Archive for May, 2002

Goodbye to Stephen Jay Gould

Sunday, May 26th, 2002

The popular vision of scientists as wise, well read, erudite, Renaissance men is largely a throw back to the nineteenth century, at least as portrayed in the movies. The truth is that most scientists have narrow fields of expertise. Many scientific disciplines are so academically demanding and time consuming, scientists generally have time for little else than the study of their fields. The scientist with a deep knowledge and appreciation of history and literature is rare. Rarer still is a scientist who can speak and write eloquently for the lay audience about topics as disparate as the Flamingo’s Smile, Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, or Crossing Over Where Art and Science Meet. Harvard paleontologist Stephan Jay Gould, who recently succumbed to a rare cancer, was just such a scientist.

Although his primary expertise was in West Indian snails, Gould became an important voice in many national debates. Gould was blessed with the dual gifts of raising the level of the discussion and of reducing the temperature of discourse. The 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man proved to be an important cautionary tail. In the book, Gould warned of the inherent difficulty and aborted efforts in classifying human intelligence with a single numerical measure, the so-called Intelligence Quotient, IQ. There is still considerable controversy about measures of intelligence and the final chapter has not yet been written. In 1994, when Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray, published The Bell Curve suggesting correlations between race and measures of intelligence, Gould was a voice of calm and studied critique. However, Gould’s most important contribution in this debate was to explain how even well-meaning and honest scientists can inadvertently bend interpretation of the data to fit preconceived notions and prejudices. It is not that science cannot be neutral; it is just that scientists must be vigilant to maintain objectivity.

Gould had his flaws. His politics were left of center and worst yet he was a life-long New York Yankees fan. Yet, these could be overlooked in light of his persistent honesty in pursuit of the truth.

Gould has always been something of an agnostic with respect to religion, but has never carried an anti-religious chip on his shoulder like other scientists in the manner of Carl Sagan. Indeed, later in life in his book, Rock of Ages, Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Gould seemed to reach a permanent accommodation with religion arguing that religion and science address different human needs and realms. Gould asserted the Principle of NOMA, Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Specifically:

“[the] magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the universe is made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.”

Nonetheless, Gould’s field is evolutionary biology and it is here that he has been most vocal. He was one of the first to recognize that biological evolution may not proceed at a slow regular pace, but proceed in fits and spurts as species respond to dramatic changes in the environment in a process known as “punctuated equilibrium.” For example, after an asteroid impact, species may quickly change until a new equilibrium is reached.

Recently, Gould has argued that biological evolution is not directed and evolution does not necessarily imply progress. Evolution is popularly portrayed as a progression from simplicity to complexity, culminating in humans. If you measure evolutionary success by ubiquity, Gould argues, bacteria are the evolutionary success story, not humans. Humans are a recent evolutionary development, whereas bacteria have existed for hundreds of millions of years and will likely outlast humans. There is no inherent reason why humans were an inevitable development. A few environmental changes here or there, fewer or more asteroid impacts, and humans would not exist now.

To some, Gould’s argument diminishes the dignity of humans by portraying them as mere evolutionary accidents. If, indeed, the emergence of an intelligence conscious enough to consider its place in the universe is a rare random event that would seem to make its development even more precious. If, in the enormous universe, conscious intelligence is not inevitable, if four billion years of development on Earth does not guarantee a sentient and self-aware species, it seems like an awful waste of time and space.

If humans are an unlikely accident, then any single human is far rarer. Given the 23 genes donated by each parent, over 8 million genetically different children could result from any set of parents. In one such accident in 1941, Stephen Jay Gould was born and we have all been the better for this rare conjunction of genetic material. We are all diminished by the all too early loss of his voice.

Carter in Cuba

Friday, May 17th, 2002

Ex-presidents devote themselves to a variety of pursuits upon leaving the world’s most powerful office. Gerald Ford and George Bush (41) focused on private pursuits and enjoying their families, especially their grandchildren. For excitement, Ford plays golf and Bush jumps out of planes. Nixon spent most of his ex- presidency enduring the shame of resignation and writing books on foreign policy desperately trying to achieve the status of elder statesman. Unfortunately, the oldest American to leave the presidency, Ronald Reagan, is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Reagan is on, what he described as “the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.” It is too soon to say definitively how Clinton, who has many years ahead of him, will spend his post-presidency years. They only certainty is that he will earn a lot of money. Because of his charitable work on behalf of Habitat for Humanity, Carter has often been held up as the best ex-president. In 1980, the country was obviously convinced that this was an apt role for Carter so they hastened his transition with a landside vote intended to make Carter an ex-president.

Carter also has the annoying habit of complicating the foreign policy of his successors by independently consulting with foreign leaders. Cavorting with despots is Carter’s particularly favorite activity. He apparently believes that others are enlightened by the beacon of his own virtue.

Carter’s recent trip to Casto’s Cuba is illustrative. On balance, Carter’s trip was probably salutary. He met with and encouraged dissident groups and emphasized America’s commitment to freedom and democracy. He gave an address at the University of Havana that was broadcast on Cuban state-controlled radio and television. To his credit, Carter delivered his address in Spanish.

Nonetheless, the opportunity to give such an address is rare. Measured against what could have been, Carter’s speech was a disappointment. It is not that Carter’s speech was a bad or inappropriate one, but rather that it could have been so much better, so much more memorable, and so much more important.

Carter’s tone was one of moral equivalency between the world’s dominant democracy and an island ruled by a thug. Americans may be freer, but heck, Cubans are lucky enough to have socialized medicine. It is sort of like arguing that Hitler may have had some human rights problems, but gee, the trains ran on time. Carter believes in a variant of the “I’m OK, you’re OK” foreign policy. Carter worried that Americans and Cubans suffered a “misunderstanding,” as if our differences are minor and inconsequential.

Contrast this speech with a speech given at Moscow State University in 1988 by Ronald Reagan. While in his speech Carter dutifully mentioned human rights violations, Ronald Reagan explained how political and economic freedoms were not just another choice, but essential to the dignity of man. While in Cuba, Carter described how Americans are free to start their own businesses. Reagan made heroes out of entrepreneurs by calling them “explorers of the modern era…with courage to take risks and faith enough to brave the unknown.” Carter extended the hand of friendship to the Cubans. Reagan directed the Soviets to a higher calling hoping that “freedom…will blossom forth …in the rich fertile soil of your people and culture.”

It is not so much that Reagan employed soaring rhetoric and powerful imagery while Carter’s language was more pedestrian. There is something more fundamentally different. Carter is apologetic about America. Reagan saw America as a “shining city on a hill.” Reagan always sought to be as good a president as his country deserved. Carter sought to make his country as good as he perceived himself to be. Reagan believed in America, Carter believes in his own rectitude. In his righteousness, Carter squandered a unique opportunity to call Cubans to freedom and to make a powerful demand for Castro to free his people. It is unfortunate that Carter delivered such a forgettable speech.

Thoughts of a Father on Father’s Day

Thursday, May 16th, 2002

The statistics are clear to everyone with even an approximation of an open mind. The presence of a father in the home is highly correlated with the well being of children. Children fortunate enough to have both a father and a mother in the home perform better is school, are healthier, are less likely to live in poverty or commit suicide, and are less likely to become involved in drugs, than children raised by a single parent. On Father’s Day, it is important to emphasize the importance of fathers.

This strong positive social effect does not necessarily mean that the relationships between fathers and sons will always be smooth and easy. Indeed, the father-son relationship can be complex and define the way both interact with the rest of the world.

In an article in the National Review, Mark Goldblatt ruminates over the relationship with his own father. He argues that the natural competition between fathers and sons explains why “Sons are their fathers’ only natural predators.” Goldblatt suggests that the following dilemma confronts fathers and their sons. If a son fails to become as accomplished as his father, the father is disappointed. If on the other hand, the son is more successful, the father is left with sour envy. It is as if the success of the son somehow acts as a reproach of the father. It is almost certain that Goldblatt’s generalization is overly tainted by the relationship he describes with his own father in National Review. Goldblatt’s father lacked a college education and was apparently unsure of his own intelligence. The young Goldblatt was afflicted with the natural arrogance of youth and confident in his own abilities. Perhaps the young Goldblatt even deliberately aggravated his father’s sensitivity. As Goldblatt explains,

“[My father] looked up from dinner one evening and said, `You probably think you’re smarter than me, don’t you?’ So I glanced up at him and replied, `No, not really.’ This was a lie: Of course I was smarter than he was! The issue had been settled so long ago in my mind that I thought he was asking a trick question.”

Goldblatt story is a sad one. Apparently, he has spent the time after his father’s death trying to reconcile himself to the relationship he had with his father.

However, the fallacy of the father’s dilemma as posed Goldblatt lies in the assumption that the success and challenges faced by sons can be separated from those of the father. If a son is very successful, then the father is successful as well. If a son is struggling, then the father shares in the struggle.

It is not that fathers fail to compete with children. Fathers should compete with their sons (and daughters) as a means to build up the competence and confidence of their children, butnot as a way to demonstrate their own vigor and superiority. Children need the challenges posed by parents to develop a sense of their limits and strengths. But their successes and failures are shared by their parents

Nonetheless, when children get a little too confident, it is wise to provide them a little perspective. To my children, I often find myself paraphrasing the words of Sir Isaac Newton. If my children can see farther than their parents, it is because they stand on the shoulders of giants.

The Weakness of an International Criminal Court

Sunday, May 12th, 2002

It is politically convenient for Democrats to characterize President George Bush as a single-minded right-wing ideologue. The truth is that Bush is an ideological conservative, but also a temperamentally moderate practical politician, very disposed to tact with the prevailing political winds. While he is focused on the pursuit of terrorists, on just about every other issue, Bush has shown a readiness to compromise with political adversaries in Congress when necessary. Bush signed an Education Bill that was far shorter on reform than he would have wanted. Bush signed a Campaign Finance Reform Bill he believes may violate the First Amendment. More recently, Bush has promised to sign a budget-busting agriculture bill aimed by Democrats and Republicans at purchasing contested Senate seats in the Midwest.

It is, therefore, pleasing that the Bush Administration has decided to eschew the easy path and renounce United States support for the International Criminal Court. The Administration accurately argued that, “…the International Criminal Court is built on a flawed foundation. These flaws leave it open for exploitation and politically motivated prosecutions.”

Even President Clinton recognized the shortcomings of the agreement, but characteristically tried to have it both ways. He signed the agreement on December 31, 2000, but did not submit the treaty for ratification in the Senate knowing it faced defeat. Clinton played to European opinion, while avoiding any political price at home.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is a standing court ostensibly designed to prosecute those guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. It is likely to be yet another European bureaucracy, headed by a prosecutor accountable only to himself, designed more for political posturing than to address serious prosecutions. At best, the ICC is unnecessary and at worst, it could make more difficult the transition from authoritarian or totalitarian regimes to more democratic ones.

There are many despots and mass murders, who in a perfect world, could and should be subject to prosecution, but so long as they remain in their own countries they are unlikely to ever be punished. The organizer of the mass murder at the New York World Trade Centers, Osma bin Ladin, or North Korean leader Kim Jong Il are not particularly worried about prosecution by any standing international court. In other cases, when an overwhelming military victory makes it possible to seize persons involved in war crimes or genocide, the formation of ad hoc courts of jurisdiction has not been a problem. The International Military Tribunal held in Nuremberg, Germany following World War II was sufficient to try captured Nazi leaders.

In some cases, the presence of a standing court could prolong the tenure of despotic regimes. For example. it is certainly the case that Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, could be convicted of leading a cruel and murderous regime. However, the settlement that ushered in a democratic government promised amnesty to both the military government and anti-government rebels. Without the amnesty or with threat of prosecution by a third party international court, the Chilean military government may have found it in their interests to hold out longer to avoid prosecution and punishment. In such a case, the price of a standing international court might be unnecessarily prolonged suffering.

In the United States, it took the prosecution of Democrats and Republicans by various independent prosecutors to convince both parties that an unregulated prosecutorial office is open to political abuse. There can be no doubt that the European-dominated ICC will BE subject to the same political imperatives. Given the European culture and the broad language of ICC protocols which allows prosecutions for such vague crimes as imposing “mental harm,” one can envision that such a court would prosecute US officials for genocide in allowing for capital punishment, for collateral damage in Afghanistan, or for the suffering caused by the embargo against Iraq. Israelis will face prosecution for anti-terrorist activities.

At the same time, Europeans are too busy sunning themselves on vacations to Cuban beaches to ever bother prosecuting Fidel Castro for four decades of oppression and murder. Europeans are too dependent on drinking at the spigot of Iraqi oil to prosecute Saddam Hussein for his use of biological weapons against Iraqis. Even if the court could bring itself to prosecute the leaders of such regimes, without the ability to enforce their decisions the prosecutions become fruitless.

Yes, it is heartening, that Bush sees through the posturing and moral chest beating of European and American supporters of the ICC and refused to follow the fantasy. Without the US, the ICC will just become another small and irrelevant bureaucracy providing lifetime employment for another generation of European intellectuals.

Letting Standards Fall

Sunday, May 5th, 2002

One bit of conventional wisdom holds that an academic degree from Harvard is a ticket to a life of affluence and ease. Regardless of the accuracy of that observation, it appears that admission to Harvard as an undergraduate is now virtually a guarantee of excellent grades. Students overwhelmingly accumulate A’s and B’s and a remarkable 90% graduate with honors. The honors citation has increasingly become a way to identify the few poor students who don’t receive honors rather than a means to focus particular tribute upon outstanding students.

Patrick Healy of the Boston Globe, interviewed Trevor Cox in his senior year at Harvard. Only in his last year was Cox finally challenged by the work on his senior thesis. Cox explained, “I’ve coasted on far higher grades than I deserve… It’s scandalous. You can get very good grades, and earn honors, without ever producing quality work.”

A few professors at Harvard have attempted to maintain an island of integrity in the on rushing torrent of easy A’s. Professor Harvey C. (“C-minus”) Mansfield, who teaches Government 1061, was a notoriously hard grader in comparison to his colleagues. Actually, his grading policy had remained constant over time while policies had loosened around him. Students were torn. If they took Mansfield’s course, they might be challenged but only at the cost of hurting themselves in the class rank competition among other students.

In an effort to strike a compromise, Mansfield now awards two grades. The official grade for the transcript is in keeping with the easy grading policies of his colleagues. The second grade tells students what they truly deserve. For the official record, only 27% of his students received a B or lower. The overwhelming majority were awarded a B-plus or above. For the second grade, only 15% of his students earned a grade higher than a B.

There are many reasons for grade inflation in academia, particularly at Ivy League schools. Part of it began during the Vietnam era when high grades helped students remain in school and retain an academic deferment from the draft. Interestingly, the largest jump in grades occurred when the average SAT scores dropped.

In 1969, Harvard made a bold effort to admit additional minority students. The African-American enrollment in the freshman class doubled from 60 to 120. SAT scores for entering freshman dropped, yet the fraction of grades of B or higher increased 10%. Not only were professors making allowances for a new set of less academically prepared students, out of fairness, they made it easier for other students as well.

The University of California system is preparing to embark on a similar reduction of standards in the service of attempts to change the demographics of enrollment. Richard Atkinson, the president of the university system, released a report arguing that the SAT tests should no longer be required for admission.

Atkinson frets that when he visited a private school he observed, “students studying verbal analogies in anticipation of the SAT.” Some observers might be heartened by diligent students improving their verbal skills. Atkinson, who is more astute in these matters than most of us, concluded, “America’s overemphasis on the SAT is compromising our educational system.” Obviously, we must free students from the oppressive yoke of verbal analogies.

How about this for a verbal analogy? Atkinson is to academic excellence, what rust is to metal. Atkinson is a corrosive force that if left unchecked can undermine the academic integrity of the University of California system.

There really are two not-so-attractive reasons for eliminating SAT scores as a requirement. The first is to allow the University of California school system to make admissions decisions based on skin color and ethnic background without the interference of academic preparedness as an inconvenient constraint. Ironically, the second reason some schools have eliminated SAT’s as an academic requirement is to increase the apparent (though not actual) academic selectiveness of the university. When SAT’s are optional, the better students tend to be the only ones who submit them. The average SAT scores (among those reporting, of course) will increase. When various college ranking services rank colleges by the SAT scores of incoming freshman, schools that eliminate SAT’s as a requirement are at an advantage. Dickinson College reportedly had a 60-point increase in the average SAT score of incoming freshman when the test was made optional.

The truth is that Atkinson of the University of California and Harvard University need to recognize that no amount of fudging the results of the educational process at the tail end is sufficient. Indeed, such efforts are probably counterproductive. There is a real and urgent problem with educational opportunity for minority students. The sooner we grant such students the means to escape failed public school systems, the sooner the University of California system, Harvard University, and other schools can return to the celebration of academic excellence rather than avoiding its consequences.


  • Healy, Patrick,“Harvard’s Quiet Secret: Rampant Grade Inflation,” Boston Globe, October 27, 2001.
  • Arkin-Gallagher, Anna, “California SAT Decision Sparks Controversy,” The Yale Hearld, May 3, 2002.