NOTE: Feel free to read the full review, but I can sum it up in a fact. Gould need only have written the two-page epilogue to his book, a concise essay, rather than the remainder of the book. In fact, the entire thing is just so much pink fiberglass insulation leading up to the final page of the book. Everything he intended to say is there without any jargon or facts and figures. As a teacher, I intend to photocopy and teach that page alone. Carry on if desired.
I am not a philistine, nor am I stupid, and rare is the book that totally mystifies me. It is regrettable, then, that this, which will be placed, in due time, on that narrow metaphorical shelf, bewildered not out of being truly beyond grasping, but rather out of poor presentation and overly technical writing. I feel that this is relevant to the aims of this review. I quote David Kipen’s review of the The Zohar: Pritzker Edition Vol. 1:
If a book is so knotty that it makes a critic’s skull ache, most critics would consider that something an unwary reader deserves to know.
And now you know. (To be clear, the first four chapters are not troublesome; it’s chapter five, “The Real Error of Cyril Burt,” that should’ve been omitted. But I’ll get to that in due time.)
These are the main points of Gould’s book: (a) That there is no discernible difference, especially of intellect, between the various races of Homo sapiens; (b) that scientists are prey to the same biases and subjectivities as we all are, and they may colour their work thus; (c) that intelligence is a nebulous, unquantifiable entity, and we often fall prey to the fallacy of reification when referencing intelligence, i.e. we feel that that which is named is definable; and (d) that sociobiology, as put forth by Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson, is incorrect insofar as it seeks to find an explanation for human behaviour in Darwinian theory. I can get behind propositions (a) through (c), but I find (d) revolting and completely off-base.
In fact, my point (b) above, Gould’s assertion that scientists’ work might be shaped by their biases, is the basis for the ultimate failure of The Mismeasure of Man. Gould “knows” that IQ measures nothing, and that sociobiology is false, and that admitting any innate difference between human minds will lead to social darwinism, so of course, he’s churned out this massive synthesis in support of precisely those ideas. The fact that he doesn’t realize his hypocrisy is more or less vomit-inducing. The fact is that IQ measures something real, so says recent, moderate research (see “The Search for Intelligence” by the ubiquitous Carl Zimmer, Scientific American, October 2008, pp. 68-75). I agree with Gould when he quotes John Stuart Mill, saying that
The tendency has always been strong to believe whatever received a name must be an entity or being, having an independent existence of its own. And if no real entity answering to the name could be found, men did not for that reason suppose that none existed, but imagined that it was something particularly abstruse and mysterious.
The rub is that some things that don’t answer to names actually don’t exist, for one. Unicorns come to mind.
Another conundrum arrises when we take into account the first rule of behavioural genetics, as quoted in Steven Pinker‘s
The Blank Slate
All human behavioural traits are heritable.
This is key. It simply states, rather uncontroversially, that all traits might be inherited, and to say as much is not to embrace genetic determinism. But in the book, Gould poo-poos sociobiology and the rule. He states that human being have no innate leaning toward aggressiveness. In a sense, Mismeasure is the archenemy of The Blank Slate. Gould never actually advocates that we are blank slates, stating instead that
I cannot adopt such a nihilistic position without denying the fundamental insight of my profession.
He does, however, essentially state that IQ is meaningless because it reifies intelligence, and that there’s nothing innately different about one human’s brain or another’s, in a sort of “Harrison Bergeron” vision of equality. Pinker pretty much shows this to be false, but finds a way to celebrate our differences.
To me, the problem with IQ is not that it measures nothing, in theory, although some people just don’t test well, and I exclude them from judgment. My beef is that IQ is just so linear and one-dimensional. Who decided that skill in math and grammar was the sole indicator of intelligence? What about athletic ability? Artistic ability? Ability to categorize? Or to ask the big questions? What about people with great “people skills,” or an aptitude for mechanics? Educators will be familiar with Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, and I subscribe to it wholeheartedly. Darwin himself was of average intelligence, but excelled at research (Gardner’s “naturalist” intelligence). And I believe that each of us is capable of whatever we wish to accomplish—there are pilots and painters without arms, and I almost cringe before throwing out the token “Beethoven was deaf” nugget. Genes are not destiny, and work can overcome them. That said, smart people know their limits and they don’t wax poetic about how they don’t exist and we’re all equal in every way. I know that I am not good at math, that is, I was not born with an innate ability to comprehend mathematics intuitively. I could certainly apply myself and learn math, but why bother?—I understand biology and literature in ways most mathematicians do not.
And this brings us to the part of the book that made me give it one star—”The Real Error of Cyril Burt,” consisting of eighty-six pages of advanced math. This is a fatal error for a pop-sci book. I had to skip the chapter after 20 pages; it was going in one eye and out the other, or as Richard Ellis says, MEGO syndrome set in (My Eyes Glaze Over). Sample:
The original measures may be represented as vectors of unit length, radiating from a common point. If two measures are highly correlated, their vectors lie close to each other. The cosine of the angle between any two vectors records the correlation coefficient between them…
Not exactly quantum mechanics, to be sure, but enough to kill my interest, and lose the point. If Gould needs a lot of math to tell me something very loose and unsure, and Pinker needs no math to tell me something completely concrete, well, Occam and his famed blade point to the latter.
This is the second Gould I’ve read, and it was the second to involve a disclaimer about a glut of details to come in the introduction. When you’re used to Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan, with their grand, sweeping,and poetic generalizations about life, the universe, and everything, these details are not only shelter to the devil—they are the devil.
Believe it or not, I recommend this book. The first four chapters and the epilogue—the story of a sterilized woman with Down’s syndrome, which broke my heart—are pretty good. But bad editing is its downfall. When I count three spelling errors, I send the thing back to my mental publishers.