Comparative Physiognomy: or, Resemblances Between Men and Animals (1852)

Typhoon (1902) by Joseph Conrad opens with a simultaneous description of Captain MacWhirr’s face and character: he “had a physiognomy that, in the order of material appearances, was the exact counterpart of his mind: it presented no marked characteristics of firmness or stupidity; it had no pronounced characteristics whatever; it was simply ordinary, irresponsive, and unruffled.” A particularly popular idea in the nineteenth century, physiognomy — the belief that one could equate facial characteristics with moral and intellectual character — belonged to a cluster of sciences all predicated on an almost premodern notion: that the qualities and properties of people and objects can be divined through appearance. Phrenology, craniometry, chiromancy (palm reading), dactylography (the study of fingerprints), and graphology shared a central anthropometric tenet: “that the unseen state of a person’s soul makes itself manifest through their physical body in the form of readable signatures.”

A classic of the genre, Comparative Physiognomy by U.S. physician James W. Redfield carried forward the work of Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801), often credited as the father of physiognomy, who, following Aristotle, believed that asinine humans literally resembled asses — “Long ears are a sign that their possessor is extremely foppish, both in language and action” — and that the difference between frogs and gods was a matter of countenance. While, according to Brian Bantum, Lavater’s work “never explicitly invok[ed] racial nomenclature”, it nevertheless articulated “a theological vision of an ideal Christian body, a saint, as a white male body”. What was implicit for Lavater becomes explicit in Redfield’s Comparative Physiognomy, a book informed by the intersection of evolutionary theory, eugenics, and the emergence of “racial anthropology” in the nineteenth century, which sought to hierarchize human beings through physical appearance.

As its title implies, the book is concerned with comparing animals and human faces, clustered by nation and ethnic groups. A quick glance at the content page gives a sense of the endeavor. The specific pairings tell their own story of the racist inclinations simmering below the surface, but also consign the project to an absurd realm of cultural constructivism from the get-go. Redfield’s logic for comparing Turks to turkeys turns on a homonymic coincidence in English absent from the etymology of “Turk”. Nevertheless, the physiognomist claims that the “turkey is too much like the Turk (who seems to be entirely unconscious of the position in which we have placed him)”. The “we” here is telling. The Germans, "Yankees", and British land a trio of animals associated with strength: lions, bears, and bulls respectively. Others are “placed” by Redfield into unfortunate comparisons with the lesser qualities mice, fish, and camels. Reading Comparative Physiognomy, it quickly becomes apparent why this “science” and its anthropometric cousins found European and American champions during the New Imperial era. It’s easier to justify economic extraction and civilizing missions when you are dealing with beasts.

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