At the outset of the nineteenth century in Britain, religious faith and the study of the sciences tended to exist in harmony with each other. The study of God’s Word, in the Bible, and His Works, in nature, were assumed to be two versions of the same ultimate truth. 1 When William Paley published Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity in 1802, he reinforced the concept of a designing God after positing that natural objects show evidence of design, emphasizing nature as God’s creation. 2
Paley compares the discovery of a rock, something most would not pay attention to in a meaningful way, with that of a watch. He argues that when one discovers a watch, they consider where it came from: when it was build, who created it, how did the hands move in the correct manner; these are all questions regarding design. Through his observation of the natural world, he asserted that “No animal, for instance, can have contrived its own limbs and senses; can have been the author to itself of the design with which they were constructed. “3
Paley’s work was well-received, even though, by the 1830’s, most Christians preferred to take God’s existence as an act of faith rather than seeking substantial proof. The Bridgewater Treatises (1833-36) showed how ‘natural theology’ could be adapted to fit new discoveries. 4 The last will and testament of Reverend Francis Henry, Earl of Bridgewater, was directly inspired by Paley’s Natural Theology, and it produced eight works by multiple authors “On the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation. “5 The Bridgewater treatises represented the state of safe, orthodox, science in early Victorian Britain.
It was this climate where the young Franz Joseph Gall, with the mind of a scientist, would grow to discover his fascination with the differences between himself and his siblings and classmates. 6 Gall believed that the brain was not necessary for life, but he also believed that nature creates nothing without a purpose, and hoped to discover exactly what purpose the brain served. 7 This would prove to be the spark that ignited the development of phrenology; the the study of the brain as an organ of the mind of a person. The separation of mind and brain was distinct then, and it is commonly still considered as such.
Gall pioneered the concept of the organs of the mind; he theorized that specific parts of the brain coincided with distinct functions, and that they had a physical manifestation; in his own words: my purpose is to ascertain the functions of the brain in general, and those of its different parts in particular; to show that it is possible to ascertain different dispositions and inclinations by the elevations and depressions upon the head… the head or cranium, the bony bog which contains the brain; and of this only those parts which are immediately in contact with it. 8 Gall posited that the size of a particular organ directly correlated to the power of the faculties to which it was related. 9 So, by experimenting with a set of cranium-measuring instruments to make a multitude of careful, systematic quantitative observations, he believed he could measure the mind of a person.
The basic tenants of his theory were: 1. The brain is the organ of the mind. 2. The mind is composed of multiple distinct, innate faculties. 3. Because they are distinct, each faculty must have a separate seat or “organ” in the brain. 4. The size of an organ, other things being equal, is a measure of its power. . The shape of the brain is determined by the development of the various organs. 6. As the skull takes its shape from the brain, the surface of the skull can be read as an accurate index of psychological aptitudes and tendencies. 10 In 1870, a prominant phrenologist by the name of Cornelius Donovan published A Handbook of Phrenology, which details how to ‘read a head with your hands, showcases the methods of phrenology in a clear and insightful way: The examiner manipulates, with his left hand, the four Organs, in succession, of the Domestic group(130)…
The forehead needs close inspection. First, the distance between the eyes should be noticed. All good draughtsmen in particular have a good space between the eyes. But width in this respect will not give the talent for drawing (132)… Then comes the work of measuring the head, first with a tape as to its circumference. A twenty-one inch adult male head holds a humble position. These small brains have no work in them.
They may be lively and active, and have all the appearance of efficiency, but they… oon wear out, and never live to old age… 13311 Gall’s tenants combined with a classical Greek tradition and reaffirmed the beliefs that nature was constituted by the four elements (earth, fire, air, water) and the four qualities (hot, cold, wet, and dry), and that the human body had four “essential” fluids: blood, phlegm, and yellow bile and black bile. 12 The combination of these determined the prevailing temperament, characterized by both “the fluid element and its physiological and physiognomical effects. 13 In phrenology, they became important considerations when measuring susceptibility to disease and character traits, as the four temperaments were believed to be “indicated by external signs. “14
While critics of Gall and his brand of science argued that they sought only confirmations while ignoring contradictions, which called his methodology into question, he still had many who agreed with his theories. 15 Gall’s main intent revolved around creating a physical science, but his close collaborator, Johann Spurzheim, was the motivator behind the spread of phrenology to the United States and throughout Europe. 6 On tour in Edinburgh, Spurzheim displayed a dissected brain that George Combe observed; and his belief in the merits of phrenology were confirmed. 17 Two months after Spurzheim left Edinburgh to continue his circuit, Combe published his first work on phrenology and urged his brother, Andrew, to meet with Spurzheim to study under him. The brothers found that “Spurzheim’s phrenology was a rationalist religion… ” to which they could convert. 18
Combe would become the most prolific British phrenologist of his time, and he and his brother moved on to establish The Phrenological Society of Edinburgh in February of 1820. 9 Although it was the first phrenological society, it had a notable following of “mostly of young middle-class professionals eager to join a scientific society, many of whom had been converted by Spurzheim personally. “20 In the 1830’s and 1840’s Combe used phrenology to espouse a rational and secular reform of education and society. 21 The establishment of his phrenological society only added to phrenology’s credibility as it included many of the period’s influential intellectuals and sociologists.