Finding Wisdom — Stephen Jay Gould in “The Mismeasure of Man”

Stephen Jay Gould

Perhaps no modern thinker among the modern scientific community from the late 1970s into the new century pushed the boundaries of interpretation and thought regarding evolutionary biology and paleontology more significantly than Stephen Jay Gould.  An eminent scholar himself–among evolutionary biologists his technical work Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977) is considered one of the most significant works in the field and he is considered to be among the most important historians of science in the late 20th century–he was the foremost popularizer of science during his generation (with the possible exception of Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan) who used his position to advance scientific knowledge, critical thinking, and to attack pseudoscientific, racist, and magical thinking which misused and misrepresented scientific knowledge and methods.

His concepts of punctuated equilibrium, spandrels, and the Panglossian Paradigm pushed other evolutionary biologists in the field to rise to new heights in considering and defending their own applications of neo-Darwinian theory, prompting (sometimes heated) debate.  These ideas continue to be controversial in the evolutionary community with, it seems, most of the objections being based on the fear that they will be misused by non-scientists against evolution itself, and it is true that creationists and other pseudoscientists–aided and abetted by the scientifically illiterate popular press–misrepresented the so-called “Darwin Wars” as being more significant than they really were.  But many of his ideas were reconciled and resolved into a new synthesis within the science of evolution.  Thus, his insights, based as they were in the scientific method and within proven theory, epitomized the very subject that he popularized–that nothing is ever completely settled in science, that all areas of human understanding are open to inquiry and–perhaps–revision, even if slight.

Having established himself as a preeminent science historian, science popularizer, scholar in several fields, and occasional iconoclast, Gould focused his attention on an area that well into the late 20th century was rife with ideology, prejudice, and pseudoscience–the issue of human intelligence and its measurement.  As Darwin learned over a hundred years before, it is one thing to propose that natural selection is the agent of evolution, it is another to then demonstrate that the human species descended from other primate ancestors, and the manner in which sexual selection plays a role in human evolution: for some well entrenched societal interests and specialists it is one step too far.  Gould’s work was attacked, but it has withstood these attacks and criticisms, and stands as a shining example of using critical thinking and analytical skills in striking down an artifact of popular culture and bad social science.

In The Mismeasure of Man, Gould begins his work by surveying the first scientific efforts at understanding human intelligence by researchers such as Louis Agassiz and Paul Broca, among others, who studied human capabilities through the now-defunct science of craniometry.  I was reminded, when I first picked up the book, of Carl Sagan’s collection of writings in the 1979 book, Broca’s Brain, in which some of the same observations are made.  What Gould demonstrates is that the racial and sexual selection bias of the archetypes chosen by the researchers, in particular Samuel George Morton (1799-1851), provided them with the answers they wanted to find–that their methodology was biased, and therefore, invalid from the start.  In particular, the differences in the skulls of Caucasians (of a particular portion of Europe), Black people (without differentiating ethnic or geographical differences), and Mongolians (Asian peoples without differentiation) in identifying different human “species” lacked rigor and was biased in its definitions from the outset.

In order to be fair, a peer-reviewed paper challenged Gould’s assertion that Morton may have fudged his findings on cranial measurements, since the researcher used bird seed (or iron pellets depending on the source) as the basis for measurement, and found, in a sample of some of the same skulls, (combined with a survey from 1988) that Morton was largely accurate in his measures.  The research, however, was unable to undermine the remainder of Gould’s thesis while attempting to resurrect the integrity of Morton in light of his own, largely pre-scientific time.  I can understand the point made by Gould’s critics regarding Morton that it is not necessarily constructive to apply modern methodological methods–or imply dishonesty–to those early pioneers whose works has led to modern scientific understanding.  But as an historian I also understand that when reading Gibbon on the Roman Empire that we learn a great deal about the prejudices of 18th century British society–perhaps more than we learn of the Romans.  Gibbon and Morton, as with most people, were not consciously aware of their own biases–or that they were biases.  This is the reason for modern research and methodological standards in academic fields–and why human understanding is always “revisionist” to use a supposed pejorative that I heard used by one particularly ignorant individual several years ago.  Gibbon showed the way of approaching and writing about history.  His work would not pass editorial review today, but the reason why he is so valued is that he is right in many of his observations and theses.  The same cannot be said for Morton, who seemed motivated by the politics of justifying black slavery, which is why Gould treats him so roughly, particularly given that some of Morton’s ideas still find comfort in many places in our own time.  In light of subsequent research, especially the human genome project, Gould proves out right which, after all, is the measure that counts.

But that is just the appetizer.  Gould then takes on the basis of IQ (intelligence quotient), g factor (the general intelligence factor), and the heritability of intelligence to imply human determinism, especially generalized among groups.  He traces the original application of IQ tests developed by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon to the introduction of universal education in France and the need to identify children with learning disabilities and those who required remediation by grade and age group.  He then surveys how psychologist Lewis Terman of Stanford modified the test and transformed its purpose in order to attempt to find an objective basis for determining human intelligence.  In critiquing this transformation Gould provides examples of the more obviously (to modern eyes) biased questions on the test, and then effectively destroys the statistical basis for the correlations of the test in being able to determine any objective measure of g.  He demonstrates that the correlations established by the psychological profession to establish “g” are both statistically and logically questionable and that they commit the logical fallacy of reification–that is, they take an abstract measure and imbue it with a significance that it cannot possess as if it were an actual physical entity or “thing.”

Gould demonstrates that the variability of the measurements within groups, the clustering of results within the tests that identify distinct aptitudes, and the variability of results across time for the same individuals given changes in circumstances of material condition, education, and emotional maturity, renders “g” an insignificant measure.  The coup de grace in the original edition–a trope still often pulled out as the last resort by defenders of human determinism and IQ–is in Gould’s analysis of the work of Cyril Burt, the oft-cited researcher of twin studies, who published fraudulent works that asserted that IQ was highly heritable and not affected by environment.  That we still hear endless pontificating on “nature vs. nurture” debates, and that Stanford-Binet and other tests are still used as a basis for determining a measure of “intelligence” owes more to societal bias, and the still pseudo-scientific methodologies of much of the psychological profession, than scientific and intellectual honesty.

The core of Gould’s critique is to effectively discredit the concept of biological determinism which he defines as “the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups—races, classes, or sexes—are innately inferior and deserve their status.”

What Stephen Jay Gould demonstrates in The Mismeasure of Man most significantly then, I think, is that human beings–particularly those with wealth, power, and influence, or who are part of a societally favored group–demonstrate an overwhelming desire to differentiate themselves from others and will go to great lengths to do so to their own advantage.  This desire includes the misuse of science, whatever the cost to truth or integrity, in order to demonstrate that there is an organic or heritable basis for their favored position relative to others in society when, in reality, there are more complex–and perhaps more base and remedial–reasons.  Gould shows how public policy, educational focus, and discriminatory practices were influenced by the tests of immigrant and minority groups to deny them access to many of the benefits of the economic system and society.  Ideology was the driving factor in the application of these standardized tests, which served the purposes of societal and economic elites to convince disenfranchised groups that they deserved their inferior status.  The label of “science” provided these tainted judgments with just the right tinge of respectability that they needed to overcome skepticism and opposition.

A few years after the publication of Gould’s work a new example of the last phenomenon described above emerged with the publication of the notorious The Bell Curve (1994) by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray–the poster child of the tradition harking back to Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics of elites funding self-serving pseudo-science and–another word will not do–bullshit.  While Spencer could be forgiven his errors given his time and scientific limitations, Herrnstein and Murray, who have little excuse, used often contradictory and poorly correlated (and causative) statistical methods to argue for a race-based argument of biological determinism.  Once again, Gould in the 1996 revision to his original work, dealt with these fallacies directly, demonstrating in detail the methodological errors in their work and the overreach inherit in their enterprise–another sad example of bias misusing knowledge as the intellectual basis to oppress other people and, perhaps more egregiously, to abandon coming to terms with the disastrous actions that American society has had on one specific group of people because of the trivial difference of skin color.

With the yeoman work of Stephen Jay Gould to discredit pseudo-scientific ideas and the misuse of statistical methodology to pigeonhole and classify people–to misuse socio-biology and advance self-serving theories of human determinism–the world has been provided the example that even the best financed and well entrenched elites cannot stop the advance of knowledge and information.  They will try–using more sophisticated methods of disinformation and advertising–but over time those efforts will be defeated.  It will happen because scientific projects like the Human Genome Project have already demonstrated that there is only one race–the human race–and that we are all tied together by common ancestors.  The advantages that we realize over each other at any point in time is ephemeral.  The knowledge regarding variability in the human species acknowledges differences in the heritable characteristics in individuals, but that knowledge implies nothing about our relative worth to one another, nor is it a moral judgment rendered from higher authority that justifies derision, stigma, ridicule, discrimination, or reduced circumstances.  It will happen because in our new age information, once transmitted, cannot be retracted–it is out there forever.  There is much wisdom here.  It is up to each of us to recognize it, and inform our actions as a result of it.

Sunday Web blogging on Tuesday — Finding Wisdom — Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

Our televisions are alight with a new and updated version of the series Cosmos.  In the relatively short span of time since the airing of that original series, humankind’s knowledge about the universe has increased many fold.  What has not advanced as quickly is our ability to use that knowledge in healthy and productive ways that advance human flourishing.  The world is careening between extremes, of most importance at the moment, with Russia in a Back to the Future Soviet Union moment.


Carl Sagan was not only a popularizer of science, mainly in the realm of astronomy, but also a first rate astronomer, astrophysicist, and cosmologist in his own right.  I first came upon him in 1967, as an eager 12 year old with a sometimes overpowering hunger for scientific knowledge, especially in the areas of astronomy, geology, and biology.  The book that sparked my lifetime interest and occasional formal education in the sciences, was Intelligent Life in the Universe, which he co-authored with I. S. Shklovskii.  What Dr. Sagan instilled in me from this one book was not to be afraid to ask questions–even those that on the surface may seem obvious or outlandish–and to imagine the possible alternatives elsewhere to the type of life found here on earth, given an extremely old and expansive universe that, despite the then popular TV program, Star Trek, would ensure that we would never be able to travel the stars to completely confirm our speculations, warp drive and all.  (At least, sadly, not in my lifetime).  The subtext to his message to a voraciously curious 12 year old was not to be afraid; that intellectual honesty and integrity is more important than societal acceptance of what are proper questions and knowledge, that sometimes asking those questions and then pursuing them will actually lead to real answers.

Writer Ann Druyan is also worthy of mention here because, probably more than anyone else, she contributed to making Carl Sagan the popularizer that he became. One of three writers for the first Cosmos series, she later married Sagan and became his associate, helping him write several books on the subject of the scientific method and critical thinking.  Most prominent of the works that she assisted in bringing to print is The Varieties of Scientific Experience. which consists of an edited version of a series of Sagan’s Gifford Lectures given in 1985.

The Gifford Lectures were established in the U.K. in 1888, and consist of the selection of a prominent thinkers to promote the study of what was called “natural theology” and are held at various Scottish universities. Over the years the lectures have hosted some of the most prominent scientists and thinkers of the time, including such notaries as Hannah Arendt, Freeman Dyson, William James, John Dewey, Albert Schweitzer, Niels Bohr, Arnold Toynbee, Iris Murdoch, J. B. S. Haldane, Werner Heisenberg, Roger Penrose, and many others.

“Natural theology” is a philosophical approach to theology that is very old.  It is the concept that, as opposed to “revealed” theology, that the best way to understand the nature of the creator is through reason and experience.  In the 19th century it became the hope of many individuals that the steady advance of scientific knowledge could be reconciled with theological belief.  Over time, especially in the lectures, it has become apparent that such a reconciliation is becoming less and less likely, unless the various revealed theological definitions of “god” is changed as a result of our knowledge.

In choosing the title of the book, Ann Druyan meant to harken back to William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, based on his own Gifford Lectures given in the years 1901 and 1902 at Edinburgh.  To James, the psychological study of religion and the religious experience was an important aspect in understanding human nature.  Religion in his definition included “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”  Thus James’ definition is more expansive than that of a particular set of religious beliefs or dogma.  In our own time we would define James’ definition as “spirituality.” 

At the time that he gave his lectures, not unlike our own, the world was divided by dogmatic religious interpretations of “god” and those who considered such beliefs to be a type of psychological defect.  James proposed a different path, positing that the act of faith and revelation–whatever its basis–was an artifact of human nature that warranted study.  He thus advocated for a tolerant attitude to these beliefs, regardless of the fact that the originators may have been unhinged in some way, given that oftentimes a positive effect resulted.  The danger, of course, is as George Santayana wrote, that taking James’ approach too far leads to a “tendency to disintegrate the idea of truth, to recommend belief without reason and to encourage superstition.”  I think this critique goes too far in its misunderstanding of James’ American pragmatist views.  To James, these beliefs were of utility only so far as they advanced a good, which he would define as the health of the individual and society.

Thus we come to Sagan’s work.  Ann Druyan in the introduction to her husband’s book states: “My variation on James’s title is intended to convey that science opens the way to levels of consciousness that are otherwise inaccessible to us; that, contrary to our cultural bias, the only gratification that science denies to us is deception.”  The intent here is to extend and inform James’ work and to incorporate Santayana’s warning; that it is still possible to feel wonder and connectedness to creation while eschewing deception.  Among our contemporaries, the neuroscientist Sam Harris has followed this path of inquiry.  But, I think, Sagan’s lectures go farther in their intent and it is the same message that he conveyed to me as a curious 12 year old:  that there are no taboo questions, that all aspects of human experience are open to inquiry.  James opens us to this same line of inquiry from an earlier foundation in a form of language that is obscure to us today: that this includes all forms of human expression.  The recent work of Daniel Dennett has also explored this territory.

Sagan opens his lectures with the following passage:

The word “religion” comes from the Latin for “binding together,” to connect that which has been sundered apart. It’s a very interesting concept. And in this sense of seeking the deepest interrelations among things that superficially appear to be sundered, the objectives of religion and science, I believe, are identical or very nearly so. But the question has to do with the reliability of the truths claimed by the two fields and the methods of approach.
By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and religion. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship. And Albert Einstein said, “I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” So if both Carlyle and Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of even being right….

He then explores the fear that lies at the root of most of our hopes that there is something more than ourselves; our mortality:

All that we have seen is something of a vast and intricate and lovely universe. There is no particular theological conclusion that comes out of an exercise such as the one we have just gone through. What is more, when we understand something of the astronomical dynamics, the evolution of worlds, we recognize that worlds are born and worlds die, they have lifetimes just as humans do, and therefore that there is a great deal of suffering and death in the cosmos if there is a great deal of life….and perhaps even intelligence is a cosmic commonplace, then it must follow that there is massive destruction, obliteration of whole planets, that routinely occurs, frequently, throughout the universe. Well, that is a different view than the traditional Western sense of a deity carefully taking pains to promote the well-being of intelligent creatures. It’s a very different sort of conclusion that modern astronomy suggests. There is a passage from Tennyson that comes to mind: “I found Him in the shining of the stars, / I mark’d Him in the flowering of His fields.” So far pretty ordinary. “But,” Tennyson goes on, “in His ways with men I find Him not…. Why is all around us here / As if some lesser god had made the world, / but had not force to shape it as he would…?”



Taking the reality of the universe into account, he then leads to a new view of what constitutes spirituality by leading with the observations of Thomas Paine:

“From whence, then, could arise the solitary and strange conceit that the Almighty, who had millions of worlds equally dependent on his protection, should quit the care of all the rest, and come to die in our world because, they say, one man and one woman ate an apple? And, on the other hand, are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation had an Eve, an apple, a serpent, and a redeemer?”
Paine is saying that we have a theology that is Earth-centered and involves a tiny piece of space, and when we step back, when we attain a broader cosmic perspective, some of it seems very small in scale. And in fact a general problem with much of Western theology in my view is that the God portrayed is too small. It is a god of a tiny world and not a god of a galaxy, much less of a universe…. If a Creator God exists, would He or She or It or whatever the appropriate pronoun is, prefer a kind of sodden blockhead who worships while understanding nothing? Or would He prefer His votaries to admire the real universe in all its intricacy? I would suggest that science is, at least in part, informed worship.

In the final lecture Sagan then explains clearly why there are no bad questions that seek understanding:

If Newton were restricted, in working through the theory of gravitation, to apples and forbidden to look at the motion of the Moon or the Earth, it is clear he would not have made much progress. It is precisely being able to look at the effects down here, look at the effects up there, comparing the two, which permits, encourages, the development of a broad and general theory. If we are stuck on one planet, if we know only this planet, then we are extremely limited in our understanding even of this planet. If we know only one kind of life, we are extremely limited in our understanding even of that kind of life. If we know only one kind of intelligence, we are extremely limited in knowing even that kind of intelligence. But seeking out our counterparts elsewhere, broadening our perspective, even if we do not find what we are looking for, gives us a framework in which to understand ourselves far better.
I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed. I think this search does not lead to a complacent satisfaction that we know the answer, not an arrogant sense that the answer is before us and we need do only one more experiment to find it out. It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us.