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craniometry (craniology)

craniometer from George Combe’s " Elements of Phrenology" 2nd ed.  (1834). Image courtesy of  Dr. Peter Friesen, Plattsburgh State University

Craniometry is the measurement of cranial features in order to classify people according to race, criminal temperament, intelligence, etc. The underlying assumption of craniometry is that skull size and shape determine brain size which determines such things as intelligence and capacity for moral behavior. Empirical evidence for this assumption is not very strong. This fact has not hindered small-headed people from claiming they are members of a superior race or gender because the head size of their racial or gender group is larger on average than the head size of some other racial or gender group. As members of superior races and gender, these small-headed people reason that they, too, must be superior to all members of races inferior to their own and of all members of the other gender. In logic, this is called the fallacy of division: reasoning that what is true of the whole or group must also be true of the parts or members of the group.

In the 19th century, the British used craniometry to justify its racist policies toward the Irish and black Africans, whom the British considered to be inferior races. Irish skulls were said to have the shape of Cro-Magnon men and were akin to that of apes, proof of their inferiority along with black Africans. In France, Paul Broca demonstrated that women are  inferior to men because of their smaller crania. He argued against higher education for women because their small brains couldn't handle the demands.*

In the 20th century, the Nazis used craniometry and anthropometry to distinguish Aryans from non-Aryans. The Belgians used these pseudosciences, among other things, to distinguish Hutus from Tutsis in Rwanda. "In the 1930s the Belgians required everybody [in Rwanda] to start carrying an identity card classifying themselves as Hutu or Tutsi, thereby markedly increasing the ethnic distinction that had already existed" (Diamond 2005: 314).

"Forensic anthropologists believe that by taking some 90 measurements of a skull they can correctly assign its owner's continent of origin - broadly speaking, its race, though many anthropologists prefer not to use that term - with 80 percent accuracy" (Wade 2002).

Augustus Pitt Rivers (1827-1900)The first craniometer was invented by Augustus Pitt Rivers (1827-1900), an archaelogist. He invented the device to make exact measurements of human skulls.



See also anthropometry, IQ and race, and phrenology.

further reading

books and articles

Bolt, Christine. Victorian Attitudes to Race (Routledge and Kegan Paul, London and University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1971).

Bryson, Bill. 2010. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Doubleday.

Diamond, Jarred. 2005. Collapse - How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking.

Gould, Stephen J. "American Polygeny and Craniometry Before Darwin: Blacks and Indians as Separate, Inferior Species," in Harding, Racial Economy of Science, pp. 84-115.

Gould, Stephen J. The Mismeasure of Man (New York, Norton: 1981).

Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Wade, Nicholas. 2002. "A New Look at Old Data May Discredit a Theory on Race," New York Times, October 8.


Does Brain size matter? A Reply to Rushton and Ankney by Michael Peters

Racism (a study unit on the Nebraska Department of Education site)

The Great Starvation as Opportunistic Genocide By Seamus Metress Professor of Anthropology The University of Toledo

Last updated 20-Oct-2015

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