Unconscious Bias is One Thing, Premeditated Another

Scott Deshefy


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Comparative examination of skulls, performed by anatomist artists Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Durer and Anders Vesalius became pseudo-science in the 19th century. Paul Broca (1824-80) compared skulls of men and other animals; Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1822) invented phrenology; and Samuel Morton (1799-1851) measured hundreds of human skulls, making erroneous judgments about cranial size, race and intelligence in Crania Americana. Prejudicial fallout lingered for decades. The 1800s not only saw America’s foremost expansion of slavery, but also rapid infusions of racial and ethnic minorities. To suppress them, especially newly ascendant African-Americans post-Civil War, Morton’s craniometric exercises built illusory ladders on which Caucasians assumed top rungs, false generalizations from which U.S. and Nazi eugenics doctrines evolved. Exploration of cranial capacities among races and ethnic groups to determine intelligence hierarchies already smacked of “reification fallacy” (something abstract regarded as real or material enough to quantify) before Stephen J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (1981) permanently laid it to rest. Gould reanalyzed Morton’s data and discovered prima facie evidence of unconscious racial bias. Morton, a well-regarded Philadelphia doc, originally filled his specimens with pepper seeds to calculate cranial volumes, but switched technique to BB shot in later work. Morton made the switch because seeds were light, variable in size and easily compacted, making measurements less reproducible and suspect. Gould, after tabulating and reanalyzing Morton’s data, was struck by systemic differences between both sets of analyses. Africans’ skulls had much larger increases in mean cranial capacity with shot than White Americans. Gould contended Morton distorted original measurements for Caucasian skulls by unconsciously cramming and compressing more seeds with which he filled them, supporting preconceptions.

Unconscious bias is one thing, premeditated another. The so-called 1776 Commission, designed to promote “patriotic education” by downplaying discrimination and injustice in America’s past was anything but patriotic. Disbanded by President Biden his first day in office, Trump’s oxymoronic brainchild was the kind of Goebbellsian propaganda, filled with superlatives, which serves to exaggerate national grandeur by excluding facts. Ample reasons exist to be proud of being an American without eliminating historical missteps and errors from classroom discussions, praise-worthy in themselves. Patriotism should begin with acknowledging and teaching the truth and behaving in accordance with evidence, not some alternate reality constructed by radical conservatives to minimize crises and obfuscate science, solutions and proof. Refusals to wear masks, get vaccinated and take actions against climate change are consequences of purposeful disinformation foisted on the public, the way MAGA’s narratives are rooted in nonexistent paradises lost. Indoctrination (i.e. brainwashing) programs, cherry-picking America’s past, show battles over human differences and myths of racial exceptionalism persist. Centuries of dividing us into discrete groups perpetuated the lie that some populations are naturally better, and therefore zoologically licensed, to exploit others, human and not. Those of us trained in biological sciences have a responsibility to emphasize the commonality of Homosapiens, how we’re genetically more alike than other primates and individual dissimilarities supersede group phenotypes. When presented in honest, unedited historical context, race is a product of social parameters such as economics, access to healthcare, diet, geography and exposures to environmental impacts. Thusly, America’s history of oppression and subjugation, driven by false notions of ethnic and racial superiority, should be requisite in future generations’ curricula. Omissions constrict us as a nation. The 1776 Report, panned by historians, would have warped the kind of scholarship that ended eugenics, debunked fallacies about women’s bodies and minds, and advanced environmentalism and civil and nonhuman animal rights. Released on Martin Luther King Day, after banning federal diversity training, it was a deliberate attempt to undermine the 1619 Project and dissolve the bonds of U.S. citizenship, ashes of a dangerous presidency best scattered to the winds.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.