A mismeasured Mismeasurement of Man

By Razib Khan | June 8, 2011 2:32 am

I would say The Mismeasurement of Man is one of the most commonly cited books on this weblog over the years (in the comments). It comes close to being “proof-text” in many arguments online, because of the authority and eminence of the author in the public mind, Stephen Jay Gould. I am in general not particularly a fan of Gould’s work or thought, with many of my sentiments matching the attitudes of Paul Krugman in this 1996 essay:

….Like most American intellectuals, I first learned about this subject [evolutionary biology] from the writings of Stephen Jay Gould. But I eventually came to realize that working biologists regard Gould much the same way that economists regard Robert Reich: talented writer, too bad he never gets anything right. Serious evolutionary theorists such as John Maynard Smith or William Hamilton, like serious economists, think largely in terms of mathematical models. Indeed, the introduction to Maynard Smith’s classic tract Evolutionary Genetics flatly declares, “If you can’t stand algebra, stay away from evolutionary biology.” There is a core set of crucial ideas in his subject that, because they involve the interaction of several different factors, can only be clearly understood by someone willing to sit still for a bit of math. (Try to give a purely verbal description of the reactions among three mutually catalytic chemicals.)

But many intellectuals who can’t stand algebra are not willing to stay away from the subject. They are thus deeply attracted to a graceful writer like Gould, who frequently misrepresents the field (perhaps because he does not fully understand its essentially mathematical logic), but who wraps his misrepresentations in so many layers of impressive, if irrelevant, historical and literary erudition that they seem profound.

Yes, I am aware that some biologists would disagree with this assessment of Gould’s relevance. But I remain generally skeptical of his arguments, though over the years I have become more accepting of the necessity of openness to a sense of ‘pluralism’ when it comes to the forces which shape evolutionary processes. And certainly there is interesting exposition in a book like The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, but there was no need for ~1500 pages (Brian Switek did fine with a little over ~300 pages in covering similar territory as the first half of the book). Whatever valid positions Gould staked out in opposition to excessive adaptationist thinking on the part of the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy of the mid-20th century, his penchant for self-marketing and repackaging of plausible but not particularly novel concepts was often destructive in my experience to the enterprise of a greater public understanding of science.

When I was in 8th grade my earth science teacher explained to the class proudly that he was not a “Darwinian,” rather, he accepted punctuated equilibrium. One must understand that much of his audience was Creationist in sympathy because of the demographics of the region, but I was frankly appalled by his explicit verbal rejection of “Darwinism,” because I knew how the others would take it (my best friend in the class was a Creationist and he kept chuckling about “monkeys turning into men” throughout the whole period). I remained after to further explore this issue with my teacher. I expressed my bewilderment as best as I could, and it came to pass that my teacher explained that he had arrived to his skepticism of the rejected model of Darwinism via the works of Stephen Jay Gould. With his silver tongue Gould had convinced him that the future of evolutionary science lay with punctuated equilibrium, which had already overthrown the older order. A 13 year old can only go so far, and so I moved on.


But this incident made be very suspicious of Gould’s influence on people from that point onward, and I became even more skeptical after I found out that the sophistic proponent of what later become Intelligent Design, Phillip E. Johnson, was mining his more rhetorical jeremiads against Darwinism like it was Tombstone in the 19th century. To his credit Gould delivered an aptly savage review to Johnson’s Darwin on Trial for his lawyerly misrepresentations, but Stephen Jay Gould himself sowed the seeds for this by portraying himself to the public as the scourge of the priests of the Church of Darwin. His contributions to the broader canvas of evolutionary biology (that is, outside of his academic specialty in paleontology) are probably as substantive as Richard Dawkins’ ideas are to the understanding of the role of religion in society. Gould was an intellectual polemicist of the first order.

This goes back decades. In the 1970s he was a member of the Sociobiology Study Group, whose intellectual weight helped lead to a groundswell of activism against E. O. Wilson’s project of a biologically informed approach to social science. Eventually Wilson was accused of genocide and doused with cold water at the 1979 AAAS meeting (Gould disassociated himself from that sort of “infantile” behavior, but in Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate it seems clear that Wilson believed that the Harvard professors who saw dark intentions behind his project of fusing social science with biology helped foster the atmosphere of intimidation).

This is all a long way of saying that I give Gould his due and acknowledge his influence on the ideas of Elisabeth Vrba. But when he steps outside of the domain of paleontology in general I dismiss appeals to Gouldian authority, whether it be in evolutionary biology on a grand philosophical scale, or the triviality of human races as biological entities.

And so we come to a paper in PLoS Biology, The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias. Now, let me make one thing clear: the authors are not racists. They make that clear repeatedly; they abhor racism. But they also abhor falsity. They find that Stephen Jay Gould’s claim that Samuel Morton’s cranial measurements of 19th century skulls were influence by his bias due to his belief in the superiority of the white race is false. Why? While Gould reanalyzed the data, the authors measured the original skulls (or more precisely, half of the original skulls). Here’s the abstract:

Stephen Jay Gould, the prominent evolutionary biologist and science historian, argued that “unconscious manipulation of data may be a scientific norm” because “scientists are human beings rooted in cultural contexts, not automatons directed toward external truth”…a view now popular in social studies of science…In support of his argument Gould presented the case of Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century physician and physical anthropologist famous for his measurements of human skulls. Morton was considered the objectivist of his era, but Gould reanalyzed Morton’s data and in his prize-winning book The Mismeasure of Man…argued that Morton skewed his data to fit his preconceptions about human variation. Morton is now viewed as a canonical example of scientific misconduct. But did Morton really fudge his data? Are studies of human variation inevitably biased, as per Gould, or are objective accounts attainable, as Morton attempted? We investigated these questions by remeasuring Morton’s skulls and reexamining both Morton’s and Gould’s analyses. Our results resolve this historical controversy, demonstrating that Morton did not manipulate data to support his preconceptions, contra Gould. In fact, the Morton case provides an example of how the scientific method can shield results from cultural biases.

In their measurements they found that there were errors in Morton’s methods: but they were not systematically biased in the direction which his preference for white racial superiority would have led him to. On the contrary, if anything his errors went in the other direction. The prose in the paper is pretty straightforward, eminently polite, and charitable to Gould in light of the fact that he is no longer with us and able to respond forcefully. Here’s Box 2 for a flavor:

Box 2. Did Morton manipulate his samples? Gould states that “as a favorite tool for adjustment, Morton chose to include or delete large subsamples in order to match grand means with a priori expectations”…This criticism stems from the fact that each of Morton’s broader racial samples (e.g., “Indian”) were composed of multiple population subsamples, typically with differing mean cranial capacities. Thus it is possible to alter the overall “race” means by manipulating their constituent subsamples, and Gould charges that Morton did just that in order to obtain the results he expected.

For example, Gould compares the cranial capacities in Morton’s 1839 and 1849 publications and finds that “Morton’s Indian mean had plummeted to 79 in3.… But, again, this low value only records an increasing inequality of sub-sample size. Small-headed (and small-statured) Peruvians had formed 23 percent of the 1839 sample; they now made up nearly half the total sample”…However, the “Indian” mean was 79.6 in3 in Morton 1839 and 79.3 in3 in Morton 1849, so the “plummet” Gould refers to was all of 0.3 in3. More importantly, Morton in 1849…explicitly calculated his overall “Indian” average by taking the mean of three subgroups: Peruvians, Mexicans, and “Barbarous Tribes”—this is readily apparent in Morton’s table reprinted in Gould…As such, the percentage of the overall “Indian” sample composed of Peruvians is irrelevant to the overall mean, as it is only the Peruvian average which impacts the overall value. The Peruvian average changed by less than 1 in3 from Morton 1839 (n = 33) to Morton 1849 (n = 155).

Clearly, Morton was not manipulating samples to depress the “Indian” mean, and the change was trivial in any case (0.3 in3). In fact, the more likely candidate for manipulating sample composition is Gould himself in this instance. In recalculating Morton’s Native American mean, Gould…reports erroneously high values for the Seminole-Muskogee and Iroquois due to mistakes in defining those samples and omits the Eastern Lenapé group entirely, all of which serve to increase the Native American mean and reduce the differences between groups.

And so it goes on. The authors are concerned that Gould’s “proof” of Morton’s bias is now a case study in many universities. But the bias is probably not there. And so it is with many of Gould’s assertions and poses in my opinion. The thickness of his prose may persuade the many, but persuasion by bluff does not entail correctness.

Humans are creatures of bias, and we are shaped by our age. I recently reread an old edition of Descent of Man on my Kindle and I definitely glossed over some racist assertions by Charles Darwin (and I’m certainly one who has a low outrage threshold, whatever the opinion). Darwin may have been a liberal of his age, but he was still a man of his age at the end of the day. This does not negate his greatness as a scientist. Reality is. We may see through the mirror darkly, but there is something on the other side beyond our imaginings. Darwin, for all his flaws that we perceive in our own time due to the values which we hold dear and essential, nevertheless grasped upon a critical fragment of objective reality. Whatever chasm which time imposes because of the waxing and waning of cultural values, we are anchored within the same stream of objective reality and the truths which undergird that reality. I caution against excessive reliance on one paper, one figure, on result, because of the darkness through which we muddle. But reality does exist, and we sometimes need to set aside expectation or preference when we go about ascertaining its true shape.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture, Psychology
  • bob sykes

    Another issue in the “Mismeasure of Man” is Gould’s critique of H. T. Epstein’s analysis of head size by profession. Gould explicitly criticizes Epstein for using the standard error of the mean in comparing average head sizes and states that he should have used the standard deviation of the samples (pp. 109-110). This, of course, is an egregious error in statistical procedure. Moreover, since Gould himself used statistics in his research, it is had to accept this as an honest error.

    Gould’s popular writings often minimize the importance of natural selection in evolution (e.g. “spandrels”), and the Gould-Eldredge theory of punctuated equilibrium (which itself is a reasonable description of the geological record) has been interpreted as implying that natural selection prevents evolution. In fact, Lynn Margulis who regards natural selection as a cult seems to be reading the Gould-Eldredge theory in just this way.

    Gould was a marvelous writer, but I think his progressive politics often guided his popular science writing.

  • JL

    The authors of that paper are being overly gracious to Gould. “Mismeasure” is shot through with misrepresentations of studies and scientists that Gould disagreed with. See the criticisms in the Wikipedia article on the book; many of the sources for them are freely available.

  • http://rxnm.wordpress.com miko

    I don’t think you need math to explain natural selection well… The Selfish Gene, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, etc. You need it to explain population genetics, maybe. Consciously or not, Gould was deliberately obscurantist about the parts of evolution that appeared to him to offend his political sensibilities. I have never been able to understand people who hold up any feature of evolution theory as supporting a political opinion, none do. It makes him overall a disappointing and slightly tragic figure.

    At his best, I think Gould had an intuitive sense that the “Modern Synthesis” attitude of the 60s-80s was an oversimplification that was missing a lot of important complexity. He was right in general but usually wrong in the specifics, and it’s a problem that’s since been pretty well addressed by people more cool-headed and less politically motivated than Gould. Maybe he takes some credit for pushing things in that direction, I don’t know. I don’t feel like we need Gould to see how poorly done most evolutionary psychology is, and I always thought punk eek was just about how you draw your time axis and “gradualism” was a straw man.

  • http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/ Mike Keesey

    I think it’s also important to point out in all of this that cranial capacity is a rather imperfect predictor of intelligence, anyway.

  • umkomasia

    Of course Gould did not put math in his popular writing. He wanted people to actually read it. The idea that his scientific work was not mathematically rigorous is nonsense. He made his scientific reputation early on through some excellent work on allometry – a mathematical concept to its core. The real issue is that people like Maynard Smith were simply not yet used to the idea that paleontology had come of age.

  • Miley Cyrax

    If your teacher used the term “gradualist” instead of “Darwinist,” would your distaste be as strong? The sentiment I got was that your opposition was to his usage of the term “Darwinism” (which seemingly implies a disbelief in evolution to a bunch of Creationists), not to the concept of punctuated equilibrium.

  • http://ferahgo-the-assassin.deviantart.com/ Emily

    It’s certainly imperfect, as most predictors of intelligence are – but that doesn’t mean it’s meaningless. Most studies of cranial capacity and intelligence that I’ve seen show that there is clearly a statistically significant correlation, small though it may be.

  • Miley Cyrax

    @ Mike Keesey
    “I think it’s also important to point out in all of this that cranial capacity is a rather imperfect predictor of intelligence, anyway.”

    I think it’s important to point out that many disagree, contingent upon your definition of rather imperfect: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mismeasure_of_Man#Criticisms

    Height is an imperfect predictor of rebounding ability in the NBA, but a good one. Just because it’s imperfect doesn’t make it not useful.

  • gcochran

    There are key points about natural selection that can only explained efficiently using math. For example, the chance of success of a new advantageous variant with selective advantage s is approximately 2s, a result from the theory of branching processes. Show me how to get that verbally. Yet it is important: it shows how much gene flow is required for admixture to transmit advantageous alleles – hardly any.

    A direct measurement of brain volume, using MRI, has a higher correlation with IQ (about 0.4). Such studies show the same population differences in brain size as seen with cranial capacity – take a look at Variability in Frontotemporal Brain Structure, in PLOS One.

  • http://figleaf.blogspot.com figleaf

    “At his best, I think Gould had an intuitive sense that the ‘Modern Synthesis’ attitude of the 60s-80s was an oversimplification that was missing a lot of important complexity.”

    Yup. I’m a little leery of “cultural relativism” but not the evolution of ideas over time. Gould was responding “politically” to a then-current idea that every single gene in every single organism, and thus every characteristic great or small, was a product of direct selection. Gould’s daffy contingency rhetoric was a response to that prior daffy absolutism. And, having incorporated his main objections to the old status quo, reading selections from something like Ever Since Darwin now sounds as stupid and wrong as Dawkins did in selections of The Selfish Gene. Or, as you say, Darwin did in Descent of Man.

    Of course Dawkins has had the opportunity to continue both developing his understanding and responding to current circumstances in a way that Gould hasn’t. I could of course be wrong but I’m pretty sure that Dawkins’ reputation might be even worse than Gould’s had he died in the 1970s as Gould did in the 1980s. Or E.O. Wilson might have had he did when Gould did. (Because, seriously, adoption of, say, chariots or the bow and arrow only by replacement of populations lacked the genes for using them?) When you’re the one developing the new hammer you’re often the last to notice that not everything you hit with it is a nail.

    Over time being over-enthusiastic and mistaken isn’t always the same thing as bad and wrong.

    figleaf

  • jb

    One of the things I’ve always wondered about is to what degree Gould was popular not despite, but because of his biases. Telling people what they want to hear is always popular. I’m sure, for example, that the people in charge of Natural History magazine were appreciative of the way Gould consistently reinforced the conventional wisdom in regard to evolution, biology, and human nature.

    But Gould was certainly a talented writer, so maybe he would have gotten the NH gig even if he had been solidly in E. O. Wilson’s camp on the issue. Maybe, but I have my doubts….

  • gcochran

    It’s pretty clear that no humans circa 100k years ago had the chops to invent agriculture or the bow and arrow. It doesn’t look as if Denisovans and Neanderthals ever did: they were (largely) replaced by populations that could. Or at least some subpopulations of their successors could.

    “I could of course be wrong” – and you are.

    If Gould had been accurate and honest, he would have sold a lot fewer books. He wouldn’t have been a big success on the lecture circuit. But I have no reason to think that he lied just for the money – it came naturally.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    The sentiment I got was that your opposition was to his usage of the term “Darwinism” (which seemingly implies a disbelief in evolution to a bunch of Creationists), not to the concept of punctuated equilibrium.

    yes. he gave my teacher, who gave my classmates, a totally confused and bizarre idea of the science. basically, as if darwin was aristotle and gould was galileo.

  • http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/ Mike Keesey

    I never said “meaningless”. I’m not sure why words are being put in my mouth. I think we can agree that a correlation exists. (Humans are more intelligent than chimpanzees.) But it’s a fairly vague one. (Are men more intelligent than women? Were Neanderthals more intelligent than humans?) I think this is a heated topic because cranial volume is a seen as a proxy for intelligence. In fact, when you study cranial volume you are studying … cranial volume.

  • syon

    Mike Keesey:”In fact, when you study cranial volume you are studying … cranial volume.”

    …and cranial volume has a statistically significant correlation with intelligence.

    Mike Keesey:”Are men more intelligent than women? Were Neanderthals more intelligent than humans?)”

    Men v women: No, but there is a statistically significant correlation between intelligence and brain size on an intra-sex level. For that matter, although no Neanderthals are around for i.q. testing purposes, I would be willing to bet my life’s savings that a similar intra-group correlation between brain size and intelligence existed for them as well. After all, it holds true for maze-bright vs maze-dull rats.

  • DK

    Krugman suggesting that Gould “does not fully understand its essentially mathematical logic” is beyond ridiculous. Of all people, Krugman is one of the last qualified to criticize Gould (or any biologist, for that matter). Krugman’s argument is essentially one of the appeal to authority and thus, regardless of its correctness, not to be taken seriously.

    That said, I don’t think there is much doubt that 1) it is his great talent for self-promotion that is responsible for most of Gould’s enormous popularity, 2) Gould did let politics cloud his scientific judgment. Re: punk eek. Larry Moran had a good P.E. post and comments awhile back.

  • Charles Nydorf

    Its very fortunate that Morton’s collection survived intact so that the skulls could be re-measured.

  • Kiwiguy

    ***Mike Keesey Says:
    June 8th, 2011 at 7:40 am
    I think it’s also important to point out in all of this that cranial capacity is a rather imperfect predictor of intelligence, anyway.***

    True, although Gould omitted the growing body of research showing a positive correlation (as gcochran mentioned above). He must have known about this because people actually sent it to him before he put out the 1996 version of the book. Also, as Ian Deary writes:

    “People value their thinking skills and woe betide anyone who tries to measure them. Both the measurer and the yardstick are liable to be sacrificed on the altar of public ridicule. The professionalisation of this expert bashing may be seen in one of the bestselling books about measuring IQ (intelligence quotient)—Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, now in its second edition.1 Never mind that it leaves the reader uninformed about the successes of research on differences in human intelligence or that it has been deemed misleading by the cognoscenti, it satisfies our desire to tar and feather experts who dare to measure what we value about ourselves and wish to remain mysterious and complex.”

    http://www.bmj.com/content/317/7174/1701.full

  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    “Of all people, Krugman is one of the last qualified to criticize Gould (or any biologist, for that matter).”

    Why do you say that?

  • http://figleaf.blogspot.com figleaf

    One other thing: “Now, let me make one thing clear: the authors are not racists. They make that clear repeatedly; they abhor racism.”

    That’s always good to know. Though to be honest I don’t think I’ve ever heard a racist earnestly use that term to describe him or herself.

    For the record my great, great uncle wrote seventeen novels about noble white southerners defending helpless white women from lust-crazed freed slaves, made millions in un-inflated dollars, wrote the screenplay for Cecil B. DeMille’s Birth of a Nation which was based on his novels The Klansman and The Leopard’s Spots, and… to his dying day insisted that at no point ever in his life had he ever been a racist.

    Obviously in no way, shape, or form do these anecdotes imply that Lewis, DeGusta, Meyer, and their fellow co-authors are racist. But it does suggest there are better metrics of non-racism than simply denying that one is.

    figleaf

  • DK

    @ziel:

    Because Krugman is not a biologist. The common impression that biology is simple and that anyone who knows some math can grasp all the basics of it from popular literature is dead wrong. Also, because his own biases in his own field (infinitely less scientific than biology) seem to be much greater than those of Gould’s.

  • Hedgemom

    @figleaf~slow clap.

  • Kiwiguy

    Robert Wright wrote some quite critical articles about Gould, including one entitled ‘Homo Deceptus’ in Slate and the ‘The Accidental Creationist’ in the New Yorker:

    “This indictment will also surprise many evolutionary biologists, but for different reasons. It isn’t that they necessarily consider Gould a great scientist; a number of insiders take a quite different view. But they do generally think of him as a valiant warrior against the creationist hordes. The eminent British biologist John Maynard Smith has observed, “Gould occupies a rather curious position, particularly on his side of the Atlantic. Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by nonbiologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists.”

    In truth, though, Gould is not helping the evolutionists against the creationists, and the sooner the evolutionists realize that the better. For, as Maynard Smith has noted, Gould “is giving nonbiologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory.”

    http://www.nonzero.org/newyorker.htm

  • marcel

    Figleaf : You suggest that Gould died in the 1980s. He died about 10 years ago (2001 or 2002 if memory serves correctly).

  • Bruce Charlton

    Truthfulness in science is an iron law, not an optional extra.

    When habitually untruthful ‘scientists’ like SJ Gould are allowed to thrive and prosper you get… well, you get exactly what we have now. Vast amounts of “Research” but no Science (or an insignificant and ineffective proportion of it).

    http://medicalhypotheses.blogspot.com/2009/10/truthfulness-in-science-should-be-iron.html

  • K(yle)

    Obviously in no way, shape, or form do these anecdotes imply that Lewis, DeGusta, Meyer, and their fellow co-authors are racist

    Oh, clearly not. Who would dare suggest such a thing?

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  • Jeremy

    This paper of mine might be of some interest:
    Head size correlates with IQ in a sample of Hooton’s criminal data
    Personality and Individual Differences
    Volume 44, Issue 1, January 2008, Pages 129-139
    Jeremy E.C. Genovese
    Cleveland State University, College of Education and Human Services, Curriculum and Foundations, RT 1351, Cleveland, OH 44115, United States
    Received 7 May 2007; revised 20 July 2007; accepted 24 July 2007. Available online 10 September 2007.
    Abstract
    Data collected by Hooton (1939) on 676 inmates held at the Concord Reformatory in Massachusetts include both anthropometric measures and IQ scores. In this study a sample (N = 238) was drawn to assess the nonparametric correlation between measures of head size and IQ. Head length (r = .13), breadth (r = .15), height (r = .14), circumference (r = .15) and calculated volume (r = .20) correlated with IQ. Two measures of body size also correlated with IQ; height (r = .22) and sitting height (r = .19).
    Keywords: Cranial capacity; Intelligence; Earnest Hooton; Steven J. Gould; Mismeasure of Man

  • Roberto

    (Bin Laden claimed he wasnt a terrorist). You yourself stated: dont trust one figure, one paper,one graph (although I remember Baltimores’ famous 200 cpm to claim RT) or too few tables with oo few skulls; too few mis-measurements. Thats all there is to it. The rest in commentary.

  • Felix

    I always appreciate a good debunking, and this was interesting in that regard. However…

    I don’t get the point of the study. I don’t understand the value of doing this sort of research at all. Say you definitively learn that head size is correlated with IQ and that head size varies by race. Then what? What are you going to do with your information? How can that information possibly be used? Obviously no population-based data will be a valid predictor of the intelligence of any given individual anyway, and even if it was, so what? Again, what possible policies or interventions or anything should or could be done with that information? And given history and the real world we live in, how can you pretend that this information would not simply increase suffering? In short: why make this what you do with your life’s work? How is this moving the human project forward?

    I’m not saying science for science’s sake is wrong. But I do not understand the personal choice of any individual to spend one’s efforts at such a project.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    You yourself stated: dont trust one figure, one paper,one graph (although I remember Baltimores’ famous 200 cpm to claim RT) or too few tables with oo few skulls; too few mis-measurements. Thats all there is to it. The rest in commentary.

    there are plenty of other areas where i think gould is pulling a fast one as implied (his confusion on standard error is relatively well known). please don’t project models into my head and use my words like that for clever rhetorical purpose. that’ll get you banned.

  • Roberto

    banned ?oh no!! on my first post? sorry, i didnt mean to “project” anything. my analysis of the holloway paper is that too much with too little, the same applies to SJG; that was my point.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #33, point taken. sorry, you came off differently to me :-)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    I always appreciate a good debunking, and this was interesting in that regard. However…

    you sound like a concern troll. why don’t you just make a point about the lack of necessary transitivity of correlation to head people off at the pass? the rest of the stuff “why study” is just totally unpersuasive, but then i’m pretty wedded to this truth thing (your other comment was too rambling & polemical, this isn’t a place for us to listen to your lectures)/

  • http://www.amerika.org/ Brett Stevens

    SJG is rife with logical fallacies that do not even require scientific analysis, merely knowing where he mis-stepped.

    Nevertheless, the critique you offer here is welcome. Gould is popular because he says what popular sentiment would enjoy to hear as truth, but even more, he’s popular with the chattering classes who love an “iconoclast” who confirms the herd morality.

    I have always disliked him for his exceptionally reductive approach to science, which removes much of the interest and replaces it with uncannily digestible oversimplifications.

  • ds

    I’ve never read much of Gould but every time I read some Gould-bashing in certain circles it seems that there were quite a few different SJ Goulds out there. Take the last comment, for example, “I have always disliked him for his exceptionally reductive approach to science, which removes much of the interest and replaces it with uncannily digestible oversimplifications”

    I think it would be a reasonable safe bet that, if you take any random text by Gould, it would be more in the lines of “things are not as simple as people often say”, and not, “people often make things much more complex than they need to be, evolution for example is pretty simple, nothing more than X, and there’s not really much to talk about it”.

    Quoting himself:

    “I despair of persuading people to drop the familiar and comforting tactic of dichotomy. Perhaps, instead, we might expand the framework of debates by seeking other dichotomies more appropriate than, or simply different from, the conventional divisions. All dichotomies are simplifications, but the rendition of a conflict along differing axes of several orthogonal dichotomies might provide an amplitude of proper intellectual space without forcing us to forgo our most comforting tool of thought”

    “I believe […] that we can still have a genre of scientific books suitable for and accessible alike to professionals and interested laypeople. The concepts of science, in all their richness and ambiguity, can be presented without any compromise, without any simplification counting as distortion, in language accessible to all intelligent people.”

    “I do not claim that intelligence, however defined, has no genetic basis—I regard it as trivially true, uninteresting, and unimportant that it does. The expression of any trait represents a complex interaction of heredity and environment. [… A] specific claim purporting to demonstrate a mean genetic deficiency in the intelligence of American blacks rests upon no new facts whatever and can cite no valid data in its support. It is just as likely that blacks have a genetic advantage over whites. And, either way, it doesn’t matter a damn. An individual can’t be judged by his group mean. ”

    Not that he’d necessarily have the rest of his work accordingly with these quotes, but again, for what I’ve read he was more on the opposite direction, causing him to get the label of “accidental creationist” (by “Nonzero”‘s Robert Wright, perhaps he is an example of not oversimplyfing things?), as his cautionary tales regarding the limits of natural selection served as ammunition to creationist quote mining, “here, an evolutionist admits that natural selection isn’t as powerful as an omnipotent god”.

    It’s really troublesome if he made such mistakes or purposeful distortions in this particular book, but what really worries me more is how it’s going to be trumpeted by people not as interested on distortions and hurried conclusions “on the other side” as an example of how PC-communist-jew science is committed to race-denial, blinding the society from the urgent needs of creepily vaguely defined “racially-realistic/conscious social policies”.

  • Samuel Cohen

    I don’t understand what’s so “uninteresting” about the genetics of intelligence. I find it fascinating. I am also intrigued by people who are so disinterested by the subject that they feel the need to convince everyone else that it’s not worth studying.

    Perhaps we should let the geologists know about this as well. Really, who cares what Earth was like during the Hadean Eon? Astronomy is the same way: studying the cosmic background radiation doesn’t fix social problems, so why do it? Frankly, any research that doesn’t have an immediate social reference must be motivated by hatred of humanity.

  • Curle

    Felix says about the science of cranial measurement as a function of studying the genetics of intelligence “How can that information possibly be used?”

    On Wednesday a new gubenatorial candidate entered the race in my state announcing his interest in closing the achievement gap between Blacks/Hispanics and Whites/Asians. Apparently, the very existence of this gap is, to some, evidence of an underlying malignancy in American society. Before we move forward spending a fortune, and elevating expectations, in our effort to not only narrow but close this gap, it might be worthwhile to know what we are up against, don’t you think?

  • dave chamberlin

    I appreciate this thread but I think we need to identify the real source of opposition to science moving forward in the genetics of intelligence. The big picture isn’t about dismissing all the PC defenders like Gould. People are god damned angry that they aren’t smart enough to control their lives better than they can. People are god damned angry that their is diversity in human intelligence and they are not sitting on top of the heap. You better understand the real enemy of the science many of us here find enthralling, and more important, crucial to our future. Better brains got us to this point, better brains will get us to where we are going. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” was what Mark Twain said. Now I’m wandering into barroom philosophy so I’ll stop. Thanks folks, thanks Razib, you have made my world a more interesting place.

  • ds

    Samuel Cohen said “I don’t understand what’s so “uninteresting” about the genetics of intelligence. I find it fascinating.”

    I do as well. I haven’t read “mismeasure of man” (or whatever book the quote was from), but I don’t get that from that quote. What I think he said that was uninteresting is not “the genetics of intelligence” and all that it encompasses, but rather the trivial fact that it has at some point a genetic component.

    Perhaps Gould was actually a proponent of “let’s not study that”, I don’t know. If he was, he was definitely wrong on that. Despite the well founded worries about the misuse and distortions by those on the agenda of racial (and sexual) hierarchies, the progress on that area only weakened their original, stronger, claims about important differences, and they see themselves having only miserable fractions of inches of “differences” to fool themselves with, and to hold ever weaker stances — somewhat akin to the “progress” of “scientific creationism” to “ID”. James Flynn have put it quite well, “anything that is undiscussable you then leave to prejudice, opinion and ignorance”. I think it’s a second hand quote though.

  • Samuel Cohen

    @ds: I agree. I am particularly interested in this:

    “the progress on that area only weakened their original, stronger, claims about important differences”

    I have encountered the “let’s not study that” attitude quite a bit (see Felix’s comment a few spaces above my first comment for one example). That being said, I find the whole attitude a little bit suspect. If I’m “worried” about, say, IQ differences being found between economic groups, then that would seem to indicate that I fully expect such differences to be found if the research is pursued.

  • Miley Cyrax

    @Felix
    “I don’t get the point of the study. I don’t understand the value of doing this sort of research at all. Say you definitively learn that head size is correlated with IQ and that head size varies by race. ”

    The alternative is to continue living in a society where the zeitgeist is to assume any disparate life outcomes are the results of discrimination or some other form of unfairness, with wasted time, money, and efforts in trying to combat this illusory discrimination/unfairness.

  • http://schlafly.blogspot.com/ Roger Schlafly

    I think you guys are understating the problem here. Gould’s Mismeasure is one of the most famous science books ever written, and it made Gould’s reputation. It was soon refuted by experts in the field. Gould never even responded to those refutations when he was alive, but just kept saying the same stuff anyway. How did this silly book get to be so respected in the first place?

  • Miley Cyrax

    @Roger Schlafly

    “How did this silly book get to be so respected in the first place?”

    Same reason why fat girls believe it when their girl friends or low status males comment on their Facebook pictures and tell them they look beautiful. It’s what they want to hear.

    Or as Pinker observed: “People are surely better off with the truth. Oddly enough, everyone agrees with this when it comes to the arts. Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which everyone lives happily ever after. But when it comes to science, these same people say, “Give us schmaltz!” They expect the science of human beings to be a source of emotional uplift and inspirational sermonizing.”

  • asdf

    ds: is there such a thing as “reactionary-fascist-Aryan science”? And would you say Gould inveighed against it?

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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