The Mismeasure of Man | Study Guide

Stephen Jay Gould

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The Mismeasure of Man | Main Ideas


Biological Determinism Is Based on Prejudice

Biological determinism is the belief that human traits and behaviors are the direct result of inherited factors ultimately linked to genes. Throughout history those who have championed determinism have seen it as imposing innate, or inborn, limits on people: limits that cannot be overcome by training, education, or willpower. From the first page of The Mismeasure of Man to the last, Gould condemns this view as fake science. He states bluntly that any expert claiming scientific support for biological determinism is wrong. Such people are twisting the facts and misrepresenting the data. Sometimes they do so on purpose, but other times they seem not to be aware of what they are doing. This is how powerful the impact of preexisting beliefs can be, Gould says. Even scientists can be misled by their own prejudice.

Gould spends the entire book making his case that determinism is bad science. He dismantles the measurements, observations, statistics, and philosophical assumptions of determinism, exposing them as both illogical and inaccurate.

In addition to being wrong, biological determinism is harmful, which bothers Gould just as much as its scientific errors. "The argument appeals to the worst manifestations of our common nature," Gould says in the introduction to the revised 1996 edition of the book. Later he notes that determinism seems to recur in cycles that are linked to eras when conservative political ideas hold sway. "Resurgences of biological determinism correlate with periods of political retrenchment and destruction of social generosity," Gould writes. This is the reason for the popularity of The Bell Curve. Those who want to cut government funding for social programs find support in biological determinism. They believe—falsely, in Gould's opinion—that determinism proves that "the misery of the poor does result from the laws of nature and from the innate ineptitude of the disadvantaged."

It is the harm done by biological determinism to members of these disadvantaged groups that enrages Gould. Scientists must work ceaselessly to expose those whose misuse science in this way. "We must never forget the human meaning of lives diminished by these false arguments," Gould says.

Objectivity versus Impartiality in Science

Gould believes that commitment to facts is part of the scientific code of honor. Yet he thinks that the popular stereotype of the scientist as having "ice-cold impartiality" is destructive. Scientists are people first, and as such they cannot possibly be 100 percent neutral. "Impartiality (even if desirable) is unattainable by human beings with inevitable backgrounds, needs, beliefs, and desires," Gould says. This does not prevent scientists from being objective, however. Gould distinguishes between objectivity, which is attainable, and impartiality, which is not. "Objectivity must be operationally defined as fair treatment of data, not absence of preference," he writes.

But how can scientists treat data fairly no matter what they believe? The first step, Gould says, is to be aware of their personal preferences and prejudices in order to guard against them. That is why those scientists who maintain the illusion of impartiality are in such danger of making errors in their work. "No prescription [is] more suited to the exposure of fools," Gould states.

This is how an eminent neurologist such as the 19th-century Frenchman Paul Broca went astray. Gould makes a point of saying how much he respects Broca's careful measurements of the skulls in his craniometric study. But despite the accuracy of his numbers, Broca still came to the erroneous conclusion that white males are more intelligent than both nonwhites and women. How could such a respected scientist make such an egregious mistake? Gould says it was because Broca did not recognize the distorting effect of his own prejudices. Even before he measured the skulls, Broca thought that nonwhites and women were inferior to white men. So when reviewing his data, he made a series of unwarranted assumptions that simply confirmed what he already believed.

This is the same kind of error made by all the scientists whom Gould profiles in the book. But he singles out Charles Murray, the co-author of The Bell Curve, for special criticism. This was likely because Murray was alive at the time The Mismeasure of Man was published and could respond to Gould's charges. Gould believes that Murray isn't forthright about his background at a prominent conservative think tank; therefore, it is dishonest for Murray to pretend that he is merely facing biological facts in his statements about intelligence and racial groups. By contrast, Gould proudly confesses his own liberal political views. "But I remain capable of being fair with data and logical in argument," he adds. Gould's advice to all scientists is this: "We must identify [our] preferences in order to constrain their influence on our work."

Intelligence Cannot Be Ranked

In The Mismeasure of Man, Gould focuses on the scientific debate about intelligence as a prime example of the flaws of biologic determinism. He points out four premises—or assumptions—that books such as The Bell Curve make about intelligence. All four must be correct, or the conclusions of biological determinists are wrong. The four premises are:

  1. Intelligence is accurately depicted as a single number.
  2. This number can accurately rank people from smartest to dumbest.
  3. Intelligence is an inherited trait.
  4. Intelligence cannot be significantly increased.

Based on the review he makes of research studies and intelligence tests, and his statistical analysis of data, Gould takes issue with all four of these assumptions. "Intelligence [cannot] be meaningfully abstracted as a single number capable of ranking all people on a linear scale of intrinsic and unalterable mental worth," he says.

Gould disagrees completely with items 1 and 2 on the list. He only accepts item 3, the heritability of intelligence, with limitations—and he denies item 4 entirely. Although intelligence is partly inherited, it can be changed. Gould gives the example of height. Although short parents do have a strong likelihood of having short children, inheritance does not guarantee this. If a child is not born with the genes for tallness but is fed an exceptionally healthy diet, that child will be taller than expected. Inherited traits can be modified by environmental factors. So even if intelligence is partly heritable, children who are not born with the genes for "smartness" can still do well. Proper food, regular health care, and access to good schools can help them make the most of their potential.

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