On (Pseudo) Science as Colonial Tools:Interrogating Nineteenth Century Phrenology and Criminology, by Samrat Laskar

Dr. Samrat Laskar in his paper entitled (Pseudo) Science as Colonial Tools:Interrogating
Nineteenth Century Phrenology and Criminology critiques and questions the validity of the

claims of Phrenology as a branch of Western Science. In stark contrast to indigenous
knowledge, Western Science has often legitimised is superiority on the basis of empiricism and
rational deductions. However, as Dr. Laskar argued that Phrenology soon became a tool
against the colonial subjects, and its pseudo - scientific inferences were attacked and contested.
Although the paper did not elaborate the ways in which Phrenology, which once had its heyday
also regulated practices in penology, yet it is quite conceivable as to how it assumed the status
of a crude imperialist tool and governed criminal laws. However, it was quite a surprise to note
that even the colonial subjects extended their support or participated either voluntarily or
involuntarily in what they saw as an emerging branch in the discourse of science. He cited
several of such instances, one of them being Raja Ram Mohan Roy in his correspondence with
George Murray Patterson, promising to provide the skulls of ten people for experiments. The
Phrenological School was set up in Kolkata and thus it was well known as a branch of
knowledge even in the colonies. Phrenology was conceived as an analytical science initially by
Franz Joseph Gall, and taken further by Johann Spurzheim and George Combe. Phrenology
divided the human skull and brain into numerous faculties which it proposed , corresponded to
the behavioral and consequently moral and ethical traits in a person. The size of the brain was
recognised as an index to the mental abilities. Several of the human skulls were preserved in
Edinburgh and in London. Dr Laskar tried to interrogate the assumptions of phrenology which
accorded to human beings criminal abilities depending on the various protrusions and
protuberances of the skull. Such experiments provided the opportunity to penalise criminals
such as thugs, who could then be easily convicted. It was also used to choose brides for
marriage depending on the faculties of ‘amativeness’ and ‘philoprogenitiveness’ as defined by
However, the paper did not address the fact that contemporary Victorian theories of
degeneration and advancements in positivist methodology could be seen as influences on
Phrenology, governing its modus operandi. It operated largely due to colonial assumptions
which reflected the deep-rooted prejudices. Another important point to focus on is the defence
of the science that came up in the critical discourse of the West later on which omits the
Imperial anxieties working behind the development of such a method of brain mapping.
Moreover, as colonists used phrenology to justify their exploitation of the ‘other’, for example the
justification of slavery through phrenology as portrayed in the movie Django Unchained which
Dr. Laskar happened to mention, the same logic was also appropriated by people who
attempted to fight such exploitation. Western Enlightenment ideal which boosted man’s rational
egoism also believed that education could alter the physical aspect of the brain. Cesare
Lombroso in his earlier research, was keen to prove that criminals were atavistic and criminality
was biologically determined. Acts such as The Criminal Tribes’ Act passed in 1871, continued to
criminalise native tribes, arguing that the Indians being cunning and treacherous and hence
offenders. The Empire with its civilising claims found in such pseudo sciences, the means to
continue its hegemony.


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