Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Bumps Make the Man

September 10th, 2009 · 4 Comments

BlackHawkPhrenologyStaying on yesterday’s Black Hawk theme, we found a major scientific curio related to the Sauk chief: an 1838 account of Black Hawk’s phrenological characteristics, published in the not-so-renowned American Phrenological Journal and Miscellany. We’re big lovers of old-time junk science, and this paper is chock full of such wrongheaded (though utterly sincere) treats. One of our favorite passages goes:

The superior-posterior part, or the back and upper portion, of the head, embraces the organs of Self-Esteem, Firmness, and Approbativeness. These organs, when large, or very large, give a great amount of character, ambition, and influence of some kind, varying according to their combination; but combined as they are in Black Hawk’s head, with very large organs of the animal propensities, they would give a warlike ambition, and a great love of independence and power.

Of course, we realize that some of our cherished scientific beliefs will be similarly lampooned 170 years hence. We wonder which ones…


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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Captured Shadow

    I vote for evolutionary psychology – at least its more sloppy forms, connecting today shopping to ancient man’s gathering – to be dumped in the next 170 years.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Good one. My candidate is behavioral genetics. I think the pendulum’s gonna swing back toward nurture at some point–or at least to a far more nuanced view of how much our genes really influence our inability to turn down that third of piece of chocolate cake.

  • Captured Shadow

    Inability to turn down chocolate cake is a good example of the old question of free will. One professor I had argued that both science and religion oppose free will, and that all is predestined or cases of action and reaction, but that people don’t want to accept that. I mean, it is really hard to believe that what you put in your mouth is not a matter of choice.

  • Jordan


    I think that one’s probably going to come out somewhere in the middle. For instance, the rate at which people will become addicted to gambling can be laid on biology to a significant degree. It’s more or less a co-option of the normal reward pathways for finding patterns. A little more or less dopamine in your brain will make a significant difference to how significantly the reward pathway is reinforced. That’s why so many Parkinson’s drugs can cause compulsive gambling.

    Of course the difficulty is that the interplay between the two is so strong that trying to disentangle one factor from the other in a rigorous fashion is really, really tough. I don’t envy the psychologists and their experimental designs.

    For a good exploration of the subject of choice, check out the Radio Lab episode of the same name. No definite conclusions, but plenty of neat ideas.