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Essay Review: The Roots of Biological


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In The Mismeasure of Mani (W. W. Norton & Co., 1981), Stephen

Jay Gould traces the history in Westernthought of what has come to
be called"biologicaldeterminism."This is the generalname for theories
which hold that the roots of human social behavior and personality
lie in the biology of individualsand groups (racial or ethnic) and thus
determine fundamental aspects of social life. Gould treats examples
of biological determinismstretching from Socrates' famous parableof
the metals in Plato's Republic, though nineteenth-centurycraniometry
and the early twentieth-centuryI.Q. testing movement,to more recent
theories such as those about I.Q. and race and, finally, sociobiology.
While not proposingthat this particulararrayof ideas necessarilyforms
a direct line of descent, Gould does suggest that in Westernculture
these theories share some common methodological roots and usually
served similar functions in the broad social context of their times.
He arguesthat theories of biologicaldeterminismover the years rationalized the status quo by postulating that social problems are caused
not by environmental or social conditions, but by innate, biological
factors. One messageof the book is that such theories are not merely
products of a less enlightened past, but in variousforms are still with
us today.
One of the main argumentsGould advances is that all theories of
biological determinism, past and present, have been based on bad
biology and bad scientific method. Everythingfrom biased measurements to subconscious manipulationof data to outright fraudulence
has plagued attempts to cast human social behavior in a largely biological light. As one example, Gould gives a detailed picture of the
mid-nineteenth-centuryAmerican craniologist Samuel George Morton
(1799--1851), who produced reams of data on cranial capacities of
Indians, Negroes, and Caucasiansin his attempt to prove that the white
race is superiorto all others. Gould demonstrateswell, from Morton's
own publisheddata, that his uneven(and thus non-comparable)smapie
sizes worked in the direction of Morton's own bias, by showing that
whites had the largest, Indians the middle, and blacks the smallest
Journal of the History of Biology, vol. 17, no. 1 (Spring 1984), pp. 141 -145.
0022 -5010/84/0171/0141$00.50.
? 1984 by D. ReidelPublishingCompany.


cranial capacity. Other proceduralproblems - associated with trying

to obtain accurate and consistent measurementsfor skull volume plagued Morton's efforts, and those of his more eminent European
successor, Paul Broca (1824-1880). In a clear and highly insightful
way, Gould exposes methodological problem after methodological
problem in the history of attempts to construct theories of biological
Of the remainingexamples, I found Gould's treatmentof the early
history of the I.Q. testing movement - notably the work of Alfred
Binet (1857-1911), H. H. Goddard (1866-1957), Lewis Terman
(1877-1956), and Robert Yerkes (1876-1956) -- particularlyilluminating, building upon and supplementingLeon Kamin'spioneering
work of 1974.' Gould shows how Binet's originaltests - specifically
were transintended to measure performance, not innate ability
formed by the Americanschool of Goddard,Terman,and Yerkesinto
tools for measuringinherited mental ability. The problems inherent
in designing culture-free tests, in administeringtests in an unbiased,
standardized way (especially to non-English-speakingimmigrantsat
Ellis Island in 1912 and illiterate Army recruits at Camp Custer in
1918), and in interpretingthe results without reference to common
prejudices,are well explicated and sometimes humorouslyportrayed.
Most astounding is the overt self-delusion in which the l.Q. testers
engaged as they dismissed the problems they encountered. Gould's
book should make everyone who reads it a little more cautious about
assigningcauses to complex problemsof humansocial behavior.
One of Gould's most important insights, and a messagethat should
carry beyond the specific examples he has chosen, is his view that the
history of theories of biological determinism has involved the confluence of three methodologicalproblems:
(a) The first is the fascinationwith measurementand quantification
that has influenced so much of Science in the past 150 years, along
with the belief that if something is assigneda numberit is real, objective, and "scientific." Gould makes it abundantlyclear that measurements always have to be interpretedin a given context: for example,
cranial capacity can be measured,but the meaning of such measurements is neitherstraightforwardnor obvious.
(b) The second problem is that of reification -- the notion that
certain qualities (for examples, "intelligence" or "race") are valid
1. Leon J. Kamin. The Science and Politics of J.Q. (Potomac, Md.: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates, 1974), esp. chap. 1-3.


Essay Review: The Roots of BiologicalDeterminism

entities simply because we invent a name for them. Using the history
of Spearman's statistical identification of intelligence (symbolized
by g) in 1904 and its critique, Gould shows by a simple, if slightly
tedious, discussionof statisticshow L. L. Thurstonein 1935 subdivided
g into several components (mathematical and verbal intelligence, for
instance), equivalent to one another empirically, statistically, and
logically. There was nothing absolute or "natural"about intelligence
as a unitaryquality.
(c) The third and final problem common to theories of biological
determinism has been the a priori assumption that the traits under
considerationare, in fact, inherited.Gould demonstratesunequivocally
the circular reasoning in which such investigators as Terman, Cyril
Burt, or Arthur Jensen have engaged by assuming that a trait is inherited, measuringit, finding that it appearsthroughoutcertain family
lines, and then reassertingthat this proves it must be inherited. As
Gould points out, the studies merely restate, ratherthan demonstrate
independently,the originala prioriassumption.
How are we to interpret Gould's fascinating explication in the
broader context of the history of science? What sorts of conclusions,
lessons from history, or comments on human social life are we to
make? Here is where, in my own view, the author falls short. At one
level Gould's book could be seen simply as a debunkingof science - an
expose of its flaws, human frailties, and "dirty linen" (with conscious
fraud being better documented here than in almost any other single
work I know). But Gould anticipates this interpretationand tries to
suggest a more significant and "positive" conclusion by arguing, I
presumein Popperianfashion, that in science disproof is more positive
than proof. This argumentis certainlytrue, though it is not very strong.
While I would agree that it must be done, the mere disproof of illconceivedand methodologicallysloppy work is not terriblypositive.
Gould's results create a paradox: on the one hand he points out
that the various theories have not been maverick concepts espoused
by a few zealous crackpots. The ideas, he forcefully maintains,were
taken as mainstream, pioneering efforts in their respective periods
of history. Yet at the same time the scientific aspects of the works
themselves were so evidently flawed, even by the standardsof their
own times, that their widespread acceptance becomes difficult to
understand.Gould appearsto seek some deeper, historicalexplanations,
but it is precisely here that the book stops short of the mark. The
author provides no picture, no real hints of the social, political, and
economic forces which contributed in specific ways to the rise and


promulgationof biological deterministtheories in their own times. To

be sure, Gould points out that Morton'scraniometrywas used to justify
slavery, Broca's anthropometryto justify imperialismand to oppose
women's suffrage, and I.Q. tests (in conjunctionwith eugenic thought)
to oppose eastern and southern Europeanimmigrationto the United
States in the 1920's; but there is no hint of how these determinist
argumentsfunctioned in their large-scalesocial context to shapepublic
opinion and bring about specific social programsor legislation(such
as the passage of immigration restriction laws in the United States
in 1924).
While I do not want to be guilty of forcing ProfessorGould'sbook
into my own mold, his specific choice of subject and organizing
themecalls out for an interpretation in the broader social,
political, and economic context. For example, an analysis which
saw each of these theories as fostered by the wealthy and elite in
different stages of the development of Western capitalism would
provide a causal (albeit, I am sure, controversial),organizing
scheme for understandingsome-thing fundamentalabout the rise
and propagationof theories of bio- logical determinism.To see such
theoriesas not only somehow vaguely coming forth when needed to
support the status quo, but as ideas pushed (paid for, directly
encouraged,or chosen) by those with the economic and political
power to do so would providemore of a useful framework,more of
an insight into the relationsbetween science and society than the
presentanalysisis capableof doing.
Let me give one concrete example. The biological determinist
argument against eastern and southern European immigrationto the
United States was mounted through two interrelatedmovements: the
eugenics movement and the I.Q. testing movement (Gould treats only
the I.Q. movement, but that is sufficient). Both movements were
born out of the Progressiveera concern with national and
industrial efficiency, itself a product of chaotic, unstable economic
and social conditions engenderedby the rapiddevelopmentof
industrialcapitalismafter the Civil War. Industrialists and
associated financiers sought greater control over the marketplace
(prices), the workplace (un- ionization), and society at large (the
threat of radicalism,and particularly Bolshevism,after 1917). By theses realitieswealthy elites were
won away from laissez-faireto the support of planned capitalism, a
major change requiringthe introduction of a special class of experts
- scientific advisers, managers,and rationalplanners.The l.Q.
testing and eugenicsmovementswere squarelyin that mold and were
by the wealthy and elite because they provided a way of assigning

Essay Review: The Roots of BiologicalDeterminism

people to their proper place in a complex society, and because, as
Rockefeller Foundation adviser Wesley Clair Mitchell said in 1915,
science and social science could be used to make people "contented
with the divisionof the product [of their labor] ."
I am not criticizing Gould for failing to advance this particular
analysis(though I have reasonto suspect that he would be sympathetic
to something like it); I am criticizinghis failureto suggestsome similar
type of underlying historical causes which would tie together the
variousepisodes he discusses.As it stands, TheMismeasureof Man leads
too easily to either the idiosyncraticview of history (that is, that the
examples given are simply bizarreoccurrencesoutside the mainstream
of scientific work) or the conversenotion that the examplesare simply
more extreme versions of the social biases we all have. Such views
obscure the more fundamentalhistorical processesthat it behooves us
to understandbetter if we are to prevent future transgressionsin the
name of science similarto the past ones cited in this book.
To use Gould's own style and conclude on a "positivenote," let me
suggest that the present book, apart from being both informativeand
interestingreading(with some good humor interspersed),has two very
important, long-rangehistorical values. One is that it demonstratesthat
biological deterministideas, however they arise, can have realand very
serious consequences for human life and death. A boatload of German
Jewish refugees was turned back from the United States in 1940
because of restrictions engendered by eugenicists and I.Q. testers in
1924; and over the past 40 years millions of Britishschoolchildrenhave
been denied the chance to enter the universityas a result of their scores
on eleven-plusor I.Q. exams (designed, in part, with the advice and
full support of Sir Cyril Burt). Erroneousideas about people's innate
biological worth are not mere cocktail-partydiversions;they can maim
and kill, figurativelyand literally.A second historicalvalue of this book
is that through his illuminatingresearchGould has providedmuch raw
material on which future social, economic, and historical analyses can
be based. That alone is a majorservicefor which historians,themselves
less versed in the intricacies of anthropometry, factor analysis, and
psychologicaltesting, should be eternallygrateful.