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The Mismeasure of Man
The Mismeasure of Man
by Stephen Jay Gould
Edition: Paperback
122 used & new from $0.01

13 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Of intelligence, genetics, and environments (again), April 8, 1998
This review is from: The Mismeasure of Man (Paperback)
Steven J. Gould is most famous among the general public for his collections of essays from his long Natural History series, "This View of Life". But the best of Gould's writing is perhaps to be found in his single-theme books. And The Mismeasure of Man is arguably the finest among them. The volume is about the long history of the search for scientific justification of racism, and the many faux pas that science has committed when it comes to the study of human intelligence. The 1996 edition of the classic 1981 book also contains some interesting addenda: "Critique of the Bell Curve", and "Three Centuries' Perspective on Race and Racism" (as well as a new introduction), just in case you were not convinced by the arguments lined out in the main text. The Mismeasure can conceptually be divided in two parts: the first deals with the misapplication of measurements of the human body (cranial capacity and facial features), the second one is concerned with the mind (IQ and generalized intelligence). In both cases, Gould follows the same approach that has been so successful in some of his technical opuses, such as Ontogeny and Phylogeny: he tracks the history of a discipline or scientific question, highlights the contributions and discusses the motives of the major players, while simultaneously plunging into the technical aspects of the science behind the problem. So, for example, in order to find out why measuring the cranial capacity of the human head does not tell you much about intelligence, we are introduced to biologists of the caliper of Louis Agassiz (Gould currently holds his chair at Harvard), Samuel George Morton, Francis Galton (Darwin's cousin), and - of course - Paul Broca, the father of craniometry. It is indeed fascinating to find out that theories of the origin of human races actually preceded Charles Darwin and evolutionary thinking, with the "polygenic" school apparently providing solid basis for racism: if the term "human" comprises different species, it is only natural that we rank them according to their biological worth (needless to say, the "objective" ranking invariably ended up putting the author's race - and gender - in pole position, and somewhat ahead of everybody else). The supporters of the opposing theory of "monogenism" were by no means kinder to other races, though. Their argument was that there was only one Adam, and that every human race descended from him, and degenerated to a greater or lesser extent (again, you guess who degenerated more and who the least). Regardless of the premise, all we needed to know according to craniometrists was the size of the brain (as estimated by the internal volume of the cranium) and we will know how intelligent (and thereby "worthy") any individual or race really is. Now, one could object that there is indeed a good correlation between cranial capacity and what we intuitively think of as intelligence among animals. After all, biology textbooks report diagrams showing that carnivores have larger brains than herbivores, regardless of body size. And the accompanying explanation makes sense: carnivores need larger brains because they have to process more information and more quickly, they have to face a larger variety of situations, and be able to make a larger number of vital decisions. In other words, they need to be smarter. Gould acknowledges this, but quickly - and correctly - points out that variation across species does not have to have the same cause and meaning as variation within species. He illustrates this with an array of definitely intelligent people whose brain sizes covered almost the whole gamut displayed by non-pathological individuals. However, this is indeed one of the troublesome aspects of this book and, I dare say, of Gould's writing in general. He dismisses contrary evidence or arguments so fast that one gets the impression of seeing a magician performing a trick. One cannot avoid the feeling of having being duped by the quickness of the magician's movement, instead of having observed a genuine phenomenon. In this particular instance, I can vouch for Gould as a biologist, but I'm not so sure that the general public is willing to trust him on his word. After having dismissed both craniometry and the aberrant work of Cesare Lombroso on the anthropological stigmata of criminals, Gould moves on to his main target: IQ and intelligence testing. IQ testing was originally introduced by the French psychologist Alfred Binet with the intention of spotting children who were falling behind in the curriculum, so that teachers could pay particular attention to them. Alas, such a noble intent soon fell victim to the human tendency of ranking everything, and led to an astounding series of "scientific" enterprises characterized by deep racist overtones. H.H. Goddard saw the feeble-minded (the technical term being "moron") as a menace to society; we should care for him, but we should not allow him to reproduce. One of the ghastly consequences of the eugenic movement in the US was the enactment of immigration restriction laws based on perceived racial inferiority, and the actual forced sterilization of individuals deemed genetically inferior: for a few years the United States teetered on the brink of the same precipice over which Nazi Germany readily dove around the same time. One of the chief obstacles to the use of IQ scores is that there are several ways to devise an IQ test, and the results of different tests are not always congruent when performed on the same subjects. But if we have to use a battery of tests, and then somehow weigh their discrepancies, we lose one major attraction of IQ testing: the ability of ranking human beings on a simple, uni-linear scale of worth. Charles Spearman and Cyril Burt set out to accomplish the feat of reducing multiple-tests complexity once again to a single magical number. Burt was a disciple of Spearman (himself one of the founding fathers of modern statistics) and later claimed to have made contributions to the theory of factor analysis which where in fact Spearman's. Gould plunges into one of the best explanations I have ever come across of the multivariate statistical technique of factor analysis, fundamental to both Spearman's and Burt's work. This allows the reader to gain some understanding of a very important tool in modern biostatistics (one that Gould himself uses for his own technical research), while at the same time being able to follow Gould in highlighting the fundamental problems which Spearman and Burt incurred. Simply put, factor analysis is a statistical technique based on the rotation of orthogonal axes in multivariate (i.e., multidimensional) space. This reduces a complex data set (say, made of the results of ten different IQ tests) to a manageable number of linear combinations of the original variables. This smaller set of dimensions identifies the principal "factors" which explain the correlation structure in the original data. Spearman's suggestion was that all IQ tests have one principal factor in common. That is, the scores on each test are correlated to each other, because they all reflect one underlying quantity, which Spearman named "g", or general intelligence. Spearman therefore provided one of the two pillars of the eugenic movement: there seemed indeed to be one way to rank individuals by their intelligence with the use of one number: this was the score on the g-factor, instead of the score on any of the available IQ tests. Burt's major achievement was a supposed confirmation of the second fundamental piece of the puzzle eugenic puzzle: his studies of genetically identical twins suggested a high heritability (incorrectly read as a high level of genetic determination) of intelligence. So, not only do individuals differ in intelligence, but this is easy to measure and genetically determined. Environment, and with it education and social welfare, cannot alter the innate difference among individuals, genders, and races. QED Well, not really.


Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation
Leaps of Faith: Science, Miracles, and the Search for Supernatural Consolation
by Nicholas Humphrey
Edition: Hardcover
51 used & new from $0.01

55 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why you shouldn't believe everything people say, December 10, 1997
Humphrey's book has two major virtues that every book should have: it is very entertaining (in an intelligent way), and it actually manages to make a couple of novel points, which is more than can be said for a lot of contemporary publishing... The topic of "Leaps of faith" is what seems to be the eternal (but is in fact only about a couple of centuries old) battle between science and myth. Where "myth" includes the paranormal and in general, explanations of the world around us that are non-naturalistic, or transcendental. Telepathy, psychokinesis, ghosts, and the power of prayer are all under fire in this fascinating compendium of skepticism and logic. But, Humphrey criticizes the usual ways in which scientists have defended their skeptical position, such as directly challenging people like Uri Geller (the infamous "spoon-and-fork-bender"). The author explains that some courageous approaches to the rebuttal of the paranormal may be dangerous and ineffective. For example, the notorious magician James Randi has for years challenged people to bring forth claims of paranormal phenomena. Randi offers a prize if he cannot repeat by perfectly normal means the supposedly supernatural feat. However, Humphrey points out that there are two flaws in this strategy. First, just because James Randi (or whomever) can imitate a phenomenon by normal means, that does not automatically prove that the phenomenon itself is not genuinely paranormal. Second, what if some day the good Randi is actually unable to duplicate a supposedly paranormal phenomenon? Does para-Randi imply para-normal? Of course not, but since it is possible - indeed likely - that Randi's abilities are limited, his strategy might dramatically and embarassingly backfire one of these days... What's the alternative? What the author refers to as the "argument from unwarranted design". It works quite simply and convincingly. Humphrey asks what are the circumstances surrounding the manifestation of paranormal phenomena, regardless of what specific phenomenon (telepathy, psychokinesis, miracles, or what have you) has allegedly occurred. There is no a priori reason why these circumstances should not be as varied as the human beings, times, and countries in which they purportedly happen. But upon even a superficial scrutiny, we do not find anything like a random background. Somehow, paranormal phenomena always manage to occur under circumstances that can be quite reasonably defined as "suspicious". Either there is only one witness, or they can never be repeated in front of an investigator, or their physical evidence somehow disappears without leaving a trace. Indeed, even parapsycologists recognize this, and have elevated it to a "principle", which states that for whatever reason, the presence of an investigator, or of circumstances leading to repeatability (the cornerstone of scientific investigation), somehow "depress" the likelihood of the paranormal phenomenon actually happening. Now, would you by a car if the salesman insists that the car will start only when he is present? But Humphrey goes even beyond the unwarranted design argument, twisting around an old favorite of mystic-oriented people. The usual tenet of many religious people and believers in the paranormal is that "the world wouldn't make sense without it" (where "it" is some sort of supernatural or transcendental power). Actually, the author of "Leaps of faith" argues, it is quite the opposite. If indeed the soul existed, if there really were a way to maintain your personal self forever, if you could bypass the laws of physics and read people minds or move objects without touching them, the whole fabric of the universe would simply be torn apart! Why live a meaningful life on Earth, if you know that it is only an irrelevant and astonishingly brief moment in your "true" existence? Could you really stand the idea that every single thought you think, no matter how remote in your subconscious, can be public knowledge by a simple act of will on someone else's part? And what would be the meaning of the laws regulating the universe, if they could be broken at any given occasion? Would you really like to take the chance every time you walk out of the front door that the law of gravity might have been temporarily suspended ? Meditate, people, meditate...
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Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA
Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA
by Richard C. Lewontin
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.74
145 used & new from $0.01

23 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Biology can be used to further political agendas, December 10, 1997
Dick did it again. Richard "Dick" Lewontin, one of the most esteemed (or hated, depending on the viewpoint) geneticists of our era has written yet another controversial, highly readable, and thoroughly enjoyable, book. A booklet, to be sure, fruit of a series of radio broadcasts for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It is an agile group of six chapters, spanning a mere 128 pages including a scanty bibliography. But you're in for an intense if short intellectual ride that you won't easily forget. Lewontin starts with a very wide brush, asking nothing less than the fundamental question: what is science? He begins with a theme dear to him and brought to the forefront of modern philosophy by the classical book of Thomas Kuhn about scientific revolutions: science is always a product of the society that generates it, and therefore that society needs to be understood and considered in order to comprehend both science's progress and mistakes. According to Lewontin, science has two functions: 1. It allows us to manipulate the world; 2. It provides an explanation for the world. Obviously, the two are related to some extent (you can hardly manipulate - at least safely and successfully - something which you don't understand, or not?). Nevertheless they are in principle, and often enough in practice, distinct. But not necessarily in the sense you might think. Lewontin makes the interesting and provocative argument that some major progress in applied science is made without the corresponding understanding of the underlying principles, in flagrant opposition to what most scientists (and your high school teacher) would tell you. For example, we obtained better and better varieties of crop plants literally centuries ahead of any scientific understanding of the principles of heredity and the birth of modern genetics. Nevertheless, modern applied genetics gets its legitimation from the impressive body of knowledge we have accumulated about the way cells, chromosomes, and DNA works. Lewontin's almost subversive conclusions stemming from this premise is that modern science has taken over the role that used to be the realm of institutionalized religion throughout antiquity and the middle ages. Scientists, like modern priests, endorse the status quo of modern society, being able to reassure the public that things are going well on the basis of the fact that science does have a tremendous explanatory power, very much like religion use to (in other words, we know what we're talking about...). And here is where the problem lies, according to Lewontin: see, you (science) can't be at the same time claiming to represent a universal truth that transcends human society and be a result of that very society. To put it into another fashion, you can't have the cake and eat it too! Now, before you start seeing every scientist as a member of a secret society of conspirators devoted to the ultimate control of the planet and unleash your James Bonds on every campus, beware. Lewontin clearly states that most, if not every, scientist, are not actually conscious of the role they have and the power they excercise, in the same way in which priests and cardinals defended the status quo during the Inquisition because they really believed they were the repository for the only universal truth, not because they conspired in the labyrinths of the Vatican... (this notwithstanding what some Americans might think of the Pope). What are the foundations of such a tremendously effective tool such as modern science? There are two that clearly stand out according to the author: reductionism and the clear distinction between cause and effect. Reductionism, which basically traces back to the writings of the 17th century French philosopher Rene` Descartes, is the assumption that complex systems can be understood entirely in terms of their minutest components. As Lewontin puts it, societies are the result of individuals, not viceversa. Think about it, it requires a bit of intellectual effort to see the point that in fact the relationship between societies and individuals is a dialectical one, a perennial chicken and egg process. But when you do the gestaltic switch, it really grows on you... The clear relationship between cause and effect is epitomized by the classical assumption in evolutionary biology that organisms "respond" to the environment, as if they were not part and creator of their own environment. The environment is supposed to be the cause of evolution, and the change that occurs in populations and species is the effect of these pressures. But, as we know now, the environment itself can be greatly affected by organisms. And I'm not thinking of relatively recent phenomena such as human-induced global warming. If you're breathing oxygen today, this is entirely because some microscopic relative of modern algae "invented" photosynthesis a couple of billion years ago. The world didn't know free oxygen up to that point, but it just so happens that the precious substance is a "waste" byproduct of the reactions that make up the process of photosynthesis, the major way of making a living for most algae and plants. The alternative to this mechanistic worldview, of course, is known as holism. But this word has very negative connotations, which are intertwined with mysticism and irrational beliefs. And here is the challenge that Lewontin and some of his colleagues - chiefly Stephen Jay Gould, also at Harvard - have faced for most of their active lives as scientists. How to debunk reductionism without falling into a vague and fruitless alternative; how to retain the power of scientific inquiry while acknowledging its limits; how to maintain the public confidence of science's power while asking them to keep an eye on the assumptions that scientists make about the world. I'm afraid you'll have to read the book to know the rest; hopefully, the above ranting has at least tickled your intellect enough to do just that. And I can guarantee you that your view of the world would be changed forever... or maybe not.


Paradigms Lost
Paradigms Lost
by John L. Casti
Edition: Paperback
102 used & new from $0.01

17 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A controversial, but fascinating tour de force of science, December 10, 1997
This review is from: Paradigms Lost (Paperback)
John Casti is an American mathematician transplanted in the old world, namely in martial and musical Vienna. And it shows. His prose is as witty and cultured as any European master would like it, and as concise and right to the point as any new world's scientist is taught to produce. Even though my personal opinions about the subject matters covered by Casti in this book more often than not radically depart from his conclusions, this is by all means a must for any skeptic's library. And it will figure nicely in most other collections as well. Paradigms lost is about six major unsolved mysteries in modern science (some would say in modern philosophy). In order of appearance, we have: the origin of life, the genetic basis of human behavior, the existence of a unique "language-organ" in the human brain, the question of thinking machines, the possibility to uncover extraterrestrial intelligences afoot in our galaxy, and the very existence of a real world independent of external observers. Wow! It's hard to imagine a more compelling intellectual tour de force... The structure of Casti's book provides a "claim" at the beginning of each chapter, such as "there exist intelligent beings in our galaxy with whom we can communicate". The author then provides a minimal background necessary to assess the arguments, and proceeds to lead the way to a parade of "witnesses" for the "prosecution" (in favor of the claim) and the "defense" (against the claim). In so doing, we are treated to the reasoning of Einstein and Bohr, Dawkins and Gould, Miller and Crick (if you don't recognize these names, shame on you, skip the rest of the review and pick up the book itself...). Each chapter then ends with a summary of the opposing statements (and a very useful table recapitulating viewpoints and authors), as well as with a final judgment delivered by Casti himself. This last component could be interpreted as somewhat pretentious (especially given the impressive array of witnesses that precede it). But every person is entitled to her/his opinion and to put it in writing (as long as the manuscript is signed)... Besides, Casti makes very clear at the beginning of the book (don't skip the introduction!) that the conclusions are only his, and more often than not are the result of a simple matter of taste. The first claim is that "life arose out of natural physical processes taking place here on Earth", apparently hardly a controversial statement, until your initial confidence is at least questioned by an array of detailed arguments concerning the difficulties that modern physics, chemistry, and biology are still experiencing in order to answer the question of the ultimate origin of ourselves. Did nucleic acids come first, and then somehow gave origin to proteins? Or did it go the other way around? Or maybe they both appeared simultaneously? Or, perhaps neither of them came first, but they supplanted a much more primitive and ancient mechanism for the propagation of life? Casti even entertains - mostly for the sake of completeness - Nobel laureate Francis Crick's theory of panspermia, the idea that life has been "imported" on Earth from outer space; astronomer Fred Hoyle's hypothesis about a "silicon creator" responsible for disseminating life throughout the universe; and last and certainly list, creationist Duane Gish's idea that the christian god did it all first-hand. The author's conclusion is that it is likely that life indeed originated on Earth by natural means, but that we still have few clues to how exactly this came about. His personal preference goes for Cavalier-Smith's relatively recent suggestion that the original organisms were actually clay crystals, later supplanted by nucleic acids and proteins (see my article in Science & Society at [...] <<< check address >>> for a discussion of why Cavalier-Smith's hypothesis doesn't make much biological sense). The second claim is "human behavior patterns are dictated primarily by the genes". This is the old yet always very current nature-vs-nurture debate that has been waged for centuries. Casti does a very good job at presenting the modern versions of the arguments, including biologist E.O. Wilson's "sociobiology" and its somewhat politically motivated rebuttal by the "Boston group", spearheaded by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and geneticist Richard Lewontin. Casti makes very clear that we are interested in the intellectual side of the question, not in its moral and political consequences. This is not to say, of course, that scientists should not care about the social implications of their research; it simply means that they are especially qualified to carry out the research, while they have no particular claim at understanding or discussing the moral corollaries of the research itself. I think this is a particularly lucid treatment of a very thorny subject, and definitely makes for a sobering reading on both sides. When all the smoke clears, the author casts his vote for the very reasonable middle-ground conclusion that it's really a bit of both. We are the result of a complex series of interactions between our genes and our environments, to the point that independent contributions of either factor are distinguishable only in extreme cases. Related to the nature-nurture debate is the third claim, "human language capacity stems from a unique, innate property of the brain". This is Noam Chomsky's revolutionary suggestion in the field of human cognitive psychology, which is indeed the current virtually undisputed paradigm. Casti sees no reason to question it, and neither do I. Even though some of the many opponents of Chomsky do raise interesting questions, they seem to succeed only at refining the details of the central claim, not at invalidating it. The basic idea is that humans all over the world learn any language they are exposed to during infancy much too fast for this being the result of environmental influences only. It seems much more fitting to hypothesize that parts of our brain are specifically genetically hard-wired to facilitate such task. Admittedly, we still know very little of the actual physical, neurobiological bases of the language organ. On the other hand, the opposite claim - mostly by the Swiss Jean Piaget - that the brain is such a powerful general problem-solving machine that the cultural environment is all we need to explain the acquisition of languages, clearly contradicts some elementary empirical observations. For example, why is it that we have increasing problems learning new languages with age, while our brain doesn't find it difficult to learn how to solve other puzzles, including algebra and trigonometry problems? It seems that the human brain (and by extension other animal's as well) is a compound machine; parts of this machine are devoted to a general ability to learn and to solve problems, while other parts are hard-wired to solve recurrent and vital problems that occurred during the species evolution. I submit that the proportion of the two parts, as well as the particular list of hard-wired capacities, can be thought of as both the historical legacy of a given species and a description of the limits which that species encounters in using brain-power to maintain a longer presence on the evolutionary stage. The forth question asked by Casti regards the veracity of the claim "digital computers can, in principle, literally think". To me this was truly a no-brainer. While the if, how, and when this will happen in practice is a matter of interesting debate, the theoretical possibility is demonstrated by the very fact that we - humans - do think. And it has been pretty obvious since Descartes, but especially Darwin, that we indeed are nothing but machines, albeit among the most of sophisticated in the known universe. Casti does also conclude that the evidence against the claim is weak at best (perhaps not by chance, it is based mostly of studies by philosophers, not computer
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