Rutgers Anthropologist Sets Record Straight on Brain Size and Race

Rutgers Anthropologist Sets Record Straight on Brain Size and Race

Jason Lewis’s research chosen in top 100 by Discover Magazine

Jason Lewis involved in archaeological field work in southeastern France.
Courtesy of Jason Lewis

Evolutionary anthropologist Jason Lewis was passionate about his life’s work even before he got started. He was just 13 when he picked up a book at a friend’s house detailing the 1974 discovery of the famous three million year old fossil – “Lucy” – that has become a landmark in the story of human evolution.

Over the next few years, Lewis, who comes from a blue-collar town in central Pennsylvania that became embroiled in a 2005 court battle to make creationism part of the biology curriculum, was set on learning all he could about ancient history and cultures, nature, science, and evolution.

As a high school student he began collecting replica ancient swords and then trained in medieval martial arts and jousting. In an upcoming National Geographic documentary, Warrior Graveyard: Samurai Massacre, which recreates the bloody Kamakura battle in medieval Japan, Lewis, who has researched cut marks on ancient bones, is featured as an expert on the types of swords used at the archaeological site.

“I knew from the first time I picked up that book as a kid that this is what I wanted to do,” says Lewis, a 29-year-old assistant instructor in the Department of Anthropology, Center for Human Evolutionary Studies, who has been recognized recently for resolving a famous scientific controversy focusing on manipulation, bias, and race. The outcome of his research was chosen as one of the top 100 science stories of 2011 by Discover Magazine.

Still, when Lewis started out as an 18-year-old undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, working in its Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology helping to curate ancient skulls, he never thought that he would debunk a notion accepted and taught by the academic community for the last 30 years: that 19th-century physical anthropologist Samuel Morton manipulated his research to prove that whites were smarter than blacks.

Morton’s data – based on the measurements of the more than 1,000 skulls that Lewis began researching as a first year student -- had been used by some at the time to justify racist claims of biological determinism which have since been discredited. In his 1981 internationally recognized book, The Mismeasure of Man (which was translated into 10 languages), Harvard paleontologist and writer Stephen J. Gould criticized Morton for being biased in his research on brain size and race and charged him with mismeasuring the skulls to support his personal racist beliefs.

Jason Lewis at the West Turkana archaeological project in western Kenya.

This premise stuck in the scientific community for three decades until Lewis, who was studying skull size in human evolution, spent eight years taking measurements and fact-checking with a team of anthropologists. He found that the measurements taken by Morton were accurate.

Morton, Lewis says, did find that Europeans had larger brains and Africans smaller. This occurs, he says, because humans living in colder regions are larger overall. However, Morton did not believe that brain size had anything to do with intelligence, Lewis says.

“Obviously it was right before the Civil War and there were a lot of racists,” says Lewis. “But in what we were able to read Morton was not pro-slavery but rather pro-emancipation. What we found was that Gould made an assumption. It was clearly guilt by association.”

Lewis, who received his doctorate degree from Stanford University and began at Rutgers last semester, teaches "Introduction to Archaeology" this semester and doesn’t have the opportunity to talk to his students about dispelling the controversial research with which his name is now associated. But the process it took in coming to this conclusion has strengthened his belief in the importance of having the information needed to make accurate judgments based on real data and not perceived bias.

“When we started this we didn’t have an agenda but we showed irrefutable evidence that something went wrong in Gould’s analysis,” Lewis says. “What we didn’t do – but what he did with Morton – was to take that extra step and say that Gould (who died in 2002) was biased or he did it intentionally. What students have to always remember is that if the scientific method is working correctly, something like this should never happen.”

Dorothy Hodgson, chair of the Department of Anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences, says Lewis’s research is important because it reminds the scientific community how critical it is to share data that allow such re-evaluations to be made.

“It is significant in recognizing that even the most famous scientists make mistakes,” says Hodgson. “We need to understand the data in its own terms, not through the prism of ideologies – whether racist or anti-racist.”