Sunday, October 25, 2009

Rizal's Head

The Inquirer had an interesting headline today, which helps support my belief that truth is stranger than fiction: It seems that a bunch of doctors recently petitioned the National Historical Institute (NHI) for access to Jose Rizal's skull, apparently because they want to figure out the reason for his intelligence. (This link redirects to the FT Chronicle web site instead of its original authors at the Inquirer, because the newspaper's site seems to be down right now.)

This just... puzzles me, to say the least. For starters, NHI chairman Ambeth Ocampo didn't exactly describe the petitioners' method as being quite optimal:

[Ocampo] said the doctors intended to pierce a hole on top of the skull and load it with mongo beans. “When full, they plan to transfer the mongo beans to a beaker and measure its volume,” he said. Through that, they will be able to tell us the size of Rizal’s cranial wall.

As much as I applaud the use of Filipino ingenuity here, I'm not entirely sure that mongo beans would be the best method of presenting one's findings to the scientific community at large. In fact, I'd question it — aren't there better methods of measuring cranial capacity? Wouldn't a liquid medium be far better than mongo beans, for example? And it's not as though you need the original skull in the first place — why not just make a plaster cast of the cranial area and then use that for experimentation? It would give scientific teams a great resource for future trials, and it would certainly be a far better option than drilling the silly thing full of holes in the first place.

This is, of course, not to say that I think that it's a stupid idea. I'm willing to assume that this is a serious scientific study, and that it can't just be boiled down to Ocampo's mongo-bean statement (which could easily be a mere exaggeration). Besides, black-comedy scenarios aside, why else would somebody want to exhume the skull of our country's national hero?

One thing that I'd like to point out is that it's been done before. Paleontologists normally cover this sort of thing in evolutionary study, for instance: If man did evolve from early primates, then there must have been some gradual development on the mental front. There's even a term for this measurement — cranial capacity — that comes with its own Wikipedia entry.

Moreover, there have been historical instances where the brains of noteworthy individuals were removed after their deaths and preserved for study. Albert Einstein would be the most obvious example, and in fact, did happen to have this type of research visited upon him. The study of cranial capacity in these cases doesn't seem to be too far a stretch... after all, if you're capable of going as far as to investigate the folds in brain matter, wouldn't you go knocking around inside the skull as well?

If I have an issue here, mind you, then it's with the subject of the study himself. Jose Rizal, for all the honors granted to him as the national hero of the Republic of the Philippines, never struck me as a supremely gifted and intelligent individual. I can assume that he was a scholar, yes, and that he can be perceived as a very smart man. But I don't see him as a particularly sterling example of Filipino intelligence.

Now, again, don't get me wrong — Rizal does have some value and relevance to us. I respect Rizal because of his perception and capacity to put such thoughts into writing. His two seminal novels, after all, were revelations of the injustice and inequality that existed during the colonial era. I respect Rizal further because it felt as though he was advocating dialogue as opposed to revolution: To him, it was possible that the status quo could improve — the youth just had to recognize what was wrong with their environment and find a way to challenge these traditional assumptions. Rizal came up with a rallying cry that clearly applies even to our contemporary situation.

But I would simply stop short of calling Rizal "intelligent". His writings may fall within the level of "profound insight", but to me, they fall short of "genius breakthrough".

And that's the root of the whole thing, really. Why bother measuring Rizal's cranial capacity if he's not necessarily the best example of Filipino intelligence? You can make your argument for creativity, mind you, and you can make your argument for insight. But those two things are different from intelligence... and well, if you're really after artistic quality, then you've got loads of modern examples to choose from. I'm fairly certain that making plaster casts of Amorsolo's, Joaquin's, and Kasilag's skulls would be a lot easier than prying open that monument in the middle of the Luneta. (I don't mean to disparage the families of the deceased here, but a point is a point.)

I suppose that the NHI can refuse any requests to borrow Rizal's skull, if only for reasons of impracticality. However, I maintain questions of my own — questions that appeal to the motive and scientific nature of the intended study — and these will maddeningly remain unanswered. We have this very strange tendency to expect the excessive from the personalities in our lives — politicians, movie stars, sports celebrities — and now it seems that even the dead are not immune.


Dominique said...

Maybe it's the scientists' brains we should be measuring? Geez, they give out doctorates to just anybody these days.

Mang Jose said...

I'm just wondering as to what your definition of 'intelligence' is?

And of 'filipino intelligence' too...

I also wonder how

1. Being able to compose poetry at a very young age
2. Graduating on top of the class from one of the most reputable institution at that time despite discrimintations
3. Being able to master multiple skills and subjects
4. Being an ophthalmologist, sculptor, painter, educator, farmer, historian, playwright and journalist all rolled into one
5. Being a polyglot - able to speak more than 10 languages

yes, how being all of the above not be considered a very fine example of Filipino intelligence... especially considering the political climate of that time, the challenges posed to Filipinos at that time...

I'm not a Rizalist, nto a die hard fan.

But I do believe, he is a very good example of what an intelligent man is, and a Filipino at that.

So, what's the size of your brain? ^_^

Mang Jose said...

forgot to cite wikipedia on my post ^_^

"ophthalmologist, sculptor, painter, educator, farmer, historian, playwright and journalist" all rolled into one

Sean said...

Mang Jose: You wound me, sir. But I concede your excellent points. Rizal may definitely be considered an intelligent man, and I concede that people have every right to call him intelligent.

I consider intelligence as both the ability to comprehend existing knowledges and form new conclusions that may be used as further knowledges (for lack of a more scientific description). To this point, my awareness of Rizal was solely based on his creative and social exploits; I thank you for the correction.

With that said, however, I don't feel that the political climate of the late 19th century really enters into the equation (because I assume that we're still talking about modern standards of intelligence as applied to what historical records are available). I'm not certain as to how the question of Rizal being "challenged" to demonstrate his intelligence within his time is relevant, although I bow to your clarification here.

I don't mean for anyone to take "Filipino intelligence" as its own term, however. It merely refers to intelligence among a Filipino subset of the global population, and nothing more.