Stephen Jay Gould: Evolution and Human Equality

As explained by historian David Livingstone:

Stephen Jay Gould, for example, rapidly recruited Mitochondrial Eve in support of anti-racist politics. In 1987, speaking on “Evolution and Human Equality”, he concluded his exposé of scientific racism by turning to what he himself described as the ‘centerpiece’ of his argument: Mitochondrial DNA. This “tremendously important” finding, he insisted, “makes us realize that all human beings, despite differences in external appearance, are really members of a single entity that’s had a very recent origin in one place. There is a kind of biological brotherhood that’s much more profound than we ever realized”.

What is your analysis of Gould’s account of Mt-Eve and Y-Adam?


Wouldn’t we analyze the data instead of what anyone, particularly someone who is dead, said about them?


Well, first, he doesn’t really talk about Y-Adam.

I never thought that the mere fact of our recent common ancestry was a particularly strong argument against “racial” differences in such things as intelligence. I’m not aware of any good evidence that there are any such racial differences, but I also find myself made uncomfortable by people blending the question about the facts with the question over values. The question whether one should be a racist, it seems to me, would be as easily answered in the negative if one granted that there were such differences as if one concludes there are not.

So if we’re going to evaluate claims about different racial groups, it does seem to me that we’d be better off, since we’ve got the various people in question right here and now, just trying to evaluate those directly. Recent common ancestry might imply little to no difference between modern populations but it really doesn’t answer the question and it’s not the best body of evidence to consult. I think there’s a bit of poetry in this “all mankind is one” business which, while not a disagreeable notion in any way, is not itself much of an answer to that particular question.

When I was in law school and first read Buck v. Bell I was outraged, and my view of Oliver Wendell Holmes never recovered from the blow. But I was outraged not by the knowledge, as relayed by Gould in The Mismeasure of Man and at the end of this speech, that the scientific case for declaring this whole family “imbeciles” was weak. I was outraged because it seemed to me that, assuming the diagnosis to be entirely accurate, it still seemed like an indecent invasion by the State into a place where it did not belong, and a horribly unfair and lopsided process where the victim of this arbitrary action could not hope to contend against the State’s resources. As a civil rights litigator, later, I dealt first-hand with the flesh-and-blood pain and sorrow that comes from callous, indifferent or arbitrary governmental conduct. Here, too, it seems to me that the scientific question does not answer the ethical question. What if they were, in the scientific parlance of the time, properly “imbeciles”? Do imbeciles have no rights?


Well, that particular sentence is shockingly wrong. What the heck? Was Gould unfamiliar with coalescence?

Good point.

I had some similar thoughts.

We can look at the questions about the facts on their own. These facts do have bearing on our understanding of what race is and is not. We in fact should value a solid scientific understanding of these facts.

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Okay you, the lawyer, is going to have to educate us scientists. What are you talking about?

My thoughts exactly. In the name of trying to keep this as non-controversial as possible (good luck), let’s say that everyone with detached earlobes are 20% smarter than those with attached ear lobes with little to no overlap. Does this mean everyone with attached earlobes are lesser humans? Obviously not. People of all lobes should have equal rights. Finding out that people with different lobes share a recent common ancestor doesn’t enter into that discussion. Human rights aren’t based on intelligence but upon other human attributes, such as sentience, sapience, moral agency, and empathy.

However, viewing all of humanity as a big family might cause some people to question their irrational and unfounded biases. Perhaps it could be useful in that arena.


Whether or not different races should have different rights is indeed and important and different question.

It is still an important question to ask whether or not race is an essential biological category, and if so, in what sense exactly it is and isn’t.

Racists, historically, was been wrong on both counts. They saw race as a biological immutable reality, and that different races had different dignity and rights. Latter does not follow from the former. But the former is still worth close study.

I’m talking about the case Gould discusses in the video, Buck v. Bell. I assumed that it would be fresh in people’s minds after having seen the video.

Buck v. Bell is famous as the case where Holmes announced that “three generations of imbeciles are enough,” as he (and seven fellow members of the Court) authorized State-compelled sterilization of a woman who was deemed to be mentally deficient and who had given birth to a child (also deemed mentally deficient) out of wedlock. The people responsible for this scheme had, of course, only a rudimentary grasp of heredity and they were driven by social prejudices as well, regarding the “promiscuity” of Carrie Buck as an important indicator of mental deficiency – it appears that she was of ordinary intelligence and was the victim of rape, though of course we get those facts not from the Court’s decision but from later investigation.

Buck v. Bell is not about race, but its lesson to us is about the related question of how to use, and how not to use, science to inform ethical judgments. If we have proper respect for the boundary between “is” and “ought,” we understand that even if the facts as reported in the decision were accurate, the existence of possibly-heritable mental deficiency does not, in itself, give the community an ethical basis to sterilize people by force.

The opinion is chilling, and the usual short quote doesn’t do it justice:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v. Massachusetts 197 U.S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

It is of course fair to say that the “science” behind this was rather dodgy. This was a strange era in constitutional law, when the Court was reluctant to look beyond legal formalism, at least in the service of individual rights. Today we have crafted – though it is in grave threat! – a conception of due process which recognizes not only the procedural issues in taking so much from vulnerable people, but also some substantive limits to the extent to which the State may invade the individual’s autonomy. But in the 1920s, the picture was very different, and the Courts held to the kind of majoritarian, authoritarian view which, alas, is now again on the rise.


Aren’t we talking about human equality?

As we have discussed in the past, it really comes down to how we define race. I think we can definitely say that there are valid scientific findings correlating genetics with geographic distribution, which can inform us about human history.

Agreed. I have yet to see a convincing moral argument for basing human rights on MC1R alleles. As @Puck_Mendelssohn mentions above, there is still a lot of daylight between Is and Ought.


I couldn’t comment much on the science about mtDNA presented in the middle, other than to say how refreshing it is for a scientist to say clearly and loudly what the “assumptions” in the model are. And I guess we know who challenges those assumptions.

The presentation was fascinating and well worth watching for the history and scientific racism I wasn’t aware of. I broke down in tears at the stories in the end of the video though. The way that especially men treated these women is deeply shameful and horrifying. What tragic stories.


And since all definitions of race are arbitrary (just as definitions of species and subspecies etc.), the committed racist can simply elect to make up some definition that encompasses most of the people the racist dislikes. People who look wrong to the racist seems to be it’s most fundamental essence. And whatever it is the the racist finds unappealing you can probably find some sort of genetic correlate of, however weak(they don’t really care), and then the racist will invariably just say something along the lines of “if you’re going to define that group of dogs/birds/insects/mice who look like that to be subspecies/race/breed X, I can define that group of people who look like that to be subhuman breed Y” and then what are you going to say back? “That’s not the right definition of subspecies/race/breed?” Says who?

There’s simply no use having the definitional argument about what is or isn’t some such race or not, because they can ALWAYS just modify their criteria so it encompasses people they don’t like, and the ideologically committed racists in my experience don’t care if they have to include half of their putative “own people” in the group of people who are nevertheless not somehow sufficiently racially pure or superior. If half of white people have some arbitrary percentage of “black genes” or whatever, then in the racist’s view half of white people are impure and then automatically lose their rights anyway. And what are you going to say then? Your definition is wrong you should use mine instead? Change the percentage to this other one? Forget it.

The only hope is to try to focus on empathy, and even that is mostly hopeless because these people have none.


Exactly. Racism is an emotionally driven human bias that is constantly seeking post hoc justifications. It is a conclusion looking for evidence.

Empathy is what changed my grandfather’s outlook (WWII generation). He told the story of seeing a black child that looked just like his daughter (my aunt) except for the color of her skin. That really affected him, and he saw how his prejudices were wrong. My grandfather loved his daughter, and he realized that another father loved that girl as well, and wanted to see his daughter succeed and thrive. Recognizing humanity in others is definitely a big first step.


This is the only hope in these kinds of arguments, there has to be a sort of human experience component to this. But I also have to suppose that your grandfather was not a sort of ideologically committed “scientific racist” who spent his time wondering about how to phenotypically define human races, or spent his time doing science-sounding racist apologetics, spending all his money on ancestry tests and blathering about his heritage and high IQ genes.

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This has turned quickly into the discussion of race, predictable, but if I may add to this.

Race does exists because we experience it, but the reason we do is not due to it having an objective biological foundation. The concept of “race” is and has always been an invention of racists. That doesn’t mean everyone who thinks or suspects that the concept of race is to some degree “biologically real” is an explicit racist. The concept has been so ingrained in our culture that it’s being propagated and maintained without the need of the conscious awareness of the individuals. Race is a meme. Let’s take the example of the former president Barack Obama. He had one white parent and one black parent. Yet pretty much all of us, even the ones who aren’t racist, will happily say that Obama is the first black president. The racists also will also say that he is black, but they aren’t happy about the president part. But why is he black? Or specifically, why is he permitted to be black but not white? It’s the racist rule that only “pure breeds” are allowed to be considered white. That’s is obviously pure nonsense when you think about it, yet such arbitrary rules about who is what race is ingrained in our culture such that the non racists also adhere to them.

Good talk by Adam Rutherford


I don’t know for sure if this is correct. I can see what seems to be several historical counter examples. It is true that biological race isn’t real, but that wasn’t obvious in the past, or even now. Likewise even if race was real, that does not entail racism.

Such as? (I presume we mean “as applied to humans”, as the concept of subspecies is not especially controversial for other sorts of organisms.)

There are people who thought race was real, but were not racists, in that they did not place races in a hierarchy with white at the top, or argue for differential rights or dignity. One such example might be La Peyrere.

Another example is Star Trek (in the 60s). There are many races of humanoids, that have intrinsic differences, but the series is infused with anti-racist messages. That makes it an example of non-racist affirmation of race.

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I have no knowledge of that person. Do tell. Of course there are many people who think races are real purely because they’ve been told they are and see what they expect to see.

No there aren’t. There are many species of humanoids. That’s not in any way an affirmation of race. Star Trek in fact makes no mention of race, ever, except for that one episode where Frank Gorshin has one side of his face white and the other side black. And the point of that one is that races are silly.


Yes. A key thing though is that the different species of humanoids is set up as an analogy to different races. At that time that’s how many people saw race too.

Of course, in another frame, race among earthlings was totally mute, emphasizing we were all the same species.

Then there are the species-hybrids, which (for better and for worse) explored the idea of interracial marriages.

So it spoke on race on a couple levels. At times it was quite wrong, but their intention was explicitly anti-racist.

He is the father of polygenesis. He thought all races had separate origins, but were of equal worth and dignity.

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