The Mismeasure of Man | Study Guide

Stephen Jay Gould

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The Mismeasure of Man | Epilogue | Summary



Gould shifts his focus from scientists to two of their subjects in this fleeting chapter. He quotes from a 1980 Washington Post profile of Carrie Buck, an elderly woman who in her youth was the center of a landmark Supreme Court case, Buck vs. Bell. Ms. Buck already had one child who was deemed feeble-minded and had tested at the mental age of nine herself on the Stanford-Binet IQ test. Ms. Buck's mother had tested only seven. As a result, the state of Virginia wanted to forcibly sterilize both Ms. Buck and her sister, Doris. A lawsuit was brought on Ms. Buck's behalf, but she lost. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., famously wrote, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

The year before the first edition was published, Ms. Buck was still alive and living with her sister in Charlottesville, Virginia. Reporters who visited them found them intelligent enough to speak and care for themselves. Doris Buck had also been sterilized but had been told it was an appendectomy, so she underwent years of fruitless fertility tests when she and her husband later tried to have a child.


This brief epilogue was the original end of the 1981 edition of The Mismeasure of Man. It seems oddly short and abrupt in its present position in the 1996 edition, sandwiched between a chapter on sociobiology and an extended review of The Bell Curve. However, one can see how it made a moving coda to the first edition of the book. Gould leaves behind all his logical and scientific arguments against the misuse of intelligence testing, letting the story of two women in the real world make his point instead.

It is easy for lay people to feel lost in the lofty debate between experts on mental tests, statistical analysis, and the definition of intelligence. That in turn makes it difficult for readers to decide who is right and who is wrong about what this means for education, immigration law, racial status, and social policy. Gould tries to clarify that decision by showing how the claims of biological determinists hurt women like Carrie Buck and her sister. Determinists made the claim that intelligence—or in this case, a lack of it—was solely determined by heredity. Since M. Buck's mother was feeble-minded, they argued, Ms. Buck and all her children would be feeble-minded as well, and there was nothing that teachers or schools or doctors could do to improve their intellectual lot. Because of this prognosis of doom, the Buck sisters were sterilized without their permission and lost their chance at creating families.

Yet 50 years later, reporters who visited these allegedly defective women found them "able and intelligent." This shows the very real damage that theory can do, Gould says. In a sarcastic jab at those determinists who claimed to be able to measure intelligence, he asks, "Can one measure the pain of a single dream unfulfilled?"

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