AS PROLIFIC and provocative as Stephen Jay Gould was on evolution, it was understandable that most obituaries on his recent death were obligated to focus on his notion of a ''punctuated equilibrium.'' Gould and colleague Niles Eldredge proposed that evolution was marked not by a continuous and gradual change of species but by sudden appearances of new species that themselves changed very little during their millions of years on earth.
Gould also wrote mightily against punctuated inequality.
Twenty years ago, Gould, a Harvard University scientist, published ''The Mismeasure of Man,'' which challenged the historical ranking of people by so-called levels of intelligence. Gould led the reader on a near-comical documentary of the ways the scientists of yesteryear tried to measure skulls, brains, heredity, and even the tattooing on criminals with the primary goal of declaring that western and northern Europeans had higher IQs than Eastern and Southern Europeans and people of color had much lower IQs. One famous example quoted by Gould was Louis Agassiz, the Harvard zoologist of the mid-1800s, who wrote that black people are part of a ''degraded and degenerate race.''
In 1996 Gould published a revised edition of ''The Mismeasure of Man,'' because men were still mismeasuring men and women. In 1994, right-wing political activist Charles Murray and the late Harvard psychology professor Richard Herrnstein hit the best-seller lists with ''The Bell Curve,'' which claimed that black people have lower and more fixed IQs than white people.
Gould exposed ''The Bell Curve'' as devoid of serious facts or new arguments. Gould said the book was ''a manifesto of conservative ideology, and its sorry and biased treatment of data records the primary purpose - advocacy above all. The text evokes the dreary and scary drumbeat of claims associated with conservative think tanks - reduction or elimination of welfare, ending of affirmative action in schools and workplaces, cessation of Head Start and other forms of preschool education, cutting of programs for slowest learners, and application of funds to the gifted.''
Gould said the book presented an ''apocalyptic vision of a society with a growing underclass permanently mired in the inevitable sloth of their low IQs. They will take over our city centers, keep having illegitimate babies (for many are too stupid to practice birth control), commit more crimes and ultimately require a kind of custodial state, more to keep them in check (and out of our high IQ neighborhoods).''
The ''custodial state'' of Murray and Herrnstein is already here: By the 1990s states had begun to spend more on prisons than on higher education. Though white Americans smoke, snort, and inject illegal drugs in proportion to their share of the population, the jails were disproportionately filled in the 1980s and '90s with young black men who were easy for police to snatch up off street corners. While this confirmed to many conservatives the existence of black numskulls, no one asked whether the police needed higher IQs to look over the white picket fences of white suburbia.
Contrary to the smug self-assurance of too many white Americans that the United States has evolved into a permanent enlightenment, Gould reminded us that three times in the 20th century alone, the United States suffered a punctuated loss of political equilibrium. Gould noted three major surges of ranking people by intelligence - in the anti-immigrant, antiblack lynching years after World War I, in the rush by conservatives in the 1970s to declare the social programs of the 1960s a failure (which spurred him to write the original ''Mismeasure of Man''), and ''The Bell Curve.''
Gould wrote that it was no accident that ''The Bell Curve'' was published precisely when Newt Gingrich rose to power in Congress, ''with a new age of social meanness unprecedented in my lifetime.'' The meanness is still here, as social programs to the most needy are the first item on the chopping block in the current fiscal crisis in the states.
Gould wrote: ''What argument against social change could be more chillingly effective than the claim that established orders, with some groups on top and others at the bottom, exist as an accurate reflection of the innate and unchangeable intellectual capacities of people so ranked? Why struggle and spend to raise the unboostable IQ of races or social classes at the bottom of the economic ladder; better simply to accept nature's unfortunate dictates and save a passel of federal funds; (we can then more easily sustain tax breaks for the wealthy!)?''
With his fame, Gould could have easily holed up in his libraries, labs, and lecture halls and decided not to struggle against these ceaselessly chilling arguments. His fight not just for his own theories of punctuated equilibrium, but for equilibrium in science itself was Gould's gift to us. He died hoping we would evolve into a race that would no longer mismeasure people.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company