unfeeling, and much of their affection for their children may be traced to purely selfish motives. They devour the most disgusting aliments uncooked and uncleaned, and seem to have no ideas beyond providing for the present moment.

With respect to the moral and intellectual character of this widely distributed family, little need be added to what has already been said. Their mental faculties, from infancy to old age, present a continued childhood: they reach a certain limit and expand no farther. What Crantz says of the Greenlanders may be applied to other tribes, viz: that they possess simplicity without silliness, and good sense without the art of reasoning. (54)


The intellectual faculties of this great family [the American Family] appear to be of a decidedly inferior cast when compared with those of the Caucasian or Mongolian races. They are not only averse to the restraints of education, but for the most part incapable of a continued process of reasoning on abstract subjects. Their minds seize with avidity on simple truths, while they at once reject whatever requires investigation and analysis. Their proximity, for more than two centuries, to European institutions, has made scarcely any appreciable change in their mode of thinking or their manner of life; and as to their own social condition, they are probably in most respects what they were at the primitive epoch of their existence. . . .

However much the benevolent mind may regret the inaptitude of the Indian for civilization, the affirmative of this question seems to be established beyond a doubt. His moral and physical nature are alike adapted to his position among the races of men, and it is as reasonable to expect the one to be changed as the other. The structure of his mind appears to be different from that of the white man, nor can the two harmonise in their social relations except on the most limited scale. Every one knows, however, that the mind expands by culture; nor can we yet tell how near the Indian would approach the Caucasian after education had been bestowed on a single family through several successive generations. (81-82).


The Negroes have little invention, but strong powers of imitation, so that they readily acquire the mechanic arts. They have a great talent for music, and all their external xenses are remarkably acute.

With respect to their intellectual character there is much diversity of opinion; some authors estimate it at a very low scale, whilst others insist that the germ of mind is as susceptible of cultivation in the Negro as in the Caucasian. That there is considerable difference in this respect in the different tribes is pretty generally admitted; but, up to the present time, the advantages of education have been inadequately bestowed on them, and instances of superior mental powers have been of extremely rare occurrence. (88)


South of the Caffers to the extremity of Africa, live the Hottentots, one of the most singular varieties of the human species, and the nearest approximation to the lower animals. . . .

The Hottentots have but very vague ideas of religious obligations, although they are extremely superstitious. “The faults of which they are accused are, an inveterate indolence and gluttony, devouring every kind of animal garbage that falls in their way, without preparation, and when thus gorged they throw themselves down and sleep off the effects. That they are, however, capable of improvement, is evident from the conduct of those formed into an armed corps by the English, and who not only showed a sufficient degree of energy, but also grew cleanly in their persons.” (90; the source of the quote is “Tuckey, Maritime Geog. III, p. 10”)

Crania Americana


These measurements are derived from one hundred and forty-seven skulls of American Indians of forty different nations and tribes; and the crania are all of adult persons, and unaltered by art. The table is itself sufficiently explanatory for general purposes, but it is necessary to premise the manner in which the measurements have been taken.

The longitudinal diameter is measured from the most prominent part of the os frontis, between the superciliary ridges, to the extreme end of the occiput.

The parietal diameter is measured between the most distant points of the parietal hones, which are, for the most part, the protuberances of these hones.

The frontal diameter is taken between the anterior inferior angles of the parietal hones.

The vertical diameter is measured from the fossa between the condyles of the occipital bone, to the top of the skull.

The inter-mastoid arch is measured, with a graduated tape, from the point of one mastoid process to the other, over the external table of the skull.

The inter-mastoid line is the distance, in a straight line, between the points of the mastoid processes.

The occipito-frontal arch is measured by a tape over the surface of the cranium, from the posterior margin of the foramen magnum to the suture which connects the os frontis with the bones of the nose.

The horizontal periphery is measured by passing a tape around the cranium so as to touch the os frontis immediately above the superciliary ridges, and the most prominent part of the occipital bone.

The length of the head and face is measured from the margin of the upper jaw, to the most distant point of the occiput.

The zygomatic diameter is the distance, in a right line, between the most prominent points of the zygomæ.

The facial angle [“first proposed by the learned Professor Camper”] is ascertained by an instrument of ingenious construction and ready application, which has received so many additions from the suggestions of different individuals, that its invention cannot be ascribed to any one person. . . .

The following diagram represents the instrument, which may be called the Facial Goniometer, as applied to a cranium for the purpose of measurement.

The facial goniometer, p. 252.

The letters A, A, A represent the rectangular basal limbs of the instrument, (which is made of brass,) the front limb sliding at B, so as to increase or diminish the distance between the right and left limbs. In order to fix the goniometer to a skull, there is attached to each of the lateral limbs a slide with a conical pivot attached, C, which enters the meatus of the ear. The limb D, D, is attached by a hinge to the base, and can be brought to form any angle with it. G is a scale of one hundred degrees, attached by a hinge at I, and let through the limb D, D, at H. E is a horizontal limb, at right angles with D, D, on which it slides at F. The thin piece of wood, K, K, has an opening at L, to admit the nasal bones to pass through it. Now this piece of wood necessarily touches the most prominent parts of the forehead and upper maxillary bone, and therefore represents the facial line. To measure the facial angle, bring the upper surface of the anterior basal limb of the instrument on a horizontal plane with the nasal spine; then let the limb D, D, fall back until the lateral limb E, touches the facial line K, K, when the facial angle will be at once designated on the scale. . . . With this apparatus the facial angle of any skull may be ascertained with exactness in the brief space of two or three minutes.

Internal capacity.—An ingenious mode of taking this measurement was devised by Mr. Phillips, viz: a tin cylinder was provided about two inches and three-fourths in diameter, and two feet two inches high, standing on a foot, and banded with swelled hoops about two inches apart, and firmly soldered, to prevent accidental flattening.—A glass tube hermetically sealed at one end, was cut off so as to hold exactly five cubic inches of water by weight, at 60° Fahrenheit. A float of light wood, well varnished, two and a quarter inches in diameter, with a slender rod of the same material fixed in its centre, was dropped into the tin cylinder; then five cubic inches of water, measured in the glass tube, were poured into the cylinder, and the point at which the rod on the float stood above the top of the cylinder, was marked with the edge of a file laid across its top; and the successive graduations on the float-rod, indicating five cubic inches each, were obtained by pouring five cubic inches from the glass tube gradatim, and marking each rise on the float-rod. The graduations thus ascertained, were transferred to a mahogany rod fitted with a flat foot, and these subdivided, with compasses for the cubic inches and parts. In order to measure the capacity of a cranium, the foramina were first stopped with cotton, and the cavity was then filled with white pepper seed poured into the foramen magnum until it reached the surface, and pressed down with the finger until the skull would receive no more. The contents were then transferred to the tin cylinder, which was well shaken in order to pack the seed. The mahogany rod being then dropped down with its foot resting on the seed, the capacity of the cranium in cubic inches is at once read off on it.

Nearly all the preceding measurements were taken with my own hands. (249-53)

Following the “Table of Anatomical Measurements” of several hundred skulls, Morton adds this note:

Races table
NOTE: On the Internal Capacity of the Cranium in the different Races of Man.—Having subjected the skulls in my possession, and such also as I could obtain from my friends, to the internal capacity measurements already described. I have obtained the following results. The mean of the American Race, (omitting the fraction) is repeated here merely to complete the Table. The skulls of idiots and persons under age were of course rejected. (260)

“Phrenological Remarks on the relation between the natural Talents and Dispositions of Nations, and the Developments of their Brains”



Phrenological Remarks on the relation between the natural Talents and Dispositions of Nations, and the Developments of their Brains.

No object can be presented to the philosophic mind more replete with interest than an inquiry into the causes of the differences of national character. If the causes be natural, do they originate in the organisation of the body, in the development of the brain, in the influence of climate, or on what other physical agents do they depend? If the differences result solely from moral and political circumstances, it is important to trace their nature and modes of operation. . . .

When we regard the different quarters of the globe, we are struck with the extreme dissimilarity in the attainments of the varieties of men who inhabit them. If we glance over the history of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, we shall find distinct and permanent features of character which strongly indicate natural differences in their mental constitutions. The inhabitants of Europe, belonging to the Caucasian variety of mankind, have manifested, in all ages, a strong tendency towards moral and intellectual improvement. As far back as history reaches, we find society instituted, arts practised, and literature taking root, not only in intervals of tranquillity, but amidst the alarms of war. Before the foundation of Rome, the Etruscans had established civilisation and the arts in Italy. Under the Greek and Roman empires, philosophy, literature, and the fine arts were sedulously and successfully cultivated; and that portion of the people whose wealth enabled them to pay for education, attained a high degree of intelligence and refinement. . . .

When we turn our attention to Asia, we perceive manners and institutions which belong to a period too remote to be ascertained, and yet far inferior to the European standard. The people of Asia early arrived at a point comparatively low in the scale of improvement, beyond which they have never passed.

The history of Africa, so far as Africa can be said to have a history, presents similar phenomena. The annals of the races who have inhabited that continent, with few exceptions, exhibit one unbroken scene of moral and intellectual desolation; and in a quarter of the globe embracing the greatest varieties of soil and climate, no nation is at this day to be found whose institutions indicate even moderate civilisation. Some of the African tribes, however, have advanced beyond the savage condition. They have cities, rude manufactures, agriculture, commerce, government and laws; and in these respects they greatly excel several of the tribes of native Americans, who have continued wandering savages from the beginning to the end of their existence.

The aspect of America is still more deplorable than that of Africa. Surrounded for centuries by European knowledge, enterprise, and energy, and incited to improvement by the example of European institutions, many of the natives of that continent remain, at the present time, the same miserable, wandering, houseless and lawless savages as their ancestors were, when Columbus first set foot upon their soil. (268-72)

If we suppose one nation to be gifted with much wonder and veneration, and little conscientiousness, reflection and self-esteem; and another to possess an endowment exactly the reverse; it is obvious that the first would be naturally prone to superstition in religion, and servility in the state; while the second would, by native instinct, resist all attempts to make them reverence things unholy, and tend constantly towards political institutions, fitted to afford to each individual the gratification of his self-esteem in independence, and his conscientiousness in equality before the law. Those who contend that institutions came first, and that character follows as their effect, are bound to assign a cause for the institutions themselves. If they do not spring from the native mind, and are not forced on the people by conquest, it is difficult to see whence they can originate.

The phrenologist is not satisfied with these common theories of national character; he has observed that a particular size and form of brain is the invariable concomitant of particular dispositions and talents, and that this fact holds good in the case of nations as well as of individuals.

If this view be correct, a knowledge of the size of the brain, and the proportions of its different parts, in the different varieties of the human race, will be the key to a correct appreciation of the differences in their natural mental endowments, on which external circumstances act only as modifying influences. Such, accordingly, is the light in which I regard this great subject. If the size of the brain and the proportions of its different parts be the index to natural national character, the present work, which represents with great fidelity the skulls of the American tribes, will be an authentic record in which the philosopher may read the native aptitudes, dispositions and mental force of these families of mankind. If this doctrine be unfounded, these skulls are mere facts in Natural History, presenting no particular information as to the mental qualities of the people. (274-75)

I, therefore, state the following deductions, not as ascertained scientific results, but as those to which I have been led by such facts as have hitherto fallen under my observation. 1.The independence of any tribe or nation, that is to say its freedom from foreign yoke, is the result of a large development of the organs of self-esteem, firmness, and combativeness or destructiveness, in the majority of the people.

Independence of a foreign yoke may be achieved, firstly, by submitting to extermination in preference to subjection; or secondly, by successful self-defense.

The former . . . is the result of a combination in which the organs of self-esteem, firmness, combativeness, and destructiveness are plus, and the moral and intellectual organs minus; and the aggregate size of the whole brain is minus, in the nation which is exterminated, compared with that of the nation which attacks it. (282)

C. Loring Brace, “Race” is a Four-Letter Word: The Genesis of the Concept (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). 

Neil Davie, “Mapping the Racial Other: Phrenology, Race and Colonial Discourse in Britain, c.1810-1850.” Published in French as “Garder le race en tête: Phrénologie, race, et discourse Colonial en Grand-Bretagne, c. 1810-1850,” in Michel Prum, ed., Racialisations dans l’aire anglophgone (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2012): 17-49. 

Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996; orig. pub., 1981), 62-104. 

Aleš Hrdlička, “Physical Anthropology in America: An Historical Sketch,” American Anthropologist, New Series, 16 (Oct.-Dec. 1914) 4: 508-54. At:

John S. Michael, “A New Look at Morton’s Craniological Research.” Current Anthropology 29 (1998) 2: 349-54. 

Paul Wolff Mitchell, “The fault in his seeds: Lost notes to the case of bias in Samuel George Morton’s cranial race science,” PLoS Biology 16 (10): e2007008. At: Pub. 2018. 

Henry Stuart Patterson, Memoir of the Life and Scientific Labors of Samuel George Morton, in J. C. Nott and Geo. R. Gliddon, Types of Mankind: Ethnological Researches Based upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races, sixth edition (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1854), xvii—lvii.  

Penn Museum, Morton Cranial Collection, “Biography”:

William Stanton, The Leopard’s Spots: Scientific Attitudes toward Race in America 1815-59 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1960). 

Nancy Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain 1800-1960 (Houndsmills: Macmillan, 1982), 20-46. 

E. B. Tylor, Anthropology, an Introduction to the Study of Man and Civilization (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996; orig. pub., 1881).