September 10th was the late paleontologist and writer Stephen Jay Gould’s birthday. There have been several dedications to Gould on skeptic websites celebrating his promotion of science and evolution in particular. Paleontologist Donald Prothero wrote a tribute to him on Skepticblog.org . Prothero also dedicated his book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters to Gould and Niles Eldredge. I have also heard neuroscientist and prominent skeptic Steven Novella, express his fondness for Gould. I am an admirer of Prothero’s work. Evolution is one of my all time favorites and I still have my historical geology textbook from college which he wrote. I also consider Novella as one of the best examples of a skeptic and rationalist. But I must confess my confusion on the amount of respect that Gould receives from scientists and skeptics alike.
My impression of Gould has always been that he used science as a medium for his political and ideological agendas. I remember first reading Gould’s books in high school. I was a creationist at the time and i had begun reading my “opponents'” works. I started with Richard Dawkins but was soon reading Gould as well. I remember the biting logic that countered my religious belief from Dawkins and how he challenged my deeply held views with such logic and rigor. On the other hand I remember Gould’s writing being mostly vacuous and convoluted. I often found myself confused as to the point he was trying to make. He seemed to address his works to not only someone who was not a scientist, but someone who was unscientific as well. I shelved Gould for many years and never found a desire to return to his works.
Being a science enthusiast and eventually becoming involved in studying skepticism, I encounter Gould quite frequently. Recently, I have begun re-examining Gould’s works and have come to the conclusion that my instincts when I was young were correct after all.
Gould’s greatest claim to fame is the principle of punctuated equilibrium which he and Niles Eldredge introduced in the 70’s. I had had discussions with others about punctuated equilibrium and it was generally presented to me as a revolutionary idea. However, my first academic experience with it was in my Invertebrate Paleontology course in college. The text (which I still have) mentions it briefly but admits that it was a principle that Darwin had already discussed. The authors quote the following from Origin of the Species,
although each species must have passed through numerous transitional stages, it is probable that the periods, during which each underwent modification, though many and long as measured by years, have been short in comparison with the periods during which each remained in an unchanged condition. 
In The Blind Watchmaker, biologist Richard Dawkins points out that Gould and Eldredge’s “revolution” against gradualism is nothing more than the refutation of a non-existent strawman . Philosopher Daniel Dennett observes that after Gould and Eldredge proclaim a revolution, they are quick to backpedal and argue that their principle was nothing more than a clarification of already understood principles .
Others are less kind to Gould however. The eminent evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith had the following to say regarding Gould,
Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by non-biologists 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. All this would not matter, were it not that he is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory .
Ernst Mayr notes that Gould and his associates,
quite conspicuously misrepresent the views of [biology’s] leading spokesmen .
In response to Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man, psychologist Hans Eysenk wrote that,
S. J. Gould’s Mismeasure of Man is a paleontologist’s distorted view of what psychologists think, untutored in even the most elementary facts of the science. Gould is one of a number of politically motivated scientists who have consistently misled the public about what psychologists are doing in the field of intelligence, what they have discovered and what conclusions they have come to. Gould simply refuses to mention unquestionable facts that do not fit into his politically correct version; he shamelessly attacks the reputations of eminent scientists of whom he disapproves, on completely nonfactual grounds, and he misrepresents the views of scientists .
And that the book contained, “more factual errors per page than any other book I have ever read .”
Microbiologist Bernard D. Davis also sees Gould tearing down non-existent straw men in The Mismeasure of Man. Davis wrote that “Gould’s own degree of bias is unusual in a work by a scientist .” Davis attributes this bias to Gould’s fear of genetic determinism and notes that Gould is ignorant that behavioral genetics has moved beyond determinism and into interactionism,
Since Gould would prefer to combat the straw man of naive, “pure” determinism, he fails to note that the science of genetics has altogether replaced this concept with interactionism .
Morton and Bias
Among his various arguments in The Mismeasure of Man, Gould is highly critical of skull measurements by 19th century paleontologist Samuel Morton. Gould condescendingly deride’s Morton and his work when he writes,
Morton, measuring by seed, picks up a threateningly large black skull, fills it lightly and gives it a few desultory shakes. Next, he takes a distressingly small Caucasian skull, shakes hard, and pushes mightily at the foramen magnum with his thumb. It is easily done, without conscious motivation; expectation is a powerful guide to action .
In the paper he published in Science, Gould says,
I have reanalyzed Morton’s data and I find that they are a patchwork of assumption and finagling, controlled, probably unconsciously, by his conventional a priori ranking (his folks on top, slaves on the bottom) .
However, two studies have been conducted reanalyzing Morton’s measurements since Gould’s. In both studies the researches found no such finagling by Morton. In the first study the author, John S. Michael, concludes,
Contrary to Gould’s interpretation, I conclude that Morton’s research was done with integrity .
Michael notes that Morton did make some mistakes in calculations but,
There is no indication that Morton’s miscalculations or omissions had any substantial effect on his overall results.
But not only were Gould’s claims of racist bias unfounded, but Gould himself made a number of mistakes in his study. Among these Michael notes that he used data that was not in Morton’s original work and then claims that it is “corrected” data. Gould also removes several skulls from the original groups that Morton had assigned them. He omits the Hottentots from the African peoples because they were all female but elsewhere he includes an all male subsample of “English” crania in his Modern Caucasian people. He also makes no mention of Morton’s errors that did not support Morton’s assumed racial bias. This, in my opinion, makes Gould’s research highly suspect.
The second study, published in the Public Library of Science, arrives at very similar conclusions as those of Michael. The authors note that,
Our analysis of Gould’s claims reveals that most of Gould’s criticisms are poorly supported or falsified. It is doubtful that Morton equated cranial capacity and intelligence, calling into question his motivation for manipulating capacity averages. Morton did not consider the influence of sex or stature on cranial capacity, but it would have been impossible for him to use those parameters to bias the averages he reported .
our results falsify Gould’s hypothesis that Morton manipulated his data to conform with his a priori views. The data on cranial capacity gathered by Morton are generally reliable, and he reported them fully. Overall, we find that Morton’s initial reputation as the objectivist of his era was well-deserved.
And particularly indicting,
Gould’s own analysis of Morton is likely the stronger example of a bias influencing results
Supporters of Gould will often point to his success as a science popularizer, but here too I think he was unsuccessful. His promotion of science was not the promotion of valid science but confused and biased science that only served to reinforce Gould’s presupposed ideology.
2. Darwin, Charles On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection Ch. XI, sec. 7
3. Dawkins, Richard The Blind Watchmaker Ch. 9
4. Dennett, Daniel Darwin’s Dangerous Idea Ch. 10, sec. 3
6. Mayr, Ernst (1988) Toward a new philosophy of biology: observations of an evolutionist p. 535
7. Eysenk, Hans (1998) Intelligence — A New Look p. 3
8. ibid p. 10
9. Davis, Bernard D. (Fall 1983) Neo-Lysenkoism, IQ, and the press. National Affairs Issue #73
11. Gould, S.J. (1996) The Mismeasure of Man p. 97
12. Gould S. J (1978) Morton’s ranking of races by cranial capacity: unconscious manipulation of data may be a scientific norm. Science 200: 503–509.
13. Michael, John S. (1988) A New Look at Morton’s Craniological Research. Current Anthropology Vol. 29, No. 2
14. The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias