Issue 70

The pseudoscientific origins of "lowbrow"

April 25, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

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Illustration by Jamie Jacobs for Quartz

Today in Gene Reading: How genetic tests like 23andMe fuel white supremacy

This story was our inspiration for the entire series. In it, Wolfe and I look at the ways in which the marketing of genetic ancestry testing perpetuates an idea that your genetic ancestry can determine your identity. This idea—that something about your biology can determine who you are—is something white supremacists have perpetuated for decades.

It’s not a cheery topic. We hope, however, that it is thought provoking, and welcome your thoughts and feedback. Feel free to reply to this email.

Your scrap fact, as promised!

The terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow” actually come from a racist pseudoscience that involved measuring people’s heads.

I use the term “lowbrow” when I discuss my love of reality TV. I was hugely dismayed to find, through my colleague Olivia Goldhill’s work from 2017, that the term actually comes from phrenology.

Phrenology was invented in the 1700s by a bad man named Franz Joseph Gall, who believed that someone’s skull shape could determine their brain shape, and therefore things about their personality. Skull shape, and therefore intelligence, he thought, were the result of where you were born.

Terms like “highbrow” “lowbrow” and even “well rounded” are all still common today because of the field. The thinking is that people with “high” foreheads (which, seems to just mean larger foreheads…or foreheads with receding hairlines, like those of older men, I’m just saying) had a greater capacity for “intellectual” things. Those of us with an affinity for the perceived “dumber” things in life, like Bravo’s “Vanderpump Rules,” would be more likely to have low foreheads, according to phrenology. Presumably, having a wellrounded head meant you were likely skilled in a lot of different areas.

The field kept some scientific value through the 19th and even 20th century; it was part of the eugenics the Nazis used to justify eugenics. Thankfully, it’s been abandoned.

A note on pop culture: It isn’t dumb just because it’s enjoyed by many! Lizzo, a queen of pop and alt-hip hop, has rapped about DNA at least twice that I’m aware of in the last couple of years:

Truth Hurts: “I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% that b*tch.”

Like a Girl: “Only exes that I care about are in my f*cking chromosomes”


Curious about other direct-to-consumer genetic tests? Be sure to check out all the stories we published in this series here. You can sign up for a free trial of Quartz membership here, or, if that is not feasible for you, email me at scrapfacts@gmail.com and I can get you a PDF.

In tomorrow’s issue (the last one) I’ll bring you a Q&A with a bioethicist who proposed a universal genetic database for law enforcement 😱

Tomorrow at 11 am US eastern, I’ll be on a members-only video call with editor Elijah Wolfson to talk about more of what I learned while reporting this series. Got questions you’d like me to answer then, or in an issue? Send them my way at scrapfacts@gmail.com.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

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