Defending Stephen Jay Gould


Jason Collins


June 26, 2011

I’ve been waiting for someone to defend Stephen Jay Gould from the accusations contained in a recent paper by Lewis and Colleagues. In a nutshell, the authors found that in Gould’s analysis of skull measurements by Samuel Morton, “most of Gould’s criticisms are poorly supported or falsified.”

I haven’t yet found that specific defence, but John Horgan in Scientific American has stepped in to defend Gould’s broader crusade against “biological determinism”. Horgan writes:

Maybe Gould was wrong that Morton misrepresented his data, but he was absolutely right that biological determinism was and continues to be a dangerous pseudoscientific ideology. Biological determinism is thriving today: I see it in the assertion of researchers such as the anthropologist Richard Wrangham of Harvard University that the roots of human warfare reach back all the way to our common ancestry with chimpanzees. In the claim of scientists such as Rose McDermott of Brown University that certain people are especially susceptible to violent aggression because they carry a “warrior gene.” In the enthusiasm of some science journalists for the warrior gene and other flimsy linkages of genes to human traits. In the insistence of the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and neuroscientist Sam Harris that free will is an illusion because our “choices” are actually all predetermined by neural processes taking place below the level of our awareness. In the contention of James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix, that the problems of sub-Saharan Africa reflect blacks’ innate inferiority. In the excoriation of many modern researchers of courageous anti-determinists such as Gould and Margaret Mead.

Horgan’s examples of “biological determinism are interesting. Coyne is one of the more vocal critics of the”just so” stories coming out of evolutionary psychology, and Coyne’s arguments against the existence of free will are based on the effects of both biology and environment. While the “warrior gene” findings may not stand the test of time, the evidence for the heritability of violent tendencies is strong (I recently posted on the “missing heritability” problem). What makes findings of the type that Horgan describes generally scientifically unfounded? Neither Horgan’s post, nor my perusal of his blog back catalogue, makes this clear.

Horgan’s attack on “biological determinism” is an attack on a straw man - that biology determines all. Every person I have met who argues the case for biological influence acknowledges the role of environment. Genes express in an environment. The question is the degree of that role - and in that area, there is still plenty of room to debate (as Coyne’s debates with the evolutionary psychology proponents show). Conversely, Gould attempted to erase the role of evolution in shaping human behaviour. Horgan wants to contain it. But as Coyne states in his response to Horgan:

[T]o dismiss any claims about the genetic basis of modern human behavior as “biological determinism, therefore pseudoscientific ideology” is simply silly: it’s the same kind of knee-jerk rejection of all research on the evolution of human behavior that Gould sometimes engaged in.  Horgan wants to dismiss these studies simply because he doesn’t like what he sees as their implications:  “the way things are is the way they must be” and that “we have less choice in how we live our lives than we think we do.”  Well, tough.  Biological determinism, of both the anti-free-will and genes-determining-human-behavior variety, may be more pervasive than many people think, and is certainly more pervasive than Horgan thinks.