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The Gould Page


Below is a very brief summary of the Gould review.  You will need to use the more detailed summary here to revise for the exam.

You can also find all of the past exam questions on Gould's review here. 

An amazing web site devoted to the work and life of Stephen Jay Gould. 

Here is an audio clip of Gould's appearance on The Simpsons  (Lisa the Skeptic)

Even better - here is a video clip of Stephen's appearance on The Simpsons. 




Stephen Jay Gould

The aim of this review article was to expose the fundamental problems involved in Yerkes attempts to measure intelligence during the First World War.

Robert Yerkes was a psychologist and in 1915 mental testing did not enjoy much credibility, so Yerkes tried to change this.  Yerkes was concerned to establish psychology as a ‘hard’ science and believed that using such a ‘scientific’ approach to mental testing looked a promising route to achieve this.  He believed that intelligence testing should be as rigorous as any other science and he equated science with number and quantification

During the First World War (1914-18) Yerkes found an opportunity to promote the use and status of mental testing and therefore the status of psychology as a serious science.   The American military gave Yerkes permission to carry out mental tests to over 1.75 million army recruits. 

In 1917, Yerkes devised three types of mental tests:

Army Alpha - A written test for literate recruits. The Alpha test had eight parts, such as analogies, filling in the missing number, and unscrambling a sentence.   These types of tests have now become common in modern IQ tests.

Army Beta - A pictorial test for men who were illiterate or who failed the alpha.  The Beta test had seven parts including running a maze, number work and the picture completion task.

Individual Examination - An individual spoken test for men who failed the Beta

The Alpha and Beta tests could be administered to large groups and took less than an hour to complete. 

Yerkes argued that his tests measured ‘native intellectual ability’, in other words, innate intelligence which was unaffected by culture and educational opportunities.

Yerkes identified three ‘facts’ which were discovered from the intelligence testing.

  1. The average mental age of White American adults was 13.  The score of 13 was at the top of the category of ‘moronity’.   That is why the title of the article is ‘A Nation of Morons’, because the ‘data’ showed that the USA was just that.  Terman had previously set the standard at 16.
  2. It was possible to grade European immigrants by their country of origin.  The average man of many countries was a moron, with the fair people of Northern and Western Europe scoring higher than the Slavs of Eastern Europe and the darker people of Southern Europe. (The average Russian had a mental age of 11.34; the Italian, 11.01; the Pole, 10.74).

3.      The average score of Black men was 10.4, which was considerably below the White average.


These findings were used to support the idea of genetic differences between ‘races’.  Carl Brigham, one of Yerkes’ colleagues, using a genetic explanation of the data proposed the racial superiority of the Nordic people (from Northern Europe).

Similarly it was argued that the average scores from the different national groups reflected innate racial differences.

Based on these ‘facts’, and lobbying from scientists who supported the eugenics argument, the Immigration Restriction Act (1924) was passed by the US Congress.   The Act set immigration quotas based on the US population in 1890 (over 30 years prior to the Act). This year was used as the benchmark because immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe had been relatively low before this date.

During the next 20 years, conditions deteriorated dramatically in Europe for Slavs and Jews as the Nazi governments enacted policies of ‘racial purity’ culminating in genocide.  Estimates suggest that the immigration quotas barred up to six million people from Europe, a number with great significance in the history of Europe.

Gould identified many problems with the mass intelligence testing. In particular he pointed to the cultural bias in the tests. 

The Beta test required a high level of cultural and educational knowledge to be completed successfully.  For example, recent immigrants would have to be familiar with phonograms, tennis courts and light bulbs.

There were also a number of problems in the administration of the tests. In particular, many who were illiterate in English were still allocated to the Alpha test and so scored zero or near to zero. Because Yerkes had overestimated the level of literacy the queues for the Beta test became very long, leading to the inappropriate re-allocation of men to the Alpha test. Failures on the Alpha tests were often not recalled to take the Beta test. Therefore, recent immigrants who had a poor grasp of English, and Black men who had not been given much, if any, formal education, were unable to score on the Alpha test.

Another problem was that even the Beta test required the use of pencil and the writing of numbers, and many men had never even seen or used a pencil before.

Conditions in which the tests were taken were also unsatisfactory.  For example, the time allowed was insufficient and an air of panic surrounded the whole procedure. To men unused to the written word or number, the event must have been extremely bewildering.

Gould argues that with such problems, the data should be looked at with considerably scepticism.

Gould clearly exposes in his review some of the ridiculous and racist explanations put forward by Yerkes and his colleagues.

Gould’s article highlights the scientific racism, (i.e. the use of bogus scientific arguments to oppress another group) in the arguments made by Yerkes and uncovered some of the awful consequences of this racism.