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The Mismeasure of Man

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The definitive refutation to the argument of The Bell Curve.

How smart are you? If that question doesn't spark a dozen more questions in your mind (like "What do you mean by 'smart,'" "How do I measure it" and "Who's asking?"), then The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould's masterful demolition of the IQ industry, should be required reading. Gould's brilliant, funny, engaging prose dissects the motivations behind those who would judge intelligence, and hence worth, by cranial size, convolutions, or score on extremely narrow tests. How did scientists decide that intelligence was unipolar and quantifiable? Why did the standard keep changing over time? Gould's answer is clear and simple: power maintains itself. European men of the 19th century, even before Darwin, saw themselves as the pinnacle of creation and sought to prove this assertion through hard measurement. When one measure was found to place members of some "inferior" group such as women or Southeast Asians over the supposedly rightful champions, it would be discarded and replaced with a new, more comfortable measure. The 20th-century obsession with numbers led to the institutionalization of IQ testing and subsequent assignment to work (and rewards) commensurate with the score, shown by Gould to be not simply misguided--for surely intelligence is multifactorial--but also regressive, creating a feedback loop rewarding the rich and powerful. The revised edition includes a scathing critique of Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve, taking them to task for rehashing old arguments to exploit a new political wave of uncaring belt tightening. It might not make you any smarter, but The Mismeasure of Man will certainly make you think.--Rob Lightner

This edition is revised and expanded, with a new introduction

446 pages, Paperback

First published October 28, 1982

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About the author

Stephen Jay Gould

174 books1,252 followers
Stephen Jay Gould was a prominent American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation. Gould spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Most of Gould's empirical research was on land snails. Gould helped develop the theory of punctuated equilibrium, in which evolutionary stability is marked by instances of rapid change. He contributed to evolutionary developmental biology. In evolutionary theory, he opposed strict selectionism, sociobiology as applied to humans, and evolutionary psychology. He campaigned against creationism and proposed that science and religion should be considered two compatible, complementary fields, or "magisteria," whose authority does not overlap.

Many of Gould's essays were reprinted in collected volumes, such as Ever Since Darwin and The Panda's Thumb, while his popular treatises included books such as The Mismeasure of Man, Wonderful Life and Full House.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 444 reviews
Profile Image for Alok Vaid-Menon.
Author 10 books19.8k followers
April 6, 2021
19th century physicians used the sheen of science to justify racism. American naturalist Samuel Morton believed that white people had the largest brains and that this was evidence of superior intellect. He finagled his results in order to confirm his prejudice: excluding small white skulls to raise the mean size of his own group. German anatomist Emil Huschke argued that Black people and white women were biologically undeveloped like white male children, “living representatives of an ancestral stage in the evolution of white males” (144). Ableism was about racial hierarchy: white men were supposed to be neurotypical, if they weren’t it was because they were racially underdeveloped. Accordingly, John Down’s original name for Down syndrome was “Mongolian idiocy.” Scientists argued that bodies were a blueprint for society. In 1866 Lombroso wrote that the feet of sex workers resembled those of apes and that’s what led to their behavior.

In the 20th century, the idea that behavior was innate persisted with new criteria: genes. Now the scientific narrative was that white people were superior because they had the best genes. Lewis Terman agreed with 19th century scientists that criminality was innate, but believed it was demonstrated by low IQ, not physical features. Eugenicists like him believed that class hierarchies existed because of innate intelligence: the elites reflected the "biological superiority" of the population. He argued that the US identify “feeble-minded” citizens “whose intelligence [was] too low for any effective life” (210) and detain and/or sterilize them in order to preserve the race.

American psychologist Henry Goddard brought the first IQ tests to the US. He believed that people with mental ages from 8-12 posed the gravest threat as criminals, alcoholics, and sex workers. Eventually, a committee of psychologists created an intelligence test for army recruits. They used this data to make wide-sweeping claims that Black people / Jewish people / immigrants were “morons” because their IQ was not as high as “Nordics.” IQ gave the guise of statistical legitimacy to racism and antisemitism. These tests inspired standardized tests across the US, including the SATs.

In reality, these tests didn’t actually measure “innate intelligence. They reflected people’s familiarity with US American culture and access to education. Many recruits could not even hear the examiner, and some had never taken a test or held a pencil before. Obviously the people who had prior access to formal schooling would score better than people who didn’t. But these social factors were ignored. IQ tests were used by policy makers to ban immigration, criminalize miscegenation, and legitimize racial segregation.

Intelligence is fluid and irreducible to a number. In the 19th century scientists used physical bodies to naturalize inequality. In the 20th they used IQ. In the 21st, what if we actually ended biological determinism, not just refashioned it?
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,301 reviews22k followers
September 1, 2014
Have you ever felt a little upset with white people saying black people are lesser people? Well, prepare to feel furious. Gould documents a series of scientific frauds by racist scientists seeking to show white racial superiority.

This book will make your blood boil - but if more people had read it no one would have fallen for all that bell-curve rubbish a few years later.

Racism sucks, and it is based on ignorance. If you are looking for a cure to such ignorance, this is as good a place to start as any.
Profile Image for Max Maxwell.
57 reviews33 followers
March 31, 2009
NOTE: Feel free to read the full review, but I can sum it up in a fact. Gould need only have written the two-page epilogue to his book, a concise essay, rather than the remainder of the book. In fact, the entire thing is just so much pink fiberglass insulation leading up to the final page of the book. Everything he intended to say is there without any jargon or facts and figures. As a teacher, I intend to photocopy and teach that page alone. Carry on if desired.

I am not a philistine, nor am I stupid, and rare is the book that totally mystifies me. It is regrettable, then, that this, which will be placed, in due time, on that narrow metaphorical shelf, bewildered not out of being truly beyond grasping, but rather out of poor presentation and overly technical writing. I feel that this is relevant to the aims of this review. I quote David Kipen's review of the The Zohar: Pritzker Edition Vol. 1:
If a book is so knotty that it makes a critic's skull ache, most critics would consider that something an unwary reader deserves to know.
And now you know. (To be clear, the first four chapters are not troublesome; it's chapter five, "The Real Error of Cyril Burt," that should've been omitted. But I'll get to that in due time.)

These are the main points of Gould's book: (a) That there is no discernible difference, especially of intellect, between the various races of Homo sapiens; (b) that scientists are prey to the same biases and subjectivities as we all are, and they may colour their work thus; (c) that intelligence is a nebulous, unquantifiable entity, and we often fall prey to the fallacy of reification when referencing intelligence, i.e. we feel that that which is named is definable; and (d) that sociobiology, as put forth by Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson, is incorrect insofar as it seeks to find an explanation for human behaviour in Darwinian theory. I can get behind propositions (a) through (c), but I find (d) revolting and completely off-base.

In fact, my point (b) above, Gould's assertion that scientists' work might be shaped by their biases, is the basis for the ultimate failure of The Mismeasure of Man. Gould "knows" that IQ measures nothing, and that sociobiology is false, and that admitting any innate difference between human minds will lead to social darwinism, so of course, he's churned out this massive synthesis in support of precisely those ideas. The fact that he doesn't realize his hypocrisy is more or less vomit-inducing. The fact is that IQ measures something real, so says recent, moderate research (see "The Search for Intelligence" by the ubiquitous Carl Zimmer, Scientific American, October 2008, pp. 68-75). I agree with Gould when he quotes John Stuart Mill, saying that
The tendency has always been strong to believe whatever received a name must be an entity or being, having an independent existence of its own. And if no real entity answering to the name could be found, men did not for that reason suppose that none existed, but imagined that it was something particularly abstruse and mysterious.
The rub is that some things that don't answer to names actually don't exist, for one. Unicorns come to mind.

Another conundrum arrises when we take into account the first rule of behavioural genetics, as quoted in Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate :
All human behavioural traits are heritable.
This is key. It simply states, rather uncontroversially, that all traits might be inherited, and to say as much is not to embrace genetic determinism. But in the book, Gould poo-poos sociobiology and the rule. He states that human being have no innate leaning toward aggressiveness. In a sense, Mismeasure is the archenemy of The Blank Slate. Gould never actually advocates that we are blank slates, stating instead that
I cannot adopt such a nihilistic position without denying the fundamental insight of my profession.
He does, however, essentially state that IQ is meaningless because it reifies intelligence, and that there's nothing innately different about one human's brain or another's, in a sort of "Harrison Bergeron" vision of equality. Pinker pretty much shows this to be false, but finds a way to celebrate our differences.

To me, the problem with IQ is not that it measures nothing, in theory, although some people just don't test well, and I exclude them from judgment. My beef is that IQ is just so linear and one-dimensional. Who decided that skill in math and grammar was the sole indicator of intelligence? What about athletic ability? Artistic ability? Ability to categorize? Or to ask the big questions? What about people with great "people skills," or an aptitude for mechanics? Educators will be familiar with Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, and I subscribe to it wholeheartedly. Darwin himself was of average intelligence, but excelled at research (Gardner's "naturalist" intelligence). And I believe that each of us is capable of whatever we wish to accomplish—there are pilots and painters without arms, and I almost cringe before throwing out the token "Beethoven was deaf" nugget. Genes are not destiny, and work can overcome them. That said, smart people know their limits and they don't wax poetic about how they don't exist and we're all equal in every way. I know that I am not good at math, that is, I was not born with an innate ability to comprehend mathematics intuitively. I could certainly apply myself and learn math, but why bother?—I understand biology and literature in ways most mathematicians do not.

And this brings us to the part of the book that made me give it one star—"The Real Error of Cyril Burt," consisting of eighty-six pages of advanced math. This is a fatal error for a pop-sci book. I had to skip the chapter after 20 pages; it was going in one eye and out the other, or as Richard Ellis says, MEGO syndrome set in (My Eyes Glaze Over). Sample:
The original measures may be represented as vectors of unit length, radiating from a common point. If two measures are highly correlated, their vectors lie close to each other. The cosine of the angle between any two vectors records the correlation coefficient between them...
Not exactly quantum mechanics, to be sure, but enough to kill my interest, and lose the point. If Gould needs a lot of math to tell me something very loose and unsure, and Pinker needs no math to tell me something completely concrete, well, Occam and his famed blade point to the latter.

This is the second Gould I've read, and it was the second to involve a disclaimer about a glut of details to come in the introduction. When you're used to Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan, with their grand, sweeping,and poetic generalizations about life, the universe, and everything, these details are not only shelter to the devil—they are the devil.

Believe it or not, I recommend this book. The first four chapters and the epilogue—the story of a sterilized woman with Down's syndrome, which broke my heart—are pretty good. But bad editing is its downfall. When I count three spelling errors, I send the thing back to my mental publishers.
Profile Image for Kolbjørn Brønnick.
7 reviews4 followers
October 24, 2012
This book is a political document, not a popular science book. Unfortunately, the book is an example of dishonest cherry picking of findings and selective omission of studies that would ruin the story Gould tries to construct. Ironically, Gould commits the same "crime" he accuses the racist scientists of: selective bias.

There is no scientific honesty in this book, and as a consequence, Gould gives ammo to those he tries to discredit and disarm. Irony once again.

Maybe this topic should be left untouched, as there is great potention for harm associated with it. That is my own personal conclusion after pursuing the primary literature on the topics raised by Gould.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,649 followers
September 26, 2018
Gould is a good person and an excellent thinker. This is a call to scientists to examine their own biases and it is a demolishment of centuries of racist genetic testing. It's also such a pleasure to read someone who is a sound thinker and can write logically. I know some of his debunkings (i.e. Morton) have since been debunked, but that does nothing to diminish the importance of this work.

Also, he notes that racist "science" tends to proceed from movements demanding equality. And so it is that the likes of Murray joined by a bunch of other people are once again advancing the guard of IQ determinism. I could really use an updated Mismeasurement of Man right about now
Profile Image for Geoffrey Miller.
Author 26 books617 followers
May 12, 2012
Intellectually fraudulent, utterly ignorant of modern intelligence research, politically biased.
Profile Image for Sean DeLauder.
Author 9 books123 followers
September 6, 2016
Before a proper summation can be given, one first has to understand the Why of The Mismeasure of Man. The Why being hundreds of years of conservative, white-folk-do-well-because-they're-smartest ideology supported by "science", and the more recent belief in the existence of an inherited IQ number by which all humans can be ranked, culminating in The Bell Curve, by Herrnstein and Murray (1994). It is a book that asserts poor people are, in short, intellectually inferior to the non-poor, and thus can never rise above their status (barring some fluke) to achieve the success that wealthier people enjoy.

The book was roundly criticized as sloppy, statistically inaccurate, and pandering to a conservative audience that wanted to believe the poor were not worth the money spent on them, with Gould as one of its loudest critics.

In sum, Gould's book is an admonishment of ideology behind The Bell Curve (Gould published The Mismeasure of Man years earlier, then republished when The Bell Curve was released) and the willingness of social scientists to shape their findings to fit their narrative over the past centuries of anthropological research. In essence, they found what they set out to find (support for white, Europeans being more intelligent than others), in spite of clear evidence to the contrary--thus the title of the book. He debunks the methodologies and findings of ideas such as: mental capacity is determined by cranial volume, and how those who used these methods tried to fit their beliefs to their findings and preserve the idea that Wealthy White People have earned their status because they are more intelligent (this became a problem when some African skulls, and even some female skulls *gasp!*, had greater volume than their caucasian counterparts), as well as the notion of a measurable IQ. For those with a mathematical bent, the latter portion of the book explains the error of Herrnstein and Murray's calculations, and the continuing trend of partiality toward specific data that proved their hypothesis while ignoring data that might disprove it.

The latter part of this trend is what Gould finds disheartening and enraging at the same time. It is symptomatic of Bad Science. That being when scientists find an abundance of evidence that points in a different direction from what they expected, yet cling to their preconceived expectations anyway, and search for a way to manipulate their data to confirm the existing bias. Imagine if Newton had at first insisted his laws of motion were based upon the energy inherent in apples, and never allowed his findings to alter his opinion. In the far future these notions of gender- and race-based intellectuality will be long behind us and we will look back in incredulity. But if not for Gould, this book, and others like him, we might never take those steps forward.

If you take anything from the book, or at least the idea of the book if you choose not to read it in its entirety, it should be 1) always approach an idea with some degree of skepticism, and 2) consider the possibility of an agenda behind a proposal--even when offered by something so noble and ideal as the scientific community.
Profile Image for Erik Graff.
5,030 reviews1,165 followers
March 5, 2015
The public school system I attended in Park Ridge, Illinois had us taking standardized texts several times a year, year after year: Iowa Tests, California Testa, PSAT, NMSQT, ACT, SAT etc. Some of us, the cooperative ones, got quite good at it and had our choice of colleges. We were, we were told, intelligent--or, correlatively, "not living up to potential".

Beyond the satisfaction of thinking myself smart, however, was an unease. It wasn't just that I wasn't particularly good at much of anything except tests, it was because of the segregation of students from one another beginning in elementary school and continuting, with ever greater degrees of discrimination, through junior and senior high schools. I couldn't buy it. A lot of the kids I was being separated from seemed smarter than me by any number of practical estimations.

Gould's book is a history and critique of intelligence testing. It began in France, simply as a means of identifying areas of relative academic standing. Its purpose was benign: find the kids lagging in, say, numeration and pay enough attention to them to bring them up to speed. It became, primarily under the North Americans, a ontological measure of inherent capacity.

Much of Gould's exposition hinges on the uses and abuses of factoral analysis, a mathematical tool he himself employed in his own academic training. His explanation of the method and of its history of abuse by intelligence measurers is clear and telling.

Some of Gould's critique is based on a review, conducted by his students, of the data originally gathered and manipulated by early intelligence theorists. Errors are found, lots of them--virtually all tendentious. (Would that the means existed for such reviews of many of the foundational discoveries of science!)
Profile Image for A.
396 reviews43 followers
November 25, 2021
Re-rated to a 1 star after further reading in behavioral genetics and after reading reviews which show the ideologically based nature of this book (SJWs always project).
Profile Image for Nebuchadnezzar.
39 reviews375 followers
March 17, 2012
The Mismeasure of Man is often touted as a definitive refutation of racialist pseudoscience and eugenics. However, while I would highly recommend Gould's work, I would do so as an entry point to the subject.

Gould's prose is highly readable and entertaining as always. His coverage of the history of eugenics and scientific racism is excellent and engaging and it's worth reading for this alone. Now, on to the qualifications. A flaw in the book is Gould's revised measurements of Morton's skulls. Gould seems to have inadvertently proven his own point as revised measurements of their cranial capacity have been taken and it seems that Morton was mostly right, contra Gould. (See Nature mag: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/...) This doesn't detract too heavily from Gould's main point in my opinion, as cranial capacity cannot be used as a proxy measurement for IQ anyway. But it is hypocritical to accuse a long-dead academic of ideological bias and sloppy methodology and then engage in the same distortions.

As Gould gets closer to the present, he begins to get sloppier. He derails in one part to take some swipes at sociobiology and E.O. Wilson. For anyone familiar with the sociobiology debate, this comes off as Gould just venting about a personal squabble. His rebuttals to the more contemporary race and IQ proponents do not adequately address their methodology. While placing them in historical context makes it fairly easy to see what their basic motives and mistakes are, Gould fails to rigorously refute their more nuanced statistical arguments. I would recommend the work of James R. Flynn on more contemporary race and IQ arguments. Flynn's work on the subject is superior in its scholarship and nuance.

Nevertheless, this book is a great place for the lay person to start when it comes to the sordid history of the use of biology and psychology in service of ideology and bigotry.
Profile Image for Danny.
74 reviews3 followers
March 17, 2012
I'm no expert in psychometrics, neuroscience, genetics, education, biology, physiology, psychology, factor analysis, or quantitative methodology. I'm only a layperson with an interest in literature, humanity, and science. So just note that the comments below are offered by a nonprofessional.

My comments on The Mismeasure of Man:
This book presents an interesting history of various attempts to measure intelligence among groups and attempts to rank groups by "innate" mental ability. Gould argues, essentially, that such attempts are useless and unfounded because intelligence is not a reified thing, and that preconceived political and social views (bias) have always plagued efforts to measure intelligence and always will. The book is an indictment of biological determinism, racism, and attempts to justify racism through science. While his history of intelligence testing and racism is instructive, this book does not adequately describe how science and psychometrics have evolved/matured in recent years. So the book does not present a complete history, in my view.

While his arguments appeal to my sensibilities, I think Gould fails in some degree to offer sufficient counter arguments by others who challenge his own thinking (which is what I hoped for). So, as with nearly all books, this work should be read and considered in conjunction with other works that both agree and disagree with Gould's analysis and conclusions.

I certainly do appreciate Gould's critique on the attempts, past and present, to classify racial groups in some kind of hierarchical ranking. However, I think, while a noble effort, Gould himself brings his own bias to the work. This is just to say that I agree with Gould in general, but I read with caution.

In addition to this book, I have read Jensen's response to The Mismeasure of Man, an opinion paper by Bernard D. Davis about the book (two responses from people with opposing political views), and works by others who supported and criticized Gould's work. My opinions hold firm. Psychometrics and testing is of great value when identifying gaps in learning and evaluating education programs and policy. There is absolutely no valid justification for racism. Individual ability cannot be determined by race. Mental ability is not a measure for "social worth." Bias does exist, but scientific reasoning and quantitative methodologies aim to eliminate bias. Intelligence and academic success are influenced by a combination of biological, physiological, and psychological factors and a multitude of environmental factors including health, diet, education, social policy, culture, school climate, parenting, proximity to violence and crime, etc. And, finally, what I've learned most of all from this exercise is that there is always much, much more to be learned.

I offer these references below not to advocate for the authors' political view, but simply to present alternative perspective:
Davis, Bernard D. (1983). Neo-Lysenkoism, IQ, and the press. The Public Interest, 74, 41-59.

Jensen, Arthur R. (1982). The debunking of scientific fossils and straw persons. Contemporary Education Review, 1, 121-135.
5 reviews2 followers
June 9, 2012
I found this book very disappointing considering how much I love other books by Gould. The Mismeasure of Man aims to attack some of the supposed evidence for scientific racism. The book's purpose intrigued me initially, but as I began reading its content, I found Gould's method very unconvincing.

This is one of Gould's arguments that I found most difficult to buy - Gould's attack on craniometry. He first gives a brief background of some of the first craniometric studies of human races done by Agazzis and Morton (quite informative). Gould then points out the flaw in Morton's studies: his measurements of the volume of skulls are done by filling the skull with seeds, and Morton might have, according to Gould, pressed the seeds further in the skulls that he believed (a priori) to be larger. It is an interesting case study of confirmation bias, and Gould claimed that he repeated Morton's measurements to find out that Morton's measurements were indeed influenced by his preconceptions. Gould's re-measurements were then falsified by many other scientists/anthropologists (according to a critique titled 'Mismeasure of Gould'). Gould seems to forget that he too has his own preconceptions about the topic.

I think it is very difficult to read a book that relies on claiming that its opponent is under the influence of confirmation bias. The author would then simply repeat the experiment, only to be falsified by his critics, who suggest that he too is under the influence of said bias. It somehow seems like an endless exchange of straw-man arguments, and I don't find that very interesting to read about.

Gould's fascination with the relationship between fact/theory and human preconceptions in science is admirable, but he does it much more beautifully in Wonderful Life. I suggest that you should read that rather than The Mismeasure of Man.
Profile Image for Griffin Wilson.
133 reviews31 followers
December 8, 2018
This book, published in 1981, was partially a response to Arthur Jensen, a famous psychometrician and behavior geneticist, who I might consider the 'arch-hereditarian' of modern intelligence research, and whose famous 1969 article drew great ire from the public and a wide variety of intellectuals. Gould deems Jensen and his school "biodeterminists," and sets out to debunk the theoretical basis of intelligence research, the g-factor (along with providing a history lesson).

Something I did really appreciate about the book is the first two thirds or so. Here, Gould gives an excellent overview of the history of racism in Western science, which I am very glad to have read. Had I stopped after chapter 5 or so, I would probably give this book at least 4 stars.

Unfortunately, Gould does not stop there, and it becomes increasingly obvious that he goes to great care to provide the reader with the most racist and sexist quotes possible in order to impassion them and fill them with rage against those (modern hereditarians) to whom he will later compare the various 19th century outdated western thinkers. In this way, he poisons the well against them, and talks himself and the reader into the a priorism which he claims to despise. There are countless problems with his assertions, most of which have not held up well in the last 40 years. Here are only a few:

1. Morton's skulls: Gould 'corrects' Morton's measurements because he believes Morton fudged them just to fit his own beliefs. Several years after the publication of this book someone went back to re-measure Morton's skulls and -- surprise! -- got the same measurements Morton did. It is now well-known that there is a strong correlation between brain size and cognitive ability (between .2 and .3)
2. Gould goes for low-hanging fruit and only 'debunks' scientists from the 19th/ early 20th century. He examines almost no research from the 1960s or 70s. If I were dissatisfied with the state of modern astronomy would I rail against Ptolemy, or would I try to engage with thought from the last several decades?
3. The g-factor: this section has particularly not faired well as, even among environmentalists, the reality of the g-factor has more or less become accepted. The theory of multiple intelligences has not held up, and I am unaware of any modern researcher that espouses this view. His explanation of what it is is also a straw man: it is an empirically derived concept, not a "thing" that has a "concrete" location in the brain, nor is it "innate" and not subject to environmental changes; IQ tests are are also not a direct measure of it, which is what Gould seems to think -- they are only estimates that have a margin of error.

The two concluding articles are inconsequential and use the same types of sophistry to malign various people via straw mans and well-poisoning (although I appreciate his short comments on Darwin at the end).

Most of the 5 star reviews of this are by people who have not read 'the other side.' If they did, I believe they would have a more measured, less enthusiastic, approach.

I would recommend reading Jensen's response: "The Debunking of Scientific Fossils and Straw Persons" and a more up-to-date work on modern research in this area: "The Neuroscience of Intelligence" by Dr. Richard J. Haier -- the field was really revolutionized in the 90s and 00s with the advent of PET scans and MRIs.
Profile Image for Shaenon Garrity.
19 reviews24 followers
June 23, 2007

A history of the use of intelligence testing to support racism, sexism, and class boundaries, focusing on two areas: 19th-century craniometry and 20th-century IQ tests. The going gets a little heavy in the final chapters when Gould busts out the math, but it's an eye-opener, using two specific historical examples to make larger points about the way science, though supposedly neutral, can be warped to enforce existing prejudices. (When poor Italian immigrants flooded into America in the early 20th century, research suddenly proliferated "proving" that Italians were a separate, mentally inferior nonwhite race; in Britain, studies focused on supporting the innate rightness of the class system and recommending lesser education for poor children.) Gould's message is ultimately positive: that our mental limits are far less relevant than our mental potential.
Profile Image for Jack.
482 reviews51 followers
November 12, 2018
This wasn't quite the book I was looking for, nor is it entirely what it appears - at least, as it may appear to a contemporary reader. Perhaps when it was first published it didn't seem so...unpromising. Let me try to explain myself.

The Mismeasure of Man has the subtitle 'The definitive refutation to the argument of The Bell Curve'. That's why I picked it up. That's not really what the book is about, only about thirty pages near the end address that book particularly. Gould's work is a general for-the-layman, kinda, criticism of intelligence testing, nature-over-nurture style science. I think it was intended to be polemical, but its targets, while correctly identified in the terms of advancing his argument, are too soft to really persuade me.

I haven't read The Bell Curve, nor do I intend to (I have other ways of self-harm), but I am aware of it as a malingering presence over right-wing American politics, whose rhetoric has continuously encroached over Europe and Ireland in the past few years. It's a notable work of scientific racism and as someone fervently against that whole hate thing, I wanted to read a strong rebuttal of prejudice veiled in objective language. I'm open about being thoroughly against racial differences being quantified in intelligence. I had my opinion before I read this book, and my disappointment stems from feeling that if I wasn't already inclined towards that belief, I would not be persuaded of it; at least, not as regarding modern prejudice.

Most of this book is about scientists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I didn't really need to know exactly how phrenology was a pseudoscience, nor did I need to learn that men of that milieu had biases that corrupted the supposed objectivity of their work. I knew that already. By the time Gould got to 'the point' for me, it was too late, because I expected something different of this book than what I wanted. I have to reflect more so on my own desires or biases as a reader than appraise an apparently sound, if politically unfit academic work.

I don't get into arguments online because I rarely write to anyone. I find it difficult to converse with anyone with the immediacy the electronic word has. I've been reading forums since I was 12, and absorbing almost everything I read as accurate reflections of life experience, as grains of truth. I find the idea of being a political centrist repulsive, but I'm not really sure what I believe. At least, I don't find my beliefs to be systematic or coherent enough to wage war with my ideological opponents as the bulk of discourse, online or otherwise, seems to be. I am desperate to become morally and ideologically stalwart but cannot justify the confidence / arrogance of knowing myself to be right. And yet I came at this book not to learn both sides of a debate, but strengthen an inherent belief of mine. If I am unusually hypocritcal in my efforts to sharpen my political sensibility, I must improve; yet the thought that this is a mundane reality of human experience is similarly demoralizing.

Yeats may have written that the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity, but I sure am sick of being vacillating while posturing at being some sort of intellectual free-thinker. A bit of passionate intensity might do me some good.
I would like my words, in speech or text, to have some power similar to the tens of thousands of words I have read over many years, in books, or more frequently, anonymous remarks online, that assert their realities upon my consciousness regardless of contradicting variance. I don't think it made me more intelligent or well-rounded to absorb so much conflicting free expressions of opinion, even if that is a supposed hallmark of democracy. It has been mostly confusing.
Profile Image for David.
215 reviews45 followers
December 25, 2018
Though written 40 years ago, Gould's polemic against hereditarianism has not lost any of its potency and urgency. Whether through craniometry, obscure body measurements, general intelligence or IQ-tests, the ruling class has time and time again found ways to reify social and historical classes as expressions of a timeless, unchanging reality. This mechanism, rooted in feudalism, persists vigourously in capitalism and makes a sneaky comeback in the guise of fascism and colonialism. To be recognized and combatted - in the end, all attempts to directly connect biology to sociology succumbs to race science, whether in the shape of "judeo-bolshevism", the paternalistic discourse of slavery or the endless contempt for the have-nots and their organizing:

IQ of 75 or below should be the realm of unskilled labor, 75 to 85 "preeminently the range for semi-skilled labor." More specific judgments could also be made. "Anything above 85 IQ in the case of a barber probably represents so much dead waste" (1919, p. 288). IQ 75 is an "unsafe risk in a motorman or conductor, and it conduces to discontent" (Terman, 1919). Proper vocational training and placement is essential for those "of the 70 to 85 class." Without it, they tend to leave school "and drift easily into the ranks of the anti-social or join the army of Bolshevik discontents" (1919, p. 285).
Profile Image for Cassandra Kay Silva.
704 reviews276 followers
May 25, 2011
This was absolutely spectacular! A scientific look at the prejudices that pseudo science has used to confirm and back unnecessary racism. An inside look at the so called evidence that has furthered the labeling and segregating of mankind. It was absolutely flawless! I loved this book. Page after page was extremely infuriating. It is amazing how we can use science to twist facts to our own liking. I am so glad I found this at the library. It makes me both simultaneously wonder what other current "facts" are being distorted to further agendas, and feel extremely grateful that we are finally trying to put all human beings on an even footing. There is no better time to be who you are than today.
Profile Image for Yasiru.
197 reviews118 followers
April 27, 2013
I read from this book (though I readily admit I haven't read the whole thing) during my introductory psychology course at university because the lecturer pointed it out as an example of good science debunking racial prejudices. I was somewhat sceptical then (about a book on science being written for the express purpose of countering a political attitude supposedly resting on scientific grounds), and as it turned out, Gould was overzealous with his case and may have proceeded with just the kind of selective bias he accuses others of (apart from other errors), however commendable his motivation might have been.
See- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mism...

The whole episode provides a somewhat more detached lesson which is still very important (and goes back at least to David Hume, an empiricist well aware of the limits his school of thought imposed itself)- science only tells us how things are, and carries no suggestions about how they ought to be (though it can tell you what ways some outcome might be best brought about). We can't afford to meet fatally polarised views (from The Bell Curve say, which this book criticises) with those from the opposite (ideological) extreme. Only seek falsifiable trends, record them, then consider what can be done with them for purposes decided in advance by different modes of discourse from the empirical (ethical and otherwise). It's also important with the scientific method to admit what we don't know and anticipate deficiencies in our analyses and possibly the overall paradigm (see Kuhn's work). There should always be a strong philosophical or ideological bulwark between scientific description and policy prescription. Certainly beware reification, but also be vigilant against the more pressing concern of slippery slopes.
Profile Image for Clara.
129 reviews23 followers
January 8, 2016
Lo empecé como una mera lectura curiosa, pero se convirtió en un ensayo adictivo, mucho más de lo que podría haber imaginado en ningún momento. "Desmitificante" cuando tiene que serlo, Gould da una clase soberbia sobre lo que ha de entenderse como objetividad en la actividad científica y rebusca en el archivo, desempolvando las caras "b" de muchos procedimientos, artículos y estudios cuya repercusión ha llegado a nuestros días.
No es una obra difícil, aunque sí es cierto que hay momentos en que uno acaba afectado por la sobredosis de datos y de historias lamentables. Porque lo que Gould trata son las medidas, como se ha tratado de estratificar las sociedades en base a una serie de datos prejuiciosos y endebles en la mayor parte de los casos. Tiene una base envidiable y una argumentación capaz de clausurar cualquier tipo de dudas. Tira de ironía si es necesario, hace autocrítica científica... Y abarca todos los campos que considera esenciales, dulcificándolos para que sean de comprensión aceptable.
Si he de quedarme con algo es, sin duda, con los 4 primeros capítulos, el quinto y el sexto son más pesados y difíciles de digerir, aunque interesantes de igual modo, y el epílogo, que cierra de un modo brillante con una cita de Darwin: "Si la miseria de nuestros pobres no es causada por las leyes de la naturaleza sino por nuestras instituciones, cuán grande es nuestro pecado".

Me parece muy recomendable.

Profile Image for Serdar.
Author 13 books22 followers
March 12, 2019
This is, strictly speaking, not the first time I've read this book. The first time was at least twenty years ago, when I gave my father a copy for his birthday (he enjoyed it greatly) and then snuck a read of it myself separately. Okay, I didn't read the whole thing; I cut straight to the chapter where Gould swung a wrecking ball through "The Bell Curve" in a few concise pages, the better to arm myself with arguments against that apologia for institutionalized racism. But I did myself a disservice by not reading everything that came before, and so this time I read everydarnthing between the covers.

Much of the first third or so of the book is going to be tough sledding for some people, and Gould himself apologizes for this, because he has to get technical about certain things that are highly relevant to his point. But the strands come together quickly enough, and soon you see the point being made: Most of what we have labeled "intelligence" is aptitude testing used in ways not intended by its manufacturers (and not very reliable to begin with), and has served to justify all manner of other mismeasurements of men. And Gould makes no apology for the political flavor of his argument: he is arguing for better ways to understand human beings than by devices that have lent themselves to allowing whole classes of people to be intentionally mislabeled as a little less than human. The details matter, and the book goes into those details for a good reason.
Profile Image for Christopher Saunders.
931 reviews861 followers
May 20, 2022
Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man examines the many ways that science has been used and abused by centuries of fools and ideologues. Gould notes that "science [has] often acted as the firm ally of existing institutions" and thus it's little surprise that the worst excesses of pseudoscience (or scientism, an appeal to authority positing that any idea from any scientist must be treated with respect) serve to affirm existing prejudices and social hierarchies. Thus Louis Agassiz obsessed over the cranial measurements of different races, which "proved" the more evolved status of white men and the closeness of nonwhites to lower apes; or Samuel Cartwright could invent "drapetomania" as a pseudo-medical explanation for slaves fleeing their masters; how prostitute toes and criminal noses were meticulously measured to prove predisposition to vagrancy; or how IQ, a severely flawed measurement to begin with, has been consistently used to frame intelligence as an "innate" quality immune to environment or education. Some of these scientists merely used hopelessly flawed algorithms, while others, like intelligence scientist Cyril Burt or eugenicist Henry Goddard, flagrantly falsified data to conform to their prejudices. Fitting acts around a thesis, such scientism not only absolves the ruling classes of guilt for the "immutable" characteristics of those they exploit, they're frequently used to justify racist laws from Jim Crow to anti-immigration statutes, or to bolster conservative cuts to education - why, after all, educate someone whose intelligence prevents them from learning to begin with? The revised edition excludes an extended debunking of Charles Murray's The Bell Curve, whose musings about racial differences in intelligence are little different than the 19th Century cranks Gould chronicles elsewhere. Race-based scientism is alive and well long after Gould's death, as ongoing debates about face-recognition technology and artificial intelligence testify, with inescapable harmful effects on society.
Profile Image for Ayelet Waldman.
Author 26 books40.4k followers
May 2, 2017
One shouldn't read Baron-Cohen without first fortifying oneself with Gould.
Profile Image for Aurélien Thomas.
Author 10 books111 followers
December 19, 2021
Bang bang! Stephen Jay Gould doesn't take any glove, and gun shoot in here what he considers to be a complete absurdity: the idea, dangerous, that intelligence is solely an innate biological feature, hereditary, and measurable.

Measuring intelligence? Impossible, he claims! Intelligence is a whole set of various cognitive variables that one cannot reduce to a mere number or quotient. Such an endeavour would be nonsensical. It also is rooted within dubious past social trends, which had sexist and racist agendas and whose consequences were often tragic. In order to better denounce this form of biological determinism, Gould therefore retraces here such history, searching through the bins of such past scientific thoughts to better expose how trashy it all is. You guess, such exposure makes for a fascinating read, but, at times, it also is quite sickening.

Focusing first on 'craniometry', a 'science' which once had a massive impact upon criminology (e.g. the anthropological criminology of a Cesare Lombroso) Gould shows that, if it was debunked in the end, being considered even grotesque nowadays, its core idea (that intelligence can be measured, since it's supposedly innate and hereditary) didn't die, but, went on to fuel yet another emerging field back then: psychology. Follows then a sharp requisitory against IQ testing as conceived by some.

The history behind such IQ test is quite fascinating. First established in France back in 1904 by Alfred Binet, who had been specially commissioned by the Ministry of Education, the purpose of such test was to detect these children facing academic difficulties so as to, depending on their needs, implement programs and policies to help them improve their grades. How come, then, such altruistic vision rejecting intelligence as 'fixed' ended up betrayed to be turned into quantifying people? To understand it all, he then point his guns at the then emerging eugenics movement.

Psychometry indeed had absolutely nothing to do with Binet, even it had twisted his work. It is, in fact, the brainchild of Charles Spearman for whom all our cognitive abilities can be reduced to one entity only, what he called the 'factor g'. From Paul Broca to Arthur Jensen and Cyril Burt, Gould retells then the history behind the different test implemented to try and measure such elusive 'factor g'. He shows here that such tests, at best dubious, at worse clearly fraudulent, would nevertheless have a considerable impact, from immigration policies to education, and, even, sterilisation campaigns...

Sure, this book can be dauting at times (his lengthy debunking of the factor g in a chapter I personally found difficult to follow...) but it remains engrossing from beginning to end. Starting from a fallacious view of what is intelligence, he retraces the history of eugenics by denouncing one of its most appalling yet seductive nonsense -a reductionist view of human nature. Gould stroke again!
Profile Image for Tanja Berg.
1,904 reviews438 followers
October 8, 2011
"We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within".

I cannot do this book justice in a review. The matter is complicated and lies at the heart of what I believe. I have not yet taken an IQ test which I couldn't have done better if I had practiced certain things beforehand. Next number in a line, logic - it's all perfectly learnable and not a bit innate. I could be as smart as I like, but if I didn't know the language of the test, I would fail. That the result of this kind of testing would signify some kind of innate, inherited, intelligence is ludicruos - I was sure of that even at 15!

Validity of a test : the extent to which it measures what it is supposed to measure. Does an IQ test really measure intelligence, and what precisely IS intelligence? According to Cyril Burt, Spearman, Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray intellligence is a single measurable thing, which is inherited and does not change. This would be laughable if the consequences of their beliefs have not had such negative affects on society.

Stephen Jay Gould takes the studies of the intelligence researches and picks them apart. He doesn't spare his words and that makes this book a refreshing and personal read. He makes a strong point about Binet, the inventor of IQ in fearing that it would be used to limit possibilities - which is exactly what happened. Binet invented his test to find children who needed extra help in class - that was his sole purpose. He did not claim to measure intelligence, the "intelligence quotient" is a division of mental age with chronological age and to be used to determine whether a child needed special education or not. Binet: "the scale, properly speaking, deos not permit the measure of the intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured".

The result of extensive intelligence testing in the United States resulted in the sterlization of thousands upon thousands of "morons, imbeciles and idiots", to prevent further deterioration. It also resulted in the 11+ testing of children in Britain, separating the children (20%) who would go on to secondary school in preparation of higher education and the ones (80%) who were sent to vocational school with not hope of university studies.

Again, I cannot do "the mismeasure of man" justice here - but I recommend everyone to read it. It is frightening, upsetting and immensely informative.
Profile Image for Kai Pak.
20 reviews
January 2, 2018
Yes, although science relies on cold, hard quantification; it is, at the end of the day, a human enterprise and thus, subject to all of our varieties of weaknesses, biases, opinions, and ugliness. I think this book should be on the reading list for all budding scientists (including myself): beware, you my wrap your research in all the fancy analysis and mathematical formulation that you want, but you can still be led astray and down the path of bad science and logical fallacies.

The book does really make you question the usefulness and validity of standardized tests that are a critical part of western higher education. ETS itself will admit that current research is mixed at best with regards to correlating GRE performance with graduate school success.
Profile Image for Angel.
54 reviews
August 25, 2017
Written with great detail and volumes of valuable information, this book should be required reading for many different disciplines from anthropology and biology to statistics and history. Gould shines a light on a long history of bias, bad science, discrimination an racism in areas of education, measure of intelligence, anthropology and even immigration and eugenics. Unfortunately, I am not well educated in statistics for which I couldn't appreciate the book at its fullest and should revisit it once I have acquired the necessary knowledge. I believe that this book would be a great addition to any thinking person's library and should be recommended to everyone.
Profile Image for Linnaea.
24 reviews2 followers
August 20, 2008
Should be required reading for anyone who's ever taken a standardized test. And even more so for anyone who has ever administered, scored or helped write such a test, or used results from such a test to make judgements about people. The book is both a history of the development and use of measures of intelligence (starting with skull measurements and culminating in the Stanford-Binet), in particular their use in racial and gender based discrimination, and a critical examination of the nature of the data and the statistical analysis methods used to interpret it.
Profile Image for Usha Alexander.
Author 3 books16 followers
March 16, 2019
A must-read for everyone interested in the history of race and racialism.
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