Chapter 4 – Measuring Bodies

Two Case Studies on the Apishness of Undesirables

The Ape in All of Us: Recapitulation

In the late 19th century, Darwin’s theory of evolution altered not only the landscape of science, but all evolutionary thought. Creationists were horrified by the notion that modern humans could be descendents of apes; however, those who believed in the inferiority of different races embraced this idea. If they could show members of an inferior group were more closely related to apes, they could prove those members were also less human.

Gould uses the now-obsolete theory of recapitulation to illustrate this story. Recapitulation is the scientific theory that the growth of an individual organism from embryo to adult repeats ancestral stages from evolutionary history. In other words, an individual essentially climbs its own family tree. Using this theory, biological determinists reasoned adults of inferior groups must be like the children of superior groups, as the child must represent a primitive adult ancestor. Scientists who believed in this theory used a wide array of behavioral, emotional, and physical traits to claim white males were superior, as they had more “adult-like” features, and women and nonwhites were inferior, as they had more “child-like” features. 


The Ape in All of Us: Criminal Anthropology

In a similar way, 19th century Italian physician and founder of criminal anthropology, Cesare Lombroso, devised a system with the theory of atavism at its core. Proclaiming the ability to predict violent behavior from the ape-like features of a person’s face and head, this system became the foundation of criminal anthropology for many years. 

Despite its popularity, Lombroso’s theory was controversial and rejected by scientists for its lack of reliable supporting data. In response, Lombroso modified the theory, expanding it to include the possibility of some criminals suffering from illness. Eventually, Lombroso’s theory was abandoned altogether, but it left an early impression of using modern science to reform the judicial and penal systems: should so-called “born criminals” be treated more harshly than those who commit a single crime due to an emotional outbreak?



Though Lombroso’s theory was abandoned, the search for a biological basis of crime continues. However, Gould believes this search is misguided. The fact that some members of a group misbehave is not biologically implicated; rather, Gould believes violence and crime arise from societal oppression.