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The sciences of human difference

Broca-type goniometer for measuring the angles of the face, France, 1865-1875

Broca-type goniometer for measuring the angles of the face, France, 1865-1875

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During the 1800s, European medical practitioners focused on establishing what normal body functions were. Scientists also developed new theories, techniques and technologies to measure and explain differences between individuals and populations. These were intended to determine how physical attributes might predict mental and psychological characteristics, in particular differences between ‘races’. This was influenced by the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. A now-discredited range of practices used scientific arguments to try and legitimise European superiority and colonisation.


The rise of physical anthropology

The influence of Paul Broca linked anthropology and comparative anatomy. In the second half of the 1800s, physical anthropology became a new scientific discipline. It used measurements made either directly on living bodies or on the bones of the dead. New instruments were needed, and practices standardised. Also, vast amounts of data were collected to create an index of physical appearance and capacities in different groups, and determine their place on the evolutionary ‘ladder’.

Measurements focused on the head. The skull’s size and shape was thought to determine intellectual and ‘moral’ capacity. Other studies also used physiological measurements of muscular strength, pain perception and reaction times. Data collected were interpreted to show brain size, intelligence and ‘morality’ were highest among Europeans. Assumptions about European superiority meant researchers interpreted discoveries in terms of what they believed to be true.


Criminal anthropology, legal psychiatry and forensic medicine all assessed the body for signs of its interior state. Criminal tendencies were linked with inferior evolutionary status. Anthropometry, the science of measuring human difference, was developed by Alphonse Bertillon, a French policeman looking for a way to identify criminals. In Italy, Cesare Lombroso developed ideas about criminology based on physical signs, including facial features, body type and tattoos.

Eugenics and ‘improving’ the population

In the second half of the 1800s, scientists were concerned about the future of the human population. These concerns included evolution and inheritance, the apparent growth of asylum and prison populations, public health problems in industrial cities, and unchecked population growth. Scientists worried the European ‘races’ were degenerating - slipping back to an earlier stage of evolution. In 1883, Francis Galton argued for a system of eugenics. He wanted people with ‘superior’ attributes to have children, while those with ‘negative’ attributes to be discouraged or prevented from reproducing. Early birth control campaigners, such as Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger, embraced eugenics. Eugenic ideas were popular in many countries as a way of ‘improving’ the population. In some cases this meant improving the living conditions and health of the poor.


Sterilisation of the ‘unfit’ to reproduce occurred in Europe and North and South America in the 1920s and 1930s. Mentally and physically disabled people were targeted. Sterilisations were legal, supported by government policy and run by qualified physicians. In Nazi Germany this expanded to include euthanasia - the medically justified extermination of those with mental or physical ‘disabilities’, which included ‘conditions’ such as homosexuality and old age. The horrors of such extremity led to eugenics being rejected after the Second World War. However, sterilisation of severely disabled people continued into the 1970s. It still occasionally takes place today. Sterilisation as a form of contraception for young women with mental health problems is a subject of ongoing debate.

The end of eugenics?

Eugenics has been discredited, but some of its ideas have reappeared at different times. Debates about different human potential continued throughout the 20th century. These focused on intellectual and psychological differences rather than physical ones. Today some disability activists argue techniques such as prenatal screening and still show that some lives are seen as more valuable than others.


L Schiebinger, ‘The Anatomy of Difference: Race and Sex in Eighteenth-Century Science’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, (23/4, 1990), pp 387-405

N L Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain 1800-1960 (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1982)

E Barkan, The Retreat of Scientific Racism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)

DJ Kevles, In The Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Hereditary (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995)

W Anderson, Cultivating Whiteness: Science, Health and Racial Destiny in Australia (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002)

G Stocking Jr, Race, Culture and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982)


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