Tuesday, December 18, 2007

(3089/898) Gould: Mismeasure of Man (1)

The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould
1914) [T]he remarkable lack of genetic differentiation among human groups - a major biological basis for debunking determinism - is a contingent fact of evolutionary history, not an a priori or necessary truth. The world might have been ordered differently. [...] Homo sapiens [...] might have included a set of subspecies (races) with meaningfully different genetic capacities. If our species were millions of years old (many are), and if its races had been geographically separated for most of this time without significant genetic interchange, then large genetic differences might have slowly accumulated between groups. But Homo sapiens is, at most, a few hundred thousand years old, and all modern human races probably split from a common ancestral stock only about a hundred thousand years ago. A few outstanding traits of external appearance lead to our subjective judgment of important differences. But biologists have recently affirmed - as long suspected - that the overall genetic differences among human races are astonishingly small. Although frequencies for different states of a gene differ among races, we have found no "race genes" - that is, states fixed in certain races and absent from all others. [...] As [Richard] Lewontin remarked [...] if the holocaust comes and a small tribe in the New Guinea forests are the only survivors, almost all the genetic variation now expressed among the innumerable groups of our five billion people will be preserved.
Stephen Jay Gould
The Mismeasure of Man (rev. & exp. ed., 1996)
[Note: See #362 Gould, #1928-1933 Gould, and below for more from The Mismeasure of Man.]
1915) Human uniqueness resides primarily in our brains. It is expressed in the culture built upon our intelligence and the power it gives us to manipulate the world. Human societies change by cultural evolution, not as a result of biological alteration. [...] All that we have done since [the appearance of Homo sapiens in the fossil record] - the greatest transformation in the shortest time that our planet has experienced since its crust solidified nearly four billion years ago - is the product of cultural evolution. [...] Whatever one generation learns, it can pass on to the next by writing, instruction, inculcation, ritual, tradition, and a host of methods that humans have developed to assure continuity in culture. [...] The classical arguments of biological determinism fail because the features they invoke to make distinctions among groups are usually the products of cultural evolution.
Stephen Jay Gould
The Mismeasure of Man (rev. & exp. ed., 1996)

1916) Cultural evolution is not only rapid; it is readily reversible because its products are not coded in our genes.
Stephen Jay Gould
The Mismeasure of Man (rev. & exp. ed., 1996)

1917) Working scientists are generally good at analyzing data. We are trained to spot fallacies of argument and, especially, to be hypercritical of supporting data. We scrutinize charts and look at every dot on a graph. Science moves forward as much by critiquing the conclusions of others as by making novel discoveries.
Stephen Jay Gould
"Introduction to the Revised and Expanded Edition"
The Mismeasure of Man (rev. & exp. ed., 1996)

Stephen Jay Gould1918) Most scientists don't care a fig about history; my colleagues may not quite follow Henry Ford's dictum that history is bunk, but they do regard the past as a mere repository of error - at beast a source of moral instruction in pitfalls along paths to progress.
Stephen Jay Gould
"Introduction to the Revised and Expanded Edition"
The Mismeasure of Man (rev. & exp. ed., 1996)

1919) [Biological determinism is linked to] some of the oldest issues and errors of our philosophical traditions [...] reductionism, or the desire to explain partly random, large-scale, and irreducibly complex phenomena by deterministic behavior of smallest constituent parts (physical objects by atoms in motion, mental functioning by inherited amount of a central stuff); reification, or the propensity to convert an abstract concept (like intelligence) into a hard entity (like an amount of quantifiable brain stuff); dichotimization, or the desire to parse complex and continuous reality into divisions by two (smart and stupid, black and white(; and hierarchy, or our inclination to order items by ranking them in a linear series of increasing worth (grades of innate intelligence [...], then often broken up into a twofold division by our urges to dichotomize, as in normal vs. feeble-minded, to use the favored terminology of early days in IQ testing.

When we join our tendencies to commit these general error with the sociopolitical reality of a xenophobia that so often (and so sadly) regulates our attitudes to "others" judged inferior, we grasp the potency of biological determinism as a social weapon - for "others" will thereby be demeaned, and their lower socioeconomic status validated as a scientific consequence of their innate ineptitude rather than society's unfair choices. May I therefore repeat Darwin's great line: "If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."Charles Darwin at 40
Stephen Jay Gould
"Introduction to the Revised and Expanded Edition"
The Mismeasure of Man (rev. & exp. ed., 1996)
quoting Charles Darwin from
Voyage of the Beagle (1836)

1920) [R]esurgences of biological determinism correlate with episodes of political retrenchment, particularly with campaigns for reduced government spending on social programs, or at times of fear among ruling elites, when disadvantaged groups sow serious social unrest or even threaten to usurp power. What argument against social change could be more chillingly effective than the claim that established orders, with some groups on top and others at the bottom, exist as an accurate reflection of the innate and unchangeable intellectual capacities of people so ranked?

Why struggle and spend to raise the unboostable IQ of races or social classes at the bottom of the economic ladder; better simply to accept nature's unfortunate dictates and save a passel of federal funds; (we can them more easily sustain tax breaks for the wealthy!)? Why bother yourself about underrepresentation of disadvantaged groups in your honored and remunerative baliwick if such absence records the diminished ability or general immorality, biologically imposed, of most members in the rejected group, and not the legacy or current reality of social prejudice? (The groups so stigmatized may be races, classes, sexes, behavioral propensities, religions, or national origins. Biological determinism is a general theory, and particular bearers of current disparagement act as surrogates for all others subject to similar prejudice at different times and places. [...])
Stephen Jay Gould
"Introduction to the Revised and Expanded Edition"
The Mismeasure of Man (rev. & exp. ed., 1996)

1921) Impartiality (even if desirable) is unattainable by human beings with inevitable backgrounds, needs, beliefs, and desires. It is dangerous for a scholar even to imagine that he might attain complete neutrality, for then one stops being vigilant about personal preferences and their influences - and then one truly falls victim to the dictates of prejudice.

Objectivity must be operationally defined as fair treatment of data, not absence of preference. Moreover, one needs to understand and acknowledge inevitable preferences in order to know their influence - so that fair treatment of data and arguments can be obtained! No conceit could be worse than a belief in one's own intrinsic objectivity, no prescription more suited to the exposure of fools. [...] The best form of objectivity lies in explicitly identifying preferences so that their influence can be recognized and countermanded.
Stephen Jay Gould
"Introduction to the Revised and Expanded Edition"
The Mismeasure of Man (rev. & exp. ed., 1996)

1923) The spirit of Plato dies hard. We have been unable to escape the philosophical tradition that what we can see and measure in the world is merely the superficial and imperfect representation of an underlying reality. Much of the fascination with statistics lies embedded in our gut feeling - and never trust a gut feeling - that abstract measures summarizing large tables of data must express something more real and fundamental than the data themselves. (Much professional training in statistics involves a conscious effort to counteract this gut feeling.) The technique of correlation has been particularly subject to such misuse because it seems to provide a path for inferences about causality (and indeed it does, sometimes - but only sometimes.)

Correlation assesses the tendency of one measure to vary in concert with another. As a child grows, for example, both its arms and legs get longer; this joint tendency to change in the same direction is called a positive correlation. Not all parts of the body display such positive correlation during growth. Teeth, for example, do not grow after they erupt. The relationship between first incisor length and leg length from, say, age ten to adulthood would represent zero correlation - lets would get longer while teeth changed not at all. Other correlations can be negative - one measure increases while the other decreases. We begin to lose neurons at a distressingly early age, and they are not replaced. Thus, the relationship between leg length and number of neurons after mid-childhood represents negative correlation - leg length increases while number of neurons decreases. Notice that I have said nothing about causality. We do not know why these correlations do or do not exist, only that they are present or not present. [...] Arm and leg length are tightly correlated because they are both partial measures of an underlying biological phenomenon, namely growth itself.

Yet, lest anyone become too hopeful that correlation represents a magic method for the unambiguous indentification of cause, consider the relationship between my age and the price of gasoline during the past ten years. The correlation is nearly perfect, but no one would suggest any assignment of cause. The fact of correlation implies nothing about cause. It is not even true that intense correlations are more likely to represent cause than weak ones, for the correlation of my age with the price of gasoline is nearly 1.0. I spoke of cause for arm and leg lengths not because their correlation was high, but because I know something about the biology of the situation. The inference of cause must come from somewhere else, not from the simple fact of correlation - though an unexpected correlation may lead us to search for causes so long as we remember that we may not find them. The vast majority of correlations in our world are, without a doubt, noncausal. Anything that has been increasing steadily during the past few years will be strongly correlated with the distance between the earth and Halley's comet (which has also been increasing as of late) - but even the most dedicated astrologer would not discern causality in most of these relationships. The invalid assumption that correlation implies cause is probably among the two or three most serious and common errors of human reasoning.
Stephen Jay Gould
The Mismeasure of Man (rev. & exp. ed., 1996)

1924) Copernicus's heliocentric theory can be viewed as a purely mathematical hypothesis, offering a simpler representation for the same astronomical data that Ptolemy had explained by putting the earth at the center of things. Indeed, Copernicus's cautious and practical supporters [...] urged such a pragmatic course in a world populated with inquisitions and indices of forbidden books. But Copernicus's theory eventually produced a furor when its supporters, led by Galileo, insisted upon viewing it as a statement about the real organization of the heavens, not merely as a simpler numerical representation of planetary motion.
Stephen Jay Gould
The Mismeasure of Man (rev. & exp. ed., 1996)

1925) In the absence of corroborative evidence from biology for one scheme or the other, how can one decide? Ultimately, however much a scientists hates to admit it, the decision become a matter of taste, or of prior preference based on personal or cultural bias.
Stephen Jay Gould
The Mismeasure of Man (rev. & exp. ed., 1996)

1926) The tendency has always been strong to believe that whatever received a name must be an entity or thing, 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 peculiarly abstruse and mysterious, too high to be an object of sense. The meaning of all general, and especially of all abstract terms, became in this way enveloped in a mystical base...John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill
note to Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind (1829)
by James Mill, edited with additional notes by John Stuart Mill (1869)
(partly) quoted by Stephen Jay Gould in
The Mismeasure of Man (rev. & exp. ed., 1996)

1927) The popular impression that disproof represents a negative side of science arises from a common, but erroneous, view of history. The idea of unilinear progress [...] suggests a false concept of how science develops. In this view, science begins in the nothingness of ignorance and moves toward truth by gathering more and more information, constructing theories as facts accumulate. In such a world, debunking would be primarily negative, for it would only such some rotten apples from the barrel of accumulating knowledge. But the barrel of theory is always full; sciences work with elaborated contexts for explaining facts from the very outset. [...] Science advances primarily by replacement, not by addition. If the barrel is always full, then the rotten apples must be discarded before better ones can be added.

Scientists do not debunk only to cleanse and purge. They refute older ideas in the light of a different view about the nature of things.
Stephen Jay Gould
The Mismeasure of Man (rev. & exp. ed., 1996)

Note: "3089/898" is the designation I've given to the project of posting all my collected quotes, excerpts and ideas (3089 of them) in the remaining days of the Bush administration (of which there were 898 left when I began).

As of today, there are 398 days remaining in the administration of the worst American President ever.

Ed Fitzgerald | 12/18/2007 12:54:00 PM | | | del.icio.us | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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