Commentary Magazine

The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould


The Mismeasure of Man.
by Stephen Jay Gould.
Norton. 353 pp. $14.95.

Since mental tests of all varieties have been under attack for more than a decade, it is scarcely surprising that Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man has been received in some quarters as a devastating critique of testing. At a time when the National Education Association and Ralph Nader, among others, are allied in a campaign to ban standardized tests, a history which portrays the racism of the forefathers of testing offers a useful weapon in the ideological battle. The potential misuse of Gould’s arguments ironically emphasizes one of his major themes, which is the appropriation of allegedly scientific ideas to meet the requirements of a particular political climate and to reinforce fashionable dogma.

Gould’s purpose is to debunk biological determinism, and most especially, to discredit the idea that intelligence can be represented as a single entity, a number, which can be used to rank individuals and groups. The Mismeasure of Man, as Gould points out repeatedly, is not a cautionary tale of bad hereditarians against good environmentalists; it is, rather, a fascinating story of the use and misuse of knowledge in the service of social theory. The book’s implicit warning is not against intelligence testing, but against “experts” armed with statistics who want to remake society according to their findings.

In Gould’s review of the history of “scientific racism,” the leading thinkers typically found evidence in their studies for their own biases. He traces the earliest debate about the differential intelligence of races to the pre-revolutionary period, when polygenists argued that the races were different species, descended from multiple Adams, while monogenists claimed that all men had a single origin, but that some races had declined more than others. Darwin’s evolutionary theory lent itself to the interpretation of the polygenists, who could claim the support of science for their racist views. One of the more picturesque polygenists was Samuel George Morton, an early 19th-century physician, who collected more than 1,000 skulls. To prove his hypothesis that races could be ranked according to the size of the brain, Morton measured skulls and found that the cranial cavity of whites was larger than that of non-white races. Gould nicely demolishes Morton’s findings by showing that when cranium size is related to body structure, racial differences disappear.

The idée fixe of the craniometricians, here and in Europe, was that brain size determined intelligence, and that races differed by brain size. Eminent men of science were urged to donate their brains for study, and Gould reports that “the dissection of dead colleagues became something of a cottage industry among 19th-century craniometricians.” The average European brain was established as weighing 1,300 to 1,400 grams. One great scientist weighed in at 1,830, and Turgenev apparently topped the scale at 2,000; however, Walt Whitman was only a meager 1,282, and Anatole France an embarrassing 1,017. So many factors contribute to brain size, Gould notes, including age at death and presence of degenerative disease, and so many inexplicable exceptions developed in the course of these studies—for example, the fact that some criminals had unusually large brains—that the speculations proved worthless, despite the elaborate calculations and tables of the craniometricians.

Then came Cesare Lombroso, the Italian criminal anthropologist, with his biological theories about the criminal man, the “born criminal,” the “evolutionary throwback” who can be recognized (sometimes) by anatomical stigmata. Lombroso argued that the punishment should fit the criminal, not the crime. The modern system of parole, early release, and indeterminate sentencing, Gould holds, relies at least in part on Lombroso’s claim that the penal system should treat “born” and “occasional” criminals differently. Lombroso and his followers were not “proto-fascists” or even conservatives; they were liberals and socialists who argued against the traditional belief that all individuals should be held responsible for their actions. Lombroso contributed the counter-belief that the criminal was not only “savage” but “sick,” and that the state had the right and the duty, not to punish his crime, but to monitor his moods, attitudes, and behavior for an indefinite time.



In a leap so adroit that it is scarcely noticeable, Gould shifts, in one simple sentence, from the patently absurd practices of the craniometricians to 20th-century intelligence testing. When he says that “the crudities of the cranial index have given way to the complexity of intelligence testing,” it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he is suggesting an equivalence between the crackpot theories of the skull-as-sayers and the psychometricians of today. In fact, he is and he isn’t. Gould does believe that mental testing has value, but he decries the misuses to which it has been put. Unfortunately, he is far more explicit and concerned about the misuses of tests than about the ways in which they can be of value. Gould clearly agrees with Alfred Binet, the French creator of the first intelligence test, who wanted his scales to be used to identify children who needed special help in school, but feared that they might be used to label children and limit their future. Gould appears to believe, with Binet, that mental testing could be used to enhance the learning of all children. And Gould further points out that “tests of the IQ type were helpful in the proper diagnosis of my own learning-disabled son. His average score, the IQ itself, meant nothing, for it was only an amalgam of some very high and very low scores; but the pattern of low values indicated his areas of deficit.”

Unfortunately, Binet’s scale crossed the ocean in the period before World War I, when racism, eugenics, and rigid hereditarianism were in full cry, along with a sometimes oddly misplaced lust to perfect society. The first use of the Binet scale was by H. H. Goddard, research director of a school for feeble-minded children, who screened incoming immigrants at Ellis Island in 1912 and 1913 and found that about 80 percent of Jews, Hungarians, Italians, and Russians were feeble-minded. The Binet scale was later refined and popularized by Lewis Terman of Stanford, who believed that its mass use would have vast and beneficial social benefits, by placing “tens of thousands” of “high-grade defectives under the surveillance and protection of society” and by eliminating crime, pauperism, and industrial inefficiency.

Binet had hoped his test would be used to improve the education of those who needed help; in Terman’s hands, however, the IQ test became a method to determine which children could not benefit from more education. After administering an intelligence test, Terman wrote: “The forty-minute test has told more about the mental ability of this boy than the intelligent mother had been able to learn in eleven years of daily and hourly observation. For X is feeble-minded; he will never complete the grammar school; he will never be an efficient worker or a responsible citizen.” We would say today, rightly I think, that a forty-minute test cannot show the limits of X’s educability, but that it might suggest the areas in which he needs help in order to become an efficient worker and a responsible citizen.

When World War I began, a Harvard psychologist, Robert M. Yerkes, persuaded the United States Army to permit him to create a mass-testing program for its recruits. There was the Alpha test for the literate, and the Beta test for the illiterate. Despite massive snafus and barely grudging cooperation from the Army, nearly two million men were tested. The summaries of the test data compared races and nationalities by IQ and concluded that there were distinct differences among these groups; that the average mental age of white American males was thirteen; that immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were less intelligent than those from Northern and Western Europe; that Jews were not highly intelligent, as had been previously believed. The tests also revealed that “intelligence” grew with length of residence in the country or with years of schooling and that Northern blacks received higher scores than Southern whites; but hereditarian bias prevented the testers from recognizing the effect of acculturation on intelligence and led them to conclude inferior races and nationalities were inundating the nation.

These data stoked the fires of eugenicists, who warned about the threat to American stock posed by continued immigration of lesser nationalities and by racial miscegenation. The Army test data were cited in congressional debates about immigration restriction; the decision to enact nationality quotas to keep out Southern and Eastern Europeans, Gould says, “might never have been implemented, or even considered, without the army data and eugenicist propaganda.” Further, Gould claims, the quota system kept out Jewish refugees in the 1930’s and prevented the immigration of millions who might have otherwise sought refuge here. Ergo, IQ test data facilitated the Holocaust.



The story has been told before, though rarely so engagingly and rarely by a teller with the training to scrutinize and refute the original raw data of the mismeasurers. While Gould’s ostensible purpose is to challenge those who believe that man can be measured and ranked by a single number representing his “intelligence,” the most telling case he makes is against the men who manipulate ideas and numbers and data to change society in the name of “science.” It is a puzzlement that he refers to these men as “scientists,” since all those he discusses are in fact social scientists. Part of their motivation he attributes to “physics envy,” the desire to make such “soft” sciences as psychology, sociology, and organismic biology as scientific as physics. What comes through most strongly, however, is the theme of the misuse of knowledge in the quest for power. Curiously, many of his “scientists” thought of themselves as “liberals” and “reformers.” Paul Broca, who insisted that brain size determined intelligence, believed in the possibility of brain growth; Lombrosian criminologists thought of themselves as liberal modernists and reformers, sweeping away the discredited doctrines of individual responsibility and free will; even the hereditarian Cyril Burt believed that the British “eleven-plus” examination opened the class system to the talented poor.

Since we do not normally associate social scientists with an urge for power, Gould’s recitation demonstrates how purportedly neutral investigations, dressed up in the trappings of science, can suit political ends. Our own jurists, who have taken the social sciences at face value, might be instructed by the skepticism of Italian judges and lawyers toward Lombroso’s theories.

Though all of his targets are hereditarians, Gould does not dispute the importance of hereditability; what he does stress is the difficulty of knowing the difference between what is inherited and what is the result of environment. Apparently without disagreeing, he quotes L. L. Thurstone, the University of Chicago psychologist who advanced the idea that intelligence consists of several “primary mental abilities”:

Inheritance plays an important part in determining mental performance. It is my own conviction that the arguments of the environmentalists are too much based on sentimentalism. They are often even fanatic on this subject. If the facts support the genetic interpretation, then the accusation of being undemocratic must not be hurled at the biologists. If anyone is undemocratic on this issue, it must be Mother Nature. To the question whether the mental abilities can be trained, the affirmative answer seems to be the only one that makes sense. On the other hand, if two boys who differ markedly in visualizing ability, for example, are given the same amount of training with this type of thinking, I am afraid that they will differ even more at the end of the training than they did at the start.



Interesting as Gould’s story is, it presents a distorted perspective on American history by not explaining that the ideas he criticizes became unfashionable long ago; in the present climate, he is beating a dead horse. Nor does he demonstrate either the real-world effects of those ideas or the reasons for their ultimate failure. Unfortunately, Gould is more rigorous in his requirements of scientific evidence than in his requirements of historical proof. After all, we did not follow the advice of scientific racists to exterminate lesser beings. Nor did we follow the European example of rigidly separating children into academic and vocational lines at age eleven or so; instead, our educational institutions prided themselves on keeping as many children as possible in school as long as possible. To say, as Gould does, that Goddard’s work led to the exclusion of feeble-minded immigrants is to ignore the fact that Congress had barred feeble-minded immigrants before Goddard began to write. To say that immigration would not have been restricted by nationality quotas had there been no Army IQ test data is to ignore such facts as: the recommendation of the Immigration Commission in 1911, which proposed “racial” limitation based on a percentage of that race already in the United States; the preexistent, nearly total exclusion of Orientals; the clamor in successive Congresses for a literacy test (vetoed three times by different Presidents) and other devices intended to screen out the undesired immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe; and the existence of a vast literature, some of it by leading scholars, arguing the necessity of excluding these inferior nationalities. In other words, the political, cultural, and social climate favored quota legislation after the war; the Army IQ data were simply icing on an already well-formed cake, not the principal ingredient.

Nor is it historically justifiable to blame IQ test data for America’s indifference to European Jewry; if the United States (or any other country) had wanted to save the Jews, test scores and restrictive quotas would not have stood in the way. There is more than ample reason to believe that IQ tests were not the sole or even a major cause of the restriction of immigration on a national-origin basis, nor were they solely or principally responsible for America’s failure to rescue European Jewry from Hitler; such reasoning attributes too much blame to the testers, and too little to the men who were in power at the time.

Similarly, we gain only the barest hint from Gould of the contemporary arguments against racist interpretations of IQ data, nor does he reveal that environmentalist ideas have been in the ascendancy for the past forty years. Instead, the historical picture he provides is one of nearly unremitting racism and social bias. If his intellectual history were a full portrait of American social-scientific thought, we would expect such policies as sterilization of the mentally incompetent to be nationwide and accepted, rather than aberrational and abhorrent, and we would expect Americans to have erected gas chambers for groups and individuals considered inferior, instead of fighting those who did. This is, in short, a severely truncated and unfair view of American intellectual history, for Gould provides no sense of the vigorous combat between exponents of nature and nurture, nor of the changing context in which the debates took place.



The reader puts down The Mismeasure of Man uncertain as to whether intelligence is one thing or many things, measurable or not measurable. In part, the problem lies in Gould’s ambivalence. Initially he stresses that it is fallacious to “reify” intelligence, to assume that it exists simply because we have given it a name; “intelligence” is so diverse, he argues, that it simply cannot be adequately defined, let alone measured on a single test. Or as he writes:

We recognize the importance of mentality in our lives and wish to characterize it, in part so that we. can make the divisions and distinctions among people that our cultural and political systems dictate. We therefore give the word “intelligence” to this wondrously complex and multifaceted set of human capabilities. This shorthand symbol is then reified and intelligence achieves its dubious status as a unitary thing.

So the concept of “intelligence” is a cultural invention to permit us to rank people by race, sex, and social class. But later, he concludes that “Human uniqueness resides primarily in our brains. It is expressed in the culture built upon our intelligence and the power it gives us to manipulate the world.” Through man’s intelligence, he has invented “the railroad, the automobile, radio and television, the atom bomb, the computer, the airplane and spaceship.”

What are we to make of this? Our culture is built on our “intelligence,” and our intelligence gives us the power to “manipulate the world,” but the lesson of Gould’s work is that we must not try to identify, name, or measure this elusive thing or things called “intelligence,” which makes us uniquely human.

Where the book is ultimately most disappointing is in its implications for the present political discussion. Having exposed the shabby intellectual roots of mental measurement, Gould makes no effort to suggest under what circumstances mental testing might be valid. He might have said, afer knocking the testers off their nonexistent pedestals, that tests can be used to identify the gifted and talented; or to identify children with specific learning disorders; or to identify children who need additional instruction. It would be unfortunate if his work became ammunition for those who think that children are best served when there are no measures of what they have learned and no way to determine, as Stephen Jay Gould did for his own son, that some children need extra help.

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