Literature Study GuidesThe Mismeasure Of ManIntroduction To The Revised And Expanded Edition Summary

The Mismeasure of Man | Study Guide

Stephen Jay Gould

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The Mismeasure of Man | Introduction to the Revised and Expanded Edition : Thoughts at Age Fifteen | Summary



The Frame of The Mismeasure of Man

In this lead to the 1996 edition, Gould explains that he originally wanted to call the book Great Is Our Sin. This idea is based on a quote by Gould's hero, Charles Darwin, the 19th-century English scientist best known for his pioneering work on natural selection and evolution. But Gould knew that the title might make people mistakenly think the book was about religion.

Gould used the quote in the book's epigraph instead: "If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin." But this book is not about the sweeping issue of how wrong it is to use biological arguments to make social policy. That would have been too much for one volume. Gould chose a more limited topic. He intends to show why it is wrong to claim that intelligence can be accurately measured by a numerical score or that it can be used to say that one group of people is smarter than another group.

This belief is one expression of a larger principle called biologic determinism. Gould says that the best way to explain a general principle like this is by focusing on something specific instead. "You have to sneak up on generalities, not assault them head-on," he states. So he narrowed his topic by focusing on three limited premises.

First, he has only chosen examples from the history of science that claim to prove—wrongly, in his view—that intelligence is a single inborn ability that can be measured by a number on a scale. Second, he focuses on history rather than current theories about intelligence because examples from the past represent the origins of mistaken beliefs that still exist today.

Third, he wanted to do something truly new. He wanted to combine his expertise as a paleontologist with his knowledge of the history of science. His scientific colleagues are interested only in current data, and historians are not trained to use mathematical methods to figure out whether statistics are accurate or not. "I could, in short, combine the scientist's skill with the historian's concern." That is what he does in the book. He examines the scientific data of history's great claims about intelligence—and debunks them in the process.

Why Revise The Mismeasure of Man after Fifteen Years?

Two things persuaded Gould to revise and expand the book in a second edition. History shows that once defeated, biological determinism continues to crop up again and again. Its false conclusions are often used as political weapons to justify treating some groups as inferior. Determinism also attempts to shift the blame for things like poverty and crime from society to these groups. Gould writes passionately about this in terms from 1996 that seem to foretell debates still raging in the 21st century. "Resurgences of biological determinism correlate with periods of political retrenchment and destruction of social generosity," Gould claims.

But it was the publication in 1994 of the controversial book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life that incensed Gould and prompted him to expand The Mismeasure of Man. Coauthored by political scientist Charles Murray and psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein, The Bell Curve argues that inherited deficiencies in intelligence are the cause of problems affecting racial groups such as African Americans. Therefore, many public programs designed to eradicate these problems are doomed to fail. Gould is not impressed by the 800 pages of charts and explanations in the book. He charges that there is no new science revealed in The Bell Curve at all. In his view, it is just another expression of conservative "mean spiritedness" that is trying to defend cuts in government aid by saying that the poor are less intelligent by birth and nothing can help that.

Reasons, History and Revision of The Mismeasure of Man

The final section of the introduction to the 1996 edition of the book is a response to Gould's critics. Some have complained that his liberal political views have distorted his analysis of scientific data. Gould proudly admits his interest in social justice and notes that he is the grandchild of Jewish immigrants from Europe, one of the groups affected in the 1920s by misapplication of intelligence test results. Gould says that although it is impossible for anyone to be completely impartial, when properly handled that does not get in the way of scientific objectivity. "Objectivity must be operationally defined as fair treatment of data, not absence of preference," Gould writes, saying that he has done just that. He criticizes Charles Murray, the only surviving author of The Bell Curve, for not doing this. Murray does not advertise his own conservative political views nor his work as an employee of a right-wing think tank.

Gould also rebuts criticism that he is not a psychologist by saying that he confines his arguments about intelligence to the data itself, not to psychological theory. As an evolutionary biologist, he believes that he has a better understanding of genetically based variation in a population than do the authors of The Bell Curve. He is also trained in a form of statistics called factor analysis that is necessary to properly interpret the data.

Gould believes that Murray and Herrnstein misrepresent what science knows about intelligence. He is committed to combat such distortions because of the harmful impact it has on individual human lives. "We must never forget the human meaning of lives diminished by these false arguments," he concludes.


Gould died of cancer in 2002, so he did not live to discover how wrong he was about one thing. He predicted that The Bell Curve would not be remembered in the 21st century. Yet controversy still swirls around both the book and its surviving author, Charles Murray. Murray tours the country speaking about his book and broke into the news headlines repeatedly in 2017 when protests and even violence erupted at three university campuses where he was invited to share his views.

Gould was a prolific writer as well as a working scientist and university professor. Two core beliefs shaped the way he approached both his books and the hundreds of magazine essays he wrote. He believed that the best way to bring big ideas such as biological determinism to life for readers was to explain them via specific examples. "Focus on those small, but fascinating, details that ... illustrate generalities," he writes in The Mismeasure of Man. That is why he devotes sections of this book to what might seem like odd stories from history, such as collectors of skulls from Egyptian tombs. [See Chapter 2 for details.]

Gould also believes that science learns as much from mistakes as it does from success. That is why he spends so much time chronicling the errors that scientists have made. Such "fallacies" provide a gold mine of valuable information. He does not spotlight the mistakes of scientists from the past in order to condemn or ridicule them, but to show that if error is acknowledged, it can still lead to fruitful discoveries.

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