Beauty and the Brain: The Science of Human Nature in Early America
To be featured in a Mount Vernon Book Talk on May 18th, 2023.
Beauty and the Brain: The Science of Human Nature in Early America by Rachel E. Walker – Copyright November, 2022 - Hardcover, 288 pages - ISBN 9780226822563
Examining the history of phrenology and physiognomy, Beauty and the Brain proposes a bold new way of understanding the connection between science, politics, and popular culture in early America.
Between the 1770s and the 1860s, people all across the globe relied on physiognomy and phrenology to evaluate human worth. These once-popular but now discredited disciplines were based on a deceptively simple premise: that facial features or skull shape could reveal a person’s intelligence, character, and personality. In the United States, these were culturally ubiquitous sciences that both elite thinkers and ordinary people used to understand human nature.
While the modern world dismisses phrenology and physiognomy as silly and debunked disciplines, Beauty and the Brain shows why they must be taken seriously: they were the intellectual tools that a diverse group of Americans used to debate questions of race, gender, and social justice. While prominent intellectuals and political thinkers invoked these sciences to justify hierarchy, marginalized people and progressive activists deployed them for their own political aims, creatively interpreting human minds and bodies as they fought for racial justice and gender equality. Ultimately, though, physiognomy and phrenology were as dangerous as they were popular. In addition to validating the idea that external beauty was a sign of internal worth, these disciplines often appealed to the very people who were damaged by their prejudicial doctrines. In taking physiognomy and phrenology seriously, Beauty and the Brain recovers a vibrant—if largely forgotten—cultural and intellectual universe, showing how popular sciences shaped some of the greatest political debates of the American past.