The Mismeasure of Man

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The Mismeasure of Man
Stephen Jay Gould
First published on 19 December 2008

On the mismeasure of Gould

Some critics complain that in The Mismeasure of Man Stephen Jay Gould attacks a straw man: craniometry is, after all, no more than fin-du-siècle quackery with which no self-respecting scientist would dream of having truck these days. Likewise, the naïve early attempts at to link IQ with heredity that Gould spends so much time recounting have long since been soundly and uncontroversially demolished, so Gould at best is shooting fish in a barrel, and many suspect him of something more mendacious than that. Some suspect a Marxist political agenda.

I’ve read a number of Gould’s books and articles, all of them articulate, beautifully written, witty, erudite and excellent in substance, and never once have I seen any suggestion of Marxist bias (eager followers of my reviews will know I have no particular sympathy with left wing politics).

As regards The Mismeasure of Man such insinuations would be especially ironic, since Gould’s very point is to illustrate that well-meaning and well respected scientists are all too prone to be deceived into equating their wilful interpretations as scientific truths.

I dare say Gould would even concede some bias: that, he would say, is the point.

Against all the odds, there seem to be a few hardy souls who hold out hope for a hereditary aspect to intelligence. Gould’s only substantive point for them is to say that, whatever we even mean by “intelligence”, it is so obviously situational and environment-dependent (this shouldn’t be news to anyone who’s seen Crocodile Dundee) — in other words socially constructed — that seeking to tie it to something like biology — which by its very definition isn’t — is on its face a waste of time.

Gould the liberal then adds, by way of political commentary, that the harmless if silly conclusion that the two are related is liable to be misinterpreted by unscrupulous (or simply unsuspecting) people, particularly if they have a particular social agenda which would find it convenient to establish innate differences between — for which read “innate deficiencies in certain (other)” — racial groups. That isn’t a scientific point, it’s a political one, and to my (un-Marxist) mind, Gould is perfectly right to make it.

Now a different objection to Gould’s enterprise might be that such a point doesn’t require 300 pages of careful demolition of bunk science to make (unless your correspondent is funded by the Pioneer Foundation, apparently: and for those lucky souls, not even 300 pages of argument will do it). But the methodological point is the one that interests Gould: how the hypothesis influences not just what evidence you seek, what you keep, but even the interpretation you place upon it. Gould’s patient history is a case study for Thomas Kuhn’s superb essay on the contingency of scientific knowledge The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Gould also sees analogy between the hereditarian’s linear view of intelligence with the naive ordering of all creation to accord with a supposed evolutionary progression from bacterium to homo sapiens sapiens. Again, it’s not the Marxist but the paleontologist who patiently explains that evolution doesn’t work like that: it is better viewed as an expanding bush that a linear progression.

To be sure, in the early parts of this book there is a level of detail that seems superfluous, but the later aspects, and particular Gould’s insight into statistical correlation and factor analysis are fascinating and well explained for a layman, and the handsomeness of his turn of phrase and the constancy of his erudition — scientists tend to be poorly read outside their fields, but this was most certainly not the case of the late Professor Gould — make this a fascinating and enjoyable work by a profoundly wise and sadly missed thorn in the establishment’s side.

They don’t make them like this anymore, alas.