"Beauty and the Brain"-- A Virtual Discussion with Rachel E. Walker

Rachel E. Walker

American Philosophical Society

Wednesday, September 6, 2023 1:00 pm EDT

Join the American Philosophical Society in conversation with Rachel E. Walker about her new book, Beauty and the Brain: The Science of Human Nature in Early America (University of Chicago Press, 2022).
In 1776, America’s founders proudly proclaimed that “all men are created equal.” Yet despite their boasted love of liberty, few of these elite white men sought to eliminate racial and gender hierarchies from the new republic. How, then, did early Americans reconcile their Revolutionary commitment to liberty, justice, and equality with the continued subordination of white women and people of color? Beauty and the Brain tackles this question through the history of popular science. It focuses on physiognomy and phrenology, two disciplines predicated on a deceptively simple premise: that people’s heads and faces could reveal their intelligence, character, and personality. In the modern world, we scoff at physiognomy and phrenology, viewing them as silly pseudosciences that make a mockery of scientific progress. People saw things differently in the early American republic. Between the 1770s and 1860s, broad swaths of the population viewed physiognomy and phrenology as respected fields of study with important implications for society and politics. By recovering this lost intellectual universe, Beauty and the Brain exposes how the privileged and powerful have historically weaponized science to justify discrimination. Yet the book also recounts the stories of abolitionists, early feminists, and ordinary people who used physiognomy and phrenology to advocate for equality. In doing so, Beauty and the Brain not only rethinks what counted as science in early America; it also reimagines who might have counted as a scientist.
The event will take place on Wednesday, September 6 at 1:00 p.m. ET via Zoom. The event is free of charge, but registration is required to attend.
Rachel E. Walker is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Hartford, where she teaches courses on race, gender, and sexuality in America. Her first book, Beauty and the Brain: The Science of Human Nature in Early America (2022), was recently published with University of Chicago Press. It explores the intertwined history of science, beauty, and power in early America. Beauty and the Brain was the winner of the Mary Kelley Best Book Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR). It was also a finalist for the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize, sponsored by the Organization of American Historians (OAH). Walker’s work has been generously supported by numerous archives and institutions, including the McNeil Center for Early American Studies (MCEAS), Smithsonian Institution, National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), American Antiquarian Society, and American Philosophical Society.