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Stephen Jay Gould

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The Atlantic has a huge profile of E. O. Wilson up. The main course is his new book, The Social Conquest of Earth. It seems to be an elaboration of some of the ideas in the infamous Martin Nowak paper which resulted in a huge counter-response from biologists. But this part was kind of fun:

Wilson defined sociobiology for me as “the systematic study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior in all organisms.” Gould savagely mocked both Wilson’s ideas and his supposed hubris in a 1986 essay titled “Cardboard Darwinism,” in The New York Review of Books, for seeking “to achieve the greatest reform in human thinking about human nature since Freud,” and Wilson still clearly bears a grudge.

“I believe Gould was a charlatan,” he told me. “I believe that he was … seeking reputation and credibility as a scientist and writer, and he did it consistently by distorting what other scientists were saying and devising arguments based upon that distortion.” It is easy to imagine Wilson privately resenting Gould for another reason, as well—namely, for choosing Freud as a point of comparison rather than his own idol, Darwin, whom he calls “the greatest man in the world.”

If you read much of my stuff you know that I don’t think much of Gould, but I have to air stuff like this so that readers won’t keep citing the man as an authority. Though perhaps it is ironic that in the case of the evolution of sociality Wilson and Gould probably share more in common in their final conclusion than they do with the evolutionary mainstream.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History, Science • Tags: E. O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould 
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I would say The Mismeasurement of Man is one of the most commonly cited books on this weblog over the years (in the comments). It comes close to being “proof-text” in many arguments online, because of the authority and eminence of the author in the public mind, Stephen Jay Gould. I am in general not particularly a fan of Gould’s work or thought, with many of my sentiments matching the attitudes of Paul Krugman in this 1996 essay:

….Like most American intellectuals, I first learned about this subject [evolutionary biology] from the writings of Stephen Jay Gould. But I eventually came to realize that working biologists regard Gould much the same way that economists regard Robert Reich: talented writer, too bad he never gets anything right. Serious evolutionary theorists such as John Maynard Smith or William Hamilton, like serious economists, think largely in terms of mathematical models. Indeed, the introduction to Maynard Smith’s classic tract Evolutionary Genetics flatly declares, “If you can’t stand algebra, stay away from evolutionary biology.” There is a core set of crucial ideas in his subject that, because they involve the interaction of several different factors, can only be clearly understood by someone willing to sit still for a bit of math. (Try to give a purely verbal description of the reactions among three mutually catalytic chemicals.)

But many intellectuals who can’t stand algebra are not willing to stay away from the subject. They are thus deeply attracted to a graceful writer like Gould, who frequently misrepresents the field (perhaps because he does not fully understand its essentially mathematical logic), but who wraps his misrepresentations in so many layers of impressive, if irrelevant, historical and literary erudition that they seem profound.

Yes, I am aware that some biologists would disagree with this assessment of Gould’s relevance. But I remain generally skeptical of his arguments, though over the years I have become more accepting of the necessity of openness to a sense of ‘pluralism’ when it comes to the forces which shape evolutionary processes. And certainly there is interesting exposition in a book like The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, but there was no need for ~1500 pages (Brian Switek did fine with a little over ~300 pages in covering similar territory as the first half of the book). Whatever valid positions Gould staked out in opposition to excessive adaptationist thinking on the part of the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy of the mid-20th century, his penchant for self-marketing and repackaging of plausible but not particularly novel concepts was often destructive in my experience to the enterprise of a greater public understanding of science.

When I was in 8th grade my earth science teacher explained to the class proudly that he was not a “Darwinian,” rather, he accepted punctuated equilibrium. One must understand that much of his audience was Creationist in sympathy because of the demographics of the region, but I was frankly appalled by his explicit verbal rejection of “Darwinism,” because I knew how the others would take it (my best friend in the class was a Creationist and he kept chuckling about “monkeys turning into men” throughout the whole period). I remained after to further explore this issue with my teacher. I expressed my bewilderment as best as I could, and it came to pass that my teacher explained that he had arrived to his skepticism of the rejected model of Darwinism via the works of Stephen Jay Gould. With his silver tongue Gould had convinced him that the future of evolutionary science lay with punctuated equilibrium, which had already overthrown the older order. A 13 year old can only go so far, and so I moved on.

But this incident made be very suspicious of Gould’s influence on people from that point onward, and I became even more skeptical after I found out that the sophistic proponent of what later become Intelligent Design, Phillip E. Johnson, was mining his more rhetorical jeremiads against Darwinism like it was Tombstone in the 19th century. To his credit Gould delivered an aptly savage review to Johnson’s Darwin on Trial for his lawyerly misrepresentations, but Stephen Jay Gould himself sowed the seeds for this by portraying himself to the public as the scourge of the priests of the Church of Darwin. His contributions to the broader canvas of evolutionary biology (that is, outside of his academic specialty in paleontology) are probably as substantive as Richard Dawkins’ ideas are to the understanding of the role of religion in society. Gould was an intellectual polemicist of the first order.

This goes back decades. In the 1970s he was a member of the Sociobiology Study Group, whose intellectual weight helped lead to a groundswell of activism against E. O. Wilson’s project of a biologically informed approach to social science. Eventually Wilson was accused of genocide and doused with cold water at the 1979 AAAS meeting (Gould disassociated himself from that sort of “infantile” behavior, but in Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate it seems clear that Wilson believed that the Harvard professors who saw dark intentions behind his project of fusing social science with biology helped foster the atmosphere of intimidation).

This is all a long way of saying that I give Gould his due and acknowledge his influence on the ideas of Elisabeth Vrba. But when he steps outside of the domain of paleontology in general I dismiss appeals to Gouldian authority, whether it be in evolutionary biology on a grand philosophical scale, or the triviality of human races as biological entities.

And so we come to a paper in PLoS Biology, The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias. Now, let me make one thing clear: the authors are not racists. They make that clear repeatedly; they abhor racism. But they also abhor falsity. They find that Stephen Jay Gould’s claim that Samuel Morton’s cranial measurements of 19th century skulls were influence by his bias due to his belief in the superiority of the white race is false. Why? While Gould reanalyzed the data, the authors measured the original skulls (or more precisely, half of the original skulls). Here’s the abstract:

Stephen Jay Gould, the prominent evolutionary biologist and science historian, argued that “unconscious manipulation of data may be a scientific norm” because “scientists are human beings rooted in cultural contexts, not automatons directed toward external truth”…a view now popular in social studies of science…In support of his argument Gould presented the case of Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century physician and physical anthropologist famous for his measurements of human skulls. Morton was considered the objectivist of his era, but Gould reanalyzed Morton’s data and in his prize-winning book The Mismeasure of Man…argued that Morton skewed his data to fit his preconceptions about human variation. Morton is now viewed as a canonical example of scientific misconduct. But did Morton really fudge his data? Are studies of human variation inevitably biased, as per Gould, or are objective accounts attainable, as Morton attempted? We investigated these questions by remeasuring Morton’s skulls and reexamining both Morton’s and Gould’s analyses. Our results resolve this historical controversy, demonstrating that Morton did not manipulate data to support his preconceptions, contra Gould. In fact, the Morton case provides an example of how the scientific method can shield results from cultural biases.

In their measurements they found that there were errors in Morton’s methods: but they were not systematically biased in the direction which his preference for white racial superiority would have led him to. On the contrary, if anything his errors went in the other direction. The prose in the paper is pretty straightforward, eminently polite, and charitable to Gould in light of the fact that he is no longer with us and able to respond forcefully. Here’s Box 2 for a flavor:

Box 2. Did Morton manipulate his samples? Gould states that “as a favorite tool for adjustment, Morton chose to include or delete large subsamples in order to match grand means with a priori expectations”…This criticism stems from the fact that each of Morton’s broader racial samples (e.g., “Indian”) were composed of multiple population subsamples, typically with differing mean cranial capacities. Thus it is possible to alter the overall “race” means by manipulating their constituent subsamples, and Gould charges that Morton did just that in order to obtain the results he expected.

For example, Gould compares the cranial capacities in Morton’s 1839 and 1849 publications and finds that “Morton’s Indian mean had plummeted to 79 in3.… But, again, this low value only records an increasing inequality of sub-sample size. Small-headed (and small-statured) Peruvians had formed 23 percent of the 1839 sample; they now made up nearly half the total sample”…However, the “Indian” mean was 79.6 in3 in Morton 1839 and 79.3 in3 in Morton 1849, so the “plummet” Gould refers to was all of 0.3 in3. More importantly, Morton in 1849…explicitly calculated his overall “Indian” average by taking the mean of three subgroups: Peruvians, Mexicans, and “Barbarous Tribes”—this is readily apparent in Morton’s table reprinted in Gould…As such, the percentage of the overall “Indian” sample composed of Peruvians is irrelevant to the overall mean, as it is only the Peruvian average which impacts the overall value. The Peruvian average changed by less than 1 in3 from Morton 1839 (n = 33) to Morton 1849 (n = 155).

Clearly, Morton was not manipulating samples to depress the “Indian” mean, and the change was trivial in any case (0.3 in3). In fact, the more likely candidate for manipulating sample composition is Gould himself in this instance. In recalculating Morton’s Native American mean, Gould…reports erroneously high values for the Seminole-Muskogee and Iroquois due to mistakes in defining those samples and omits the Eastern Lenapé group entirely, all of which serve to increase the Native American mean and reduce the differences between groups.

And so it goes on. The authors are concerned that Gould’s “proof” of Morton’s bias is now a case study in many universities. But the bias is probably not there. And so it is with many of Gould’s assertions and poses in my opinion. The thickness of his prose may persuade the many, but persuasion by bluff does not entail correctness.

Humans are creatures of bias, and we are shaped by our age. I recently reread an old edition of Descent of Man on my Kindle and I definitely glossed over some racist assertions by Charles Darwin (and I’m certainly one who has a low outrage threshold, whatever the opinion). Darwin may have been a liberal of his age, but he was still a man of his age at the end of the day. This does not negate his greatness as a scientist. Reality is. We may see through the mirror darkly, but there is something on the other side beyond our imaginings. Darwin, for all his flaws that we perceive in our own time due to the values which we hold dear and essential, nevertheless grasped upon a critical fragment of objective reality. Whatever chasm which time imposes because of the waxing and waning of cultural values, we are anchored within the same stream of objective reality and the truths which undergird that reality. I caution against excessive reliance on one paper, one figure, on result, because of the darkness through which we muddle. But reality does exist, and we sometimes need to set aside expectation or preference when we go about ascertaining its true shape.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
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Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

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