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 ,, 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 , 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