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The Influence of Phrenology on Modern Science


Phrenology has been a subject of heated debate among criminologists, psychologists, and sociologists for more than two centuries. This theory is based on the belief that the personal qualities of a human being can be deciphered from the shape of his or her cranium (Hanen et al, 1980, p. 171). In the nineteenth century, phrenology was regarded as a part of criminological science and its conjectures could be used as evidence. Naturally, they were not conclusive but some people paid attention to them while making their decisions about the suspects accused of legal offenses. Now it is usually considered to be a pseudoscience. The ideas expressed by phrenologists are discredited; moreover, they are usually believed to be dangerous for modern society as they can possibly contribute to racism and profiling. However, there is another side of the argument: some scholars suggest that this discipline immensely contributed to our understanding of the human brain even despite its follies (Simpson, 2005). In this paper, we intend to discuss the origins of phrenology, its major premises, and the methods which were employed. Furthermore, it is necessary to examine its influence on modern scientific thought. Were there any rational points in the beliefs of phrenologists, and if so, are they of any help today?

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Origins of phrenology

It should be pointed out that this theory was very popular in many European countries and the United States. This popularity can be explained by several reasons. First, we should mention Charles Darwins theory of natural selection. By identifying similarities in the bodies of various species he marked out the phases of an evolutionary process. However, this subsequently gave rise to the so-called social Darwinism. In part, this philosophical school advocates the opinion that different people or groups may be at different stages of evolution. This hypothesis also suggests that some individuals may have a propensity to crime or violence only because they have subhuman intelligence (Hawkins, 1997, p. 275). This opinion was widespread among many scholars at that time therefore phrenology was met with approval by some biologists, criminologists, etc. Apart from that, we should not overlook the political and cultural situation, which emerged during that period. Many Western-European states pursued colonial policies in Africa and Asia. Social Darwinism and its offshoot phrenology were very convenient for many superpowers because with their help it was possible to call aboriginal nations “underdeveloped”. To some, this justified conquering many regions and nations of the world (Gould, 1981 p. 115). The same rule can be applied to the US, where some people validated the enslavement of African-Americans by arguing that they did not belong to Homo sapiens. Of course, now these misconceptions are refuted but then they were very deep-rooted in public opinion. Thus, we can argue that the rise of phrenology was due to several scientific and non-scientific factors.

The major principles of this hypothesis were formulated by France Gall who dedicated several works to the study of deviation, crime, behavior, and the connection between the shape of the skull and the character of a person (Ferri, 2009, p. 7). At present they are not treated seriously and no longer belong to the domain of psychology, anthropology, or any other science. However, when this authors works were published they were received as some breakthrough. Along with France Gall, we may as well remember George Combe, Paul Bouts, David George and many others. The range of their interest was rather diverse, ranging from anthropological studies to the theory of education.

Major Premises and Techniques

Now we need to describe the major assumptions of phrenology and the techniques for gathering and analyzing information. In the introduction, we have outlined that these people deemed the study of the human skull to be useful for exploring the inner world of an individual. Yet, such interpretation narrows down and oversimplifies phrenological analysis. According to the adherents of this theory, each part of the human brain fulfills certain functions; it is responsible for instincts and behavioral patterns. They did not give any classification of these psychological notions. For example, they spoke about the instinct of self-preservation, love, inclination to violence, cruelty, envy and so forth (Comber, 1850). Most importantly they stated that these sections or parts of the brain were not equally developed in people and during the span of life some of them could become either weaker or stronger (Tailor, 1998, p. 27). In their opinion, this affected peoples moral values, intelligence quotient, the level of social responsibility, and many other parameters by which we can judge the person. To crown it all, phrenologists claimed that the structure of the cranium showed which of the sections is developed to the greatest extent. Their research was carried out in several directions such as the differences between sexes, races, age groups, etc. But its major application was criminological science. By examining the cranium they strived to find a correlation between the brain and the conduct. At the core, their efforts were erroneous and led to no conclusion. The main fallacy of phrenologists lied in the following: they tried to adjust facts and observations to their theory and ignored those aspects that contradicted the initial hypothesis. With regard to criminological and forensic disciplines, we can say that phrenology immensely contributed to stereotyping. In other words, legal prosecutors could attach importance to their findings but they only distorted the case instead of solving it. Occasionally if not always their arguments were extremely populist: while describing the skull of the alleged crimes they tried to compare it to that one of an ape or even of another animal (Stocking, 1987, p. 69). Actually, this disciple even despite its scientific status involved a great deal of artistic imagination. The most dangerous outcome was that an individual could be labeled as “criminal type” even if he or she had not done anything illegal. The perils of such an approach became obvious in the nineteenth century and it was heavily criticized by many distinguished scholars. One of them was Emile Durkheim who said that deviational or criminal behavior is mostly motivated by social conditions rather than heredity and genes. Those who were interested in the functioning of the brain noticed striking conflicting data, collected by phrenologists, who were firmly convinced that the brain was constituted by various sections or compartments, which were relatively independent of each other and did not interact in any way. This conjecture was fully disproved only at the beginning of the twentieth century. On the whole, most of their assumptions turned out to be fallacious.

Influences on modern scientific thought

It is rather difficult to assess phrenology from a modern perspective. It goes without saying in many aspects this science was based on stereotypes and misconceptions. This theory has received the status of pseudoscience but in spite of all these drawbacks, it was conducive to the development of neuroscience, especially given the fact that there was practically no study of the human brain before phrenology, and at that point, it was a great breakthrough. This is why present-day scientists should not dismiss it in such a contemptuous manner. Phrenological research also gave rise to such a concept as the topography of the brain. They illustrated that it is not homogeneous in its structure, and this was of great assistance to further generations of psychologists (Simpson, 2005, p. 475). Perhaps, phrenology should be discussed as a link in the evolution of scientific thought. The ideas of many famous scholars and philosophers have been recently criticized or discredited but their importance may not be underestimated.

However, we have to acknowledge that phrenology produced many detrimental effects from both scientific and ethical standpoints. For example, we may remember racial profiling (Gould, 1981). This phenomenon still can be observed in many countries, and in some way, it stems from studies of France Gall, George Combe and their followers, who emphasized hereditary qualities of deviational behavior. Partly, this is the reason why the representatives of some nations or ethnic groups are falsely considered to be potentially dangerous and prone to crime. Undoubtedly, police officers or any other officials never admit that they adhere to this principle, however, many cases are demonstrating that the tenets of social Darwinism and phrenology still exist in modern society.

In a much broader sense, phrenology promoted the study of heredity. This discipline examined correlations between mind and body and later this question was raised by geneticists. One cannot state with certainty whether this impact was positive or negative. On the one hand, genetics enables the identification of the causes of many diseases, and this is of great avail medicine. However, there is another rather controversial side of this issue. Many geneticists maintain that some personal traits may be passed from one generation to another. The role of genes in the formation of character has been briskly discussed by many scientists. Similar suppositions have been advanced concerning the moral development of a person (Cummings, 2008, p. 55).

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Some researchers have been conducted in the field of intelligence and IQ. It seems that this approach is somewhat biased: even if there is a connection between the genes and behavior, we should not presume that genes are the most crucial determinant because there are many social factors (the level of education, financial status, impact of parents) which may shape human character and genetic studies seem to ignore them. They share a common mistake with phrenologists by forgetting that Homo Sapiens is a social creature, his or her actions (either legal or illegal) may be motivated by external environment: upbringing, family, school, friends and so forth. In addition to that, their claims contradict the theory of education, according to which, mental capacities (such as talents, intelligence, erudition), as well as moral qualities, may be changed in the course of learning and training. One cannot be born criminal, as a rule, one becomes a criminal. It is quite noticeable that the errors of phrenology have not vanished entirely and some false assumptions enjoy popularity. This shows that the influence of this nineteenth-century theory is still immense.


In this paper, we have tried to describe the development of scientific thought. Phrenology is only one of its stages. This theory arose out of social Darwinism and colonial policies. Although it has been so heavily criticized, some of its premises were productive to neuroscience and genetics. But phrenology also gave rise to the belief that the character of a human being might be formed by the heredity or bloodline, and this view seems to be very perilous and destructive.


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