The Mismeasure of Some People

In 1981 Stephen Jay Gould published his book The Mismeasure of Man. At its heart the book is a critique of those who seek to prove a hypothesis while ignoring all the evidence that screams against it.

Gould begins by examining some of the more ludicrous and race-based arguments for general intelligence, from Louis Aggasiz’s repugnance at meeting his first black man in a Philadelphia hotel to Samuel George Morton’s attempt to prove that whites have bigger–and therefore superior–brains because their average volume exceeds that of all other races.

Even this early work, Gould shows, suffered from fundamental measuring and mathematical errors, to the point where data that did not fit within the positive hypothesis was just discarded.

This continued even after Charles Darwin published his controversial idea about how species develop over long periods of time, suggesting that we all were products of a common ancestor. This was too much for Creationists, even if they accepted that Darwin’s “natural selection” worked on species after the initial creation. That is why some suggested that there might have been two creations, or that the different races might have descended from two different species, a notion called polygenesis. This was often used as a biological justification for both racism and American slavery.

Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century individuals like Francis Galton and Paul Broca attempted to lend even more mathematical credibility to the idea of craniometry. Time and again, though, they made mistakes in grouping their brains and skulls, and in tabulating the final numbers.

Convinced that whites were cognitively superior to other races, and that men were cognitively superior to women, these men ignored simple things like the fact that a woman’s brain might be smaller than a man’s but she herself was also smaller. Modern biologists now understand that within normal parameters absolute brain size is not as important as how big one’s brain is in relation to one’s body. That is why malnutrition can not only have an effect on health and body size but also on overall cognitive performance.

At issue here is the age old question of nature versus nurture. Those Gould terms hereditarians believe that environment plays little role in the natural ability of “certain people.” In other words, a hereditarian might say that white people have a generally superior cognitive potential, so that potential can be positively and negatively influenced by environment. However, another group–say women or blacks–possess such limited cognitive potential that it is a waste of resources to try and make them equal to superior whites.

Hereditarians dismiss the racist and chauvinist aspects of their view by saying that even many white people do not possess the cognitive ability to be positively influenced by environmental forces. This does not, though, lend support to their idea that there is a fundamental cognitive difference between races and genders. The numbers also do not support this cognitive difference, unless one manipulates the numbers, as two individuals did in the early twentieth century.

Cyril Burt and Charles Spearman, working on the earlier research of Alfred Binet and others attempted to establish a categorical and mathematical link between brain size and the Intelligence Quotient (I.Q.). Besides the outright fraud perpetrated by Cyril Burt when it came to his numbers, there was the fundamental mistake made by Burt, Spearman, Goddard, Terman, Yerkes, et al. when it came to the use of the Intelligence Quotient.

The first mistake was to suggest that the number had anything to do with potential. It did not. Alfred Binet had originally designed his exam to diagnose areas where a child was having difficulty learning. Binet’s goal was not to pigeonhole the child for life but to work on cognitive weaknesses.

As with any idea, once it is married to existing social and political prejudices, it can be used to buttress ideas that have no scientific basis. That is what happened in the early twentieth century in America. The United States went on a frenzy of I.Q. testing, beginning first with the Army during World War I and then with society in general during the 1920s. The latter became especially instrumental in arguing against the immigration of southern Europeans to the United States. Incoming emigres were subjected to testing as they got off the boat, many of them deported after testing because they could not show cognitive promise.

The whole immigration fiasco showed the limited utility of cognitive testing. Even if the immigrant knew English–and most did not–they would have been subjected to a battery of tests using images with which they would not have been familiar. For example, they were asked to identify a missing bowling ball in a picture. Even if these people had heard of bowling there was no likelihood that they would have known what it looked like to play the game.

The most insidious result of the whole I.Q. industrial-complex was that it made us believe as a society that a single number could determine the fate of child or an adult. It is a complete rejection of the present day fascination with what is called “neural plasticity.” You may have heard this term if you have ever seen the commercial for Lumosity.

Of course, we may be swinging now too far to the other side, trying to convince everyone that they can be an Einstein if they just try hard enough. However, it seems better to err on the side of “plasticity” rather than “biological determinism,” especially if the latter is simply used as an excuse not to respond to the societal need for general education, or to respond to other social issues.

We cannot get into all the details here because it would require a book to address all the ancillary issues associated with the notion of “native intelligence.” So, let me leave you with some questions and some titles that will allow you to explore this topic on your own.

The first question is how does hereditarianism/biological determinism relate to free will, fate (destiny), and the modern notion of cultivating each individual’s “natural ability”? Did ancient peoples, who talked much about fate, really believe one’s fate could not be avoided? What does it mean for the individual and society when we conclude early that a particular person is simply not good at math or science? Does human progress require that we believe in the complete plasticity of mankind or that we adopt a more hierarchical view of progress ala Brave New World? Do social determinants play a greater role than talent in the achievement of personal and social goals?

I would like to suggest that we should all adopt an attitude of tentative optimism when it comes to mankind’s general abilities. My reading of the literature has convinced me that biology may set limits to what we can do but that these limits tend to be parametric, having both a low-end and high-end. What we choose to do with the biological cards we have been dealt are really only limited–in most cases–by our ambition and our environment. That is why I believe we should encourage everyone to struggle to reach their individual potential, and that we should build a society aimed at eliminating any man-made impediments to that potential.

It is easy to get discouraged. It is easy to watch a funny movie like Idiocracy and think it all too true, but just ask yourself one question: if people have been predicting for centuries that we are in biological and moral decline then why do we in the West now live in one of the most prosperous, safe, and technologically magnificent ages ever seen by mankind?

Maybe the books below will help you feel your way toward answers to some of these difficult questions.


Fukyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Avon Books, 1992.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008.

________. Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Little, Brown and Company, 2002.

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1981.

Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944.

Kaku, Michio. Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100. New York: Doubleday, 2011.

________. Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 2002.

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