The Search for a Science of the Mind

Head Hunters: The Search for a Science of the Mind
Ben Shephard
Bodley Head  323pp  £25

Head Hunters begins with a journey. A group of young Cambridge scientists embarks on an expedition to the Australasian islands of the Torres Strait in 1898. They set out to study the anthropology and psychology of the locals to investigate if there was a difference between the brains and the intelligence of these 'natives', as they were then called, and 'civilised' men. At the heart of the expedition were William Halse Rivers, Charles Samuel Myers and William McDougall. There is intriguing detail about how they carried out their research, particularly Rivers, who, using pidgin English, explored what would now be called patterns of kinship with enquiries like: 'He married?' 'What name wife belong him?' 'Where he stop?' 'What piccaninny he got?' And so on until he had built up a complete genealogy of the islanders.

The book then follows the intellectual journey of these men as they explore their ideas about the brain and the human nervous system. Joining them is Grafton Elliot Smith, who, having studied the brains of mammals, becomes a prominent archaeologist and Egyptologist. Shephard introduces us to such diverse subjects as the attitude to 'race' at the heyday of Empire, early eugenics, the concept of 'diffusion' and psychic research. The book takes in Edwardian Oxford, with its heavy bias against new sciences like psychology, and more sympathetic environments at Cambridge, Manchester and London. Meanwhile, Rivers spends years studying the kinship structure of Melanesian society.

The journey ends in anticlimax. Most of the ideas of our core scientists are discredited. Myers sets up the National Institute for Industrial Psychology and struggles to make it work. McDougall moves to Harvard, where he falls out with American academia. Grafton Smith's ideas are totally rejected. Years of anthropological research by Rivers are condemned by one scholar as a 'complete waste of a good brain's time'. The study of race becomes cultural rather than biological.

Shephard claims the book is a 'character study, a group portrait of four men'. But as group biography Head Hunters is at its weakest. We never fully understand any of the central characters. The scientists have sudden and complete changes of direction. McDougall gets emotionally upset at one point but it is unclear why. Rivers suddenly departs from one island, leaving his assistant without explanation, and we are left speculating as to what happened. 

It is in the realm of the intellectual journey that the book is at its best. Shephard follows the shaping of modern anthropology and psychology, taking in physiology and sociology along the way. All such sciences, like most human endeavours, develop along false trails, go up blind alleys and fall into seemingly bottomless pits. The heroes of one generation are the villains of the next. None of the four men at the centre of this book are particularly revered today, although all are remembered for their work in the First World War. But their story is one that will interest anyone looking to understand the development of scientific ideas in the first half of the last century. 

Taylor Downing's books include The World at War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

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