Steven Jay Gould’s essays in Natural History Magazine were as close to matters scientific my late father, an attorney, ever came. He loved them. People of that generation were cowed by science, thinking it beyond them.
Naturally, I’ve read a bit more, following the controversies about punctuated equilibria, the actual unit of natural selection etc. etc. as they appeared in the pages of Nature over the years. In particular, I found Gould’s book “The Mismeasure of Man” intriguing (and quite convincing) It concerns one Samuel Morton, who measured cranial capacities of various ethnic groups in the early 1800s. He found that Europeans have bigger brains than everyone else. Gould accused Morton of (consciously or unconsciously) manipulating the data to come up with the conclusions he desired.
In particular, Gould accused him of grouping the data by arbitrarily amalgamating Native American populations, while breaking down the Europeans into subgroups.
Well, guess what? An anthropologist [ PLoS Biol. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001071;2011 ] went back to Penn (where the skulls in question reside), and remeasured some 300 of them, blinding themselves to their ethnic origins as they did. Morton’s measurements were correct. They also had the temerity to actually look at Morton’s papers. They found that, contrary to Gould, Morton did report average cranial capacities for subgroups of both populations, sometimes on the same page or on pages near to figures that Gould quotes, and therefore must have seen. Even worse (see Nature vol. 474 p. 419 ’11 ) they claim that “Gould misidentified the Native American samples, falsely inflating the average he calculated for that population”. Gould had claimed that Morton’s averages were incorrect.
Certainly we all see what we want to see. It happens all the time in medicine. Patients want to get better. Docs want them to get better. It’s a plucky patient who will have the guts to say “No, I’m not better” when a doc asks them “You’re feeling better aren’t you”. Of course, this is the wrong way to ask. There is an art to taking a history and asking questions in such a way as to not get the answers you want (just the opposite of the cross examination skills of the lawyer).
Why would Gould do this? Well, he hated racism, and wanted to discredit what he saw as a scientific basis for it. Coming of age after the horrors of World War II, he had particular reason to do so. After the war all sorts of distinguished biologists took an ad in the Times saying that there was no scientific basis for the concept of race. Now with single nucleotide polymorphisms and linkage disequilibrium we’re not so sure. All sorts of papers presently appear in reputable journals describing just how much European admixture is present in the genomes of various ethnic groups.
Moreover Gould was a man of the left. Morton was far from his only intellectual battle (which he, in effect, had won until now). His and Lewontin’s treatment of E. O. Wilson and sociobiology was particularly appalling. They regarded it as recrudescent social Darwinism. The idea that humanity was not infinitely malleable and that they couldn’t be reshaped in thought and action by their environment, struck at their hopes that changing the system could end all social evil. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Soviet_man.
I did try reading Gould’s “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory” and got through about 80 of its 1400+ pages or so before giving up. It was rather Rabelaisian, frankly incomprehensible and in serious need of an editor. Only after I saw him lecture in person at an affair my brother had set up at a fancy Washington Club (Cosmos) did I see why. I’m not sure what he was talking about, but he appeared agitated and disorganized. A neurologist friend and I sat together and spent the lecture trying to decide if he was manic and off his meds or actually psychotic. Gradually the hall emptied as he continued to emote.
How much of his work will remain standing after the re-examinations likely to ensue after this, is anyone’s guess.