George Combe: Constitution of Man

Why are neuroanatomy and physiology arousing so much interest today? What passions power that interest? What needs are these studies imagined able to answer? Questions concerning cures for disease of course. But what else?

Almost exactly two centuries ago a similar study—phrenology—stirred similar enthusiasm. Then as now, locations in the brain were associated with specific faculties, the major difference being that, instead of development of each faculty being associated with size of a brain area as it was then, today it’s associated with levels of chemical activity, typically represented by color.

Can we see, in what people made of phrenology then, what we are likely to make of neurophysiology tomorrow?

Combe’s Constitution of Man Considered in Relation to External Objects , first published in 1828, made phrenology the basis for a manual of self help. It was a major best-seller in the Victorian period, selling an astonishing 350,000 copies, more than Samuel Smiles’ Self Help and seven times as many as Darwin’s Origin of Species. It played a major role in shaping Victorian thought and literature. It exerted its influence not through what it said about phrenology alone, but for how it wove phrenology into a new account of the meaning of life.

Although Combe was accused of being an atheist, God was central to his account. But it was not the Christian God. There is no mention of virgin birth or of Jesus the Son of God, of sin and salvation, Heaven and Hell. Instead of being the Christian personal savior his god was a deistic Creator God, content to create the world, with humans in it, set it running, and thereafter leave it alone. God made Man and the external world perfectly matched to one another. Phrenology provided a set of terms through which humans could more perfectly accommodate themselves to the objects of the external world disposed around them. “In surveying the world itself, the phrenologist perceives that the Creator has bestowed definite qualities on the human mind, and on external objects, and established certain relationships between them; that the mental faculties have been incessantly operating according to their inherent tendencies, generally aiming at good, always desiring it but often missing it through ignorance and blindness yet capable of attaining it when enlightened and properly directed.” “The leading object should always be, to find out the relationship of every object to our own nature, organic, animal, moral and intellectual, and to keep that…together with a great accession of power in reaping ulterior advantages and avoiding disagreeable affections.”

Combe lists 35 faculties, each corresponding to locations identified on the skull. Nine are feelings, twelve are sentiments--eight exclusive to man--twelve serve cognition, and two involve judgment. “The faculties are divided into Propensities common to man with the lower animals, Sentiments common to man with the lower animals, Sentiments proper to man, and Intellect. Each faculty stands in a definite relation to certain external objects: when it is internally active it desires these objects, when they are presented they excite it to activity, and delight it with agreeable sensations. Human happiness and misery are resolvable into the gratification, and denial of gratification, of one or more of our mental faculties, or of the feelings connected with our bodily frame. The faculties, in themselves, are mere instincts; the moral sentiments and intellect being higher instincts than the animal propensities….Hence right conduct is that which is approved by the whole moral and intellectual faculties, fully enlightened, and acting in harmonious combination. This I call the supremacy of the moral sentiments and intellect.”

The faculties are such as Amativeness, Adhesiveness, Combativeness, Secretiveness, Cautiousness, Benevolence, Conscientiousness, Ideality, Comparison and Causality.

Combe draws on contemporary science. “It cannot be too much insisted on, that the Creator has bestowed definite constitutions on physical nature and on man and animals, and that they are regulated by fixed laws….There are no exceptions to the laws of Nature: for the Creator is too wise and too powerful to make imperfect or inconsistent arrangements.” These laws “bear reference to the great classes into which the objects around us may be divided, namely Physical, Organic, and Intelligent.” Through phrenology, Combe tells us, science has given us the faculties required for command of external objects in all these classes, promising us, as we acquire control over these faculties, continued technological progress along with greater satisfactions.

Suppose neurophysiology instead of phrenology were to inspire self help in our time. I anticipate it will consist of a natural philosophy consisting of a world of random events to which two hundred thousand years’ operation of natural selection has adapted our species to conditions on the African savannah. The list of faculties we’ll aspire to control will be contributed not by phrenology but by evolutionary psychology. In place of willing ourselves to engage bumps on our brains we’ll call on technological gadgets to fire up appropriate brain locations, which we watch, like fireworks displays on portable monitors. “Oh, look!” we’ll say, “See how my aggressiveness is lighting up. Let me turn up my jealousy center. Now let her try that again! She’ll see I’m no wimp!”

To a cynical modern eye, the phrenologists’ faculties appear to have been devised expressly to serve as signposts along a pilgrim’s progress from animal debauchery to lofty sentiments and virtue. Modern evolutionary theory, by contrast, acts as a Procrustean bed, trimming our sentiments to whatever would favor our particular genes being passed down to future generations; success in competition, in reproduction, the survival of our own progeny, and our own personal happiness. Wouldn’t it be nice if, alongside the modern synthesis, we could develop an evolutionary mechanism capable of inspiring us to more worthy goals? Here’s a suggestion: suppose in the course of the genome’s evolution it became conscious and intelligent as we are, whose goals we might intuit both from the world of nature we see around us as well as our conscious capabilities, from which we might draw inspiration to equal that of the phrenologists.

Now, there’s a goal.