Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel George Morton: A Personal Commentary, Part 3


As noted above, I have concluded that that Morton was a racist whose research on supposedly ancient Egyptian skulls was flawed by multiple errors, and that it appears that he may have pre-sorted his skulls to conform with his documented racist views. Superficially, it may seem that I am in agreement with Gould’s assessment of Morton. However, there is one major distinction: Gould claimed that Morton had an unconscious racial bias, of which Morton was not aware. Gould said Morton was racist but he didn’t even know it. I make no such claim. Instead, rather like a lawyer, I propose that the preponderance of evidence indicates Morton was a racist, and that additional evidence suggests racism may have skewed his research. For the latter charge, he is innocent until proven guilty.

            As noted above, it is now Gould who faces charges that his research was skewed by his unconscious ideological bias. Some argue that he was a better example of unconsciously biased science than Morton was.[i] I do not support that position. While I agree that Gould’s research was flawed by poor scholarship, I do not see an ideological left-wing bias as the root cause of his errors. Rather, I propose an alternative explanation. I view his mistakes as deriving from his rigidly dualistic view of the world, his penchant for exaggeration, and from a dismissive personality that caused him to simply ignore people and ideas that displeased him. To justify my claims, I will rely on the historic record and my own face-to-face experience with Gould, which through this paper I am entering into the historic record.

Stephen Jay Gould had a remarkable ability to gather diverse pieces of information on a wide range of topics and quickly evaluate them. However, once he made up his mind he was unlikely to change it. This personality trait was evident in his writing process. He composed all his works, even after personal computers became the norm, on a manual typewriter with few, if any, rewrites.[ii] Gould was also known to submit his copy to editors with the request that they not alter it. That request was often granted.[iii] In other words, Gould processed information in his head, quickly organized it, recorded it, and then he disengaged. Once he had generated his conclusions, there was minimal inward reflection, nor was there back-and-forth discussion with others. Gould repeatedly exhibited this kind “disengagement;” and, it impacted his research into Morton and his charges of unconscious racial bias against Morton and other scholars both living and dead.

Gould was prone to disengage with people with whom he disagreed. When describing those who did not accept his theory of punctuated equilibrium, he once wrote: “When smart people don’t ‘get it,’ one must conclude that the argument lies outside whatever ‘conceptual space’ they maintain for assessing novel ideas in a given area.”[iv] In the language of rhetoric, dismissing an argument by dismissing the intellectual worthiness of the person who made it is known as the fallacy of “ad hominem.”  And so, Gould used the fallacy of ad hominem to justify disengaging with his opponents, often in the form of unilaterally ending all further discussion. Once he had labeled them as having a limited conceptual space, he could ignore them.

Gould justified disengaging with some his critics by declaring that they had limited “conceptual space” or words to that effect. For example, in 1998, Gould’s book Wonderful Life was critiqued by Cambridge University paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris in Natural History magazine. Morris proposed that it was unfair of Gould to charge that Charles D. Walcott, the discoverer of the fossil rich Burgess Shale, had conducted research that was not scientifically valid but instead had been warped to fit Walcott’s “preconceptions.”[v] In other words, Gould held that Walcott had limited conceptual space and so his ideas were invalid and should be rejected. Through this justification, Gould disengaged from Walcott so that no further discussion was needed.

Gould responded by charging that Morris also had limited conceptual space. Gould wrote, “I am puzzled that Conway Morris apparently, doesn’t grasp the equally strong (and inevitable) personal preferences embedded in his own view of life.”[vi] Gould further expounded on this theme, finding fault with Morris as an individual who was out of touch with his own subconscious motives:

Conway Morris’s peculiar and undefended reversal of these usual arguments about probability can arise only from a “personal credo”—and I would value his explicit attention to the sources of his own unexamined beliefs.[vii]

And so Gould found justification for disengaging with Morris by claiming that his “personal credo” essentially blinded him from seeing the truth, just as Walcott’s “preconceptions’ blinded him.



In his 1977 book Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Gould proposed that the research of the Dutch anatomist Lodewijke Bolk was influenced by his racist views. Gould was correct that Bolk was a racist, since Bolk openly wrote that “the division of mankind into higher and lower races is fully justified.”[viii] Thus it was reasonable for Gould to propose that Bolk’s research was influenced by his racism. Unfortunately, Bolk was not the only figure from the history of science whose work was skewed by racism. In the early 1960s, University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Carlton Coon proposed that black Africans evolved from Homo erectus after other races did. He was charged with infusing his research with racism, which was mere speculation until letters surfaced demonstrating that he was working behind the scenes with an organization opposed the integration of public schools.[ix] Once it was found that Coon, like Bolk, had documented his racist views, it was reasonable to accept that his apparently racist research was genuinely driven by racism.

Gould regularly made charges that his critics were right-wing ideologues. Science writer John Horgan observed that Gould had a “tendency to denigrate on a moral basis people who disagreed with him, and especially people he accused of biological determinism. Sometimes, he made it sound like they were all racists and sexists and crypto-fascists.”[x] Thus Gould was able to label his opponents with a specific form of limited conceptual space that was defined by right-wing ideology. In Gould’s worldview, racism associated with extreme right-wing ideology was an especially potent cause of limited conceptual space.

Gould’s critique of Bolk was warranted. However, in the Mismeasure of Man, Gould selectively ignored parts of the historic record, using a bigoted quote written by Benjamin Franklin at the age of 48 to suggest an inherently racist outlook.[xi] Gould failed to mention that at the age of 58, Franklin became a staunch abolitionist.[xii] Gould also claimed innate racism in the writings of Alexander von Humboldt,[xiii] who personally acted to abolish slavery in Germany[xiv] and famously wrote, “There are nations more susceptible of cultivation, more highly civilized, more ennobled by mental cultivation than others – but none in themselves are nobler than others. All are in like degree designed for freedom.”[xv] This was a statement of human equality that Morton emphatically disputed.[xvi]

Gould’s misrepresentation of Franklin and Humboldt speak to another aspect of his personality. Gould was prone to making exaggerated statements. Both his friends and foes admit that he was a gifted popularizer of science; a salesman if you will. And like a well-seasoned pitchman, he would add flourish and exaggeration to sell the product, which got him into trouble at times. Gould was accused of exaggerating the importance of his theory of punctuated equilibrium, which held that evolution occurs in fits and stops rather than gradually over time. After Gould presented this idea at a meeting, renowned Harvard evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr noted, “It’s a brilliant tour de force that Steve has produced,” but he doubted that Gould’s observations were as important or innovative as Gould had claimed. He described the proof for punctuated evolution to be on “thin ice” adding “and there is no thinner ice than Steve’s ice.”[xvii] Similarly John Maynard Smith, another key evolutionary theorist, argued that punctuated equilibrium was not an entirely new or especially revolutionary idea.[xviii]

Gould’s exaggerations sometimes led to public embarrassment. Once, instead of merely critiquing a mainstream evolutionary theory (known as neo-Darwinian synthesis), he instead said it was, “effectively dead,” a phrase for which he was heavily criticized within his profession for years thereafter.[xix] Not only was it an exaggeration, but it reflected Gould’s proclivity for disengagement, cutting off all further discussion by metaphorically declaring an idea he refuted to be “dead.” 

In 1977, Gould exaggerated the importance of Morton by quoting luminaries, like Oliver Wendell Holmes, who praised Morton’s work, but not Morton’s critics.[xx] However, in 1847, Charles Darwin wrote a letter to his friend Charles Lyell, faulting Morton for citing dubious information to support his views on hybrids. Darwin noted that there was “a want in exactness in the manner Morton gives the facts,” and concluded, “I do not think Dr. Morton a safe man to quote from.”[xxi] Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau, who promoted theories on “Aryan” white supremacy,[xxii] rejected Morton’s work for having an arbitrary sample. In 1855, he used the words, “quite incomplete and unscientific” to describe Morton’s Table from page 260 of Crania Americana, which was reproduced on page 505 of Gould’s 1978 paper.[xxiii] In 1867, British craniologist Joseph Bernard Davis also faulted Morton’s sample sizes.[xxiv] In 1876, Scottish-Canadian Daniel Wilson published an extensive refutation of Morton’s Crania Americana, addressing it over 30 times throughout over 300 pages of text.[xxv] And although the renowned anthropologist Ales Hrdlicka recognized Morton as the “father of American anthropology,”[xxvi] Hrdlicka wrote a letter in 1911 that states, “The actual value of the anthropological work of Samuel G. Morton lies only in the fact that it has drawn, more than any other work, the attention of scientists to the American man, and that it has stimulated further research. His measurements and observations are only of very little value today.”[xxvii] 

In his 1978 paper, Gould employed an unconventional technique to charge Morton with being a racist, even though there was, at the time, no definitive evidence to justify that claim. Instead of saying Morton was admittedly racist, Gould proposed that Morton was unconsciously racist. In other words, Morton behaved like a racist but was not aware of it. Gould’s theory held that Morton, having been born into the racist culture of early 19th century America, had been infused – in a sense infected – by the stain of racism that permeated his culture.

In this respect, Gould was making an argument much like those favored by the post-modernist, deconstructionist school of literary critics. For example, in his book The Emperor’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds, deconstructionist literary critic Ariel Dorfman proposed that Babar the elephant, the cartoon character from the popular children’s story, was actually a unconscious attempt by its French author, Jean de Brunhoff, to indoctrinate children into believing that French colonialism in Africa was a positive thing.[xxviii] Dorfman comes to this conclusion when he sees Babar, an African elephant, enjoying a new life in a very Paris-like city where he can dress in a waistcoat and go to the symphony, rather than roaming naked in the jungle like a native. Of course this is Dorfman’s subjective personal interpretation and has no claim to objectivity.

With the deconstructionist approach, it does not matter what an author intended to write, but rather what his or her surrounding culture directed the author to subconsciously write. It is as if the author was an actor reading a script previously written by his or her culture.[xxix] Gould also made similar charges against Darwin, proposing that his theory of gradual evolution (gradualism) was “not of nature,” but rather was unconsciously influenced by the British imperial culture in which Darwin lived.[xxx] Gould proposed that gradualism was “an a priori assertion from the start – it was never seen in the rocks” but rather was the product of 19th century “cultural and political biases.”[xxxi] In 1977, Gould published his now famous paper, “Punctuated equilibria: the tempo and mode of evolution reconsidered,” which he co-authored with Niles Eldredge. In this paper Gould claimed that “punctuated change dominates the history of life,” and “must be the dominant mode of evolution.”[xxxii] Furthermore, Gould claimed that those paleontologists who did not accept this new view of evolution were unconsciously biased. As Gould and Eldredge wrote:  

We argue that virtually none of the examples brought forward to refute our model can stand as support for phyletic gradualism; many are so weak and ambiguous that they only reflect the persistent bias for gradualism still deeply embedded in paleontological thought.[xxxiii]

And so, just as Gould accused Walcott and Morris (as individuals) of having a limited conceptual space, so Gould accused the entire field of paleontology of having a limited conceptual space because it came from the same western imperialist cultural tradition that generated Darwin.

Thus in Gould’s worldview, an individual (or group of people) from a racist or imperialist society was predestined to be racist at an unconscious level, even if his or her behavior proved otherwise. Because Franklin, Humboldt, and Morton came from racist cultures, their very ideas must be permeated with racism. Gould held that in science, “theory is always, and must be, colored by social and psychological biases of surrounding culture; we have no access to utterly objective observation or universally unambiguous logic.”[xxxiv] Furthermore, Gould claimed that, not some but “all professional historians of science” embraced the notion that “theories must reflect a surrounding social and cultural context.”[xxxv] As Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History put it, when it came to “the issues of nature versus nurture, Gould was firmly on the side of nurture.”[xxxvi]

Gould’s nurture-only viewpoint was stereotyping akin to the nature- only racism of Morton, who held that “the origin of all the varieties of character are congenital” and based on the “structure of the brain.”[xxxvii] For Morton, a person’s biological heritage, and thus race, determined a person’s intelligence and personality, or at least exerted an unavoidable effect upon the person. Gould opposed stereotyping people based on the race into which they were born. He vilified it as fallacious “biological determinism.”[xxxviii] Yet what he proposed could be called “cultural determinism,” in which people are stereotyped based on the culture into which they were born. Gould went as far as to declare that not just some, but “all American culture heroes” like Jefferson and Lincoln, “embraced racial attitudes” that were fundamentally racist.[xxxix]

Gould’s cultural determinism also contains elements of exaggeration and disengagement. His evaluation of Morton provides a good example of this. First, Gould exaggerated the scant historic records he had gathered regarding Morton so as to make it appear Morton was a well-documented racist. Then, once he had declared Morton to have this moral failing, Gould claimed that a racist ideology was the cause of Morton’s limited conceptual space. Thus Gould could justify disengaging from Morton, and so ad hominem, reject the validity of Morton’s research and measurements. Gould said that Morton’s mis-measurements “must have happened,” thus cutting off any consideration that there could another explanation. In regards to Morton, Gould employed exaggeration followed by disengagement. After that, Gould would not allow further discussion, as I will discuss below.

In 1986, I mailed my results to Gould, who requested we meet after he gave a lecture in May at the University of Minnesota.[xl] Our meeting lasted perhaps five minutes. He told me that I “missed the point,” and abruptly ended the conversation, ignoring me and instead speaking to the man next to him. My recollection is that he did not say goodbye, so I simply walked away.[xli] This harsh reaction was not unusual for Gould. According to three former students of Gould including paleontologist Warren Allmon, Gould was “a difficult role model. He decided quickly whom he did and didn’t favor, and you usually didn’t get a second chance to make a first impression.”[xlii] Paleontologist Jerry Coyne noted that Gould (one of his thesis advisors), could be “quite rude to those he considered his intellectual inferiors, and that was pretty much everyone.”[xliii] After I published my paper in 1988, I sent Gould a copy but got no response. When I wrote him again, he replied that he had lost it and requested another copy, which I sent.[xliv] I never heard back from him.

Sometime later, Gould gave a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, after which he was asked a question about my paper. His response was simply that he would not discuss it, and he did not.[xlv] Gould never mentioned my paper in any of his prolific writings.[xlvi] In 2011, Lewis wrote that, “were Gould still alive, we expect he would have mounted a defense of his analysis of Morton.”  Soon after that, Prothero noted, “I’m sure if Steve were alive, he would be able to counter these accusations in his own inimitable way.”  And yet these two statements conflict with the fact that Gould actually had two opportunities to counter such accusations, and instead chose to silently disengage.

It is in part because of the way that Gould reacted to my paper that I cannot support those who charge him with conducting research that was skewed by his own unconscious ideological bias. After all, Gould’s ideological bias, conscious or otherwise, was not the reason why he shut down all conversation with me or about my work, never mentioning it once in his many publications. It was not my political ideology he opposed, since he had no idea what it was. It is therefore not surprising that he never launched an ad hominem critique of me or implied I had limited conceptual space. Instead, he simply ignored me or any mention of my research for the rest of his life. Thus, I propose that Gould’s left-wing bias was not the root cause of his drive to debunk Morton and other racists, known or presumed. Rather it was his simple refusal to accept that he might be wrong. Gould’s supposed unconscious ideological bias is a red herring, a concept as fanciful and manufactured as Morton’s supposed unconscious racial bias.

[i] See footnote 4.

[ii] Mandy Garner, “Biology’s unedited crusader,” The Times of Higher Education On-line, 2002, (April 26),

[iii] Allmon et al., Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on His View of Life, p. 34.

[iv] Quoted in Allmon et al., Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on His View of Life, p. 23.

[v] S. Conway Morris and S. Gould, “Showdown on the Burgess Shale,” Natural History magazine, (December/January, 1998), p. 48-55.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Quoted in Gould, Ontology and Phylogeny, p. 359.

[ix] Brace, “Race” is a Four Letter Word, pp. 236-237.

[x] John Horgan, John Horgan (Stevens Center for Science Writings, Cross-check) and George Johnson (The Cancer Chronicles, Discover) video blog., 2011, (June 24).

[xi] Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (1996), p. 64.

[xii] Walter Isaacson, ed. and Benjamin Franklin, A Benjamin Franklin Reader, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), p. 202.

[xiii] Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, (1996), p.70.

[xiv] Julius Lowenberg, et al., Life of Alexander Von Humboldt, Vol. II. (New York: Cosimo Books, 2009 reprint from 1873), p. 254.

[xv] Quoted in Richard Popkin, et al., The High Road to Pyrrhonism. (Indianapolis, IN:  Hackett Publishing, 1980), p. 100.

[xvi] See the quote from Morton in J. Nott and G. Gliddon, Types of Mankind: Or, Ethnological Researches: Based Upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races, and Upon Their Natural, Geographical, Philological and Biblical History, (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, and Company, 1855), pp. li-lii.

[xvii] Quoted in James Gleick, “Breaking Tradition with Darwin,” New York Times, 1983 (November 20).

[xviii] Gleick, “Breaking Tradition with Darwin.”

[xix] Quoted in Allmon et al., Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on His View of Life, p. 16.

[xx] Gould, “Morton’s Ranking of Races by Cranial Capacity,” p. 503.

[xxi] Charles Darwin, Letter to Charles Lyell, Down, UK, Jun 2, 1847, posted at Darwin Correspondence Project,

[xxii] Frank Spencer, ed., History of Physical Anthropology: An Encyclopedia, Vol. 1 (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997), 441.

[xxiii] Joseph-Arthur Gobineau, Adrian Collins, trans. The Inequality of Human Races, (New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915), p. 112.

[xxiv] Joseph Bernard Davis, Thesaurus Craniorum: Catalogue of the Skulls of the Various Races of Man, in the Collection of Joseph Barnard Davis, (London: Printed for the Subscribers, 1876), p. 346.

[xxv] Daniel Wilson, Prehistoric Man: Researches into the Origin of Civilization in the Old and the New World, Vol. 2, (London: Macmillian and Co., 1876) pp. 112-132.

[xxvi] Brace, “Race” is a Four Letter Word, p. 91.

[xxvii] Ales Hrdlicka, Letter to Edwin J. Nolan, Academy of Natural Sciences, Washington DC, May 2, 1911.

[xxviii] Ariel Dorfman,The Emperor’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds, with a New Preface by the Author, (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 12-57.

[xxix] For more on this topic known as “Death of the Author,” see Pauline Marie Rosenau, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 31-32 in which she notes, “In the social sciences the “death of the author” closes off the study of some topics, reinforces others, and opens up still others. First and most obvious, post-modernists diminish the importance of the author as a writer of texts. Post- modern social science then, spends little energy on discovering what the “author really meant.” Second, the repercussions are even greater when the author is conceived of broadly as an actor with political, economic, and social roles…”

[xxx] S. Gould and N. Eldredge, “Punctuated equilibria: the tempo and mode of evolution reconsidered,” Paleobiology, April 1977, v. 3, p. 145.

[xxxi] S. Gould and N. Eldredge, “Punctuated equilibria,” p. 115.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Stephen Jay Gould, Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History, (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997), p. 420.

[xxxv] Quoted in Allmon et al., Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on his View of Life, p. 18.

[xxxvi] Allmon et al., Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on his View of Life, p. ix.

[xxxvii] Spencer, Frank, “Samuel George Morton’s Doctoral Thesis on Bodily Pain: The Probable Source of Morton’s Polygenism” Transactions and Studies of the Philadelphia College of Physicians, 1983, 5 (4): 336.

[xxxviii] Allmon et al., Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on his View of Life, p. 34.

[xxxix] Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (1996), 64.

[xl] Stephen Jay Gould, Letter to John S. Michael, Cambridge, MA, March 11, 1986.

[xli] John S. Michael, Letter to Harry Jerison. Melrose Park, PA. June 25, 1996. UCLA Prof. Jerison wrote me a letter in June 1996 asking if I had done any more research on Morton. I responded that I had not, but offered him my data. He did not take me up on the offer.

[xlii] Allmon et al., Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on his View of Life, p. ix.

[xliii] Jerry Coyne, “Gould gets it in the neck,” Why Evolution is True web site, posted June 14 2011. www., Accessed 2012.

[xliv] Gould, October 12, 1988.

[xlv] Janet Monge, personal communication, 2011. Monge observed this at one of Gould’s lectures.

[xlvi] Gould published 479 peer-reviewed papers, 22 books, and 300 essays as noted in Michael Shermer, This view of science,” p. 496.

3 thoughts on “Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel George Morton: A Personal Commentary, Part 3

  1. Pingback: linkfest – 06/23/13 | hbd* chick

  2. J~
    Still a few typos here. Mea culpa if I was responsible for missing them. Meanwhile, I am glad to see some genuine discussion on these postings. I’m following the threads with interest and learning a great deal.

    • Actually the typos give it character. They show I’m one of the common folk, born of the soil, instead of part of the fancy pants “correct-spelling” elite. (Did I spell that right?)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *