Literature Study GuidesThe Mismeasure Of ManThree Centuries Perspectives On Race And Racism Summary

The Mismeasure of Man | Study Guide

Stephen Jay Gould

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The Mismeasure of Man | Three Centuries' Perspectives on Race and Racism | Summary



Age-Old Fallacies of Thinking and Stinking

This section is about the 17th-century English physician Sir Thomas Browne. He was what we would call today a debunker, and he wrote a book in which he demolished false beliefs held by many people of his day. Gould focuses on Browne's disproof of the insulting notion that Jewish people have a special, offensive odor. Readers in the United States may be amused to know that when writing about ignorance, Browne compared it to wandering in the wilds of America.

Browne outlines a method of reason and observation for figuring out whether a claim is true or false. For example, Browne debunks the myth that men have one less rib than women. This stems from one version of the creation story in the Old Testament that says that Eve was made from Adam's rib. Browne notes that anyone who bothers to count the ribs on men and women will find that they have the same number. The claim makes no logical sense either. Adam's rib was removed after he was made, not due to some genetic defect. If someone loses an arm in an accident, they don't pass that on to their children.

Another of Browne's points was that although Jews are members of a religious group, they were not a distinct hereditary group because they had intermarried with others. Biological determinists make a similar error today when they argue that certain races are intellectually inferior to others. The Bell Curve states that as a group African Americans have a lower IQ than do whites. But contemporary African Americans are not a discrete genetic group. Most African Americans have a diverse heritage that includes whites, among others. Since that is true, Gould says it is nonsense to claim that the lower average IQ test score of the group labeled African American reflects some hereditary racial difference.

Racial Geometry

Here Gould tells the story of how white people came to be called Caucasian. The term was invented in 1795 by the German naturalist J.F. Blumenbach, who also coined the racial categories used today. Blumenbach chose this name because, in his view, the people of the Caucasus—a mountain range in Russia—were exceptionally beautiful.

Blumenbach divided humans into five races.

  1. Caucasian: light-skinned people from Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia
  2. Mongolian: people from Eastern Asia
  3. Ethiopian: darker-skinned people from Africa
  4. American: natives of North and South America
  5. Malay: Pacific Islanders and Australian aborigines

Blumenbach's mentor and idol, the Swedish taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus, had devised a four-race scheme. It was based on geography, skin color, and body stance, but also upon alleged temperament. The important point is that Linnaeus's system did not rank any race as superior or inferior to another—it was not hierarchical. Blumenbach's rationale for adding a fifth race changed this and made his racial scheme a hierarchical one.

Gould finds this interesting because Blumenbach himself was egalitarian in his views on race. Gould sees Blumenbach's unintended introduction of rank into race as an instructive example of how unconscious bias can influence scientific observations and conclusions. Blumenbach lived in an era where social rank and the notion of progress dominated the way everyone thought, and without even realizing it, Blumenbach incorporated these ideas into his racial scheme as well. He began with the notion that all races came from a common beautiful ancestor, and that races ought to be defined by their departure from this ideal. For reasons that seem biased to us today, Blumenbach chose white Europeans—or Caucasians—as the epitome of beauty.

He then saw two equal lines of descent from Caucasians. One line led first to Native Americans and then to Mongolians or Orientals (Asians). Another line led first to Malays (Pacific Islanders and Australian aborigines) and then to Ethiopians (Africans). In terms of beauty—Blumenbach's definition of racial perfection—whites were alone at the top of a pyramid. Africans and Asians were at the bottom, with Native Americans and Pacific Islanders together in the middle.

The Moral State of Tahiti—and of Darwin

This essay appeared in one of Gould's previous books, Eight Little Piggies (1993). It concerns Darwin's first published article, an essay he cowrote with Robert FitzRoy. FitzRoy was the captain of the Beagle, the boat on which Darwin took the famous five-year voyage around the globe that inspired his theory of evolution. Darwin's first publication was not a scientific piece on plants or animals but a defense of the work done by Christian missionaries in Tahiti. A famous Russian explorer named Otto von Kotzebue had argued that missionaries were unwitting agents of imperialist colonial powers, destroying native culture. Darwin and FitzRoy pushed back. They pointed to the friendly, respectful, and piously Christian natives of Tahiti as evidence that the missionaries had improved life on that south Pacific island.

By modern standards, however, Darwin held what would be judged derogatory views. He wrote that white European males were superior to both women and members of other races. Although many writers have claimed otherwise, Gould denies that Darwin ever changed those views. Gould matches quotations where Darwin speaks favorably of certain peoples with those where he showed great contempt of other groups.

Despite this, Darwin remains Gould's personal hero. Gould defends him from charges of both racism and sexism, primarily on the grounds that Darwin—like all of us—was a prisoner of the biases of his time. Gould distinguishes between those historical figures who actively persecuted women and nonwhites and those who, like Darwin, simply parroted the prevailing ethos of the day.

Gould also defends Darwin because he was not a biological determinist. Even if Darwin believed that one group was inferior to another due to inherited differences, he did not think this doomed members of the group to being a permanent underclass. Darwin believed that with education, not just individuals but an entire group could improve their lot. He saw an essential unity among all people. He once wrote that although the races differ markedly, his contact with native South Americans while aboard the Beagle proved to him "how similar their minds were to ours."

Darwin was also an ardent opponent of slavery. Thus, Gould says that if we were to try Darwin today in the court of modern opinion, he would "pass through the pearly gates, with perhaps a short stay in purgatory to think about paternalism."


It is not immediately obvious why Gould included these three essays about historical figures at the end of the revised 1996 edition of his book. It is not until the final essay on Darwin that it becomes clear. Gould carefully chose the three individuals he profiled as a way to answer some of the harshest critics of The Mismeasure of Man who chastised Gould for what they claim is his unfairness in judging scientists of the past by standards of the present. Gould refutes this by showing how much he is still able to admire these men despite their racist and sexist views.

In the final section on Darwin and Tahiti, Gould says that there is a legitimate way to praise some historical figures and condemn others. "Those we now judge most harshly urged that inferiority be used as an excuse for dispossession and slavery," Gould writes. Although he does not call them by name, it is clear that Gould is thinking here of the determinists whose work he critiqued throughout the book. Samuel George Morton's skull measurements were used to support slavery. The interpretation of IQ test results by men like Henry H. Goddard, Lewis M. Terman, and Robert M. Yerkes was used to exclude immigrants from coming to the United States. And books like The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein are still being used in the 21st century to try to cut assistance to nonwhites and the poor.

By contrast, Gould writes, "Those we most admire in retrospect urged a moral principle of equal rights and nonexploitation, whatever the biological status of people." This is the same standard by which we should judge ourselves, Gould says. He closes the book with the same quote from Darwin with which he began it. "If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."

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