July 29, 2012

Stephen J. Gould and his legacy

I tend to the opinion that Stephen Jay Gould's legacy, at least in the field of anthropology, was mostly a negative one. I am also less inclined to attribute his mishandling of the Morton affair to "unconscious bias" on his part; conscious data manipulation in the interest of a strongly held political opinion seems more likely. If a living scientist had treated another's reputation in the way that Gould treated Morton, the end result would more likely be retraction and ejection from academia, rather than hagiography.

Nonetheless, Gould is important, primarily because he has shaped and continues to shape the thought of many, both professional scholars in some disciplines, but also of regular people who might have had the (mis?)fortune of learning their zoology and basic anthropology through his popular books. And, while I don't have the distinction of more than glancing through his massive posthumous magnum opus, it may very well be the case that there are hidden gems in so prolific a writer. So, the availability of full-length video of the presentations at a recent meeting dedicated to his legacy, titled Stephen J. Gould's Legacy: Nature, History, Society, is very welcome.

A playlist of the all the talks can be found here.

A couple that may be of interest is one by Niles Eldredge documenting the origin of Gould's arguably most famous idea of "punctuated equilibria":

A second video by Ian Tattersall discusses Gould's legacy to anthropology:


formerjerseyboy said...

Dienekes, has it ocurred to you that you are as dismissive of Gould, as (you hav mentioned) Gould was of Morton? Interesting, considering that you admit that you have not read most of Gould's writings.

Grey said...

"Dienekes, has it ocurred to you that you are as dismissive of Gould, as (you hav mentioned) Gould was of Morton?"

How is that comparable?

Gould was dismissive of Morton after Gould wrongly assessed Morton's data i.e. the fault was Gould's. No one is wrongly assessing that Gould was wrong on that issue. He was.

Whether he was right or wrong on other stuff is a separate thing.

sykes.1 said...

The fundamental dishonesty of Gould's misrepresentation is not fully appreciated even by his critics.

Gould actually went so far as to state that the proper statistic for comparing two means is the standard deviations of the samples, rather than the standard errors of the means.

Gould does not use statistical terminology in his discussion, but that is the meaning of what he does.

A Stat 101 student will merely loss points on a test for that mistake. But, in a person of Gould's stature, that constitutes malicious scientific fraud.

B. Ricardo Brown, Ph.D. said...

Gould was not an anthropologist. His book is not about Morton. In fact, Morton and the American School constitute just one chapter of the work. It is easy to have an opinion based on not reading someone's work, but Gould actually did read Morton, and while he made a mistake in what he admitted was a cursory analysis of the skull measurements, he was not incorrect in asserting that Morton believed that we are at least five different species with separate origins and hierarchically arranged in terms of intelligence and culture. One need only read his work and that of his companions, such as Nott and Gliddon to see Gould's point. Focusing on whether or not Gould was correct in his assertion about Morton's measurement's does not change that. So if Morton's measurements were correct, does that prove the polygenic theory, as he said it did?
All this entire episode proved was that science is embedded in society and scientists are influenced in their interpretations by the social world they inhabit. Gould was influenced in his interpretation by his liberalism (he never really read Marx, e.g.) and it, and perhaps haste, led him to make this mistake; Morton was, too, and it led him to put forward a scientific justification for slavery (which the Origin of Species directly rebuts, even in its title). Gould point is made, however ironically. I doubt that the Gould bashers would want to support Morton's theories... or perhaps some do, since they would so easily focus on Gould's politics and pointedly ignore Morton's.

B. Ricardo Brown, Ph.D. said...

Sorry for the typos, but was writing from a phone.

M said...

***Gould was not an anthropologist. His book is not about Morton.***

If that was the only error that would be one thing, but Gould lied about other things as well. He ignored a meta-analysis by Van Dalen on the brain size - intelligence relationship before the first edition of the book. Then when it was re-issued in the mid 90's he completely ignored MRI evidence. Apparently this was even sent to him, but he wasn't interested.

n the first edition Gould noted that "the only really natural experiment for separating genetic from environmental effects in humans [is] genetically identical individuals raised in disparate environments. Studies of identical twins raised apart should therefore hold pride of place in literature on inheritance of IQ." Gould repeated that statement verbatim (page 264) in the 1996 reissue.

Gould completely ignored the fact that by far the most extensive and careful study of identical twins raised apart from infancy in different families in different social environments had been begun in 1979 and its results were widely reported well before 1996.