Defending Stephen Jay Gould

I’ve been waiting for someone to defend Stephen Jay Gould from the accusations contained in a recent paper by Lewis and Colleagues. In a nutshell, the authors found that in Gould’s analysis of skull measurements by Samuel Morton, “most of Gould’s criticisms are poorly supported or falsified.”

I haven’t yet found that specific defence, but John Horgan in Scientific American has stepped in to defend Gould’s broader crusade against “biological determinism”. Horgan writes:

Maybe Gould was wrong that Morton misrepresented his data, but he was absolutely right that biological determinism was and continues to be a dangerous pseudoscientific ideology. Biological determinism is thriving today: I see it in the assertion of researchers such as the anthropologist Richard Wrangham of Harvard University that the roots of human warfare reach back all the way to our common ancestry with chimpanzees. In the claim of scientists such as Rose McDermott of Brown University that certain people are especially susceptible to violent aggression because they carry a “warrior gene.” In the enthusiasm of some science journalists for the warrior gene and other flimsy linkages of genes to human traits. In the insistence of the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and neuroscientist Sam Harris that free will is an illusion because our “choices” are actually all predetermined by neural processes taking place below the level of our awareness. In the contention of James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix, that the problems of sub-Saharan Africa reflect blacks’ innate inferiority. In the excoriation of many modern researchers of courageous anti-determinists such as Gould and Margaret Mead.

Horgan’s examples of “biological determinism are interesting. Coyne is one of the more vocal critics of the “just so” stories coming out of evolutionary psychology, and Coyne’s arguments against the existence of free will are based on the effects of both biology and environment. While the “warrior gene” findings may not stand the test of time, the evidence for the heritability of violent tendencies is strong (I recently posted on the “missing heritability” problem). What makes findings of the type that Horgan describes generally scientifically unfounded? Neither Horgan’s post, nor my perusal of his blog back catalogue, makes this clear.

Horgan’s attack on “biological determinism” is an attack on a straw man – that biology determines all. Every person I have met who argues the case for biological influence acknowledges the role of environment. Genes express in an environment. The question is the degree of that role – and in that area, there is still plenty of room to debate (as Coyne’s debates with the evolutionary psychology proponents show). Conversely, Gould attempted to erase the role of evolution in shaping human behaviour. Horgan wants to contain it. But as Coyne states in his response to Horgan:

[T]o dismiss any claims about the genetic basis of modern human behavior as “biological determinism, therefore pseudoscientific ideology” is simply silly: it’s the same kind of knee-jerk rejection of all research on the evolution of human behavior that Gould sometimes engaged in.  Horgan wants to dismiss these studies simply because he doesn’t like what he sees as their implications:  “the way things are is the way they must be” and that “we have less choice in how we live our lives than we think we do.”  Well, tough.  Biological determinism, of both the anti-free-will and genes-determining-human-behavior variety, may be more pervasive than many people think, and is certainly more pervasive than Horgan thinks.


  1. If you want to see an outright lie in Gould’s “Mismeasure of Man,” go to pages 109 to 110. There Gould asserts that the appropriate measure of variance when testing the differences between sample means is the standard deviation of the sample. Very early in any Statistics 101 course, it is proved that the appropriate measure for such test is the standard error of the means.

    It is sometimes alleged that Gould was mathematically unsophisticated or even mathematically incompetent. However, he used statistics in his “clam” research, so unless his published results are bogus he must have know how to properly run t- and F-tests at the very least.

    Gould’s socialism usually controlled his research. This is best seen in his life-long subversion of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Of course, he was not alone in this. Margulies is (in)famously quoted as saying that the theory of natural selection is cult.

    1. Natural Selection as a cult is a valuable sociological insight. The historian Robert Young wrote that natural selection replaced natural theology as the explanatory model of how nature works and if anyone takes the time to look at this history of the idea the drive towards making ‘natural selection’ synonymous with ‘evolution’ and vice versa is a dogmatic one.

      Darwin wrote himself in three letters over as many days the following:
      “If I had to write my book again I would use “Natural Preservation” & drop “Selection”, but it is too late now.” (CD 26/09/1860)

      Artificial Selection is a real process that is far easier to understand. Even Dennett and Dawkins both acknowledge in interview and lecture now that humans “are the first/only intelligent designers on the tree of life”. Humans are selectors. With this kind of overcapacity that evolutionary theory has trouble dealing with humans have the power to create as well as destroy. As noted paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey has written, humans have created an entire “new dimension of behaviour” and this is culture. Human minds create thoughts which influence action and anyone who believes in freedom believes in the ability for humans to select.

      Is that what is going on in nature? No, but there is an analogous process we can be aware of and that is what Darwin called ‘natural selection’ which is a tendency for those better adapted to their environment to stick around and reproduce. The problem hinges on the term ‘selects’ because what we are doing is reducing all of nature’s complexity to a single term so we need to be sure that it is accurate or it could lead to misguided views of what is going on in nature, and this has.

      Nature has no foresight as a system. The things that are ‘selected’ are not generated by feedback from the environment, as far as we know at time, which would be a Lamarkian understanding. All the ‘raw material’ of variation is all random, copying errors although there are a few other ways these can occur. We now know that most changes are selectively neutral but that is a human-eye, focusing on phenotypic change perspective. The reality for the organism is that most changes are neutral and genetic drift is also a way that genes can move around and be preserved over time.

      Darwin’s theory was influenced by Malthusian selection. Malthus was seeing vast populations pouring into the new industrial towns and cities and wrote about population and the effects these would have on existing numbers. Malthus’ theory is a bottleneck theory and for natural ‘selection’ to operate there has to be a bottleneck, struggle or ‘sieveing’ or winnowing process in nature for it to explain anything. What can challenge natural selection’s seeming dominance as the mechanism of evolutionary change is the idea of cooperation and nature having a buffer which holds more capacity than we could understand with the idea of nature having a balance. If nature has a buffer then mutations can stick around for quite some time if there are resources and this would allow subsequent mutations to accumulate on existing organic structure. The outcome would be one of changing organisms over vast periods of geological timescale but to call this outcome of nature’s buffer ‘natural selection’ would be to engage in tautology.

      As Gould reminds Darwin set out to do two things, to establish the fact of evolution, which he was successful in, and also to establish natural selection as the main driver, the prime mechanism in/through that process. What we know now is that natural ‘selection’ (which requires specific competitive bottleneck conditions) is far from being all of the story. It tells us nothing about the power of variation which if greater than gradual degrees would override other local species and be evidence of ‘organismic selection’ rather than natural selection. Again, there is always a hint of tautology for those who seek to synonymise evolution as natural selection and vice versa. If we want to understand how nature work then we have to be aware of the whole story not just the interesting occurrences of change. Such a mind-set ‘creates’ a greater role for natural selection merely by the lens of his/her dogma.

      A wider appreciation of the nature story lends itself to punctuated equilibrium which is an understanding of ‘stasis’ as the norm in nature rather than slow, gradual degrees. Darwinian evolutionary theory is about ASSIMILATION of new variations into the organism and local ecological niche from random mutations. Lamarck’s theory is one of ADAPTATION to local environment, with feedbacks occurring within generation. The fact that Darwin chose adaptation as his preferred term is a lasting historical anomaly. When it comes to real selection, design and humankind we can talk about ADOPTION which is different from assimilation and adaptation.

      Jason Collins starts a blog and it sticks around and becomes popular, attracting interest or it does not. If it is adopted by minds who are more free to choose than animals proto-minds then this is the measure, lifestyles are after all ‘interests’ in action. They are not Darwinian imperatives in action, a common error. Assimilation (Darwinian), Adaptation (Lamarckian) and Adoption (Human, cultural) are all different and being aware how they differ is important in this area and others.

      Human breeders select and to say that nature does the same is the illusion of selection. Dawkins has previously coined the term ‘designoid’ to convey the idea that the products of nature are not designed, but the illusion of design. Likewise, the products of nature were not ‘selected’ which deals in choosing, volition, creativity and foresight, which natural selection does not have. There are random mutations as the raw material and the best of these and/or the least worst are ‘preserved’ over time. Evolution needs vast, mind-boggling sequences of time as well as copious raw material of mutation and variation. To just refer to ‘selection’ as evolution does Darwin’s work and others an ongoing disservice, but I see how that can be convenient. I think good science strives for something more though, something complete and conclusive.

  2. Biological determinism? Perhaps a little time should be devoted to questioning the claims of sociological determinism for a change. Here in England we are told that the class structure entrenches social privilege down the generations, so how then do we explain a self-made man like Alan Sugar? We are told that society erects a ‘glass ceiling’ to stop women getting to the top, so how do we explain Golda Meir or Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel? We are told that race is purely a social construct, so why then are there different races amongst sockeye salmon, asian elephants american deermice and many other species? In other words, when is sociological determinism to be held to account? Or do we have to wait until the social commentators start claiming that Fox Terriers are not really more impulsive than Labradors, “it’s just that Labradors are prejudiced against the colour of the Fox Terriers fur”.

    1. You are taking the exception and trying to make it the exception. You have mentioned Alan Sugar who benefited from the computer revolution in catapulting him into the rich list. Along the way Sugar has had some poor and costly ideas but the amount of money he earned from the computer industry has served him well in addition to his position now employing people to make him money as well.

      Humans are super-learning persons and that learning results in interests and lifestyles are interests in action. The majority of working class people remain working class people. That is for a reason, and in large part because of the social structure in which they are born and raised. There is no insight there, but trying to improve that situation is far more problematic in large part because rich people don’t want to give their money up. They’ll give their kids money in inheritance all the while convincing themselves that what they are doing is natural, when it is an artificial construct. Real, but artificial.

      Cyril Burt believed in biological determinism, even to the point of fabricating research to match his error-ridden views. The 1944 Education Act influenced by this thinking implemented the 11+ plus test which tested kids with those passing going on to the better resourced grammar schools. However, it didn’t take long to realise that kids who failed and went to secondary schools were going on to be successful and the 11+ exam was highlighted as a crude biologically determinist view. However, grammar schools still remain and through better resourcing, privilege and sheer cost (not accessible to working class people) kids can have a better education and prospects not because they are innately more talented, but because of a range of social and economic factors.

      Your listing of a few women does not improve your argument. The two world wars in the twentieth century overturned countless generations of thought that women were inferior to men. Women engaged in jobs, industry and decision-making they would not otherwise have. In tandem the move away from heavy industries to office and retail has suited the increasingly liberated and educated females. There is not evolutionary reason for these trends, it is about cultural development and how mental attitudes (not genes) have changed over the fairly recent history.

      Racial difference does exist but it is a weak indicator of deeper differences between peoples. The magnification of this difference is a social construct and has enabled things like slavery and apartheid to occur. I am white and ethnically Scottish. I have a friend who is racially African, yet ethnically an culturally American. So what? The problem is when that difference becomes a defining one, and we can see that line or argument taken to its extreme in the Nazi concentration camps, or in the way that Belgian colonial ideology resulted in the Hutu-Tutsis hatred leading to genocide. There are not ‘natural’ and/or ‘biological’ but because of the power of culture and the social construction of ideas that drive minds and people.

      So I’m not saying that race is purely a social structure, there are differences and very often they are skin deep. The social construct does come on when we try and state that these differences are defining, and that Europeans are smarter than Africans for example. All the evidence shows that as Africa develops and gains access to the same resources as Europeans so to do scores on IQ tests, which are a dubious measure. All too often these tests measures the effects of lives, rather than the underlying talents that ’cause’ lifestyles.

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