Loved Books: The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen J Gould

Stephen Jay Gould is a voice that is missed in today’s world. Smart, compassionate and analytical but also with a deft capacity to write about complex ideas in an engaging way. In The Mismeasure of Man Gould stepped out of his main field of paleontology and looked at the history of attempts to measure intelligence and the racist assumptions that have run through those attempts. This is the 1981 edition which doesn’t have the chapters on The Bell Curve but still a worthy read.

Is it perfect? No but then a popular account of broad area of research necessarily simplifies and skips over some details. As gateway into understanding the issues there is no better book that I’m aware of.

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16 responses to “Loved Books: The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen J Gould”

  1. Yes!

    I should add that his critique of The Bell Curve was the only one I read at the time the book came out which was scientific rather than emotional. The Bell Curve presented a statistical analysis of several different sources of data to make the claim that black people are less intelligent than white people, and that black people in Africa were less intelligent than black people in America (presumably owing to racial mixing). It was a profoundly disturbing thing to read for anyone who considered him/herself a scientist.

    Most of the people objecting to the book made wild claims, ranging from denying intelligence could be measured to denying it exists at all. I can remember feeling sick at my stomach thinking, “My God, maybe it’s really true.” When I learned Gould had written a scientific attack on the book, I went to great pains to get a copy to read. (I had to ask the local public library to get me a copy of the work it appeared in.) He did not disappoint.

    Gould pointed out that much of the data was suspect. For example, the comparison between American and African blacks was based on an English-language test which was given to non-native speakers of English in Africa. If I remember right, another test was given to a cohort of college students for one race and randomly chosen people for the other.

    For the longitudinal data, which was above reproach, he showed that the statistical method used on it was creative, to say the least. The upshot was that Gould’s analysis made it crystal clear that the book was intended to deceive. It brought tears to my eyes, which doesn’t usually happen when I’m reading that type of work. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. @Greg:
    I’m pretty sure that only *some* forms of intelligence can be measured by testing. It’s damned hard to measure real-time problem solving, or the ability to think laterally.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s the claim, though. That all the different manifestations of intelligence that we like to talk about are all powerfully correlated with a single scalar called the g factor. Accordingly, you don’t need to test those other things; just a general test of problem-solving ability will do.

      Although there’s some controversy over this, it seems to be broadly accepted among scientists who study intelligence and cognition. The catch is that if you want to compare the intelligence of two individuals, the test needs to be unbiased for other differences between them. For example, if the test is in English but that’s not the native language of one of the subjects, then it will incorrectly show him/her to be less intelligent.


      • I’d count myself as somebody who ‘believes’ in g as a thing – at least in Flynn’s sense of something like measuring how physically fit you are in general requires measuring specific exercises. However, we have a chain of inference from actual measure > proxy to g> g> g as a proxy for other things> actual intelligence whatever that is – and each step is weak and has less than stellar correlations. So not useless or meaningless but very shaky grounds on which to build any edifice

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      • I found Gould’s rejection of g unconvincing. If there’s a strong correlation between performance on different skills it is a natural inference that there’s a common underlying cause for the variance, which we may label g. But there are exceptions, and the exceptions are disproportionally the greatest extremes of talent, whether on one hand the abilities of savants, or on the other my near complete lack of musical talent.

        The rest of the book did strike me as an object lesson in the ability of humans to see what they expect to see, and as a warning to be extra-sceptical about work that addresses subjects on which people are liable to have prejudices.


      • I am somewhat skeptical of IQ as an intra-population measure. There’s a hefty variance in the scores I’ve recorded, which implies that one either can’t directly compare results from different tests, or that a result for a particular person is not a precise measurement. Furthermore IQ tests strike me as a trainable skill, not something innate. I am greatly skeptical of IQ as an inter-population measure. Many tests are obviously culturally biased, and even the best tests may have missed a bias because the authors failed to recognise the possibility – I seem to recall seeing an example (here?) of a cultural bias that I never would have imagined. Gould provided examples that challenged the assumption that inter-population differences were innate, such as, IIRC, southern (US) whites scoring worse than northern blacks. Furthermore, it strikes me that intelligence being an advantageous trait is inconsistent with the magnitude of the differences claimed by the “race realists”


        • Yes – I argue that answering any test question is full of cultural assumptions. Comparing responses cross culturally has an uncontrolled variable. Notably tests that take this seriously go to great lengths to manage this but acknowledge the limitation (eg PISA). The junk research comparing iq between countries doesn’t and isn’t even using the same tests.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. The fly on the ointment is that Gould was wrong on Morton.
    And while he raised some valid objection to sociobiology his arguments are overall a mixed bag. Finally I might get pushback on this: Evolutionary Psychology is certainly not a mature science yet but there is some good research being done and an evolutionary psychology is quite possible and desirable.


    • Gould cited quite a few examples of bias. It’s not a huge surprise he got one wrong.

      As the article points out, the real error in Morton’s work was assuming that human brain size is strongly correlated with intelligence of the individual. (I suspect size makes somedifference, but apparently it’s swamped by other factors we don’t understand yet.)

      As for evolutionary psychology, Steven Pinker made use of it in his great book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” It’s not quite the same as sociobiology (which Gould was criticizing), but even that seems to be getting another look these days. Just because something was used in the past to further a racist agenda doesn’t mean it has to be used that way. But I think it does mean it’ll have to pass a higher bar to be taken seriously.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My opinion of evolutionary psychology is that it’s potentially a legitimate research program, but that firstly its core assumptions are not necessarily true, and secondly there are a lot of just-so stories and other shoddy work which just happen to support the political status quo. I’d suggest Hrdy’s Mother Nature as an example of the better end of the spectrum.


      • Steven Pinker is a big a booster of Quillette, which does make me wonder if PsyEvo isn’t destined to end with calipers and racism, no matter how well-intentioned it starts.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, he pointed out himself that he’d gotten one thing wrong and biased the results toward what he’d expected to find.
        The argument “he got Morton wrong, his book is invalid!” doesn’t convince.
        Evo-psych does some good work but as countless critics have documented there’s a lot of bullshit out there under that label too (Marlene Zuk’s “Paleofantasy” does a great job deconstructing the myth that we’re unevolved cavemen and cavewomen with iPhones).


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