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Mismeasure remeasured
June 10, 2011 9:19 AM   Subscribe

A Mismeasured Mismeaurement of Man. Stephen Jay Gould's classic The Mismeasure of Man argues that 19th century scientist Samuel George Morton inflicted his own racial biases on his data to demonstrate that Caucasians had larger brains than other races. A new paper in the Public Library of Science: Biology debunks Gould's account by remeasuring the same skulls Morton used. Whatever biases Morton may have had, they are not reflected in the data.
posted by Horace Rumpole (55 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
The eminent British biologist John Maynard Smith has observed:
Gould occupies a rather curious position, particularly on his side of the Atlantic. Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by nonbiologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists.
posted by AceRock at 9:30 AM on June 10, 2011 [9 favorites]


Yes, and then Franz Boas developed his own set of measurements which demonstrated that physical differences between identified races were not immutable across generations, and were in fact highly dependent on factors such as environment and life events.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:30 AM on June 10, 2011 [7 favorites]


Gould was always an axe-grinding ideologue, more than willing to bend his science to his Marxism. Look at the utterly peety, personal, and shameful way he and Lewontin smeared and hounded EO Wilson.

He's famous not for any contribution to knowledge, but because of his books written for lay audiences, and for his misinterpretation of the paucity of fossil specimens that he turned into the silly Punctuationist theory.
posted by orthogonality at 9:32 AM on June 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


I can never take seriously anything that implies that skull size is correlated with intelligence - partly because I have never heard that any evidence that this is true, but mostly because I have a freakishly small head.
posted by jb at 9:33 AM on June 10, 2011 [13 favorites]


Wow, this is really, really interesting. I'm enough of a tool that I've actually brought up the skull stuff in conversation, when talking about unconscious bias invading even seemingly simple, objective experiments. Now I feel like an even bigger tool.

In a disguised way, this sort of looks like the Science Wars all over again.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:33 AM on June 10, 2011


Something something "Bell Curve" something something.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:34 AM on June 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


I can never take seriously anything that implies that skull size is correlated with intelligence - partly because I have never heard that any evidence that this is true, but mostly because I have a freakishly small head.

Cows have much bigger skulls than crows, but crows can make and use tools.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:35 AM on June 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Is it weird that I lost all respect for Stephen Jay Gould due to his behaviour in an episode of The Simpsons?
posted by Sys Rq at 9:37 AM on June 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


Cows have much bigger skulls than crows, but crows can make and use tools.

The first time I read this as "COWS can make and use tools."
posted by 2bucksplus at 9:40 AM on June 10, 2011


Is it weird that I lost all respect for Stephen Jay Gould due to his behaviour in an episode of The Simpsons?

I had a similar reaction. I think that was the one of the first Simpsons episodes that I found actively annoying/frustrating, instead of just not quite as funny as I was hoping for.
posted by epersonae at 9:41 AM on June 10, 2011


jb, we Tinyheads are actually smarter than the normals, because our neurons are so much closer together. Cuts down on latency.

We should go hat shopping sometime.
posted by theodolite at 9:41 AM on June 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Obligatory.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 9:41 AM on June 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


*gently takes their little elbows, points mice toward correct thread*
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 9:41 AM on June 10, 2011


Obligatory.

Wouldn't it be funny if the reason the neanderthals died out was not because humans were the smarter ones, but because the neanderthals were a thoughtful, bookish race of peaceful nerds who couldn't compete against our race of brutes?
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:44 AM on June 10, 2011 [17 favorites]


I can never take seriously anything that implies that skull size is correlated with intelligence - partly because I have never heard that any evidence that this is true, but mostly because I have a freakishly small head.

I have a pretty large head (I wear a 7 3/4 hat) and I agree.
posted by drezdn at 9:45 AM on June 10, 2011


That "obligatory" link is fascinating - especially how neaderthals may have developed more slowly and lived longer than modern humans, and also that "The slow life history of the Neanderthals might be a feature shared with Ice Age populations of Homo sapiens. These early modern humans had larger adult brain sizes than people today."
posted by jb at 9:46 AM on June 10, 2011


Well I wear a size 12-3/4 hat, and it's a Fedora.
posted by Eyebeams at 9:53 AM on June 10, 2011


Total derail, but...

Obligatory.
They used computerized reconstruction to recover the morphology of the youngest known Neanderthal individuals: a newborn from Mezmaiskaya Cave (Crimea, Russia)
1. Crimea is not in Russia. 2. Mezmaiskaya Cave is not in Crimea.

I guess there's a reason they don't call it International Geographic.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:54 AM on June 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


Every generation of computers gets bigger as the processors get faster and the available memory gets larger, so why wouldn't it work that way with brains?
posted by straight at 10:10 AM on June 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Gould tried to reconcile the Theory of Evolution with Judeo-Marxist humanism, a sisyphean endeavor. Marx or Darwin—Marx contra Darwin!
posted by No Robots at 10:17 AM on June 10, 2011


Cows have much bigger skulls than crows, but crows can make and use tools.


We're talking about comparing an animal that lives in the wild all its life with another one that is completely at the mercy of its master. Evolution and genus as opposed to physionomy are the more important variables here I think.
posted by Meatafoecure at 10:20 AM on June 10, 2011


To be fair, it's not like any of the non-domesticated critters in genus Bos use tools, either.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:24 AM on June 10, 2011


Wow, this is really, really interesting. I'm enough of a tool that I've actually brought up the skull stuff in conversation, when talking about unconscious bias invading even seemingly simple, objective experiments. Now I feel like an even bigger tool.

Sticherbeast,
You are not alone. I've had a similar reaction.
And it's obvious that we are still thrashing out - in 2011- the very same questions that - logically- prompted Morton's study in the first place. (Morton's dates: 1799-1851)

From the first link (Discover Magazine), there is this (to and fro) comment:

Mike Keesey”In fact, when you study cranial volume you are studying … cranial volume.”

and cranial volume has a statistically significant correlation with intelligence.

Mike Keesey:”Are men more intelligent than women? Were Neanderthals more intelligent than humans?)”

Men v women: No, but there is a statistically significant correlation between intelligence and brain size on an intra-sex level. For that matter, although no Neanderthals are around for i.q. testing purposes, I would be willing to bet my life’s savings that a similar intra-group correlation between brain size and intelligence existed for them as well. After all, it holds true for maze-bright vs maze-dull rats.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:48 AM on June 10, 2011


The first time I read this as "COWS can make and use tools."

Of course they do
posted by TedW at 11:10 AM on June 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


I always thought Gould's great error was that he was determined to isolate certain essential features of human beings from any possibility of explanation in terms of evolution through natural selection-- essential features such as human morality and (I suspected without ever finding explicit confirmation) human language. I saw this as a concession to his religion.
posted by jamjam at 11:40 AM on June 10, 2011


None of this changes the fact that Morton's craniometry was a flawed study from the beginning because (IIRC) he didn't account for the size of the bodies attached to those skulls; there's a reason we have an encephalization quotient. If intelligence was solely a matter of the size of the brain we'd all be slaving away on plankton plantations for our cetacean overlords right now.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:42 AM on June 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


What is a 'race'?
posted by shakespeherian at 11:42 AM on June 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Mostly endogamous extended related group.
posted by topynate at 11:45 AM on June 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


he didn't account for the size of the bodies attached to those skulls

What is a 'race'?

Both good points, but both collateral points. The problem isn't that Morton was actually "right."

The problem is that Gould had asserted, at length, that Morton's unconscious bias caused him to erroneously report that lesser races had smaller skulls. A huge part of the argument central to The Mismeasure of Man is that supposedly objective, scientific measurements of intelligence, especially when these measurements are meant to prove that certain "races" or whatever are more or less intelligent than others, are tainted by unconscious bias. Gould claimed that even something as seemingly simple as measuring skulls with seeds/shot had been screwed up by bias.

It now appears as if Gould screwed up his analysis, and Morton was, within the narrow context of his own volumetric measurements, pretty damn objective.

Now my question is...did Gould screw up his analysis...due to bias?
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:48 AM on June 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


Morton's craniometry was a flawed study from the beginning because (IIRC) he didn't account for the size of the bodies attached to those skulls

But as the PLoS authors say, "It is doubtful that Morton equated cranial capacity and intelligence".
posted by topynate at 11:52 AM on June 10, 2011


But as the PLoS authors say, "It is doubtful that Morton equated cranial capacity and intelligence".

Yeah, it's been a while since I've read MoM, but I seem to recall a long passage about how Morton was a very respectable scientist, and that he had never expressed any particularly racist sentiments. This was part of Gould's point, that even an honest, objective scientist with no conscious ulterior motives could screw up an analysis in such a way that it affirmed societal assumptions.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:55 AM on June 10, 2011


the silly Punctuationist theory

It's silly now?
posted by Trochanter at 12:03 PM on June 10, 2011


Men v women: No, but there is a statistically significant correlation between intelligence and brain size on an intra-sex level.

Explain how it could be true. Wouldn't that mean that men with larger skulls are, on average, smarter than other men with smaller skulls but not, on average, smarter than women with smaller skulls.
posted by straight at 12:09 PM on June 10, 2011


If intelligence was solely a matter of the size of the brain we'd all be slaving away on plankton plantations for our cetacean overlords right now.

You assume that superior intelligence implies a desire to dominate based on the examples set by human history. It's quite possible our own historical preoccupations with controlling resources and subordinating our fellows are actually evidence of a relatively limited intelligence.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:13 PM on June 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's quite possible our own historical preoccupations with controlling resources and subordinating our fellows are actually evidence of a relatively limited intelligence.

"Man has always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much...the wheel, New York, wars and so on...while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man...for precisely the same reason.”

--Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy
posted by Gelatin at 12:21 PM on June 10, 2011 [7 favorites]


Yeah, it's been a while since I've read MoM, but I seem to recall a long passage about how Morton was a very respectable scientist, and that he had never expressed any particularly racist sentiments.

Sticherbeast,
"Up to a point, Lord Copper"!

Though I suppose it depends what you mean by "particularly" racist.

wiki (i.e from the OP's Morton link): Morton claimed the bible supported polygenism, and within working in a biblical framework his theory held that each race had been created separately and each was given specific, irrevocable characteristics.[
posted by Jody Tresidder at 12:30 PM on June 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


The argument goes that smaller brain equals less intelligence, yes? So, white folks are still only 30% as intelligent as elephants then.
posted by Dodecadermaldenticles at 12:54 PM on June 10, 2011


Wouldn't it be funny if the reason the neanderthals died out was not because humans were the smarter ones, but because the neanderthals were a thoughtful, bookish race of peaceful nerds who couldn't compete against our race of brutes?

I believe this was actually found to be conclusively true, the evidence was well documented in the analysis 'The Restaurant at the End of the Universe', by Prof. Adams.
posted by FatherDagon at 1:13 PM on June 10, 2011


> You assume that superior intelligence implies a desire to dominate based on the examples set by human history. It's quite
> possible our own historical preoccupations with controlling resources and subordinating our fellows are actually evidence of
> a relatively limited intelligence.

If it's brain mass to body mass ratio that counts the winner of the mammal division is the shrew. Those shrews are fierce.
posted by jfuller at 1:17 PM on June 10, 2011


Comparing crows and cows, intelligence vs cranial size:
We're talking about comparing an animal that lives in the wild all its life with another one that is completely at the mercy of its master. Evolution and genus as opposed to physionomy are the more important variables here I think.

Meatafoecure: toy poodles and great danes, then.

Your move.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:30 PM on June 10, 2011


Just to get full circle weirdness on the cow tools, you can read about Gary Larson's take on Steven Jay Gould near the bottom of the page here.
posted by norm at 1:45 PM on June 10, 2011


We measured the cranial capacity of the skulls by using molded acrylic balls

WTF PEOPLE.

Has no one heard of liquids? Have we not invented 3D modeling programs in the last 200 years? Even if the round-ball technique has no methodological issues, wouldn't we want to avoid it entirely?
posted by muddgirl at 3:48 PM on June 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Muphry's Law
posted by erniepan at 7:04 PM on June 10, 2011


Very interesting, thanks for posting this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:17 PM on June 10, 2011


Cows have much bigger skulls than crows, but crows can make and use tools.

That's all very well, but female crows can't get men to fondle their boobs for them.
posted by carping demon at 10:46 PM on June 10, 2011


Teats are not boobs, you Neanderthal!
posted by Horselover Phattie at 11:32 PM on June 10, 2011


Explain how it could be true. Wouldn't that mean that men with larger skulls are, on average, smarter than other men with smaller skulls but not, on average, smarter than women with smaller skulls.

Yeah, that's what it would mean. It requires a whole bunch of handwaving to claim that intelligence correlates with brain size intra-sexually but not inter-sexually. It is not a good argument and I don't believe it is sustainable without introducing a whole other set of problematic assumptions and conclusions.

The argument that gross brain size does not strongly correlate with intelligence is a much better argument. Whether it is true or not I can't say for an absolute certainty. Particularly because I think I (and many others) are susceptible to that psychological glitch where we are far more likely to put weight in arguments we want to believe than those we don't. Since I don't want there to be a correlation I might be putting stock into fallacious or flat out wrong arguments like the subject of this post. So do I (or anyone else in this thread) believe the small differences in brain size between individuals don't matter for intelligence because the evidence has convinced us or do we simply grab any plausible arguments against it because that's what we want to be true?

My brain hurts.
posted by Justinian at 12:01 AM on June 11, 2011


It's a good question Justinian. I think my default position, perhaps even what I 'want to be true' is that among mammals intelligence is associated with brain/body mass ratio. And I have a supplementary belief that because marginal weight is such a crucial factor for birds, they have a superior neural system, which gets more info processing power from fewer grams of brain than mammals do. Hence crows and parrots are very smart with pretty small brains.

However, this view, which is fairly simple and superficial plausible, has been challenged for me, as I am friends with a person who has an unusually small head (from some congenital issue) and is - I am not being generous to him, just accurate - startlingly intelligent.

So I now feel the issue is too complex to make any predictable association. I think that is awkward for our understanding of human evolution, which is all about the bigger average brain size. I still believe that is somehow a record of increasing intelligence, but beyond that I now feel the waters are very murky.
posted by communicator at 12:13 AM on June 11, 2011


Serious question regarding sample size, and volumetric analyses of skulls: How many individuals would you need from each subtype to overcome statistical error? I guess this question is two parts: What would you consider an acceptable p value for such a study, and what size population would you need to obtain it? Also, how is this number affected by the size of the particles used to assess volume?

Less serious comment, regarding cows and crows: The difference in the ability to use tools clearly isn't related to brain size. But the ability to use tools is strongly correlated with crows' innate characteristic of having an "r" in their name, which cows do not. QED.

Least serious comment:
we are far more likely to put weight in arguments we want to believe than those we don't.
Sort of like we put more weight in the skulls we like! Because the study was about weighing materials to determine the volume of skulls! And research bias! Okay, I will stop now. What do you mean, have I been drinking? Yes. Yes I have. But not from the skulls.

posted by evidenceofabsence at 12:30 AM on June 11, 2011


I am not a craniologist or whatever so I don't know anything but

Isn't the matter within the head 90% water and 10% actual 'stuff', neurons and glia and that?
So when measuring cranial size is it not as likely that there are variations in the proportion of water to brain mass, rather than being the actual brain mass that varies. Are we sure that cranial size correlates with brain matter, and not sometimes just more water, or more robust cranium?.

Which leads to a new thought

Maybe, if we see a correlation between intelligence and cranial size, the correlation could be between well protected brains that don't receive much damage and less protected ones that do! An ordinary brain that is less protected might lose 10 synapses or whatever everytime it receives a little jolt (how fragile are these things?) whereas one with a bit more water and bone structure buffer might only lose 5 with the same jolt. Not a lot in either case, you got billions of them, but it might show up weakly in statistics.

Note I repeat I don't know anything.

One of the things I don't know is whether we are actually able technically to measure brain matter in living creatures today. I suspect all this talk about cranial size is only because the good doctors can't get at the actual data they want which is the actual brain in a living person.
posted by Catfry at 3:56 AM on June 11, 2011


I'm actually in the midst of reading MoM, and it seems to me that one of the points lost in this thread is the fact that Morton's case is just one of seemingly many examples that Gould used to demonstrate a not-so-terribly-difficult-to-defend idea that human beings have a tough time identifying and adjusting for inherent biases; and the idea that our social context affects our science. I can wholly accept that his interpretation of Morton's case might be flawed, but does that on its own debunk his underlying argument?
posted by unintelligentlydesigned at 7:01 AM on June 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


John Hawks, a Biological Anthropologist has an excellent overview of the new paper here, in which he scorches Gould.

Re: the liquid vs. acrylic balls or seeds. Crania are full of holes and liquids will just drain out, and it might not be the best practice to try to block all the holes with sealant, and anyway it might not be recommended to get long-dried bone specimens wet. Since all crania can be measured in the same way using lead shot or whatever then it seems to me to be a reliable measurement even if it is not completely accurate, if you know what I mean.

This can be true of casts as well, but casts may also be made of plaster and not be waterproof. I think the study used real crania in any case, but if you wanted to measure, say, brain volume of a series of fossil hominids you would have to figure out a standardized methodology and how to work around the cast issue, if you didn't want or indeed couldn't use the original fossils themselves, which are usually fragmentary.

In any case it is intriguing that Gould may have fallen victim to the very unconscious biases he falsely accuses Morton of.
posted by Rumple at 10:59 AM on June 12, 2011


Crania are full of holes and liquids will just drain out

Presumably any solid sufficiently mimicking a liquid would also drain out of holes, which is why the methodology states that they stuff the holes first.

Anyway, the fact that it's hard to do it the right way (ie, in a way that doesn't just replicate the underlying question as to methodology) doesn't mean it shouldn't be done the right way.
posted by muddgirl at 7:06 PM on June 12, 2011


Since all crania can be measured in the same way using lead shot or whatever then it seems to me to be a reliable measurement even if it is not completely accurate, if you know what I mean.

I don't think it's been shown that lead shot can reliably measure the difference between different-shaped crania. If they had collected the same measurements using a different method and shown that the data matched, then I would agree. But that's not what happened.
posted by muddgirl at 7:09 PM on June 12, 2011




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