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Historical and Philosophical Perspectives

Historical and Philosophical Perspectives The Historical and Philosophical Perspectives series provides professional historians and philosophers of science with a forum to reflect on topical issues in contemporary biology.

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The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias

  • Jason E. Lewis mail,

    lewisjas@stanford.edu

    Affiliation: Department of Anthropology, Stanford University, Stanford, California, United States of America

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  • David DeGusta,

    Affiliation: Paleoanthropology Institute, Oakland, California, United States of America

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  • Marc R. Meyer,

    Affiliation: Department of Anthropology, Chaffey College, Rancho Cucamonga, California, United States of America

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  • Janet M. Monge,

    Affiliation: Department of Anthropology and Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America

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  • Alan E. Mann,

    Affiliation: Department of Anthropology, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, United States of America

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  • Ralph L. Holloway

    Affiliation: Department of Anthropology, Columbia University, New York, New York, United States of America

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  • Published: June 07, 2011
  • DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001071

Reader Comments (6)

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I measured the Morton skulls in th 80s

Posted by TheUndergrad on 19 Jun 2011 at 21:08 GMT

I am John S. Michael who as an undergraduate measured the Morton skulls. I am tickled to see that my work appears to be vindicated. I subsequently went onto a career in environmental planning, so I have little to say that is substantive regarding whether or not I used the proper statistics.

But what I can say is that as a 20-year-who was interested in attending graduate school, I was advised not to be too critical of Gould lest I jeopardize my future career. He was a big shot, and I was just a kid. Thus I held back on what I felt was his unfair and overly simplistic treatment of Morton, and more importantly Gould’s assertion that all races were equal, when there was ample evidence that the traditional concept of race has no biological basis.

I am pleased that this latter point was presented prominently in the above article. For me this point is, and always has been, the most important fact, which transcends academic arguments and could have a real impact on public policy and the dream of a more equitable world.

I will also note that soon after my initial research, I mailed Gould my preliminary results and some months later spoke with him briefly when he was visiting in St. Paul. He refuted my arguments, and we left agreeing to disagree.

I would also like to comment on Kitcher and others who have described my work as being of “questionable value.” It is true that my work was done by an undergrad who did not have the resources of the six full time professors who wrote this paper, and who ultimately came up with the same conclusions as an undergrad with one semester’s worth of time to undertake his research. And to these six professors, I would like to say, thank you.

If Kitcher and others had chosen to, they could have read my paper and declared that I had a valid point, and given me some credit for having taken the time to measure the skulls. (I forget whether measuring the skulls was my idea or Janet Monge’s, but clearly the both of us were willing to give it a shot, which no one else was.) I was put in a position where I had to critique the biggest name in evolutionary biology and that was not a popular stance. So instead of being given credit as a creative rough-around-the-edges young man who was willing to do the leg work, I was dismissed based on technicalities, which I openly admit were quite valid.

Now that twenty years have passed, during which time I had assumed my work had been entirely forgotten, I have gained some perspective. Indeed my technique was imperfect, as was Gould’s and Morton’s. We are all complex human beings just like everyone else.

The anthropological community had an opportunity to say that my work was somewhat flawed but worthy of considering, but instead it chose to say it was somewhat flawed, and so should be discounted. It could have gone either way. And now we are left to ask why things went the way they did. As an outsider, I am wholly unqualified to answer that question.

Stephen Gould should be celebrated as an innovative scientist whose significant work on punctuated evolution is way beyond me. However, my sense is that he wanted to be a philosopher and to that end tried to show that science could serve a moral function by proving all men are equal. But science is a tool, so like a primitive stone hammer, which can be used for good or ill. We should not view science as moral or immoral, but rather as amoral. That was Gould’s mistake.

I wanted to write these words 20 years ago, and thanks to your web site, I now can. Again, thanks to Janet and the gang for publishing this.

John S. Michael, West Chester, PA

No competing interests declared.

RE: I measured the Morton skulls in th 80s

klortho replied to TheUndergrad on 21 Jun 2011 at 12:59 GMT

Is your paper online? Do you have a link?

No competing interests declared.

RE: RE: I measured the Morton skulls in th 80s

klortho replied to klortho on 22 Jun 2011 at 04:02 GMT

Never mind, I found the citation: Michael J. S (1988) A new look at Morton's craniological research. Curr Anthropol 29: 349–354. On JStor at http://www.jstor.org/stab....

"Morton's tables contain miscalculations and omissions of data, but his 1849 data are reasonably accurate and there is no clear evidence that he doctored these tables for any reason. ... a connection between Morton's errors and this conventional racism is simply not supported by the evidence at hand."

Nice work!

No competing interests declared.

RE: I measured the Morton skulls in th 80s

diaemus replied to TheUndergrad on 11 Jul 2011 at 11:07 GMT

Congratulations for the nice work. Science would be better served, if more undergrads were as bold as you were. Unfortunately, science is getting more and more confirmative, because of the "publish or perish culture". Confronting the silverbacks is painful in science and in any other human culture. "Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority" (Francis Bacon).

No competing interests declared.