Stephen J. Gould is one of the finest writers on science I have read. He writes clearly and thoroughly about both the technical details of science and its larger philosophical issues. When his analysis of the history of attempts to measure human intelligence, The Mismeasure of Man, was published (1981), it was an almost instant classic. In it he exposes the bias inherent in the studies of intelligence and ranking, focusing primarily on the logical and statistical flaws, though he also spends time on the cultural and political contexts in which such errors flourished and on the bias—cultural and linguistic—in the tests themselves. Almost without exception, he writes with a humility about science and its possibilities, while still affirming the need to try, that I find refreshing and helpful in a world that is too often filled with disciplinary arrogance.
Technically, this book is about biological determinism. Although there are many versions of biological determinism, the idea is essentially that one’s genes and the biology with which you are born determine your potential. Another way to think about this is that biological determinism is primarily about limits for a person’s growth: according to this argument, a baby’s physical being creates a maximum for how smart he/she can ever be, how talented she/he can ever be, and to what socio-economic class he/she can ever rise. I hear the ghosts of biological determinism when students say things like “I’ve reached my math limit” or “I’ve gone as far as I can in math.” Indeed, there is a fairly common belief that people either have math ability or they don’t and there’s no changing it no matter what you do, but I have seen no research to back up that idea. And this kind of idea is not limited to math ability; it’s often applied to all kinds of mental and other abilities.
Gould “seeks to demonstrate both the scientific weaknesses and political contexts of determinist arguments.” He places deterministic thought within the Platonic tradition in which it belongs, but his message is not that determinists were evil or even always wrong, but that science is a “social phenomenon, a gutsy human” act of creativity, filled with “hunch, vision, and intuition.” For Gould and for me, science is an imaginative process of understanding and explaining the world, a process in which we try to, and sometimes succeed, in come closer to the truth, but that—because we are human and because this creative process is cultural bound and culturally influenced—does not always bring us closer to the truth. Gould criticizes “the myth that science is itself an objective enterprise, done properly only when scientists can shuck the constraints of their culture and view the world as it really is.”
One of the large themes in the book is the error of reification: the conversion of an idea into a concrete object. A good example of this in our every day life is the idea of love. Most of us have ideas about what love is and how it operates in the world, but I don’t think anyone would suggest that love is a concrete object that can be measured or assessed. Rather, it is an idea we use to describe certain feelings and events and commitments. The biological determinists Gould describes try to reify intelligence by turning it into a unitary object that can be measured through tests of what we have learned to call IQ. That intelligence is more complex and interesting than that seems obvious and good to me, but the attempts to measure human intelligence are numerous and continue today.
More than that, once we have a number attached to intelligence, we can rank people and groups of people, and that is precisely what was done. Cranial capacity, IQ scores, and other supposed measures of intelligence were used to rank people—and with unsurprising results, considering who was doing most of the measuring: middle-class, white men came out on top and other gender, racial, and class groups fared less well.
If you read the book, you’ll find the details of many of the historical attempts to measure and rank intelligence, starting in the 19th century and up to the 1970s, along with a broad view of the scientific and political contexts of those attempts. It is a fascinating and cautionary tale—and one with a positive message, at least in my mind: humans and our endeavors, including science, are complex and full of potential; that we cannot accurately measure that potential means that our limit is not known.