In praise of Stephen Jay Gould and The Mismeasure of Man

Last March, Michael Scroggins posted about “Gene Promoters: On Chagnon and Diamond,” pointing out that the connection between race, genetics, and social deterimination was rearing its head again.  He was writing in response to a blog in Discovery Magazine by Razib Khan “Against the Cultural Anthropologists” in which Khan wished that cultural anthropology could be voted off the academic island.

The result was a spirited back and forth between supporters of Razib, and Michael over the month or so in which by and large I took the side of Michael.  In the spirited back and forth, both sides tossed out their favorite philosophers of science.  We found out that by and large we have been reading different things, and that when we do read the same things, we tend to have different views, often depending on our disciplinary background.

One of my favorites discussing the relationships between race/genetics and intelligence is Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man, which was published in 1981. Gould’s central point is that science itself is a cultural product, and therefore cannot be “objective” when measuring things.  In Gould’s case, the cultural product is i. q. tests which are used to stratify individuals in a fashion which reinforces the pre-exsiting status quo.  And of course in  the case of American i.q. testing, what was reproduced was the pre-existing status quo which stratified people by race, immigrant status, language ability, etc.

At that point, I was assured by commenters that Gould was thoroughly debunked by critics in subsequent decades, especially by a student who pointed out that Gould was sloppy (at best) with cranial data which did not support his thesis.  This was reported in the New York Times in 2011, as described here.

And then in the excitement of a couple of hundred blog postings, I had to admit: I hadn’t read Gould in sometime—and promised myself I would have a look later with a more jaundiced eye.

I did this last week, and I must say that even if the cranial data were “mismeasured” or worse faked, it does not change much Gould’s conclusion about the persistent misuse of psychometrics to reproduce a pre-existing social order, in this case that of American forms of racial stratification.  In other words, Gould could have left out the example, and the conclusion about the embeddedness of science itself in culture is not refuted—and this is Gould’s most basic point, not whether the skulls were mishandled.

In contrast, when I critiqued the mishandling of genetic data in the evaluation of the Mlabri hunter-gatherers social origins in Thailand, there was a change in the conclusion (though admittedly the authors disagree with me).

My net conclusion remains that I think that the natural sciences have much to learn from the social sciences about culturally embedded assumptions.  Science is not immutable—as you learn in Science 101, all scientific theory is subject to challenge, and will eventually be cast aside.  Dare I say it, this too will happen to even the powerful theory of evolution.  And if you want to know when and how that will happen, I would recommend reading Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, as well as Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  No scientific theory can last forever.  Indeed, for those things we believe will last forever, Durkheim has another word it—religion.

I also found that I need to read much more in the genetic sciences in order to write critique that goes beyond the occasional blog post.  So well, where does that leave me? Razib brought up the work of Luigi Cavalli-Sforza whose use of genetic and linguistic data I was quite impressed with some years ago.  I see that Cavalli-Sforza has co-authored a new book  Genetics of Human Population which looks interesting.  I will look forward to seeing if he is able to develop his story while also at least implicitly acknowledging that as a science, genetics is also a cultural product.

9 thoughts on “In praise of Stephen Jay Gould and The Mismeasure of Man

  1. *Genetics of Human Populations* is a reissue of a very old book (from 1960s). but there’s a lot of good information/models in there. cavalli-sforza told me that colleagues had said it was still useful to them, so it would be worthwhile to bring out this edition.

  2. Razib, I’ve ordered “Genetics of Human Population” form Amazon already, and will have a look at it. I haven’t looked at his work very recently–last time was at least 10 years ago. I picked it at Amazon because it is his most current–if you have a better suggestion, please let me now.

  3. The hilarious irony in this back and forth is that if you turn to page 34 in “The Genetics of Human Population” you can find the following definition of a gene:

    A Gene is thus a DNA segment recognizable by its specific function.

    This definition is essentially the same as Johannsen used in 1909 when he coined the term “gene” and described it as a unit of calculation.

    Johannsen wrote:

    The word gene is completely free of any hypothesis; it expresses only the evident fact that, in any case, many characteristics of the organism are specified in the germ cells by means of special conditions, foundations, and determiners which are present in unique, separate, and thereby independent ways – in short, precisely what we wish to call genes.

    Translate germ cells with their special conditions, functions and determiners here as “DNA” and unique, separate and independent ways as “specific function” and you have the same definition.

    When you dig into molecular definitions of the gene, the situation turns even murkier. I’ll pass on those for now. But mind the words of Philip Kitcher:

    A gene is anything a competent biologist has chosen to call a gene

    Kitcher isn’t saying anything to radical here, only recognizing that pluralism and context reign when using the term gene.

    The gene is a cultural product alright, one that flows right out of mechanical philosophy.

  4. May I take this opportunity right now to ask you Razib and others present: what’s your opinion on biological race? Personally I believe it is in fact a biological reality as all the HBD research will convince you, but I’m still curious.

  5. To add, I would be interested, Razib, if you have any recommendations on the most relevant and recent or at least interesting literature related to race and HBD, maybe even race and intelligence. Thanks.

  6. Jonathan,
    This is a rather odd question on a blog that promotes Stephen Jay Goud’s book. To answer your question: “biological race” is a social construct, and does not exist independent of the culture of science. To understand how and why, you should have a look at Gould’s book, flaws and all.
    This is not to say that genetics and biology cannot be used to understand past population movements, patterns of settlement, etc. To get a good idea of how this can sometimes be used well, have a look at some of Razib’s blogs–he is actually pretty careful about not equating modern definitions of “race” with particular population movements of the past.

    Having said that, you can also have a look at Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man. If you are mathematically inclined, the chapter on the misuses of factor analysis for understanding the relationships between race, iq, and American racism is quite good.


  7. Michael,
    Don’t Kitcher’s word about the definition of a gene apply to any definition?

    Isn’t a gene a useful construct, even by an old definition, a useful construct when used carefully? For example, Cavalli-Sforza, as I recall, uses specific blood allele frequencies to map population diffusion in the distant past. In doing this, he does not impute a relationship to the mode of production, skin color, culture, etc., and blood allele frequencies. He does try to correlate such genetic frequencies with linguistic data, which sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t

    As I mentioned above, I want to refresh my memory of Cavalli-Sforza. I’ll have a look at p. 34 with the question you raise in mind.

  8. Sure, when used carefully. And different fields have different accepted meanings. My point here is that Cavalli-Sforza is using the gene as what Johannsen called “a unit of calculation” rather than in the more precise sense you might find in molecular biology, for instance.

    His gene is a placeholder for process he never really explains. Just keep that in mind when reading his calculations about the evolution of language and cultural “traits”.

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