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'The Mismeasure of Man' (by Stephen Jay Gould) is about two main topics - one of which is the hereditarian theory of IQ. The other is the fallacy of measuring skull volume and assuming that this tells you something about intelligence. In any case, the logical flaw attacked in the book is that of reification - 'thingifying' an abstract notion like IQ. There is nothing intrinsically wrong (IMHO) with 'measuring' intelligence by standardised tests. The problem occurs, as Gould points out, when this measurement is 'made real'.

This fallacy can lead to some bizarre conclusions; take the case of a child in America who (it is claimed) has an IQ of 2501. It is undoubtedly true that he is very intelligent - but does this single value (250ish) mean that he is twice as intelligent as, say, me2. Does this mean he does things twice as fast, or twice as well? Of course, I am being ridiculous - but the spectre of reified intelligence still haunts us.

Apart from such hero worship of current 'genius' there is also the idiocy of designer babies and intelligence. Just as the hereditarians of old said "You can't be intelligent if you're black or female or we don't like you" (i'm paraphrasing), so the new genetics says "You can't be intelligent if we haven't given you the right genes". I even saw some random scientist on TV saying "Several genes control intelligence" 'several'? what kind of fisher-price genetics are you playing at?!

*Ahem* So, it's clear that we haven't yet learned the lessons of the 19th and early 20th centuries when it comes to thinking about intelligence. It's a good book, if a little weighty.

1 : Or some other such foolish value.

2 : From a £1 sale "Test Your Own I.Q." book, average of maybe 6 tests (out of 10 in the book - I got bored).

The Mismeasure of Man

by Stephen Jay Gould,
W. W. Norton & Company, 444 pages.
ISBN: 0393314251

This book is about measuring intelligence, and how it has been done incorrectly in the past, especially in the pursuit of certain racial stereotypes. It is also about the fallibility of the scientific method as relates to the actual practice of science by scientists.


Gould starts by examining the early 20th century fascination with correlations between cranial capacity and size, and race. The correlations, which were repeatedly shown at the time to prove the understood fact that white, European males (and in many cases, specifically German, French, or English males,) were more intelligent than other, "lesser" races. Acknowledging that the correlation between cranial capacity and intelligence is flawed in and of itself, Gould proceeds to dissect exactly how the very subjective measurements were taken, and then how data was correlated, in many cases clearly incorrectly, using, what Gould argues were clearly unconscious, fudging of the data in many ways.

Many intriguing examples of this are pointed out in the book; Grape seed not being a good measure of cranial capacity, as one contemporary cranialist noted, the difference between two measurements could greatly exceed the statistical differences between races. In addition, many factors were taken into account only when beneficial to the theories being propounded; repeatedly, the scientists would argue that body size, sex, or some other factor has some important relationship to head size, and therefore the European sample must be adjusted upward, or the African sample downward, but never vice-versa, even in cases where the data clearly showed that similar adjustments were needed elsewhere.

Gould goes on to make similar criticisms of other contemporary theories of various attributes that were “linked” with intelligence, demolishing each in turn. He then turns to IQ testing, its eugenic roots, and the similar failings of the various tests of the IQ systems, including the first mass testing of IQ anywhere, in the US army during World War 1. These tests were carried out badly, frequently so much so that the cultural biases that would have invalidated any significant conclusions from the tests were irrelevant due to the fact that the instructions were so miserable that those tested, in group of hundreds, frequently did not answer anything at all. (There is a terrific story in the book about how the large groups of non-responsive answers were interpreted as people too stupid to have their intelligence even measured by these tests, having the mental ability of less than a five year old.)

Lastly, Gould takes issue with the single intelligence theory, or reification, the idea of assuming that if one can measure something, it must have some reality, as opposed to being aspects of a more complicated emergent behavior, or even simple artifacts of the system, such as cultural bias. There are several technical mathematical subjects that Gould explains (rather well), involving Dimensional analysis (and NOT unit analysis, which is what most of that node discusses.) that were causes of problems with many techniques used.


The book was an interesting read overall, though amazingly overly technical at certain points. There were several points in the book that Gould digressed into emotionally involving, but ultimately irrelevant stories about the horrors of eugenics and conservatism, inextricably linked. While not quite the “intellectual foundation behind the movement for racial equality” that wrinkly claims in his w/u on Gould, it certainly was an important step in the refutation of the racist, eugenic dogma that passed for intellectualism in certain circles in the early eighties.

I would caution the reader that very little of the book is truly essential to the current discussions on IQ and racism; too much of the conceptual background of the ideas Gould proposed have passed into common discussion to have any real shocking information on that question. The more interesting side of the book, and what is possibly most overlooked, is that Gould uses this highly public and important issue to raise points relating to the way science is done, and the lack of true detachment from the subjects, that can lead to the use of science as a weapon, not a tool to learn.

The book got panned in a number of academic journals, here are some of the criticisms:

1. Gould's allegation that Morton had doctored his skull collection was re-investigated by John Michael. Michael found very few errors & those that were found were not in the direction Gould claimed. Michael found Gould was mistaken & that Morton's studies were conducted with integrity. Michael JS 1988. A new look at Morton's craniological research. Current Anthropology 29: 349- 54.

2. Gould's central argument against hereditarians happens to be based on his gross misunderstanding of the position he is criticizing. He says, "a reified Spearman's g is still the only promising justification for hereditarian theories of mean differences in IQ among human groups .... The chimerical nature of g is the rotten core of Jensen's edifice, and of the entire hereditarian school." (Gould 1981, 320) In reality, Jensen's views on the genetic explanation of racial differences in IQ are totally independent from the question whether there is only one factor of general intelligence (so-called g). Here is what James Flynn, a consistent critic of Jensen, has to say on the matter:

"Gould's book evades all of Jensen's best arguments for a genetic component in the black-white IQ gap, by positing that they are dependent on the concept of g as a general intelligence factor. Therefore, Gould believes that if he can discredit g, no more need be said. This is manifestly false. Jensen's arguments would bite no matter whether blacks suffered from a score deficit on one or 10 or 100 factors. I attribute no intent or motive to Gould, it is just that you cannot rebut arguments if you do not acknowledge and address them."


3. Gould criticises the idea that brain volume could be related to cognitive ability, but ignored a literature review by Van Valen (1974) which estimated an overall correlation of 0.30 between brain size and intelligence. With MRI scans this evidence continued to accumulate through the 80's. Rather than address this evidence, Gould's 1996 edition simply deletes the section of the 1981 dition that discussed the brain-size/IQ relation.

Recently Richard Haier, at Brain Research Institute, UC Irvine College of Medicine, found that general human intelligence appears to be correlated with the volume and location of gray matter tissue in the brain.

For a summary of the neurobiological correlates with 'g' see this summary by UCLA neuroscientist Paul Thompson http://www.loni.ucla.edu/~thompson/PDF/nrn0604-GrayThompson.pdf

Also, see this article in New Scientist dated 11 March 2009, discussing the recent twin studies on myelination & intelligence:

" By comparing brain maps of identical twins, which share the same genes, with fraternal twins, which share about half their genes, the team calculate that myelin integrity is genetically determined in many brain areas important for intelligence. This includes the corpus callosum, which integrates signals from the left and right sides of the body, and the parietal lobes, responsible for visual and spatial reasoning and logic (see above). Myelin quality in these areas was also correlated with scores on tests of abstract reasoning and overall intelligence (The Journal of Neuroscience, vol 29, p 2212).

Just because intelligence is strongly genetic, that doesn't mean it cannot be improved. "It's just the opposite," says Richard Haier, of the University of California, Irvine, who works with Thompson. "If it's genetic, it's biochemical, and we have all kinds of ways of influencing biochemistry."


4. Gould's criticism of factor analysis (and 'g') is flawed: see John Carroll's review Intelligence 21, 121-134 1995 and also Jensen Contemporary Education Review Summer 1982, Volume 1, Number 2, pp. 121- 135.

David J. Bartholomew, from London School of Economics, who has written a textbook on factor analysis, also explains in "Measuring Intelligence: Facts and Fallacies" explains where Gould goes wrong in this area.

5. Gould suggests that Jews tested poorly in the 1920's & this lead to the Immigration Act 1924. Both are incorrect.

6. The idea that Jews tested poorly is actually based on a misrepresentation of a paper authored by Henry Goddard in 1917. Goddard gave IQ tests to people suspected of being mentally handicapped. He found the tests identified a number of such people from various immigrant groups, including Ashkenazi Jews. Leon Kamin in 1974 reported that Goddard had found Jews had low IQ scores. However, Goddard never found that Jews or other groups as a general population had low scores. There is other information that contradicts the idea that Jews did poorly on IQ tests around this time. In 1900, in London, Jews took a disproportionate number of academic prizes in spite of their poverty (C Russell & H.S. Lewis 'The Jew in London' Harper Collins 1900). Also, note that by 1922 Jewish students made up more than a fifth of Harvard undergraduates & the Ivy League was already instituting policies aimed at limiting Jewish admissions (the infamous 'Jewish quotas'). Also, a 1920's a survey of IQ scores in three London schools with mixed Jewish & non-Jewish student bodies - one prosperous, one poor and one very poor - showed that Jewish students, on average, had higher IQ's than their schoolmates in each of the groups (A Hughes 1928).

- see also: G. Cochran, J. Hardy, H. Harpending, Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence, Journal of Biosocial Science 38 (5), pp. 659-693 (2006).

7. The other misconception is that this contributed to the 1924 Immigration Act. However, Herrnstein & Snyderman found this was not the case (Intelligence Tests and the Immigration Act of 1924' American Psychologist 38, September 1983).

8. Although it was claimed Cyril Burt made up data for his twin studies, subsequent investigations have cast doubt on this. See the book Cyril Burt 'Fraud or Framed', edited by Nick Mackintosh former Chair of Psychology at the University of Cambridge.

9. Burt's findings regarding hereditary appear to be very consistent with subsequent twin studies (see work by Bouchard or Robert Plomin). In the first edition Gould noted that "the only really natural experiment for separating genetic from environmental effects in humans is genetically identical individuals raised in disparate environments. Studies of identical twins raised apart should therefore hold pride of place in literature on inheritance of IQ.” Gould repeated that statement verbatim (page 264) in the 1996 reissue. He completely ignored the fact that by far the most extensive and careful study of identical twins raised apart from infancy in different families in different social environments had been begun in 1979 and its results were widely reported well before 1996. The only reason that Gould could have had for ignoring the Minnesota Twin Study is that he could not refute its results and he knew he could rely on the ignorance of reviewers in the popular press.

Steven Pinker commented on the results of twin studies in the NY Times earlier this year:

"To study something scientifically, you first have to measure it, and psychologists have developed tests for many mental traits. And contrary to popular opinion, the tests work pretty well: they give a similar measurement of a person every time they are administered, and they statistically predict life outcomes like school and job performance, psychiatric diagnoses and marital stability. Tests for intelligence might ask people to recite a string of digits backward, define a word like "predicament," identify what an egg and a seed have in common or assemble four triangles into a square.

The most prominent finding of behavioral genetics has been summarized by the psychologist Eric Turkheimer: "The nature-nurture debate is over. . . . All human behavioral traits are heritable." By this he meant that a substantial fraction of the variation among individuals within a culture can be linked to variation in their genes. Whether you measure intelligence or personality, religiosity or political orientation, television watching or cigarette smoking, the outcome is the same. Identical twins (who share all their genes) are more similar than fraternal twins (who share half their genes that vary among people). Biological siblings (who share half those genes too) are more similar than adopted siblings (who share no more genes than do strangers). And identical twins separated at birth and raised in different adoptive homes (who share their genes but not their environments) are uncannily similar."

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