Mismeasure of Man - Mismeasure of Science

Mismeasuring Gould in “The Mismeasure of Science”


In Plos Biology “The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias,” six anthropologists reassess Gould’s famous 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man. Although I find anthropology’s alliance with Gould problematic, there is a need to understand historical context. Gould’s book became popular because it was anti-racist, not because it was anti-science–in its time, Gould probably did more to rescue science than to demean it. Contemporary critiques of Gould occur in a context of race resurgence. Navigating the political-academic climate demands awareness and treading carefully.

Anthropology and Gould

It appears Gould was wrong about Samuel Morton and his skull measurements. In “The Mismeasure of Science,” Morton becomes the careful and objective scientist, Gould becomes the ideologue. On his widely-read blog, Gould’s ‘Unconscious Manipulation of Data’, John Hawks notes “the authors wrote in an even tone and lay out the facts in a very straightforward way. As a reader, I can’t see how they managed to keep their cool.” Hawks goes further: “This stuff really ticks me off. I don’t think that Gould’s errors can be written off as ‘unconscious bias’. Reading back over his 1978 article, I cannot believe that Science published it.” Hawks recommends “everyone should read it. . . . It is a very suitable article for assignment in classes.”

Toward the goal of everyone reading this study, Nicholas Wade helped out with an article in the New York Times, Scientists Measure the Accuracy of a Racism Claim. Wade has always pounced on anything that might validate traditional race categorizations. Wade leaves the last line for Ralph L. Holloway, one of the study co-authors: “I just didn’t trust Gould. . . . I had the feeling that his ideological stance was supreme. . . . I just felt he was a charlatan.”

I agree anthropology’s alliance with Gould has been problematic. First, using Gould in introductory textbooks makes anthropology look dated and out-of-touch with contemporary biology. Second, Gould consistently misinterpreted and misrepresented multiregionalism, which stymied an anthropological alternative to the Mitochondrial Eve hypothesis (see section More mothers than Mitochondrial Eve). However, this thorough trashing of Gould as an anti-science charlatan misreads the historical and contemporary context.

Gould was read because he was anti-racist, not anti-science

I first read parts of the Mismeasure of Man in an undergraduate class on the history of imperialism. The point of reading Gould was not to impugn scientific inquiry, but to show the problems of harnessing scientific inquiry to racism and colonialism. I cannot of course do a systematic survey of how professors use Gould today, but I suspect Gould is still used more to illustrate how science must be careful to examine its premises and role in society, and less as a diatribe about how science is inevitably ideologically tainted.

There is no reason to doubt the study’s claim that Morton was a quite objective and careful analyst. However, in going after Morton, Gould was tackling a kind of exemplary character for an entire era: Morton was measuring skulls and reporting results by a racial hierarchy, providing justification for colonialist and racist practices. As the study authors report, “we do not dispute that racist views were unfortunately common in 19th-century science.”

But the problems extend beyond simply measuring and analyzing skulls–there is also the issue of how Morton acquired an enormous skull collection. Morton did not himself collect skulls, but he did promote their collection. As an official brochure on the Morton Cranial Collection notes, “the endeavor was so significant that army surgeons stationed in remote areas of the world would take great risks to obtain crania for Morton, and they were not above robbing graves in order to do so!” (It is interesting to note how often people use the passive voice to describe Morton’s skulls, as in “were collected” or “were obtained.”)

Gould was writing during a time when revisionist interpretations thoroughly questioned the traditional progressivist stance. This parallels factors influencing Jared Diamond’s Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.

In the context of the time when Gould was writing The Mismeasure of Man, the scientific enterprise was indeed under severe critique for both participating in colonial racist practices and supporting those practices with analytical justifications. Gould’s writings offered hope that scientific inquiry could correct past mistakes and excesses. At a time when science was under direct attack, Gould helped to save, rescue, and shield science as a potentially still-noble enterprise.

Debunking Gould in a climate of race resurgence

The contemporary climate is quite different. Today, science is not under the same kinds of attack. Instead, we are experiencing race resurgence and an assault on anti-racist views. The authors of this study seem unaware of the present climate and how their study plays directly into it.

The authors use Brace’s 2005 book “Race” Is a Four-Letter Word several times, as an example of how Gould is still used, as someone who questioned Gould, and as a source for debunking the race idea. If Brace already accomplished all this, I would much rather use his book in class than this study.

The authors write as if race were already thoroughly debunked: “Studies have demonstrated that modern human variation is generally continuous, rather than discrete or ‘racial,’ and that most variation in modern humans is within, rather than between, populations.” Here, they sound very much like Lewontin, and their sources for this statement are dated: they cite Loring Brace (see sidebar) and Matt Cartmill, The Status of the Race Concept in Physical Anthropology (1998). Both are fine sources, but neither address the works of race resurgence, such as “Lewontin’s Fallacy” and the New York Times Op-Ed on “A Family Tree in Every Gene” (see blog-section on Race Revival).

If the authors are sincere that they “find other things to admire in Gould’s body of work, particularly his staunch opposition to racism,” then they need awareness of what is going on with regard to race resurgence and to help us with more contemporary references combatting that resurgence. A good place to start could be the articles in Race Reconciled in the 2009 American Journal of Physical Anthropology (for a summary, see “Race Reconciled” re-debunks race).

The take-away headline from this study is “Gould was wrong, Morton was right.” In a climate of race resurgence, this is treacherous territory. Nicholas Wade, of course, makes no mention of any race debunking or how the authors share Gould’s opposition to racism. Instead, Wade inserts this troubling line: “When [Gould’s errors] are corrected, the differences between the racial categories recognized by Morton are as he assigned them.” Without bothering to question Morton’s racial categories, Wade appears to assert that in fact Morton’s cranial measurements by race are validated.

On a True Mismeasure of Science

The authors try to frame the larger framework of their study in terms of its impact on science studies. They claim the Morton case “shows the ability of science to escape the bounds and blinders of cultural contexts.” However, this is at best a minor sparring point for a dispute internal to academia. I say “at best,” because it is not even a sparring point for people doing a true history of science, for whom the question of “bias” has long been eclipsed by documenting particular practices and particular analytical techniques. (Kenan Malik has some very nice reflections on this piece and what it means for science-society at his blog-post The science of seeing what you want to see.)

Regardless of whether science can “escape the bounds and blinders of cultural contexts,” the results of science must still be presented within a particular historical and political context. The authors of this study seem blissfully unaware and naïve about that contemporary context. Nicholas Wade’s quick coverage should be a wake-up call. In a context of race resurgence, and without providing contemporary support for anti-racist scholarship, this study will soon ricochet through the conservative blogosphere–and many undergraduate classrooms–as “Gould was wrong, Morton was right; cranial capacity and race is like Morton said it was.”

Update 2013: I received an e-mail alert from the undergraduate who originally measured the Morton skulls and who has posted a 4-part personal commentary on Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel George Morton. Looking through that material, and the kinds of commentaries it prompts, and then back at this post leads me to re-state the following points:

  1. In our contemporary climate–see White-Race Problems and Social Construction of Race = Conservative Goldmine–the fundamental message that “Gould was wrong, Morton was right” can only be fodder for racism and the race resurgence.
  2. Related to that point, I have yet to see anything creative about the Morton skull collection, as in “measuring the Morton skulls tells us these new facts about human variation.” The re-measurements seem only to be about Gould on Morton, rather than on what we can say about human variation.
  3. Again, most people read Gould because he was anti-racist, not anti-science, and at the time Gould’s analysis served to save the scientific enterprise from a variety of stronger criticisms.
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  • mm

    “The authors of this study seem unaware of the present climate and how their study plays directly into it…” As one of the authors on this paper I must state that this is completely wrong.

    We thought about these issues long and hard; the alternative was to ignore Gould’s mistakes because we agreed with him. Should we have ignored Piltdown because it fueled the opposition to evolution?

    A careful read shows the care we took to defuse potential racist interpretations of our work. The moral of the story: science is and must continue to be a self-correcting organism.

    • SeleukosNicator281

      Well unfortunately it didn’t work, because for months I have been trying to repair the damage done by this one article on youtube. Every racist or “Race Realist” as they like to call themselves has been holding this article up as the holy grail of their ideology.

      • Jason Antrosio

        To SeleukosNicator281: Thank you for trying. I imagined this article would be a gift that kept on giving for the so-called race realists. It was incredibly naive for the authors to think otherwise, and I insist that it could have been framed quite differently. Keep up the good work.

  • David Sepkoski

    Very good points–I too was troubled by the ‘take home’ message in the popular media coverage. Whether or not he fudged his data, Samuel Morton was a racist, and the re-analysis of his measurements does absolutely nothing to validate his racial hierarchies. This needs to be trumpeted just as loudly as Gould’s alleged mistakes! It scares me that it is becoming acceptable once again to play with old, discredited ideas from the era of biological racism. Evolutionary psychology seems to be a particular source of this resurgence.

  • RP

    mm– despite the risks, I thank you and your co-authors for publishing this important work.

    I originally posted the below to Jason’s post on Publishing Archaeology, but realized I should probably post it here so he’ll see it:
    Jason, I just checked out your webpage/blog and found a lot to like. I share your concern that this research will be misused to promote racist ideologies. Your foregrounding of this concern is valuable in making me consider how to best combat this.

    On your webpage, I especially like how you have challenged anthropologists to get involved in more contemporary debates rather than sticking to their old and easy references from the 70s and 80s. I see our disappointment at Gould in this light. That is, we share some guilt in building the anthropological case on such infirm ground. We should have discovered these problems earlier, rather than accepting them because they were convenient and building so much up on them.

    After reading your comment, and some of your webpage, I am curious about the ‘race resurgence’ you refer to. Do you mean this to refer simply to the debates that have been occurring after the 70s and 80s which we are guilty of not engaging enough in? Or are you referring to a greater resurgence of racism?

  • Jason Antrosio

    Many thanks to Marc Meyer, David Sepkoski, and RP for the above comments. I am very grateful for this feedback, and am especially happy to have one of the co-authors of the study responding here. I originally intended to reply to each point individually, but I believe there are common themes here that can be addressed together.

    This blog-post claims the authors “seem unaware of the present climate,” because of course I could only base my interpretation on the evidence they published and how it has been taken up in the press. I am very happy to know the authors did think about these issues, but based on the published evidence and subsequent press, I must respectfully stand by my statement.

    Specifically, there is no acknowledgment of the race resurgence that has occurred after the publication of The Mismeasure of Man and continuing through the 2000s (RP, this is where your comment enters). By race resurgence, I am referring to academic studies which have revived relatively traditional race-based thinking. I detail this further in the blog section called “Race revival” but I would here only briefly refter to two prominent sign-posts: the publication of “Lewontin’s Fallacy” (Edwards 2003) and the NY Times Op-Ed “A Family Tree in Every Gene” (Leroi 2005).

    In short, it is a mistaken idea that traditional race concepts have been discredited. If that were so, there would have been no need for the 2009 publication of “Race Reconciled” as a special issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. This special issue includes more references to academic signposts of race resurgence, and I would urge all interested readers to carefully review the material. I was therefore disappointed to not find contemporary references debunking race in “The Mismeasure of Science” study. The references they include cannot respond to the way race has been reconfigured in the 2000s.

    It would also be nice to have more explanation of what does explain cranial morphology variation in human beings–the one reference they provide is from 1984. Is that really the best work that has been done on the issue?

    Finally, although I appreciate the careful language the co-authors used in the publication, in the most significant press coverage to date, one of the co-authors calls Gould a “charlatan.” This appears in a piece by Nicholas Wade, who has consistently promoted race-resurgent and genetic-determinist approaches.

    Marc Meyer frames this as a choice between publishing or not publishing, but I would disagree: publish, but with attention to what David Sepkoski calls the “take home” message. I understand that the authors thought about these issues, but would like to see more evidence of that in their publication and words used in reponse to press reporting.

    Many thanks again,

  • RP

    Thanks for the reply to my query (and the rest of the reply as well).

    I read the “Race roars back” piece. I’m certainly willing to believe that their is a race resurgence–and if this is occurring that we damn well better be aware of it. No doubt there are huge problems of racism in the contemporary U.S. However, the evidence your present for an actual resurgence seems rather ad-hoc and unconvincing to me. I might well be ignorant of whole bodies of literature on this–so please set me straight if I am.
    Pointing to a few scientists/journalists promoting racist ideologies hardly seems like much evidence for a resurgence on its own. Now, if the frequency or prominence of such publications were increasing I would agree that there is a legitimate resurgence. From what you’ve presented I see citation to a few ‘sign-posts’, but it is not clear that these ‘sign-posts’ were not similarly (or more) evident, 10, 15, 20, 40, 50 or 70 years ago.

    Perhaps there is some technical or specific sense of resurgence which I am not aware of?

    Raising this semantic issue, there is an important point which seems too little addressed–the definition of race. It is very easy to discredit some concepts/definitions of race. However those that I see discredited are often not those that seem to be most salient to non-academics. I sometimes worry that we have discredited a narrowly defined concept of our own making without tackling the real issues of racism head on.


  • RP

    P.S. I know you referenced the special issue of AJPA..and I’ve read some of those articles previously. Can you be a bit more specific about which articles give a good coverage of the “race resurgence”?

    • Jason Antrosio

      Dear RP,

      Thank you for reading my material. Since you are not convinced, I’ll point you directly to similar published analyses. In the “Race Reconciled” issue of AJPA, the Clarence Gravlee article “How race becomes biology: Embodiment of social inequality” is a good place to start. You also might take a look at John Hartigan’s article, “Is Race Still Socially Constructed? The Recent Controversy over Race and Medical Genetics” in Science as Culture (2008).

      From Gravlee:

      A recent cover story in Scientific American posed a question that has gained new life: ‘‘Does race exist?’’ (Bamshad and Olson, 2003). For decades, there seemed to be broad agreement among anthropologists and geneticists that the answer was ‘‘no,’’ but some observers suggest that the consensus is unraveling (e.g., Leroi, 2005). Indeed, in both the scientific literature and the popular press, there is renewed debate over the magnitude and significance of genetic differences between racially defined groups. (2009:47)

      Gravlee includes lots more references. Hartigan is also useful for navigating the terrain, particularly with regard to popular media and people like Nicholas Wade.

      I should clarify that by race resurgence I do not mean a resurgence in racism. That is a different matter. I actually am beginning to believe the term “racism” is not very helpful anymore, as everyone thinks of it as personal attitudes and individual meanness. We should be much more concerned with political-economic inequality that is racially structured.

      I would also readily concede that the percentage of people using race-based analysis may very well be less than in previous years. However, there is something quite different about what is going on now. Around the period of the 1960s-1990s (or as Gravlee puts it, “for decades”) there were very prominent anthropologists and geneticists who declared biological race as officially debunked. There was Livingstone (1962) saying “there are no races, there are only clines.” There was Lewontin on “The apportionment of human diversity” (1972). At the time, it seemed there was complete scientific consensus and all that was left to do was to educate the public. Jared Diamond’s article “Race without Color” (1994) was a product of this time–Diamond basically said science had cleared this all up, just like the earth orbiting the sun, and so now all we needed was to educate everyone else. And who better to do that than Jared Diamond!

      Now the situation has changed. The people who are currently regrouping around race are also prominent and they say that Lewontin and others were wrong. So if we cite Lewontin, they will say–but what about “Lewontin’s fallacy” (Edwards 2003)?

      So times have changed, and what I objected to in the “Mismeasure of Science” article is how the authors seem oblivious to the latest developments in the field. I again say “seem oblivious” because I cannot peer inside their conversations, but they make no reference to the latest developments in their published piece, nor to material that might be a rebuttal. They write as if the race question were settled, when it has become decidedly unsettled in the last decade.

      But please don’t take my word for it–read Gravlee and Hartigan and let me know what you think. At your suggestion, perhaps “race resurgence” is not the correct term. Maybe “race regroups” is better.

      Thank you again,

  • Jason Antrosio

    It is hardly surprising that Gould fudged Morton’s numbers. He had a tendency to reject scientific data that did not meet his preconceptions. For example, Ian Deary points out in his book “Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction” that “the sections on brain size [in the “Mismeasure”] are out of date and he has refused to correct this despite being sent newly available published data by researchers”.

    I think that Holloway’s assessment of Gould, as reported in the NYT, may more truthfully reflect these researchers’ views than the published paper which is exceedingly gracious to Gould. The editors and reviewers at PLoS Biology probably persuaded them to assume a very nonjudgmental tone. This interview of one of the coauthors hints as much, I think.

    I agree with RP that there isn’t really much evidence for any “race resurgence”. Despite the dominance of antirealism on race in academia in recent decades, there have always been scientists, usually older folks with little to lose, who have challenged the conventional wisdom on race. The “Lewontin’s fallacy” argument, for example, is not new at all. Jeffry Mitton presented it in his 1977 article “Genetic Differentiation of Races of Man as Judged by Single-Locus and Multilocus Analyses” (The American Naturalist 111 (978): 203–212). While much contemporary research, such as the proliferation of population genetics data, could enable the resurgence of racialism, I don’t really see any evidence of that happening.

    Dear JL,

    Thank you for the comment and for the link to the interview. It may be that Holloway’s assessment is closer to their true views, but I will take them at their published word that they “find other things to admire in Gould’s body of work, particularly his staunch opposition to racism.”

    About the resurgence of racialism, it is true there have been “older folks with little to lose.” Dr. James Watson’s statements in 2007 fall into that category, although he did lose his book tour. However, Armand Marie Leroi (2005) does not fit the profile–he’s a dashing young geneticist who in fact gained from publishing that NY Times Op-Ed. I am certain other critiques of Lewontin have been around, and am grateful for the Mitton reference. However, I’m pretty sure Mitton’s argument was never featured in the NY Times. In short–the racialism resurgence is coming from young scholars and enjoying more press coverage than ever before.

    Regarding racialist resurgence, I must not be doing the best job making a comprehensive argument, but it is hardly an assessment I’ve made on my own. In fact, I would say it is closer to consensus for anthropologists monitoring the scholarship. Take a look at the Gravlee and Hartigan articles and let me know what you think.

    Also, if there is any doubt how the current study is being used, go to Google and type in “Mismeasure of Science” (include the quotes so the search results refer directly to the latest article). At least four of the top ten results are to racist, white supremacist, or anti-immigrant blogs. I’m not sure they get the “moral of the story.”

    Thank you again,
    Jason Antrosio

  • David DeGusta

    Look, in some sense this is very simple …
    Many racists despise Gould.
    We found evidence that Gould made some serious mistakes.
    Publishing that will make racists happy, no matter how we present it.
    But suppressing findings because of who they might make happy is worse.

    More later, as I feel that other aspects of your post and comments are objectively wide of the mark.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Dear David DeGusta,

      Many thanks for your comment and welcome to the discussion. I certainly agree that obviously racists will be happy with anything criticizing Gould. However, I respectfully maintain that the question is not about publishing-or-suppressing: it is about how findings are framed and presented. I contend here that by not addressing the kinds of views FSL links to as “a resurgence of racialist-hereditarian thought” (see this comment stream), the study becomes more useful for those forces.

      Here is a positive alternative that could have made this study much less useful to racists and racialist-hereditarians: title the study “What Morton’s skulls really tell us about human cranial variation.” It could have included the exact same critique of Gould, but could have been presented as new scientific findings about what skulls actually say.

      I look forward to your feedback, and thank you again,

  • FSL
    • Jason Antrosio

      Dear FSL,

      Many thanks for the links–those are extremely helpful. One of the links led me to this latest post about the current paper:


      That entry may not have been available when you made your post–I would say it goes beyond the claims I have made here.

      Thank you again,

  • Jason Antrosio

    I’ve so far received two comments objecting to a statement in my reply to RP above:

    I actually am beginning to believe the term “racism” is not very helpful anymore, as everyone thinks of it as personal attitudes and individual meanness. We should be much more concerned with political-economic inequality that is racially structured.

    This statement, is of course a matter of political choice, but it is a choice I believe is consistent with anthropological consensus and the purpose of this blog–to harness anthropology’s “moral optimism” and “show an undying faith in the richness and variability of humankind” (Trouillot, Global Transformations, 2003:139).

    For more on race, racism, and inequality, see sections on Racism and biological anthropology and Race becomes biology.

  • RP


    Thanks for the references–and for having inspired such an intelligent debate that hasn’t degraded as so many due. I’ve skimmed over Gravlee’s piece and put both on my to-read list.
    I appreciate your clarifications about the meaning of race resurgence. Nonetheless, I’m still not convinced (yet). The evidence you’ve presented reminds me of the old quote, “the plural of anecdote is not data”. In order to demonstrate a race resurgence, it seems to me that a more rigorous diachronic approach is required. What I’ve seen in the replies are further anecdotes that this is occurring, and appeals to the authority of other people who also agree that this trend is occurring. I agree that these are good starting points, they have perked my attention, and are important. However, this is a far cry from a convincing demonstration of a substantive change. Fields often have consensus views that later are found to be false. A such, I need more of a substantive basis for such a claim before I accept it as likely to be true.

    Thanks for any further guidance you can provide–and apologies ahead of time if these answers are already included in the pieces on my reading list.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Dear RP,

      Thank you for your contributions and for pushing me to clarify my terms. I still believe we may be talking about slightly different things, but I’ll look forward to further conversations.

      I love the quote about “the plural of anecdote is not data.” However, in some cases when you hear enough anecdotes, from enough different places, you begin to think it’s justified to call it a trend. In that spirit, here’s one more anecdote from the current NY Times, called “Genetic Basis for Crime: A New Look“:

      John Paul Wright, who heads graduate programs at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Criminal Justice . . . noted that the top four journals in the field had scarcely published any biological research in the past two decades. Mr. Wright said he now thinks “in criminology the tide is turning, especially among younger scholars.”

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  • Finley MacDonald

    In my view, your analysis is one-sided, and I should hope that in time Gould will be vindicated. It’s really hard for me to hear you defend Morton and call Gould outdated. To read very much of this skull-collector is to be exposed to a lot of obvious nonsense, whereas Gould is a very nuanced and accomplished writer and scientist. The folks who did this study, measuring about “half” the skulls in the sample if I am not mistaken, misrepresented Gould’s funamental critique of Morton, which was not that he mismeasured the skulls. By the way, the ethics of measuring these skulls is quite dubious, given the bitter struggle that Native Americans have been engaged in to have the bones of their ancesors returned.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Finley,
      Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I definitely don’t want to support Morton here! I was trying, in this context, to actually argue that Gould was defending scientific inquiry, and that in this sense the co-authors missed an important point. I also do agree with the skull-collection crtique, which I mention above but perhaps too subtly.
      Thank you again,

  • Finley MacDonald

    Oh, I didn’t read carefully enough, Jason. Thanks for opening the stream again.

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  • Helga Vierich

    Brain size is indirectly related to cranial bone volume. Having a bigger brain might be correlated with having a bigger body, as in the differences between men and women, or as it is between more bulky, stocky people in cold climates compared to more slender people in hot climates. So what? There is no evidence that I know of the shows that this means anything about how well the brain, larger or smaller, might actually function. The amount of grey matter, and the number and depth of folds, as well as the number of dendritic connections between neurones, all have been shown to be affected by nutrition, stress, and environment (enrichment, toxins, etc), as has measured IQ. These have almost nothing to do with gross cranial volume. for all we know the really critical factor might be the sheer number of connections between he prefrontal cortex and the rest of the brain!

    Morton was living at a time when many scientists took for granted that there were almost species level differences between human beings from different parts of the world. More importantly, this was a time (and, apparently, for some, this time has not yet ended) when to be a member of a “civilized”and literate cultural-economy was to have “progressed” beyond “savagery” in a very physical way. Let me be explicit: “savages” were thought to be less physically evolved than civilized humans. Correct me if I am wrong, but there are actually some recent popular books which I fear will be lend support to the notion that the kind of humans who live in state societies are more moral and less violent than those who do not.

    I think the battle to counter these kinds of ideas is still joined.

    Frankly, it makes me feel pretty savage.

    • Hi Helga, thank you for this update and perspective on these matters. Unfortunately there has been a kind of resurgence of the progressive narrative as you know. And I would add that these IQ and brain size measures have been getting linked to the discoveries of Neandertal & Denisovan admixture. So it’s high time for a lot of anthropological vigilance, as you note in your related comment. Thanks!

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