The Mismeasure of Man | Study Guide

Stephen Jay Gould

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The Mismeasure of Man | Chapter 7 : A Positive Conclusion | Summary



Debunking as Positive Science

Gould does not wish merely to show why biological determinism is wrong, he wants to go beyond that to show what biology reveals to humans about our true nature as evolved animals. In this brief two-paragraph section, Gould maintains that the value of debunking false theories is to make way for ones that better explain what is observed in nature. This, he says, is how science works.

Learning by Debunking

In order to dethrone biological determinism, it is not enough to root out ideas tainted by a priori beliefs—it is necessary to establish more accurate biological facts as well. Advances in genetics have proved that Goddard was wrong to attribute feeble-mindedness to inheritance of a single gene, and evolutionary biology shows a "remarkable lack of genetic differentiation" between human groups. Our species, homo sapiens, has not been around long enough for that to occur.

Biology and Human Nature

In this section, Gould makes a literary side trip to critique the field of sociobiology—the study of the biological bases of human behavior. What makes humans unique among all the other species in the world is how we can use our intelligence to cause a "new kind of evolution" through the transmission of knowledge. Gould calls this cultural evolution to distinguish it from physical, biological evolution. Biological determinism fails because it mistakenly tries to explain the differences it finds between human groups with biology rather than culture.

Gould concedes that some human behaviors might have biological bases, for human intelligence would not even be possible without a large brain. However, humans use that intelligence to create culture, which then becomes the agent of change: not the brain itself, or a specific cluster of neurons, or the genes within them. Nevertheless, sociobiologists have attempted to find specific genes to explain common human behaviors such as aggression, conformity, and fear of outsiders.

But that is not how genes or anatomy or physiology work, Gould says. It isn't that genes can explain a specific individual's homosexuality or fear of strangers. Genes create the potential for humans to behave in range of certain ways without dictating that they do so. With reference to human intelligence, the subject of this book, Gould uses another analogy. The computer you buy to keep track of your finances isn't limited to doing only that. It is powerful and flexible enough to do dozens of other things as well. It is the same with the human brain and with human intelligence. When sociobiologists break down behavior into a set of allegedly separate traits, are they making the same error of reification that intelligence testers did? Gould believes so.


At first glance Gould seems to go off on a thematic tangent in this brief chapter. It is not immediately clear why he spends so much time in the final section discussing sociobiology, a field he has never mentioned before. A few years before the first edition was written, an American ant biologist named Edward O. Wilson published two books on sociobiology. One of them—On Human Nature—won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize. In these books Wilson put forth some of the controversial ideas about the genetic basis of human behavior that Gould criticizes here.

Although Gould was only one of many scientists who found fault with Wilson's claim that genes shape human traits and behavior, it became almost a feud between the two Harvard colleagues. In an article published years after Gould's death, Wilson was still fuming. "I believe Gould was a charlatan," Wilson said. He claimed that Gould distorted what other scientists said and then attacked that distortion, not what they were really saying.

Like many intellectual feuds, both parties may have misunderstood each other and even gotten their feelings hurt in the process. The writer of the article quoted above suggests that Wilson's harsh words about Gould may have stemmed from personal resentment, noting that Gould wasn't the only scientist to believe Wilson was wrong about sociobiology.

Gould had already responded in greater detail to Wilson's scientific views in previous articles and books. He includes a reference to sociobiology again in this book because he sees it as a modern form of biological determinism. Both in the interests of scientific truth and social policy, Gould feels compelled to challenge determinism wherever it rears its head.

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