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I Am Not A Phrenologist

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Charles Darwin

Denis Noble

JP Rushton

Richard Lynn

L:inda Gottfredson



1500 words

People seem to be confused on the definition of the term ‘phrenology’. Many people think that just the measuring of skulls can be called ‘phrenology’. This is a very confused view to hold.

Phrenology is the study of the shape and size of the skull and then drawing conclusions from one’s character from bumps on the skull (Simpson, 2005) to overall different-sized areas of the brain compared to others then drawing on one’s character and psychology from these measures. Franz Gall—the father of phrenology—believed that by measuring one’s skull and the bumps etc on it, then he could make accurate predictions about their character and mental psychology. Gall had also proposed a theory of mind and brain (Eling, Finger, and Whitaker, 2017). The usefulness of phrenology aside, the creator Gall contributed a significant understanding to our study of the brain, being that he was a neuroanatomist and physiologist.

Gall’s views on the brain can be seen here (read this letter where he espouses his views here):

1.The brain is the organ of the mind.
2. The mind is composed of multiple, distinct, innate faculties.
3. Because they are distinct, each faculty must have a separate seat or “organ” in the brain.
4. The size of an organ, other things being equal, is a measure of its power.
5. The shape of the brain is determined by the development of the various organs.
6. As the skull takes its shape from the brain, the surface of the skull can be read as an accurate index of psychological aptitudes and tendencies.

Gall’s work, though, was imperative to our understanding of the brain and he was a pioneer in the inner workings of the brain. They ‘phrenologized’ by running the tips of their fingers or their hands along the top of one’s head (Gall liked using his palms). Here is an account of one individual reminiscing on this (around 1870):

The fellow proceeded to measure my head from the forehead to the back, and from one ear to the other, and then he pressed his hands upon the protuberances carefully and called them by name. He felt my pulse, looked carefully at my complexion and defined it, and then retired to make his calculations in order to reveal my destiny. I awaited his return with some anxiety, for I really attached some importance to what his statement would be; for I had been told that he had great success in that sort of work and that his conclusion would be valuable to me. Directly he returned with a piece of paper in his hand, and his statement was short. It was to the effect that my head was of the tenth magnitude with phyloprogenitiveness morbidly developed; that the essential faculties of mentality were singularly deficient; that my contour antagonized all the established rules of phrenology, and that upon the whole I was better adapted to the quietude of rural life rather than to the habit of letters. Then the boys clapped their hands and laughed lustily, but there was nothing of laughter in it for me. In fact, I took seriously what Rutherford had said and thought the fellow meant it all. He showed me a phrenological bust, with the faculties all located and labeled, representing a perfect human head, and mine did not look like that one. I had never dreamed that the size or shape of the head had anything to do with a boy’s endowments or his ability to accomplish results, to say nothing of his quality and texture of brain matter. I went to my shack rather dejected. I took a small hand- mirror and looked carefully at my head, ran my hands over it and realized that it did not resemble, in any sense, the bust that I had observed. The more I thought of the affair the worse I felt. If my head was defective there was no remedy, and what could I do? The next day I quietly went to the library and carefully looked at the heads of pictures of Webster, Clay, Calhoun, Napoleon, Alexander Stephens and various other great men. Their pictures were all there in histories.

This—what I would call skull/brain-size fetishizing—is still evident today, with people thinking that raw size matters (Rushton and Ankney, 2007; Rushton and Ankney, 2009) for cognitive ability, though I have compiled numerous data that shows that we can have smaller brains and have IQs in the normal range, implying that large brains are not needed for high IQs (Skoyles, 1999). It is also one of Deacon’s (1990) fallacies, the “bigger-is-smarter” fallacy. Just because you observe skull sizes, brain size differences, structural brain differences, etc, does not mean you’re a phrenologist. you’re making easy and verifiable claims, not like some of the outrageous claims made by phrenologists.

What did they get right? Well, phrenologists stated that the most-used part of the brain would become bigger, which, of course, was vindicated by modern research—specifically in London cab drivers (McGuire, Frackowiak, and Frith, 1997; Woolett and McGuire, 2011).

It seems that phrenologists got a few things right but their theories were largely wrong. Though those who bash the ‘science’ of phrenology should realize that phrenology was one of the first brain ‘sciences’ and so I believe phrenology should at least get some respect since it furthered our understanding of the brain and some phrenologists were kind of right.

People see the avatar I use which is three skulls, one Mongoloid, the other Negroid and the other Caucasoid and then automatically make that leap that I’m a phrenologist based just on that picture. Even, to these people, stating that races/individuals/ethnies have different skull and brain sizes caused them to state that what I was saying is phrenology. No, it isn’t. Words have definitions. Just because you observe size differences between brains of, say either individuals or ethnies, doesn’t mean that you’re making any value judgments on the character/mental aptitude of that individual based on the size of theur skull/brain. On the other hand, noting structural differences between brains like saying “the PFC is larger here but the OFC is larger in this brain than in that brain” yet no one is saying that and if that’s what you grasp from just the statement that individuals and groups have different sized skulls, brains, and parts of the brain then I don’t know what to tell you. Stating that one brain weighs more than another, say one is 1200 g and another is 1400 g is not phrenology. Stating that one brain is 1450 cc while another is 1000 cc is not phrenology. For it to be phrenology I have to outright state that differences in the size of certain areas of the brain or brains as a whole cause differences in character/mental faculties. I am not saying that.

A team of neuroscientists just recently (recently as in last month, January, 2018) showed, in the “most exhaustive way possible“, tested the claims from phrenological ‘research’ “that measuring the contour of the head provides a reliable method for inferring mental capacities” and concluded that there was “no evidence for this claim” (Jones, Alfaro-Almagro, and Jbabdi, 2018). That settles it. The ‘science’ is dead.

It’s so simple: you notice physical differences in brain size between two corpses. That one’s PFC was bigger than OFC and with the other, his OFC was bigger than his PFC. That’s it. I guess, using this logic, neuroanatomists would be considered phrenologists today since they note size differences between individual parts of brains. Just noting these differences doesn’t make any type of judgments on potential between brains of individuals with different size/overall size/bumps etc.

It is ridiculous to accuse someone of being a ‘phrenologist’ in 2018. And while the study of skull/brain sizes back in the 17th century did pave the way for modern neuroscience and while they did get a few things right, they were largely wrong. No, you cannot see one’s character from feeling the bumps on their skull. I understand the logic and, back then, it would have made a lot of sense. But to claim that one is a phrenologist or is pushing phrenology just because they notice physical differences that are empirically verifiable does not make them a phrenologist.

In sum, studying physical differences is interesting and tells us a lot about our past and maybe even our future. Stating that one is a phrenologist because they observe and accept physical differences in the size of the brain, skull, and neuroanatomic regions is like saying that physical anthropologists and forensic scientists are phrenologists because they measure people’s skulls to ascertain certain things that may be known in their medical history. Chastizing someone because they tell you that one has a different brain size than the other by calling them outdated names in an attempt to discredit them doesn’t make sense. It seems that even some people cannot accept physical differences that are measurable again and again because it may go against some long-held belief.



  1. ron burgundy says:

    you mentioned you were in an argument with hbd chick or someone regarding the effects of moderate alcohol intake. here’s another arrow in your quiver if you haven’t heard it already.

    Drinking a couple glasses of wine a day helps keep your brain spick and span.

    So say University of Rochester researchers who exposed mice to the equivalent of two glasses of red or white wine, or 1.5 pints of beer, a day.

    Compared to teetotaling lab animals, the boozy subjects more efficiently flushed waste products linked with dementia and Alzheimer’s from their brains…

    In this case, low doses of alcohol aid the glymphatic system, which Nedergaard and her colleagues first noted in 2012.


    • RaceRealist says:

      Thanks. More evidence. I was arguing with Tara Mccarthy. Low-hanging fruit, I know. Moderate drinking is fine and doesn’t decrease lifespan. I’m sure like with this study there are a lot more benefits to moderate alcohol consumption.


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