Assassins vs Men of Note: the old pseudoscience of phrenology

Mar 07 2011 Published by under Basic Science Posts

I thought that I had wavy hair
Until I shaved. Instead,
I find that I have STRAIGHT hair
And a very wavy head.

-Shel Silverstein

The poem above is something I think of whenever I think of phrenology (also it's just awesome, because Shel Silverstein is always awesome). Phrenology was (and is!) a pseudoscientific practice that was most popular for about 30 years between 1810 and 1840. It's always held some interest for me, because it seems like the inventors got SO CLOSE to getting stuff RIGHT, and then they just veered off in the wrong direction and went off the deep end and took the express train to crazytown. And today's paper is one shining example.

"Comparison of the Skulls of Assassins and Men of Note" Science, 1885.

Also, today's paper comes to you courtesy of Dr. Skyskull, who sent it along to Sci, knowing she'd get amusement out of it. YAY.

Phrenology was an idea begun by Franz Joseph Gall, a German physician. He started with an idea that was pretty good, actually. He posited that the brain is the origin of all mental activity (not wrong there), and that certain PARTS of the brain were responsible for particular mental functions (quite right there, and good going!). And then he posited that asymmetries in the parts of the brain responsible for mental function were indicators of personality (um...not really), and that this manifested itself as various sized lumps on your skull (wait...what?). And so, by measuring the bumps on your skull, he could determine what your personality was like. And then he got into a scheme kind of like the underpants gnomes.

1) Formulate phrenology
2) Go around measuring people's heads.
3) ...
4) Profit.

Gall produced an entire map of what the various areas on your head indicated (my favorite is the "firmness" represented by the donkey, and which they attempt to interpret positively as 'perserverance' but which probably meant 'stubborn as f***').

(Via Wikipedia)

The various areas were interpreted as the various 'brain organs', each with a different function, listed below (from The History of Psychology)

1. Amativeness - Sexual and connubial love
2. Philoprogenitiveness - Parental love
3. Adhesiveness - Friendship/sociability
A. Union for Life - Love of one only
4. Inhabitiveness - Love of home
5. Continuity - One Thing At a Time
6. Combativeness - Resistance/defence
7. Destructiveness - Executiveness/force
8. Alimentiveness - Appetite/hunger
9. Acquisitiveness - Accumulation
10. Secretiveness - Policy/Management
11. Cautiousness - Prudence/Provision
12. Approbativeness - Ambition/display
13. Self-Esteem - Self-respect/dignity
14. Firmness - Decision/perserverance
15. Conscientiousness - Justice/equity
16. Hope - Expectation/emterprise
17. Spirituality - Intuition/spiritual revery
18. Veneration - Devotion/respect
19. Benevolence - Kindness/goodness
20. Constructiveness - Mechanical ingenuity
21. Ideality - Refinement/taste/purity
B. Sublimity - Love of grandeur
22. Imitation - Copying/patterning
23. Mirthfulness - Jocoseness/wit/fun
24. Indiviuality - Observation
25. Form - Recollection of shape
26. Size - Measuring of the eye
27. Weight - Balancing/climbing
28. Colour - Judging of colours
29. Order - Method/system/arrangement
30. Calculation - Mental arithmetic
31. Locality - Recollection of places
32. Eventually - Memory of facts
33. Time - Cognizance of duration
34. Tune, Music - Melody by ear
35. Language - Expression of ideas.
36. Causality - Applying causes to effects
37. Comparision - Inductive reasoning
C - Human Nature - Perception of motives
D - Agreeableness - Pleasantness/suavity

(The A, B, C, D were smaller areas. I do hope that my D is large because I'd love to be high in suavity).

There are obviously lots of problems with this. First off, the bumps on the skull and their meanings were entirely invented, and the amount they affected personality was entirely invented as well. When people's skulls didn't fit what Gall wanted, well, he threw out the skull. Or changed the meaning of the bump, or said it was an outlier or didn't count. You get the idea. Not particularly unbiased or replicable. Not only that, the analysis of people's heads was almost always done with someone people already KNEW. Like on criminals, or men of note, where you'd have a good reason to find particular differences in their skulls to back up what made these people..criminals or men of note. When analyzing people they DIDN'T know, phrenologists often relied on things like cold readings of people, analyzing what they were wearing, and how they behaved and reacted, to see if they were on the right track when reporting their findings. Not surprisingly, the scientific establishment rejected phrenology pretty quickly.

But many people still believed in the idea of phrenology, and there were many phrenologists who went around the US and Europe plying their trade. It was particularly popular for phrenologists to study the death masks and heads of executed criminals, in an effort to determine what lumpiness about their skulls made them particularly good at being bad.

This paper is one of those. In this case, the author (who isn't listed, sadly), took 55 heads of people who were assassins, and 44 heads of "men of note". No word on what made the men of note...of note, but we have to assume the assassins all had the same inclusion criteria. Using a "cephalometer of Anthelme" (which sounds to me like something out of Harry Potter, or maybe the Golden Compass), he measured the distance of all points of the heads from the center. I always picture a guy probing some other guy's head, but they used an instrument that looked like this:

using this rather scary looking device, the author looked at the curves from the front of the skull to the back, and compared the "men of note" against the assassins. Of course he reports differences, particularly stating that the assassins have lower "frontal rays". He then notes that this compares with the "savage race, the Neo-hebrides," who apparently also have lower "frontal rays" (does this mean they are all assassins? I figure that's probably not a good long-term societal survival structure).

So the "men of note" appeared to have bigger foreheads, and it also sounds like they had bigger lumps in the back of the brain over the occipital lobes as well. The areas he found to be larger of course corresponded to positive traits like "benevolence", "continuity", "gravity", and "logality".

But the author doesn't want to say that you can pick out a guy based on his head features and tell if he's a criminal:

This rule is not so infallible that
we can pick out men, and say this is a distinguished
man, this an ordinary man, and this a criminal, sim-
ply by the shape of the head;

But oh wait, yes, he does.

but it can be said that
seventy-five in a hundred learned men have the supe-
rior character, while at least ninety-five in a hundred
assassins have the inferior character.

I find several assumptions about this paper interesting. There's no argument that assassins are criminals. But there's also apparently no question that "men of note" must be GOOD PEOPLE. Off the top of my head, I can think of lots of men of note who aren't particularly good people. And what about a man of note who BECOMES an assassin? Does his skull change shape?

It's all bunk of course. There's probably nothing to do with the shape of an assassin's skull front to differentiate it from a man of note, or from anyone else for that matter. But people certainly believed it then.

Phrenology is one of those things that makes you wonder why people ever believed such nonsense (blood letting is another one of my favorites). But it's also interesting to contemplate what things we might do or believe in science NOW, that people may be laughing at 150 years later. What will be out? fMRI? PET? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? Viral vectors? Optogenetics? The Dopamine Theory? The Serotonin Theory? And what...will be in?

unknown (1885). COMPARISON OF THE SKULLS OF ASSASSINS AND MEN OF NOTE Science, ns-6 (129), 72-73 DOI: 10.1126/science.ns-6.129.72-a

9 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:


  • I love this kind of science history. Great paper find!

  • Bret says:

    Which goes well with Terry Pratchett's "Reverse Phrenology " - want to change your personality - go to a man with a hammer 🙂

  • FiSH says:

    I happened to run into a phrenology book from the 1880s in a used book store in New Hampshire about 20 years ago. It was actually a "self-help" guide to phrenology where you measured the bumps on your own head, filled in the blanks, and the book told you about yourself - the book was actually filled in.

  • T says:

    I've always loved phrenology and bloodletting, one of my favorite modern (semi)equivalents would have to be something that used to be a regular feature in the British version of Cosmo, penis reading. You would send in a picture and ask a question and the writer would "read" your significant other's penis and answer. It's closer to palm reading but still amazing and hilarious. I found it in about 9th grade and decided then and there I wanted to be a penis reader when I grew up.

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