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The Mismeasure of Man ()

National Book Critics' Circle Award

Pity poor Stephen Jay Gould; he's a scientist whose chosen field isn't actually a science and a liberal whose chosen field seems to strike at one of the central tenets of his liberalism.  You see, Gould is the foremost modern proselytizer for the theory of evolution and that theory, which never found terribly firm footing in the first place, seems to be losing ground as more and more people recognize that it is based on shaky scientific evidence, method and theory.  It is really more of a metaphorical understanding than a true science.  But in the meantime, if you accept the metaphor, of Natural Selection as some blind physical process weeding out the wheat from the chaff, then it can be used to argue that the relative success or failure in human economies is to some degree preordained, or at least predicted, by their genetic inheritance.  So what would any self important, butt covering, doctrinaire leftist do when faced with this situation?  You bet, he pulls the whole house down around his head and assumes no one will be able to sort out the wreckage.

The fundamental idea that Gould is attacking here is biological determinism.  This is the idea that:

    shared behavioral norms, and the social and economic differences between human
    groups--primarily race, classes, and sexes--arise from inherited inborn distinctions and that society,
    in this sense, is an accurate reflection of biology.

The general target that he's set his sights on is "the claim that worth can be assigned to individuals and groups by measuring intelligence as a single authority."   The goal of the book is to "demonstrate both the scientific weaknesses and political contexts of determinist arguments."  And to that end, he is willing to "criticize the myth that science is itself an objective enterprise", instead "Science must be understood as a social phenomenon."  The bulk of the book consists of Gould dredging up crackpot eugenecists and racists and their antiquated theories on nephrology and the like, so that he can demonstrate that: a) they were evil, b) they turned out to be wrong, c) therefore, anyone who proposes that there is a genetic component to intelligence is not simply wrong, but is a racist.

This is just breathtaking.  He sets up a straw man, then sets out to destroy it, in the process conceding the central point raised by critics of his own branch of "science."    Meanwhile, he employs one of the most dishonest techniques in the history of debate and ends by demonizing anyone who opposes him.  This is a real bravura performance of the triumph of political expediency over intellectual honesty. We'll try to look at his petty little tricks one at a time.

First, he uses the value laden term "worth" in describing what results from measuring intelligence.  Now it is entirely true that at various times, various people, often driven by bad motives, have argued that people of low intelligence are worth less than people of average or high intelligence.  People have even argued that we should seek to maximize intelligence by controlling the breeding of the unintelligent, Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, springs to mind, though she is conspicuously not a target of Gould's polemic.  But this view is simply not a significant factor in the use of intelligence tests today, nor has it been for some time.  Moreover, no one would argue that a person's intelligence defines their worth.  A brutally stupid person , say JFK Jr., may be decent and caring and a genuine humanitarian, while a person widely reckoned to be intelligent, say a Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, may be a reprehensible human being.  Intelligence is simply one component of the complex matrix that frames a human being.  So his premise, that intelligence is a tool that is used top determine the value of human lives, is immediately called into question.

Second, in order to escape from the scientific evidence that some groups do worse ion intelligence than do others, he accepts one of the logical extensions of Thomas Kuhn's paradigm shift argument (see Orrin's review).  Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions posits that general scientific theories are essentially just agreements by the scientific community to look at a problem in an accepted universal context.  A revolution occurs when they are forced to switch to a new context or paradigm.  Scientists have resisted this formulation because, taken to its logical conclusion, it seems to imply that science is pure opinion with little or no basis in fact.  Gould accepts this conclusion in saying that science is a "social phenomenon."  He intends to use this argument to undermine the widespread understanding that intelligence is real, is quantifiable and the quantification serves some social ends.  But in the process, he is basically conceding the central argument against Evolution (after all, considering the myriad shortcomings of Evolution theory, it seems little more than a popular way for scientists to deny God) and calling all of science into question.

Finally, he does not simply argue that people who believe that the racial and ethnic differences in intelligence test scores are based in part on some genetics factors are wrong.  Instead he seeks to portray them as racist, eugenecist yahoos.  Why settle for merely saying someone has made a mistake when you can drape a Klansman's hood over them and hang a swastika off of their theory?  This is an ancient, but still effective, means of silencing those with whom you disagree.  But it is really scummy.

Gould has produced a particularly virulent screed here.  It seems mostly intended to assuage his own guilt over the fact that the "science" to which he has devoted his life, calls into question the precepts of his liberal political beliefs.  To this end, he rather forcefully argues that certain scientists have misused intelligence tests in order to prove their own racial prejudices.  For him, this suffices to prove that all intelligence testing is spurious, racist and worthless.  But if he really wanted to contribute something to our understanding of the issue, he could have tried to answer four basic questions: (1) Is there some abstract human value to what we refer to as intelligence?  In other words, do those beings with advanced intelligence have some natural advantage in evolutionary terms?; (2) If there is no advantage, why do those groups which tend to score best on intelligence tests seem to also be the most culturally and technologically advanced groups in human society and why do the individuals who make the greatest contribution to human culture and technology so often seem to be beings of superior intelligence?; (3) What are the factors, other than genetic inheritance, which lead certain groups and individuals to score higher on these tests?; and (4) How can we seek to raise the Intelligence Quotients of those groups and individuals who have performed poorly on these tests?.   This would have saved him from the self-imposed duty that this book has placed upon him--to explain why we should take evolution seriously in light of his admission that science is merely a social construct, fabricated by intellectual cadres to serve their own ends.  If he chooses to write a book addressing all these questions, I'll read it with interest.  In the meantime, I would refer potential readers of this book to the excellent peer reviews below and encourage you to contrast them with the literary reviews.  An interesting trend is evident; Gould's peers are nearly dismissive of his work, and are particularly savage on the issue of his scientific arguments, while the literary fellow travelers salute his clear minded contribution to the liberal canon.  It was probably inevitable that this book end up on this list, but be warned: Don't believe the hype!


Grade: (F)


Stephen Gould Links:

    THE ACCIDENTAL CREATIONIST: Why Stephen Jay Gould is bad for evolution. (ROBERT WRIGHT, Dec. 13, 1999, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Conscious objector: The ultra-modern view of consciousness turns science upside down (Colin Tudge, January 30, 2003, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Genetics: why Prince Charles is so wrong: Genes work just like computer software, says this writer - which is why the luddites don't get it, but their children probably will. (Richard Dawkins, January 28, 2003, Checkbiotech)
    -ESSAY: Early Canid Domestication: The Farm Fox Experiment (Lyudmila N. Trut, Ph.D., March-April 1999, American Scientist)
    -REVIEW: of Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists by Benjamin Wiker (Richard Weikart, Books & Culture)
    -REVIEW: of Freedom Evolves by Daniel C Dennett: Does human evolution move onwards and upwards towards liberty and progress? (John Gray, The Independent)
    -REVIEW: of Freedom Evolves by Daniel C Dennett (Kenan Malik)
    -REVIEW: of Darwinian Politics. The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom By Paul H. Rubin (David Livingstone Smith, Human Nature)

Book-related and General Links:
    -FEATURED AUTHOR : Stephen Jay Gould (NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : I Have Landed : In the final essay of this twenty-seven-year series, the author reflects on continuityĆ³from family history to the branching lineage of terrestrial life. (Stephen Jay Gould, Natural History)
    -Gould's New Yorker Review of The Bell Curve: CURVEBALL (The New Yorker, November 28, 1994, STEPHEN JAY GOULD)
    -ESSAY : Jun 12, 1997 Stephen Jay Gould: Darwinian Fundamentalism, NY Review of Books
    -ESSAY : Jun 26, 1997 Stephen Jay Gould: Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism, NY Review of Books
    -ESSAY : Aug 14, 1997 Daniel C. Dennett: 'Darwinian Fundamentalism': An Exchange, NY Review of Books
    -INTERVIEW : with Stephen Jay Gould (Scott Rosenberg, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Homo Deceptus : Never trust Stephen Jay Gould.  (Robert Wright, Slate)
    -ESSAY: Misbehavior: How Stephen Jay Gould is wrong about evolution. (John Alcock, Boston Review)
    -ESSAY : An Analysis of Homer Simpson and Stephen Jay Gould (William Dembski, Leadership U)
    -ESSAY: The Gorbachev of Darwinism  (Phillip E. Johnson, First Things)
    -LINKS : The Gould Files (World-of-Dawkins)
    -SUMMARY: of Mismeasure of Man
    -REVIEW: A MIND IS NOT DESCRIBED BY NUMBERS (June Goodfield, NY Times Book Review)
    -Reflections on Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man (1981):  (JOHN B. CARROLL, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
    -REVIEW: Neo-Lysenkoism,  IQ, and the press (BERNARD D. DAVIS)
    -REVIEW: Review and Critique of Stephan Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man (Scott Morrison, Concordia University   Montreal, Canada)
    -REVIEW:(Karen Murphy)
    -REVIEW: Rocks of Ages by Stephen Jay Gould (George Weigel, Commentary)

-ESSAY: Legacies of Eugenics: An Introduction (Osagie K. Obasogie, April 17, 2024, LA Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Evolutionary Psychology and The Origins Of Bigotry And Prejudice  Perhaps, Evolutionary Psychology Unravels the Mystery©   by William A. Spriggs
    -Upstream: Issues: Psychology: Intelligence and IQ
    -"The Bell Curve" and its critics (Charles Murray)
    -Race, Intelligence and Ideology:  A Review Essay of The Bell Curve (John C. Culbertson, University of Kansas)
    -ESSAY: on the Bell Curve Fog Watch: The New Racist Onslaught  ( Edward S. Herman, Z Magazine)
    -ESSAY: IQ Since "The Bell Curve": A scientific concept that today stands on firmer grounds than ever remains as unwelcome as ever in polite society (Christopher F. Chabris, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of  "The Making of Intelligence" by Ken Richardson A new attempt to answer a stubborn old question: If humans are such an intelligent species, why can't we figure out what IQ tests measure? (Christine Kenneally, Salon)
    -ESSAY : The Bell Curve Flattened : Subsequent research has seriously undercut the claims of the controversial best seller. (Nicholas Lemann, Jan. 17, 1997, Slate)
    -ARTICLE : UCLA Team Maps How Genes Affect Brain Structure, Intelligence; Dramatic Images Shed Light On Brain Diseases, Personality Differences (Science Daily, November 5, 2001)