The Mismeasure of Man | Study Guide

Stephen Jay Gould

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The Mismeasure of Man | Chapter 1 : Introduction | Summary



The introduction to the section that is the original 1981 edition begins with a story about the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. In it Socrates advocates teaching a myth he knew was not true to the citizens of Athens in order to maintain an orderly society. What was the myth? It was that people are born into a class that determines what work they are able to do. The gold class is for those whom God has destined to be rulers. Silver is for those lesser people who are only fit to assist the rulers. And bronze is for those who can never rise above work as craftsmen. Socrates's student is horrified when he hears this proposal. "You had good reason to be ashamed of the lie which you were going to tell," the student says. To this day, Gould states, the myth that Socrates recounted thousands of years ago is still foisted on the public. It is the modern scientific version of this lie—biological determinism—that Gould intends to demolish in this book. Specifically, Gould will examine the spurious claim that the intelligence of racial or ethnic groups can be accurately measured by a number on a standardized test.

Determinists today speak of genes, not precious metals, as the basis of a person's inborn traits. But, they are using a similar concept as a rationale for making social policy. The difference is, Gould says, that Socrates admitted that he was lying. Biological determinists deny that their preexisting social and political beliefs are influencing their interpretation of scientific data.

Since biological determinism is such a huge topic, Gould chooses to focus on the claims determinists make about intelligence. These claims are based on two central fallacies, or mistaken views. The first fallacy is reification. This means taking an abstract concept and treating it like it is a real thing. In this case, the abstract concept is that set of mental abilities that each person has. Over centuries scientists have come up with a convenient label for thinking and talking about that complex set of abilities: intelligence. The mistake arises when people start to believe that the label—intelligence—is an actual thing that can be found if only we look deep enough into the brain.

The second fallacy is ranking, by which Gould means our human tendency to order things from high to low, best to worst. To rate individuals and groups by their level of intelligence, scientists came up with various ways to quantify that. In the 19th century they measured the physical size of human skulls, assuming that a larger brain meant a smarter person. In the 20th century they measured a person's performance on a series of verbal tests, assuming that a higher score proved a person's superior intelligence. This intelligence quotient, or IQ, has been used by biological determinists ever since to try and show that a race, class, or sex is inferior.

This attempt to reify and rank intelligence is the "mismeasure of man" of the title, the consequences of which extend far outside the lab. It is an effort that has had a tragic impact on millions of people whose dreams have been dashed because the group to which they belong does not rate high enough in these erroneous measures. "Few injustices [are] deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope," Gould writes. That tragedy is what he is trying to avert by writing this book.


In the introduction to the original 1981 edition, Gould states that he wrote The Mismeasure of Man because "biological determinism is rising in popularity again, as it always does in times of political retrenchment." By retrenchment, Gould is referring to times when politicians call for cuts in public spending, often on social programs designed to help the poor or disadvantaged.

This is a statement he expresses in the introduction to the revised 1996 edition and repeats throughout the entire book. Gould's study of the history of biological determinism has led him to conclude that its popularity rises and falls in tandem with political cycles. For example, some politicians might want to trim the government budget by reducing or eliminating spending on a college scholarship program to encourage women to go into the fields of math and science. At the same time there is suddenly a surge of publicity about scientific studies that allegedly show that women's brains are better with words than numbers. This is no coincidence, Gould says. Prior political and social beliefs are influencing both scientific research itself and its interpretation.

Gould believes fiercely that there is a need to show how cultural attitudes influence and even distort what we think of as facts. A scientist himself, Gould is by no means discrediting the power of his field to discover inescapable truths about the world. "I believe that a factual reality exists and that science, though often in an obtuse and erratic manner, can learn about it," he says.

But scientists do not live in their laboratories. They have families and read the news and watch movies just like everyone else. They are immersed in society and cannot help but be influenced by it. "Facts are not pure and unsullied bits of information; culture also influences what we see," Gould states. The key to avoid error is for scientists to be aware of that influence and to make sure that it does not distort the way they formulate their studies and experiments.

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