I first met S. J. Gould when he was a freshly minted Assistant Professor in Invertebrate Paleontology at Harvard and I a graduate student in evolutionary biology. Invertebrate Paleontology was well known then as a backwater in evolutionary biology, 80% devoted to the study of fossil foraminifera whose utility was that they predicted the presence of oil. In this environment, it was obvious that Gould would go far. New York City Jewish bright, verbiage pouring from his mouth at the slightest provocation, he would surely make a mark here.
This was not why I was visiting him. I had heard he was an expert in ‘allometry’—indeed had done his PhD thesis on the subject. Back then I wanted to know everything in biology, so I sought him out. Allometry refers to the way in which two variables are associated. It can be 1:1—the longer the fore-arm, the longer the total arm, or it can show deviations. For examples, the larger a mammal is, the more of its body consists of bone. Why? Because the strength of bone only goes up as the square of bone length whereas body weight goes up as the cube—thus larger bodies, weighing more, require relatively more bone. But what about antler size, I wanted to know, why is it that the larger the body size of the deer, the relatively larger his antlers? Why would natural selection favor that?
Gould leaned back in his chair. No, you have this all wrong, he said. This is an alternative to natural selection, not a cause of natural selection. My head spun. Natural selection was unable to change a simple allometric relationship regarding antler size that it had presumably created in the first place? Had it not already done so in adjusting bone size to body size? As I left his office, I said to myself, this fool thinks he is bigger than natural selection. Perhaps I should have said, bigger than Darwin, but I felt it as bigger than natural selection itself—surely Stephen was going for the gold!!
Many of us theoretical biologists who knew Stephen personally thought he was something of an intellectual fraud precisely because he had a talent for coining terms that promised more than they could deliver, while claiming exactly the opposite. One example was the notion of “punctuated equilibria”—which simply asserted that rates of (morphological) evolution were not constant, but varied over time, often with periods of long stasis interspersed with periods of rapid change. All of this was well known from the time of Darwin. The classic example were bats. They apparently evolved very quickly from small non-flying mammals (in perhaps less than 20 million years) but then stayed relatively unchanged once they reached the bat phenotype we are all familiar with today (about 50 million years ago). Nothing very surprising here, intermediate forms were apt to be neither very good classic mammals, nor good flying ones either, so natural selection pushed them rapidly through the relevant evolutionary space.
But Steve wanted to turn this into something grander, a justification for replacing natural selection (favoring individual reproductive success) with something called species selection. Since one could easily imagine that there was rapid turnover of species during periods of intense selection and morphological change, one might expect species selection to be more intense, while during the rest of the equilibrium stabilizing selection would rule throughout. But rate of species turnover has nothing to do with the traits within species—only with the relative frequency of species showing these traits. As would prove usual, Steve missed the larger interesting science by embracing a self-serving fantasy. Species selection today is a small but interesting topic in evolutionary theory, not some grand principle emerging from paleontological patterns.
Recently something brand new has emerged about Steve that is astonishing. In his own empirical work attacking others for biased data analysis in the service of political ideology—it is he who is guilty of the same bias in service of political ideology. What is worse—and more shocking—is that Steve’s errors are very extensive and the bias very serious. A careful reanalysis of one case shows that his target is unblemished while his own attack is biased in all the ways Gould attributes to his victim. His most celebrated book (The Mismeasure of Man) starts with a takedown of Samuel George Morton. Morton was a scientist in the early 19 th Century who devoted himself to measuring the human cranium, especially the volume of the inside, a rough estimate of the size of the enclosed brain. He did so meticulously by pouring first seeds and then ball bearings into skulls until they were full and then pouring them out and measuring their volume in a graduated cylinder. He was a pure empiricist. He knew brain size was an important variable but very little about the details (indeed, we do not know much more today). He thought his data would bear on whether we were one species or several, but in any case he was busy creating a vast trove of true and useful facts.
I love these people—they work for the future and gather data whose logic later generations will reveal. Precisely because they have no axes to grind or hypotheses to prove, their data are apt to be more reliable than the first wave after a new theory. I have benefitted from them in my own life, most memorably when I was shown a large and accurate literature on ratios of investment in 20 ant species, gathered long before anyone appreciated why these facts might be of some considerable interest, as indeed they were.
In any case, Morton grouped his data by population according to best estimates of gross relatedness, Amerindians with Amerindians, Africans with Africans, Nordic Europeans with Nordic, and so on. It is here, Gould alleged, that all sorts of errors were made that supported preconceived notions that among the smaller cranial capacity (and therefore stupider)) peoples would be Amerindians and Africans. For example, Gould claimed that Morton made more subgroups among Nordic people than tropical ones, thus permitting more of them to be above norm, but in fact, the opposite was true. Morton reported more Amerindian subsamples than European and routinely pointed out when particular Amerindian subsamples were as high or higher than the European mean, facts that Gould claimed Morton hid.
In other cases, Gould eliminates all samples with less than four individuals in order to reduce the number of sub-samples with only one sex—a statistically meaningless goal but one that happened to be biased in his favor and permitted him to make additional errors in his favor by arbitrarily eliminating some skulls while including others. If you are comparing group means, you may not wish to use means of less than four, but if you are adding up sub-samples to produce a larger sample, there is no reason not to aggregate all data. Morton is made to look careless and incorrect when it is really Steve who is arbitrarily biasing things in his own favor.