Rachel E. Walker

Jun 19, 2023

Beauty and the Brain

The Science of Human Nature in Early America

University of Chicago Press 2022

Between the 1770s and 1860s, people across the globe relied on physiognomy and phrenology to evaluate human worth. Physiognomy refers to using facial features as an indication of an individual's character, while phrenology is a term for the study of the shape and size of the cranium as a measure of intelligence. 

Today, many dismiss these ideas as pseudoscience but Dr. Rachel E. Walker argues these scientific approaches significantly shaped American society as “pervasive social practices and intellectual philosophies that people used to better understand their own brains, bodies, and behaviors.” Beauty and the Brain: The Science of Human Nature in Early America (U Chicago Press, 2022) explores how these areas of study were once embraced by people of different backgrounds and political leanings. On the one hand, they were deployed to preserve social and political hierarchies – science functioned as a tool of oppression. But physiognomy and phrenology were also creatively deployed by activists (e.g., Frederick Douglas, Lucretia Mott, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Margaret Fuller) to fight for racial justice and gender equality. In her in depth study of a largely ignored part of American history, Dr. Walker demonstrates how physiognomy and phrenology have shaped both science and our political landscape.

Dr. Rachel E. Walker is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Hartford. She teaches courses on race, gender, science, and sexuality. Beauty and the Brain is her first book and was a finalist for the Organization of American Historians’ Frederick Jackson Turner Prize.

John Sebastiani served as the editorial assistant for this podcast.

Susan Liebell is Dirk Warren '50 Professor of Political Science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

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