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Defending Stephen Jay Gould’s Crusade against Biological Determinism

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Stephen Jay GouldI used to be tough on Stephen Jay Gould, the great evolutionary biologist, who died in 2002. I found him self-righteous and pompous, in person and on the page. In an August 1995 profile of him for Scientific American I summed up his worldview, which emphasizes the role of randomness, or "contingency," in shaping life, as "shit happens."

But I admired Gould’s ferocious opposition to biological determinism, which he defined as the view that "the social and economic differences between different groups—primarily races, classes and sexes—arise from inherited, inborn distinctions and that society, in this sense, is an accurate reflection of biology." I loathe biological determinism, too, and so I must defend Gould against charges that he was a fact-fudging "charlatan," as the anthropologist Ralph Holloway of Columbia University put it.

Holloway’s slur is based on a critique by him and five other anthropologists of Gould’s famous 1981 work The Mismeasure of Man (W. W. Norton & Co., 1981), in which Gould exposed case after appalling case of scientists in the past two centuries "proving" the biological inferiority of certain races as well as criminals, the poor, "imbeciles" and women. One chapter focused on the work of a 19th-century physician, Samuel George Morton, who amassed a collection of almost 1,000 skulls from around the world. Morton estimated the brain size of different racial groups by pouring seed and lead shot into the skulls. He concluded that whites have larger brains on average than blacks, confirming his suspicion that the races did not do not share a common ancestry but stemmed from different evolutionary roots.

Defenders of slavery embraced Morton’s work. After he died, an editorial in the Charleston Medical Journal and Review declared, "We in the South should consider him our benefactor, for aiding most materially in giving to the Negro his true position as an inferior race." In Mismeasure, Gould reanalyzed Morton’s skull measurements and concluded that the average sizes of blacks’ and whites’ skulls were roughly equivalent. Gould suggested that Morton’s racial bias had led him, probably unwittingly, to "discover" results consonant with his beliefs.

In "The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias," published June 7 in PLoS Biology, Holloway and five colleagues from other institutions stated that Gould’s own analysis of Morton "is likely the stronger example of a bias influencing results." The group reported that its re-measurements of the skulls in Morton’s collection support Morton’s conclusions more than Gould’s.

Commenting on Gould’s claim that bias often influences science, an unsigned editorial in The New York Times snidely remarked, "Right now it looks as though he proved his point, just not as he intended." The anthropologist and blogger John Hawks claims that the "straightforward" analysis of Holloway et al. shows that Gould clearly engaged in "utter fabulation." Hawks added, "Some of Gould’s mistakes are outrageous, with others it is hard for me to believe that the misstatements were not deliberate misrepresentations."

Some caveats are in order here. First of all, Holloway and his colleagues analyzed fewer than half of the skulls in Morton’s collection. Second, their analysis, far from being "straightforward," was highly technical and based on many judgment calls, as were those of Gould and Morton. The divergent results depend in part on whether to include or exclude certain skulls that could unduly skew estimates of brain sizes. Third, neither Morton nor Holloway et al. corrected their measurements for age, gender or stature, all of which are correlated with brain size.

Finally, at least one of the PLoS authors, Holloway, is obviously biased against Gould. The Times quoted Holloway saying: "I just didn’t trust Gould. I had the feeling that his ideological stance was supreme." Holloway faulted Gould because he "never even bothered to mention" a 1988 paper by John S. Michael that found Morton’s conclusions to be "reasonably accurate." But Holloway and his co-authors stated that the paper by Michael, written when he was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, "has multiple significant flaws rendering it uninformative."

Maybe Gould was wrong that Morton misrepresented his data, but he was absolutely right that biological determinism was and continues to be a dangerous pseudoscientific ideology. Biological determinism is thriving today: I see it in the assertion of researchers such as the anthropologist Richard Wrangham of Harvard University that the roots of human warfare reach back all the way to our common ancestry with chimpanzees. In the claim of scientists such as Rose McDermott of Brown University that certain people are especially susceptible to violent aggression because they carry a "warrior gene." In the enthusiasm of some science journalists for the warrior gene and other flimsy linkages of genes to human traits. In the insistence of the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and neuroscientist Sam Harris that free will is an illusion because our "choices" are actually all predetermined by neural processes taking place below the level of our awareness. In the contention of James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix, that the problems of sub-Saharan Africa reflect blacks’ innate inferiority. In the excoriation of many modern researchers of courageous anti-determinists such as Gould and Margaret Mead.

Biological determinism is a blight on science. It implies that the way things are is the way they must be. We have less choice in how we live our lives than we think we do. This position is wrong, both empirically and morally. If you doubt me on this point, read Mismeasure, which, even discounting the chapter on Morton, abounds in evidence of how science can become an instrument of malignant ideologies.

Photo courtesy Kathy Chapman and Wiki Commons

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  1. 1. redwitch1 9:51 pm 06/24/2011

    Does it matter whether we are biologically determined or not? Does a biologically determined one not feel pain. Does it not bleed?

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  2. 2. wasteking 10:53 pm 06/24/2011

    i have been a big fan of SJG and enjoyed most of his books despite the pomp…. anyhow i was alaways dismayed by his aparent near a-priori arguments about biological determinism— it was as if he was so ‘determined’ himself to refute this way of looking at the human situation that this overwhelming vehemence and near-dogma began to obscure any actual convincing argument that would sway those not already converted. — it was as if this viewpoint was true because he said so… and B-D was …..’bad’, in fact ‘evil’. .

    . I personally think that biological determinism has to play some role , even if minor, in humans. It seems ludicrous to deny that it has any impact. We see how biological determinism clearly affects other animals and plants in our closely studied agricultural breeding programs. Why should humans be so beyond its affects? it seems ironically almost evangelical to demand that we humans are such ‘gods’ as to be always above our biology . the problem is that we are probably too often held back by not admitting what might seem politically incorrect at times. Biology desnt care about politics. [Perhaps the truth might hurt ?] . but regardless, no statistic ever determines the characteristics of any one individual. we at least can have the individuality of variation regardless of any normal ‘mean’. and constantly argue about what our statistics were biased to show. Funny how this great ‘evolutionist’ would still put such dogmatic limits on his beliefs . .

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  3. 3. RSchmidt 11:40 pm 06/24/2011

    Isn’t rejecting biological determinism on moral grounds just as unscientific as accepting it? Certainly our biology does determine a great deal. My behaviour and abilities must be somewhat constrained by the physical structure of my brain. So, isn’t this a matter of degree? As seems to be the case quite often we have the "always" proponents in one camp and the "never" proponents in another. And as is often the case, the truth lies somewhere between. When you attack someone’s irrational stance with your own irrational stance you only succeed in demonstrating your own failings, while failing to make your point.

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  4. 4. RSchmidt 11:42 pm 06/24/2011

    Isn’t rejecting biological determinism on moral grounds just as unscientific as accepting it? Certainly our biology does determine a great deal. My behaviour and abilities must be somewhat constrained by the physical structure of my brain. So, isn’t this a matter of degree? As seems to be the case quite often we have the "always" proponents in one camp and the "never" proponents in another. And as is often the case, the truth lies somewhere between. When you attack someone’s irrational stance with your own irrational stance you only succeed in demonstrating your own failings, while failing to make your point.

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  5. 5. walkaways 12:53 am 06/25/2011

    From the evidence, humans are no less and no more biologically determined than Darwin’s finches. I read some of Gould’s early work but found his writings not my cup of tea and turned to Dawkins for a more crystalline point of view. Are anthropologists scientists? I understand that they write books and articles but their methods, particularly from the 19th and 20th century sure came up with some muzzy, unfounded, even silly, and often false declarations, observations, data, and anaylses. I enjoyed my anthro classes but go to the harder sciences for explainations of the world, including diversity and evolution.

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  6. 6. MsMalcontent 1:35 am 06/25/2011

    While I certainly do not possess the scientific knowledge to argue against this point with scathing scientific jargon – I really do not have to! It appears to me that all this boils down to is the typical Polotical correctness that is cutting everything and everyone off at the knees. And, I must admit, I find the idea of science falling prey to the same disease as the rest of us mere peons to be frightening. Science and "morallY’ do NOT belong in the same sentence. I have often suspected (known?) that findings were being "tweaked" or totally suppressed if they are deemed to be too inconvenient, unwelcome or just too volatile for the public to handle. And that is simply WRONG. IF we cannot trust scientists to seek the truth – and tell it as they discover it – all is lost.

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  7. 7. MsMalcontent 1:39 am 06/25/2011

    Sorry for the typos! – I try to type as fast as I think and did not scan before posting!

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  8. 8. mihondo2010 10:20 am 06/25/2011

    It is strange and disheartening that none of the summaries have any quantification.

    "Differences", "significant differences", etc are mentioned with no quantification. (More? 1% more? 10%? 2X? 10X? )

    Whether this is conscious, unconscious , whether it is a writing style or obfuscation for whatever reason, I can’t know. But without providing some sort of quantification, science writers provide no information that can be believed any more than the opinion of a randomly selected person. It removes the science from the scientific discussion.

    My feelings (without numerical support) are that the answer is somewhere in-between the all or nothing camps.

    Biology is affected by genes. No one disagrees that genes affect physical attributes. Is the mind affected by biology/genes? Yes. But the question is how much? Under what conditions? How is the gene distributed in the population? How often is it expressed? (See, that pesky quantification thing comes back).

    The issue is complicated. And there will always be people out there willing, able, and eager to bend information to their own purposes. And numbers can be used to lie as well. But at least when they are, you have something solid to argue about.

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  9. 9. sjn 10:45 am 06/25/2011

    Today’s listing of Sci Am articles itself is enough to make Horgan’s point.

    The lead article claims to prove that war, rape and pillage are just another evolutionary remnant of men’s need to impress women to reproductively succeed.

    THe "it’s just so" fables of evolution dictating that complex social, economic and political arrangements are "only natural" (thus any attempt to change them is forcing us to lead "unnatural" lives) continues apace. We need another generation of Gould’s and the other biologists who challenged such determinism in the 70′s and 80′s

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  10. 10. steven johnson 1:48 pm 06/25/2011

    This part should have been bolded, or at least italicized: "Third, neither Morton nor Holloway et al. corrected their measurements for age, gender or stature, all of which are correlated with brain size."
    The measurements were not even correctly analyzed! Holloway et al. are obviously wrong and everyone whimpering about political correctness is just another cavalry trooper on a hobbyhorse. And, charging fraud with worthless statistics is indeed an immoral practice of biology in my opinion. Your rebuttal is decisive.

    The whole thing reminds me of that foolish Derek Freeman book supposedly exposing Margaret Mead. And seems to be inspired by very much the same motives and targeted at the same kind of audience.

    But dumping on Gould because you thought he was pompous and self-righteous? Mr. Horgan, I regret to inform you
    I have often had the same reaction to your essays!

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  11. 11. ConversationDairy 3:43 pm 06/25/2011

    Its a simple case of nature vs nurture. Both are important and we should only differ in terms of our opinions of the incremental importance of each. Evolutionary psychology has a crucial role in UNDERSTANDING our actions today, both "good" and "bad". If that is part of biological determinism then it is dangerous to go on a crusade against it. I think the term biological determinism is detracting from the point. The point is we evolved to cope with things in the past and are in that strait jacket to some extent, regardless of the nurture around us. The imperative is to make sure the nurture pushes as many right buttons rather than wrong buttons in the extraordinary mismatched situation we find ourselves in today. To deny the simple fact of SOME determinism at this level of debate is a disconcerting trend. Following evolutionary psychology is NOT a de facto excuse for wacky and destructive racial theories to flourish. They will flourish without it, and in fact the writings of people like Jared Diamond (if only simplified) can help to defuse such theories.

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  12. 12. RobLL 3:53 pm 06/25/2011

    Interesting. I find the comments generally more likely than the article. Accepting evolution, then it becomes inescapable that genes largely rule. Just how do humans escape the inescapable. To some degree I operate on the basis of extreme autonomy and free will. Yet I understand that my extreme operating principles are tenuous and unproveable. Philosophers, theologians, and religious writings have come to similar conclusions for thousands of years (but not all).

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  13. 13. rong44 4:22 pm 06/25/2011

    I read Gould’s book recently, as it happens. What struck me was his frequent use of the argument that such measurements as IQ, brain size and several others amount to the "reification" of racist ideas. That word shows up scores of times in almost every chapter of the book.

    "Reification" is defined as "to consider or make (an abstract idea or concept) real or concrete." For example, a graph plotting IQ against race "reifies" the notion that IQ is a real, meaningful property of human life; but it isn’t, for various reasons that Gould details in the book. Since reification is inherently unscientific, in Gould’s opinion, it is less important whether Morton fudged his figures than why he asked the question (relating brain size to human racial hierarchy) at all.

    Generally speaking, I support Gould’s position, but I thought it was weakened by his emphasis on reification. After all, the line between valid scientific theory and invalid reification is very slim, indeed.

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  14. 14. ansutherland 4:43 pm 06/25/2011

    If we all acknowledge people as animals, why are we so reluctant to recognize some biological determinism in humans all the while seeing it in other animals. Does this author believe is some determinism in other animals? Would he suggest that the behaviour of a dog is solely a product of their socialisation? Are all animals born a blank slate? Of course not! And, his assertion that biological determinism is wrong in part because it’s morally wrong is one of the most obvious argumentative fallacies; argumentum ad consequentum.

    As I see it, if a trait is exhibited cross culturally, is consistent through time and/or can be clearly seen in one gender over another and/or is present in our closest biological relatives in the same form, it is most likely the result of nature, not nurture. I think this author should read Steven Pinkers "The Blank Slate" which seeks to disspel many of the blank slate myths.

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  15. 15. schlafly 6:24 pm 06/25/2011

    Gould’s entire book is garbage. I don’t see who he helps the fight against biological determination if he was just twisting the facts to fraudulently promote his personal ideology.

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  16. 16. gcochran 9:38 pm 06/25/2011

    I think this post by John Horgan exhibits the true
    spirit of Scientific American. But I doubt if he can help it: he was probably born that way.

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  17. 17. geojellyroll 9:52 pm 06/25/2011

    Gould never was well respected in the paleontology community. when I worked with the Geological Survey of Canada his popular book ‘Wonderful Life’ on the Burgess Shale was received with rolling eyes and snickers.

    Unfortunately the popular science media preferred over the top claims and speculation to actual hard science.

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  18. 18. zstansfi 10:31 pm 06/25/2011

    John, I think you need to take a look at your definition of "biological determinism" and compare that to your claim that "biological determinism is thriving today". You point out above that biological determinism hypothesizes that genes determine everything about how an organism develops and behaves. But this hypothesis directly contravenes what we now know to be true about biology. When Gould wrote Mismeasure, 30 years ago, it was commonly believed that genetic factors were largely uninfluenced by the environment in which they exist. In other words, environment could influence the individual, but without having any direct effect on how specific genes function. No serious biologist, psychologist, anthropologist or qualified researcher of any stripe who is being intellectually honest could make this claim today. Simply put, biological determinism is now defunct.

    When I look at the examples you give of a thriving community of biological determinists, I think it becomes clear what the problem is. Many of the individuals you have named probably don’t believe in biological determinism. For example, you claim that Rose McDermott’s believes genes influence an individual’s "susceptibility" to behaviour. In modern parlance, this is code for "genes affect behaviour, but do not determine it entirely", which is not the same as biological determinism. Additionally, Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris apparently claim that we act according to brain processes, which are similarly not solely influenced by genes. These examples sound to me very little like "biological determinism" and quite a bit like "biology". Moreover, some of your examples are simply ridiculous. James Watson’s contentions about race are widely considered to be the wild speculation of an insensitive, aged scientist who clearly should have kept his ideas restricted to molecular biology. Perhaps then your criticisms are restricted to Harvard anthropologists, or science journalists? If so, this would not surprise me. My experience reading science journalism suggests that the field is built upon misinformation and the misinterpretation of findings. Maybe you guys just need to clean house?

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  19. 19. jayjacobus 10:03 am 06/26/2011

    All prejudice forms in the ego.

    This helps to explain why there are studies that focus on the inferiority of other races but not too many that focus on the inferiority of the investigator’s race.

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  20. 20. grovewest 1:38 pm 06/26/2011

    If this includes all the studies disparage men for being male then yes, biological determinism is clearly nonsense.

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  21. 21. Joscha 3:02 pm 06/26/2011

    To start out with the premise that you "loathe" a scientific position, and then rehabilitate a scientist whose methodology you find questionable _only_ because he shares that loathing… this won’t endear you to this readership. Also, it does a disservice to the debate if you mix what you find "morally" acceptable and scientifically admissible.

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  22. 22. TobyNSaunders 3:08 pm 06/26/2011

    Clearly biological determinism is fake because ants can learn about world history and politics if they really try. Clearly, these people who say free will is an illusion are just a load of racists who don’t understand the ability of anyone to do anything, like, how the genes which cause schizophrenia & depression are just… um… not there, er eh, do nothing, and how genes are just, um… racist! I can do anything! You racist!

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  23. 23. Dr Mano 3:09 pm 06/26/2011

    Hurrah! Keep up the good work. Biological determinism is rising along with the surge in hate groups and tolerance of racism in the U.S. It is amazing how the election of a black president has scared so many. It is disgusting to see it infecting science.

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  24. 24. Doyle_Saylor 4:05 pm 06/26/2011

    I agree with Mr. Horgan. The attacks on Dr. Gould are political in nature rather than science. I missed the N.Y. Times editorial, but enjoyed John’s observation about the snideness of the editorial writer. The pernicious measurements of skull volume never quite prove anything about intelligence since human brains vary along the processes and regional sizes of specific functioning areas independent of brain size. So finding fault with Dr. Gould’s writings on the measure of brain volume says nothing about the brain. Any sort of basic education in brain anatomy brushes aside such views of race based intelligence as wishful thinking by those privileged by society. I advise the editorial staff at the N.Y. Times to go back to school if they want to write about the human brain.

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  25. 25. efalken 4:22 pm 06/26/2011

    Nature does not dictate morality, but it does constrain it. It is either true or not that on average some subsets of humans have different natural abilities to run or think. Since Morton there have been several studies confirming the assertion that brain size varies systematically between races, and brain size is positively correlated with IQ, and IQ is a meaningful concept. You might not like the idea that these facts are true, but the facts don’t care what you think.

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  26. 26. Doyle_Saylor 4:30 pm 06/26/2011

    To me this reply by Toby missed an important element of understanding ‘determinism’. One has to be able to demonstrate what is a ‘race’. Race theory has always been based upon seeing ‘color’ in skin, and the correlation of poverty to skin color. There was no science of race before political institutions that structured skin color to social being as chattel slavery emerged in the 1600′s. The science since then about the brain offers no substantiation of race as a concept in humans. Hence the arbitrary assertion of ‘race’ as determining meaning in reality is nothing more than fantasy about skin color alone. Not in any way shown by brain volume.

    One can’t dodge the charge of racism by saying it’s an ideological charge, one must prove scientifically a ‘race’. If one embraces the concept as ‘determining’ social reality when it is a fantasy concept one is using the ideology not the science to assert meaning in society.

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  27. 27. ardznails 7:39 pm 06/26/2011

    I find it very disheartening to see that Biological Determinism is still being questioned 150 years after the Huxley-Wilberforce debate.

    It is true, yes, that you can effect a change in behavior or disease susceptibility that can run counter to a certain genetic predisposition but that is not to say that the genetic trait was never there. So, in the case of the Warrior Gene (most likely a constellation of genes) the individual will certainly be born with a greater predisposition to aggression. But it has been shown in at least two studies (one recent) that the Amygdala responds to the stresses of the environment in early life. Thus a child brought up in a rural environment will, all other factors being equal, exhibit less aggression than one brought up in an inner city district. Two children with the same Warrior gene will likely fare differently in these two places.

    What you should be railing against is the misplaced fatalism that Biological Determinism engenders when not fully understood. In its purest sense, (the genetic makeup of an embryo at conception), the term is a truism which cannot be argued against. However, the embryo is a starting point from where all manner of environmental and epigenetic factors play their part.

    Examples abound: Women having (on balance, as with all these examples) less acute spatial skills and less inclination to take risks. Men having greater difficulty at reading facial expressions and social cues. Recently ‘civilised’ races having low insulin response to high GI foods and being more prone to diabetes. Lactose intolerance for 70% of Asians. These last two examples represent people with perfectly ‘normal’ genes that don’t fare well with certain aspects of an agriculturalised society far removed from the environment in which our ancestors evolved their dietary systems. There is plenty of scope for these people to avoid disease- but only if the biological determinism of their ‘condition’ is recognised for what it is. Only then can action be taken. This is why criticising Biological Determinism is so dangerous. Dismissing it can hinder medical progress and cost lives, no less.

    I can’t help thinking that SJG was subconsciously affected by the same Christian notions that underpinned Wilberforce’s stance in the Huxley-Wilberforce debate, namely that humans have a unique place in the world, they are above animals and are born as equals in the eyes of God. All three premises still loom over us even in an increasingly secularised society and all three surely sit ill with Biological Determinism.

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  28. 28. RoboLaw 7:52 pm 06/26/2011

    A few weeks ago I read an article, "The Brain on Trial" in The Atlantic by a "leading neuroscientist," in which said scientist discusses the impact of biology-based actions with respect to the legal system. That article has left me a bit rattled and I’m glad that the article at hand presents an opportunity to express my concerns to (hopefully) like-minded folk.

    A little background: some crimes require that in order to be found guilty, the guilty party both do the bad act (called "actus reus") and also have the necessary state of mind to do that act (called "mens rea"). The article discussed specific instances in which the bad acts occurred but the necessary mens rea was absent due to some biological condition (eg sleepwalking or Parkinson’s).

    The article properly stated that these (and other) biological conditions might lead to a finding that a criminal defendant lacked the necessary mens rea to be found guilty. Up to this point the article was both interesting and non-frightening.

    Unfortunately the author took these interesting examples of isolated circumstances in which bad acts occurred without any ill intent to stand for the global proposition that "if free will does exist, it has little room in which to operate. It can at best be a small factor riding on top of vast neural networks shaped by genes and environment." (!)

    Further, "… there is no meaningful distinction between a person’s biology and his decision-making … they are inseparable." (!) (!) (!)

    Wow. This is such an incredibly dangerous position. Yes – like all other animals we too have impulses grounded in our biological underpinnings (gently brush a baby’s cheek to see him root around for a nipple) but to ascribe all actions to impulse is both silly and pointless.

    It’s one thing to point out that clearly we have biological impulses, it’s another to abrogate our decision-making ability to the extent that accountability becomes a fiction.

    (And – If you disagree with any of the above feel free to blame it on my pesky biology.)

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  29. 29. Matthewt69 2:39 am 06/27/2011

    The free will question is a little different to the genetics question but I cant see how you can say the idea that our actions and biology is determined is morally wrong. Nature doesnt care about our morals. It just is the way it is. Anyway determinism is entirely consistent with the idea that our lives are contingent. In fact if we are entirely determined by biology then we are 100% contingent. The repugnant idea, really, is that we have free will because that implies we deserve what we get.

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  30. 30. Evolver 5:04 pm 06/27/2011

    Thanks for the article, John. I’ve also noticed a disturbing increase in the public’s acceptance of biological determinism. Perhaps owing to the need to condense scientific ideas, media are quick to publish ridiculous memes such as "warrior genes" without the slightest explanation regarding the implicit plasticity of animal behavior. Certainly this is connected to the genetic zealotry of the 90′s and 00′s. From my perspective, every neurobiologist worth his glutamate understands the inherent fallacy in these constructs. Indeed, one could argue that the function of neural systems is to combat organismal determinism by allowing for plasticity of behavior and adaptation to the environment. While I wouldn’t characterize SJG’s publications as a "crusade", I applaud your article and look forward with hope that the age of neo-determinism will soon be behind us.

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  31. 31. bobandpat 5:28 pm 06/27/2011

    Seems to me it is obvious that genetics help determine what an individual or a group is all about. The problem here is when you start assigning negative values to things. If redheads are hot-headed, is that a bad thing? Or is it something that can be use to advantage by red heads?
    If we are talking about smarts, seems to me the way it is measured is very important. A "white" test is probably going to show blacks less smart.
    A practical point would probably be to seek out our differences and manage for them rather than try and make everything the same.

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  32. 32. james rebel 9:04 pm 06/27/2011

    All studies aside, the African Americans in the USA, who are descendants of slaves, demonstrate physical and mental capacities that exceed most of the white segment of the USA population. A physical example is the race-breaking employment of African-American football players at the Confederate State Universities. When the Big-10 and Western Conferences opened their programs to African-American players, the Confederate State Universities could not compete! They opened their programs to African-Americans! Hypocrisy is a mild word for the long-term resistance to racial equality!

    Think about a slave that survived the ordeal of being a Confederate State slave. First, they were captured inland in Africa, yoked, and then marched to some hell-hole on the shore, and held (sometimes for months) until a slave-running ship came along and purchased them. Then, they survived an ocean voyage in conditions that we have difficulty of grasping, to this day.

    Long exposition cut short, only the mentally and physically tough and intelligent individuals survived the ordeal. Their thousands of descendants survive among us today.

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  33. 33. aglindh 10:32 pm 06/27/2011

    Sonny Berger, the long-time "president" of the Hell’s Angels in Oakland was once asked how he recruited members. His response was "we don’t recruit them, we recognize them." But then Mr Gould and Horgan’s sheltered lives probably haven’t included much up close and personal time with Hell’s Angels, or other examples of extreme sociopaths. They should have least heard in their youth Ian Tyson’s fine song, "Four rode by."

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  34. 34. D. Baxter 11:47 pm 06/27/2011

    We are all nasty little monkeys with the souls of angels.

    The point being that, as sentient creatures, we have evolved the ability to examine our thoughts and actions and make conscious decisions regarding causes and effects. Yes we do behave instinctively on occasion — but the rational among us are seldom bound to a course of continuing action without social, educational, and (heaven forefend) moral influences.

    Biological determinism in its more aggressive guises seems little more than an excuse for eugenics. History, ancient and modern, has taken us down that road far too many times. No, we are not gods, but our mythologies and common stories seem to play far more of a role in our current existence than our environmentally influenced and adaptable DNA inheritance.

    Forgive me. Too many years of Mythology and Folklore… and an avid Stephen Jay Gould fan.

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  35. 35. Avraham Keslinger 1:17 am 06/28/2011

    It is an observed fact that different nations have different cultures and excel in different things. "Different" does not equal "inferior". If the cause is genetic, climatic or otherwise in another question but it would seem that the only way to determine that would be to study groups that have emigrated or been expelled to a very different environment.

    I would also like to take this opportunity to protest the offensive word at the end of the first paragraph.It does no credit to a scientific article that such words a added either to be "cute" or for "shock value".

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  36. 36. bobgeezer 1:45 am 06/28/2011

    Biological Determinism is nothing more than racism. The problem is trying to ascribe behaviour to individuals, which can never be an adequate answer or solution.

    Everyone reading this stream should read Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond to see what actually has happened in human history since 18,000 BC or so; factual, historically provable and non-biased, to see the problem of arguing any point of view that is individualistic in nature. STG was a great populizer of science for the lay person; he was not trying to be a hero to the narrow field of "professional" scientists, who have proven themselves incompetant because of their personal biases in the recent 50 years or so of my personal life experience.

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  37. 37. Laird Wilcox 7:40 am 06/28/2011

    It would be impossible to be informed on Stephen Jay Gould’s life and career and to overlook his lifelong commitment and service to Marxist ideology. It is not surprising at all that Gould misrepresented his evidence with respect to Samuel George Morton, given his many and longstanding phobias about anything approaching biological determinism – the antithesis of socialism and communism. Gould was defending his political commitments in doing so.

    A sponsor of the New York Marxist School and the Socialist Scholar’s Conference, Gould was a contributor to a number of far-left fringe groups. His fascination with Marxism and apparent insensitivity to its legacy of mass death, starvation, dictatorship and mindless fanaticism was well-known among his critics. His apologists generally acknowledge his commitment to Marxism but claim that it was not central to his scholarship, although others question this.

    Simon Conway-Morris, a paleontologist, is quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education (15 March 2002) as saying that Gould’s work reflects “a peculiar worldview that at the least was sympathetic to the greatest of 20th-Century pseudo-religions, Marxism.” Eulogized in socialist and communist journals at the time of his death ranging from Monthly Review to International Socialist Review to Socialism Today, Gould was an unapologetic far-left radical.

    In Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine (November 2002), Richard C. Lewontin and Richard Levins observe that “…by insisting on his adherence to a Marxist viewpoint, he took the opportunity offered to him by his immense fame and legitimacy as a public intellectual to make a broad public think again about the validity of a Marxist analysis.” Indeed he did! His scholarship on behalf of his ideological imperative was rarely criticized on that count but the new revelations of his liberties with the truth may lead to more careful scrutiny of his work.

    Laird Wilcox is co-author (with John George) of Nazis, Communists, Klansmen and Others on the Fringe: Political Extremism in America (Prometheus Books, 1992).

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  38. 38. phalaris 7:09 am 06/29/2011

    To post #45 one could add that some marxists interpret the master as demonstrating that there is no such thing as objective reality, and any attempt to work on that basis is doomed. This has provided a pseudo-intellectual underpinning for many of the egregious lies of the left.

    One major problem in this discussion is the expression "biological determinism", which seems to be poorly defined, and conflates several issues like the heritability of characteristics, free-will and the nature of the mind, and the measurability of traits relating to intelligence. This muddying of the waters was probably deliberate on the part of Gould and many who abhor the idea of an open debate on these questions.

    I know people who cite the book as proof that there’s no heritable component to intelligence and that there’s no way to usefully assess it. This has been an extremely damaging thesis for education in some countries, where everyone is subjected to the same lowest-common-denominator education up to the age of 18 or so, leading to a terrible unfulfillment of potential for the more academically able kids.

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  39. 39. Raghuvanshi1 12:49 pm 06/30/2011

    Biological determination is pet idea of so called western intelligences who blindly believed superiority of white race. For centuries white skinned European Christians had regarded themselves as superior to other races and entitled to destroy others in the name of their civilization in the previous 150 years[and before]people of different colors and customs had been routinely subject to torture mutilation and mass murder for no other reason than their differences by early twentieth century it had become routine to regard others as not only biological inferior but insidious to health of white civilization. I suspected that gene theory also white people are using to show other races are inferior than white race.I think this tendency till whole-hardheartedly inserted in psyche of white race.Real fact is that all humanity was borne in African jungle from Chimpanzee.When prehistorical men scattered different part of world than only their color changes.Different between white black, yellow colors came from different weather differences and not from intelligences, size of brain.or Eugenics

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  40. 40. SkepticalKen 4:30 pm 06/30/2011

    "In between"??? Why, RSchmidt, you almost gave me a heart attack! Is this the new, softer you? I LIKE it! Down with absolutism!

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  41. 41. intotech 7:55 am 07/2/2011

    Just want to say thank you to Stephen J. Gould for enriching my understanding of evolution beyond all the muddle-headed thinking that still prevails in the popular literature. ‘Wonderful Life’ is the most profound book I have encountered. I hope he is read for generations.

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  42. 42. MarkHarrigan 8:11 am 07/2/2011

    The only thing that is a blight on Science is prejudgment determinism. Just because you don’t like biological determinism doesn’t make it invalid. I think the author is stuck in the "is/ought" problem.

    It is demonstrably proven that we are all, at least to some extent, determined by our biology. I am 180cm tall and no amount of wishful thinking or effort on my part will really increase my height. That is, at least to some extent, a limit of my biology (and my genes and their ability to express given my environmental experience)

    Whilst I agree it is offensive when biological (or genetic) determinism is used to justify racism or eugenics policies the fact is there ARE (at a population level) genetic chracteristic differences between groups.

    Indeed given what we know about evolution and the preferential survival of the fittest mutations/adaptations it would be surprising if this were not so.

    If there are measurable and statistically significant genetic attribute differences in appearance, ability or characteristics between groups (brought about by adaptation to their particular environments) that the data point towards then that is just a reality.

    That does not let us make statements about any individual’s worth or value and nor should it. Indeed on most attributes the variation within groups is far greater than the variation across groups. To point out an obvious example – the mean population of the height and weight of males is larger than the mean population of the height and weight of females. That’s biological determinsim at work. But of course it’s possible to find many females who are taller and heavier than many males.

    Nor does it mean that such biological determinism is an "absolute" – it may set some soft limits for us in any given attribute but we have the ability (sometimes) to push those limits.

    In reading Gould’s work in the Mismeasure of Man I think, in some cases he objects to, he WAS wrong – he simply could not accept that in some cases the scientific data showed differences in groups that he didn’t want to be true. That doesn’t mean I think the misguided phrenology of a century ago was valid – clearly it has been debunked by the data. But Gould simply railed against any and all cases where the data suggested differences between racial groups. He let his repulsion towards the misuse of such information bias him against the possibility that such differences exist.

    He was wrong

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  43. 43. ardznails 9:46 am 07/2/2011

    @ 50 (MarkHarrigan)

    "Nor does it mean that such biological determinism is an "absolute" – it may set some soft limits for us in any given attribute but we have the ability (sometimes) to push those limits."

    This irrefutable statement lays to rest all the arguments in the last fifty comments. It sums up what I was trying to say (comment 35). It could even be reduced to two words that sum up the whole misunderstanding: "soft limits". That’s a very useful term that I, for one, shall remember. Thanks Mark!

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  44. 44. mcphilosopher 2:22 pm 07/2/2011

    Consider this simple chain:

    (1) Can each specialist claim that her discipline hold the key to understanding reality? (2) Can all of them make the same claim?

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  45. 45. jayjacobus 9:46 pm 07/2/2011

    Some people are arrogant about their identity.
    They consistently want to be better than the average person and they have no qualms about using statistics and science to "prove" their exeptional value.

    To those people I say, "Yes, you are superior and also a self centered SOB. Now sit down and shut up."

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  46. 46. CaliforniaJoe 12:50 pm 07/3/2011

    Historically, there have always, those who seek to justify the current norms and customs of society by claiming that they are the superior, right, and true way of doing things.
    Conversely, there have always been those who have claimed that there is a better way to do things, and that we are not chained to current injustices through some biological, religious, or economic imperative.

    It seems to me that not all traditions are bad, and neither are all calls for change. Intentional injustices, and the preservation of special privileges through laws backed up by the use of armed force, on the other hand, lead to a cycle of violence. If both the privileged and the less fortunate can agree to struggle for power non-violently, perhaps change and justice can be achieved with less suffering for all.

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  47. 47. Mong H Tan, PhD 1:29 pm 07/5/2011

    RE: How a universal philosophy could help understand global reality of today and beyond!?

    I thought your simple chain of epistemology, could certainly be expanded into my field of pursuit: On a universal theory of humanity — or universal philosophy — and it may run like this:

    Local Cognition => Symbolisms => Linguistics => Mathematics => Physics => Chemistry => Biology => Psychology => Sociology => Global Recognition => Universal Philosophy (of minds and emotions, including morality and ethics, etc.)

    Briefly, since the 1990s, we are now at the stage of global recognition, development, and understanding of that universal philosophy or epistemology or consciousness worldwide!

    Whereas regarding to your question (1) "Can each specialist claim that her discipline hold the key to understanding reality?" — I would say No: this is because many a specialist is so psychologically entrenched or specialized in each own discipline (one which may often diverge into sub-disciplines) that the specialist — especially one who might have had not received a multidisciplinary training in dynamic science-philosophy issues — will soon lose interests or objectivity or sights on the concurrent developments and advances that are being made in many other disciplines or sub-disciplines of scientific pursuit and philosophical understanding of their each respective discipline of realities!

    And (2) "Can all of them make the same claim?" — I would say absolutely Not; unless the specialists could retrain themselves, so as to acquire a universal philosophy or epistemology of inquiry and comprehend all the disciplines (and sub-disciplines) as listed above; including the world religions, the religious issues which historically have had originated and organized at each respective Local Cognition and Symbolisms eras, among our each respective ancestral, tribal, societal, and national civil development and organization stages, worldwide! (To be continued below)

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  48. 48. Mong H Tan, PhD 1:30 pm 07/5/2011

    RE: How universal philosophy could understand reality of today and beyond!? (Continued from above)

    Consequently, acquiring a universal philosophy so as to inquire and understand universal reality, is very fundamental and essential nowadays; especially it is to help us — the general science-philosophy readers, practitioners — to achieve our concurrent international peaceful coexistence of today and beyond worldwide!

    Last but not least, in regard to my recent comments on biological determinism or evolutionism issues in practical science and philosophy today, they could be found here: — a response to "Beauty Pageants and the Misunderstanding of Evolution Meet….Again — RE: How Darwinism has been morphed into "neo-Darwinism" of the 20th century!? — By the neo-Darwinists, sophists co-opting of their pseudoscientific natural selection reductionism (or biological determinism or biologism) and eugenics (or genetic determinism or geneticism by rhetoric or selective breeding) of the late 19th century, of course!?" (ScientificAmericanUSA; July 3).

    Best wishes, Mong 7/5/11usct12:30p; practical science-philosophy critic; author "Decoding Scientism" and "Consciousness & the Subconscious" (works in progress since July 2007), "Gods, Genes, Conscience" (iUniverse; 2006 — ) and "Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now" (blogging avidly since 2006 — ).

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  49. 49. nooffensebut 11:32 am 07/21/2011

    Please see my comment on your post about MAOA because I thoroughly explained how you are an idiot who does not know what you are talking about. Understanding that should be very helpful to you.

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  50. 50. AdamFiddler 12:10 pm 07/24/2011

    This is nice but you haven’t done anything other than say you agree with Gould and then discredit the methodology of a small group of his opponents.

    Actually, I think that’s giving your article a bit too much credit, as really you just took one claim (the skull measurements) from the camp you oppose while ignoring the details and the story behind every other idea from them you mention (Watson etc.).

    Moreover, you’ve failed to give the reader (or at least in my case) any idea how important the skull measurements actually are to the biological determinists and their stance. Therefore, from reading your article I have no idea how important or not it actually is to their general claims.

    To reiterate, you haven’t really "defended" anything, you’ve just attacked another critic. Anyways, highly disappointed in the article, but highly supportive of your stance. Best of luck and thanks for your time.




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  51. 51. Benjamin David Steele 11:12 am 01/20/2015

    Reading through the comments, I’m a bit shocked that there is so little knowledge about genetics. No one who knows much of anything about the field would even suggest that biological determinism has any plausibility as a principle of human behavior.

    There is a simple reason for this. There is no way to separate genetic influences from environmental and epigenetic influences. Genetics never by themselves determine anything. It is more accurate to think of genetics as just one aspect of environment for, after all, genes like the organism itself exists in and part of an environment. Speaking about genetics in imaginary isolation is meaningless.

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