The Mismeasure of Man

From Academic Kids

The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould (ISBN 0393039722) is a controversial book critiquing what he saw as "scientific racism," starting with ideas such as craniometry and the eugenics movement and concluding with more recent developments in the study of race and intelligence.

The book, originally written in 1981, describes Gould's objections to:

"[...] the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups—races, classes, or sexes—are innately inferior and deserve their status" (pp. 24-25).

Gould later revised and expanded the book in reply to arguments from The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, also a controversial book.


Claims of bias and falsification

In the first edition, Gould criticizes many of the studies Herrnstein and Murray were to draw on. Gould mainly argues that most race-related psychological studies have been heavily biased by the belief that human behavior is best explained by heredity. He criticizes studies of the relationship between race and intelligence on several grounds. He claims that an oft-cited twin study by Cyril Burt on the genetic heritability of intelligence presents falsified data, although current scientific consensus attributes Burt's errors to carelessness rather than deception. Most of Gould's criticisms pertain to cases where the data seems to be legitimate.

Analysis of statistical correlations

Most of his arguments have to do with the value of statistical correlations. Many arguments around IQ center on the issue of correlation—the claim that the test measures psychometric g requires that the kinds of answers to various questions will correlate highly; the claim that g is inherited requires that the scores of respondents who are closely related will correlate significantly higher than results of those distantly related. First, he points out that correlation is not the same as cause. As he puts it, measures of the changes, over time, in "my age, the population of Mexico, the price of Swiss cheese, my pet turtle's weight, and the average distance between galaxies" will have a high positive correlation—but that does not mean that Stephen Jay Gould's age goes up because the population of Mexico goes up. Second, and more specifically, a high positive correlation between parent and child IQ can be taken as either evidence that IQ is genetically inherited or that IQ is inherited through social and environmental factors. Since the same data can be used to argue either side of the case, the data in and of itself is not useful.

Furthermore, Gould argues that even if it were demonstrated that IQ is highly genetically heritable within a group, this tells nothing about the causes of IQ differences between groups or whether those differences can be changed by environment. Gould gives the example of height, which is known to be determined mostly through genes within socioeconomic groups, but group differences in height may be due to nutrition as well as genes. Richard Lewontin, a colleague of Gould's, is well-known for emphasizing this argument as it pertains to IQ testing.

According to Gould, a good example of the confusion of heritability is found in the statement of international scholars published in the Wall Street Journal (see web-link above): "If all environments were to become equal for everyone, heritability would rise to 100% because all remaining differences in IQ would necessarily be genetic in origin." He says that this claim is at best misleading and at worst, false. First, it is very hard to conceive of a world in which everyone grows up in the exact same environment; the very fact that people are spatially and temporally dispersed means that no one can be in exactly the same environment (a simple example will illustrate how complex social environments are: a husband and wife may share a house, but they do not live in identical environments because each is married to a different person). Second, even if people grew up in exactly the same environment, not all differences would be genetic in origin. This is because embryonic development involves chance molecular events and random cellular movements that alter the effects of genes.

Gould argues that heritability is not a measure of phenotypic differences between groups, but rather differences between genotype and phenotype within a population. Even within a group, if all members of the group grow up in exactly the same environment, it does not mean that heritability is 100%. All Americans (or New Yorkers, or upper-class New Yorkers – one may define the population in question as narrowly as one likes) may eat exactly the same food, but their adult height will still be a result of both genetics and nutrition. In short, heritability is almost never 100%, and heritability tells us nothing about genetic differences between groups. This is true for height, which has a high degree of heritability; it is all the more true for intelligence. This is true for other reasons besides ones involving "heritability", as Gould goes on to discuss.

Gould's most profound criticism is his rejection of the very thing that IQ is meant to measure, "general intelligence" (or g). IQ tests, he points out, ask many different kinds of questions. Responses to different kinds of questions tend to form clusters. In other words, different kinds of questions can be given different scores – which suggests that an IQ test is really a combination of a number of different tests that test a number of different things. Gould claims that proponents of IQ tests assume that there is such a thing as general intelligence, and analyze the data so as to produce one number, which they then claim is a measure of general intelligence. Gould argues that this one number (and therefore, the implication that there is a real thing called "general intelligence" that this number measures) is in fact an artifact of the statistical operations psychologists apply to the raw data. He argues that one can analyze the same data more effectively and end up with a number of different scores (but valid, meaning they measure something) rather than one score.

Finally, Gould points out that he is not opposed to the notion of "biological variability" which is the premise that heredity influences intelligence. He does criticize the notion of "biological determinism" which is the idea that genes determine destiny and there is nothing we can or should do about this.


In an interview in The Skeptic, Murray claimed that Gould misrepresented his views. Arthur Jensen made a similar complaint:

"In his references to my own work, Gould includes at least nine citations that involve more than just an expression of Gould's opinion; in these citations Gould purportedly paraphrases my views. Yet in eight of the nine cases, Gould's representation of these views is false, misleading, or grossly caricatured. Nonspecialists could have no way of knowing any of this without reading the cited sources. While an author can occasionally make an inadvertent mistake in paraphrasing another, it appears Gould's paraphrases are consistently slanted to serve his own message." (source) (;Authors+and+Intellectuals;Arthur+Jensen&cumulative_category_id=Root;Authors;Jensen)

J. Philippe Rushton, head of the Pioneer Fund that has funded research into race and intelligence, accused Gould of "scholarly malfeasance" for, in his view, misrepresenting or ignoring relevant scientific research.

For instance, Gould has been accused of beating a dead horse, even in his revised edition, since the methods he criticizes have been long abandoned. Of course, when one considers that most of the book deals with the history of IQ testing and racialist theories, this is not suprising. Philippe also charges that Gould fails to mention new discoveries made from Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) which show that brain-size and IQ correlate about 0.40. This correlation, however, is just that, a correlation and, according to modern neurophysical theory, is likely due to a third factor, probably nutrition.

External links

Critiques of The Mismeasure of Man

Positive reviews of The Mismeasure of Man


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