Any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain.—Santiago Ramón y Cajal, 1897
If the sperm whale be physiognomically a sphinx, to the phrenologist his brain seems that geometrical circle which it is impossible to square.
In the full-grown creature, the skull will measure at least twenty feet in length. Unhinge the lower jaw, and the side view of this skull is as the side of a moderately inclined plane resting throughout on a level base. But in life—as we have elsewhere seen—this inclined plane is angularly filled up, and almost squared by the enormous superincumbent mass of the junk and sperm. At the high end, the skull forms a crater to bed that part of the mass, while under the long floor of this crater—in another cavity seldom exceeding ten inches in length and as many in depth reposes—the mere handful of this monster’s brain. The brain is at least twenty feet from his apparent forehead in life; it is hidden away behind its vast outworks, like the innermost citadel within the amplified fortifications of Quebec. So like a choice casket is it secreted in him that I have known some whalemen who peremptorily deny that the sperm whale has any other brain than that palpable semblance of one formed by the cubic yards of his sperm magazine. Lying in strange folds, courses, and convolutions, to their apprehensions, it seems more in keeping with the idea of his general might to regard that mystic part of him as the seat of his intelligence.
It is plain, then, that phrenologically the head of this leviathan, in the creature’s living, intact state, is an entire delusion. As for his true brain, you can then see no indications of it, nor feel any. The whale, like all things that are mighty, wears a false brow to the common world.
Patient, Surrey County Lunatic Asylum, by Hugh Welch Diamond, c. 1855. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gift, 2005.
If you unload his skull of its spermy heaps and then take a rear view of its rear end, which is the high end, you will be struck by its resemblance to the human skull, beheld in the same situation, and from the same point of view. Indeed, place this reversed skull (scaled down to the human magnitude) among a plate of men’s skulls, and you would involuntarily confound it with them; and remarking the depressions on one part of its summit, in phrenological phrase you would say, This man had no self-esteem, and no veneration. And by those negations, considered along with the affirmative fact of his prodigious bulk and power, you can best form to yourself the truest, though not the most exhilarating, conception of what the most exalted potency is.
But if from the comparative dimensions of the whale’s proper brain, you deem it incapable of being adequately charted, then I have another idea for you. If you attentively regard almost any quadruped’s spine, you will be struck with the resemblance of its vertebrae to a strung necklace of dwarfed skulls, all bearing rudimental resemblance to the skull proper. It is a German conceit that the vertebrae are absolutely undeveloped skulls. But the curious external resemblance, I take it the Germans were not the first men to perceive. A foreign friend once pointed it out to me, in the skeleton of a foe he had slain, and with the vertebrae of which he was inlaying, in a sort of basso-relievo, the beaked prow of his canoe. Now, I consider that the phrenologists have omitted an important thing in not pushing their investigations from the cerebellum through the spinal canal. For I believe that much of a man’s character will be found betokened in his backbone. I would rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are. A thin joist of a spine never yet upheld a full and noble soul. I rejoice in my spine, as in the firm audacious staff of that flag which I fling half out to the world.
Apply this spinal branch of phrenology to the sperm whale. His cranial cavity is continuous with the first neck vertebra; and in that vertebra, the bottom of the spinal canal will measure ten inches across, being eight in height, and of a triangular figure with the base downward. As it passes through the remaining vertebrae, the canal tapers in size, but for a considerable distance remains of large capacity. Now, of course, this canal is filled with much the same strangely fibrous substance—the spinal cord—as the brain, and directly communicates with the brain. And what is still more, for many feet after emerging from the brain’s cavity, the spinal cord remains of an undecreasing girth, almost equal to that of the brain. Under all these circumstances, would it be unreasonable to survey and map out the whale’s spine phrenologically? For, viewed in this light, the wonderful comparative smallness of his brain proper is more than compensated by the wonderful comparative magnitude of his spinal cord.
But leaving this hint to operate as it may with the phrenologists, I would merely assume the spinal theory for a moment, in reference to the sperm whale’s hump. This august hump, if I mistake not, rises over one of the larger vertebrae, and is, therefore, in some sort, the outer convex mold of it. From its relative situation, then, I should call this high hump the organ of firmness or indomitableness in the sperm whale. And that the great monster is indomitable, you will yet have reason to know.
From Moby Dick. At age nineteen in 1839, Melville took a job on a merchant ship; two years later he secured a spot on the whaler Acushnet. Well versed in the popular pseudoscience of phrenology, Melville writes in the previous chapter that sperm whale skulls have an indentation similar to the one thought to signify intelligence in humans. “Has the sperm whale ever written a book, spoken a speech?” he asks. “No, his great genius is declared in his doing nothing particular to prove it.”