The Inferiority Complex

The Mismeasure of Man

by Stephen Jay Gould
Norton, 352 pp., $14.95

The first meeting of Oliver Twist and young Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, on the road to London was a confrontation between two stereotypes of nineteenth-century literature. The Dodger was a “snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy…with rather bow legs and little sharp ugly eyes.” Nor was he much on English grammar and pronunciation. “I’ve got to be in London tonight,” he tells Oliver, “and I know a ‘spectable old genelman lives there, wot’ll give you lodgings for nothink….” He was just what we might have expected of a ten-year-old streetwise orphan with no education and no loving family, brought up among the dregs of the Victorian Lumpenproletariat.

Oliver’s speech, manner, and posture were very different. ” ‘I am very hungry and tired,’ ” he says, “the tears standing in his eyes as he spoke. ‘I have walked a long way. I have been walking these seven days.’ ” Although he was a “pale, thin child,” there was a “good sturdy spirit in Oliver’s breast.” Yet Oliver was born and raised in that most degrading of nineteenth-century institutions, the parish workhouse, deprived of all love and education. During the first nine years of his life he, “together with twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws, rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or clothing.”

Where amid the oakum pickings did Oliver find the moral sensitivity and knowledge of the English subjunctive that accorded so well with his delicate form? The solution of this, the central mystery of the novel, is that Oliver’s blood was upper-middle-class, though his nourishment was gruel. Oliver’s whole being is an affirmation of the power of nature over nurture. It is a nineteenth-century prefiguration of the adoption study of modern psychologists, showing that children’s temperaments and cognitive powers resemble those of their biological parents whatever may be their upbringing. Blood will tell.

Dickens’s explanation of the contrast between Oliver and the Artful Dodger is a form of a general ideology that has dominated European and American social thought for the last 200 years, and is the central concern of Stephen Jay Gould’s book—the ideology of biological determinism. According to this view, the patent differences between individuals, sexes, ethnic groups, and races in status, wealth, and power are based on innate biological differences in temperament and ability which are passed from parent to offspring at conception. There have, of course, been countercurrents of “environmentalism” emphasizing the malleability of individual development and the historical contingency of group differences, but, with the exception of Skinnerian behaviorism, all modern theories of social development have assumed an irreducible nontrivial variation in innate abilities among individuals and between groups. Occasionally, the political consequences of extreme biologism have been so repugnant that environmental and social explanations of group differences have held temporary sway. So, the practical application of biological race theory by the National Socialist state discredited biological theories of racial and ethnic superiority for about thirty years, but …

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Letters

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