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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

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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