The mismeasure of man

by Stephen Jay Gould

Paper Book, 1996





New York : Norton, 1996.


This book was immediately hailed as a masterwork when first published in 1981, the answer to those who would rank people according to their supposed genetic gifts and limits. And yet the idea of innate limits--of biology as destiny--dies hard, as witness the attention devoted to "The Bell Curve," whose arguments are here so effectively anticipated and thoroughly undermined by biologist Gould. In this revised edition, Dr. Gould traces the subsequent history of the controversy on innateness. Further, he has added five essays on questions of "The Bell Curve" in particular and on race, racism, and biological determinism in general.--From publisher description.

User reviews

LibraryThing member irisiris
One reason why I love science is that it's self-correcting; unfortunately, the corrections take centuries because cultural institutions profit from inventions like "irrational" women and "sub-primate" racial groups. Rest in peace, Stephen Jay Gould: a great writer who takes the reader by the hand through a difficult path.
LibraryThing member thcson
A great book about the history of pseudo-scientific ideas relating to innate intelligence, from cranial measurements to the Bell Curve. The author's main point with regard to modern IQ tests is that normal variation within a population and differences in average values between populations are two entirely separate phenomena. Attempts to rank races by any measure are therefore misguided. Along the way he convincingly exposes the fraudulent methods of intelligence research, showing that experts who tout their social agendas by appeal to "objective" numbers should be distrusted. I particularly liked the way this book weaves together biology, statistics, the history of science and social policy in an informative manner.… (more)
LibraryThing member jeff.maynes
In this book, Gould is taking on a body of research broadly centered around the idea of an innate, heritable, quantifiable ability or disposition for general intelligence. The book is organized historically, as Gould looks through craniometric analyses (measuring intelligence via skull size), IQ tests, factor analysis and other steps in between.

In the introduction to this revised edition, Gould states that his hope is to bring his scientific training together with a historical interest. In this vein, he does not fully contextualize the research he is studying but instead looks back to the actual data and methods that this scientific work was built on. This is not to say that the book is historically naive. Far from it, Gould does a nice job tracing out real political consequences of the scientific work he discusses.

On one hand, this book is an effective demolition of arguments for the reification of intelligence, in its historic forms, and its modern revivals (e.g., "The Bell Curve"). Gould's grasp of tools for statistical analysis and their correct interpretation empowers him to show the fallacious reasoning underlying these arguments.

On the other, I think the real value in this book is what it illustrates about science. There are a few cases of fraud discussed here, but Gould notes that fraud is uninteresting. Sometimes they reveal that our standards for detecting fraud are inadequate, but fraud stands as an outlier in scientific practice. Our methods are designed to detect and punish it. What interests Gould far more is the way in which expectations and a priori beliefs can subtly and invisibly affect the scientific process itself. Gould ably illustrates through historical case the theory-laden nature of observation and reminds us of the care we must take to control for it. At the same time, we see how rigorous analysis of the methods and data can reveal these errors.

I use this book as a supplementary reading for courses which deal with the scientific method, and I highly recommend it for this use. It is also an engaging and interesting read for anyone interested in IQ (and its relatives) and its social implications.
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LibraryThing member lakesidequeen
This is one of my most recommended reads to folks doing psychological assessments. It tells you what they don't teach you in grad school!
Life changing!
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. Updated with a new forward to address the recently released book, The Bell Curve.
LibraryThing member Daedalus
This should be mandatory reading. It's a combination of that good and that informative.
LibraryThing member snash
By using the various attempts through time of craniology and IQ testing to measure man, The Mismeasure of Man illustrates how science is a product of its times. Scientists often unconsciously collect and interpret data to fit their preconceived theory. Any hope of objectivity must first acknowledge this characteristic of man. The book shows this in a convincing readable manner.… (more)
LibraryThing member dcunning11235
This book is frustratingly hard to rate.

On the one hand it disturbingly documents the history of "scientific" racism/prejudice re: temperament/intelligence/etc.

On the other hand it is frustratingly out of date, even as a historical source; pages and pages are used to 'disprove' e.g. craniology or the validity/goodness of forced sterilization which presumably no one believes in anymore, outside of some kooks who are not going to read this book.

On the one hand it documents the invalid attempts to 'prove' the existence and measurement of g by factor analysis and testing done in the 1910's, and the role of this proof of the supposed racial inferiority of e.g. blacks to justify the... racial inferiority of blacks.

On the other hand, the book doesn't address more recent research on the heritability of g (than the early 1900's!) or non-racial/racist dimensions of this (e.g. Gould leaves the unwary reader with the impression that all research on heritability is race/racism or class based.)

On the one hand a questioning of (some aspects of) g, heritability of g, evolutionary/social psychology/biology is given (this is the argument/question of the existence of modules/a multitude of evolved behaviors, for those who are at least somewhat familiar with these debates.)

On the other hand, Gould's answer is literally that the mind is like a general purpose computer (he uses this as an analogy at one point, but then also states twice that the mind is a 'general' thinking device, which is how it can so adaptably implement different cultures.) But this is problematic, to say the least, if there is no such thing as general intelligence.

All in all, a passionate argument against racism, including the (highly, highly likely to be) invalid claim that races are separable by intelligence/IQ/g/etc. But far from perfect and showing its age quite a bit.
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LibraryThing member Paulagraph
I found the Introduction to the Revised and Expanded Edition: "Thoughts at Age Fifteen" to be perhaps the most useful section of the book. In it, in addition to recapitulating his aims and his primary claims (see below), Gould lays down guidelines for honest scholarly (especially scientific)work, in proposing that "the best form of objectivity lies in explicitly identifying preferences so that their influence can be recognized and countermanded."

"The Mismeasure of Man therefore focuses upon the analysis of great data sets in the history of biological determinism. This book is a chronicle of deep and instructive fallacies . . . in the origin and defense of the theory of unitary, linearly ranked, innate, and minimally alterable intelligence."

Gould debunks the strict heritability of intelligence as proposed by those such as the authors of The Bell Curve by claiming that "we commit a classic category mistake if we equate the causes of normal variations with the reasons for pathologies (just as we make a category error in arguing that because IQ has moderate heritability within groups, the causes for average differences between groups must be genetic . . .)."

In short "This book . . . is about the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups--races, classes, or sexes--are innately inferior and deserve their status" and "the primary theme of this book--the tenacity of unconscious bias and the surprising malleability of "objective," quantitative data in the interests of a preconceived idea."
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LibraryThing member lisamunro
In this book, first published in 1981, Gould argues that understandings about the intrinsic intelligence and human worth drawn from mental testing (IQ testing) based on theories of biological determinism are absolutely morally indefensible, but also just scientifically wrong. Nevertheless, he argues that the scientists that found data to support this idea were not acting maliciously, but rather reproducing deeply held cultural beliefs about the social and biological inferiority of non-white peoples. According to Gould, biological determinism, despite being wrong, is an enormously powerful idea that never quite goes away. In fact, it resurfaces typically in times of socio-economic upheaval and stress. Biological determinism has political consequences as well. When groups of people can be shown to be inherently inferior and incapable of change, governments have little or no responsibility to provide these people with any sort of social safety net or support.
In his words, "the Mismeasure of Man is a critique of a specific theory of intelligence often supported by particular interpretation of a certain style of mental testing: the theory of unitary, genetically based, unchangeable intelligence." Gould sets out to re-evaluate the scientific findings of two generations of mental testers and re-calculate their data.
The first group involves nineteenth century physical anthropologists and scientists who relied on physical methods to provide evidence about the mental capabilities of African-Americans. This group of scientists promoted craniometry, phrenology, and physical measurements of skulls in order to make their arguments about black inferiority. Gould is able to show that by selectively but unconsciously skewing the data, these scientists were able to definitely "prove" that whites were smarter and had more innate intelligence.
The second group of scientists moved beyond the scientific limitations of the craniometrists and declared that intelligence could not be measured physically, but rather mentally. They drew on the work on Binet, who created the first set of IQ tests to identify mentally handicapped children to provide them with help. Binet's ideas became the basis of widespread IQ tests that reached popularity during the 1920s during a period of national hysteria about the effects of Eastern European immigration. Because the tests were in English and had a heavily cultural bias to them, they showed that Eastern Europeans had very low IQs. Things like this led to immigration restrictions and generated eugenic ideas about "feebleminded-ness".
Gould also investigates the mathematical proof involved in proving that a measurable general intelligence even exists. Using factor analysis, a common scientific technique to search for general explanations among disparate sets of data, Gould attempts to re-evaluate the mathematical proof that demonstrated that general intelligence is real. This part of the book got very complex and although I applaud Gould's attempts to bring factor analysis to an understandable level for general audiences, I confess that I didn't understand much of it outside of a very basic grip on the idea that mathematicians have not been able to prove this.
The bit about factor analysis is important to understanding Gould's attacks on the 1994 book, The Bell Curve, which relies heavily on this technique and assumptions about its validity for intelligence as its central theme. Included in the book are a few essays, including one pointed critique of The Bell Curve. Additionally, Gould includes an essay about Darwin, which is good reading.
The writing style is very accessible, especially considering Gould's professional training as a paleontologist. He does tend to use long excerpts from books, which I suppose could be considered telling rather than showing, but some paraphrasing would have done better in certain parts. I got a bit lost in the factor analysis part, (I'm a historian, not a scientist!) but I appreciate his attempts to make it understandable. Although written prior to more recent histories of science that use gender as a category of analysis, it would have been interesting to see an analysis of the ways that racial understandings of IQ intersected with popular and scientific (also erroneous) ideas about the limited intellectual capacities of women.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of mental testing and race.
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LibraryThing member DarthDeverell
In The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould examines the manner in which scientists described intelligence as “unitary, linearly rankable, [and] innate” in order to argue for social programs or against aiding the disadvantaged (pg. 23). He combines his knowledge as a paleontologist with that of a social historian in exploring how these ideas developed and changed over time. Gould’s book “discusses, in historical perspective, a principal theme within biological determinism: the claim that worth can be assigned to individuals and groups by measuring intelligence as a single quantity. Two major sources of data have supported this theme: craniometry (or measurement of the skull) and certain styles of psychological testing” (pg. 52). He works to “criticize the myth that science itself is an objective enterprise, done properly only when scientists can shuck the constraints of their culture and view the world as it really is” (pg. 53). Indeed, beyond summarizing the scientific concepts, he spends a great deal of time demonstrating how scientists could not be truly objective and always reflected the concerns of their time.
Gould begins with an examination of those who focused on physical differences in their quest for biological determinism. He writes, “Racial prejudice may be as old as recorded human history, but its biological justification imposed the additional burden of intrinsic inferiority upon despised groups, and precluded redemption by conversion or assimilation. The ‘scientific’ argument has formed a primary line of attack for more than a century” (pg. 63). Those performing scientific measurements of the differences in skull size, like Samuel George Morton, presented all of their data in order to prove that they hadn’t altered it. Gould finds their flaw, writing, “The prevalence of unconscious finagling, on the other hand, suggests a general conclusion about the social context of science. For if scientists can be honestly self-deluded to Morton’s extent, then prior prejudice may be found anywhere, even in the basics of measuring bones and toting sums” (pg. 88). These biological determinists later merged their work with the worldview Darwin presented. Gould writes, “Evolution and quantification formed an unholy alliance; in a sense, their union forged the first powerful theory of ‘scientific’ racism – if we define ‘science’ as many do who misunderstand it most profoundly: as any claim apparently backed by copious numbers” (pg. 106). This led “any investigator, convinced beforehand of a group’s inferiority, can select a small set of measures to illustrate its greater affinity with apes” (pg. 118). Their own biases critically shaped their results.
Of IQ tests, Gould writes, “The hereditarian interpretation of IQ arose in America, largely through prosetylization of the three psychologists – H. H. Goddard, L. M. Terman, and R. M. Yerkes – who translated and popularized the tests in this country” (pg. 29). The founder, Alfred Binet, sought to create a system whereby schoolchildren could receive a diagnosis and necessary assistance, but American social scientists used it to differentiate people into hierarchies based on an assumption of innate intelligence. E.G. Boring, working with the Army under Yerkes, tried to prove the hereditary hypothesis of intelligence using 160,000 cases. Of his effort, Gould writes, “Boring began with the same hereditarian assumption that invalidated all the results: that the tests, by definition, measure innate intelligence” (pg. 246). While his results were invalid, they still had an impact, shaping ideas that supported Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s decision in Buck v. Bell (1927), which justified forced sterilization.
Looking forward, Gould writes of biological determinism, “Resurgences of biological determinism correlate with episodes of political retrenchment, particularly with campaigns for reduced government spending on social programs, or at times of fear among ruling elites, when disadvantaged groups sow serious social unrest or even threaten to usurp power” (pg. 28). He does, however see worth in debunking these old theories. Gould writes, “If it is to have any enduring value, sound debunking must do more than replace one social prejudice with another. It must use more adequate biology to drive out fallacious ideas” (pg. 352). He continues, “I believe that modern biology provides a model standing between the despairing claim that biology has nothing to teach us about human behavior and the deterministic theory that specific items of behavior are genetically programed [sic] by the action of natural selection” (pg. 357).
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LibraryThing member Stevil2001
Stephen Jay Gould takes on everyone who's ever tried to quantify human intelligence with a simple numerical value, be it measuring skull capacities or the Stanford-Binet "intelligence quotient." It's an illuminating look at how easy it is to blind yourself. It's a nuanced critique of objectivity from someone who (unlike many who critique objectivity) is sympathetic to the overall epistemology of science. As he states it, "I criticize the myth that science itself is an objective enterprise, done properly only when scientists can shuck the constraints of their culture and view the world as it really is" (53). His gist is that science will always be a culturally embedded enterprise, so rather than deny that fact, scientists should work to understand their biases, because, ideally, science can "be a powerful agent for questioning and even overturning the assumptions that nurture it" (55).

His discussion of Samuel George Morton, who measured over one thousand skulls in order to prove black mental inferiority, is fascinating (see pp. 83-104). Morton was an adherent to polygeny, the theory that the races of man have separate origins, which allows one to ethically endorse all sorts of racist practices. He fudged his analysis to prove his point, but could not have done so consciously, because he published his raw data along with his work, easily allowing anyone to discover the fudging. Whenever he miscalculated in favor of his own theories, he never double-checked, because he "knew" that he was right.

Gould shows how this kind of thing happens again and again-- but offers the promise that good science, well conducted, will root out this kind of bias, hopefully sooner rather than later. It's easy to laugh at some of the ridiculous judgments made in the name of "science"... until you realize that this kind of science has informed the slavery debate, immigration policy, school reform, and many other things with massively real consequences for real people. Hopefully we can console ourselves with the belief that most of these people probably would have been racists anyway (!); science was just a convenient crutch to lean on.
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