The Mismeasure of Man | Study Guide

Stephen Jay Gould

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The Mismeasure of Man | Quotes

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1.

If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.


Charles Darwin, Introduction to the Revised and Expanded Edition

This quote by Gould's intellectual hero Darwin is so important that Gould repeats it three times: on the title page, in the introduction to the revised and expanded edition, and in the closing line of the book. It represents Gould's impassioned belief that the misuse of science in an attempt to justify racism, or to harm members of a disadvantaged group, is a grave moral error.

2.

Resurgences of biological determinism correlate with periods of political retrenchment and destruction of social generosity.


Stephen Jay Gould, Introduction to the Revised and Expanded Edition

The appeal to science to try and prove that a certain race, sex, or ethnic group is biologically inferior recurs every time in U.S. history that conservative politics prevail, Gould observes. Sometimes this happens during eras such as World War I when Americans feared foreigners. Sometimes it occurs during periods such as the 1990s when some Americans wanted to cut government programs for the poor.

3.

Determinist arguments for ranking people ... have recorded little more than social prejudice.


Stephen Jay Gould, Chapter 1

Gould minces no words with this blunt statement of the premise of The Mismeasure of Man. Despite their claims to simply be facing the scientific facts, Gould says that biological determinists are doing nothing of the kind. They are either misunderstanding or misrepresenting the scientific data in order to uphold their prejudices against certain groups of people.

4.

Their conclusion is that the Negro is no more a white man than a donkey is a horse or a zebra.


Etienne Serres, Chapter 2

Etienne Serres, a 19th-century French anatomist, wrote this in 1860 to decry polygeny, a theory that held that each race was a separate species. Serres links this belief to the institution of slavery in the United States. It was, Serres said, "a theory put into practice ... to the shame of civilization."

5.

Big people tend to have larger brains than small people. This fact does not imply that [they] are smarter.


Stephen Jay Gould, Chapter 2

Gould explains that the entire field of craniometry was misguided due to this faulty assumption that skull size, brain size, and intelligence are linked. He points out that elephants have larger brains than humans but that does not mean that elephants are smarter than people.

6.

Numbers ... do not ... specify the content of scientific theories. Theories are built upon the interpretation of numbers.


Stephen Jay Gould, Chapter 3

Gould makes this reference in regards to the skull-measuring work of 19th-century French neurologist and anthropologist Paul Broca. But he applies this critique to other determinists in the book as well. He aims to prove that their prior beliefs in the intellectual superiority of white males distorted their interpretation of their research data.

7.

A group with black skin ... has never been able to raise itself spontaneously to civilization.


Paul Broca, Chapter 3

As evidence of Broca's a priori belief in the inferiority of darker-skinned races, Gould cites this quote from an article Broca wrote for an anthropology encyclopedia. Broca was claiming that no true civilization had ever been built in sub-Saharan Africa. He then used this incorrect claim to support his conclusion that Africans are inferior.

8.

Distinguished women ... are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, [such as] a gorilla with two heads.


Gustave le Bon, Chapter 3

These words were written in 1879 by the man who founded the discipline of social psychology and who was a follower of Broca's. Gustave le Bon says that women are closer to children and "savages" than they are to adult men. He does admit that there are a few women who are superior to the average male, but this is not only rare but a perversion of nature.

9.

Evil, or stupid, or poor ... people are what they are as a result of their birth.


Stephen Jay Gould, Chapter 4

These words summarize Gould's take on the work of Italian criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso. Lombroso's theory that criminals are born bad and can be recognized by distinctive facial and cranial anatomy, was influential for a time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Gould sees Lombroso's theory as typical of conservative political arguments that seek the root of crime and poverty in individual behavior rather than in problems with society and its institutions.

10.

[Some are] affirming that an individual's intelligence ... cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism.


Alfred Binet, Chapter 5

The French psychologist is famous as the developer of the IQ test that is the foundation of tests still in use today. But in this quote from 1909, Binet explicitly denies that IQ is something inborn and permanent that can never be improved. In fact, the reason he devised the test was to figure out teaching methods to help students do better in school.

11.

Factor analysis, rooted in abstract statistical theory ... is, to put it bluntly, a bitch.


Stephen Jay Gould, Chapter 6

Factor analysis is the complex statistical method used by scientific researchers to find meaningful patterns in masses of raw numerical data. As an evolutionary biologist, Gould was trained in it and spends this entire chapter trying to make it clear for nonmathematical readers. The technique was originally developed by American psychologist Charles Spearman and used as evidence for the existence of a global mental ability called g, or general intelligence.

12.

We cannot reify g as a 'thing' unless we have convincing, independent information beyond the ... correlation itself.


Stephen Jay Gould, Chapter 6

Since the beginning of the book, Gould has warned against making the error of reification, or believing that an abstract concept used to understand data actually exists in biology. Although g can be demonstrated mathematically, that alone is not sufficient to prove the existence of general intelligence. Scientists need more information from fields such as biology, genetics, psychology, and neurology before they can conclude this with certainty.

13.

Biologists have recently affirmed ... that the overall genetic differences among human races are astonishingly small.


Stephen Jay Gould, Chapter 7

The science of genetics has unlocked a treasure chest of information that is helping to answer many age-old questions about human evolution. Studies of DNA show that the various races split off from a single ancestral group in Africa 100,000 years ago. Today fewer than eight percent of our genes differ from one race to the other, and there is no specific set of genes that can be used to identify race.

14.

[It is a] masterpiece of scientism, and the particular kind of anxiety and obfuscation that numbers impose upon nonprofessional commentators.


Stephen Jay Gould, Critique of The Bell Curve

Gould levels a blistering attack on The Bell Curve, the controversial 1994 book by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein. Here Gould states that the authors hide behind an intimidating barrage of statistics. This gives their conclusions about intelligence, race, and conservative social policy a false veneer of scientific credibility, but it also intimidates lay readers into thinking they aren't qualified to judge the arguments made in the book.

15.

Biology is not inevitable destiny; education is not an assault upon biological limits.


Stephen Jay Gould, Critique of The Bell Curve

The Mismeasure of Man is a book-long critique not only of The Bell Curve, but of the deterministic claim that genes dictate what people can do. Genes do not set limits on intelligence above which a person cannot rise. Rather, Gould states, they allow for a range of mental performance that can be enhanced by many environmental factors such as nutrition, home life, and education.

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