The Dark and Dangerous History of Phrenology

On Wednesday, the halfway point of our program, we visited Musée de l’Homme, Paris’s anthropology museum. While we were there the temporary exhibit was le Grande Galerie de l’Évolution, or the Gallery of Evolution. We walked through the layout of your typical cave home, used interactive technology showing our genetic relationship with Neanderthals, and learned about the various instances in which cannibalism is acceptable in certain cultures.

After exploring this exhibit, we were able to wander around the museum on our own. Given the jam-packed nature of human history, you can imagine the breadth of artifacts and historical replicas on display throughout the museum. Topics ranged from the diversity of human language to “momie chachapoya” or an Incan mummy, to how genetics have shaped our evolution.

Image 1: Two homo sapiens exploring le Musée de l’Homme

One of the more modern historical displays encased four phrenological busts from the 1800’s. Phrenology is a historical aspect of neuroscience that was developed by the German neuroscientist Franz-Joseph Gall. Phrenology was based on the theory that human characteristics and functions were localized to specific areas of the brain that could be determined based on the ridges and bumps of one’s skull. While neuroscientists of the time were onto something in regard to localization, we know that mapping brain function is not so simple. However, this study became quite popular throughout most of Europe, including Belgium, England, and France, where Pierre-Marie Alexandre Dumoutier, a French student of Gall, decided to build this collection of phrenological relics.

Image 2: A sample from the phrenology collection on display

As mentioned earlier, we know there is very little that is factually accurate about phrenology, and this field is now only taught through a historical lens. However, at its height, phrenology was used to attempt to predict successful marketing tactics and to assist in psychiatric evaluation. However, phrenology was also used to form racial divides that were supposedly based on a biological superiority of certain races.

These pseudoscientific postulations were so powerful they became an influential force that spurred the Rwandan Genocide. As a Belgian colony in the early 1900’s, the study of phrenology made its way into the racially divided country and flourished, as it was used to determine whether an individual was Tutsi, Hutu or Twa. Phrenology gave a society a false sense of certainty that the Tutsi group was the superior race, which some interpreted as a justification for the mass murder of the Hutu group. While there are many neuroscientific innovations that have moved us forward, it is important to remember how it’s findings may be interpreted by others outside of the field.


André, C. (2018). Phrenology and the Rwandan Genocide. Arquivos De Neuro-Psiquiatria,76(4), 277-282. doi:10.1590/0004-282×20180022

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