Darwin sought to not only produce a new scientific truth, but also to put an end to polygenism, the current scientific discourse on human origins that gave tacit and at times explicit support for slavery: ‘... when the principle of evolution is generally accepted, as it surely will be before long, the dispute between the monogenists and polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death.’ (Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, p. 235)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The New York Times Article and Editorial. Comment I on "Morton vs Gould"

In the study of life, all knowledge is provisional. Just as it is the establishment of laws fundamental to the sciences, so too is skepticism equally important to the sciences --- and those which aspire to be included in the sciences--- and the long struggle to free scientific rationality from dogma and ideology itself demonstrates that conclusions are subject to change and reinterpretation. This is in fact what the authors want to do with the essay under review: to alter our interpretation. To the extent that they succeed is in fact this same aspect of scientific rationality that both makes their work open to use in support of dogma and ideology, and makes it persuasive as well. Similarly, if we take the example of historical sociology, we find our understanding of the the past is provisional and interpretations change as well as the disciplining and division of labor in society change over time.
For example, would today often read a text on the urban poor like that of Morton’s contemporary, Henry Mayhew, who for his time would be considered a reformist journalist and advocate for the poor:

“As animals have their habit, so there is a large class of mankind which single cleverness is that of representing themselves as justly and naturally dependent on the assistance of others, who look paupers from their birth, who seek givers and forsake those who have given as naturally as a tree sends its roots into new soil and deserts the exhausted. It is the office of reason --- reason improved by experience --- to teach us not to waste our own interest and our resources on beings that will be content to live on our bounty, and will never return a moral profit to our charitable industry. The great opportunities or the mighty powers that heaven may have given us, it never meant to be lavished on mere human animals who eat, drink, and sleep, and whose only instinct is to find out a new caterer when the old one is exhausted.” (from The London Labour and the London Poor. New York: Penguin Classics, 1985:509.)
But of course, one must acknowledge that neither the search for laws nor radical skepticism have prevented many from asserting that their view of history is the one true history. Sextus Empiricus’ radical skepticism was geared towards preventing the acceptance of dogma as fact.

The PLoS Biology essay on Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel George Morton [Lewis JE, DeGusta D, Meyer MR, Monge JM, Mann AE, et al. (2011) The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias. PLoS Biol 9(6): e1001071. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001071 ]

is to be understood from a number of perspectives, and this certainly leaves it open to narrow ideological readings. The range of these readings express the various commitments of its many readers and commentators.

The first place to turn is the article in the New York Times that announced the Lewis, DeGusta article.
“Scientists Measure the Accuracy of a Racism Claim”  by Nicholas Wade

The New York Times Article

The headline of the article, which is not the responsibility of the Wade, is of course somewhat sensational. Gould and Lewis, DeGusta, et al. agree that Morton held views that today would be considered racists, though racialist is a better term. Lewis, DeGusta et al. are not attempting to dispute Morton’s racialism, but whether that scientific ideology caused Morton to inaccurately report the measurements of the crania in his collection. This is a very narrow question, which Gould believed to be current based upon his examination of Morton’s results, but that the authors of the new article believe to be not the case.

Much of the the Wade/NYTimes article is a largely accurate characterization and summary of Lewis, DeGusta, et al., except for a sentence that the new study “does little to burnish Dr. Gould’s reputation as a scholar.” In fact, Gould reputation as a scholar does not and never did rest on his essay and later chapter on Morton’s craniological studies. Much like his hero, Charles Darwin, Gould’s work as a naturalist was never divorced from his other work. Just as Darwin’s work was partly motivated by his anti-slavery convictions, so too was Gould compelled to use science as a basis for an intervention into the large political questions of his day. Gould was also a scientist who intervened into the history of science and its popular understanding, particularly in the arena of the public understanding and misunderstanding of Darwin’s work. The work The Mismeasure of Man falls into this group of popular political writings. It is a book about biological determinism and the then current political/popular debates over race as an explanation for intelligence. And popularizing and popularity are always something that one’s detractors will point towards as a sign of lack of scientific integrity. It is useful to compare Mismeasure with his more academic Ontegeny and Phylogeny (1978), wherein Morton is not mentioned, and his Structure of Evolutionary Thought, where again Morton does not appear. This can not help be raise a question concerning the centrality of the chapter on Morton to Gould’s body of work. We will save such notices and discussions until a later posting in this series.

Wade’s Summary of Lewis, DeGusta, et al.:

A. “Morton did not manipulate his data to support his preconceptions.”

B. The study is based on remeasuring half of the human crania in Morton’s collection (his collection contained examples of the crania of many non-human species as well).

C. Gould accuses Morton of omitting “subgroups to manipulate a groups overall score.... Gould himself also omitted subgroups in his own analysis and made various errors in his calculations. When these are corrected, the differences between the racial categories recognized by Morton are as he assigned them.” No mention is made in the Wade article of the conclusions that Morton drew from these results, i.e., that race could ve used to classify humans into fixed categories that result from different species or “Primordial organic form[s]” or each from a separate “primitive variety.” [Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia for September and October, 1849. See also Morton’s description of race from his Catalogue of Skulls of Man and Inferior Animals in the Collection of Samuel George Morton [http://until-darwin.blogspot.com/2011/06/gould-versus-morton-debate-text-i.html ]
To be sure, Lewis, DeGusta, et all. are clear that

“In reevaluating Morton and Gould, we do not dispute that racist views were unfortunately common in 19th-century science [PLoS FN6] or that bias has inappropriately influenced research in some cases [PLoS FN16]. Furthermore, 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 [PLoS FN11],[PLoS FN17]. In particular, cranial capacity variation in human populations appears to be largely a function of climate, so, for example, the full range of average capacities is seen in Native American groups, as they historically occupied the full range of latitudes [PLoS FN18]. It is thus with substantial reluctance that we use various racial labels, but it is impossible to discuss Morton and Gould's work without using the terms they employed (Lewis, DeGusta, et al., 2011:2)

Regarding the final statement it is no doubt true that the collection of data and the analysis and interpretation of that data are intimately connected. So much so that the “racial labels” can not be avoided, though it is good to point out that Gould and Morton did not attach the same meaning and degree of fixity to those labels. The dispute then is over the accuracy of Morton’s measurements and the fairness of Gould characterizations that he based on his own analysis. The errors in Gould’s analysis are not shown in the article to be the result of conscious error or deliberate manipulation. Gould also did not accuse Morton of conscious error or deliberate manipulation.

D. “‘Ironically, Gould’s own analysis of Morton is likely the stronger example of a bias influencing results.’” A stronger example, but not a demonstration that bias does not influence scientific work, but rather an affirmation that scientific work can be biased, which might be he most ironic aspect of the so-called debate.

The author’s paragraph on Morton’s interpretation of his data was not mentioned in the Times article. No doubt, this was done in order to set up the inevitable journalistic trope of “two sides to every story.” We are presented with an ambiguous statement by Lewis regarding Gould’s integrity, but as it is obviously out of context, it is simply ambiguous.

The real contest is prefaced by the mention of an article by John S. Michael, who as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania “Concluded that Morton’s results were ‘reasonably accurate’ with no clear sign of manipulation.” The reason this is mentioned is because it will be referred to in the concluding ‘exchange” between Philip Kitcher and Ralph L Holloway, the former having defended Gould in the matter of the Mitchel article, with the later being one of the authors of the study. The dispute is presented as being about the appropriateness of “prefer[ring] the measurements of an undergraduate to those of a professional paleontologist.” But as we know and as Gould himself states in the Mismeasure of Man and Lewis, DeGusta, et al. attest as well, Gould did not do any measurements of the skulls himself.

The mention of Michael’s work leads to the last question on “the new finding’s bearing on Dr. Gould’s reputation. Kitcher gives the first response: “Steve does not come off as a rogue but as someone who makes mistakes.”

The more biting, and volatile sentiment is left for last, from the co-author Ralph L Holloway
“an expert on human evolution at Columbia and a co-author of the new study, was less willing to give Dr. Gould benefit of the doubt. 'I just didn’t trust Gould,' he said. 'I had the feeling that his ideological stance was supreme. When the 1996 version of ‘The Mismeasure of Man’ came and he never even bothered to mention Michael’s study, I just felt he was a charlatan.'”
Regarding the rather extreme accusation that Gould was a charlatan, only time will tell but there seems to be little evidence for such a claim. Certainly, the idea that Gould was deliberately fraudulent in his work would demand a good deal more proof than a few computation errors, no matter what implications he took from the results of those errors. Certainly the same could be said for Morton. Or is it that Gould’s errors were errors of computation, while Morton’s were errors of interpretation?

Gould certainly seems to force the chapter on Morton into a work about biological determinism. However, it and the other early chapters of the work are presented as the historical backdrop for the then current debate on intelligence testing and social welfare policy. The focus of the book is not Gould’s belief in Morton’s errors. Morton simply provides one example of many and perhaps this is the basis for the erroneous presentation of Gould’s discussion of Morton as a key aspect of the Mismeasure of Man. Gould did his analysis of Morton’s data over the course of several weeks, and for the most part relied on Stanton’s wonderful book The Leopard’s Spots, for his discussion of Morton and polygenism. Likewise, Lewis, DeGusta, et al. also use Stanton’s book as their authority.

Gould’s larger error was not in seeing science as embedded in society, nor in missing his own computational errors, but in his attempt to establish a continuity between phrenology, Morton’s craniology, Lombroso’s criminal anthropology, and later theories of intelligence and the ranking of groups by intelligence testing. All of these he saw as examples of a biological determinism that could be found in both scientific research and in the social policies that arose from that scientific data. However, there are significant differences between these “wretched knowledges” (Neugebauer) and scientific ideologies (Canguilhem). Though Morton and the phrenologist Combes were good friends, Morton moved significantly away from phrenology by examining the capacity of the crania rather than its external characteristics. Morton’s work was undertaken before the transition from Natural History to Biology, and so Morton’s determinism is not really biological as it is based on the fixity of species. Lombroso’s theory of degeneration is a product of the post-Darwinian period and not directly derived from Buffon, for example, and owed little to Morton. Lombroso’s socialism also has little resemblance to Gould’s. 
Measurement does provide some continuity, but one would expect measurement of some kind in any rational investigation. In each era, measurements are being taken, but of different things and for different reasons. In terms of the study of human variation, Gould's discussion does not go into detail about the social context as much as he more pursues the history of ideas, a pursuit that was common when Mismeasure of Man was published some thirty years ago.

As for responding to critics, Gould states in the revised 2nd edition that in terms of negative reviews “I firmly believe in not answering negative reviews, for nothing can so disorient an attacker as silence. But this was a bit too much [re: a negative review in The Public Interest that the first edition was, as he in part summarized as “politically motivated crap”], so I canvassed among friends. Both Noam Chomsky and Salvador Luria, great scholar and humanists, said essentially the same thing: never reply unless your attacker has floated a demonstrably false argument, which, if unanswered, might develop a ‘life of its own.’” (Mismeasure, 2nd edition, p.45).

On his own possible biases, Gould wrote that:
“We must identify preferences in order to constrain their influence on our work, but we do not go astray when we use such preferences to decide what subjects we wish to pursue. Life is short, and potential studies infinite. We have a much better chance of accomplishing something significant when we follow our passionate interests and work in areas of deepest personal meaning. Of course such a strategy increases dangers of prejudice, but the gain in dedication can overbalance any such worry, especially if we remain equally committed to the overarching general goal of fairness, and fiercely committed to constant vigilance and scrutiny of our personal biases” (Mismeasure, 2nd, p.37).
In the editorial the next day, the Times concluded that:
“The team expressed admiration for Dr. Gould’s body of work in staunch opposition to racism, but, in this case, it accused him of various errors and manipulations that supported his own hypothesis. “Ironically, Gould’s own analysis of Morton is likely the stronger example of a bias influencing results,” the team said. We wish Dr. Gould were here to defend himself. Right now it looks as though he proved his point, just not as he intended.”
In the caption for the photo accompanying the article above Wade's, neuro-scientist Nora D. Volkow, the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse is quoted as saying “Science and politics are intertwined.”


Canguilhem, Georges.  1988.  Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences.  Cambridge: MIT Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man, 2nd Revised and expanded edition. 1996 [first edition 1981].

Lewis JE, DeGusta D, Meyer MR, Monge JM, Mann AE, et al. (2011) The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias. PLoS Biol 9(6): e1001071. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001071 ]

Mayhew, Henry. The London Labour and the London Poor. New York: Penguin Classics, 1985:509.

New York Times. “Bias and the Beholder.” Wednesday, June 15, 2011.

New York Times. Profiles in Science: Nora D. Volkow, A General in the Drug War. New York Times, Tuesday, June 14, 2011, D1-D4.

Neugebauer, Otto.  1983.  Astronomy and History: Selected Essays.  New York: Springer-Verlag.

Stanton W (1960) The Leopard's Spots. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Wade, Nichlas. “Scientists Measure the Accuracy of a Racism Claim” New York Times, Tuesday, June 14, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/14/science/14skull.html?_r=1&src=me

The Geography of Human Variety according to Blumenbach