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Fingers & Fumbs: Physiognomy & Phrenology

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319285.  Fri Apr 18, 2008 9:53 am Reply with quote

Question: How can I tell Alan is a criminal just by looking at him?

Forfeit: None

Answer: Throughout history, many have believed that you could judge a criminal from their features. Amazingly, some scientists today believe that unattractive individuals commit more crime.


The idea that you can tell a person’s character from their facial characteristics, known as physiognomy, was particularly prevalent in Victorian times, the Beagle’s captain Fitzroy, for instance, famously distrusted Charles Darwin due to his bulbous nose. Social Darwinist, Cesare Lombroso, was the most famous proponent of this pseudoscience, he declared that people could be “born criminals” and that you could recognise them by their physiology. He believed that a criminal inherited a trait (known as an atavism from the Latin for a great-grandfather's grandfather) from his ancestors that gave him away; such traits included jug-ears, low foreheads, a large jaw, an asymmetrical face or “a shifty gaze”. Lombroso’s theories are no doubt still alive and in rude health; consider how the heroes of films are good-looking and the villains ugly, by and large.

According to Havelock Ellis, writing in the New York Times in 1890, in the Middle Ages, when two people were suspected of a crime, they punished "the uglier" and according to prison reformer William Hepworth Dixon “A handsome face is a thing rarely seen in a prison [...] well formed heads, round and massive, denoting intellectual power may be seen occasionally, but a pleasing, well-formed face never.” This sounds like nonsense, but recent studies have shown that beauty is positively related to earnings in the labor market, that taller worker earn more money and that unattractive individuals commit more crime in comparison to average-looking ones, and beautiful individuals commit less crime in comparison to those who are average-looking.

A similarly pseudoscientific way of telling a person’s character is by phrenology, the “science” of reading the bumps on people’s heads. The study began in 1809 when Franz Joseph Gall published his snappily titled "The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular, with Observations upon the possibility of ascertaining the several Intellectual and Moral Dispositions of Man and Animal, by the configuration of their Heads." His theory was that seeing as different parts of the brain caused different functions, if those parts were overworked, the brain would be bigger in places (much the same as exercised muscles grow) furthermore you would feel these bulges beneath the skull and gain insights into a person’s personality.

Different parts of the brain related to different characteristics, for instance the cerebellum held the instinct of reproduction [give Stephen info relating to the head here], but as is true of many pseudosciences, different practitioners had different theories, so radically different readings could be got from different phrenologists. The famous porcelain head was the invention of Lorenzo Niles Fowler. American by birth, Fowler moved to England and set up his own company to promote phrenology, he was perhaps the most important person in promoting phrenology as a science. In its heyday during the 1820s-1840s, phrenology was often used to predict a child's future life, to assess prospective marriage partners and to provide background checks for job applicants.

The earliest-known systematic treatise on physiognomy is attributed to Aristotle. If he saw Alan, he might comment that curly hair signifies someone who is “dull of apprehension, soon angry, and given to lying and mischief.”, he may also point out that the distance between his eyebrows points to someone who is “hard-hearted, envious, close and cunning, and addicted to cruelty more than love,” but would notice that his thin, well-coloured lips pointed to someone “good humoured in all things, and more easily to be persuaded to good than evil.”

“He who has a full large forehead, and a little round withal, destitute of hair, or at least that has little on it, is bold, malicious, high spirited, full of choler, and apt to transgress beyond bounds, and yet of a good wit, and very apprehensive.

Those eye-brows that are much arched […] show the person to be proud, high-spirited, vain-glorious, bold and threatening; a lover of beauty, and indifferently inclined to either good or evil.

A nose very sharp on the top of it, and neither too long nor too short, too thick nor too thin, denotes the person, if a man, to be of a fretful disposition, always pining and peevish”

“He whose hair groweth thick on his temples and his brow is by nature simple, vain, luxurious, lustful, credulous, clownish in his speech and conversation, and dull in his apprehension.

A double chin shows a peaceable disposition, but dull of apprehension, vain, credulous, a great supplanter, and secret in all his actions.

Small and thin ears show a person to be of good wit, grave, secret, thrifty, modest, resolute, of a good memory, and one willing to serve his friend.”

“[One whose] hair is of reddish complexion, is for the most part, if not always, proud, deceitful, detracting, venerous, and full of envy.

A great and wide mouth shows a [person] to be bold, warlike, shameless, and stout, a great liar, and as great a talker, and also a great eater

A very fleshy face shows the person to be of a fearful disposition, but a merry heart, and withal bountiful and discreet, easy to be entreated, and apt to believe every thing.”

More generally, Aristotle claims that someone with small nostrils has small testicles and that someone whose nostrils are wide is usually well hung and lustful

Picture Ideas:
Ugly robbers, handsome heros
Phrenology Head

Further sources:
Criminal Man - Cesare Lombroso

Last edited by eggshaped on Tue Apr 29, 2008 11:21 am; edited 1 time in total

319336.  Fri Apr 18, 2008 11:26 am Reply with quote

I wonder whether we should just make this two questions, physiognomy and phrenology - it's a huge amount of info for one question.

We have one of Fowler's heads, and there's an idea for the physiognomy photo of having three Sopranos (TV gangsters) and three sopranos (choirboys).


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