Gould on Abandoning Offensive Terminology

At the moment I’m reading through Stephen Jay Gould’s second anthology of natural history essays, The Panda’s Thumb (W. W. Norton & Co., 1980). As with Gould’s first such collection, Ever Since Darwin (W. W. Norton & Co., 1977), the essays in The Panda’s Thumb not only describe evolutionary theory and paleontology in ways accessible to laymen, but also delve into the historical context of the discoveries that drive these fields.

When reading Gould, I always appreciate his willingness to go beyond the biographies of scientists and the oft-told anecdotes involving their work. Indeed, Gould takes a particular interest in the underlying cultural assumptions that inform the scientific process. The Panda’s Thumb contains a whole set of essays (subtitled “Science and Politics of Human Differences”) which concern the ways in which scientists have historically used the trappings of their discipline to reinforce the racial and gender-based prejudices of their cultures.

I’d like to discuss one these essays briefly: “Dr. Down’s Syndrome” (pp. 160-168 in The Panda’s Thumb). Although the first few paragraphs describe the process which leads to trisomy 21, better known as Down syndrome, and the effects of the condition, Gould devotes most of his energies to discussing the names given the condition. “We have all seen children with Down’s syndrome,” he writes, “and I feel certain that I have not been alone in wondering why the condition was ever designated Mongolian idiocy” (p. 161, emphasis original).

What follows is a dissection of the biological views of the 19th- and early 20th-centuries which led to the condition’s designation as “Mongolian idiocy” or “mongolism.” Some scientists of the era had tried to extend their understandings of embryonic development and comparative anatomy to intra-human differences, thereby producing an evidence-based racial classification system (with, unsurprisingly, white Europeans at the top). The mechanics of the system are a bit complicated, but suffice it to say that thinkers such as Down saw similarities between people with mental disabilities and non-Europeans. In their view, white Europeans with mental disabilities “must represent arrests of development and owe their mental deficiency to a retention of traits and abilities that would be judged normal in adults of lower races” (p. 164).

Gould ends his essay by calling on the medical authorities to stop using “Mongolian idiocy” or “mongolism,” and instead solely adopt the term “Down’s syndrome.” (This became the accepted policy a few years after this essay’s first publication, although today the term “Down syndrome,” without the possessive, is the preferred name.) But why, Gould anticipates some readers objecting, should we discontinue the use of a technical term, one that has been in the language for some time? Racism is horrible, granted, but shouldn’t we keep the workings of scientific fields separate from cultural norms?

Thus we get to the part of the essay I find most interesting: what is Gould’s specific justification for discontinuing the use of a term such as “Mongolian idiocy”?

Gould suggests that there are two possible justification for abandoning a term: the term is offensive, or the term is inaccurate. He does not seem to believe that the former, on its own, can justify a change in terminology, offering an analogy to the arts:

I suffer extreme discomfort every time I sing in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and must, as an angry member of the Jewish crowd, shout out the passage that served for centuries as an “official” justification for anti-Semitism: Sein Blut komme über uns urd unsre Kinder–“His blood be upon us and upon our children.” Yet, as he to whom the passage refers said in another context, I would not change “one jot or one tittle” of Bach’s text. (pp. 167-168)

Gould’s response is a common one in the arts; recall the outcry when publisher NewSouth Books released a version of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which removed racial slurs from the text. Such excisions, well-intentioned though they are, paper over the sins of the past and present rather than engaging with them. The potential benefit seems inadequate to justifying altering an artist’s text. (That is, consequently, why I have chosen to preserve Gould’s use of the term “orientals” in a subsequent quote.)

Of course, Gould’s analogy invites an immediate disanalogy: science, unlike art, explicitly makes truth claims about the actual world. (Whether fictional works are even capable of making truth claims about the actual world is a topic of debate in aesthetics.) Gould is naturally aware of this fact; indeed, his very next sentence acknowledges it: “But scientific names are not literary monuments” (p. 168). From there, Gould moves onto consider the second possible justification, inaccuracy:

Mongolian idiocy is not only defamatory. It is wrong on all counts. We no longer classify mental deficiency as a unilinear sequence. Children with Down’s syndrome do not resemble orientals to any great extent, if at all. And, most importantly, the name only has meaning in the context of Down’s discredited theory of racial reversion as the cause of mental deficiency. (p. 168)

And yet I doubt that Gould believes that inaccuracy alone is sufficient grounds for abandoning a term either. After all, we have long since known that an atom, whose name comes from the Ancient Greek for “uncuttable” or “indivisible,” is not in fact indivisible, yet the name persists without controversy.

I feel that first sentence of the above quote is important. Why mention that the term is question is “not only defamatory” if its defamatory nature were not relevant to the discussion of its use? Surely there are other transitions from one thought to the next if Gould believes that sensitivity to racial prejudices should play no role in choosing scientific terminology.

Rather, I would interpret Gould’s position like so: separately, both offensiveness and inaccuracy are necessary conditions for abandoning a term, but only in conjunction are these justifications sufficient for doing so. Requiring the presence of both conditions would allow science to pursue truth relatively unencumbered, while still maintaining awareness of and sensitivity to the society that science hopes to better.

Whether Gould would accept this reading, however, I cannot sure. After all, he does not provide an example of the key remaining test case: a scientific term that is offensive but accurately describes the phenomena. If he advocated we still use such a term, then there would be a different principle at work than the one I’ve suggested. And, of course, this all assumes that Gould’s principle is the one we should adopt, which is not necessarily the case. But at the very least, the discussion he encourages in “Dr. Down’s Syndrome” is one that is worth having.

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