The mismeasure of man

by Stephen Jay Gould

Hardcover, 1981




New York : Norton, 1981.


Examines the history and inherent flaws of the tests science has used to measure intelligence.

Media reviews

ONE fitting way to begin this review would be to offer a solemn account of the sharp blow that the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould has delivered to Arthur Jensen and the apostles of innate, hereditary, hierarchical intelligence in human beings. . . The interest of Stephen Jay Gould's
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latest book really lies in watching the author's intelligence at play.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member JollyContrarian
Some critics complain that in The Mismeasure of Man Stephen J. Gould attacks a straw man: craniometry is, after all, no more than fin-du-siècle quackery with which no self-respecting scientist would dream of having truck these says. Likewise, the naïve early attempts at to link IQ with heredity
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that Gould spends so much time recounting have long since been soundly and uncontroversially demolished, so Gould at best is shooting fish in a barrel, and many suspect him of something more mendacious than that. Some suspect a political agenda. The late Stephen Jay Gould, you see, was a *Marxist*, after all.

That particular, ad hominem, charge has mystified me the more I've read of Gould's work. I first encountered Gould in discouraging circumstances where his evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium was subjected to a contumelious lambasting at the hands of (usually) mild-mannered philosopher Daniel Dennett, in his (otherwise) wonderful and thought-provoking book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.

Taken as I was by Dennett's general argument at the time (I'm less swooned by it these days), I thought his vituperative treatment of Gould was out of character - from what I can tell Dennett is a positively genial chap - but otherwise thought nothing of it, other than supposing Gould to be part of the problem and not the solution.

There I surely would have left it, and Stephen J. Gould, were it not for Richard Dawkins' silly entry to the "religious wars" The God Delusion - as good an example as one could ask for of how perfectly thoughtful, sensible and smart scientists tend to make arses of themselves when they stray from their stock material. About the only interesting thing in Dawkins' book was how, again, poor old Steve Gould, now sadly deceased, got another shoeing, this time for his pragmatic attempt to reconcile science and religion in Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life.

This time I had the BS radar switched on, found Dawkins' attack to be pretty obviously misguided (Dawkins may be a great biologist but his epistemology would have had him kicked out of PHIL 101) and wound up being more, not less, persuaded by Gould's concept of "non-overlapping magisteria".

In any case, at the very least this Gould chap seemed like the sort of contrarian agitator who was clearly a good sport and an interesting critter, but more to the point it sounded like he had something interesting to say. And so, it transpired, he does. I've since read a number of his books and articles, all of them articulate, beautifully written, witty, erudite and excellent in substance, and never once have I seen any suggestion of Marxist bias (eager followers of my reviews will know I have no particular sympathy with left wing politics).

As regards The Mismeasure of Man such insinuations would be especially ironic, since Gould's very point is to illustrate that well-meaning and well respected scientists are all too prone to be deceived into equating their wilful interpretations as scientific truths. In fact, I suspect Gould would even concede to some bias: that, he would say, is the point.

Against all the odds, there seem to be a few brave souls who hold out hope for a hereditary aspect to intelligence: indeed a couple seem to be active on this site. Gould's only substantive point for them is to say that, whatever we even mean by "intelligence", it is so obviously situational and environment-dependent (this shouldn't be news to anyone who's seen Crocodile Dundee) - in other words *socially constructed* - that seeking to tie it to something like biology - which by its very definition isn't - is on its face a waste of time. Gould the liberal then adds, by way of political commentary, that the harmless if silly conclusion that the two *are* related is liable to be misinterpreted by unscrupulous (or simply unsuspecting) people, particularly if they have a particular social agenda which would find it convenient to establish innate differences between - for which read "innate deficiencies in certain (other)" - racial groups. That isn't a scientific point, it's a political one, and to my (un-Marxist) mind, Gould is perfectly right to make it.

Now a different objection to Gould's enterprise might be that such a point doesn't require 300 pages of careful demolition of unequivocally bunk science to make (unless your correspondent is funded by the Pioneer Foundation, apparently: and for those lucky souls, not even 300 pages of argument will do it). But the methodological point is the one that interests Gould: how the hypothesis conditions the evidence sought but even the interpretation placed upon it. Gould's patient history would function as a case study for Thomas Kuhn's superb essay on the contingency of Scientific knowledge The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Gould also sees analogy between the hereditarian's linear view of intelligence with the naive ordering of all creation to accord with a supposed evolutionary progression from bacterium to homo sapiens sapiens. Again, it's not the Marxist but the Paleontologist who patiently explains that evolution doesn't work like that: it is better viewed as an expanding bush that a linear progression.

To be sure, in the early parts of this book there is a level of detail that seems superfluous, but the later aspects, and particular Gould's insight into statistical correlation and factor analysis are fascinating and well explained for a layman, and the handsomeness of his turn of phrase and the constancy of his erudition - scientists tend to be poorly read outside their fields, but this was most certainly not the case of the late professor Gould - make this a fascinating and enjoyable work by a profoundly wise and sadly missed thorn in the establishment's side.

They don't make them like this anymore, alas.
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LibraryThing member DonSiano
When I was eleven years old, my mother "accidently" tossed my stamp collection out with the trash. It was one of the best things to happen to me as a boy. I never started another one, and went on to become a scientist.

It was the guy who figured out what killed the dinosaurs, Luis Alvarez, who said
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"I don't like to say bad things about paleontologists, but they're really not very good scientists. They're more like stamp collectors." He must have had Stephen Jay Gould in mind.

The stamps Gould collects in this work for undergraduates are mostly very old, and can't go anywhere. Nineteenth century suppositions about the connections of physical types to feeblemindedness and criminality, long discredited by modern scientific research, are here resurrected and their errors displayed with all the fondness of a philatelist contemplating an upside down airplane. This stamp collector, though, is not content with just putting them into an album, but seems to want to persuade the reader that airplanes can't fly.

His next stamp depicts the very first IQ test, printed up about a century ago. This one seems to have the wrong number of perforations along its edge, and it is a little bit off-center. The only possible conclusion is that all subsequent IQ tests must be incorrect too...

Actually, the core of Gould's argument is really that the post office can't produce a perfect stamp because they have too much interest in delivering the mail. Moreover, the post office cannot even price its stamps correctly because they belong to an immoral corrupt capitalist system-- the good guys like himself will eventually put it out of business once and for all, one undergraduate at a time.
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LibraryThing member iayork
One of the most important books I own: Are there entire populations of people who are born with an innate, quantifiable intelligence greater than others? Can intelligence even be quantified? According to Gould, science has not yet arrived at a meaningful and scientifically legitimate understanding
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of this concept of intelligence, nor a way to measure it, nor any proof that certain races are naturally smarter than others.

I would expect an eminent evolutionist to spend his time making a case for how biological diversity lends itself to multiple levels of mental ability through natural selection. But instead Gould puts on a turtleneck and tweed and plays historian--quite well, too! His scientific background gives him the credibility to explore this topic like no historian could.

Gould walks through the history of science's attempt to quantify human intelligence and demonstrates how and why each method eventually failed. But of course this type of science exists today in various types of IQ tests, bell curves, all of which are used to not only measure this thing we call intelligence, but also by some to argue that some groups are naturally superior to others. Gould analyzes the history, methods and underlying theories behind these contemporary incarnations.

The book is readable, well illustrated, well documented, and has a lot of solid historical analysis.
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LibraryThing member Devil_llama
The author details the history of IQ testing and its weaknesses as a tool in deciding public policy. As always, the author writes with a witty, conversational style that makes the book accessible to non-scientists.
LibraryThing member kgeorge
The author discusses the unconscious errors scientists and researchers make in collecting and interpreting their data in order to fit their preconceived theories. He takes the reader through the history of IQ testing and explains the pseudo-scientific techniques used to gather the data, such as
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cranial measurements and biased, inadequate intelligence tests. Gould also discusses misconceptions people have regarding interpretation of the Bell Curve. Gould writes this book in a conversational tone, which makes it readable by non-scientists. It is well illustrated, documented and has a variety of solid historical analysis. This is a book I would use when discussing interpreting statistical results or creating non-biased assessments/surveys. This could also be used in a science class during discussion of the scientific method or a psychology class.
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LibraryThing member mldavis2
This book takes a hard look at early 20th century attempts by several psychologists and scientists to prove that human intelligence has genetic components defined and separated by factors such as race and ethnicity. Gould takes several of these scientists to task for egregiously biased methodology
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in testing and their conclusions.

While most honest, ethical scientists today would dismiss such claims of ethnic superiority, significant damage has been done by lingering refusal to accept the fallacy of such claims. Gould carefully exposes the errors and biases of these early pioneers in human intelligence. The book is somewhat long and tedious as a carefully written and documented academic account would naturally be, but it is a classic from an era that must be understood if we are to move beyond our understanding of human inequality.
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