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 Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

The human species owes a debt of gratitude to Charles Darwin that can never be adequately paid.  The young Darwin struggled against being categorized in a society and a time that very much needed to categorize everything and everyone.  His early education demonstrated his keen, inquisitive, and initially undisciplined mind, the last aspect of his character that he himself noted and worked to overcome.

The grandson of two prominent British abolitionists, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, he was born to a outwardly conventional but inwardly nurturing and intellectually stimulating family.  He was an avid amateur naturalist as a boy and studied to follow in his father’s footsteps as a physician.  He attended medical school but his other interests caused him to neglect his studies.  Frustrated with what they viewed as his lack of prospects, his family enrolled him in divinity school to become an Anglican pastor.  Darwin studied little but found his passion in the then craze of beetle collecting and was influenced by the Cambridge naturalists that pursued what was then known as natural theology–the proposition that the best way to know the deity was to understand its creation.  His main studies focused on what we now identify as botany, geology as well as biology.

After receiving his degree Darwin proceeded to take literally the remonstrance of Alexander von Humboldt to travel widely in order to gain new knowledge.  Upon the recommendation of his mentor at Cambridge, John Stevens Henslow, he was taken aboard the HMS Beagle’s South American surveying expedition as a self-financed naturalist.  This voyage was a transforming one for Darwin and it is best to use his own words from his autobiography in order to describe the nature of that transformation.

“…Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers… for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality… But I had gradually come by this time, i.e., 1836 to 1839, to see that the Old Testament from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rainbow at sign, &c., &c., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian.

…By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported, (and that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become), that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost uncomprehensible by us, that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events, that they differ in many important details, far too important, as it seemed to me, to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eyewitnesses; by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can be hardly denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories.

But I was very unwilling to give up my belief… Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.”

Having thrown off his preconceived beliefs it is during the voyage of the Beagle that Charles Darwin became the modern scientist that we recognize today–the author of On the Origin of the Species and The Descent of Man. Much has been made of the theological nature of his origins and how they influenced his thinking, arguing that the construction of his scientific hypotheses and theories are simply an extension of a type of belief–what today is called “scientism.”  But this is ignorance and the term cannot exist except in the minds of those making the assertion.  It is only when Darwin freed himself from the shackles of his mind that he was able to perceive nature as it is, not as human society would have it.

It is obvious to us now as we read his narrative that he had not completely freed himself from the prejudices of his time.  But such is the nature of human advancement.  I was told early on as an historian that I would learn more about the prejudices of 18th century Britain by reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire than I would learn of the Roman Empire–and it turned out that my mentor was correct.

But, unlike Gibbon, Darwin’s influence transcends his time because of the enforced discipline that he imposed on himself and his method.  After that seminal voyage it took years of study and the weight of evidence before Darwin felt confident to publish his findings–and then only under great pressure since other scientists were coming to the same conclusions and threatened to precede him on his life’s work.  His  theory is an elegant one and the weight of its elegance is found in his overview of it in the introduction to the Origin:

“As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.”

Darwin’s observations and theory–which is supported by over a century and a half of observation and confirmation–is one of the key insights in our understanding of ourselves and our position in the universe.  This insight is the basis of all other wisdom and in my opinion, without it, there can be no human knowledge that reaches the level of wisdom that means anything.  For all of the knowledge that we have amassed since that time–in geology, astronomy, biology, physics, neuroscience psychology–in virtually every area of learning–is informed by this one core insight into human existence and what we define as life on our planet.  To understand the evolution of species through the agent of natural selection one must understand the age of the universe, of the earth, the dynamics of geology, and the common origins and interconnection of all life.

As such, its implications transcend science in the same way as its implications transcended biology.  In 1995 the cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote his famous work summarizing the influence of Darwin’s theory on modern science and society in the late 20th century.  He gave the book the title Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.  As I sit here in the year 2014 it is apparent that this is still the case, not because what he observed was dangerous to know, but because it is an idea that undermines its opposite–the belief that the strong have a right to dominate the weak, that people can be categorized with some intrinsically superior and others inferior, and that economics and its handmaiden philosophy trumps all other insights when it comes to human society and conduct.

Many evolutionary biologists and others in the sciences with whom I have corresponded and discussed their bewilderment and frustration at the resistance, particularly in parts of the United States, to the essential wisdom in Darwinian observation.  It is, I think, because they do not see the historical and societal implications which is explained in their own theory.  It is dangerous not only because of its transcending of theological explanations of the universe and human existence, but also because it challenges the structure of social control and hierarchy upon which so many societies have been built in the modern era.  In understanding our own biology as primates, our instinctual feelings of tribalism, kinship, and hierarchy are still too strong in many areas to fully liberate us from our self-imposed shackles. Darwinian insight challenges the primacy of these feelings.

So dangerous was (and is) Darwin’s idea that Herbert Spencer published an alternative evolutionary theory based on earlier, pre-scientific evolutionary beliefs, known as Lamarckian evolution, which came to be known as Social Statics and has since been misnamed Social Darwinism.  This competing theory, most recently given new clothes by politicians and followers of the writer Ayn Rand, is without scientific merit, socially abhorrent, ethically indefensible, and sociopathically cruel.  So old is this meme that Darwin himself challenged this twisting of evolutionary theory:

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”

Regarding the societal implications of his theory he wrote in his work The Voyage of the Beagle:

“If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

Darwin at first avoided addressing the more controversial aspects of his theory and it took him some time to decide to publish The Descent of Man.  From this work his theory of sexual selection alone stirred more than a little backlash.  As such, we see only glimpses of his view that the understanding of the nature of life would be a liberating force, not only in the sciences but in society at large.  But Darwin struggled with the questions of the “ought” as opposed to the “is” and, in the end demurred. It is only now that his descendents in the sciences have broached the topic once again, most significantly in the book The Moral Landscape, by the neuroscientist Sam Harris.

In the end, though, Darwin’s most significant contribution may result in the survival of our species.  The common origins that we all share and the combined threats of Global Warming, nuclear proliferation, and other weapons of mass destruction threaten our very existence, not to mention the extra-planetary threats from asteroids and comets.  The insights of Darwin and his descendents in the sciences may very well prevent our own self-destructive tendencies and ignorance from causing our extinction from this tiny planet.