The Mismeasure of Man

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Stephen Jay Gould is the author of Ever Since Darwin (1977), Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977), and The Panda’s Thumb (1980). In 1980 he won the National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism, and in 1981 both the American Book Award for Science and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-Fiction. He teaches geology, biology, and history of science at Harvard University. By way of summarizing Gould’s credentials, Newsweek (March 29, 1982) called him America’s foremost writer and thinker on evolution.

The Mismeasure of Man merits the accolades it has received (including the National Book Critics Circle Award) for its treatment of the controversies which perennially surround the testing and measurement of man’s intelligence—and thus his “nature.” The Mismeasure of Man deserves reading and pondering for its scope, for its honesty of approach, and for what it exposes as prejudice and even deliberate deception, but it also deserves reading as a testimonial to the author’s effort to see things as they really are, without the racist and sexist assumptions which have distorted so much human thought.

In the midst of his technical and highly statistical summaries, Gould interjects anecdotes and observations about his own life, about his son’s learning disability, and about his wife, his colleagues, and his students at Harvard. The Mismeasure of Man is objective and impersonal where it needs to be but personal and human in overall tone and attitude. Gould’s shifts in diction, from formal and technical scientific language to informal and even colloquial phrases and asides, make The Mismeasure of Man all the more accessible to the ordinary reader.

Gould’s persona, then, in this book as in much of his other writing—including his monthly column for Natural History magazine—is that of an eminently qualified expert at the top of his field who deems it important also to be a popularizer, one who thinks it matters for the non-scientist to be informed about his or her evolving nature as a member of Homo sapiens. Gould chooses a quotation from Charles Darwin to serve as the epigraph and keynote for his book: “If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.” It is as something of a clear-eyed, revisionist crusader, then, intent upon righting past and present miseries of certain “downtrodden” classes of society—as a result of scientific, pseudoscientific, and personal biases—that Gould takes stock and asks for a reckoning.

He is a scientist utilizing the ideals of scientific methodology to rectify science’s own miscalculations, to correct some of his partners’ own damaging errors. At the same time, Gould is affirming science’s ability to seek out revised versions of the truth. He devotes one short but significant chapter to the justification of his debunking attack on his scientific predecessors who wound up mismeasuring man’s intelligence, advancing three guiding principles which vindicate and direct his critique of biological determinism.

First, the author sees science advancing by means of the replacement of ideas, not by the addition of them. Second, scientific debunking must truly increase knowledge and not merely replace one social prejudice for another one. An ailment such as pellagra, for example, can only be cured if it can be proved to be the result of a vitamin deficiency and not a genetic disorder inherent in poor people. Finally, as an evolutionary biologist, Gould believes that Darwin’s central truth is the evolutionary unity of humans with all other organisms. Thus, man’s narcissism and arrogance is much out...

(The entire section is 1536 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Booklist. LXXVIII, September 1, 1981, p. 2.

Library Journal. CVI, October 15, 1981, p. 2012.

The New Republic. CLXXXV, November 11, 1981, p. 28.

The New York Review of Books. XXVIII, October 22, 1981, p. 12.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, November 1, 1981, p. 11.

Newsweek. XCVIII, November 9, 1981, p. 106.

Saturday Review. VIII, October, 1981, p. 74.