The Mismeasures of Stephen Jay Gould

Brandon Keim, Wired Science, June 14, 2011

In the rush to prove bias in a scientist who erroneously used skull-size measurements to demonstrate racial differences, the great historian Stephen Jay Gould may have succumbed to bias himself.

The argument centers on the work of Samuel Morton, who rose to 19th century acclaim by rigorously measuring the volume of human skulls. In those pre-Darwin days, he was looking for evidence that God created the races separately, though his findings that Caucasians had the highest average volume were also interpreted as evidence of their cognitive superiority.

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Indeed, it would seem that Gould was guilty of at least one accusation he made against Morton’s methods. He omitted measurement of Native American skulls that would have altered his racial averages in unpalatable ways. As for the charge that Morton, who measured volume by packing skulls with mustard seed or buckshot, packed Caucasian skulls extra-tight, there was no evidence. And once mathematical errors were corrected in Gould’s own cherry-picked dataset, they actually resembled Morton’s supposed racial hierarchy more closely than Morton’s own results.

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To be certain, Lewis and DeGusta don’t write that the scientific method can shield interpretations and assumptions from cultural biases. Those are a different matter altogether, and Morton’s work was full of them: that humanity was created in one divine swoop a few thousand years ago, that 19th century racial categories were real and fixed, that between-group cranial differences were more significant than within-group. (That Morton believed cranial volume differences represented cognitive variation is now doubted, but many other researchers did. Such features are now recognized as physiological adaptations to climate, with no cognitive implications.) But as far as the data went, Morton was honest.

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  • Jack

    “Such features are now recognized as physiological adaptations to climate, with no cognitive implications.)”

    Really?

    If that were truly so it would be ignored, not fought over.

  • elitist

    Stephen Jay Gould did not “succumb to bias.”

    He consciously and deliberately lied systematically about racial difference in order to further his ideological agenda and further his academic and literary career.

    Like all other scientists without exception, he knew full well that natural selection either affect all organisms which ever existed on earth or else none of them.

    And it shapes all of the organs of all of these organisms, or else none of them.

    Natural selection shapes the human brain just as much as it does the other organs.

    It determines psychology, levels of aggression and entity, cognitive ability, etc. just as surely as it determines skin, hair, and eye color.

    If two species of rabbit have differently shaped skulls, then all scientists on earth without exception – including that lying liar Stephen Jay Gould – would assume as a matter of course that they have differently shaped brains, and hence brains which function differently.

    Brain size apart, the skulls of Africans are shaped differently than the skulls of Caucasians.

    Therefore, it is impossible even theoretically for the brains which fit inside of them to be the same.

    All of this is as axiomatic and obvious as 2+2 equals four.

    We have been lied to for century by scientists who have known better.

  • Anonymous

    “Such features are now recognized as physiological adaptations to climate, with no cognitive implications.” If this were true we would be calling mild minded instead of small minded.

  • Anonymous

    “Such features are now recognized as physiological adaptations to climate, with no cognitive implications.” Even if the first half of that were true, that of climate adaptation, it is far from certain the latter is true, that of no cognitive implications. An evolutionary argument could be made that those in warm climes with much food available year round require less of it inhabitants in order to survive to procreate than a colder clime where death by starvation is an annual reality.

  • Anonymous

    “Such features are now recognized as physiological adaptations to climate, with no cognitive implications.”

    This is basically a lie with a grain of truth buried in it, so that non-Whites feel can better that science “refutes” White supremacy (whatever in the world that is).

    The White brain evolved as a response to selective pressures forced on it by the colder climate. Crops do not grow constantly, and if you don’t plan ahead, the winter will simply kill you even if you have enough food. Peoples near the equator don’t face this problem and so never evolved brains that are identical to Whites’.

    See? It’s an “adaptation to climate”. There are no cognitive implications. Well, OK, there are, but we won’t talk about them because we can’t be adults about the data.