Steve Gould gets it in the neck

I always thought that among Steve Gould’s “real” (non-essay-collection) books, The Mismeasure of Man was the best.  Yes, it was tendentious, written to show that scientists could be as biased and racist as anyone else, but it rang true.  And the two-page epilogue, about the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck, a “feeble-minded” black woman, is one of the most eloquent bits of scientific writing I’ve ever seen.

How sad, then, to find that, in a new paper in PLoS Biology (access free), a group of scholars has reanalyzed a piece of Gould’s own analysis—his attack on Samuel Morton’s 1839 study of skull volumes of ethnic groups—and found Gould’s analysis even more flawed that Morton’s. If you’ve read Gould’s book, you’ll remember that a substantial chunk involved reanalyzing Morton’s study to show that Morton had finagled his data, making Native American skulls smaller than those of Caucasians, all to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the latter.

Lewis et al. took a few years to actually re-measure Morton’s skulls and compare those with Gould’s analysis; they also looked at how Gould himself analyzed the data.  Lo and behold, they showed that Gould was far sloppier than Morton.  Morton had apparently not cooked his figures to put white folks on top, but Gould had done the opposite, selectively analyzing data to support his own conclusions about skull-volume equality.   The authors’ conclusions?

Our analysis of Gould’s claims reveals that most of Gould’s criticisms are poorly supported or falsified. It is doubtful that Morton equated cranial capacity and intelligence [6],[13], calling into question his motivation for manipulating capacity averages. Morton did not consider the influence of sex or stature on cranial capacity, but it would have been impossible for him to use those parameters to bias the averages he reported (see Box 3). The grouped mean of Morton’s Native American sample is almost identical to the straight mean, rendering irrelevant Morton’s decision to use the latter. The changes in average cranial capacity from Morton’s seed-based measurements to shot-based measurements cannot be reconstructed with any certainty, incorporate erroneous seed measurements made by Morton’s assistant, yielded a broad range of changes (−10 to +12 in3) hidden by Gould’s mean, and are confounded by the shifts in sample composition (circa 50%) between the two rounds of measurement. Morton did not manipulate his samples to influence the average cranial capacities, at least not in a detectable manner. Morton did report subsample means for non-Caucasian groups (see Box 1). Of the approximately seven minor errors in Morton’s work identified by Gould [1], only two appear to be actual errors, and their overall impact confounds rather than supports Morton’s presumed a priori rankings.

There’s little doubt that Gould screwed up big-time here, and, since he’s dead we’ll never know his reasons.  A report on all this appears in today’s New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer, with new quotes from the authors and from anthropologists, some quite scathing about Gould:

As for the new finding’s bearing on Dr. Gould’s reputation, Dr. Kitcher said: “Steve doesn’t come out as a rogue but as someone who makes mistakes. If Steve were around he would probably defend himself with great ingenuity.”

But Ralph L. Holloway, an expert on human evolution at Columbia and a co-author of the new study, was less willing to give Dr. Gould benefit of the doubt.

“I just didn’t trust Gould,” he said. “I had the feeling that his ideological stance was supreme. When the 1996 version of ‘The Mismeasure of Man’ came and he never even bothered to mention Michael’s study, I just felt he was a charlatan.”

Well, them’s strong words, but Gould was a man with an agenda.  I knew him slightly: he was on my thesis committee at Harvard, and I crossed swords with him several times in the literature (when I was a graduate student, he once accused me of being a “hidebound gradualist”).  I think his theory of punctuated equilibrium was pretty much bunk—except for his emphases on the often-jerky pattern of the fossil record.  And I found him an unpleasant and arrogant man, but of course a smart and engaging one, too. He could be quite rude to those he considered his intellectual inferiors, and that was pretty much everyone.

Nevertheless, he made two great contributions to my field.  He helped revive paleontology as a vibrant and essential part of modern evolutionary biology, and, with his essays and books, he excited widespread interest in evolution among the public. He and Richard Dawkins are the two great popularizers of biology in our era, and it’s always fun to discuss their relative merits.  (They disliked each other intensely, of course.)

On balance I think Gould’s influence was positive, but he was a polarizing figure.  And I wish he were still around.


Lewis JE, DeGusta D, Meyer MR, Monge JM, Mann AE, et al. 2011. The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias. PLoS Biol 9(6): e1001071. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001071


  1. Penman
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    If we’re evaluating his popular legacy, we have to include the pernicious concept of NOMA, which as given aid and comfort to many a godbotherer.

    NOMA, for the uninitiated: The idea that science and religion/philosophy address different realms, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria, and that therefore you can’t apply scientific methods and principles to the other “magisterium.”

    • Posted June 14, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      Whoops, forgot that blind alley. I took Gould severely to task for that book in a review I wrote for the Times Literary Supplement.

      • Frank
        Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

        Your skewering of the ‘punctuated equilibrium’ concept was positively a breath of fresh air for those of us who suspected that there was LESS to the concept than meets the eye – and were not nearly as intelligent or eloquent about demonstrating exactly why. I seem to recall his rebuttal of your criticism – that PE was nothing more than re-stating that rates of evolution are uneven in the fossil record – was rather weak. And by then, I remember that Gould and Eldredge had both already retreated on some of their specific original claims regarding PE. Your exchange about PE (in Science?) was a very valuable contribution.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted June 15, 2011 at 4:52 am | Permalink

          Indeed; I never got what it was really about until I read that link.

          [And now I understand my difficulties as well, it _was_ a fleeting concept.]

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted June 15, 2011 at 4:53 am | Permalink

            Oh, and it is now duly bookmarked!

        • David Elliott
          Posted November 3, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

          “I seem to recall his rebuttal of your criticism – that PE was nothing more than re-stating that rates of evolution are uneven in the fossil record”

          That doesn’t make any sense, because that’s not what Gould said PE was. (That is, in fact, what Dawkins said it was.) I think Frank, that you still don’t understand what punctuated equilibrium actually says: that allopatric speciation is an important driver of species transitions, that the biological species concept has a reality, and that the fossil record does not preserve random changes in rates of evolution (or incomplete preservation) – but an actual pattern.

    • Posted June 14, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      NOMA is certainly one very big mark against Gould. It’s basically the enabler of accommodationism and its advocates like Templeton Prize winner Martin Rees.

      • Posted June 14, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

        Seconded. In fact it did a lot to make accommodationism “respectable” among secular types. I think that’s one reason I disliked it so much from the outset. Great: theists think theism is just fine, and now we have atheists saying theism is just fine too.

        • Dominic
          Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

          It still comes out alllll the time – vide Templeton & Rees this year.

  2. Posted June 14, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    He was on your committee and you only knew him slightly?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted June 14, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      You don’t meet with your committee members all that often! I didn’t want to imply that I was a close colleague or friend, but I suppose I knew him better than simply as a “nodding acquaintance.”

      • Posted June 14, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink


        (I was also surprised when you said you met PZ at an atheist event. I had assumed you already knew each other through biology.)

        • Sven DiMilo
          Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

          A developmental biologist and a population geneticist need not ever cross paths. Even if PZ was a lot more accomplished in the science-and-publication than he is that would be true.
          Biologists know him from his blog just like everybody else, and of course his blog is targeted at atheists, not biologists.

          • Dominic
            Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

            …and squid!

      • Posted June 16, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

        Agreed, out of the folks on my Master’s thesis committee, I knew a couple of them very well, and the rest were just professors that I’d had maybe a couple of classes with and who agreed to sit on the committee. I can’t imagine it’s vastly different with a PhD.

  3. Posted June 14, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Kenan Malik wrote an incisive and in-depth article on this issue.

    • Dominic
      Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      …who was in the Moral Maze t’other week with JC.

  4. Bartleby
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Also, he was a New Yorker who became a Red Sox fan. Can you get any more wrong than that?

    • Posted June 14, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      I knew him better than Jerry (our offices were on the same hallway), and while I knew him he was always first and foremost a Yankees fan.

      • Bartleby
        Posted June 15, 2011 at 7:23 am | Permalink

        Stephen King eulogized him in the Boston Globe as a Red Sox convert, while King and O’Nan’s book claimed that he somehow managed to root for both teams (a psychological impossibility, in my opinion) and a Google search turned up other references to the Red Sox as Gould’s “adopted” team, but I am willing to stand corrected by a first-hand witness so as to rehabilitate my opinion of Gould. Unlike Doris Kearns Goodwin, that freaking turncoat.

  5. Josh Slocum
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    I’m not at all sure Gould was a net positive. I read many of his books popularizing evolutionary concepts (they’re really engaging) before I knew of anyone else’s work. Then I read Dawkins, and was astonished at how badly wrong Gould was on some very key concepts. I agree with Dawkins (I’m paraphrasing) that people who got all their familiarity with evolution from Gould are very poorly served indeed.

    Gould’s critics are right – he was an ideologue, and he did allow his politics to drive his work and contort it to support things he’d like to be true. As a big ‘ol liberal myself, I’m extremely sympathetic to Gould’s politics, but that doesn’t excuse intellectual dishonesty. No one will ever know if he was aware of what he was doing or not, but the man was absolutely blinkered by his politics – that anyone should find this surprising actually surprises me.

    • Sven DiMilo
      Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Permalink


      • Marta
        Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        Alas. I read several of Gould’s books, always with the sense that he was rubbing me the wrong way, without a good reason to know why. (This, of course, is still true.)

        • David Sepkoski
          Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

          Please elaborate on what, exactly, Gould got ‘wrong’ in your mind? Even if you’re thinking of Punk Eek, the consensus (certainly among paleontologists, who after all are the expert interpreters of the fossil record) is mixed–some like it, some don’t. And I think the quotation you’re thinking of came from John Maynard Smith, not Dawkins.

          Also, the issue of the Morton study aside, what evidence do you have that “he was an ideologue, and he did allow his politics to drive his work and contort it to support things he’d like to be true”? That’s an extremely strong claim, and I challenge you to show one instance where Gould’s science can be conclusively be tied to ideology.

          • Josh Slocum
            Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

            First, note that you’re addressing two different commenters.

            Second, how do you propose that I “conclusively” tie any outcome of Gould’s work to ideology? Do you see that you set an impossibly high bar? Do you expect me to find scraps of paper in his archive labelled, “note to self – fudge data so racists look bad”?

            I think it’s a perfectly reasonable conclusion that Gould’s political views strongly colored his work. We’re seeing a likely instance of it in his work on Morton’s skulls. His NOMA concept was an astonishing, embarrassing, intellectually bankrupt boondoggle. A man as undeniably bright as Gould simply could not believe such a thing—much less propound it in a book—as a rational person and a scientist. Only a strong emotional/political commitment to waving away the very clear conflict between religion and science can explain his NOMA idea.

            I get that you really, really don’t like the kind of criticism I’m leveling at Gould. OK. But why is it apparently so preposterous to you that he might have been more driven by his emotions and political inclinations than was wise? Were you a personal friend or something (you seem mighty personally defensive of Gould)?

            • David Sepkoski
              Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

              Sorry, I should have made it clearer that I was responding to your post, Josh. And what I “really, really don’t like” is people casting unfounded aspersions, as you’ve done here, and making historically inaccurate statements. If you don’t think you can back up a statement, why make it in the first place? And guess what: there IS a way you can investigate the claim you made, and yes, it involves going to archives and reading letters and so forth. That’s what historians of science do, and in fact I’ve done that for Gould. It’s not an impossibly high bar–people test these kinds of propositions all the time in my field. And one of the really interesting things that comes out of reading Gould’s correspondence and unpublished papers is how little ‘ideology’ (if by this one means overt political commitments) played in Gould’s science.

              And note I did challenge you on Gould’s science, not his popular writings, the latter of which are much more appropriately a venue for opinions, beliefs, etc.

              No, he wasn’t a friend. I met him once or twice, but I have no personal stake in defending him as a person. I just get pissed off when people repeat this same, tired, unfounded allegation over and over again without bothering to find out what the real situation was. Gould had personal beliefs just like the rest of us, and he applied them liberally in his popular writings, as is normal in that kind of thing. But he was also dogged his entire career by unfounded allegations that his SCIENCE was tainted with ideology–Marxism, or what have you–which became the basis for a self-perpetuating ad hominem critique of his work.

              And I’m still waiting for the list of specific things Gould got wrong about evolutionary biology…

              • Dominic
                Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

                I have no problem with his Marxism – in fact I find it refreshing in an American intellectual. I cannot comment on his scientific work, & clearly you have had a chance to delve into some of his correspondence. Is there a biography in the offing? that would be interesting. I find it hard to believe that he fixed his data – would he really do that???

              • David Sepkoski
                Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink


                Well, this is why I’d draw a distinction between his science and his popular (and historical) work. I think Gould probably saw his popular work as (in part) a general ideological mission. That ideology was one that celebrated basic human equality, the value of critical thinking, and respect for science. I wouldn’t expect him to intentionally cook the books, but he certainly knew what he meant to conclude before he began Mismeasure. I don’t think he cared much about promoting a specific political ideology, like Marxism, though–certainly not as much as his sometime ally Lewontin. But like most scientists, Gould drew a pretty firm epistemological line between his scientific work and his popular writing. I do believe that we’re all influenced by these kinds of beliefs–even when we think we aren’t–but my point above is that it is very, very difficult to establish with documentary evidence exactly how that might manifest itself (short of a letter that says “boy, I really suckered everyone with punctuated equilibria–long live Lenin!”).

                I do have a book coming out soon that deals with Gould’s contributions to paleontology, but it is not a biography. Frankly, a biography of someone who wrote as prodigiously as Gould is a pretty daunting task!

              • J.J.E.
                Posted June 14, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

                David Sepkoski said:

                And note I did challenge you on Gould’s science, not his popular writings

                True, you challenged Josh Slocum on Gould’s science, but my reading of Josh’s comment indicates that his thrust was the popular writings:

                Josh Slocum said:

                I read many of his books popularizing evolutionary concepts

                So, I fail to see how you expect him to reply to that moved goalpost. I doubt many believe that Gould’s work on allometry, canalization, morphometrics, etc. was strongly ideological in nature. That being said, even among his “non-popular” work is a great deal of polemical and rhetorical writing, notably his most highly cited paper, “The Spandrels of San Marco”. He also was pushing a lot of anti-reductionism, which was expressed in his species selection and punk eek work. Not to mention his papers on a lack of direction in evolution… If I had to rank all scientists in evolutionary biology in order of likelihood of being ideologically driven (in either popular or specialist literature), Gould would certainly fall in one of the upper percentiles.

                Josh Slocum may have overstated things, but it is evident from browsing just Gould’s 50 most highly cited papers that an unusually large proportion of even his “scientific” work is polemic or at the very least rhetorical in nature:

                Spandrels of San-Marco and the Panglossian paradigm – a critique of the adaptationist program
                Exaptation – a missing term in the science of form
                Punctuated equilibrium comes of age
                Is a new and general-theory of evolution emerging
                Darwinism and the expansion of evolutionary-theory
                Exaptation – a crucial tool for an evolutionary psychology
                Trends as changes in variance – a new slant on progress and directionality in evolution
                Long-term biological consequences of nuclear-war
                The paradox of the 1st tier – an agenda for paleobiology
                The disparity of the burgess shale arthropod fauna and the limits of cladistic-analysis – why we must strive to quantify morphospace
                Evolution and the triumph of homology, or why history matters
                The promise of paleobiology as a nomothetic, evolutionary discipline
                The exaptive excellence of spandrels as a term and prototype
                Mortons ranking of races by cranial capacity
                Ontogeny and phylogeny – revisited and reunited
                Smooth curve of evolutionary rate – a psychological and mathematical artifact
                Cope’s rule as psychological artefact
                Punctuated equilibrium prevails
                Punctuated equilibrium at the 3rd stage
                Deconstructing the “science wars” by reconstructing an old mold

                This may not be partisan ideology per se, but it certainly belies the implication that Gould’s specialist work was categorically different than his ideological popular work. In both domains, Gould spent far more time than most scientists actively trying to steer the direction of thought. Consequently, he spent a smaller proportion of his scientific output in simply collecting data or simply describing the world.

                This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is unquestionable that Gould held many strong opinions and he used every venue available to him to push those opinions. This type of scholarship is very different than most scientists. Compare his “scientific” output to his peers like his own student Jack Sepkoski (your father, right?), or David Raup, David Jablonski, Mike Foote, Jim Valentine or people in another field, like Masatoshi Nei, Andy Clark, Dan Hartl, etc. Indeed, his Spandrels paper has been examined as an excessively rhetorical exercise used not only to push a biological perspective but also to push a political agenda (DOI: 10.1086/419174).

                So, let’s not get all high and mighty about how SJG’s work wasn’t driven by ideological considerations. Sure, they may not have been explicitly Marxist or party politics (and if you’re defending Gould on only this point, then fine — I won’t dissent, but I don’t see that Josh Slocum has yet crossed that particular bridge yet either), but they were definitely political. They often were trying to persuade the entire world that evolution lacked direction, that sociobiology was misguided, that the study of human evolution was tainted by racism, etc. Whether he’s right or wrong is immaterial. These are all very political commitments. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but to deny that Gould’s work was more ideological than a typical scientist’s is perplexing to say the least.

              • David Sepkoski
                Posted June 14, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink


                I’m not averse to debating this issue based on evidence–my issue with Josh’s comment was that he presented none. I am a bit perplexed, though, by the definition of ‘ideology’ you seem to be projecting on the works you cite. In most of the papers you cite, Gould may indeed be ‘pushing’ a conceptual/methodological ‘agenda’ for paleontology/evolutionary theory, but I’m not sure how you could connect that agenda to any overt political sentiments, or indeed to anything one might truly call an ‘ideology.’ The difference between Gould’s position and the one adopted by someone like Jablonski or my dad is that Gould was more explicitly a theorist–so yes, he had a theoretical agenda to push. But I think theory =/= ideology.

                It is often assumed, for example, that Gould’s position about contingency in the 1980s was somehow ‘ideological’–that is to say, that he ‘wanted’ evolution to be non-deterministic because he was committed to a broader ideology of egalitarianism. However, I can say that from reading a lot of personal correspondence between Gould and his friends like Dave Raup, Tom Schopf, and Niles Eldredge, this is not really the case. Gould seems to have come to contingency partly through his collaborations on simulating random phylogenies (with a computer) during the early-mid 1970s. Now, it may be the case that Gould’s personal/political views about equality were reinforced by this scientific work. But given this background, there is no need to suspect ideology as the tail wagging the scientific dog. Furthermore, in private correspondence with close friends Gould actively resists drawing connections between his political views and his science–in fact, on several occasions he gently chided his good friend Tom Schopf for projecting ideological values on studies of evolution.

                I’m happy to grant your point that Gould’s persuasive scientific work was in a broad sense ‘political,’ but I think that sense could then be applied to most theoretical scientific work (e.g., is The Selfish Gene any less ‘political’ in this sense?).

              • J.J.E.
                Posted June 14, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

                @ David Sepkoski

                A couple of points. First, I actually see a lot in common between persuasion, politics, and ideology. In my mind, they fit hand in glove with each other. I hadn’t considered that others might not see it that way.

                Also, regarding the Dawkins/Gould comparison, I think that is somewhat a propos in a general sense. However, I would consider neither man to be a theoretician. But that might just be because I’m thinking about theory = mathematical models. But maybe what you mean is what I would call “big idea person”? I certainly think Gould and Dawkins both fit into that same mold, despite their differences.

              • David Sepkoski
                Posted June 14, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

                Yeah, I’m pretty much with you there. Seems like we’re disagreeing about terminology more than substance. I DO think that when many people criticize Gould for being ‘ideological,’ though, they mean ‘overt political ideology’ (e.g. Marxism). That was certainly the case when he was attacked during the 1980s, e.g. over Mismeasure, the British Museum cladism flap (which was ironic because Gould wasn’t a cladist), even Punk Eek, etc. And the charge stuck, despite a lack of substance.

                Actually, the problem of ideology in biology is pretty confused. Many people (and I’m speaking of both scientists and of my own colleagues in science studies) have what I think is a pretty simplistic account of what ‘ideology’ is, and how it functions in science (e.g. ‘x is a Marxist (or liberal, or conservative, or whatever) therefore we can ‘read’ that ideology into x’s science.’). Persuasion, politics, and ‘ideology’ do probably fit together neatly, but my point is that it is extraordinarily difficult to determine the CAUSAL influence of those factors on science, and we need to be very careful about assumptions. That said, we (I mean historians/sociologists/philosophers) also need to pay more and better attention to those factors.

                Point taken about the difference between mathematical models and ‘big ideas.’ But Gould actually did get involved with trying to bring models to paleontology, too, although with mixed results…

    • David Elliott
      Posted November 3, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

      “Then I read Dawkins, and was astonished at how badly wrong Gould was on some very key concepts.”

      I have two questions based on that comment:

      1) Are you actually an evolutionary biologist, who follows research and reads papers in this field, or is this judgement based on your reading of popular works?

      2) If your verdict that Gould was ‘badly wrong’ on key concepts came from reading Dawkins, have you not considered that Dawkins might actually be ‘badly wrong’?

      Dawkins is someone who often shows a profound failure to understand key evolutionary concepts. He certainly has never understood punctuated equilibrium. His views on evolutionary genetics are hugely flawed, and he has frequently contradicted himself, and moved back and forth on certain points, in response to others highlighting the obvious absurdities that he finds himself spouting. His understanding of palaeontology and the large-scale evolution of life is at the level of a children’s book writer, and he is notorious for ignoring any field of study that doesn’t match his pre-conceived niotions of evolution.

      So anyone reading Dawkins will naturally “see” that Gould was “badly wrong” in key evolutionary concepts – but only if you believe Dawkins.

      I say this as someone doing research in palaeontology, who keeps very up-to-date with evolutionary biology, and has found much lacking in popular science writers who discuss evolutionary theory (particularly Dawkins): Gould is one of the only popular science writers who I would recommend to a layperson on any evolutionary issue more complicated than a generic overview.

      This is the reason I ask question 1) above; because popular writing on evolutionary biology is often extremely superficial, and often extraordinarily biased – to a much greater degree than the actual literature is – towards a ‘Dawkinsian’ view of evolution.

      You said: “Gould’s critics are right – he was an ideologue, and he did allow his politics to drive his work and contort it to support things he’d like to be true.”

      If you conclude that “he allowed politics to *contort* his work” based on this PLoS study, then you can’t know much about the full body of the man’s work.

      As to the other claim, that Gould was inherently ideologically biased, well, Richard Dawkins himself is an ideologue – he just doesn’t acknowledge his own bias.

      Every scientist, every human being, has a set of pre-conceived notions and ideological commitments with which they see the world. Nobody is free of ‘bias’.

      The difference is between those who are honest or aware enough to admit it to themselves, and those who are not.

      Gould fully acknowledged his own bias. He made no secret of his own set of attitudes toward the world. He had a dialectical approach to science, and it improved his scientific work. The PLoS article actually doesn’t manage to explain why he may have made a mistake here: his ideological background shouldn’t lead to this sort of error (assuming the PLoS study is correct).

      (Ironically, that’s a mystery that a historian of science like Gould himself might have been able to shed light on, as he had an exceptional ability to put himself into the minds of past researchers, and view their work on it’s own terms.)

      Richard Dawkins, for example, expresses an ideological bias (towards a reductionist approach to science) in almost every word he writes. This bias frequently leads him to fail to understand key concepts and theories within the field of evolutionary biology.

      But whenever anybody calls him out on this bias, his only response is to either pretend that “reductionism”, as a concept, doesn’t exist; or, alternately, to pretend that “reductionism”, as a concept, is actually the essence of science itself. He’s incapable of engaging in argument with people that disagree with him from this angle, because he doesn’t even comprehend what he’s being accused of.

  6. jay
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    The term ‘lying for Jesus’ comes to mind.

    Most sensible people would like to end the ugliness of discrimination based on race, orientation etc., but there can be a temptation to conform to an ideology rather than the facts.

    In truth the argument against legal and social discrimination should not rest on difference of lack of difference in brain size; but on our shared humanity. I believe Gould’s heart was in the right place, but he allowed the racists to define the metrics.

    • jay
      Posted June 14, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      oops should be “difference of lack of difference..”

      [my skull must be especially confining today]

  7. Brad
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Goodness. Thanks for the piece on this, Jerry. Coincides with my thoughts quite well, which tends to make me think (of course) that it is highly insightful! He he. I too met Gould on several occasions and found him obnoxious and arrogant.

    But I do think he was a net positive, for much the reasons you cite. He was indeed a great stylist, and he wrote so freakin’ many good (popular) essays over the years, almost always taking some other interest of his and using it to elucidate some point in evolutionary theory. (of course now they are in a little more doubt in my mind.)

    • Posted June 14, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      Mmmmmmm…actually I have reservations about his style. I think he was too impressed with it, so he got self-indulgent. Too many self-regarding digressions and the like.

      He was a hell of a good talker and lecturer though. There the self-regarding digressions worked…maybe because of the Brooklyn accent.

      • Stephen P
        Posted June 14, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

        I’ve read ten or twelve of his books and most of the time I enjoyed his style. I didn’t find the digressions off-putting – well, most of the time. But I agree that towards the end of his career he rather went over the top.

      • Sven DiMilo
        Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        Oh yeah. The early books and essay collections are beautifully written imo, but you can watch his style accrue excrescence with time.

        • Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

          So stipulated: I’m pretty sure it’s from the later ones that I got that impression.

          • Garnetstar
            Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

            I never found Gould a very interesting writer. The book of his I liked best is actually The Mismeasure of Man. I don’t think it was the style of his writing, I just didn’t find all that much depth in the rest of them. I don’t know which are the earlier or later works, however.

        • Dominic
          Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

          I am not a fan of the essay so I have never read his work apart from the Spandrels of San Marco, but just got his ‘Best of’ collection, which was compiled by Steven Rose the other great Anti-Dawkinsian, & Paul McGarr who is a Marxist historian. There is quite a full bit on Gould here –

  8. jay
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    still mistyped “difference or lack of difference”

  9. KP
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Hmm. I read “Mismeasure” in college and remember thinking highly of it. It’s been a long time but this is sort of disappointing…

  10. Sajanas
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I was never very fond of Gould’s books. And every time I see an X-men movie, I’m reminded of his continuing influence on popular understanding of evolution, since people still seem to believe species can evolve in one sudden, quick leap of massive mutations during a time of conflict. Its one of the sad problems of science popularizes… sure you get more people interested in the field, but they can often far overstep the bounds of their scientific authority.

    • Diego
      Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      I really don’t think comic book movie writers are basing their intuitions about evolution on Gould. And it would certainly be a tenuous connection at best, considering that punctuated equilibrium bears almost no resemblance to the saltationist plots of X-men or Darwin’s Radio. If anything those works resemble Goldschmidt’s hopeful monsters.

    • Dominic
      Posted June 14, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      There are still PLENTY of serious scientists who share his views, at least to an extent, & think that genetic changes can happen comparatively quickly.

      • Sajanas
        Posted June 15, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

        Well, genetic changes can happen quickly… I’m thinking in particular of Gould trying to suggest that large macro-mutations could and did have a big impact in evolution. He also seemed to suggest (though its been a while since I’ve read any of his books) that the Cambrian was a unique event in history, and that evolution was *different* back then.

        I think a lot of the genetic evidence has really changed the way we look at the fossil record since Gould’s time, and its a little easier to see that, for example, a snake could lose its legs over the course of a few dozen generations, rather than in one single dramatic mutation. But both would leave an identical fossil record.

        • David Elliott
          Posted November 3, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

          I really think you need to go back to the literature, if you haven’t already.

          “Gould trying to suggest that large macro-mutations could and did have a big impact in evolution.”

          Never happened.

          “He also seemed to suggest (though its been a while since I’ve read any of his books) that the Cambrian was a unique event in history, and that evolution was *different* back then.”

          In a sense (in the sense that Gould meant it – I would wonder if you understand what that was), it was. This is the view of the majority of practising palaeontologists.

          “I think a lot of the genetic evidence has really changed the way we look at the fossil record since Gould’s time”

          Genetics has very little to do with the fossil record. We use it for estimating divergence dates and things like that.

          One of the most important impacts that modern genetic theory had on palaeontology was actually through a little theory called punctuated equilibrium; which was based on extending ideas from modern population genetics to the fossil record.

          “and its a little easier to see that, for example, a snake could lose its legs over the course of a few dozen generations, rather than in one single dramatic mutation.”

          *What* are you *talking* about? This was easy to see a hundred years ago. That is why all competent practising evolutionary biologists saw it – including Gould.

          I seriously think that you perhaps don’t have much of an understanding of evolutionary biology in general, if you think that this is what the tenor of the debates has been.

          This seriously makes me concerned, that people with a familiarity with the pop science literature, commenters on the blog of a practising scientist, have so little comprehension of the basics of the past forty years of thought in palaeontology and evolutionary biology.

          Sajanas, your idea of Gould is a complete straw-man, and you need to go back to the books.

          It’s a straw-man with a recognised history, and I don’t know where you have gotten these ridiculous ideas, but you really need to revise them if you expect to be taken seriously by anybody talking at a remotely intellectual level in this field. And that includes Gould’s opponents.

    • Saikat
      Posted June 15, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

      Or James Cameron’s Avatar . . .

  11. Posted June 14, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    I wish he were still alive, too. I have a few questions about The Structure of Evolutionary Theory I’d like to ask him. I think the first half is as good a history of the main ideas of evolution as I have read, and that it was a major contribution to the history of science,

    • Frank
      Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      Agreed, but that book (a few of us read it in its entirety!) was quite repetitive, and reflected Gould’s unfortunate refusal to have anyone seriously edit his work. He also gets way too defensive about his many critics – at one place he essentially calls Dennett ‘pathetic.’ I think Gould’s tendency to exaggerate the originality of his scientific contributions, and his arrogant personality (which I saw first hand during a visit to my university), came back to haunt him in several contexts. But it is important to recognize that he turned on many people to evolutionary biology (particularly folks outside of science), provided some beautiful examples, and died way too soon.

  12. Pete Moulton
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    On balance, I’d have to put Gould more on the positive side than the negative, mainly because he was a terrific popularizer of evolution; but I’m sure pleased to read that you think as little of the punctuated equilibrium concept as I do, Jerry.

  13. Stephen P
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    I think his theory of punctuated equilibrium was pretty much bunk

    Now, there’s something I’d like to see you write a post on. I dimly recall seeing comments from biologists saying that they thought he exaggerated its importance – or, on the other hand, that they had already known for a long time how important it was and only the name was new. I don’t think I’ve come across a biologist calling it bunk before. Why do you think that?

    • David Leech
      Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      I’m puzzled by this as well.

      • Dominic
        Posted June 14, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

        What needs careful explaination is ‘stasis’. Does it really exist? Does the continuity of outward form (say sharks, archaea, trilobites etc) mean stasis, or is stasis someting else?

        • Marella
          Posted June 14, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

          Well if you’re talking paleontology then outward form is pretty much all you’ve got to go on for most organisms, or bones for the rest and since Gould was a snail specialist presumably that is what he worked on.

        • Alex SL
          Posted June 16, 2011 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

          Stasis seems unlikely to me – Red Queen Hypothesis, anyone?

        • David Elliott
          Posted November 3, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

          ‘Stasis’ has an explanation within population genetics, which is what punctuated equilibrium is based upon.

          Gould & Eldredges insight was the extension of population genetic ideas (such as the importance of allopatric speciation, or the stability of allele frequencies in large mixing populations – stasis) to palaeontology.

          Biologists tended to be disdainful toward Gould because he was skeptical of the obsession with behavioural genetics. Some may have said he “exagerated its importance” because the population genetic concepts he drew upon where well-known to biologists.

          What they largely failed to understand was that these concepts where not well known to palaeontologists. The idea of applying them in palaeontology was unheard of before Gould.

          As a result, they underestimate his importance – because he wasn’t working in their field.

  14. KP
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    p.s., a pitcher of beer at O’Connell’s Irish Pub in Norman, OK (site of the Evolution meetings this weekend and of my M.S. degree in 1997) says that some creationist grabs the opportunity to descredit Gould before the end of the week.

  15. Posted June 14, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Having now read this paper, I can only say that the authors’ conclusions are not fully supported by the results presented. Some lacunae are historical: What did Morton think about cranial capacity? What did Morton think about polygenesis? In the latter case, the online supplements provide a smidgen of data (a quote from a letter), but there is nothing about the first. Perhaps Morton said nothing– but then they should say that. And are Gould’s assumptions about Morton’s prejudices supported by evidence about Morton’s prejudices? I don’t know.

    As regards the statistical treatment, the authors present almost nothing in their paper, save the listing of seven skulls they consider Morton to have erred in measuring. It is also hard to reconstruct Morton’s method from their account. In box 2, they aver he used “grouped” (presumably meaning unweighted) means, while in the text they state he used “straight” (presumably meaning weighted) means. The tables, figures and statistical analyses that one would expect are lacking. There are some elements of this in the online supplements, but not all of it, nor is it presented in a manner facilitating interpretation (e.g.,they show what looks like raw computer output, rather than conventional tables).

    The authors are to be praised for their remeasurement, their consideration of their measurement errors, and for providing the specimen measurements. Almost everything they say may be true, including their main conclusion about Gould’s errors. But, by and large, the paper is an “executive summary” lacking the background, data summary, and analyses that would be expected in a scientific paper, that leaves the reader unsatisfied.

    It seems to me that the authors have done a more substantive piece of work that deserves a considerably longer paper than the one before us.

    • One OfThe Authors
      Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      You should look again at the supplemental information. It has all of Morton’s data, all of our data, plus spreadsheets showing all the calculations. Each and every table in the supplemental spreadsheets (Dataset S1 through S3) is very carefully annotated: every abbreviation written out, every literature reference given in full. In the Excel file S3, there are 9 separate spreadsheets showing the exact specimens and calculations used for every claim in the paper (and then some), fully described.

      So I don’t know what you mean by saying it looks like computer output. Maybe you are referring the “R” code we included at the end of our Materials and Methods supplemental file? If so, that’s just an appendix, clearly labelled as such, and we also describe all the analytical methods we use in the main text of that document. But we also included the actual R code because we were trying to be complete and allow people to replicate our work as easily as possible.

      Also in the supplemental information are two text documents, one describing the materials and methods at great length, the other providing additional historical background. Plus we made a website compiling as many of the available resources on Morton and Gould as we could (, plus adding even more material than what is available on PLoS. So while there is always more that one can do, I think we tried to be as comprehensive as possible.

      • Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        Every paper has what appear to be problems to a reader, but which might be explicable by the authors, who have deeper knowledge of the material. So, for example, I’m still not sure whether Morton used weighted or unweighted means. Maybe he used both at different times. And at one point in the text you say the mean of American Indians in 1839 was 79.6, and at another point that in 1839 it was 80.2. And you say Gould excluded 34 of 144 Indian skulls in the text, but in one of the supplements you say he excluded 33 of 142. And yes, the computer output is the R code, but also the apparently unedited output interspersed with it (switching to R is on my to do list, but I haven’t done it yet.) This is all small beer, and would likely leave your main conclusions about Gould’s errors unaffected. But the lack of narrative completeness and coherence in the Plos paper detracts from the full impact of the results.

        The work you have done, while not quite monographic, deserved a much richer presentation than the brief Plos paper, and a more coherent presentation than spreading data, results, discussion and conclusion across the paper and 5 supplementary files.

        It used to be that results of general interest (as yours are) might get a short, but data-scant presentation in Science or Nature, accompanied or followed by a more substantial and full presentation in a full paper or monograph elsewhere (Jared Diamond wrote a 400 pp. monograph to document his Science paper on the distributional ecology of New Guinea birds). It may be that a more recent version of this is the several online supplements and, sometimes, a website; but such supplements lack the coherence that the full paper or monograph form imposed on the authors, and leave the reader to hunt through various files to seek answers.

        • One OfThe Authors
          Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

          You initially complained that the background information was largely lacking and the little that was there was presented cryptically, more like computer code and not in standard tables.

          Now, after I pointed out that we have 15 comprehensively annotated tables in supplemental information, you implicitly agree that the information is there, but now complain that it makes the paper too spread out.

          So if we didn’t include the data, you’d criticize us for not doing so (as you did anyway). We do include the data, but then you criticize the paper for lack of narrative coherence. So basically we can’t win with you. Except if we published in a more specialized anthropology journal that allows longer manuscripts … but then you probably wouldn’t have seen the paper.

          As for Morton’s averages, sometimes he used weighted means, other times unweighted means, and sometimes he didn’t specify. If you look at our S3 Dataset, we show exactly what specimens we used for each calculation, and how they were or were not grouped, so that should clarify matters.

          I e-mailed you directly so if you are honestly interested in the other information, I’ll be happy to provide it and clear up whatever questions you may have.

          • Posted June 14, 2011 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

            The background information is still largely lacking. Perhaps it’s on your website, but I limited myself to your paper and supplemental online files. As far as including the data goes, I’d actually praised you for that in my first comment, not complained about it. The problem with your supplemental tables (which I looked at before writing my first comment) is that they are disconnected from your text. Your statistical results are still presented cryptically. This is not the most straight forward way to present the results of a regression:

            Min 1Q Median 3Q Max
            -8.7433 -0.9659 -0.1173 0.9437 8.6539
            Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)
            (Intercept) 1.8667 0.9114 2.048 0.0414 *
            morton$Morton.IC 0.9397 0.0110 85.423 <2e-16 ***

            Signif. codes: 0 ‘***’ 0.001 ‘**’ 0.01 ‘*’ 0.05 ‘.’ 0.1 ‘ ’ 1
            Residual standard error: 1.692 on 306 degrees of freedom
            Multiple R-squared: 0.9598, Adjusted R-squared: 0.9596
            F-statistic: 7297 on 1 and 306 DF, p-value: < 2.2e-16</block)

            I did not, as you imply, change the basis of my criticism from my first to second post. To quote both posts, it is the lack of "narrative coherence and completeness" that "leaves the reader unsatisfied".

            The problem with the paper is not the work you did– in both my comments, in fact I either praised or endorsed its richness (please– accept a compliment!)– but rather the cramped presentation that prevents an interested reader from readily seeing the basis of your conclusions.

            If an anthropology journal would have allowed you the form of exposition that would have led interested leaders to immediately assent to the veracity of your conclusions, then that probably would have been a better place for it. Whether I would have seen it or not should really not be a consideration– I'm not an anthropologist, and my interest derives largely from an acquaintance with Gould. In fact, it was the article in the NY Times, not Plos, that alerted me to your paper, so that it was not the place or style of publication, but your ability to interest the NY Times that drew attention to your paper. If the NY Times was interested merely because the paper appeared in Plos, I would be surprised.

            • One OfThe Authors
              Posted June 14, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

              With regards to the regression, is this clearer: “This difference is quite consistent across the sample, as evidenced by our ability to predict Morton’s measurements from ours with an r2 of 0.96 (p < 0.0001) using a linear regression model (Figure S1)." Because that's what we say about the regression in our twelve page Text S2: Materials and Methods, where we also provide a standard plot of the regression.

              What you quoted is from our R statistical code, which is contained entirely in an appendix of Text S2, clearly labelled as such ("Appendix I – R Code Used for Statistical Analyses.")

              So while you are welcome to your opinion, I think you are distorting the facts by quoting the R code and ignoring the text and figures that precede it.

              Furthermore, because we provide the R code (and the link to the program – it's free!) and the data files, it is trivial for someone to fully replicate our analyses. It should literally only take a matter of a few minutes. Plus then people can then carry out their own manipulations of the data. What more can you ask?

              Finally, by way of comparison, you might want to take a look at Gould's Science paper, and the Morton section of "Mismeasure." Gould presents almost nothing to back up his numbers. In fact, it took many hours to reconstruct how Gould got certain numbers because of his ambiguity, contradictions, and lack of info. Plus he drastically underreported his stats. For example, as we note in the paper, he reports only the mean change between seed and shot measurement of the Native American sample (2.2 cubic inches). He never mentions the standard deviation (2.8!) or the range (-10 cubic inches to +12 cubic inches). This is a critical point in his argument, and he had all the space he wanted in "Mismeasure."

              So if you're going to fault us as far as providing our data and results fully and clearly, so be it, but then you have to condemn Gould doubly on the same counts.

              • Sven DiMilo
                Posted June 15, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink

                thanks for commenting here

  16. Posted June 14, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this evaluation. I think the authors of this study do not understand that in the context of its time, Mismeasure of Man probably did more to help and shield science than it did to prove bias. I’ve written about this from an anthropological angle in a blog-post called “Mismeasuring Gould”:

    • Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for the link to your post. I thought it was good (your blog, too).

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 15, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      In the context of the time when Gould was writing The Mismeasure of Man, the scientific enterprise was indeed under severe critique for both participating in colonial racist practices and supporting those practices with analytical justifications. Gould’s writings offered hope that scientific inquiry could correct past mistakes and excesses. At a time when science was under direct attack, Gould helped to save, rescue, and shield science as a potentially still-noble enterprise.

      I don’t know about historical background of any of this including the critique. But I note that the argument is justified by as much “goals justifies means” as what Gould may have done in the extreme. I also note that the current debate detracts from Gould as savior and upholder of “still-noble enterprise”.

      In short, I don’t think Gould did science a service here, whether he was aware of the errors or not. And on the same analysis I don’t think further “analytical justifications” are helpful; for all I know they may even compound the problem for the 3d time if they are based on the idea of “save, rescue, and shield” instead of doing science.

      Gould is dead, he can’t defend himself, and unless more data comes up there is no need to.

  17. Mark
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Could anyone point me towards more information about the problems with punctuated equilibrium that would lead to this idea being called ‘bunk’?


    • Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      Start here.

      Some of my own commentary:

      And read Dawkins’s discussion of the theory in The Blind Watchmaker.

      The upshot: while the pattern of punctuated equilibrium (a jerky fossil record) may often hold, the mechanism for that stasis and jumpiness suggested by Gould and Eldredge is simply wrong, as is their notion that many trends in the history of life (indeed, Gould maintained many features of organisms) are molded by species selection. In fact, in his last book, Gould couldn’t come up with a single good example of the process that he earlier considered of paramount importance in evolution. I don’t think that many paleobiologists, and certainly almost no microevolutionists, consider the mechanisms of punctuated equilibrium to be important. And it was the mechanism, not the jerky pattern of fossils, that Gould held up as the real “revolution” in evolutionary biology.

      • Sven DiMilo
        Posted June 15, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

        One of SJG’s legacies is precisely this general confusion about what PE actually means, or is or was supposed to mean.
        The pattern, I think, is clear and worth noting. It implies the importance of allopatric speciation from (usually) small groups, and indicates perhaps the relative stability of some environments over long periods of time.
        But yeah, the species-sorting thing? Muddleheaded and unnecessary imo. Let alone his many (though perhaps plausibly deniable) hints over years at Goldschmidtian-hopeful-monster saltationism.

  18. steve oberski
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t this the way science is supposed to work ?

    A self-correcting process that compensates (eventually) for the biases and mistakes of individual scientists.

    I’m waiting for the announcement by the catholics that new evidence has invalidated the “theory” of transubstantiation and from the muslims that Muhammad was just an illiterate, genocidal, paedophilic tribal warlord that suffered from epilepsy.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 15, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink


      The historical evidence for Muhammad is AFAIU nonexistent, while conforming to the usual pattern of “religious founders”. That is, described for the first time in texts generations after and long distances away.

      I imagine the (testable) theory would be that he is among the rest of them: imaginary persons, propping up imaginary gods.

  19. Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    The paper mentions the new Steve Gould Archive at Stanford University. This was a surprise to me, and I suspect other WEIT readers, aware of Gould’s long association with the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the American Museum of Natural History, Harvard University, and, more recently, New York University. But Stanford is where hs library and papers went, where they are being carefully catalogued. See

    • Marta
      Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      There is a similar project at CalTech where Einstein’s papers are being catalogued. A familiar walk for me was walking by the smallish house off the CalTech campus where the project is being managed and wishing, more than I can say, that I could have knocked on the door and asked if I could come in.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        Are you kidding me? DO IT! All they can say is “no,” and more than likely they’ll let you in. You can then ask to see a few of the great man’s writings.

        I did that at the Lyndon Johnson library in Austin. Overcoming my natural shyness, I asked to see some of Johnson’s papers, and got a brief look at some really interesting stuff, including a daily log at the White House that chronicled, among other things, Johnson’s visits to the bathroom. (He used to brief his aides while sitting on the throne.)

        • Marta
          Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

          I know.

          But you’ve no idea how utterly crushed I would have been if they’d said no. I must have walked by that building dozens of times, hoping someone would be popping out, just as I walked by. Never happened. But yes. I should have risked it.

          • Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink


            Try not to let potential for being utterly crushed trump possible great outcome. Carpe diem, etc.

            :- )

            • Marta
              Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

              Indeed. Ever one of my greater faults.

        • Dominic
          Posted June 14, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

          RE Lyndon Johnson on the loo – Churchill did the same. Supposedly an aide knocked on his toilet door and told him that the Lord Privy Seal wanted to see him. “Tell the Lord Privy Seal I am sealed in my privy, and can only deal with one shit at a time!”

        • Filippo
          Posted June 16, 2011 at 7:52 am | Permalink

          I wonder if that time management technique is taught in MBA programs? If Johnson had no problem with that, then surely he had no problem with blessing subordinates with impromptu bouquets of wind-breaking in the Oval Office.

          (I wonder if JFK ever “got wind” of that? Jackie nicknamed him “Colonel [Colon?] Cornpone.)

          What with the contemporary probing, proctologizing press, one of a politician’s main “assets’ should be a superb sphincter tonus.

    • David Sepkoski
      Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

      Yes, Stanford was a weird choice for his papers, given that he had no connection with the institution. Harvard, or the American Philosophical Society, or the AMNH, would have been a more logical choice. There is a bit of a story here, which may or may not come out some day. Harvard did want to keep the papers, but there was some extensive wrangling over where they would end up. Because of this, for several years after his death, Gould’s office was completely undisturbed pending resolution. I was at the MCZ in 2004 or 2005, and was let into his office, where his desk was still covered with whatever books and papers he had (apparently) been looking at the last time he was there. It was kind of eerie.

      The net result of all of this is that, a decade after his death, Gould’s papers are only now becoming fully available to interested scholars. The archives at Stanford are run by very good people, though, and I have every hope this will be a happy arrangement.

  20. Marco
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Here is my own Steven Jay Gould story:
    Many years ago, when I was a photographer with a formal city-issued press pass in NYC, I attended a lecture by Gould at a venue in Manhattan. I had my camera with me, and I was sitting somewhere in 10th row middle, or thereabouts. I took out my camera with the pretty harmless intention of taking a few pictures (mind you, I was not using any invasive flash — just available light).
    All of a sudden, at the speed of light, Gould saw fit to dress me down from the podium, in front of everyone, and COMMANDED me to put away my camera.
    This from a public speaker at an event open to the public? Who the hell did he think he was?
    From that day on, my respect for the man fell through the floor. In my mind, he was an arrogant individual who was clearly in the grip of unacknowledged phobias about appearing in public and very unclear on how best to deal with it without being a jackass.

    • Filippo
      Posted June 16, 2011 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      Just congenially curious, how should Gould have handled the matter? Should he have sought you out to have a private conversation after his lecture? Had he requested the film, in private, would you have acquiesced?

      The further back in the past, the less likely any announcement would have been made about such matters prior to the start of the lecture. I assume no such announcement was made at the event you reference.

      Expectations (reasonable or not) change over time. Nowadays we’re accustomed to such announcements about no photographing or videoing (no doubt at the behest of the venue for monetary purposes). If it persists after the announcement, should the speaker say nothing about it? What’s “reasonable and appropriate”? I bet Dawkins (also P. Zed Myers and Hitchens – J.C.?) finds (the sounds of) photographing distracting during his lectures, and who would bet that he would not sound off about the matter?

  21. jose
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Gould was wrong on everything, and furthermore he was mean and ugly.

    Just trying to fit in, folks.

    • David Leech
      Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      And was it really necessary for him to kick puppies and drown kittens.

  22. Maple
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Bummer, time to update my lecture notes, I use a simplified example to get students to evaluate validity and other errors in experimental design. I mention Morton, guess I will just have to switch to Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire — wasn’t he the one that measured gorilla skulls and compared them to the skulls of women, stating he was as likely to find an intelligent woman in Paris, as a talking ape — being a taking ape myself I probably read that in Gould too…

  23. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I read Mismeasure of Man a while ago and formed the opinion that Gould was doing a hatchet job on earlier work to fit his social preferences. It didn’t necessarily mean his criticisms were incorrect but I did wonder just how much bias was included.

    From then on I wondered how much of his other work could be relied upon.

  24. Posted June 14, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    “I think his theory of punctuated equilibrium was pretty much bunk—except for his emphases on the often-jerky pattern of the fossil record.”

    It’s somewhat refreshing to hear other scientists say this (and I know Dawkins also doesn’t accept it). When I first started studying evolution a couple years ago, I began by reading WEIT, then moved on to other books. It took about two or three books before punctuated equilibrium was mentioned and discussed, and I immediately had a negative reaction to it.

    Granted, I was not (and still am not) an expert, but something about the whole idea just seemed WRONG to me. Nice to know I’m not alone or that my opinion isn’t based on a misunderstanding of the theory.

    • Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      I forgot to mention that I also began to form the impression that Gould proposed PE simply as a way of making more of a name for himself, almost as an intentional attempt to rock the boat for his own aggrandizement. I don’t know if there’s much merit to that opinion though.

      • David Sepkoski
        Posted June 14, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        The history of punctuated equilibria (or -um, as Gould tended to call it later in his career) is pretty interesting. As you may know, the idea was really Niles Eldridge’s. Gould was invited to participate in a symposium on ‘Models in Paleobiology’ in 1971, and the topic he was assigned was ‘models in speciation.’ The problem was, he didn’t have much to say about speciation! But he did know that Eldredge had just finished a dissertation on allopatric speciation in trilobites, so he enlisted Eldredge as co-author for the symposium and eventual publications. Gould did contribute the famous (or infamous) term, though.

        So there is a case to be made that Gould’s relationship to PE was opportunistic. But I think it’s probably unfair to say it was (or was merely) personal aggrandizement he was after. As Jerry suggested in his post, Gould was at the center of a movement to bring paleontology to evolutionary prominence, and what Gould really was after was an exciting new idea that could spur the movement. Of course, I don’t think he minded the personal fame that came along with that… But the point is that I think the situation is a bit more complicated than you infer–Gould could indeed come across as maddeningly self-promoting, but he was equally dedicated to promoting his profession and his colleagues. Gould was certainly a complicated figure…

        • Posted June 14, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for that. Like I said, I wasn’t sure about his motives for popularizing the theory, but because it just seemed so wrong in the face of everything else I had read about evolution, it had the feeling of someone just trying to push out a controversial idea just for the attention. 🙂

          • Sven DiMilo
            Posted June 15, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

            it just seemed so wrong in the face of everything else I had read about evolution

            um, it’s not.
            Unless you have something specific in mind.

        • Posted June 15, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

          Niles Eldredge once said, “The next guy who asks me about Gould’s theory, I’m gonna punch him in the nose!” (I wish I could recall the exact origin of this anecdote.) The first punc eq paper was by Eldredge alone, in Evolution in 1971 (submitted June 1970); he called it the “allopatric model”, contrasting it to gradual, phyletic, and saltation models. A pdf is available:

          • NewEnglandBob
            Posted June 15, 2011 at 7:31 am | Permalink

            Was Eldridge trying to take credit for punctuated equilibrium or blame?

            • Sven DiMilo
              Posted June 15, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink

              why ‘blame’?
              It’s a real, verified empirical pattern in the long-term evolution of many groups whose fossil record permits such analysis. And as implied by Eldredge’s title, in many ways it’s simply a straightforward prediction of Mayr’s allopatric speciation models. If only they’d (read: SJG) left it there.

          • David Sepkoski
            Posted June 15, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

            Ok, shameless plug: I’ve got a book coming out next year that has a chapter on PE that reconstructs the origin of the theory using letters and drafts I got from Niles (and elsewhere) that haven’t seen the light of day since the early 70s. I don’t purport to set the record straight once and for all, but I think it will shed some light on questions about credit, motivation, influence, etc. that have been debated since the theory first appeared.

            I do agree with Sven that the heart of the theory is an interpretation of a straightforward empirical phenomenon. What’s really fascinating is how (and why) it came to be something more…

            • Posted June 16, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink

              Did you come across the “punch in the nose” story? I’ve only met Eldredge a couple of times, so I don’t think I heard it direct from him, but can’t recall who told me.

  25. Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    He was a tool and thus very popular. Here’s another take from a great paleo-anthro site: –

  26. Dominic
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    I am very interested by the biology/palaeontology divide. The two groups seem to divide in many ways. Recall your disagreement with New Scientist? Mind you, Steven Rose is also a biologist & was clearly on Gould’s side regarding many things.

    Very interesting.

    • Dominic
      Posted June 14, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      Surely his Ontology and Phylogeny was his most important book?

    • Sven DiMilo
      Posted June 15, 2011 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      Rose is another who apparently lets his political ideology trump his biological training every time.

  27. Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    So we have a “ends justifying means” trope on Gould going!? By definition, anyone who serves the current pop/pol ideologies with quasi- science is going to get all the eyeballs. Science is (very, very) hard — who can sell that?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 15, 2011 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Hard, but rewarding. Describe it all, push the good stuff.

  28. Marta
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just run across and read your article reviewing Ann Coulter’s book, “Godless Liberals”. That is a fine piece of funny writing, right there. I wish I’d seen it when her book was published. (Off-topic. Apologies.)

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted June 14, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for that Marta – really worth reading.

      Let me say, I’m glad I’m on Jerry’s side, as I’d hate to be lampooned by him. Delicious read!

      • SLC
        Posted June 14, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

        According to a former boyfriend, Tranny Annie doesn’t believe 90% of the stuff she says and writes. It’s just a money making proposition for her.

        • Josh Slocum
          Posted June 14, 2011 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

          Not cool to throw transsexuals under the bus to score points on Coulter. Not cool at all.

  29. NewEnglandBob
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    I have never liked anything I read by Gould and this does not surprise me. His reputation is circling the drain faster now

  30. Posted June 14, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Wasn’t he that guy on the Simpsons once?

  31. Marella
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    In defense of Gould, his early essays in Natural History Magazine were beautifully written, lucid and entertaining. My first degree was geology but he taught me more about evolutionary theory than all my paleontology courses did. My favourite of his books was “Wonderful Life” which I loved, (hence my nom de web, Marella from Marella splendens, my favourite Burgess shale animal).
    He got a bit ratty in his old age, and too political but it is ironic that in writing a book about scientific bias he exposed his own biases!

    • Posted June 15, 2011 at 1:04 am | Permalink

      Actually, he died rather young: he was only 60, which is hardly “old” these days.

  32. Dave C
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    However wrong he may or may not have been on any number of topics, I will always consider SJG a positive influence on my life. After dropping out of college at the age of 20, I began to become interested in science. Not having any formal education in biology or any other science, I started reading a lot of popular science books, including several of Gould’s books (I even read The Structure of Evolutionary Theory in its entirety!). Through the inspiration I gained from reading Gould, Dawkins and others, I decided to go back to college and become a biologist. I just finished my BS this spring, and I will be pursuing a Master’s in evolutionary biology in the near future. Without people like Gould, my life would probably be very different.

  33. randyextry
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    There’s a book called “Dawkins vs Gould” which (from what I remember, it’s been awhile) is a pretty good introduction to the basics of their differing views about evolution. Here’s the link.

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted June 14, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

      thanks for this lead. I don’t have time to read the book, however the reviews are instructive.

  34. SteveF
    Posted June 15, 2011 at 2:09 am | Permalink

    Also on the plus side for Gould, I think, is his Ontologeny and Phylogeny. I still see it cited in Evo-Devo papers to this day, so it’s been an influential work. Though I know Jerry has some critical things to say about certain aspects of Evo-Devo!

    • Tim
      Posted June 15, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      Ontogeny, FFS.

      • SteveF
        Posted June 15, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

        I most humbly beg your apologies for the heinous crime of making a spelling error.

  35. Mathew Varidel
    Posted June 15, 2011 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    “He helped revive paleontology as a vibrant and essential part of modern evolutionary biology, and, with his essays and books, he excited widespread interest in evolution among the public.”

    Did Gould actually add any new/novel/groundbreaking knowledge to the field itself?

  36. Posted June 16, 2011 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Lesson learned – write abt Gould to get popular blog post!

  37. JL
    Posted June 16, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    “And the two-page epilogue, about the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck, a “feeble-minded” black woman, is one of the most eloquent bits of scientific writing I’ve ever seen.”

    I don’t think she was black:

  38. Russell
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    Speaking of tendentious,Steve also jumped the shark by joining in Sagan and Ehrich’s ‘nuclear winter ‘ campaign .

7 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Here is one reason I love scientists: Jerry Coyne speaks honestly about the good and bad aspects of Stephen Jay Gould. I admit that I was uncomfortable with aspects of Dr. Gould’s book Mismeasure of Man. While I […]

  2. […] am sure that this charge will be argued back and forth – indeed, there is already discussion. But let me say that frankly I am not surprised and fully expect that the charge will be upheld, at […]

  3. […] New York Times, contains, of all things, an editorial, “Bias and the beholder,” about Steve Gould’s ham-handed analysis of Samuel Morton’s skull-volume data.   Yes, it sure does look like Gould screwed up, and […]

  4. […] Gould here.  The New York Times article about Gould is here.  A discussion about the affair is here.  The piece by Gould that links Teilhard de Chardin to the Piltdown forgery is here. Rebuttals are […]

  5. […] weblog: Gould’s “Unconscious Manipulation  of Data”; Why Evolution Is True: Steve Gould gets it in the neck; and Quodlibeta: The Bias Sphere; or, Turning Gould into […]

  6. […] sure enough, Gould has been attacked for some of his own sloppiness. Jerry Coyne’s take on this makes for uncomfortable, but intellectually honest reading: I always thought that among Steve Gould’s “real” (non-essay-collection) books, The Mismeasure […]

  7. […] the cranial measurement of human ethnic groups made by Samuel Morton in the nineteenth century.  (I’ve posted about this before, but the PLoS paper has been widely […]

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