Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2922
SOURCE: Young, J. Z. “The Ape Who Never Grows Up.” New York Review of Books 25, no. 9 (1 June 1978): 12-13.
[In the following review of Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Young offers a summary and analysis of Gould's major arguments.]
It is curious that through the centuries men seem to have been more interested in studying the heavens than things on Earth. Even when they did begin to investigate terrestrial matters it was the inorganic that they studied first. Exact knowledge about living creatures has come last of all among the sciences. So it has come about that Newton and his successors among physicists and chemists have usually been considered to be the only real scientists. Nor can we say that things have changed much recently. The use of high energies to break up atoms and to blow men to the moon is still acclaimed as the most fundamental form of inquiry. Man seems to have an urge to “get to the bottom of things,” to break them up, and he continually expects to find “ultimate” particles of which all are made. It may even be that there is some special property in our brains that makes it seem so obvious that such analysis is the most profound form of knowledge, to which we should all aspire. Or is it the result of cultural and economic influences in the West over recent centuries?
A little thought surely makes one wonder whether this cult of analysis is really as sensible as it seems. Most of the phenomena that we meet around us are not simple things at all but highly complicated systems of interacting parts. Surely the most challenging problems are how such complexes arise and are maintained. Especially for the study of living creatures including ourselves much more than a knowledge of ultimate particles is needed. Yet it is only in the last twenty years that biology has found, through the genetic code, the means for understanding how it is possible for these enormously complicated groups of molecules to maintain their organization for millions of years. The secret is of course that each single mass of living matter is sooner or later destroyed, and then replaced by new individuals, made by embryological processes directed by a new set of instructions.
At least since Aristotle men have speculated about how a wonderfully elaborate creature can emerge from a simple little egg. In Ontogeny and Phylogeny Stephen Jay Gould traces for us the history of the two sorts of explanation of this mystery of development, solutions that depend upon two different approaches to science. If one is to believe one's eyes the chicken is not there in the egg. Therefore some outside influence must be at work to put in the legs and eyes, the beak and the feathers and all the rest. This is the theory known as epigenesis, and to find the outside force thinkers have invented all sorts of mysterious and mystical agents. Aristotle postulated a sequence of increasingly higher “souls” that enter the human embryo, first the “nutritive,” then “sensitive,” and finally “rational,” an idea that still appeals to some religious controversialists today.
The other theory about development is preformation, which holds that one should not trust one's eyes, since they are not good enough to show everything that is in the egg or sperm. The chicken must be there all the time and with good enough lenses one would see it. Indeed the very earliest microscopist, the Dutchman Leeuwenhoek, when he saw human spermatozoa for the first time in the seventeenth century, thought he could see a little person in each one of them.
Which of the theories is right; which of them is more truly “scientific”? Here are problems indeed, and as Joseph Needham once said, the history of the discussion of them is almost synonymous with the history of embryology. The epigeneticists seem to be more “objective,” they won't let us imagine what we cannot see. But they have to postulate unknown forces to make the parts of the body appear. The preformationists seem to avoid that mystery; but if the embryo is “really” there all the time, then it seems that all human history must have been encapsulated in the ovaries of Eve—“the homunculus in the egg, the next homunculus in the egg of the homunculus, box within box within box, to prospective future generations of incredible tininess.” At first thought no idea could be more absurd, and yet for Charles Bonnet in 1794, “This hypothesis of encapsulation is one of the greatest victories that pure understanding has won over the senses.” And perhaps, as we shall see, he was not so far wrong.
What can the answer be? As is often the case the truth lies in between. The preformationists correctly said that the explanation cannot be intervention of mysterious forces like the soul, sent in from outside. Something must be there all the time, But what is it? Until this century no one had realized that what we have to look for is not some tiny complete organism in the egg, but the coded instructions of how to make one. The preformation idea was partly right. The “something” that is there is information, and this has indeed been accumulating in the code of the nucleic acids ever since the origin of life. It needed such inventions as player pianos and computer programs to teach people to look for coded instructions. So the epigeneticists were also right when they said that the organs are not all there in the egg, and their gradual appearance is not an illusion.
Modern discussions mostly imply that the victory was wholly for epigenesis, probably because the thought of Eve's ovary is so absurd. But the really serious difficulty of the old preformationist theory is that it assumes a perfect identity of replication. It allows no place for change and therefore it died with Darwin and the Origin of Species. But the epigeneticists were left without any explanation of how the organs appear in the embryo or of, how changes in this process have occurred during evolution. Those who study embryonic development have wrestled with this question ever since and are still only beginning to glimpse its solution.
The life history of every individual does in fact largely resemble that of its ancestors, rather as the preformationists suggested. In spite of evolution much remains little changed. For example, all mammals have a series of gill pouches when they are fetuses, and indeed our ears are the remains of the first gill chamber, still communicating with the mouth, as we recognize by the pain in our eardrums when an airplane descends. Early embryologists were very much struck by such facts and they developed the doctrine that the life of each individual recapitulates the history of the race. In technical terms, that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” Taken literally this implies that you have gill slits as a fetus because your ancestor was a fish (true) and that new stages have since been added to the previous fish to make a mammal, but this is false. The question is at what stage in a life history does novelty appear? According to recapitulationists, evolution proceeds by addition at the end. “Higher” creatures have new characters added at the end of their development.
We know now that this is not true and that changes may take place at any stage. The apparent “recapitulation” is the result of the “conservatism” of living things. Making a complex animal from a simple spherical egg is an amazingly intricate process. As evolution proceeds new genes can modify the course of development, but they never wholly alter it. So the old mechanisms such as those that make gills were modified but not completely lost when land animals evolved.
One might think that this was clear enough, but the idea of recapitulation has been extremely powerful and widespread and still persists today. As Stephen Gould says, it had, and still has, an influence on human affairs probably greater even than the theory of natural selection. The great recapitulationist Ernst Haeckel produced in 1899 a book called The Riddle of the Universe (Die Welträtsel), which sold half a million copies in Germany alone. Ostensibly it was based on science but it preached doctrines of racial purity and the right of favored races to dominate, which were such powerful features of the ideology of Nazism. Recapitulation provides a perfect basis for the racist. “Children of higher races (invariably one's own) are passing through and beyond the permanent condition of adults in lower races. If adults of lower races are like white children, then they may be treated as such—subdued, disciplined and managed.”
There have been many such connections of solutions of political and educational problems with recapitulation, all based on the assumption that evolution consists in the addition of later and better stages to the previous imperfect ones. If ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny every normal child passes through a primitive “savage” phase, and should be treated accordingly. Again, according to the Italian Lombroso, the founder of “criminal anthropology,” delinquents are arrested at a lower stage of mental and even physical development so it is obviously no good trying to educate them. He did however suggest that 60 percent of criminals lack those supposed physical stigmata of primitiveness and their delinquency must be due to circumstance—but the other 40 percent should be segregated as brutes. His ideas were not quite so pernicious as they seem because they were an attempt to reform the prison system by isolation of the really black sheep. But social reforms cannot be based upon unsound biological reasoning. Unfortunately there have been many further recent examples of such reforms.
Both Freud and Jung were firm recapitulationists. Jung's idea of archetypes is based upon recapitulation, and he wrote that “childhood is a state of the past.” For Freud “each individual somehow recapitulates in an abbreviated form the entire development of the human race” (Introductory Lectures, 1916). He combined this with a Lamarckian belief in the inheritance of acquired characters. Even in his last book, Moses and Monotheism (1939), he says, “I cannot picture biological development proceeding without taking this factor into account.” He knew of course that biologists reject Lamarckism, so what is one to make of a scientist so ready to ignore the evidence? Charitably we can suppose that he probably had not really read or understood the data of modern genetics. The psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi carried the idea of recapitulation to absurdity, supposing that the latency period following infantile sexuality recapitulates the ice ages. Gould comments, “Though lest one wonder why we didn't do ourselves in by declining to copulate during cold times, Ferenczi assures us that the ice ages only redirected some of our genital drives to the development of ‘higher’ intellectual and moral activity.”
But besides these and many other wild attempts at explanation of the human condition, there has been a steady growth of understanding of how development is in fact modified during evolutionary change. In the last century it was pointed out by the German von Baer that all eggs are rather alike. In fact the young stages of animals are more like each other than the adults. Then the British zoologist Walter Garstang showed how new characters may arise at any stage of development. They can come to appear either earlier or later in development by the process known as heterochrony.
The time of appearance of characters can change independently. Thus if the genital system matures relatively faster than the rest of the body, the result may be a sexually mature larva, as in the case of the famous Mexican Axolotl, a species of salamander which in some lakes becomes sexually mature while still in the tadpole stage. The terrestrial part of the life cycle is thus completely eliminated, the condition called neoteny. Garstang expressed this in one of his poems, published posthumously:
But when a lake's attractive, nicely aired and full of food, They cling to youth perpetual, and rear a tadpole brood.
There are obviously many possible variations in the times of development of different parts of the body. Earlier maturity can be achieved either by acceleration of growth of the sex organs or by delay of growth of the body and so on. The various combinations have attracted the attention of those zoologists who like inventing new names, as I know to my cost, since my own tutor in Oxford, Gavin Rylands de Beer, was the worst offender, in his book Embryos and Ancestors (1928). Gould spends many pages trying to disentangle the confusion that de Beer introduced and readers may join him in thinking, as we students did, that it was never really necessary. However his mass of Greek names introduced us to a host of fascinating creatures with bizarre methods of reproduction. Change in the relative rate of development of various parts of the body has been one of the most powerful agents in evolution. For example, if a larval environment presents a great abundance of food then a species may exploit it by accelerated development, known as paedogenesis, ensuring that the larvae reproduce rapidly. Everyone knows how quickly greenfly (aphids) multiply on the rose bushes. They do it by parthenogenesis: the eggs develop unfertilized within the mother; then another embryo begins to develop within the first and a third within the second, so that the grandmother comes to contain several generations. This telescoping can theoretically allow one female to produce 524 billions in a year.
Similarly gall midges lay their eggs on mushrooms and to exploit this ephemeral bonanza the larvae develop parthenogenetically in the mother, but when further larvae develop then the first generation dissolve their tissues to provide nourishment so “when the larvae emerge their own parent is no more than a hollow shell.” Gould adds, “Greater love hath no woman.” When the mushroom has finally all been eaten a new sort of larva appears and develops into sexual forms whose offspring fly off to find new food.
Many zoologists believe that several of the major classes of animal have been evolved by similar “paedogenetic” changes. There is some evidence that the ancestors of vertebrates were once rather like the larvae of starfishes or sea urchins. Then by neoteny these larvae became sexually mature adults and finally evolved into fishes, while the starfish stage disappeared from the cycle altogether. How odd to think that once your ancestor was rather like a sea urchin or a feather star!
Such theories are difficult either to prove or to disprove, but they are of especial importance to us because of the suggestion that man is a neotenous ape. There is increasing agreement that our evolution during the last five million years or so has been largely due to retardation of the time of development of sexual maturity. To put it in the crude terms of the Dutchman Bolk who originated the theory, “man is a foetal ape” or, as I prefer to put it, we achieve manhood by never growing up to apehood. Many of our characters as adults are like those of baby gorillas or chimpanzees, for example our large heads and short jaws and sparse hair.
However it is better not to insist too much that an adult man is a fetal ape, which, taken literally, is rather an absurd proposition. The truth is more likely to be that we have evolved by retardation of the time of sexual development. Most mammals become sexually mature shortly after they have finished growing (or even before). But in humans there is a long period of slow growth, followed by a rapid “adolescent growth spurt.” During the period while he or she is small and dependent on the parents the child learns to make use of the large brain with which he or she is endowed. This long childhood has made possible our characteristic social and cultural developments, and has also given us a lifetime longer than that of any other mammals. As Bolk put it, “The life of man runs slowly.”
Stephen Gould follows all the arguments that this theory has provoked, in his book, which is lively and readable, though technical in parts. He explains that large changes in relative rates of development of some organs of the body may be produced by small modifications of the genes that control them. “Alterations in regulation form the major stuff of evolutionary change.” He does not include the exciting evidence that the pineal gland is the source of the hormone melatonin, which holds each individual for so long in a childish state. In animals such as ferrets the sex organs are active in the spring and for the rest of the year they are inhibited by this hormone. There are a few cases of human children whose pineal has been destroyed by a tumor, with the result that they become prematurely sexually mature, perhaps even at four years old.
So it may be that some genetic factor influencing the rate of development of the pineal was the novelty that conferred all the benefits of childhood upon us. In adult humans the pineal no longer produces melatonin. It becomes calcified and makes a convenient landmark for the radiologist. We have no other use for it since our sexual activity is continuous, not fluctuating like that of ferrets. If the pineal gland has given us the power to achieve all our culture then Descartes was not entirely wrong in calling it the seat of the soul—though for quite mistaken reasons.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1643
SOURCE: Gieryn, Thomas F. “The Evolution of Evolution.” Contemporary Sociology 8, no. 1 (January 1979): 22-4.
[In the following review of Ontogeny and Phylogeny and Ever since Darwin, Gieryn argues that both books address the use of analogy in developing scientific theories and that the latter volume is especially useful for “sociologists of science.”]
Could a specialist in West Indian land snails have much to say of interest to sociologists? A decided yes, if he is a generalist in paleontology and evolutionary biology, Professor of Geology at Harvard and member of its departments of biology and history of science and, not incidentally, Stephen Jay Gould.
Ever since Darwin is a collection of essays which first appeared in Natural History, and takes up such questions as why a fly would want to eat its mother from inside, how a clam can mount a fish on its rear end, and why we should not name human races. These and thirty other puzzles are solved with guidance from Darwin's evolving theories of natural selection, which serve as an orienting framework for the book. One classic question of evolutionary biology forms the substance of Ontogeny and Phylogeny: what is the relationship between the life history of an individual (ontogeny) and the evolutionary history of a species (phylogeny)? The first part of the book provides a history of biologists' views on this relationship, and in particular traces the fate of Ernst Haeckel's idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: “During its own rapid development … an individual repeats the most important changes in form evolved by its ancestors during their long and slow paleontological development” (p. 77; Haeckel wrote this in 1866). The second part provides a review of current thinking on the subject, as well as Gould's ideas for a rapprochement between molecular and evolutionary biology.
Sociologists can be selective in reading these books. Ever since Darwin, intended for a popular audience, can be read straight through as a model for how best to convey the spirit of science and some of its substance to non-professionals. Both books will interest students of evolutionary theory, whether as intellectual history or as an orientation toward social and cultural phenomena. Sociobiologists and their critics will find essays on human evolution and restrained observations on the limits of biological explanations of human behavior. The richest lode is for sociologists of science. The first section of Ever since Darwin is “Darwiniana,” and, among weightier revelations, tells the story of how Darwin boarded the Beagle as its surgeon, and how a strategic relationship with the ship's captain allowed him to replace Robert McKormick as official naturalist. Captain Fitzroy was a descendent of King Charles II and, as an aristocrat of the 1830s, could dine only with another gentleman. Darwin found his way to the captain's table, and thus was able to procure time and resources for his naturalist studies. Gould raises an interesting question for a counter-factual history of science: “How different would the science of biology be if Darwin had been the offspring of a tradesman and not the son of a very wealthy physician?” (p. 31). Ontogeny and Phylogeny has more nuggets for the sociologist of science. The first part is a detailed account of social and cognitive forces affecting the reception and rejection of one scientific theory. The second part is largely for professional biologists and is written in an argot which may put it beyond the easy comprehension of most sociologists.
Each book offers ample evidence for the importance of analogy in the development of scientific knowledge. The analogy between stages of individual development and stages in the evolution of species provided the basis for philosophical antecedents of Haeckel's theory, for example, Aristotle's theory of epigenesis. Later, when recapitulation became a temporary part of biological thinking, it served as an analogy for theoretical orientations in other realms of science and scholarship. Gould describes the criminal anthropology of Cesare Lombroso, who suggested that criminals are individuals with arrested ontogenetic development, exhibiting signs of our apish, and presumably violent, ancestry. The biological relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny also was a useful analogy for G. Stanley Hall's theories of adolescence, Piaget's theories of cognitive development, and parts of Freud's psychoanalysis. (Freud once wrote “with neurotics it is though we were in a prehistoric landscape—for instance, in the Jurassic.”) Gould is bemused to find recapitulationist-type arguments current in other fields long after biologists had abandoned them, and he discovers in science a pattern common to anthropological studies of diffusion: traits often persist in adopting societies well after their demise at the source.
It is by analogy that much biology in general has entered the social sciences. In certain theoretical orientations, social systems are seen as analogous in structure and function to biological organisms, a theme no more apparent than in the sociology of L. J. Henderson. A sociologist reading Gould will find in all this biology innumerable analogies to social and cultural phenomena. Two are especially provocative. In a section of Ever since Darwin. Gould takes Julian Huxley at his word—“size has a fascination all its own”—and explores the relationship between size and shape in medieval churches, human brains, and planetary surfaces. Huxley gave a generic name to such studies, allometry, and though sociologists to my knowledge have not claimed to be doing allometric research, they have been. Just as Gould finds patterned relationships between body size and shape (“no large animal has a sagging middle like a dachshund” p. 177), Simmel, for example, suggests patterned relationships between the size of social groups and their internal functional differentiation.
Another analogy emerges from Gould's attempt to reconstruct recapitulationist views in the context of contemporary biology. Ontogeny and Phylogeny is “a long argument for the evolutionary importance of heterochrony—changes in the relative time of appearance and rate of development for characteristics already present in ancestors” (p. 2). A distinctive feature of human evolution, for example, is “neotony,” or “retention of formerly juvenile characteristics by adult descendents.” That is, the physical features of young apes are present in adult humans; flattering it may not be, but we are immature monkeys. By analogy, the idea might suggest to sociologists the importance of timing and sequence of the introduction of characteristics into the life cycle of a social group or individual. It is perhaps of some consequence that humans never develop to a point routinely attained by simian ancestors, where hair covers the entire body. What are the consequences of a developing bureaucracy which never reaches the stage where “administrative acts, decisions and rules are formulated and recorded in writing?” Or of receiving the Nobel Prize at age 31 instead of 87?
Biology has entered sociology substantively as well as analogically. One consequence of human neotony is prolonged dependence of newborns on their parents. Some social scientists see this biological fact as the impetus for the origin of the human family, though none of them say it as neatly as Alexander Pope: “A longer care man's helpless kind demands / That longer care contracts more lasting bands.” The extent to which human biology constrains our behavior and social structures is, of course, an important issue in the sociobiology debates. Gould makes his position clear: “the influence of class and culture far outweigh the weaker predispositions of our genetic constitution” (Ever since Darwin, p. 237). He raises doubts about a report in Science which explained panhandling in terms of kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and food-sharing among baboons, with no mention of social realities in urban America. Gould's defense of the role of cultural factors in social behavior is unequivocal, though not as well grounded in pertinent anthropological materials as, say, Marshall Sahlins's important book The Use and Abuse of Biology. Still, his discussion of biological determinism illustrates the follies which attend the confusion of analogy and homology: giving a dime to a panhandler may be analogous to baboon food-sharing without being the result of a common genetic constitution of humans and baboons.
When Gould tries to explain the persistent attraction of biological explanations of human behavior, he makes his most overt venture into the sociology of science: acceptance of some scientific theories can be understood in part by their extra-scientific social and political implications. Genetic explanations for racial differences in “intelligence”—Herbert Spencer's or Arthur Jensen's—are for Gould less consequential as scientific theories than as potential legitimations of racism. However, it would be misleading to include Gould among those who claim that science is nothing but the justification for one or another political position. On the heretical theories of Velikovsky, he writes, “a man does not attain the status of Galileo merely because he is persecuted; he must also be right” (Ever since Darwin, p. 154).
Sociologists of science will possibly find more in Gould's narrative of evolutionary theory than in his explicitly sociological observation. Captain Fitzroy provides an example. Over dinner, Fitzroy would tell Darwin about the accuracy of the Biblical version of creation. Gould suggests that Fitzroy, as a kind of foil for Darwin's developing ideas about natural selection, was a catalyst even more important to the writing of Origin of Species than the finches. The role of “catalyst,” whether critic or supporter, in evoking important scientific research has received little systematic attention by sociologists of science.
Gould repays the curious sociologist with observations on evolutionary theory in biology which are fascinating in themselves, and which invite by analogy new perspectives on social and cultural phenomena. To solve one riddle: that certain gall midges (a fly) devour their mothers while still inside is a “remarkable adaptation for early reproduction and extremely short generation times” (p. 95). This matricide is a functional response to environments with super-abundant but ephemeral resources. Success of the species is enhanced by rapid succession of generations, facilitated in part by a larva getting a head start on its maturation by eating its mother. For the fish on the clam's rear end, please read the book.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3960
SOURCE: Medawar, P. B. “Back to Evolution.” New York Review of Books 28, no. 2 (19 February 1981): 34-6.
[In the following review of The Panda's Thumb, Medawar comments on Gould's examinations of the Piltdown Man and the unusual opposable “thumb” of the panda.]
When I reviewed Stephen Jay Gould's admirable Ever since Darwin a few years ago, I expressed the hope that he would not lay his pen aside for too long. I need not have worried, for Gould is a natural writer: he has something to say and the inclination and skill with which to say it. His present collection [The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History] is a series of essays that would give special pleasure to scientists, but they are sufficiently relaxed to be read with enjoyment by laymen too. A casual reader flipping through his pages may wonder what Mickey Mouse is doing in chapter nine (“A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse”). Mickey is here to illustrate the characteristics thought by Konrad Lorenz to be responsible for the specially endearing characteristics of babyhood: “a relatively large head, predominance of the brain capsule, large and low-lying eyes, bulging cheek region, short and thick extremities, a springy elastic consistency, and clumsy movements.”
Without dissenting from Lorenz I wonder if this is the whole story. Few animals are more endearing than baby giraffes, which meet some but not all of Lorenz's criteria; helplessness is surely another. I enjoyed this reminder of Mickey in his great days: it is a cultural tragedy that the brilliant early Disney was degraded and debauched by the witless and mindless imitators whose creatures have made television intolerable in the US on Saturday mornings.
Before I read Gould's chapter fifteen I might have been tempted to dismiss as idiots people who enjoy such programs—but the correct technical term, I learn from Gould, is moron. Gould here adds his weight to those of us who insist that the pejorative and biologically most unsound term “Mongolism” be dropped in favor of “Down's syndrome” as a designation of this unhappy congenital affliction. Down adopted the term because he regarded the syndrome as evidence of degeneration—of an atavistic return to a remotely ancestral human condition. Mongolian members of WHO objected to this and would have been still more annoyed if they had known that Down had entertained the possibility that the reversion was to a type even lower than that represented by modern Mongolians. Gould explains the whole matter admirably and in a way that everybody can understand. In defense of Down it should however be pointed out that Down worked and thought in the atmosphere of fearful wonderment about the implications for man of what was coming to be learned about heredity, development, and evolution that had been created by the writings of such as Francis Galton, Cesare Lombroso, Max Nordau, and of course Henrik Ibsen.
Gould's favorite way of going about things is to pick upon some natural oddity and use it as a text for writing on some important biological problem. Thus the death within a few hours of birth of male mites of the genus Adactylidium is the text of the discussion of how the sex ratio comes to be fixed by natural selection. He adds, “Nature's oddities are more than good stories. They are material for probing the limits of interesting theories about life's history and meaning.” Thus Gould defends by implication (and quite rightly too) the dedicated bird watcher exultant in adding to his list of subjects the “rufous-crowned, peg-legged, speckle-backed, cross-billed and cross-eyed towhee.”
The chapter in Gould's book that will arouse the most widespread interest (I first got wind of it in the European edition of the New York Herald Tribune) is that which has to do with an authentic nowhee: Piltdown Man. Between 1908 and 1912 an amateur archaeologist with some professional assistants came upon some rather puzzling bony remains in gravel in the village of Piltdown, Sussex, England. These were judged to be the remains of a very primitive man, Eoanthropus dawsoni (dawn man). In the gravel were also found some worked tools of flint and bone and some animal remains pointing to a find of great antiquity. Yet the fossil remains seemed inexplicably anomalous: for though the braincase looked very ancient and was unmistakably human, the lower jaw looked like that of an anthropoid ape.
No one knew what to make of it all and the anomaly was not clarified until the physical anthropologists J. S. Weiner and Kenneth Oakley with the moral support of Professor W. E. le Gros Clark divulged that the Piltdown skull was a fraud: some teeth had been artificially filed down, and aging of the human braincase had been simulated by the use of salts of chromium. Very many paleontologists had been skeptical all along and when the truth became known no living paleontologist of any distinction had reason to bemoan his gullibility. It was a disgraceful fraud and the question “Oodunnit?” still remains.
Suspicion has fallen on all the principals in the discovery, on the eponymous Charles Dawson and Sir Arthur Smith Woodward, author of The Earliest Englishman (London, 1948). Gould now makes a case against none other than Teilhard de Chardin, referring to A. S. Romer's and Louis Leakey's suspicion. That evidence is of course not direct: what it amounts to is that Teilhard could have been guilty. He was at a theological college in the neighborhood and was on Dawson's team, and he had been on earlier expeditions during which he might have collected the fossil remains planted in the Piltdown gravel to give the finds an air of antiquity. There are also some anomalies of time and place in Teilhard's letter to Kenneth Oakley congratulating him on his revelations.
Gould clearly had a good time following up his suspicions, and being a good writer he communicates his pleasure to his readers. But though Teilhard could have done it, I do not believe he did: I could as readily believe that he painted the supposedly paleolithic murals in the Lascaux caves (which like other cave paintings could probably do with a second look). The older Teilhard, the philosopher-scientist who wrote The Human Phenomenon, was in my very carefully considered opinion a silly old man, and the younger Teilhard can hardly be acquitted of gullibility, but I do not believe he was a criminal. The Piltdown forgery was a crime: “hoax” is too excusatory a word.
Gould writes sharply and amusingly about the considerations lying outside science that led to acquiescence in and even willingness to be deceived by the fraud. Clearly both racism and chauvinism played a part. The distinction—not yet quite the odium—of being the cradle of mankind is hotly competed for and Piltdown was in a way an Englishman's answer to the disagreeable possibility that the earliest men may have been foreigners. In 1912 there would have been little dissent in England from the view that the English represented the highest evolutionary product of mankind, so what could be more natural than that the green and pleasant land should also have been the cradle of mankind?
What about the Panda's Thumb? The essay that gives the book its title is a reflection prompted by Gould's wonder at the skill with which the panda uses what is ostensibly its thumb to strip the leaves from bamboo shoots so that it can eat the stems. The puzzle is this: the hands and feet of vertebrates, though very variously modified, have characteristically five digits; the opposable thumb to which primates (such as ourselves and the manlike apes) owe so much of their dexterity is a modified finger, and there are four others. The panda, however, has five others. Does then the “thumb” represent a modified sixth finger? It is conceivable that it should because mutations affecting number and structure of the digits are by no means uncommon, but the panda's thumb is not a digit at all. It is formed by the enlargement of a sesamoid bone at the end of the radius (a “sesamoid” is a supernumerary bone formed within a tendon or where a tendon rides over bone: the kneecap is one such). The panda's hind foot has a counterpart in a tibial sesamoid that has not developed so far as the sesamoid in the hand.
The immediate purpose of Gould's essay is to show how the opposable thumb could have developed making use of musculature already present and indeed already foreshadowed in the panda's relatives the bears and raccoons. I think, though, that his more general purpose—especially laudable at a time when molecular biologists tend to elbow everyone else away from the limelight—was to show that comparative anatomy, in the tradition in which so many of us were brought up, is a most precise and exacting and certainly a very highly disciplined branch of biology, an opinion in which I heartily concur, knowing that in the hands of its really great practitioners comparative anatomy could almost be regarded as an art form. This does not mean that I depreciate molecular biology: it is not a matter of competition—there is room and need for both.
I very much hope that sociologists are among Gould's readers and that they turn first to chapter eight, from which they may learn something to their advantage. Modern biologists are peevishly aware that amateur sociobiology is rapidly reaching the dimensions of a public nuisance. Evolutionary changes are thought to come about because it is desirable that they should do so, and behavioral traits are received into the genome, the organism's set of chromosomes, “for the good of the species.” This is not a Darwinian notion. Edward O. Wilson was fully aware of the pitfalls in reasoning of this kind and that is why he settled upon “altruism” as the central theoretical problem in sociobiology. If the evolution of altruism can be explained, even in as extreme a form as “laying down one's life for one's friend” or committing a public-spirited suicide, as lemmings are alleged to do (I do wish Gould would look into this illusion—for such I believe it to be), then the occurrence of evolutionary changes “for the good of the species” would be very much easier to understand.
“Kin selection”—a notion of W. D. Hamilton's—is widely agreed to be the key to the answer. The notion is made self-evident by a characteristic remark of J. B. S. Haldane's, quoted by John Maynard-Smith, to the effect that he was prepared to lay down his life for two brothers or eight cousins. If there existed a genetic combination that conferred this degree of altruism upon Haldane it should increase his representation in the population because of the sharing of genes between blood relatives.
In the course of his discussion Gould quotes the aphorism that embodies one of the genuinely fundamental truths of biology: “that a chicken is just the egg's way of making another egg.” I very much wish I knew who first said this. Gould attributes it to Samuel Butler, but Butler himself mentions it in his Notebooks (London, 1911) as a saying already familiar and in common use.
The connection between the two books under review is that the author of the first is a contributor to the second, which has also to do with evolution. Gould's contribution is on the bearing of paleontology upon modern evolutionary theory—an intractable subject; so I was not surprised to learn, though I did so for the first time, that “Darwin himself viewed paleontology more as an embarrassment than as an aid to his theory.” George Gaylord Simpson was the first man to make fossils give convincing evidence of the rate and pattern of evolution and Gould's homage to him reminded me of the great sense of excitement I felt when, as a graduate student of zoology who had been brought up in an almost monastically severe discipline of comparative anatomy, I first read Simpson's Tempo and Mode in Evolution (1944).
Laymen may be surprised to learn that so long after Darwin and the routing of Bishop Wilberforce, evolution is still a live topic. It is the mechanism of evolution, not the acceptability of the hypothesis, that is still in question. As to the hypothesis itself there are still many laymen who do not believe that the Earth is spherical. In evolution theory, though, there is no one “proof” of evolution as crushingly decisive as the satellite and lunar pictures of the Earth that showed it beyond doubt to be a sphere. The reasons that have led professionals without exception to accept the hypothesis of evolution are in the main too subtle to be grasped by laymen. The reason is that only the evolutionary hypothesis makes sense of the natural order as it is revealed by taxonomy and the animal relationships revealed by the study of comparative anatomy, much as the notion of the roundness of the earth underlies all geodesy and navigation.
In biosystematics and comparative zoology the alternative to thinking in evolutionary terms is not to think at all. T. H. Morgan himself regarded the embryological evidence alone as virtually decisive: he had in mind the curious pattern of development according to which animals as they grow up tend often to recapitulate the embryological history of what are presumed to be their ancestors. There is indeed a certain stage in the development of fish, frogs, reptiles, and mammals—that in which the principal structures of the embryonic axis are laid down—in which the embryos of all these animals, so very different as adults, are so similar to each other that one has to be quite an expert to tell them apart. The phenomenon of “recapitulation” is totally unintelligible except in the light of evolutionary descent; but in spite of the general acceptance of the evolutionary hypothesis and of the notion—accepted by virtually all professional biologists—that natural selection is its principal agency, many matters of detail still remain to be resolved.
These are the subject of The Evolutionary Synthesis, a good workmanlike professional job addressed to an informed audience. The contributions are knit together by the skill and distinction of the two editors. Ernst Mayr, recounting the opposition to Darwinian theory, recalls that during the 1920s and 1930s (and a good deal earlier than that, I should say) evolutionary biologists were divided into two camps, the geneticists on the one hand and the naturalists-systematics on the other. The “modern synthesis” that is so often referred to is a synthesis of these two camps. It was the reformulation of the theory of evolution in the concepts and the language of modern genetics. Underlying it all was what may be called the “population-dynamical” style of thought, the adoption of which called for a huge reorientation of mind.
The systematists and comparative anatomists accustomed us to the “family tree” way of looking at evolutionary change and most people can remember from their schooldays those branching trees which, if they related to vertebrate animals, started with lowly animals such as Amphioxus and went up a branching tree through fish, amphibia, early reptiles, and the two great dynasties of more modern reptiles known as birds and mammals. At the tip of the mammalian tree were the primates, Simiidae and Homo, whose genealogical tree it really all was.
The concepts of population dynamics did away with the dynastic or typological representation of evolution and substituted for it the new notion that it is not the lineages of descent but whole animal populations that undergo evolution. Demographers such as Alfred J. Lotka of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and the Italian mathematical physicist Vito Volterra made contributions to evolutionary theory that are still well remembered. The most important single innovation in the modern synthesis was however the new conception that a population that was deemed to undergo evolution could best be thought of as a population of fundamental replicating units—of genes—rather than as a population of individual animals or of cells. Sewall Wright, who has only now in his ninetieth year been recognized by the Darwin Medal of the Royal Society of London, was a principal innovator in this new way of thinking—a priority for which R. A. Fisher, an important but lesser figure, never forgave him just as he never acknowledged his indebtedness to Lotka for one of his germinal ideas. The third name commonly mentioned in the same breath is that of J. B. S. Haldane.
Thanks to the work of these three pioneers natural selection can now be measured—essentially in terms of the net reproductive advantage of the replicating unit. This is essentially a measure of the degree to which the unit prevails over competitors or alternatives in the population: thus black or dark-colored moths prevail over their lighter competitors where they enjoy a net reproductive advantage amidst the sooty foliage of an industrial countryside. That is the explanation, not—as Heslop Harrison and a few others thought—because of the inheritance of an adaptation acquired during the moths' individual lifetimes. This latter would be a so-called “Lamarckian” interpretation which, though it appeals to literary folk and other amateurs (among them George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Koestler), is now rejected by almost all professional biologists. So far Lamarckism has failed every critically designed test it has been put through.
Quite recently what has been described as a paradigm of all adaptive processes—rightly so because of our complete confidence that a rabbit not yet born will be able to make antibodies against a chemical not yet synthesized—i.e., the mounting of a specific immune response directed against a non-self substance that intrudes into the body, has been thought to enjoy a Lamarckian mode of inheritance. That is, the immune response is thought to bring about a genetic change which reproduces the adaptation in the next generation, without the intervention of selection. Some of my colleagues have been considering this possibility intently in the past few months without however convincing the more critical among them of the truth of the notion.
It is fitting that that great pioneer of genetics Thomas Hunt Morgan of Columbia should have been the first to recognize quite clearly the context in which Lamarckism does obtain—that of cultural inheritance, or as Julian Huxley put it, “psychosocial evolution.” There is a pedagogic tradition that a black-smith is normally called upon to testify on these occasions; and the evidence he gives is that although a blacksmith's son will not inherit brawny arms because his father has them, he is quite likely to acquire them because his father teaches his son his trade and introduces it to him early in life. Morgan and his school are the subject of a contribution by Theodosius Dobzhansky, a member of that school and one of the greatest figures in modern evolutionary genetics. When Dobzhansky joined him Morgan was getting on in years and, being thoroughly honest and hating cant, admitted that the modern flights of drosophila genetics, the subject he himself founded, were getting a bit beyond him.
No one who has listened to the in-talk of graduate students of genetics will think this at all surprising. A rather similar fate confronted Bertrand Russell when he met with young practitioners of mathematical logic at a New York university. I do not think this a tragic situation because both Morgan and Russell must have felt proud of the latterday accomplishments of what were, after all, their respective brain children; the only sadness is that in situations such as this the young sometimes take pleasure in seeing their eminent seniors panting to keep up with them but falling ever farther behind.
In Dobzhansky's account of him Morgan comes out as a rather mixed figure: he used the word “naturalist” as a term of contempt and did not therefore do much to unite the two camps to which Mayr refers in his introduction. In the control of laboratory expenditure Morgan was ridiculously stingy. I wonder what he would have made of the modern vogue for the disposable equipment that is used once and then thrown away: very likely, like some senior biologists I know, he would have washed it and insisted on using it again. But in spite of this he was generous with his private funds and during the depression years he helped several students without letting them know where their subsidy came from.
Symposia such as this very seldom escape the charge of being rootless—of being so busily engaged with immediate problems and personal interests as to overlook altogether the history of the ideas under discussion—each problem being treated as if it had come up for the first time. No such charge can be made against the present symposium. One of its most attractive characteristics—that which is most likely to make the book endure—is the discussion of the evolution of evolutionary thought among the pioneers of the New Synthesis and in the various countries in which it slowly took shape.
France is very often the odd man out on these occasions and Ernst Mayr remarks of it that “France is the only major scientific nation that did not contribute significantly to the evolutionary synthesis.” Ernest Boesiger's excellent article frankly admits the degree to which chauvinism colored French appraisals of Darwinism and explains how in rediscovering Lamarck they “made him into something very different from what his ideas actually convey.”
Major British geneticists are written on by C. D. Darlington in an article that reveals more about the author than about his subjects. Darlington sat next to J. B. S. Haldane for twelve years but “usually got no ideas from him” in connection with his research. This was quite a feat, for Haldane was full of ideas, many of which have been profoundly illuminating. When Haldane joined the Communist Party Darlington drifted away from him. Here I sympathize, for Haldane was a communist of the unteachable kind: when Beria fell from grace in Russia I can remember saying to Haldane, “Surely, Haldane, you don't believe Beria was in the pay of the Americans all that time?” “One can't be sure,” he said, “people in high positions often get careless.” I wish I had taken the opportunity to remind him of what the Duke of Wellington once said to the lady who came on to him with the words “Mr. Smith, I presume?” His words were, “Madam, if you believe that, you can believe anything.”
Darlington manages to be sneery and disagreeable about William Bateson, the man who coined the word “genetics” and whose famous and influential Mendel's Principles of Heredity (1909) really put Mendelism on the map. Perhaps because of his preoccupation with himself Darlington fails to quote the remark of Bateson's that characterizes him most completely. In the work to which I have just referred Bateson said of evolutionary theory in the decades following Darwin that it was “marked by the apathy characteristic of an age of faith.” He went on: “Everyone was convinced that natural selection operating in a continuously varying population was a sufficient account of the origin of species except the one class of scientific workers whose labours familiarise them with the phenomenon of specific difference.” He then went on to call attention to the dichotomy to which Ernst Mayr refers in his introduction to the symposium as a whole.
I expect that what sickened Bateson about the contemporary form of Darwinism was its explanatory glibness, the difficulty of devising any critical test of a formula as accommodating as that which came to be associated with Darwin's name. The symposium I am reviewing is evidence enough that apathy has been dispelled and that biologists again consider evolution as a centerpiece of their thinking.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4301
SOURCE: Lewontin, R. C. “The Inferiority Complex.” New York Review of Books 28, no. 6 (22 October 1981): 12-16.
[In the following review of The Mismeasure of Man, Lewontin contextualizes Gould's arguments about faulty data collection, IQ testing, and the flawed thinking behind biological determinism.]
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 street-wise 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 by 1969, with the publication of Arthur Jensen's monograph How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?, it was once again not only respectable, but even popular, to argue that blacks owed their inferior social position to their inferior genes.
Because biological determinism is a structure of social explanation that used basic concepts in anatomy, evolutionary theory, genetics, and neurobiology, often in a corrupted form, its critique demands the powers of a historian of ideas and a professional biologist. Because the scientific methods and concepts involved are rather abstruse, criticism also requires a first-class writer. Fortunately, Gould is a professional historian, an evolutionary biologist and anatomist of great accomplishment, and a master at explaining science. The Mismeasure of Man is his examination and debunking of the scientific face of the fiction of Oliver.
Dickens's view of the origin of human variation was hardly exceptional; it permeated nineteenth-century literature. At times it appeared only incidentally as part of the substrate of unspoken assumption as, for example, in Felix Holt, when Esther Lyon is set to learning French on the assumption that her French ancestry will make it easy for her. At others, it is a central preoccupation, as in Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Daniel, the adopted son of a baronet, is a typical young English milord, whom we first meet at a fashionable Continental gambling spa. But then, mysteriously, in his young manhood, he develops an interest in things Hebrew, falls in love with a Jewish girl, becomes converted. The reader is not entirely astonished to learn that Daniel's mother was, in fact, a Jewish actress. The Law of Return, it seems, is only an expression of the inevitable.
A preoccupation with the power of blood was not simply what the French know as “the madness of the Anglo-Saxons.” Eugène Sue, the most popular French author of the mid-nineteenth century, created in Les Mystères de Parts the archetype of the noble prostitute, somehow unsullied and saintly in the midst of her sordid existence. She was, of course, the abandoned child of a morganatic marriage. Among the goyim at least, the true character apparently can be transmitted through the paternal line. But it is in the Rougon-Macquart novels of Zola that biological theories of character are given their most careful articulation. The Rougons and Macquarts were, it will be recalled, the two halves of a family descended from a woman whose first, lawful, mate was the solid peasant Rougon, while her second, illicit, lover was the violent, unstable Macquart. From these two unions arose an excitable, ambitious, successful line, and the depraved, alcoholic, criminal branch that included Gervaise and Nana. When Coupeau, Gervaise's husband, is admitted to the hospital for alcoholism, the examining physician asks him first, “Did your father drink?” As Zola says in his preface to the cycle, “Heredity has its laws, just as does gravitation.”1
Zola's “experimental novels,” as he called them, were the outcome of developments in physical anthropology as a scientific, materialist discipline, developments to which the first part of The Mismeasure of Man is devoted. In America, Samuel Rogers Morton had, in the 1830s and 1840s, measured large numbers of skulls of different human groups, including long-dead Incas and ancient Egyptians. The Anthropological Society of Paris had been founded in 1859 by Paul Broca, the leading European exponent of the theory that high intelligence and character were a consequence of larger brains, so that the mental qualities of individuals and races could be judged from the sizes of their skulls. The appearance, in the same year, of the Origin of Species gave rise to an evolutionary view of human differences that placed each physical type on an ascending scale of progress from our apelike ancestors. In particular, criminals were seen as atavisms, apelike in both mind and body, but in a variety of forms, so that the founder of criminal anthropology, the Italian Cesare Lombroso, could tell a murderer from an embezzler at a glance. But Broca and Lombroso were only the inheritors of a long tradition that began with the natural philosophers of the eighteenth century.
The reductionist materialism of Descartes's bête machine and La Mettrie's homme machine led inevitably to the anthropometry of Broca and Lombroso. If mind is the consequence of brain, then are not great minds the products of great brains? Indeed, phrenology was a perfectly sensible materialist theory. Since acquisitiveness is a product of a material organ, the brain, then highly developed acquisitiveness should be the manifestation of the enlargement of one region of the brain. On the not unreasonable (although factually incorrect) assumption that the skull will bulge a bit to accommodate a bulge in the cerebral hemisphere, we might well expect an enlarged “bump of acquisitiveness” among the more successful members of the Exchange, not to mention Jews in general.
Moreover, less developed races should have less developed brains, women should have smaller cranial capacities than men, the lower classes more sloping foreheads than the bourgeoisie. Thus one should be able, by the appropriate physical measurements, to characterize the mental, moral, and social attributes of individuals and groups. There are, however, two problems with this theory. First, there is the factual error. Despite all claims to the contrary, there are no differences in brain size or shape between classes, sexes, or races that are not the simple consequence of different body size, nor is there any correlation at all between brain size and intellectual accomplishment. Second, there is the conceptual error. Intelligence, acquisitiveness, moral rectitude are not things, but mental constructs, historically and culturally contingent. The attempt to find their physical site in the brain and to measure them is like an attempt to map Valhalla. It is pure reification, the conversion of abstract ideas into things. While there may be genes for the shape of our heads, there cannot be any for the shape of our ideas. It is with an exposure of these two errors of biological determinism that Gould's The Mismeasure of Man is largely concerned.
The first problem is to explain how the zoologists and anthropologists of the nineteenth century could find, so consistently, that, for example, the brains of whites are significantly larger than the brains of blacks when, in fact, there is no difference between them. The answer seems to be, according to Gould, that the most eminent zoologists and anthropologists simply rigged the data. When Samuel Morton, in his Crania Americana of 1839, showed conclusively that American Indians had smaller craniums than Caucasians, he did so by including a large number of small-brained (because small-bodied) Inca skulls in his Indian sample, but at the same time excluding a number of Hindu small-skulled specimens from his Caucasian sample. When Gould recalculated the data using all of Morton's measurements, the difference between Indians and Caucasians disappeared. Paul Broca, faced with some very small brains of some very eminent professors, invented ad hoc corrections for age and postulated disease. As a last resort he appealed to the imperfection of institutions:
It is not very probable that five men of genius would have died within five years at the University of Göttingen. … A professorial robe is not necessarily a certificate of genius; there may be even at Göttingen some chairs occupied by not very remarkable men.2
It is amusing to see Broca explaining away, correction by correction, a reported 100-gram superiority of the brains of Germans over Frenchmen. When, despite his best efforts, Broca found some measurements placing blacks higher than whites, he decided that, after all, those measurements were of no interest. And on it goes. The “objective facts” of science turn out, over and over again, to be the cooked, massaged, finagled creations of ideologues determined to substantiate their prejudices with numbers.
In his debunking of the “data” of anthropometry, Gould follows the model set by Leon Kamin's brilliant muckraking in the byre of IQ studies,3 but with somewhat different conclusions about the nature of scientific inquiry. Science, he argues, is a social activity, reflecting the reigning ideology of the society in which it is carried out, the political exigencies of the time, and the personal prejudices of its practitioners. Racist scientists produce racist science. It is not that they deliberately falsify nature, but that their unconscious prejudices lead them to largely unconscious biases in their methods and analyses, biases that bring them to comfortable conclusions. There are, after all, many ways of explaining observations. How are we to decide among them, except in the light of unspoken assumptions and predispositions?
Like Kamin, I am, myself, rather more harsh in my view of the matter. Scientists, like others, sometimes tell deliberate lies because they believe that small lies can serve big truths. How else are we to understand the doctored photographs discovered by Gould in the report by the American psychologist Henry Goddard on the pseudonymous Kallikak family whose good (kalos) and bad (kakkos) branches were the living counterparts of the Rougons-Macquarts?
For his part, Sir Cyril Burt, perhaps the most influential psychologist of the twentieth century, knew that intelligence was almost perfectly determined by the genes and he was quite willing to make up the data to prove it to people who needed that sort of thing. (His most notorious fabrication was aimed to show that identical twins brought up separately would still be of equal “intelligence.”) Burt may indeed have been, as Gould says, “a sick and tortured man” during the last years of his life, but even his biographer, Professor Hearnshaw, admits that Burt was none too scrupulous about numbers at any time.4 Whether deliberately or not, there is no evidence that scientists are falsifying nature any less in the twentieth century than they did in the nineteenth.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the belief that great men had big heads and great criminals big noses had pretty much disappeared from the scientific scene, although it was still part of popular consciousness. When Agatha Christie's young Tommy sees a communist trade-union agitator for the first time, he observes that the fellow
was obviously of the very dregs of society. The low beetling brows, and the criminal jaw, the bestiality of the whole countenance, were new to the young man, though he was a type that Scotland Yard would have recognized at a glance.5
In place of measurements of skull and limb, biological determinist science began to measure intelligence itself. The IQ test, created by the French psychologist Alfred Binet in 1905 as a diagnostic instrument to help teachers help children, became, in the hands of its English-speaking adaptors, Henry Goddard, Lewis Terman, and Charles Spearman, an instrument for arraying everyone along a single scale of mental ability.
Much of the history of the political use of IQ testing in America, especially in helping to justify the Immigration Act of 1924, has been recounted by Kamin, who demolished the “data” purporting to show the heritability of IQ differences. Unfortunately, the story of the Cyril Burt frauds is nowhere told in its full richness. Even the summary by Kamin in the book containing his “debate” with H. J. Eysenck6 is too brief to provide the excitement of psychology's Watergate, which had its own Woodward and Bernstein (Kamin and Oliver Gillie), its outraged denials by Burt's supporters, and its final days of capitulation in the face of the over-whelming evidence of wholesale fakery. And Gould has other fish to fry. The Mismeasure of Man looks beyond the politics, the data, and the frauds to address the central epistemological issue about intelligence: “Is there anything to be measured?”
IQ tests vary considerably in form and content. Some are oral, some written, some individual, some given in groups, some verbal, some purely symbolic. Most combine elements of vocabulary, numerical reasoning, analogical reasoning, and pattern recognition. Some are filled with specific and overt cultural referents: children are asked to identify characters from literature (“Who was Mr. Micawber?”); they are asked to make class judgments (“Which of the five persons below is most like a carpenter, plumber, and bricklayer? 1) postman, 2) lawyer, 3) truck driver, 4) doctor, 5) painter”); they are asked to judge socially acceptable behavior (“What should you do when you notice you will be late to school?”); they are asked to judge social stereotypes (“Which is prettier?” when given the choice between a girl with some Negroid features and another with a doll-like European face); they are asked to define obscure words (sudorific, homunculus, parterre).
Moreover, the circumstances of testing are laden with tensions. Gould, after reviewing the content of the Army classification tests of the First World War, describes at length the intimidating and alien atmosphere in which the tests were given. Complex commands were given just once, in a military style, in English to men many of whom were recent immigrants and some of whom had never before held a pencil. When Gould gave the Army Beta Test, designed for illiterates, in the prescribed style to his Harvard undergraduates, sixteen out of fifty-three got only a B and six got a C, marking borderline intelligence.
The claim is made by their supporters that IQ tests measure a single underlying innate thing, general intelligence, which itself does not develop during the lifetime of the individual, but is a cause of the individual's changing overt behavior. In the jargon of educational psychology, “fluid” intelligence becomes “crystallized” by education. Intelligence, so viewed, is not what is learned, but the ability to learn, a fixed feature immanent to different degrees in every fertilized egg.
The evidence that there is a unitary intellectual ability is that the results of different tests and of different parts of the same test are correlated with each other. Children who do well on pattern recognition tend to do well in numerical reasoning, analogical reasoning, and so on. But the claim is spurious. IQ tests, like books, are commodities that can yield immense profits for their publishers and authors if they are widely adopted by school systems. A chief selling point of new tests, as announced in their advertising, is their excellent agreement with the original Stanford-Binet test. They have been carefully cut to fit.
Moreover, the agreement of the results of various parts of the same tests has also been built into them. In order for the original Stanford-Binet test to have won credibility as an intelligence test, it necessarily had to order children in conformity with the a priori judgment of psychologists and teachers about what they thought intelligence consisted of. No one will use an “intelligence” test that gives highest marks to those children everyone “knows” to be stupid. During the construction of the tests, questions that were poorly correlated with others were dropped, since they clearly did not measure “intelligence,” until a maximally consistent set was found. The claim that something real is then measured by these selected questions is a classic case of reification. It is rather like claiming, as a proof of the existence of God, that he is mentioned in all the books of the Bible.
A good deal of The Mismeasure of Man is taken up with a lucid explanation of the abstruse statistical method used by mental testers to extract a single dimension, g, that is supposed to measure general intelligence. This method, factor analysis, takes a collection of different measurements and combines them into a single weighted average, where the weights are derived from the observed correlations between the measurements. The error, as explained by Gould, is not in the arithmetic, but in the supposition that, having gone through the mathematical process, one has produced a real object, or at least a number that characterizes one. As Gould points out, the price of gasoline is well correlated with the distance of the earth from Halley's comet, at least in recent years, but that does not mean that some numerical combination of the two values measures something real that is their common cause. Even with Gould's help, the reader may remain mystified. The very complexity of the statistical manipulation is part of the mystique of intelligence testing, validating it by making it inaccessible to nonexperts. After all, look how complicated quantum mechanics is, and you can use it to blow up the world.
Gould's view of the biological determinists is that they are doubly blinded, first, by their own racial and ethnic prejudices, and second, by what Gould calls “Burt's real error,” the vulgar reductionism that leads them to reify an abstract statistical entity. Yet the analysis is somehow incomplete. With its emphasis on the racism of individual scientists, and on their epistemological naïveté, The Mismeasure of Man remains a curiously unpolitical and unphilosophical book. Morton, Broca, Lombroso, Goddard, Spearman, and Burt make their appearance as if from a closet, and smelling a bit of mothballs. They are “men of their time,” displaying antique social prejudices which on occasion come back to haunt us in the form of “criminal chromosomes” and a brief eruption of Jensenism. Their biological determinism appears as a disarticulated cultural artifact, nasty and curious, like cannibalism, but not integrated into any structure of social relations.
Biological determinism is the conjunction of political necessity with an ideologically formed view of nature, both of which arise out of the bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These revolutions were made with the slogans, “Liberty, equality, fraternity” and “All men are created equal.” They meant literally “all men,” since women were excluded from social power, but they did not mean “all men,” since slavery and property qualifications continued well into the nineteenth century. Still, one can hardly make a revolution with the cry, “Liberty and equality for some!” The problem for bourgeois society (and for socialist society, as well) is to reconcile the ideology of equality with the manifest inequality of status, wealth, and power, a problem that did not exist in the bad old days of Dei Gratia. The solution to that problem has been to put a new gloss on the idea of equality, one that distinguishes artificial inequalities which characterized the ancien régime from the natural inequalities which mark the meritocratic society. As the Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein puts it:
The privileged classes of the past were probably not much superior biologically to the downtrodden, which is why revolution had a fair chance of success. By removing artificial barriers between classes, society has encouraged the creation of biological barriers. When people can take their natural level in society, the upper classes will, by definition, have greater capacity than the lower.7
Equality then becomes equality of opportunity, and those who fail do so because they lack intrinsic merit. But if we truly live in a meritocratic society, how do we account for the obvious passage of social power from parent to offspring? It must be that intrinsic merit is passed in the genes. The doctrine of grace is replaced by the Laws of Mendel.
The emphasis in The Mismeasure of Man on racism and ethnocentrism in the study of abilities is an American bias. IQ testing was widespread in France long before there were significant numbers of Algerians there, and Sir Cyril Burt's most influential educational invention, the British eleven-plus exam, long antedated the influx of West Indians and Pakistanis. Lombroso's criminal anthropology had nothing to do with race and ethnicity, but with the same classes laborieuses, classes dangereuses that concerned Eugène Sue. In America, race, ethnicity, and class are so confounded, and the reality of social class so firmly denied, that it is easy to lose sight of the general setting of class conflict out of which biological determinism arose. Biological determinism, both in its literary and scientific forms, is part of the legitimating ideology of our society, the solution offered to our deepest social mystery, the analgesic for our most recurrent social pain. In the words of Charles Darwin, quoted on the title page of The Mismeasure of Man, “If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”
The disarticulation of social relations, the alienation of man from land, the creation of what C. B. MacPherson calls “possessive individualism”8 began in the fourteenth century with the market-town corporations, and slowly became the dominant mode of our society. They brought with them an alienation and objectification of nature. The natural world was seen less and less as an organic unity, an extension of the Mind of God. Like the body social, the body natural came to be an assemblage of elements, interacting with each other, yet each possessing its intrinsic and independent properties. No longer do we “murder to dissect,” but rather do we expect to discover the true nature of the world by taking it to bits, the bits of which it is truly made. In this sense Descartes was as much a founding father of our society as Paine or Jefferson.
It is easy to criticize the vulgar materialism of Spearman and Burt, who thought of intelligence sometimes as a form of elementary energy, sometimes as a liquid that could be crystallized, but it is not clear that anything else could be expected from them. The reification of intelligence by mental testers may be an error, but it is an error that is deeply built into the atomistic system of Cartesian explanation that characterizes all of our natural science. It is not easy, given the analytic mode of science, to replace the clockwork mind with something less silly. Updating the metaphor by changing clocks into computers has got us nowhere. The wholesale rejection of analysis in favor of an obscurantist holism has been worse. Imprisoned by our Cartesianism, we do not know how to think about thinking.
Emile Zola, preface to La Fortune des Rougons (Librairie International A. Lacrois, Verboeckhoven, 1871).
Paul Broca, Bulletin Société d'Anthropologie 2 (Paris, 1861), pp. 139-207 (quoted by Gould).
Leon Kamin, The Science and Politics of IQ (Halsted Press, 1974).
L. S. Hearnshaw, Cyril Burt: Psychologist (Cornell University Press, 1979).
Agatha Christie, The Secret Adversary (Dodd, Mead, 1922).
H. J. Eysenck versus Leon Kamin, The Intelligence Controversy (John Wiley, 1981). While billed as a debate, this book in fact consists of two independent summary pieces on IQ, followed by brief rejoinders. Eysenck, formerly one of Burt's strongest supporters, here casts his vote for impeachment but says it doesn't matter because the rest of the data on the heritability of IQ is so good. This has become the standard way of handling the Burt frauds, since the facts can longer be denied.
Richard Herrnstein, IQ in the Meritocracy (Atlantic/Little, Brown, 1973), p. 221.
C. B. MacPherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford University Press, 1962).
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SOURCE: Krauthammer, Charles. “The Ideology of Intelligence.” New Republic 187, no. 3 (11 November 1981): 28-30
[In the following review, Krauthammer praises The Mismeasure of Man, but indicates that Gould, like those scientists whose theories Gould debunks, has his own personal biases.]
The 1964-65 New York World's Fair had a pavilion called Sermons from Science. Being one of those adolescents with an insatiable appetite for things scientific, I wandered in and was treated to fascinating films on such mysterious phenomena as resonance (that which allowed Caruso to shatter glass with his voice) and electromagnetic radiation (that which brought “Father Knows Best” into my home). Little did I know that I had blundered into a scientific sting operation. For, as soon as the lights went up, a shill stepped onto the stage, declaring that resonance and electromagnetic radiation demonstrated (by analogy, I suppose) God's invisible presence in the world. Next a pod of earnest young men appeared, brandishing pamphlets; they proceeded to work the crowd, urging a return to Christ.
That was my first unhappy encounter with the use of science for nonscientific ends. My latest encounter came from reading The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould's excellent case study of science in the service of ideology. Gould has written a witty, ironic, and often original history of a scientific sideshow that has been running for 150 years: the exasperating search for the psychologist's stone, the quantification of intelligence. And it is a brilliant account of how that scientific enterprise has been used to justify class and racial inequality.
The modern career of the idea of intelligence begins in the middle of the 19th century. It was then hypothesized that intelligence was determined by skull size. A second hypothesis, more accurately a belief, held that intelligence determined a race's position in the social hierarchy. These two hypotheses were twined into a kind of theoretical folie à deux: the truth of one would be assumed long enough to establish the truth of the other. For example, when Samuel George Morton, the great 19th-century Philadelphia physician and skull collector, reported that skulls of Caucasians were larger than those of Mongolians which, in turn, were larger than those of Negroes, he was satisfied that he had shown both that intelligence was a function of skull size and that the regnant racial hierarchy was justified by modern scientific evidence.
Such research might appear to some as merely a bizarre detour in the history of science but Gould shows it to be the result of the perfectly ordinary investigative activities of the greatest scientists of the time. Gould touches only lightly on the eccentrics. He concentrates on the serious work of giants like Paul Broca. More importantly, Gould is not interested in the occasional fabricated evidence, but in the glaring—and honest—distortions produced by unconscious bias. He has gone back and re-examined the raw data from which Morton, Broca, and others built their inferences. He not only demonstrates errors in calculation and computation, in measurement and inference; he shows that these errors all tend consistently in one direction—in favor of the original (racist or hereditarian) hypothesis. For example, in studying skull size Broca ignored contaminating factors like body weight, size, and nutrition. But not always. When Louis Pierre Gratiolet confronted Broca in the French Academy with evidence that German brains were 100 grams heavier than French brains, Broca responded, “It would be easy for me to show him that he can grant some value to the size of the brain without ceasing for that to be a good Frenchman.” In a remarkable display of sophisticated evidence sifting, he then proceeded to analyze systemically all the uncontrolled factors (as we call them today) that could account for the apparent disparity. He nimbly emerged with the conclusion that, all things being equal, the French brain was larger than the German. But when it came to examinations of skull size in women and Africans, Broca showed little interest in the equality of all things.
Like the other great quantifiers of intelligence, Broca was undoubtedly unaware of his selective use of his own talents. And that is Gould's major theme: the ubiquity—and innocence—of ideologized science. The path it takes is circular. It starts with a hypothesis, generated in response to an ideological need (for example, to show that human races have a hierarchical order of intelligence, whites at the top and blacks at the bottom). It proceeds to gather scientific data that fit the hypothesis. And it then returns to the hypothesis confirmed. At that point the scientist either abjures invitations to draw the necessary political implications and withdraws with appropriate scientific humility to the sanctity of the laboratory; or he jumps into the ideological fray to advocate the only enlightened social policy that “science” permits: separation of the races, strict limitation of immigration and, ultimately, the Darwinian justice of enduring social and racial inequalities.
By the 20th century craniometry had been replaced by mental testing. And, under the influence of the new science of eugenics, it set out to prove not only that classes and races are arrayed in hierarchies of intelligence but that these differences are innate, inheritable, biological, and, therefore, unchangeable. The most famous of these IQ tests was administered by Robert Yerkes to 1.75 million American inductees into the army in World War I. The results provided objective support for existing prejudices. They also lent legitimacy—and urgency—to the 1924 immigration laws which severely restricted quotas for Southern and Eastern European races. Gould has done us the service of wading through the original 800-page study which was read by almost no one and used by almost everyone. Piece by piece he takes the tests apart. He demonstrates that if they measured anything (which is doubtful, given the harried, uncontrolled, and haphazard way they were administered), they measured acculturation. Buried in the report he finds a chart showing a striking linear relationship between the score of the immigrant recruit and the number of years he had spent in the United States. The average test scores of the foreign-born recruit rose consistently with his years of residence in America. Unless one assumes that the genetic stock of immigrants coming to America declined systemically over every five-year period between 1885 and 1914, one is left with the conclusion that what these tests measured was literacy in English and acculturation to the United States. If you doubt this, test yourself on these 1914 test items: (1), Crisco is a: patent medicine, disinfectant, toothpaste, food product; (2) The number of Kaffir's legs is: two, four, six, eight; (3) Christy Matthewson is famous as a: writer, artist, baseball player, comedian. Small wonder that on a similar test 83 percent of the Jews, 87 percent of the Russians, 80 percent of the Hungarians, and 79 percent of the Italians who took it scored as morons. (It was a technical term then, denoting a condition somewhere between subnormality and imbecility.)
Gould concludes with a sophisticated, highly mathematical critique of the work of Cyril Burt and Arthur Jensen, the major modern hereditarians in the intelligence debate. He attacks their theories not so much for their peripheral racial implications, as for their core assumption: the belief that “general intelligence” exists. The idea of general intelligence was developed by Charles Spearman, an early 20th-century statistician and psychologist who derived, by the method of factor analysis, a common factor in all intelligence tests. He called it “g” and reified it as intelligence itself. Gould shows, first, that it is arbitrary, that the existence of “g” is an artifact of the tests chosen to measure it. For example, the data of intelligence testing can, with equal mathematical justification, be used to support the notion of clusters of mental abilities (mathematical, verbal, spatial, etc.) rather than a single faculty called “g.”
Furthermore, even if a universal “g” does exist, variation in scores among individuals can be explained with equal if not greater plausibility by invoking environmental rather than genetic causation. And, finally, even if one grants both that there is a “g” and that its distribution within populations is genetic, this in no way proves that the difference in intelligence between populations is genetic. An example used by the psychologist Leon Kamin is instructive. Suppose we have two bags of seed, bag “a” and bag “b.” Both have identical quantities of identical genetic mixes of seed. We plant the seeds from bag “a” on fertile ground and the seeds from bag “b” on barren ground. The distribution of heights within each population of grains is clearly related to its genes. But what of the fact that the grains from bag “a” grow higher on average than the grains from bag “b”? It is clearly the result of environment. (Similarly the fact that blacks consistently score lower than whites on IQ tests tells us nothing about genetic or innate differences between the races.)
This is not to say we should assume a priori that innate differences between groups of people cannot exist. American blacks are more susceptible to sickle cell anemia than American whites and Ashkenazi Jews are more susceptible to Tay-Sachs disease than Gentiles. There is no reason to decide in advance that genes have nothing to do with the fact that some groups are better than others at chess or basketball or the 100-yard dash. My objection to the endless debate over racial differences in intelligence is that it is a supremely uninteresting question. The very notions of race and intelligence are so vague that any conclusion about a correlation between them is bound to be vaguer still, to be of little biological interest, and to be essentially unverifiable, since we cannot control for environmental conditions affecting different races. And what socially useful results can even a positive correlation yield? Assume for a moment that we do have a positive correlation between race and a certain socially useful characteristic, say, height. Assume, further, that that characteristic is a legitimate qualification for a social role, say, to be a policeman. Now, the average Japanese is smaller than the average American. But the overlap in populations is enormous. In other words, even though a correlation between race and height exists, it is very weak. To decide whether an individual applicant is tall enough to be a policeman, one doesn't inquire about race. One measures height. Race is simply not a useful predictor of height or other human qualities society cares about.
Gould charges those obsessed with finding racial differences with ulterior ideological motives. His elucidation of the history of 19th- and 20th-century intelligence measurers bears that out quite convincingly. But Gould also lugs around his own ideological baggage. He is an unabashed egalitarian. If he were to subject himself to the very analysis he turns on his opponents, he would probably conclude that his motivation in discrediting the hereditarians stems from his belief that races and classes should be treated equally. His skillful search through the history, methods, and conclusions of IQ testing to support his case for environmental causation stands on its own. His egalitarian zeal does not affect the validity of his work, but it does, I believe, lead him to one curious omission.
One reads Gould's methodical debunking of cultural bias in intelligence tests anticipating that in the end he will reveal what he thinks intelligence is and how we should use it. He uses the word often enough and he evidently believes it has a commonsense meaning. But because Gould is acutely aware of the harm that can be done in the name of intelligence, he is wary of saying anything about intelligence that may lead to its “reification,” or anything about IQ tests that may lend them legitimacy. His views must, therefore, be inferred from his rather approving treatment of Alfred Binet, the early 20th-century inventor of the intelligence test. Binet designed his test on commission from the French government specifically to identify children with learning disabilities. The purpose was to assign them to special classes designed to help them improve, and not to stigmatize them as innately or permanently inferior. With this approach, says Gould, “mental testing becomes a theory for enhancing potential through proper education.” Gould's complaint seems to be that after Binet, hereditarians misused mental testing and perverted its original aims. In a candid revelation, Gould says,
I feel that tests of the IQ type were helpful in the diagnosis of my own learning-disabled son. His average score, the IQ itself, meant nothing, but was only an amalgam of some very high and very low scores; but the pattern of low values indicated his areas of deficit.
From this I draw certain conclusions about Gould's views on IQ tests, views so sensible that I wish he had stated them more explicitly. First, IQ tests can measure certain abilities—verbal, mathematical, spatial, etc. IQ subscores are a valuable educational tool. They allow us to identify areas of intellectual strength and weakness. On the other hand, the average score, the IQ, is a quite useless number because to arrive at a single score we must arbitrarily assign weights to different mental abilities. The idiot savant has prodigious recall and little else; Bobby Fischer has spatial and computational abilities so hypertrophied that they have crowded out his other faculties; the patient suffering from Korsakoff's disease forgets everything new he learns within about 60 seconds, but retains knowledge acquired before his illness and is otherwise intellectually intact. (Many Korsakoffians do well on IQ tests.) Who is more intelligent? Can such a question have any meaning?
It is a pity that Gould does not affirm more strongly what it is possible to say about intelligence and what limited usefulness one can ascribe to IQ tests. His voice is needed because the reputation of IQ tests has sunk so low that the one use which Binet intended—which Gould approves—is now considered illegitimate by radical egalitarians. In California, the courts have declared unconstitutional IQ tests which had been used as an adjunct in selecting children who cannot learn and who require remedial education. The system had been selecting disproportionately more black than white children. On these grounds, the judge declared the tests discriminatory. He ordered the state to find a system which would produce black and white slow learners in numbers that matched the proportion of blacks and whites in the general population. We have now returned to the classic situation of science in the service of ideology. The ideology here is that there are no innate differences between whites and blacks; therefore there should be no difference between the numbers of retarded learners among them; and therefore the tests themselves must be racist. But, the fact is, black children suffer more social and educational deprivation than white children. It is not surprising, therefore, that among slow learners in our society there should be a disproportionately larger number of blacks than whites. To deny these black children remedial help in the name of equality is as stupid and cruel as it was to deny them such help in the past on the grounds that they were genetically inferior. To the child it makes no difference whether his low score is the result of genes or environment. To the ideologue, it matters greatly. If there is a lesson to be learned from The Mismeasure of Man it is that no child should be sacrificed at the altar of ideology—even an ideology that invokes the authority of science.
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SOURCE: Manuel, Bruce. “IQ Fallacies, Darwin, and His Legacy.” Christian Science Monitor 74, no. 74 (12 March 1982): B3.
[In the following excerpt, Manuel offers a positive assessment of The Mismeasure of Man.]
One of a book editor's easy tasks is finding out which subject areas spawn the most new books. This is accomplished by carefully observing which shelf of review copies sags the most—public affairs? biography? ancient history?
A harder but more rewarding task is discovering which books to recommend. After reading through several new volumes about Charles Darwin and the attempts of archaeologists and theorists to tie up the loose ends of his controversial theory, it's clear there are some outstanding finds this season.
One of the most important is The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould. In January it won its author, a Harvard biologist, a National Book Critics Circle Award, which follows last year's American Book Award for Gould's previous work, The Panda's Thumb.
In The Mismeasure of Man Gould knocks some props from under biological data that give support to racism and other forms of injustice. One of the most persistent fallacies, he argues, is the idea that evolution has resulted in lower levels of intelligence in nonwhites than whites.
The reader may be in for surprises in this fascinating history of social science since Darwin. For example, Gould points out that until recently “the larger size of white brains was an unquestioned ‘fact’ among white scientists.” And he carefully documents how racial prejudice has unconsciously distorted the findings of top researchers over the last 100 years.
He also shows how their data have detrimentally affected not only racial attitudes but immigration quotas, the access of millions of white as well as black school-children to higher education, and the treatment of criminals and those labeled mentally retarded.
In the penal area, for example, Gould cites the influence of “criminal anthropology,” a discipline that sprang from the work of 19th-century Italian physician Cesare Lombroso. Lombroso theorized that “born criminals” were throwbacks to an earlier, less developed link in an evolutionary chain, identifiable by their anatomical resemblances to apes. Though the theory is discredited today, its influence lingers. Gould says the main impact is on how the criminal is viewed:
“To understand crime, study the criminal, not his rearing, not his education, not the current predicament that might have inspired his theft or pillage. …
“Few people realize,” he continues, “that our modern apparatus of parole, early release, and indeterminate sentencing stems in part from Lombroso's campaign for differential treatment of born and occasional criminals.” Indeterminate sentences, he notes, are still used to sequester the dangerous. “… George Jackson, author of Soledad Brother, died under Lombroso's legacy, trying to escape after 11 years (8[frac12] in solitary) of an indeterminate one-year-to-life sentence for stealing ＄70 from a gas station.”
Gould thinks the social scientists have put too much faith in numbers and too much weight on a single concept, “intelligence,” which really only summarizes the “wondrously complex and multifaceted set of human capabilities. … Once intelligence becomes an entity, standard procedures of science virtually dictate that a location and physical substrate be sought for it,” he continues. Then the tendency is to measure and rank individuals using “a single number for each person.”
The man who devised the IQ scale, 19th-century French anthropologist Alfred Binet, had no such aim in mind. He used it exclusively to determine which children in the school system needed special help. Binet wrote that “intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.”
“The number is only an average of many performances, not an entity unto itself,” Gould asserts, and the American psychologists who extended and popularized Binet's scale after his death were on shaky ground, he says. Some of them have viewed IQ as a marker of permanent inborn limits, and Gould notes that the scores have been used to segregate classes and races, sterilize the “mentally deficient,” mark the “sociopath” for removal from society, and channel “biologically unacceptable” people away from “unsuitable” professions. Gould points out that his book is timely because “biological determinism,” the dogma that intelligence is inherited, precisely measurable, and basically unalterable, “is rising in popularity again, as it always does in times of political retrenchment.”
Reanalyzing the data of influential 19th- and 20th-century scientists, Gould finds that almost invariably their prior expectations caused unconscious errors to twist their conclusions. Though Gould's own critics accuse him of the same kind of mistakes, his evidence here seems convincing. Gould's bottom line: “I … label the whole enterprise of setting a biological value on groups for what it is: irrelevant, intellectually unsound, and highly injurious.”
Some parts of the book are slow-going because of the wealth of detail, but Gould's writing is consistently clear, lively, and inviting. Anyone who wants to understand the IQ debate and the broad but dubious heritage that links discrimination with mental testing will want to read it.
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SOURCE: Graber, David. “A Breathtaking Way of Essaying Chickens and Eggs.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (17 July 1983): 3.
[In the following review, Graber discusses how Gould builds on Darwin's theories in Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes.]
Until only a century ago, communication, even social intercourse, was a commonplace among leading intellectual lights of Western culture. Sharing—for the most part—elements of class, education, and a body of knowledge now banished by the demands of specialization, writers, social thinkers, scientists and artists knew one another well enough to participate in a satisfying exchange of ideas. For several reasons, alas, those days are no more.
The party that has most severely absented itself is science: It is one thing to share with a 19th-century astronomer the telescopic view of Saturn's rings, but quite another to discuss with a contemporary theoretical physicist the first nanosecond in the life of the universe. This is a particular tragedy, not only because the sciences represent such an exciting intellectual landscape, but equally because the products of science wield such pervasive influence.
Stephen Jay Gould remains a glorious exception. His monthly essay in Natural History, entitled “This View of Life,” communicates the excitement of Gould's field of evolutionary biology in superbly witty and literate fashion to anyone willing to grapple with slippery and subtle ideas.
Gould teaches biology, geology and the history of science at Harvard. A paleontologist by training, he has been at the front lines in the current ferment over the forces that drive evolution, and equally outspoken in the unfortunate, coincidental revival of debate between creationists and evolutionists. Gould the essayist indulges freely in the passions of Gould the scientist and Gould the partisan, but he also reaches perceptively into the work of other scientists past and present, to serve effectively as a conduit—albeit not unbiased—to a branch of biology and the peculiar charms of scientific creativity.
Consider the earthworm. Darwin did—in his dotage, some say—and his final book was a discourse on the degree to which worms alter and transport soil. But in his essay first published on the centennial anniversary of Darwin's death last year, “Worm for a Century,” Gould finds in this treatise a clever and subtle object lesson on how one may learn about the past by careful study of the present.
In the case of worms, Darwin was able to observe the process directly; he measured the minute production of castings and the glacial rate at which objects in a field foundered because of worms moving the soil beneath them.
Gould detects a tie to Darwin's first book, about coral reefs; Darwin correctly deduced how atolls grow from island-fringing reefs at a rate too slow to detect by observing the various stages in the process. And he finds a tie to Darwin's book on orchids; the object lesson is that if one must work with a single object—orchids, in this case—the trick is to look for imperfections in its construction that yield clues to evolutionary history. The strange and beautiful orchid parts, used to attract insects (as well as orchid fanciers), are contrived from ordinary stamens, petals and sepals … hardly the way God would have done it had he built orchids from scratch. Gould's tripartite bridge is elegant, and novel.
In the title piece for this third collection of essays, [Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History] Gould describes how atavisms can shed light on evolutionary history. Horses, their hooves composed of but a single toe each, are descended like all mammals from forebears possessed of five toes. Occasionally, modern horses are born with “side splints” as fully developed additional toes. While Archaeopteryx, the first bird, had teeth, no modern birds possess them. Yet chick epithelial tissue, when cultured with mouse mesenchyme in recent experiments, was able to induce the mesenchyme to form dentin (a job normally done by mouse epithelium), and the chick tissue itself developed into enamel: hen's teeth! (Well, almost.) Moral of story. Developmental patterns of an organism's past persist in latent form.
The remaining 28 essays touch on many of Gould's favorite themes: why Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is the probable culprit in the Piltdown scandal, the most famous scientific fraud of the 20th century (and why Teilhard's best-selling book on evolution, The Phenomenon of Man, is logically fallacious); where the zebra gets its stripes; the true story of the Scopes “Monkey” trial; the meaning of mass extinctions in the fossil record, and the profound influence cultural values have on science.
Gould is a compulsive collector of oddities and trivia. Testimony to his breathtaking talent is the way he invariably succeeds in using each such scrap to explore and elucidate his vision of science, and of life.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 669
SOURCE: Sullivan, Daniel. Review of Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes, by Stephen Jay Gould. America 149, no. 4 (6 August 1983): 76-7.
[In the following review, Sullivan examines Gould's major arguments in Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes, noting Gould's focus on creationism and the different approaches to explaining evolution.]
It is a delight to review another book by the prolific science writer and entertaining author, Stephen Jay Gould (cf. my review of The Mismeasure of Man [7/17/82]), who is on the faculty of Harvard University, where he teaches geology, biology and the history of science. This most recent book is the third volume of collected essays, most of which were originally published in Gould's monthly column in Natural History magazine, entitled “This View of Life.” The reader may also be interested in the two earlier volumes, Ever since Darwin (1977) and The Panda's Thumb (1980). The unifying theme of [Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes,] compiled on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Darwin's death in 1882, is once again biological evolution.
He has grouped the 30 essays into seven categories: Sensible Oddities, Personalities, Adaptation and Development, Teilhard and Piltdown, Science and Politics, Extinction and a Zebra Triology. I especially enjoyed the more offbeat essays such as “Big Fish, Little Fish,” “The Guano Ring,” “Hyena Myths and Realities,” and “What, If Anything, Is a Zebra?” All are spiked with good humor, yet present insights into evolutionary theory and animal behavior.
A debate has been going on among evolutionists concerning two opposing explanations of the process of evolution, neither denying evolution as such, however: the more traditional approach (Darwinian “gradualism”) v. the newer theory of Gould and Eldridge (“punctuated equilibrium”). The author gives an objective presentation of both sides in several essays such as “Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes,” which gives the collection its title. Since the “creationists” have used this in-house debate and twisted it to repudiate evolution, Gould has included several essays repudiating creationism. The readers of America have probably followed this controversy in the news media, which have compared it to the 1925 Scopes monkey trial. Gould correctly dismisses the creationist theory concerning the origin of species as being scientifically untenable. Like many scientists, however, he in turn has a rather restricted understanding of the theology of creation. The fundamentalist exegesis of Genesis is not in the mainstream of modern scriptural scholarship, and the ultimate question is not the origin of species, but the origin of the universe. Or put another way, whence came whatever it was that “banged-big” according to the Big Bang Theory?
Although science must necessarily restrict itself to natural phenomena, Gould implies that there is no supernatural dimension worth considering by any intellectual discipline. This is exemplified in an essay in which he gleefully spends five pages proving that Thomas H. Huxley (a contemporary and defender of Darwin) was really an agnostic, contrary to a statement in the old Moon, Man and Otto biology textbook. Probably true, but what else is new? A secular humanism pervades many of Gould's essays, and perhaps it is this antireligious attitude that was behind his vindictive attack on the Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The 1980 articles are repeated here, in which Gould accused Teilhard of participation in the Piltdown hoax of the ape-man fossil. It was somewhat painful to reread the “Piltdown Conspiracy” once again in which Gould admits that his deduction was based only on circumstantial evidence that has been rejected by other scientists. Yet he is both judge and jury in his conviction of Teilhard, and Gould is especially disturbed by Teilhard's silence on the Piltdown controversy: “I hoped that some old man would come down off a mountain or out of a monastery bearing a yellowed document of confession from Teilhard.”
Such prejudice aside, however, Gould's essays are rich in making apparently insignificant organisms important and providing a new insight for those of us who find biology a rewarding profession or a fascinating avocation. Evolution unifies the diversity of life, and even if hens have lost their teeth, horses still have one toe.
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SOURCE: Dunn, Stephen G., and Anne Lonergan. Review of The Flamingo's Smile, by Stephen Jay Gould. America 154, no. 20 (24 May 1986): 437-39.
[In the following review, Dunn and Lonergan praise The Flamingo's Smile, but fault the work for lacking discussion concerning science's relationship with technology and its “responsibility for the global nightmare.”]
Do you ho-hum every time the boring topic of creation science and its fight with evolution comes up? We did—until we perused the above books, by a theologian, a lawyer, a biologist and a chemist, respectively—and found the deleterious consequences of the conflict cast pretty wide ripples. Religious thinkers and scientists need to do more than yawn; it all affects much more than state statutes.
Langdon Gilkey, professor of theology at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, was asked to be a witness for the prosecution in the 1981 creationist trial at Little Rock, which ended by striking down a law promoting creationism as science to be taught on an equal basis with evolutionary theory in Arkansas. His readable account of that experience, Creationism on Trial, mixes anecdote, arguments from participants and further theological reflections in Part Two: “Analysis and Reflection: The Implications of Creation Science for Modern Society and Modern Religion.” Gilkey himself, in testimony, argued the religious, not scientific, character of creationism. He made an important discovery: The different stance of liberal theology on this issue is a “well-kept secret.” Most reporters, for example, pitted religious leaders against scientists in their stories, neglecting the fact that theologians came in with the A.C.L.U., while the strategy of the creationists was to use scientists! Gilkey documents well that the media and public educators understand creationism as the only possible Christian stance; he faults theologians and well-educated “liberal” pastors for the lacunae in public perception.
Gilkey continues in the second part of the book the themes he initially raised (notably in Society and the Sacred) on the continuing importance of religion in contemporary society. Because science is such an important mode of knowing in our culture, religion is banished as an embarrassing relic—but what gets pushed out the front door can sometimes return by the back in virulent form. For Gilkey, science and technology are central and mythic in our culture. For that reason, he argues that some scientists have promoted an absolute view of science's own scope as method for understanding reality; it is this that actually spawned creation scientism itself—an ironic and unexpected result. Like Jacques Ellul, Gilkey looks at the central role of science and its effect on culture in both its creative and demonic aspects. He also calls for scientific education to include both the history and philosophy of science to break the absolutist tendency, but pays little attention to the paradigmatic shift away from spectator to participant argued so well by Stephen Toulmin in The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature.
Edward J. Larson, a practicing attorney in Seattle, with a doctorate in the history of science, has written Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution. Primarily, it is an account of educational and legal battles since evolutionary theory began to be taught in American high schools. The legal controversies highlight the popular response to evolutionary thought and the use of law to redress the relationship between science and society. Public opinion has shifted from lack of interest in the topic (prior to this century) to the banning of evolutionary theory (most popular in the 1920's) to a deference to science after the Second World War, and finally to attempts to usher in creationism under the rubric of fairness for competing ideas. Larson clarifies why the initial lack of controversy changed: High school education became much more widespread in the early part of this century. Such perspectives on history make the book useful for insight. The latter part of the book, which deals with legal issues since 1970, however, is very important for research purposes but unavoidably lacks broader perspectives on the whole vexing controversy.
By chance, another witness at the Arkansas trial has also recently published his latest collection of essays from monthly columns in Natural History. Stephen J. Gould's The Flamingo's Smile: Reflections in Natural History, is, as one would expect from his other collections, engaging, full of the latest issues in his field of paleontology and a tribute to a man battling with cancer gracefully and courageously. Gould takes us through many explorations fascinating in themselves: flamingos' beaks, myths about praying mantises, how Alfred Kinsey's specialization in wasp research affected his later, more famous research; but Gould's major contribution is always clarifying scientific methodology and helping nonscientists overcome a simplistic view of the process.
As in The Mismeasure of Man, several essays show Gould's skill for proving how easy it is for scientists, pursuing scientific methodologies, to stray into the service of racial ideologies, wish fulfillment and uncritical service to useless paradigms. Gould has great sympathy for some reviled figures in the history of science; he demythologizes heroes and finds meaning in many of the “losers.” What is admirable is Gould's commitment with other scientists to helping people understand the issue of nuclear winter; but what we do not get a sense of is science's role in relation to technology and its responsibility for the global nightmare. Gould understands better than anyone the messiness of the scientific process, yet the “shadow” side of the wonderful method is still not reflectively acknowledged.
Our friends, the creation scientists, return in Robert Shapiro's Origins: A Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth. As a professor of chemistry at New York University, he brings a fascinating perspective to the various theories about the origin of life, including the well-known prebiotic-soup theory. He also brings a superior talent for popularization to his task. All the present theories, he concludes, are as “mythic” as any religious theory traditionally presented (we dislike his use of “myth” in a simplistic sense, but his point is clear). He offers no highly developed alternate theory, only the possibility of research directions that may yield fruit. Shapiro believes the whole area of investigation in the rise of life from prelife is in a “preparadigm” state, as alluded to in Thomas Kuhn's famous description: “Too many anomalies abound in current explanations.” To someone not trained in chemistry, some of the technical parts of the book might be confusing, but the gist of his explanations is clear and illustrated by witty analogies.
The creation science debacle in Arkansas in 1981 (was everyone in Little Rock then?) is the subject of one of Shapiro's chapters, and the usual rebuttal of creationism's claim to be a science is done well. But an important clue to the dilemma of the gulf between religion and science in our culture is given on the book jacket: “Religions say life was created by a powerful being with mystical powers. Science says life evolved from a soup of chemicals, clay, or even a supernatural force. According to Professor Robert Shapiro, both are wrong.” These sentences highlight the distorted cultural perception that Gilkey spoke of. To begin with, Shapiro does not deal with the truth claims of “religions.” Traditional Christian philosophy (if that is the implied reference) made distinctions (between primary and secondary causality, for example) that would do any contemporary scientist proud. By his all too easy contrast between myth and science, perhaps Shapiro is guilty of continuing to muddle religion, natural theology and science, just as contemporary popular perception does. It keeps the schizophrenia in our culture going merrily along.
This regrettable conflict, then, between science and creationism makes fruitful dialogue almost impossible, and traps scientists into more of the “nothing but” reductionism. For instance, Gould describes a night in Africa: “I sensed the awe, fear and mystery of the night. I am tempted to say (describing emotions, not making any inferences about realities, higher or lower) that I felt close to the origin of religion as a historical phenomenon of the human psyche.” We are sorry that a scientist in the last years of the 20th century cannot say, “I felt religious awe.” These books help us understand why not.
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SOURCE: Sulloway, Frank. “The Metaphor and the Rock.” New York Review of Books 34, no. 9 (28 May 1987): 37-40.
[In the following review, Sulloway draws connections between Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle's central metaphors and the text of Gould's earlier works, particularly Ontogeny and Phylogeny and The Mismeasure of Man.]
Ever since the appearance of Ontogeny and Phylogeny a decade ago, Stephen Jay Gould has continued to delight and inform a wide spectrum of readers and, in doing so, to defy C. P. Snow's lament about the “two cultures” of the sciences and the humanities. Gould's monthly column in Natural History magazine, published under the heading “This View of Life,” has led to a series of highly praised volumes of essays—Ever since Darwin (1977), The Panda's Thumb (1980), Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes (1983), and most recently The Flamingo's Smile (1985). In addition, Gould's Mismeasure of Man (1981), which won the National Book Critics' Circle Award, analyzed the questionable character of intelligence testing and emphasized the many personal and cultural biases that have led researchers astray in this field. Given the sheer amount of Gould's publications, which include numerous scientific publications as well, Gould's readers have been kept busy indeed absorbing his prodigious output.
Now, with Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle, Gould has turned to the history of geology, a field very close to his main concerns as a paleontologist. In this new work he offers a revisionist historical account of the discovery of geological time. If anyone suspects that Gould has at last written a book on a rather dry historical question, I should emphasize that he has hit upon a rich subject and has written a highly perceptive and fascinating book. Furthermore, his latest volume offers his readers a valuable insight into his wider intellectual vision, providing them with a literary blueprint for a number of the basic concerns that unite his many essays and books. To understand Gould one should read his new book. In this review I shall try to illustrate some of the connections between it and the rest of his work.
THE DISCOVERY OF DEEP TIME
Geological time is so immense compared with the human experience of time that we can only hope to grasp it dimly through analogies. “Consider the earth's history,” Gould suggests, “as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the king's nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history.” This discovery of “deep time,” which involved abandoning biblical standards of time for nearly incomprehensible eons, Gould ranks with the monumental intellectual revolutions associated with Copernicus and Darwin. He has picked three major figures in the history of geology, one traditional villain (Thomas Burnet) and two traditional heroes (James Hutton and Charles Lyell), to illustrate the nature of this discovery.
Standard textbook accounts of the achievements of these three figures have long provided what Gould describes as a “self-serving mythology.” These flimsy “cardboard” accounts vaunt the superiority of empiricism and inductivism over the scientific nemesis of religious bigotry. According to the textbooks, geology remained in the service of the Mosaic story of creation as long as armchair geological theorists refused to place fieldwork ahead of scriptural authority. Thomas Burnet, author of the Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681-1689), was just such an archetypical spokesman for religious interests. A century later the Scottish geologist James Hutton finally broke with this biblical zealotry by arguing that geological evidence must rest upon a solid empirical foundation (literally, the rocks themselves) and that the earth's strata, once carefully examined, betray “no vestige of a beginning—no prospect of an end.” But Hutton was far ahead of his time (and also not a very persuasive writer). It was therefore not until Charles Lyell published the Principles of Geology (1830-1833) that geologists finally came to accept Hutton's basic message and banished miraculous intervention, catastrophes, and biblical deluges from their science.
Other historians of geology, Gould acknowledges, have refuted this textbook mythology, and he claims no originality in this respect. But he does believe that the real sources of inspiration in the discovery of deep time have not been properly understood. It is this aspect of the story that he sets out to rectify, and he does so with imagination and flair. In this respect Gould should be seen as part of the generation of historians who have been affected by T. S. Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Kuhn argued, in part, that science is a social activity and that theories are intellectual constructions imposed on data, not demanded by them. The views of Kuhn and other philosophers and sociologists of science have helped historians of science to recognize, as Gould emphatically does, that mental constructs (metaphors, analogies, personal philosophies, imaginative leaps)—not empirical discoveries—are what bring about scientific advance. “Facts” are so embedded in theory that they simply do not have the kind of independent probative power they were once supposed to possess.
Thus what underlies the discovery of deep time is by no means fieldwork, as the myths of geology textbooks would have us believe. Rather, Gould pinpoints a powerful pair of metaphors—time's arrow and time's cycle—by which humankind has always tried to grasp the concept of time. Time's arrow captures the uniqueness and distinctive character of sequential events, whereas time's cycle provides these events with another kind of meaning by evoking lawfulness and predictability. Gould notes that this metaphorical pair is common not only in the thinking of ancient and preliterate peoples but also in the Judeo-Christian tradition, in which time's arrow nevertheless began to predominate. More importantly, this metaphorical pair of ideas was essential to the thinking of Gould's three geological protagonists; and the paired concepts therefore offer the key, now obscured by textbook mythology, to unlocking their thinking about time.
BURNET AND NEWTON
The frontispiece to Thomas Burnet's Sacred Theory of the Earth embodies the essence of his argument. Christ, at the top, has his left foot on the earth as it was in the beginning of the creation (“without form and void”). Earth history moves clockwise, recording the perfect (featureless) earth of Eden, the Flood (with Noah's ark floating just above the center), the present state of the earth, the coming conflagration that shall consume and purify the earth once more, and finally the earth transformed into a star after the righteous have ascended to heaven. Above Christ is the inscription from the Book of Revelation, “I am the alpha and omega,” that is, the beginning and the end.
Burnet's theory illustrates the metaphors of time's arrow and time's cycle in unmistakable form. His is a one-cycle theory in which biblical narrative (time's arrow) runs its course within a wider conception of “the great year” and “great circle of time and fate” that bring about the return of Paradise. It is precisely this literal belief in Scripture that has made Burnet a pariah in the history of geology. Yet Burnet, Gould demonstrates, was hardly the religious fanatic he is supposed to have been when he is placed within the context of contemporary scientific thought. Compared with the textbook legend, Burnet was, ironically, adamant about explaining the history of the earth as recorded in Scriptures entirely within the frame of natural science, devoid of all appeals to miracles or divine intervention. Whereas his contemporaries had to call upon God to create new and vast sources of water for the Flood, for example, Burnet tried to avoid such external interventions by positing an underground source of water released onto the earth's surface through a fault in the crust. Similarly, Burnet believed that Vesuvius and Etna would provide the sources of fire that would ultimately consume and purify the world prior to the second coming of Christ.
In a revealing exchange, Burnet in 1681 argued with Isaac Newton over the length of the original “days” of creation. Newton saw a way out of the difficulty of assuming God had made the world in a week. He believed that the “days” of Genesis might have been much longer than present ones, and that God, when the job was finally done, intervened in order to speed up the earth's rotation. Burnet regarded such a theory as totally unacceptable precisely because it required divine intervention. Thus the “bad guy” of geological textbook history was actually more devoted to rational, miracle-free science than the greatest scientist of his age.
DEEP TIME AS ENDLESS CYCLES
Before James Hutton most geological theorists, working within a limited time scale for earth history, had dealt only with processes of decay. The earth was created, so their thinking went, and its geologic structures just wore down through catastrophic events like the biblical Flood and through more ordinary processes like weathering. Hutton's genius was to introduce the concept of repair into geology and, with it, the notion of deep time. The textbooks, of course, see this as a triumph of science and empiricism over religion, but it was nothing of the kind. Ironically, Hutton's entire theory of the earth was an a priori conception inspired jointly by religious considerations and “the most rigid and uncompromising version of time's cycle ever developed by a geologist.”
Hutton's theory grew out of a problem—what may be called “the paradox of the soil.” A gentleman farmer, Hutton was well aware that good soil, the product of the “denudation,” or eroding, of rock strata, eventually loses its richness to the plant life it sustains. Were there to be no geological source for continual new soil, Hutton believed, then the world would bear the intolerable stamp of an imperfectly designed abode for man's existence. Hutton's homocentric and teleological concept of the world therefore demanded that the soil, new soil, should never run out. This requirement in turn demanded the uplift of new strata to become the sources for soil replenishment. So Hutton, belatedly in his career, set out to find evidence for uplift (which he naturally did, since he was already looking for it). In fact, he found evidence for repeated uplifts of the earth's crust. This realization led him inexorably to the discovery of deep time. In Hutton's final theory the earth became an entirely self-regulating machine cycling its way, over and over again, through three geological stages: (1) denudation and decay; (2) the deposition of new marine strata; and (3) the melting, expansion, and uplift of the lowest strata as “igneous” rock ready to be broken down again for future plants. Hutton's recognition that certain rocks had solidified from molten magma was a particularly powerful new insight.
So rigid was Hutton's vision of an endlessly cycling earth having “no vestige of a beginning” and “no prospect of an end” that he lost all interest in the historical nature of geological change. The divine benevolence entailed in these cycles was everything to Hutton, who, in a Newtonian rather than a historical image, compared them to the planets revolving ceaselessly about the sun. “Through the thousand pages of Hutton's treatise ,” Gould poignantly remarks, “we find not a single sentence that treats the different ages and properties of strata as interesting in themselves—as markers of distinction for particular times.”
Hutton, an unlikely hero for empiricist geology, nevertheless became one. Gould reconstructs this process of mythification and sees it as involving several stages. First, Hutton's long and turgid Theory of the Earth (1795) was popularized by his friend John Playfair (1802). Not only did Playfair make up for Hutton's difficult prose, but he also modernized Hutton's theory by soft-pedaling both his “denial of history” and his repeated appeals to final causes. Subsequently Charles Lyell, who needed an empiricist hero for his own account of the warfare between science and religious bigotry, bolstered Hutton's image as a fieldworker who had no conceptual bias. Finally the legend was consolidated in the writings of later geologists, who rarely bothered to read Hutton in the original.
THE RETURN OF THE ICHTHYOSAURS
It is important to bear in mind that Charles Lyell was trained as a lawyer. His rhetorical skills were considerable indeed, and, as Gould makes clear, they are crucial to understanding his impact upon the history of geology. When pleading for his favorite client, which became known as the “uniformitarian” theory of geology, he portrayed the previous history of his discipline as a gradual overcoming of primitive superstitions, wild speculations, and biblical allegiances. In doing so he created his own legend, much as Sigmund Freud did, as an archempiricist free of all bias and preconception. But Lyell was not selling just evidence and fieldwork over previous dogma and speculative theory. Rather he foisted upon his contemporaries a “fascinating and particular theory rooted in … time's cycle.”
This theory, which set itself up against the prevailing geological “catastrophism,” confused a number of distinct meanings under the banner of “uniformitarianism.” First, Lyell argued for the uniformity of nature's laws (that is, the notion that laws do not change with time or place). Second, he argued for the uniformity of process, which simply means always explaining past changes by currently known causes as long as these will suffice. Contrary to the legend, Lyell's geological opponents accepted both of these methodological aspects of “uniformity.” What Lyell's critics did not accept were two further substantive claims about the world that he also made under the heading of good (uniformitarian) science. These claims were that rates of geological change are always uniform (that is, gradual) and that the general state of the world also remains uniform (that is, there is no progression or directionality in the long run).
The last of these claims was the most peculiar of all within Lyell's vision of earth history. It led him to deny all evidence of progression in the fossil record and hence to reject not only Lamarck's theory of evolution but also contemporary creationist notions, in which “higher” organisms were thought to replace “lower” ones after mass extinctions. So wedded was Lyell to his conception of nondirectional change occurring within great geological cycles that he even believed the more temperate climate of the Carboniferous period might one day return and, with it, the great dinosaurs of that age. “The huge iguanodon,” Lyell argued, “might reappear in the woods, and the ichthyosaur in the sea, while the pterodactyl might flit again through umbrageous groves of tree-ferns” (1830-1833, 1:123). It was this curious passage in Lyell's Principles that inspired Henry De la Beche's celebrated lithograph (see opposite) in which a professorial ichthyosaur of some future earth discusses the geological significance of a fossilized human skull.
Lyell was even less of an empiricist, Gould points out, than most of his catastrophist opponents. For Lyell was constantly forced to deny the literal evidence of the geological record, which shows whole groups of organisms being abruptly replaced by different sets of organisms in adjacent strata. His gradualist reading of the geological record therefore required his constant “interpretation” of the recalcitrant evidence in order to reconcile it with his notions of time's stately cycle and a world without abrupt changes. Nor was Lyell's eventual conversion to evolution a strictly empirical affair. When he finally took this step publicly, in 1868, it was not because he had been persuaded by Darwin's theory of natural selection. In fact, Lyell rejected that theory, accepting only a general evolutionary process without its celebrated Darwinian mechanism. Admitting nonmiraculous progression (that is, evolution) in turn allowed him to preserve three of his other four uniformities (uniformity of law, process, and rate) while giving up only uniformity of state. This was, as Gould notes, “the most conservative intellectual option available to him.”
Charles Lyell may have lost the battle over progressionism to Darwinism, but he won the geological war against catastrophism, which enabled his belief in the uniformity of rate to become a textbook shibboleth. The catastrophists of Lyell's day, Gould nevertheless maintains, were right all along. The literal fossil evidence of major rapid changes in previous faunas does not need to be interpreted away, as Lyell tried to do by appealing to the imperfection of the geological record. The theory of “punctuated equilibria,” by which Gould and Niles Eldredge (1972) have sought to accept and explain this nongradual record, is as much a reply to Lyell's baneful legacy as it is a challenge to current Darwinian theory. Gould even sees supreme irony in the recent hypothesis of the Berkeley scientists Luis and Walter Alvarez that mass extinctions were caused by asteroidal or cometary impacts (a hypothesis now made plausible by the discovery of a worldwide iridium layer deposited at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary); for this is precisely the sort of wild “cosmological” speculation that Lyell derided in seventeenth-century writers like William Whiston.
Gould concludes Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle by insisting that arrows and cycles are “eternal metaphors” in the understanding of time. In a thoughtful complement to his discussion of the history of geology, he shows how these two metaphors have figured in the art and sculpture associated with major biblical themes. Both metaphors, he concludes, are needed “for any comprehensive view of history.”
All in all Gould has written a fine book that tells a fascinating story. Like most of his other books, it is original in parts but also synthesizes the scholarship of many other writers. It is not without some methodological shortcomings. As Gould himself acknowledges, his historical approach relies largely on the old-fashioned method of explication de texte and does so, moreover, within the limited sphere of British geology. Furthermore, some nonscientific readers may find certain of Gould's geological discussions too dry or technical. One also feels that Gould pushes his temporal metaphors too far. For example, he occasionally tends, for the sake of his central argument, to play down the religious nature of the controversies surrounding the discovery of deep time. But his viewpoint is nevertheless a healthy corrective to the mythologies we find in textbooks, and his general argument is convincing.
If time's arrow and time's cycle are “great” and “eternal” metaphors for others, they have also given direction to Gould's work and theoretical interests. It hardly seems coincidental that his first published essay (1965) was an article on the confusion of meanings in Lyell's concept of uniformitarianism (a confusion about uniformity as immanent laws—or time's cycle—and uniformity as states—or time's arrow). Nor is it coincidental that Gould's first book, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977), drew its title and subject matter directly from another version of time's arrow and time's cycle. The more one reviews his writing over the years, the more one sees just how central this and another thematic pair of ideas—continuity and discontinuity—are in his thinking.1 To elucidate the pervasiveness of these metaphors in Gould's writings we must first identify, following Gould's lead, some of the other intellectual guises in which they appear.
If time's cycle stands for the immanence of law and time's arrow for the uniqueness of history, then Gould's dual career as a scientist and as a historian of science represents perhaps his greatest commitment to these two ways of understanding time. Gould is one of those rare scientists who fully appreciates that the past is not always “just history” and that many problems in science cannot be conceptualized correctly unless one escapes the intellectual straitjacket of prevailing scientific mythologies. In this sense scientists are actually influenced by history all the time, even though they often disdain the subject as a waste of time. The textbook legends they fashion around their scientific heroes are value-laden visions of the world that often limit “the possibility of weighing reasonable alternatives,” as Gould has emphasized about the history of geology. Thus doing the history of science is, for Gould at least, an essential part of doing good science.
Many of his Natural History essays, as well as The Mismeasure of Man and Ontogeny and Phylogeny, have been inspired by this fruitful union of history and science. It is the historian's perspective, for example, that allows Gould to see that early practitioners of both geology and psychology envied the predictability and mathematical exactitude of hard sciences like physics. This circumstance led Hutton, for example, to ignore the historical nature of geological change in favor of a Newtonian view of the world. The same motive, Gould believes, has led psychologists to portray intelligence as a monolithic, quantifiable entity, an approach that he has attacked in The Mismeasure of Man. Thus in emulating the immanent laws and procedures of the physical sciences, both geology and psychology (which are partly historical sciences) have sometimes lost sight of the uniqueness that characterizes their subject matter.
Within Gould's biological writings the themes of time's arrow and time's cycle are also ubiquitous. Gould touches upon this in the conclusion of his book, and the point is worth elaborating upon here. For example, biologists distinguish between homologies and analogies. Homologies are organs or structures that are similar owing to communality of descent. The wing of a bat, the front flipper of a seal, and the upper limb of a human being are all homologous, fashioned from a similar phylogenetic prototype by time's arrow of evolution. Analogies, on the other hand, owe their similarity to immanent principles of function. Thus the wings of birds, bats, and pterodactyls are functionally analogous rather than the product of common descent. Similarly, we see the contrast between time's arrow and time's cycle in the tension between evolutionary explanations stressing optimality, on the one hand, and imperfection on the other. Optimal designs are equal evidence both for Darwinian natural selection and divine creation. Proofs of evolution are therefore, as Darwin understood, just those instances where imperfection betrays the historical process by which some structure was acquired.
Two of Gould's books, The Panda's Thumb and The Flamingo's Smile, draw their titles from essays that elaborate this basic principle. Gould's role as a critic of the “adaptationist program” within current evolutionary biology—see his “The Spandrels of San Marcos” (1979)—is also rooted in his conviction that history, which is full of evidence of structural constraints and other peculiarities defying optimal development, must not be forgotten in evolutionary explanations. Biology is thus filled with issues and tensions that touch upon Gould's two temporal metaphors. As he remarks in this connection, “Two world views, eternal metaphors, jockey for recognition within every organism—receiving special attention according to the aims and interests of students: homology and analogy; history and optimality; transformation and immanence.” Much of Gould's work as a scientist consists, to put it simply, of redressing the metaphorical balance whenever he believes his colleagues have opted for an explanation that ignores the inextricable duality of these concepts.2
No better example of this last statement can be given than the theory of punctuated equilibria, which involves not only the metaphors of time's arrow and cycle but also those of continuity and discontinuity. In setting forth this theory, Eldredge and Gould (1972) were reacting against a paleontological tradition in which gradual evolution (time's arrow) was seen as the primary mode of species change. The theory of punctuated equilibria draws upon two aspects of time's cycle in challenging this view of evolution: the speciation cycle and the ontogenetic cycle. Following Ernst Mayr's fundamental insight into the splitting of species and rapid evolution of new genetic patterns under conditions of geographic isolation,3 Eldredge and Gould inferred that most evolutionary change occurs during these brief moments of emergence, which usually leave no traces in the fossil record. They also concluded that the subsequent history of the species, when fossils do accumulate, is primarily one of stasis.
Gould subsequently added to this theory, which is “catastrophic” only in comparison with the paleontological gradualism that preceded it, a conceptual twist involving time's ontogenetic cycle. This aspect of the theory, which has been more controversial, argues that rapid changes during the cycle in which new species develop become possible by changes in genes that control rates of development (ontogeny). Gould (The Panda's Thumb, pp. 186-193) even went so far as to argue in this connection that Richard Goldschmidt's discredited theory of “hopeful monsters” might finally be ready for a comeback. Goldschmidt believed that new species could arise by sudden macromutations (or large genetic changes). Most of these mutations would result in maladapted monsters, but an occasional “hopeful monster,” Goldschmidt argued, would prove viable and then give rise to a new evolutionary line. To his colleagues in evolutionary theory, Gould's endorsement of this non-Darwinian view was comparable to arguing that parapsychology should be taken seriously.
The concept of ontogeny has also been of special importance to Gould in his role as a critic of adaptationism. Like the romantics and idealists of early nineteenth-century biology, Gould sees the organism as an indivisible whole. Development, in his view, is constrained by a host of interacting genetic systems and functional requirements. A proper understanding of ontogeny is therefore a prerequisite for appreciating the ways and means of phylogeny. In any event, it is enough to point out here that Gould appears to have made good use of metaphorical thinking (especially time's arrow and time's cycle) both in his historical work and in his contributions to biological theory.
I have been able only to sketch briefly the unity that Gould's favorite metaphors and themes give to his work. At the same time, I certainly do not wish to over-simplify the diversity of Gould's literary and scientific efforts, which are hardly reducible to these metaphors. Gould, moreover, will probably develop new metaphors to guide his future research and writing, thus exercising the privilege that comes with time's arrow—unpredictable change and uniqueness. In the meantime, inspired by such “eternal” metaphors about time and change, Gould's thinking will doubtless continue to move forward in creative and fruitful cycles.
Gerald Holton has argued that all science is inspired by such bipolar “themata,” which transcend the strictly empirical character of science by giving a primary role to human imagination. It is curious that Holton's views, so relevant to Gould's own thesis, go unmentioned in this book. See Holton, The Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein (Harvard University Press, 1973).
Gould is aware of the Hegelian-Marxist character of this style of dialectical thinking (The Panda's Thumb, p. 184). Similarly, Gould notes in Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle that the concept of repetitive cycles moving onward is dialectical (p. 48n).
Ernst Mayr, “Change of Genetic Environment and Evolution,” in J. Huxley, A. C. Hardy, and E. B. Ford, eds, Evolution as a Process (Allen & Unwin, 1954), pp. 157-180; and Animal Species and Evolution (Harvard University Press [Belknap Press], 1963).
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SOURCE: D'Evelyn, Thomas. “Finding Patterns of Meaning in the Tick of Time.” Christian Science Monitor 79, no. 161 (15 July 1987): 21.
[In the following review, D'Evelyn examines how Gould uses the metaphor of an arrow in Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle to compose a history of geology that focuses on three central geological thinkers.]
Today, as in the Renaissance, the breakup of systems of thought releases great energy. Time and research have undermined the main modern ideologies of Marxism and Darwinism until some of their proponents consider them not so much scientific theories as research programs, not testworthy in themselves but still capable of inspiring good work.
Scientists have adapted to this situation in various ways. Some have yielded to the revisionist impulse—most notably, perhaps, Stephen Jay Gould. Furthermore, he's turned his position as professor of geology and curator in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard and his columns in Natural Science magazine into a bully pulpit for issues ranging from nuclear winter to natural selection. In the process, he's alienated both fellow scientists and the creationists whom he has opposed in court battles over the teaching of evolution in the schools.
As his new book shows, Gould's metier is really not so much science as a certain kind of discussion about science. A careful reading suggests that it's Gould's style, not his experiments, that reveal the intentions of the man.
Indeed, in Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle, Gould's method is literary. The book includes close readings of three major texts in the history of geology, from the 17th through the 19th century. It originated as the first Harvard-Jerusalem lectures at Hebrew University in 1985.
But the subject is not strictly scientific. Gould's book is about “the meaning of history.” In it, we finally see what makes Gould tick.
Ticking, in this case, may suggest a bomb rather than a clock—or both. Gould finds a place for both catastrophe and the steady march of time in geological history. With Niles Eldredge, Gould has put forth the theory of “punctuated equilibria.” It proposes that species do not change gradually throughout their existence; rather, they remain in equilibrium with the environment for millions of years and then, for unknown reasons, evolve rapidly, changing into new species.
Gould's effort to make room in Darwinist thought for catastrophe suggests his revisionism. In these lectures, he further explores the problem of gradualism. He says that geology has been dominated by the metaphor of the arrow—progressive, linear motion—at the expense of the metaphor of the cycle, which points to the element of repetition.
He finds the desired combination of arrows and cycles in the thought of one of the earliest geologists, Thomas Burnet. Against the textbooks, which reject his thinking as theological pseudo-science, Gould finds Burnet thought provoking. A prominent 17th-century Anglican clergyman, Burnet called his treatise “Sacred History of the Earth.” Burnet accepted the time frame in the biblical account of creation. When a conflict arose between fact and tradition, he tried to reconcile the two.
Gould sees Burnet's vision in his frontispiece (reproduced here). Surrounded by angels, Jesus keeps one foot on the first stage of the earth, and one on the last. The vision is progressive—it reads clockwise, and each phase of earth accounts for one step, from the Creation to the Fall to the Second Coming to the Last Judgment and stellification—and cyclical at the same time.
Why should Gould—a self-described Jewish paleontologist—find this inspiring? He knows that the biblical schedule of creation came in for a shock with the discovery of “deep time” (John McPhee's phrase) or geological time. He's been a careful critic of fundamentalist creationists. But he also feels that his own profession has accepted on faith a vision equally inadequate. Gradual progress—symbolized by the arrow—is as much a problem, taken in isolation, as the mere repetitiveness symbolized by the ancient concept of eternal return.
Gould's reading of the two great geological thinkers after Burnet—James Hutton and Charles Lyell—demonstrates in great and sometimes eloquent detail the struggle they had with the limits imposed by their visions of history. Having rejected the notion that science is built up from facts alone, Gould defines the great moments in geological science in terms that are surprisingly literary. As an exponent of nasty little facts, and aware that a bold theory needs only one counterfact to evaporate, Gould is careful to document the interpenetration of fact and theory, data and vision. His is a study of geological style and eloquence.
Like Thomas Burnet and other 17th-century writers, Gould is a master of synthesis—even syncretism. In this book, he creates space for both Burnet's biblical apologetics and his own revisionist Darwinism. Readers of his columns who have come to expect a smooth, yogurty texture may dislike the chunky roughage dished out here. But the unevenness of the texture (extending to his odd usage of words like “construe” and “inextricable”) suggests his ambition.
Gould's syncretistic vision of arrows and cycles comes to rest on the obvious. Take any organism. The arrow points to the individual, the cycle to its membership in a repeating series. The cycle points also to laws, say, of plate tectonics—such laws, Gould says, “may be simple and timeless, but they yield a complex uniqueness of results when we trace the actual configurations of continents through time.”
Gould concludes: “Uniqueness is the essence of history, but we also crave some underlying generality, some principles of order transcending the distinction of moments …”
Is it then much ado about nothing, another case of showmanship? In the final lecture, he illustrates his theory with discussions of American folk art, Siamese twins, and medieval sculpture.
It's as a writer, not scientist, that Gould should probably be judged. His remarkable style is not igneous or metamorphical, but composite: In it, descriptive, explanatory, and emotive elements coexist unfused but still preserved in almost miraculous juxtaposition. Gould's catastrophic, even millennial frame of mind, makes him include a little of everything, in an act of symbolic conservation. It's Gould's style that best communicates his sense of the mystery of life on earth.
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SOURCE: “Foxes and Hedgehogs: A Look at Four Books by Celebrated Scientists.” American Scientist 76, no. 5 (September/October 1988): 503-04.
[In the following review, the critic questions the self-reflective nature of An Urchin in the Storm.]
How should a collection of reviews be reviewed? I would rather not second guess Gould by presenting my opinion of the books he has reviewed [in An Urchin in the Storm,] but would rather consider the special set of stylistic attitudes and circumstances that provide unity and interest to this volume, conceding that the ideas and images presented have been constrained by Gould's role as book reviewer so that they are not quite a freestanding sample of his thought. The reviews are rather pegs on which Gould hangs his favorite ideas in poster form.
Problems begin with the dust jacket, which bears the author's name first, the title, and then a drawing of a funnel cloud over a European hedgehog. How does the title connect with the drawing? In Webster's Collegiate the first definition of “urchin” is “hedgehog,” while “mischievous youngster” is the second meaning. “Urchin” does not, however, appear as a meaning for “hedgehog.” Gould conflates meanings and identifies himself in the preface as the urchin-hedgehog in the title. He claims identity with the hedgehog in Isaiah Berlin's famous essay on the aphorism: “The fox knows many things. The hedgehog knows one big thing.” Having unraveled the title, one is left with the question of why I had to know it and why I am passing this, of all things, on to you. The reason will eventually appear and be less convoluted than the argument so far.
Evolution is the one big thing he knows. Specifically, that natural selection cannot be simplistically invoked as the molder of each and every property of organisms; since the roles of particular structures in the life of organisms may change with circumstances, preexisting anatomical and developmental properties may restrict the effects of selection, and conflicting uses may be demanded of any particular structure. The rate at which evolution has occurred is not constant but varies with environmental circumstances. Tests of intelligence are culture bound to the point that the value of intelligence-testing is questionable. Also, science history and the development of scientific reputations is a complex matter. Finally, it sometimes happens that people one can agree with on a political level are dreadful scientists, and the converse.
But surely these sound like merely a set of truisms! The interest is in how they are expressed and discussed. Roughly translating part of the preceding paragraph into Gould's language (of which I claim a modest knowledge), it might read: “Panglossian adaptationists fail to understand holistic materialistic constraints. Punctuated equilibrium belies the simplistic claims of gradualists. Elitism and class structure color the role of IQ tests. …” These are essentially similar statements but now have a special flavor.
Neologisms are created and used to classify both friends and foes. Anti-urchinists are placed in the position of unwitting heretics. Another neologism is then established to denote the heretical position, and the words of each author reviewed are then examined until the heresy becomes manifest. Trotsky's accounts of the meetings of the Duma prior to the Bolshevik takeover has a similar style, also replete with the suffixes “ist” and “ism.” (Please, I am making a stylistic, not a political, point!) Heresy is always found, even if it is necessary to infer an author's thoughts from his words before coming to a verdict. As recently noted by Dawkins, Gould's emphatic distinction between “gradualists” and “punctuated equilibriasts” hinges on Gould having invented the word “gradualism” and having suggested that the repeated early assertions that evolution does not occur at a constant rate but involves long periods of stasis were not really seriously intended. (I am among the several dozen people at least that thought we had made this point in a very serious way, following Simpson and Darwin and Wright and so on. My explicit statement of it was made in a 1964 paper.)
Almost all the reviews have the same plot. Gould points out that the authors worked hard and really should be treated with kindness but that they did really fail to understand their own subject matter due to being partially blinded by their political or class prejudice, narrow view of history, or ignorance of the full implications of the truisms listed above.
One of the most curious phenomena of current evolutionists is the passion with which they support or oppose Gould. In fact our hedgehog is batted about by flailing mallets aiding him or preventing him from passing through various academic hoops, for all the world like the hedgehogs in the croquet game in Alice in Wonderland. This is odd given that all of this is fairly innocent stuff, and often not wrong. Why the passion?
He violates certain rules of etiquette or perhaps only of style. One of the most difficult aspects of scientific work is reporting what one sees without having it colored by one's own preconceptions. It may be ultimately impossible. Nevertheless, in most scientific prose the author strives for clarity in the dual sense of expository simplicity and in making one-self transparent so that the empirical world is visible through the text but the peculiarities of the author are invisible. Even in popularizations of science or in reviews of science books, most authors strive for this transparency. The uniqueness of Gould is that he dances between us and his subject. In fact it is only his flickering presence that makes it worth-while to make a book out of his book reviews. It reminds one of Around Theaters, a volume of theater reviews by Max Beerbohm, in which the charm of Sir Max is obviously more important than the mostly forgotten London theatricals that were his subject matter.
The author and publisher obviously felt that style is the substance of the book, because, despite the dust-jacket information that Gould is a professional historian, none of the books that are reviewed is given a complete bibliographic citation or date. All but one of the reviews appeared in the New York Review of Books, but no citations are given to them either. There is an index, but essentially the only full references cited are to other works by the author and his immediate collaborators. It is not a science text or even a popularization in any usual sense. It is only as valuable as the opinions and charm of Gould make it. It was therefore of importance to know why and in what sense Gould considers himself an urchin.
Gould is a scientist who became a celebrity on the basis of charm and style and a strong ego. Most scientists are plodders, relatively immune to boredom, not at all chic. Many have found a haven in the museum or laboratory where their frail, if not modest, egos will be unbruised, and where they may even swagger a bit among their students. Confronted with Gould's style such people become groupies or opponents, live vicariously in his celebrity, or jealously bemoan it. This book, like his many others, is a fair entree into the phenomenon of Gould, just as essentially any book by Elmore Leonard or Dick Francis will do as a starter into their work. How celebrities fare in the light of history is never obvious, but, in the meanwhile, Gould is leading a much more exciting life than one would anticipate of a snail paleontologist, winking at his supporters and thumbing his nose at his opponents. This book reflects that excitement.
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SOURCE: Smith, Wendy. Review of Wonderful Life, by Stephen Jay Gould. Publishers Weekly 236, no. 14 (13 October 1989): 32-3.
[In the following review, Smith examines the commentary in Wonderful Life on the Burgess Shale rock formation, discovered in 1909 by paleontologist Charles Walcott, and his misinterpretation of the fossils within it.]
It seems entirely appropriate that Stephen Jay Gould's office should be located in Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, a red brick structure in the classic institutional style, built in 1859 by Louis Agassiz, America's premier 19th-century naturalist. Gould has devoted a good portion of his distinguished career to reminding us that science is an historical activity, concerned with explaining past events as well as discovering timeless laws, and that scientists are influenced by the cultural attitudes and prejudices of their age just like everyone else. Agassiz himself, as Gould revealed in an essay in Natural History magazine, was both a great scientist and a visceral racist whose horror of African-Americans led him to classify blacks as a separate and inferior species.
Past and present mingle comfortably in the museum's corridors, where drawers filled with ancient fossils stand opposite a poster proclaiming “It's Not Anti-Harvard to Be Pro-Union,” a reminder of a recent bitter labor dispute in which the university's clerical and technical workers finally won the right to union representation. It can be seen from the letters displayed in his office that Gould derives considerable amusement from the decidedly unscientific passions some of his writing have aroused: one refers to him as the “foremost villain peddling the soft sell for Marxism under the professorial mantle.”
The man who ushers PW into his office to discuss his work, in particular his new book Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, hardly seems the sort to inspire such venom. Of medium stature, with gray hair and a bristling mustache, the 48-year-old Gould speaks with the same cheerful unpretentiousness that marks his prose. Casually dressed, and with a voice that retains traces of his native Queens despite 20 years as a Harvard professor, he seems as determined in life as in his writing to debunk the image of the austere scientist in a white lab coat dispensing eternal truths to a humble, ignorant populace.
Since 1974, Gould has used his columns for Natural History (collected in Ever since Darwin, The Panda's Thumb, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes and The Flamingo's Smile), to illuminate and demystify the scientific method—in the process giving the lay reader a witty, passionate survey in the history of science. Wonderful Life rests firmly on the foundations of his previous work, yet strikes off in some new directions as well.
Like its immediate predecessor, Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle, the new book deals with a single subject in a full-length narrative, though Gould resists the idea that this is a mark of progress. “It's kind of frustrating,” he remarks. “I think my essays have gotten better, but they've probably peaked in terms of sales: Flamingo's Smile sold well, but not as well as Hen's Teeth, and I sensed that … well, novelty is a legitimate concern. People like the essays, and I'll continue to bring them out, but I'm sort of afraid that with the next volume, which contains some of my very best essays, people will say, ‘Oh, a fifth collection.’”
Wonderful Life, like most of Gould's books, began as a series of columns in Natural History. When he started writing for the magazine in 1974, he had no idea that it would be an enduring commitment, or what other serendipitous events might follow. “I thought I'd try it, maybe do three or four columns; now I've done 170 or so. But I never really thought about putting them together. One day Ed Barber from Norton came up, and I liked him, because when I asked him where he wanted to go to lunch, he said, ‘I don't give a damn. We'll just do our business at lunch.’ He was so honest … So I just sort of stumbled into it.”
In the case of the new book, Gould realized that the subject needed more extensive treatment than the column format afforded. The book recounts—in vivid and exciting detail that amply repays the small effort required of the lay reader to master a few basic principles of anatomy and scientific classification—the story of a major fossil find in British Columbia. The Burgess Shale, discovered by the American paleontologist Charles Walcott in 1909, preserved numerous and remarkably complete examples of a wide variety of animal life from 530 million years ago, a period just shortly after the “Cambrian explosion” introduced virtually all major modern groups of animals to the planet.
Gould himself provides the best summary of his new book's thesis. “Walcott,” he writes in Chapter I, “proceeded to misinterpret these fossils in a comprehensive and thoroughly consistent manner proceeding directly from his conventional view of life. In short, he shoehorned every last Burgess animal into a modern group, viewing the fauna collectively as a set of primitive or ancestral versions of later, improved forms.” This view was unchallenged until the 1970s, when Harry Whittington of Cambridge University and his colleagues Derek Briggs and Simon Conway Morris radically revised Walcott's classifications. To quote Gould again, “[They] have shown that most Burgess organisms do not belong to familiar groups, and that the creatures from this single quarry in British Columbia probably exceed, in anatomical range, the entire spectrum of invertebrate life in today's oceans.”
The implications of this revision are vast, and they serve to buttress a central tenet of Gould's personal philosophy. Natural history is not a stately, triumphant procession, in which primitive organisms inevitably give way to more complex, better adapted—by implication, superior—animals, culminating in the appearance of human beings as the apotheosis of evolution. Natural history is, in fact, a messy, chaotic process punctuated by mass extinctions that wiped out some well-adapted and highly successful species (like those in the Burgess Shale) for no apparent reason. Humans are not the be-all and end-all of creation.
The basic idea Gould is trying to get across in Wonderful Life is that of contingency, the understanding that the evolution of life was determined in part by chance events. “Everybody knows that human history is chancy,” Gould says, “but somehow you don't think it's a theme in science. Science is supposed to be about the laws of nature and the predictable consequences thereof, so whatever arises as a large-scale pattern in the natural world you generally don't think of as explainable by historical contingency, or if you do it's viewed as a lesser explanation. But it isn't. First of all, it's a correct explanation, and it's not lesser; you're going to be able to answer questions just as well with it. You may not be able to predict particular results, but that's okay: you can explain them after they happen, which is all history needs to do anyway.”
Why, then, are people so uncomfortable with this idea? “I think that of all the standard logical fallacies and problems humans have in reasoning, our worst are with concepts of probability—that's why Las Vegas is so rich,” he replies. “There are even theories that we're not wired to think that way, that we tend to match types rather than think about probability, and I believe they're right. It's very hard for people to understand that when they look up at the sky and think they see constellations, they're in fact looking at random clumps of stars. Random things do yield patterns, but we're very bad at the idea that pattern doesn't mean order. Since this theme of contingency is also a way of thinking about probability, it may perform the broader service of getting people face to face with what in fact is the hardest thing for them to think about.”
The title Wonderful Life pays tribute to Frank Capra's beloved 1946 film, which Gould regards as an excellent example of the principle of contingency in its story of a man whose guardian angel “replays life's tape” to show him how different the world would have been without him. It's typical of Gould's exuberant unpretentiousness that he would un-blushingly use a popular movie to illustrate a scientific point. His chatty, colloquial prose reaches out to the general reader, striving to make even the most technical issues explicable, and openly avowing his own personal convictions so that the reader, agreeing or disagreeing, always knows where Gould stands.
“It's a funny thing about writing for the public,” he comments. “Every scientist gives it lip service—you almost have to, because the public supports science, at least indirectly—but there are a good many scientists who, although they think [lay writing is] good as an abstract concept, in almost any specific instance there's something [about it] they want to criticize. All the good natural history writers of the past—Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, Charles Lyell—wrote very powerful, personal prose, and I felt I should try to do the same thing. That's one of the reasons certain of my colleagues don't care for what I do. But if you embody everything in this quasi-objectivist language, you're not being truthful.”
Scientists are human beings, Gould's lively style reminds us, and human beings make mistakes. Wonderful Life continues a tradition established in his essays of critically yet sympathetically examining past scientific errors, normally swept under the rug as embarrassing dead ends best forgotten. On the contrary, says Gould, they can teach us valuable lessons about the impact of cultural attitudes and personal beliefs on the supposedly objective gathering of data and formulation of theories.
“It's important for the lay reader [to understand how contemporary attitudes affect scientists], because it debunks the notion of science as an inaccessible priesthood whose pronouncements have to be simply accepted,” he says. “It may be even more important for practicing scientists, because if you want to be innovative in a science and yet think your attitude towards things is just an objective reading of nature, you're going to miss where cultural biases are affecting your work, and you may really lose opportunities for creativity. Unless you train yourself to rigorously scrutinize yourself for potential conventionalities, you're caught in the rhetoric of science and the conventionalities are seen by you as truth, instead of just biases.”
The story of the Burgess Shale and its initial misinterpretation serves as a paradigm for the way scientists can be trapped in their own unexamined preconceptions, but for Gould its significance goes much deeper. He'd like the Burgess Shale to instill in us some respect for the diversity and complexity of life, which was “wonderful” in the literal sense of the word even in its very earliest days. He'd like us to understand that extinction is simply a fact of nature, not a moral judgment on an organism.
“Look at Marella,” he says, referring to one of the most common organisms found in the Shale. “You never could have predicted it would be one of the ones wiped out. It's a beautifully designed creature, a real gem of a little arthropod—and now it's gone.” The implication is clear; it's a matter of luck as much as anything else that human beings now dominate the animal kingdom instead of the descendants of Marella. Is he arguing that there's no such thing as progress? In the sense of progress as embedded in nature and human beings as its ultimate expression, he replies, “Yes. I think the belief in that kind of progress distorts the way we look at ourselves in relationship to the world and to other species. Bursting the bubble of human arrogance is always a good thing.”
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SOURCE: Tobin, Allan J. “Evolutions That Never Evolved.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (29 October 1989): 1.
[In the following review, Tobin argues that Wonderful Life is not as accessible as it could be because of Gould's intrusive presence in the text.]
Stephen Jay Gould's new book, Wonderful Life, recounts two fascinating and previously little-known stories, one about evolution and the other about evolutionary science. The first concerns the relationships between present life on our planet and a set of strange and ancient animals. The second, told as a five-act drama, recounts how three British scientists came to understand these relationships. Gould ranks the work of his paleontological colleagues among the greatest creative achievement of our species, comparable, in his view, to the cave paintings of Lascaux or the cathedral windows of Chartres. Gould goes on to reflect on the importance of contingency in evolutionary history and of concept in evolutionary science.
About 530 million years ago, in an area of ocean about the size of a city block, a mudslide asphyxiated tens of thousands of small marine animals. Most of the trapped organisms lived on the bottom of a shallow sea bed, though others swam or floated above. Their rapid burial insulated them from immediate decay, and their remains became preserved (and chemically transformed) in a rock formation called the Burgess Shale, which now lies high in the Canadian Rockies. The Burgess Shale presents an unequaled snapshot of life in the middle of the Cambrian Period, the earliest span of geological time from which we have abundant fossil evidence of recognizably modern animals.
The discoverer of the Burgess Shale, Charles Doolittle Walcott, was a distinguished leader of the early 20th-century American scientific establishment. Though his role as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution left him little research time, he interpreted the Burgess animals as primitive members of still-living groups (such as crustaceans, jellyfish and polychaete worms) or of the best-studied group of fossil invertebrates, the trilobites. Walcott thus completely missed the revolutionary significance of his magnificent find.
According to Gould's engaging account, the real meaning of the Burgess animals only began to emerge in the 1970s, when three British paleontologists—Harry Whittington, Derek Briggs, and Simon Conway Morris—undertook to reexamine Burgess fossils, including those originally collected by Walcott. Whittington, Briggs and Conway Morris realized that many Burgess fossils were not merely flat impressions but were three-dimensional relics that they could dissect and inspect, carefully chipping away layers with dental drills. They thus converted the snapshot into a set of stereoscopic images. Their subsequent work, and Gould's book, are attempts to fit these new photographs into a videotape of early animal evolution.
The diversity of anatomical designs among the Burgess animals far exceeds that of all the creatures in all of today's oceans. More baldly stated, the Burgess Shale is full of oddballs: Opabinia, with five eyes, a front-facing nozzle, and a U-shaped gut; Nectocaris, which looks something like a large insect in the front and a fish in the rear; Odontogriphus, a flat animal with both teeth and tentacles; Dinomischus, a sessile animal that resembles a goblet on a long stem; Amiskwia, another swimming animal with tentacles on its head and fins on its sides and tail, and the most peculiar Hallucigenia (see above), with seven pairs of spines pointing down and seven tentacles pointing up. Altogether, the Burgess animals represent 25 basic body plans, of which only four survive in present-day organisms. The explosion of animal life in the early Cambrian (or Precambrian), then, gave rise to much more than the precursors of modern life. The question, then, is why some forms continued and others perished.
Gould's reflections center around this question. Did the losers disappear because of their inferiority in competition or merely because they had the wrong tickets in a lottery? Could an ancient biologist have predicted which forms would survive and evolve and which would not? Was the evolution of present life, including our own species, in any way be predictable?
Gould's view is embodied in the book's title, borrowed from the Frank Capra film, It's a Wonderful Life, in which a guardian angel shows a suicidal Jimmy Stewart what his town would have been without his having been there. Gould argues that we cannot ever know what our planet's life would have been like if we replayed history with even minor changes. The present is contingent on what has come before, a statement equally true, according to Gould, of evolutionary history and of history in general.
This conclusion probably will not shock most readers. The value of Gould's book does not lie in its view of history, however, but in its presentation of science. The four scientists whose work Gould discusses are human beings, dressed in street clothes rather than priestly vestments. They differ in personalities, politics, and intellectual perspectives. And, as is the case for all scientists, their ways of collecting and interpreting data depend on their conceptual framework. Thus, Walcott, caught in the view that evolution was inevitably progressive, had to “shoehorn” the Burgess animals into categories that might be precursors of present-day creatures. Whittington, Conway Morris and Briggs, on the other hand, were not so constrained, perhaps because, by the 1970s, evolutionary biologists (influenced by Gould himself, among others) better understood the role of chance, particularly in the face of recurring geological changes, such as continental and occasional meteoric collisions. Mass extinctions of once-flourishing forms pose little problem for modern biologists, though they certainly did for Walcott.
Gould would like the public to perceive the Burgess story as even more important and fascinating than the story of the rise and fall of the dinosaurs. He laments that the dinosaurs get more press because they are bigger and more frightening than the Burgess animals, the largest of which are a few inches long. Another problem in capturing the public's attention, however, is that people are generally unfamiliar with marine life: Most of us would be hard pressed to distinguish between the weird wonders of today's seas and those of the Cambrian Period. Here, Gould is an excellent guide, patiently explaining the characteristics of modern phyla and classes.
Gould intends Wonderful Life to be a book for lay people as well as for scientists. And so it should be. Understanding how evolutionary biologists actually work, as Gould so lovingly details, ought to stop the persistent claims that the great creation myths have anything to do with science.
Unfortunately, however, Gould has written Wonderful Life in a way that interferes with its accessibility. To stress the humanness of the scientific enterprise (and his own involvement in it), for example, he refers to contemporary scientists alternately by their first and last names. Whittington thus intermittently appears as Harry, Briggs as Derek, and Conway Morris as Simon. But there is also a lot of Steve in both text and footnotes—how he came to write the book and what he thinks of scientific administrators, the New York Yankees, Stephen King and the English setting of Haydn's “Creation.” He leaves the reader with the impression that the great enterprises of science and culture are just agenda items in the continuing meetings of a worldwide club, of which Gould is an important member.
Gould's asides convince the reader that the author is an exceptional man, a master of pop and high culture as well as of biological research and historical scholarship. Gould thus demonstrates by his own example that science is not an isolated activity but is intimately connected with other creative endeavors. But by continually introducing himself into his narrative, Gould unwittingly fosters an old (and, in my opinion, incorrect) notion that science is the province of an academically inbred elite whose members are (like Gould) the former apprentices of great teachers and the confidants of similarly eminent scientists, novelists and sportswriters. Surely Gould does not mean to suggest that scientific insight depends on clubbiness or class. Such a message would seriously clash with his noble and successful efforts to give broad public access to biology's aesthetic and intellectual wonders.
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SOURCE: Wright, Robert. “The Intelligence Test.” New Republic 202, no. 5 (29 January 1990): 28-36.
[In the following review, Wright asserts that Gould's “punctuated equilibria” theory in Wonderful Life is neither original nor relevant to the discussion of evolution.]
The acclaim for Stephen Jay Gould is just shy of being universal. He was among the first to win a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. His lectures are renowned among Harvard undergraduates for their wit and erudition. His monthly column in Natural History has a devout following, and when his essays are anthologized (The Panda's Thumb, The Flamingo's Smile, etc.), the reviews are reliably favorable and the sales enduringly brisk. All told, Gould probably commands the largest and most enthusiastic readership of any evolutionist in this century. But within one small audience, the cheers are muted. A number of evolutionary biologists complain—to each other, or to journalists off the record—that Gould has warped the public perception of their field.
Of course, successful popularizers often incur the hostility of their less famous colleagues, and the complaints are fairly predictable: he oversimplifies in order to reach a large audience, he sacrifices precision for literary flourish. But in this case the indictment is a little meatier. For one thing, there is the occasional suggestion that Gould's political ideology has colored his view of evolution (a possibility that Gould himself, actually, was the first to raise). For another, there is the claim that Gould has self-servingly misrepresented the opinions of Charles Darwin—more than a misdemeanor for a person in Gould's line of work. And these issues are magnified by Gould's stature. He is, after all, America's evolutionist laureate. If he has been systematically misleading America about what evolution is and what it means, that amounts to a lot of intellectual damage.
Any good grounds for the charges against Gould should be visible in a book like Wonderful Life. The book—it is an original composition, not an anthology—is billed by Gould's publisher as his magnum opus, “a summation of two decades of his work in paleontology and the history of life.” It recapitulates Gould's favorite themes, touches once again on the question of Darwin's rightful legacy, and revisits many issues that, academic as they may sound, have ideological import: the pace of evolution, the role that “chance” plays in it, and the direction, if any, in which evolution tends to move.
Gould's central goal in this book is to demolish once and for all the comfortable notion that the human species is Darwinianly ordained—that we, the only self-conscious animals, sit at the pinnacle of evolution, and that, indeed, the whole point of evolution may in some sense have been to reach this pinnacle. There is no ladder of evolution, Gould insists, no necessary path of rising biological complexity and sentience; the coming of self-conscious intelligence was not inexorable, or even very likely. Rather, our species exists by virtue of a long series of lucky evolutionary breaks. If you rewound the tape of organic history and edited out any one of those breaks, all subsequent evolution would be radically altered. “Replay the tape a million times,” he writes, “and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again.”
This is an arresting thesis, but Gould never comes close to making the case for it. To be sure, he's right in saying that there's no simple “ladder” of evolution, and that there's nothing literally inexorable about the evolution of intelligence. But there is a plausible argument that the coming of self-conscious intelligence was nonetheless quite likely from the beginning, and Gould never succeeds in casting any doubt on it. Indeed, he never even confronts the argument straightforwardly—a fact that, given what this book is supposed to be about, is nothing short of weird.
To understand how Gould's thesis intersects with political ideology, and how centrally it figures in his whole conception of evolution, you have to understand how Darwinism was distorted during the late 19th and early 20th centuries for political and religious purposes. After the publication of Origin of the Species in 1859, those clergymen who didn't reject the theory of natural selection outright tried to reconcile it with their faith. One approach was to view evolution as divinely driven—as a long and slow, but steady and inexorable march up the hill of organic complexity and intelligence, toward an animal worthy of admission to heaven. This solution to the crisis of Christian confidence was nicely adaptable to the needs of those on the right who wanted to defend capitalism in its rawest, cruelest form. The result was social Darwinism: if evolution was God's will, then the survival of the fittest, with all the attendant suffering, must be morally justified in the name of progress; with people as well as other animals, it must be all right for some to starve while others thrive. Racism and imperialism found comparable comfort; any God who had designed natural selection, it was said, would surely agree that “inferior” nations and races deserve conquest and oppression. These religious and political forces—along, no doubt, with some honest incomprehension—reinforced the simplistic equation of natural selection with inevitable progress toward a preordained goal.
Though this “progressivist” view of evolution hasn't been common among biologists for many decades, Gould has spent a good part of his career combating it. It is a recurring theme in his Natural History columns, and it is an intended victim of the much-publicized “theory of punctuated equilibrium,” which Gould co-authored. The theory holds basically that evolution proceeds in jumps and starts and somewhat chaotically: species go for long periods with little or no change, and then “suddenly” (which in evolutionary terms can mean many thousands of years) they change dramatically, often splitting into two or more new species. And these transformations, Gould stresses, don't necessarily sustain any previous trajectory of development. The upshot is an evolution that's jerky and aimless—a process that doesn't proceed smoothly, much less smoothly toward anything.
It was the theory of punctuated equilibrium that got Gould accused of putting words in Darwin's mouth. Aided by obliging journalists, Gould billed the theory as a sharp departure from the “gradualist” view of evolution purportedly held by Darwin and his intellectual descendants. But, as Richard Dawkins showed in his essay “Puncturing punctuationism” (in The Blind Watchmaker), the main contours of this “radical” theory had long been accepted by people Gould calls gradualists, notably Darwin himself. Darwin's repeated emphasis on the “gradual” nature of evolution was only for the slower students—people who couldn't quite fathom how you get an organ as complex as, say, an eyeball through incremental change. Very, very slowly, he replied. But Darwin was fully aware that the rate of evolution varies wildly in response to changing conditions. As he himself put it, “The periods, during which species have undergone modification, though long as measured by years, have probably been short in comparison with the periods during which they retain the same form.” This quotation doesn't match up too neatly with Gould's assertion in Natural History that Darwin believed evolutionary change to be “generally slow, steady, gradual, and continuous.”
Certainly the theory of punctuated equilibrium has its genuine novelties. For example, though almost everyone concedes the importance of rapid bursts of evolution, Gould places unusual emphasis on them, and he insists on minimizing intermittent, slower forms of change. But by and large the theory's novelties haven't impressed top-flight biologists. Today punctuationism remains a fairly hot topic within paleontology, Gould's field, but within evolutionary biology it is considered by many to be little more than a curiosity.
What had attracted Gould to the theory of punctuated equilibrium? Back in the 1970s, when he unveiled the theory, he used to note that “my daddy raised me a Marxist” and talk about the natural affinity between punctuationism, with its emphasis on periodic revolutionary upheavals, and a Marxist view of history. Both, he has written, embody the “law of transformation of quantity into quality”—“when you heat up water it boils at a certain point … and, if you oppress the workers more and more, eventually this leads to revolution.” Gould made viewing biology through Marxist lenses sound only fair; many biologists who emphasize more gradual evolution, he noted, have probably been subconsciously influenced by their ideology—by a belief in plodding social change that comes from within the system. Indeed, a Marxist slant on change, he seemed to feel, leaves less of a taint than an ameliorist slant. In 1978, speaking at a “Dialectics Workshop” at Harvard, Gould said that gradualism, “arising largely out of pervasive political bias,” has been “a restraining dogma” in discouraging radical social change. But he characterized punctuationism “not as a dogma but as an alternate or pluralistic widening of the ways we look at change.” Get the distinction?
Since becoming a well-known popular writer, Gould has been less vocal about his politics. He is no longer associated with Science for the People, the Cambridge-based activist group that he worked with during the late 1970s, notably in launching some rather nasty attacks on fellow Harvard faculty member E. O. Wilson, whose book, Sociobiology, Gould deemed to have right-wing tendencies. And in recent years, when asked whether he's a Marxist, Gould has replied that he doesn't like “labels.” But in a sense the issue of Marxism, for all the muttering that Gould's more ardent detractors do about it, isn't that important. Quite aside from a Marxist view of historical change, one can see a separate attraction that any leftist—or any centrist, or, for that matter, any humane conservative—might feel toward a doctrine that promises to weaken the basis for social Darwinism. The question is whether scientists should succumb to such extrascientific attractions, and whether Gould does. Or, more realistically (given that scientists are only human), the question is how successful scientists can hope to be in resisting such temptations, and whether Gould seems to be making an earnest effort at resistance.
Gould, in any event, spends much of Wonderful Life indicting another scientist for failure to resist. The book's narrative drive lies mainly in Gould's claim that the story's chief antagonist—Charles D. Walcott, head of the Smithsonian Institution from 1907 to 1927—was steered into a huge, philosophically consequential, scientific blunder by his political and religious beliefs. Walcott's error was made in deciphering fossils from the Burgess Shale, a limestone quarry in British Columbia. The shale holds a rich record of life just after the “Cambrian explosion,” the period around 600 million years ago when multicellular life, then in its infancy, exhibited a sudden (as these things go) profusion of diverse forms. The shale contains around 75,000 specimens of at least 140 species. They were tiny creatures, an inch or two long, that lived underwater.
Walcott discovered the fossils in 1909, and then produced a taxonomic classification of them that went essentially unchallenged until the 1970s, when a group of British researchers showed that he had been wrong. His mistake, Gould explains, was in “shoehorning” the fossils into pre-existing categories; Walcott assumed that these animals were ancestors of existing species, that they belonged somewhere on the family tree of modern life. They might belong near the base of a main branch, or even lower, near the bottom of the trunk, but they could be squeezed in somewhere.
It turns out, however, that they can't be. Apparently many didn't evolve into anything lasting and don't fit anywhere along the conventional lineage. Judging by the Burgess Shale, then, it looks as if many, perhaps most, of the branches on the tree of early life got lopped off. What's more, it wasn't through any fault of their own. The design of the doomed species wasn't grossly flawed, Gould says: no one could have predicted which would survive and which would fail. It seems that they just ran into bad luck—a sudden ecological twist for which their past evolution had ill prepared them. Thus, the moral of the story of the Burgess Shale, as told by Gould, is very much in keeping with the moral of the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Species are frequently eliminated by “lottery,” he says, and these virtually random events can fundamentally redirect evolution. Once again, Gould finds evolution to be a chaotic, directionless process.
And once again, he attributes claims to the contrary—Walcott's in this case—to subconscious bias. Walcott was a politically conservative and religious man. And, though Gould never convincingly shows Walcott's politics affecting his science, the role of his religion seems clear. Walcott wrote of God as “revealing Himself through countless ages in the development of the earth as an abode for man and in the age-long inbreathing of life into its constituent matter, culminating in man with his spiritual nature and all his God-like power.” So is it surprising, asks Gould, that Walcott should see all the Burgess creatures as fitting neatly into the evolutionary march toward humanity?
Gould's probably right: Walcott's religion may well have warped his judgment. But to grant that a belief in the inevitability of evolved intelligence encouraged a misreading of the Burgess Shale is not to concede that the correct reading belies such inevitability. Once Gould's morality play is over, his argument still hasn't been made. He keeps promising that his interpretation of the Burgess Shale will lead to a “radical view about the pathways of life and the nature of history,” but it never does.
The radical change Gould thinks he's ushering in is a shift in the “iconography” of evolution. Not only, he says, should we quit thinking of evolution as a ladder, leading to a specific preordained end (which, actually, pretty much everyone in science quit doing a long time ago); we should quit thinking of evolution as a robust, well-rounded tree, with all branches steadily subdividing along the way to create more kinds of life, and each branch heading toward greater organic complexity. This icon—“the cone of increasing diversity,” he calls it—seems to give too much comfort to any remaining progressivists for Gould's taste, and, he says, it is belied by the many broken branches found near the bottom of the tree in the Burgess Shale. Indeed, these dead branches, Gould suggests, represent such a breadth of morphological diversity (broader, perhaps, than the current array of marine invertebrates) that the image of a tree, with its unified trunk, breaks down entirely. “Life is a copiously branching bush, continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction,” he writes. And: “The history of life is a story of massive removal followed by differentiation within a few surviving stocks, not the conventional tale of steadily increasing excellence, complexity, and diversity.”
Bush, tree, cone—what's the difference? Not as much as Gould thinks. Granted, the Burgess Shale suggests that most of the branches at the bottom of the bush/tree of life never got very far. Gould's point, it seems, is that those doomed branches—broken off, perhaps, by some bit of bad luck, such as a geological or climatic upheaval—could just as easily have been our branches; our ancestors could have lost the “lottery.” Or—since these prunings take place at various levels of the bush/tree—our ancestors could have been erased well after the Cambrian, perhaps even recently. And then where would we be?
Nowhere, obviously. But that's not news. Few biologists would deny that any number of chancy events could have altered evolution, perhaps so dramatically that nothing human—you know, five or six feet tall, hair under the arms, toenails—would have evolved. The real question is: Would any form of highly intelligent life have evolved if humans hadn't? Did the basic laws of natural selection make it highly probable that eventually some organism would have become conscious of itself, and even of the process that created it? Is great intelligence, generically speaking, inherent—or, at least virtually inherent—in evolution? For most of the book, Gould purports to be interested in that question. Yet he studiously avoids tackling it head on.
Had he done so, he would have had to face a few basic facts about evolution that seem to make him uncomfortable. The first of these is that evolution does exhibit a tendency toward rising organic complexity (along, often, with a growth in the size of organisms). An irresistible impetus? No. But a tendency? Definitely. All species have grown more complex through time; otherwise, they wouldn't be where they are today. True, a few species (some internal parasites, for example) have done some backsliding, and become slightly less complex through evolution. And many others go long periods of time, conceivably forever, without growing more complex. And, obviously, some large and complex species die out. But to the extent that organic complexity within a particular lineage changes through natural selection, the change is almost always upward. And on the cutting edge of complexity—among the most complex (and often largest) animals in a particular group—there is very often change. Whether you view evolution as a bush or a tree, you have to admit that its branches head generally upward.
And the reason isn't some immaterial élan vital, or anything mystical or super-natural, but rather the concrete advantages often conferred on an organism by greater complexity (the efficient division of cellular labor, for example) and greater size (which sometimes, in turn, dictates greater structural complexity). You don't have to see divine guidance in evolution to see some general patterns in it.
A companion basic fact about evolution—which Gould also prefers not to acknowledge—is that the complexity of organic information processing (in brains, notably) also tends to grow. For reasons now fairly well understood, the processing of information is fundamental to life. Even bacteria, which sit squarely at the bottom of the evolutionary tree (OK, OK, bush), absorb and process data about their environment in order to adjust to it. And once an organism is processing information, there are advantages to be gained by processing it more voluminously and complexly—greater flexibility in coping with threats, in finding food, etc. As with the growth of complexity, the evolutionary “pressure” toward greater intelligence is not irresistible. There are many reasons that many species don't get smarter with time. Maybe the species has a nice, comfortable niche already; maybe the niche “above” is occupied; maybe the needed genetic mutation just doesn't happen. Still, when the complexity of a species' information processing changes through evolution, the change is almost always upward. Across the mammalian class broadly—not just among us primates—evolution has been raising the brain-to-body ratio for a long time now.
A third basic fact about evolution is its tremendous inventiveness. As the mammoth diversity of organic form and behavior on this planet suggests, natural selection has quite a knack for “sensing” empty niches (or, strictly speaking, stumbling onto them blindly) and filling them. Thus evolution should tend not merely to create bigger, more complex, and smarter animals, but to apply this complexity and intelligence in a wide variety of ways.
I doubt Gould would admit it, but all three of these basic facts about evolution are beautifully borne out by the Burgess Shale. If we judge by the shale's fossils, as Gould wants us to, it appears that the diverse array of Cambrian multicellular life was ravaged by “decimation,” as he calls it, and that such decimation has periodically revisited the bush of life. Yet even faced with these setbacks, evolution has flourished, generating a wide range of simple and, increasingly, complex organisms, and filling just about every obvious large-scale niche: there is life in water, life on land, life underground, life in the trees, life in the air (wings have been invented several different times by natural selection); there is multimedia information gathering and sharing—via sound, physical contact, smell, taste, and light (eyes have been invented dozens of times). Gould's choice of words in insisting that life is a bush continually “pruned” by extinction is more apt than he realizes: you cut off one branch, and the other branches flourish all the more, rapidly filling some of the ecological space that the missing branch otherwise would have occupied.
In short, what Gould seems to consider central to his argument is more or less irrelevant to it. He can talk all he wants (and he does) about the role of “contingency” in natural history, about how some quirky ecological circumstance can send the branches of evolution zigzagging in odd directions, or even snip them off. (The book's title comes from the movie It's a Wonderful Life, in which a handful of Jimmy Stewart's decisions turn out to have redirected the evolution of an entire town.) But if the overall direction of the bush's branches, after all the zigzagging and dying out are done, is toward complexity and intelligence, then how much bearing does this “contingency” have on the thesis that the evolution of highly intelligent life was highly unlikely?
Gould can respond to this question in either macro- or micro- terms. He can either (a) attack one or more of the above three generalizations about evolution, or claim they don't really add up to the image of a bush growing generally upward, or perhaps contend that there is some fundamental limit on the bush's likely growth; or (b) go down the evolutionary bush and show how at critical junctures the flow of life might well have—indeed, probably would have—veered away from the evolution of intelligence had circumstances been slightly different. Remarkably, Gould goes the whole book without doing (a), perhaps because addressing these three generalizations would require him first to utter them, which I gather he can't bring himself to do, so redolent are they—in his mind, at least—of the dreaded progressivism. But he does, in the book's last chapter, finally get around to (b): examining specific junctures of human evolution and arguing that evolution was actually quite unlikely to head, as it repeatedly did, in the direction of greater intelligence.
Look at our recent evolutionary history, says Gould. Note that even as our ancestors, early Homo sapiens, flourished, other pretenders to the throne—Neanderthals, Asian Homo erectus—fell by the wayside. Well, what if we, too, had shared their bad luck? Then there wouldn't be anything smarter than chimps.
Not so fast. Gould neglects to mention the distinct possibility that the evolutionary success of Homo sapiens was the source of the Neanderthal's demise. It sometimes happens that as a species flourishes, it displaces a species that occupies roughly the same niche; the second species either finds another niche or dies out. Once our ancestors began wielding tools deftly, engaging in longterm planning, and coordinating social endeavors (hunting, say), life probably became harder for other upright primates in the vicinity—especially if, as is quite possible, our ancestors were busy clubbing them to death and eating them. So if our little evolutionary twig had snapped, the Neanderthal twig, or some other similar twig, might well have gone on to extend the evolutionary envelope of intelligence.
Bizarrely, Gould dismisses the possibility that Neanderthals would have ever achieved great intelligence by noting that they, unlike Homo sapiens of their age, hadn't invented the calendar stick or the counting blade, and, judging by their caves, they “knew nothing of representational art.” Those brutes! But of course, the same had once been true of Homo sapiens. That's the way evolution works: one day you're not so smart, and then, a few thousand generations later, you're pretty smart. What the Neanderthals did have was a proficiency with tools, and as Gould must surely know, this adds considerably to the evolutionary pressure favoring greater intelligence.
Long before Neanderthals, actually, the pressure for intelligence had been great. Even if all species of the genus Homo had perished, my strong hunch is that some other primate would have eventually taken up the torch. Consider chimps. They use rudimentary tools (twigs to collect and eat termites, stones to break open nuts); their survival can depend on fairly complex communication (vocal and otherwise); and their social dynamics establish a correlation between cleverness and reproductive success (a male's access to mates may be secured through subtle scheming involving the formation of convenient alliances and the undercutting of a rival's social status; a female's reproductive success depends in various ways on her judgment and cleverness). All these things bode well for the evolution of higher intelligence.
But you probably won't hear much about this from Gould. For these evolutionary pressures are manifested in slow, tediously incremental, but ultimately significant change—through the elimination (or failure to reproduce) of individuals within a species generation by generation, not through the sudden elimination of an entire species or the relatively sudden branching off of a new species. No environmental cataclysm is necessary (though one may help). And this sort of “gradualist” evolution Gould would rather minimize in favor of punctuationism. This emphasis is unfortunate—partly because it seems unwarranted by the evidence, but also for a quite different reason: often the logic behind the most subtle, least cataclysmic, forms of evolution is the most intellectually beautiful. It is a shame that America's foremost popularizer of Darwinism is ill-disposed to share a large part of evolution's elegance with the public.
If you somehow wiped out all the primates, I wouldn't put it past, say, wolves or lions—whose lineages have thus far grown in intelligence, after all—to have great-great-great etc. grandchildren who would play Pac-Man (or Pac-Wolf). But suppose all mammals had died out. Gould speculates that if the dinosaurs hadn't run into some bad luck and perished, then mammals, which at that time were just small furry nuisances from the dinosaur's point of view, might never have made anything of themselves.
Maybe so. Maybe not. There's simply no way of knowing. But, anyway, who's to say that the dinosaurs themselves wouldn't have some-day attained great intelligence? It now looks as though some of the bigger-brained dinosaurs could stand upright and use grasping forepaws, and that some dinosaurs may have been at least quasi-warm-blooded and cared for their young. But Gould smoothly dismisses the dinosaur scenario. “Since the dinosaurs were not moving toward markedly larger brains, and since such a prospect may lie outside the capabilities of reptilian design, we must assume that consciousness would not have evolved on our planet if a cosmic catastrophe had not claimed the dinosaurs as victims [emphasis added].” What a strange thing for a co-author of the theory of punctuated equilibrium to say! If evolution passes through long periods of stasis, and then witnesses dramatic change overnight, what is the point of extrapolating from gradual trends? How could a punctuationist ever say with confidence that an animal was not “moving toward” anything?
But the strangest of Gould's logical inconsistencies occurs in the final paragraphs of the book, where he makes the case that not just mammals but all vertebrates were just plain lucky to escape the dustheap of history. He notes that among the fossils of the Burgess shale is one called Pikaia. And Pikaia is a member of the phylum Chordata, which includes vertebrates. Is Pikaia, then, the missing link, whose survival is the reason that all vertebrates, including us, exist? Well, actually, no, Gould admits. “I do not, of course, claim that Pikaia itself is the actual ancestor of vertebrates, nor would I be foolish enough to state that all opportunity for a chordate future resided with Pikaia in the Middle Cambrian …”
Yet in the very next paragraph Gould states exactly that: “Wind the tape of life back to Burgess times, and let it play again. If Pikaia does not survive in the replay, we are wiped out of future history—all of us, from shark to robin to orangutan.” And again, in the book's final paragraph: “And so, if you wish to ask the question of the ages—why do humans exist?—a major part of the answer, touching those aspects of the issue that science can treat at all, must be: because Pikaia survived the Burgess decimation.”
I have read these passages five times now, and I still can't see a way to close this immense discrepancy. Did Gould just mean to be metaphorical in the last two paragraphs? If so, dropping a hint to that effect would have been a nice touch. More likely is that here Gould has unconsciously succumbed to the tension that is tangible in much of his writing: between maintaining his scientific credentials and wowing a lay audience. He wants to make sweeping, dramatic statements that will leave readers agog, yet he can't be seen by his peers making the facile assumptions that such drama often requires.
Gould has previously pushed his luck in trying to have it both ways, and has paid the price; among some evolutionary biologists, his reputation has suffered as a result of the caricature of Darwin's thinking he invoked to convince lay readers that punctuationism was radically new This time, it seems, he has gone further. He has sent plainly contradictory messages to his two cherished audiences. And, inadvisedly, he has sent them in consecutive paragraphs.
In a sense, though, this is not the most abject surrender he makes in this book to the pressure of trying to please all the people all the time. That comes when, in the penultimate chapter, he suddenly backtracks on what had until then seemed to be one of his central claims. For most of the book, the reader has been led to believe that Gould is talking about the predictability not merely of human intelligence, but of any sort of higher intelligence. At the outset, in the most explicit formulation of his thesis, Gould couches it in terms of human evolution per se, but he thereafter goes on to talk repeatedly in terms of the “eventual origin of self-conscious intelligence,” or the “predictable evolution of consciousness.” Then, 30 pages from the end, he seems to realize that, however much this bolder version of his thesis may dazzle the average book buyer, he hasn't come close to making an academically respectable argument for it. So, in a last-minute disclaimer that is virtually muttered under his breath, he admits, basically, that he was just kidding.
The admission comes as he is talking about the boundary between the inevitable and the contingent—between those features of life that follow from the basic dynamics of evolution, and those that are the result of happenstance. The evolution of human life, he is confident, falls below the boundary, in the realm of the contingent. But, he adds, nonchalantly: “Whether the evolutionary origin of self-conscious intelligence in any form lies above or below the boundary, I simply do not know [emphasis added]. All we can say is that our planet has never come close a second time.”
Then what was the point of writing this book? As I've said, virtually everyone concedes that a well-timed drought or some other evolutionary obstacle might have blocked our species' particular route to intelligence. That hasn't been an issue since the looniest, most flagrantly teleological views of evolution were put to rest. The only remaining question (and the only philosophically important question, really) is whether evolution would have eventually followed alternative routes to intelligence anyway.
Even as Gould shrinks from addressing this prospect head on, note how facilely he tries to minimize it: “All we can say is that our planet has never come close a second time.” This is a fairly disingenuous thing for a paleontologist to say. In paleontological time the 250,000 years of Homo sapiens' existence is little more than a few seconds. It would be eerie indeed if two widely divergent paths to intelligence, having taken so long to get there, arrived at the same moment. Have some patience, for God's sake. The journey from a single-celled animal to a bird, to a dog, to a bear, to a chimp, took a few hundred million years. By Gould's own estimate, the Earth will probably be around another five billion years. Doesn't that leave time for a bit more action on the evolutionary front?
You could probably explain a certain number of the inconsistencies and intellectual evasions in this book by reference to time-honored popularizer's temptations: Gould likes high drama and literary flourish, and he likes to be seen brilliantly demolishing whole pillars of Western thought. So it's natural that he should make the pillars seem more important, and the demolitions more brilliant, than they really are. (In Wonderful Life he makes the pillar in question look important not only by acting as if progressivism is still a force in science, but by arguing—very ineffectually—that Darwin himself harbored some progressivist sentiments.) But it's a little suspicious how often these pillars seem to be supporting an ideology Gould finds abhorrent. And if you go through his past writing, you'll see this happen repeatedly: there is a bad doctrine, usually associated with a bad guy (Charles Walcott is only the latest), and then there's Stephen Jay Gould, the good guy holding up the good doctrine.
Again, it isn't Gould's cause that is objectionable; none of us wants Darwinism misused to justify racial oppression, or income inequality, or anything else. But trying to snuff out reactionary politics by distorting evolution simply won't work. Gould can keep pretending, as he did with punctuated equilibrium and has now done with the Burgess Shale, to have a view of evolution that's so radical as to single-handedly undermine social Darwinism. But eventually the truth will come out: his view is less radical and original than it's billed as being, and some of its most original parts are its shakiest. So we're back to mainstream Darwinism, and to the initial question: Is there any logical basis for reading right-wing messages into conventional ideas about how evolution works?
Fortunately, the answer is no. In fact, there is no basis for reading any political messages into the dynamics of evolution, or, even more generally, for extracting any ideals from the workings of nature. And there's no real controversy on this point. The illegitimacy of inferring “ought” from “is” has been a matter of virtual consensus in both science and philosophy for the better part of this century. It should go without saying that inferring “is” from “ought” is also illegitimate.
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SOURCE: Kohn, Marek. “Homage to QWERTYUIOP.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 149 (3 May 1991): 33-4.
[In the following review, Kohn offers a positive assessment of Bully for Brontosaurus.]
Stephen Jay Gould is halfway into an essay [in Bully for Brontosaurus,] having kicked off with Handel and proceeded via the panda's thumb, when he shows us a picture of his typewriter; or at any rate, an identical model. It's an upright, manual Smith-Corona from the days when the Sopwith Camel was the last word in aviation technology. This is the machine he uses to write his reflections on evolution.
The substance of that particular essay is how the QWERTY keyboard came to dominate typewriter design. It demonstrates Gould's ability to take up a story that seems closed, and to take up a story that seems closed, and to invest it with an unsuspected richness. It's fairly widely known that the QWERTY arrangement was contrived to slow the typist at a time when the mechanical efficiency of the machines could not match their users' dexterity. But Gould is unsatisfied with this resumé. He returns to original sources, weighs the evidence for the claim, and creates a narrative that springs to life after the familiar ending.
The moral is that QWERTY resembles many of evolution's survivors: not the fittest, but a lucky winner. If any of a hundred “perfectly possible things” had happened, the information revolution would not be taking place on keyboards designed as a hindrance. And life, Gould finds endless new ways to argue, really is like that.
This latest collection of pieces from Natural History magazine explores Gould's familiar preoccupations in his familiar style; they are, therefore, reliably thrilling, fresh and delightful. Topics include the remarkable coincidence of the major human genetic groups and linguistic classes, the role of the Grimm brothers in the study of how the latter evolved, the human predilection for creation myths, with particular reference to baseball, and the confusion into which natural historians were thrown by the platypus.
Underlying this diversity are Gould's topological preferences. On the one hand, he dislikes depthless surfaces and fragments isolated to the point of meaninglessness, as demanded by television. On the other, he prefers proliferating structures to plain straight lines pointing upwards. Evolution, he demonstrates in the case of the horse, resembles a bush rather than a ladder leading upwards to perfection. Humanity is not ensconced at some destination-point of evolution. Thanks to ancient accidents, we just happen to be around, and we like to see the rest of the world as from the top of a ladder.
Gould's techniques—questioning canonical truths, re-reading texts—are exactly those fetishised in the rhetoric of deconstruction. Allied to his argument that we are radically accidental beings, they might easily serve the cause of a showy, chic nihilism. But Gould is emphatic that ethical questions arise independently from the question of our origins; and that knowledge is attainable through scientific inquiry.
These robust positions are, no doubt, vital to the success with which he has built a dialogue with a huge and diverse public. Its responses are included in postscripts to the pieces. A detail of the QWERTY case is challenged by inmates of Folsom Prison; a fundamental implication of probability is debated by Jimmy Carter.
This polyvocal debate ultimately derives its vigour from the quality of his own voice. Gould writes from simple principles, that contradict most contemporary practices of producing culture: “No compromises with conceptual richness; no bypassing of ambiguity or ignorance; removal of jargon, of course, but no dumbing down of ideas (any conceptual complexity can be conveyed in ordinary English).”
His style rests on his intellectual confidence: despite superficial impressions, the footnotes and digressions are securely contained; unlike, for example, the straining and bulging appendices that wrestle for space in Oliver Sacks's texts. He never sounds awkward or false; neither patrician nor populist. And yes, he does it all on a manual typewriter. Dinosaurs, he maintains, were far quicker and more efficient than some people care to admit.
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SOURCE: Wells, Martin. “Bully for SJG.” New Scientist 130, no. 1774 (22 June 1991): 47.
[In the following review, Wells compliments Bully for Brontosaurus, noting that the collection's few flaws can be easily overlooked.]
He works to a formula [in Bully for Brontosaurus]. The trick is to spot a biological oddity, an isolated point of interest, and then to work round from that to some topic of global importance. A frog that swallows its eggs and rears tadpoles in its stomach, leading into a discussion of the problem of early stages in the evolution of complex structures. Or the tooth of Hesperopithecus, the American anthropoid that turned out to be a pig, to the delight of Creationists, passes on to a discussion of scientific method.
What Stephen Jay Gould really likes is the interaction between phenomena and the way that people think and write about them. He will set an explanation or a description back into the context of its time.
He tells, for example, how the earliest of horses came to be described as “about the size of a fox terrier,” and how this has stuck in textbook after textbook, long after most gentlemen ceased to ride to hounds. Having indulged us with this snippet, he goes on to write about horses and why the branches of evolutionary trees are so often misidentified as straight lines of evolutionary descent, a tendency to see pattern where none may exist.
Gould also loves the chances of scientific history. There is the question of why Robert FitzRoy took Charles Darwin along on the Beagle. It seems the captain couldn't hobnob with his crew, and was worried about the possibility of an inherited tendency to depression if forced to keep his own company through a long voyage. His uncle, the Viscount Castlereagh, had committed suicide (sometime after shooting a fellow statesman, George Canning, as Gould relates in “George Canning's Left Buttock and the Origin of Species”) as, eventually, did FitzRoy himself.
And Gould has a nice sympathy for the casualties of scientific history: the sad case of Thayer, who spotted the importance of countershading in camouflage. But Thayer then became so carried away as to suggest that flamingos were pink on their undersides so as to merge with sunsets when seen by predators from below.
Poor Thayer is now remembered only for this silly suggestion, but Gould tries to set the record straight, as he does for Pyotr Kropotkin (in “Kropotkin Was No Crackpot”). The anarchist pointed out, quite rightly, that natural selection was not all tooth and claw, but also rewarded collaboration. But Kropotkin was a Russian, and he too got carried away, this time by ideological considerations.
So much in this set of essays is about sociology, and some of it is straight history. Perhaps Gould thinks, as I do, that sociology and history are aspects of natural history. But for most people, I suspect, the title of this book is a fraud. There isn't much about Brontosaurus, come to that: the poor beast is only an excuse to discuss the rules of zoological nomenclature.
And Gould does show off rather. He's a name dropper: mentioning letters from Jimmy Carter and chats with Francis Crick. He tells us about the many letters from interested readers. He will keep on pointing out how clever he is with languages.
All rather reprehensible in a gentleman scientist. But all is forgiven, because Gould is so good at what he has been trying to do all these years (this volume is the fifth in a series of essays creamed from monthly articles in the Natural History magazine). He proves that biological scientists can be entertaining as well as useful, and succeeds in educating us in spite of ourselves. Moreover, he achieves this without talking down to his audience—a welcome change from the standard media presentation which assumes that even intelligent people have an attention span measured in minutes.
Biological, and particularly evolutionary, language is so built-in to our Western vocabulary that we tend to assume we understand the concepts that the terms describe. We need books like Bully for Brontosaurus to remind us that sometimes we don't, and that there are con men playing with words in science as well as in politics.
There is a lot of compulsive reading here. Hard-hitting exposures of muddled thinking about matters biological and other serious issues that we would all do well to take aboard, all mixed in with a raft of facts that can only be classified as miscellaneous. A little bit of sugar makes the medicine go down. If science were more frequently sold like this, with important concepts tipped in between pages of easy reading, C. P. Snow's great divide might one day be bridgeable.
Gould's employers must understand the importance of this, because they cannot possibly believe that he is beavering away in the Harvard Museum of Natural History actually conserving things. Every one of the articles in this volume conceals weeks of research, digging in libraries at home and abroad, and Gould alone knows how many false trails he has followed.
One has an image of a man scrambling around some archive dressed, perhaps, in an Attenborough safari jacket. A little breathless—the nice watercolour inside the dust jacket shows a man a mite overweight—he scours the shelves for a glimpse of an odd animal or quirk of history rather than sitting in his curator's office. Obviously he is having fun with his trade, and it is great that he can explain why.
Nobody insists that an artist produces only utilitarian objects, and practising scientists should not (pace Thatcherism) be tied down in this way either. It is sometimes enough just to make people think.
People need entertainment and intelligent people need upmarket entertainment. In this book—his best, so far, he says—Gould provides just that.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4716
SOURCE: Lovejoy, Derek. “The Dialectical Paleontologist: Popular Science Writings of Stephen Jay Gould.” Science and Society 55, no. 2 (summer 1991): 197-208.
[In the following essay, Lovejoy discusses Gould's body of work, drawing particular attention to The Mismeasure of Man, Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle, and Wonderful Life.]
- Ever since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977.
- The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1982.
- Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1983.
- The Flamingo's Smile: Reflections in Natural History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985.
- An Urchin in the Storm: Essays About Books and Ideas. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987.
- The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981.
- Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987; London: Penguin Books, 1988.
- Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.
I first made my acquaintance with the works of Stephen Jay Gould in the early 1970s when, mostly for the scientific edification of my children, I took out a subscription to Natural History (the admirable monthly journal of the American Museum of Natural History in New York). On perusing the monthly featured essay, “This View of Life,” I quickly came to realize that, not only was there scientific nurture for the little ones, but their ideological needs were also in good hands.
And the seed had indeed fallen on fertile ground. A few years later, with my subscription to Natural History long since lapsed, I was surprised, and subsequently delighted, to receive, as a gift from my eldest, copies of Ever since Darwin and The Panda's Thumb, both consisting of selections from “This View of Life.” Perhaps this was a rare case of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, since one of the most influential books in my own youthful development was Science and Everyday Life by that most redoubtable of dialectical biologists, J. B. S. Haldane. It is true that Haldane's ideological point of view was less subtly expressed than Gould's, but then Haldane wrote in a more blissful age (and his essays had originally been a weekly column in the London Daily Worker).
The strength and the grace of Gould's writing lies in a rare combination of encyclopedic knowledge, a profound sense of history (both human and geological), a keen feeling for social justice, a sharp awareness of the ideological implications of some supposedly “objective” scientific theories, a grasp of dialectics, impatience with cant and pomposity, a felicitous (though occasionally pedantic) literary style, and an endearing ability to share with the reader his own passions and idiosyncrasies.
Gould teaches biology, geology, and the history of science at Harvard University, but describes himself as “a paleontologist by trade.” He is, also, without doubt one of the two or three leading popularizers of science writing today, and in the natural history essay genre he has no rivals.
Professionally, Gould is a leading authority on snails, especially, Cerion, the Bahamian land snail. He is perhaps more widely known for the theory of punctuated equilibrium (with Niles Eldredge), which revises and extends strict Darwinism to account for the scarcity of “missing links” between evolving species. The idea is that species do not evolve gradually and continuously, but that long periods (millions of years) of relative stability (stasis or equilibrium) are succeeded, during times of environmental challenge, by periods of relatively rapid evolution (over tens of thousands of years). This theory is a good example of the dialectical law of the transformation of quantity into quality, and, indeed, the theory was almost certainly inspired by it.
NATURAL HISTORY AND OTHER ESSAYS
First the passions and idiosyncrasies! Every reader of Gould's essays must soon become aware of the author's passion for baseball. It surely reaches its apex, in these essays, in “Losing the Edge” (reference 4 above; hereafter ), in which the evolutionary tendency for variation to reduce as a species becomes better adapted to its environment is illustrated by an analysis of baseball scores over the last 100 years. This leads to his “explanation for the oldest chestnut of the hot stove league—the most widely discussed trend in the history of baseball statistics: the extinction of the.400 hitter.”
His passion for Hershey bars and their historic tendency to decrease in size (at the same time as they increase in price) is likewise the subject of the essay “Phyletic Size Decrease in Hershey Bars” , illustrating a phenomenon rare in nature but common in culture.
Other interests of Gould's, which figure prominently in his works, include choral music, Gilbert and Sullivan, science fiction and detective stories (he prefers Dorothy Sayers' detective hero Lord Peter Wimsey, because he thinks intuitively, to the more cerebral cult detectives). He is at home with much of the world's literature, often quoting in the original French, German, or Latin.
Many of his natural history essays (-) explore the byways of evolution—geological, biological and human. Gould's major theme is that it is not the perfection of nature, so beloved of theologians, but precisely its oddities and imperfections that are important. They can only occur if selection is based on the reproductive success of individuals, proving that it is this and not some other evolutionary mechanism which shapes the path of evolution.
Reference  differs from the first four in being a collection of reviews written for the New York Review of Books, which gives Gould a somewhat broader canvas for his essays than the natural history essay format. From it, I would especially recommend his essays on the astronomer Robert Jastrow; writer (The Tao of Physics) Fritz Capra; and biotechnology critic Jeremy Rifkin.
In “The Perils of Hope” he reviews Jastrow's Enchanted Loom: Mind in the Universe. This gives Gould a chance to expound on another favorite theme, namely, that evolution is not an inexorable march of progress culminating in man—or, in Jastrow's vision, in artificial intelligence. It is not “The Great Chain of Being,” or a tree of life, but something more akin to a bush with many shoots and branches. Gould does, however, agree with Jastrow that human intelligence could be an emergent property of a vast increase in the number and connectivity of neurons or brain cells, an example of the dialectical law of the transformation of quantity into quality. However, it does not follow that, with increasing complexity, present-day computers will evolve, so-to-speak, into a simulation of human intelligence—a point discussed in detail by the British mathematician, Roger Penrose.
But Gould's disagreement with Jastrow concerns the latter's theological “bottom line.” Jastrow has found God in the computer and I might add, in his more recent writings, in former President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars,” of which he is a protagonist.
Gould's exposure of mysticism, irrationality, and anti-intellectualism is continued in “Utopia, Limited,” his review of Capra's The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture. In it Capra proposes a historical dichotomy between “Cartesianism,” roughly equated with bourgeois mechanical materialism, and with the reductionist tradition in science and technology, as opposed to “holism,” which he equates with eastern religions but also with modern physics, especially quantum physics. Gould shares Capra's commitment to a holistic and hierarchical perspective, but not to his comfortable rejection of contradiction and struggle, which, together with his facile analogies, his distrust of reason, and his invocation of fashionable notions, distinguishes Capra's holism from dialectics.
Jeremy Rifkin is well known as a leading opponent of genetic engineering and biotechnology, who has spearheaded successful legal battles against the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment. In “Integrity and Mr. Rifkin,” Gould's review of Rifkin's Algeny, while agreeing with the need for vigilance in the introduction of such potentially dangerous technologies, he nevertheless condemns the anti-rational and basically dishonest approach of Rifkin. He characterizes Algeny as “a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship. Among books promoted as serious intellectual statements by important thinkers, I don't think I have ever read a shoddier piece of work.” And finally:
Used humanely for the benefit of ordinary people, not for profits of a few entrepreneurs, the left need not fear this technology. I, for one, would rather campaign for proper use, not abolition. If Rifkin's argument embodies any antithesis, it is not left versus right, but romanticism, in its most dangerous anti-intellectual form, versus respect for knowledge and its humane employment.
One of the most important political themes running through Gould's work is his ruthless exposure of biological determinism and the alleged inheritance of cultural and social traits, currently fashionable under the guise of sociobiology. This belief in biological determinism is the ideological underpinning of prejudice in the name of race, gender, and class.
The Mismeasure of Man  is entirely devoted to the use of biological determinism to support racist notions: in the 19th century mostly through physical measurements, especially head size (craniometry); and in this century by intelligence testing. This culminated in the notorious 1969 article by Arthur Jensen arguing that compensatory education must fail because the black children that it attempted to aid were, on average, genetically inferior to white children in intelligence. In “Jensen's Last Stand,” Gould's review of Bias in Mental Testing , he debunks Jensen's latest views on the subject.
Edward O. Wilson, a colleague of Gould at Harvard, is the leading authority on the social insects (the “ant man,” as he was described in a recent article in the New York Times Weekend Magazine). In 1975 he published Sociobiology. Its first 26 chapters are, according to Gould, “a lucid account of evolutionary principles and an indefatigably thorough discussion of social behavior among all groups of animals.” However, the 27th and longest chapter attempts to extend his findings on the behavior of animals to human society. “It is, primarily, an extended speculation on the existence of genes for specific and variable traits in human behavior—including spite, aggression, xenophobia, conformity, homosexuality, and the characteristic behavior differences between men and women in Western society.” This is reductionism with a vengeance, and Gould exposes its fallacies in two articles in  as well as in “Genes on the Brain,” his review  of the later book by Lumsden and Wilson: Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind.
THE ARROW OF TIME
Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle  is a discussion of the role, in human thought processes, of dichotomy and the interpenetration of opposites, using as a theme the discovery of “deep time” (the millions of years of geological time as opposed to the 6000 years of traditional theology). In particular, he shows the unexpected sophistication of the 17th century English theologian Thomas Burnet, whose apparent cycles of time (Sacred Theory of the Earth) nevertheless revealed evolution, the arrow of time.
Contrariwise, James Hutton, the discoverer of deep time (Theory of the Earth, in the 1780s) and his avatar, the “father of modern geology,” Charles Lyell (Principles of Geology, in the 1830s) were committed to a static, ahistorical, view of time's cycle from which Lyell retreated in the face of the mounting evidence for evolution in his lifetime. But his resolution of the contradiction lay in his gradualist theory of uniformitarianism and his attacks on the more historical catastrophists for their anti-science (indeed sometimes justified). In Gould's view, time's arrow and time's cycle both capture important aspects of reality, and he is considered to be one of the leaders in the revisionist interpretation of Lyell.
There is, however, a still more profound paradox in the arrow of time. On the one hand there is the direction pointed by the evolution of the universe, from the simple and undifferentiated in the past to the complex and organized, technically involving an increase in information—the historical arrow of time. On the other hand, the direction pointed in physics by the Second Law of Thermodynamics (law of increasing entropy) and the resulting tendency towards a breaking down of organization and complexity and towards an equilibrium in uniformity (the heat death of the universe) and a loss of information—the thermodynamic arrow of time.
One of the first to draw attention to this contradiction was that remarkable British Marxist and writer, Christopher Caudwell, in The Crisis in Physics, written shortly before he died in Spain in 1939, at the age of 29. Since 1945, this theme has been taken up by a number of distinguished writers including the Austrian physicist Schroedinger; the Belgian Prigogine, who has approached it through the recently developed study of irreversible thermodynamics, or the behavior of systems away from the ideal state of equilibrium; and the astrophysicist David Layzer. The latter has shown that, in an expanding universe initially at equilibrium, the maximum possible entropy can increase faster than the universe can equilibrate, leading to a production of macroscopic information, or order, thus resolving the paradox.
Daniel R. Brooks and E. O. Wiley in Evolution as Entropy: Toward a Unified Theory of Biology have used these ideas to develop a comprehensive theory of biological evolution, which they claim embraces the current theory of neo-Darwinism and goes beyond it. All these ideas are highly controversial, and, because of their interest for philosophy as well as for science, I, for one, am looking forward to an occasion for Gould to weigh in with his views.
CONTINGENCY IN HISTORY
Turning now to Wonderful Life , Gould's most recent and also his most philosophically interesting work, we see his most impressive attempt to date to refute the popular notion of the inevitability of progress.
Physics is the quintessential exemplar of the experimental-predictive sciences, and it has been widely perceived to be the model to which all other sciences should aspire. It is still seen to be deterministic, not withstanding evidence to the contrary, particularly at the atomic level. Indeed the paradoxical lack of determinism at the atomic (quantum) level has spawned mystical and philosophically idealist interpretations. As opposed to the experimental-predictive (“hard”) sciences, the historical sciences are often demeaned as “soft” sciences, because they seem to lack the power of prediction, or at least of what Karl Popper refers to as “falsifiability.” (Popper started out with the avowed intention of refuting the claims of Marxism to be a science by way of a methodology which ended by also excluding Darwinism and evolution.)
In this, which Gould regards as one of his most important works to date, he struggles with the question of the nature of the historical sciences. He uses as a point of reference, or case study, the story of the Burgess Shale, the city-block sized “mother-lode” of fossils in the Yoho National Park in British Columbia, Canada, dating from the middle Cambrian era 530 million years ago, and arguably the most important fossil discovery in the world.
Discovered by Charles Doolittle Walcott, Secretary (head) of the Smithsonian Institution, of Washington, in 1909, the Burgess Shale is unique in yielding 73,300 fossil specimens mostly of soft-bodied creatures miraculously preserved by a mud slide and dating from the dawn of the era of multi-celled life (metazoans), before more easily fossilized bones and shells had evolved. As interpreted at the time by Walcott, this magnificent fossil collection was seen as being composed of animals ancestral to most of the present-day phyla or basic life forms. By “shoehorning” (Gould's term) all the fossils into essentially modern categories, so that all the fossils became, in effect, “missing links,” Walcott was able to display a traditional, tidy evolutionary “tree,” in which life evolved in a straightforward and predictable way from the simple and primitive to the complex and modern.
This view remained unchallenged until, in a 20-year period starting in 1967, Harry Whittington (then Gould's predecessor at Harvard but now Professor of Geology at Cambridge University in England) and two brilliant graduate students, Derek Briggs and Simon Conway Morris, painstakingly re-examined the entire fossil collection (housed for the most part at the Smithsonian in Washington). The results that have slowly emerged from this Herculean labor have completely upturned the interpretation of Walcott and revolutionized our understanding of the whole evolutionary process.
To better understand what happened it is necessary to consider how taxonomists classify living things. At the most basic level there are five “kingdoms”—animalia, plantae, fungi, protoctista (eukaryotes, with a single organized cell, e.g. seaweeds and amoeba), and monera (prokaryotes, the most primitive creatures, consisting of a single relatively unstructured cell without a nucleus and including the bacteria and the blue-green algae or cyanophytes).
Fossil evidence for prokaryotic cells (monera) has now been traced back almost four billion years to the period shortly after the Earth's crust first stabilized and not long after the Earth first came into existence 4.55 billion years ago. This fact is evidence that the simplest life must have formed very easily and perhaps “inevitably” in the conditions flourishing in the early seas and atmosphere of the Earth. However, the first of the larger and more complex eukaryotic cells (protoctista) do not appear in the evolutionary record until 1.4 billion years ago, while the first multicellular creatures appear only just before the Cambrian “explosion” (which witnessed an unsurpassed variety of such organisms) 570 million years ago. This suggests that the evolution of higher life forms is a much more improbable circumstance.
The next unit down, in the hierarchy of forms, is the phylum. This is the most basic ground plan of anatomy; within the animal kingdom there are, at the present time, at most 32 phyla. For example, the chordates, which include all the vertebrates (amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds, mammals including humans, and even extinct dinosaurs) are a single phylum. But the Burgess Shale contains 15-20 “weird wonders,” each of which appears to be a completely new and previously unknown phylum!
Another major phylum is the arthropods. These include four major groups known up to recently (insects, spiders, crustaceans, and extinct trilobites). The arthropods are quantitatively the most important of the animals, comprising 80 percent of all species that have been described, and they include the majority of species found in the Burgess Shale. Yet, in addition to representatives of these four major groups of arthropods, the Burgess Shale harbors no less than 20 new and hitherto unknown groups!
It is this incredible diversity of forms so early in the development of living creatures which was completely missed by Walcott and which has only become known in the last few years, thanks to the work of Whittington, Conway Morris and Briggs. But with the realization of this diversity has come the recognition that most of these life forms, which arose so early in the fossil record, have disappeared without leaving any modern descendants. This is what Gould refers to as “disparity with decimation.” It is this which has upset the popular notion of the tree of evolution (sometimes also a ladder, or a “chain of being”). It has made contingency rather than inevitability the underlying theme of evolution and of all of the historical sciences including, of course, human history.
To illustrate the point, Gould takes us through seven scenarios, each one of which was a turning point on the road to human history. The first, 1.4 billion years ago, is the appearance of the eukaryotic cell: after more than two billion years of prokaryotes, the first cell to permit sexual division and the speeded-up possibilities for evolution that that represented. Next, and just before the Cambrian, the Ediacara organisms. Entirely soft-bodied, multi-cellular organisms which appear to be a failed experiment. Described as quilt-like mats, they gained body area through external development rather than through the development of internal organs like all modern animals. Then the Tommotian creatures, “small shelly fauna” (archaeocyathids), first fauna of the Cambrian explosion and contemporary to at least some “modern” phyla. Fourth, the Burgess Shale creatures themselves. Among these, and this is perhaps the most remarkable discovery of all, Conway Morris has identified the Pikaia as a chordate, first known representative of the phylum to which we ourselves belong. But, as Gould puts it, if we play the tape of life back for a re-run, what are the chances for its survival? Remember that the advantages of a backbone in the distant future would not give it any survival advantage in the middle Cambrian!
Fifth, is the origin of the first land animals from a particularly unpromising line of fishes in the Devonian period over 340 million years ago. Then, the remarkable survival of the mammals after the dinosaurs became suddenly extinct, 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous. The mammals had co-existed in the shadow of the dinosaurs for about 100 million years before some cataclysmic event, in all probability (in the light of modern evidence) the impact on the earth of an asteroid or other extraterrestial body. But without such an event the dinosaurs might have continued their reign for another 100 million years!
Finally, the emergence of Homo sapiens. Gould sees this too as an example of contingency. Homo erectus, the Neanderthals and other hominids possessed tools and mental abilities of a high order, but only Homo sapiens shows direct evidence for the kind of abstract reasoning, including numerical and aesthetic, that we recognize as distinctly human. According to Gould sapiens is a definite entity, a small and coherent population that split off from a lineage of ancestors in Africa. Had it by chance been wiped out there is no obvious reason why one of the other hominids would have developed in a similar way.
Gould makes the same point for human history. Yes, there is an objective material world, with causally linked events, fully explainable and understandable (at least if you can discover the connections), but at each step there are just too many choices to make history predictable—except after the event. This is in contrast to the experimental-predictive sciences where, for the most part, prediction is possible. I will not enter here into the question of predictability or indeterminacy at the quantum level, since this would take us too far afield.
Still, modern “chaos” theory shows that even in the “hard” sciences prediction is not always possible. For certain dynamic systems (non-linear systems), small differences in initial conditions can lead to enormous divergences in the final results, and, as experimental measurements however carefully performed always involve some residual error, such systems are never fully predictable—weather forecasting is a familiar example. In meteorology contingency reigns.
In the story of the Burgess Shale, which Gould admits has influenced his own thinking on the subject, he has immeasurably enriched our understanding of the real world and in ways which go beyond the field of biological evolution to embrace all of the historical sciences. In fact, it is not difficult to identify four hierarchical levels of evolutionary development of the universe, each of which is subject to contingency.
The first level, the cosmological, lies at the convergence of fundamental physical theories, of space and time (relativity), of fundamental particles and fields (quantum theory). It is the beginning of the universe, at least as we now understand it: an event that took place between 10 and 20 billion years ago and can be understood, according to conventional wisdom, by the so-called “big bang” theory, or something closely related to it. This is, of course, a philosophical minefield. Pertinent to our present discussion, contingent factors seem to have played an important role in creating a world fit for the emergence of life.
For example, a slight asymmetry in the laws governing particles and anti-particles (matter and anti-matter) resulted in the existence of matter—otherwise equal amounts of matter and anti-matter would have annihilated each other, leaving only energy fields. Had the exact amount of this residual matter been slightly different, or had the value of the constant of gravitation been slightly different, the stars would have evolved too quickly from birth to death to have allowed time for life to evolve.
The existence of some such coincidences, sometimes described as the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP), must be taken into account, but parallel to it there has always existed an idealist school of numerological physics, from the pre-war British cosmologist Eddington, through to the contemporary American, Dicke, who is responsible for the Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP). In its simplest form SAP states that: the universe must be nearly as we know it or life would not exist; conversely, if life didn't exist, neither would the universe. Here we are close to the classic argument for design. Indeed as one popularizer of anthropic reasoning, Tony Rothman, has put it: “When confronted with the order and beauty of the universe and the strange coincidences of nature, it's very tempting to take the leap of faith from science into religion. I am sure many physicists want to. I only wish they would admit it.”
It remained only for Martin Gardner to propose the Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle (CRAP).
The next level is the geological, representing the qualitative shift to the evolution of stellar and planetary systems based on the laws of (for the most part classical) physics and chemistry. Contingency here amounts to the likelihood of a star and planet system with conditions suitable for the emergence of life. While no other planetary system than our own has actually been observed, on the basis of current knowledge planetary systems are not thought to be particularly uncommon. Indeed, one of the prime missions of the Hubble space-based telescope is to search for evidence of their existence. It seems that this will be one of the missions minimally affected by the optical error in its mirror, so we may still look forward to early confirmation of other planetary systems.
Their suitability for life is, however, an entirely different matter. The real problem seems to be that: (i) there is only a small range of stellar sizes sufficiently big to be hot enough and, at the same time, small enough not to burn up too quickly; (ii) there is only a small range of distances from the central star (habitable zone) for a planet to be cool enough to have a water ocean to absorb carbon dioxide, and thereby avoid a runaway “greenhouse” effect, as happened to Venus, yet not so cool as to have its water locked up as ice; (iii) the earth's radius is also critical—too big and it would out-gas its water, too small and it would not retain an ozone layer needed to screen out harmful ultraviolet rays; (iv) finally, it seems that the very unusual presence of a very large satellite, like our Moon, may have played a critical role, as in the creation of tidewater zones especially favorable to the emergence of life, and even in the effect on the Earth's core and resulting magnetic fields and tectonic movement of continents. All of these contingencies are now thought to lead to an extraordinarily low probability for the existence of other Earth-like planets suitable for the emergence of life elsewhere in the universe.
At the next hierarchical level, we have the domain of biological evolution so well covered by Gould. Suffice it only to add that an extremely low probability for the emergence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe follows from the contingent probabilities together of the biological and the geological stages of evolution. This has obvious consequences for the likelihood, or otherwise, of success in the Search for Extra-Terrestial Intelligence, or SETI.
And lastly, where does this leave us in relation to the latest stage in the evolution of the universe, with the qualitative leap to society and culture—to human history? With the emergence, in this century, of the first groping steps towards a humane, just and rational society based on liberty, equality, and human solidarity has come its dialectical negation. We are now faced with the contingent realities of nuclear holocaust, of environmental disaster, and of terrible setbacks in those first attempts to build a better society.
We can never escape from the contingent circumstances of our lives, from the unpredictability of events. But this should not be a cause for despair. The appearance on the stage of history of rational beings, with the potential for making their own destiny, gives us some cause for hope, even in these dark times. But to change our world we must understand it. In this as in other matters of scientific concern, Stephen Jay Gould's contribution has been essential, and stands as a model for all aspiring popularizers of the scientific enterprise.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2168
SOURCE: Bethell, Tom. “Good as Gould.” American Spectator 24, no. 8 (August 1991): 9-11.
[In the following essay, Bethell assesses how Gould uses evolutionary theory to support his own political beliefs throughout his body of work.]
Stephen Jay Gould came out from behind a curtain and walked briskly to the podium, briefcase in hand. Good for Gould! He had already taken off his jacket, loosened his banker's tie, and rolled up his sleeves—the better to get down to the business of telling us what's right and what's wrong in evolutionary biology. Stretched out before him in the Memorial Auditorium was this huge shining sea of Stanford undergraduates, who had come to imbibe a little user-friendly political science from the hugely popular Gould. This was the opening session of the university's centennial symposium, “Ethnicity, Equity and Environment: Confronting a Global Dilemma.”
Mustachioed and a wee bit portly, Gould, who teaches biology at Harvard, had given strict instructions to the Stanford organizers that no photographs were to be taken, no videotape record made. Nonetheless, so strong was the urge to make a permanent record that someone a few rows back hoisted a verboten camera. Just in time, Gould spotted the rascal and stopped in mid-sentence. He laid down the indispensable flashlight that directs a speck of light to the screen, where he was showing slides. “I really meant that about not taking any photographs,” he said, his voice weary and a little saddened by the need to interrupt one lecture for the sake of another. He pointed out that we wouldn't think of photographing a concert artist in the middle of a recital, and I think we all felt chastened.
Gould's slides illustrated the wrong-headedness of unfashionable biology. They reminded us that we live in a society that is still fundamentally racist, still fundamentally sexist, still unregenerate, still too comfortable by half. Most of us don't even know it ourselves, of course, but our “familiar iconographies of evolution” give the game away, because they are directed toward reinforcing a comfortable view of human inevitability and cultural superiority. Take this March of Progress, for example, illustrated by the well-known single-file series, ape to man walking to the right, becoming more upright and (the moving speck of flashlight telling us where to look) becoming progressively lighter skinned. Our revealing iconography! Ooooh, go the students. They hadn't noticed that, but do you think it had escaped Stephen Jay Gould?
March-of-progress iconography not only false but racist! Us bad, then. Bad and incorrigible. Still comfortable, but by now should be uncomfortable in view of numerous Gould sermons and lectures! We're still unconsciously racist (consciously, in the case of the right-wingers lurking in our midst); and we still believe in human superiority, not realizing we are a mere mammalian after-thought, pitiful latecomers, a gloriously lucky accident! Don't we realize we're a mere twig on the copiously branching bush of life? (No-oooh.) On brink of total annihilation at any moment? (Serves us right, then.)
Whenever he puts pen to paper, Gould valiantly combats our backsliding, our same old retrograde tendency to put on airs as the Lords of Creation and … (yes, it's true) superior to the snails. Oh, he has our number, this Gould, doesn't he? He has us dead to rights.
Gould has this habit of disparaging his own predecessors at Harvard, whenever he discovers that they arrived at conclusions intellectually fashionable in their day but unfashionable now. He goes through old drawers, compares letters excerpted in memoirs with their unexpurgated versions and takes pleasure in displaying the dirty linen. Wouldn't you know it, Louis Agassiz, professor of zoology at Harvard in the nineteenth century, was a racist and a creationist? Gould showed us a slide of a statue of Agassiz at Stanford, knocked to the ground in the October 1989 earthquake. The slide showed the great man headfirst in the ground like an unexploded rocket. (Ha ha ha ha.)
Gould seems not to realize that evolutionary theory is so unconstrained by facts that it is capable of accommodating any political point of view. He finds it “disturbing” that the textbook used by John Scopes to teach evolution in Tennessee, A Civic Biology, contained “racist nonsense,” even though it was deferential to Gould's hero, Charles Darwin. Particularly interesting is his essay on Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, included in the recently published Bully for Brontosaurus. This is Gould's own favorite among the thirty-five essays reprinted from his Natural History series “This View of Life.” (I disagree with Gould across the board, but in fairness I should add that he is a very readable essayist.)
Although unknown today, Shaler was Harvard's most popular professor by far. “His classes overflowed, and his students poured forth praise …” At the Harvard tercentenary, in 1936, he was named twelfth out of fifty people most important to the history of the university. As we would expect, he deferred to “comfortable convention” and for a while he accepted the creationism of his superior, Agassiz. Then, like everyone else, he became an evolutionist. The bad news? He believed that the human races “are separate species, properly and necessarily kept apart both on public conveyances and in bedrooms.” Within the context of the “genteel racism of patrician Boston,” Gould tells us, Shaler “reserved his lowest opinion for black Americans,” supported the Immigration Restriction League, and so on. Gould concludes that Shaler used his intellect to construct “an elaborate rationale for contemporary preferences, never challenging the conservative assumptions of his class and culture.”
I wonder if Gould can see that, if we replace the word conservative with liberal, the last sentence also applies to himself? His world, of course, is not the genteel racism of patrician Boston, but the genteel nihilism of modern Cambridge. I was about to say “Marxism,” which Gould once said he had learned at his daddy's knee, but that is dying and Gould has toned it down. A colleague of his told me once that Gould's ambition was to become America's public philosopher. No doubt he recognized that the Marxist label wouldn't help—too fringy. Politically, Gould now seems to be no further to the left of center than George Will is to the right of it. (Not very, in other words.)
Did Gould ever have a prejudice that his science didn't confirm? And he accuses us of complacency! Of course, nothing is calculated to make his “class and culture” feel more comfortable than the rebuke that they are too comfortable. When he writes that, if the human race eliminated itself in its “puny foolishness,” the earth “might then breathe a metaphorical sigh of relief at the ultimate failure of an interesting but dangerous experiment in consciousness,” we realize that he's not saying something daring but exhibiting perfect pitch—perfect resonance with the assumptions of his class.
Gould uses evolutionary theory to argue not for racial superiority, of course, but for racial equality. This might seem surprising on its face. If anything, evolution predicts differentiation. Not even in Animal Farm, and surely not in Darwin's theory, do all animals end up equal. Gould makes fun of his predecessors for drawing the (plausible) inference of inequality from evolution and proceeds to draw a most implausible one himself. The hare might beat the tortoise, or the tortoise the hare, but it would be irrational to predict a dead heat between the two. Still, Gould treats evolution with such a proprietary air that he seems to feel he can make it come out any way he wants—including dead heats where needed.
The common ancestor of all humans “existed not that long ago,” he told the Stanford students. “Say a quarter of a million years ago.” Which “doesn't permit enough time for us to diverge into deep differences of intellectual capacity and moral worth. There hasn't been the time. Biological equality is a fact resulting from our surprising recency of origin.” In other words: “Differences really are skin-deep.” Okay, I believe in an approximate human equality, too (and certainly in an equality of rights), but then I never thought to base such a belief on evolutionary theory. If it's equality we want, maybe we're better off arguing that we're all equal in God's sight. But the argument wouldn't appeal to Gould (and for the sufficient reason that it lies outside science).
Evolutionary theory impartially lends a scientific veneer to nativists in one century and egalitarians in the next. As late as the 1960s, alleged racists seized on the argument of Carleton Coon (another Harvard man) in The Origin of Races, that blacks split off from Homo erectus later than whites—and therefore are “less evolved” than whites. Coon's argument is now thought to lack a factual basis. But this shifting assessment of the facts is typical. Do we really know anything at all about human evolution? The “facts” are so murky (perhaps nonexistent), shifting from decade to decade, subject to the constant revision of cultural fashion and the influence of subtly felt political pressure, that they can fit any creed. Notice that, even if correct, Coon's facts could be given an opposite interpretation. Recent splitting off from the main stem could as easily imply superiority as inferiority. Gould is right when he says that morphological differences can't be ranked. They also can't be denied.
These days, Gould is eager to rebut the notion of progress in biology. “Progress is nonsense,” he said at Stanford. Partly, he doesn't want us to feel superior or to the shrimps (the arthropods are “the dominant animals on earth today,” he tendentiously asserts in Wonderful Life); partly, I suspect, he wants to deny to Christians and other religionists any reason for thinking that the “staircase” of evolution was God's way of creating man. Still, attacking progress is a risky strategy from his materialist perspective because it could also undermine belief in evolution.
Darwin's alleged machinery of evolution—natural selection—was really nothing more than the importation of the Victorian idea of progress into nature, or, as Bertrand Russell put it, “laissez faire economics applied to the animal and vegetable kingdoms.” Without progress, evolution is reduced to mere chance; the ladder of ascent becomes the tangled bush that so pleases Gould, and Darwinian natural selection is exposed as a bare tautology—the survival of the fittest, who are inevitably defined as the survivors. My belief is that, among the general population, the theory of evolution today commands nowhere near the respect that it once did, probably because the idea of progress is now so suspect—and rightly suspect, given this century's record of wars, gulags, Communism, and nuclear weapons.
It's not the creationists' legal challenges that threaten the evolutionary faith of Gould and others. (Incidentally, I agree with Gould that these challenges should never have been brought; evolution deserves to be overthrown—but by argument, not by legal officers.) It may turn out that evolution only seemed plausible in the context of a particular intellectual and social environment—an environment that is now quite un-Victorian. (Marxism, with its “phases” of history, was also an offshoot of progress.)
Strictly speaking, the theory of evolution simply expresses the claim that all organisms have parents, but “evolution” also embodies the idea of onward-and-upward movement. It was the (Victorian) belief in this idea that convinced people for about a hundred years that Darwin had discovered the actual mechanism of evolution: namely, the “improving machinery” (onward and upward) of natural selection. Now comes Gould, as faithful as Shaler ever was to the respectable assumptions of his day, and he has no time at all for this onward-and-upward nonsense. Cambridge Nihilism will have none of it! Fine by me, but the Darwinian machinery goes out with that bathwater.
How did all this “wonderful life” arise? Darwin thought “the survival of the fittest” answered that question. Stripped of its tautology, however, this boils down to the feeble point that some organisms have more offspring than others. Some years ago, in an article in Harper's (1976), I discussed the tautology objection to Darwinism, and Gould responded in Natural History (reprinted in his Ever since Darwin). Now I see that he has brought it up again in his Wonderful Life (1989). His argument includes a glaring fallacy to which I never bothered to reply. It would take too many paragraphs now, so I shall do so (fifteen years late, I admit) in a future column.
Meanwhile, the defects of Darwinism provide good ammunition for some outside the field of biology. They include Phillip Johnson, a professor of law at U.C. Berkeley, whose excellent Darwin on Trial was recently published by Regnery Gateway. Also, MIT Press has just published Beyond Natural Selection, by the Hoover Institution's Robert Wesson. What never ceases to amaze me is the arrogance of people like Gould, who think they know how such complex creatures as mere snails came into existence, when all they even claim to know is that they appeared by random mutation, of which “the fittest survived.” This is hubris, not science—a point that would appeal to Robert Wesson.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1102
SOURCE: Osman, Tony. “The Evitability of Man.” Spectator 267, no. 8512 (31 August 1991): 24-5.
[In the following review, Osman examines the parallels that Gould creates between his discussion of evolution and events in his personal life in Bully for Brontosaurus.]
You can think of this collection of essays [Bully for Brontosaurus]—articles reprinted from the magazine Natural History—as a series of conversations with Gould. This is a privilege. He is a distinguished scientist—he was the joint author of a theory that showed how evolution must have occurred; but more to the point for these essays—conversations—he combines this with a broad education outside his own specialty. Gould sings in a choir, knows who Kropotkin was (a turn-of-the-century theorist of anarchism), and recognises that a QWERTY keyboard on a computer and appendicitis in humans are both evidence for, admittedly different, kinds of evolution. As well as talking to us about some of the queries we have concerning his speciality, he shows us what is special about the way that a scientist—a numerate scientist—looks at the world around him.
The most moving example of this is the way he thought about his own cancer. He tells us, in one of these essays, how he was diagnosed as suffering from mesothelioma. His doctor told him that there was not much in the medical literature about this cancer. She meant to be humane, but was ill-advised. As he says,
trying to keep an intellectual away from literature works about as well as recommending chastity to homo sapiens.
In no time at all, Gould had extracted a collection of references from Harvard's beautifully automated library index system.
What he found out was that, for this cancer, the ‘median life expectancy after discovery was eight months.’ No matter how you look at it, this was serious news. But Gould understood statistics. The fact that eight months was a median expectancy did not mean that he had eight months to live. There would be some who died quickly and others who lived longer, which would make the statistics come out right. Gould resolved to be in this second group. He talked to people who helped to define what kind of personality held out against cancer, and recognised that his was similar—though perhaps in need of reinforcement. He is still around. Not many people have used an understanding of statistics to extend their own lives.
Gould is, of course, marvellous in his own field—evolution. His previous, and justifiably best-selling book, Wonderful Life, walked us through the geological evidence—the Burgess Shale in Toronto—that demonstrated clearly that there was no certainty that humans would evolve. Those rocks contain the traces of an almost completely fresh start, very early in the Earth's life, after a global calamity. It so happened that one of the evolutionary chains that started then was one that could lead to humans: others simply could not. Because we humans write the books about evolution, we tend to claim that we are Nature's triumph: that was certainly an unrecognised axiom in the Victorian period, when Darwinism was enunciated. But as essays in this book continually remind us, the evolution of mankind was contingent, not guaranteed. And we are not particularly the ‘triumph of evolution.’ Were they self-conscious, any of the creatures now alive could claim to be triumphs of evolution—they are the successful results of evolution to date. Of course, the fact that they cannot actually claim anything is what makes man unique. Gould repeatedly points out that mankind is the only self-conscious ‘group,’ the only one capable of reflection. Were it not for some chance survivals in the period immortalised in the Burgess Shales, there would have been no creatures that could produce theories, let alone write about them.
Mankind certainly did evolve from simpler creatures. There is no doubt that mankind, and the other forms of life around us, arose by evolution. Because he feels strongly about education, Gould spends some time on a contemptuous demolition of American textbooks that try to sit on the fence between ‘creationism,’ which holds that the human race had no antecedents, and evolution. But for most of us, he is more fascinating when answering the kind of questions that are asked by those of us who do not have his intimate knowledge of what Darwinism really says.
Quite a few of these essays are triggered by letters from people who are baffled by some element of what they understand by Darwinism. If Darwinism is, for example, about the extinction of inefficient features, then why do men have totally non-functional nipples? (Answer: It is to do with development from the fertilised egg, which is bisexual. The characteristics of one or other sex are made more emphatic later.) Again, if Darwin describes Nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’ (he didn't, but his followers did), does this justify ruthless selfishness? (Answer: No it doesn't, and this is where the reference to Kropotkin comes in. He wrote a book with the title Mutual Aid.)
Gould even tells us about a rather more technical question that must have occurred to many of us, which concerns major developments, such as wings. It is not really imaginable that wings developed instantaneously, between one generation and the next, and in any case Darwinism is not about ‘instantaneous evolution.’ But if the development started as only a modest change, what advantage could the change have given? Biologists nowadays believe that birds evolved from one of the small dinosaurs: what value could undeveloped proto-wings have had for these reptiles? Gould's answer is that the proto-wings probably helped in temperature control: when they had developed far enough, they had greater value for movement.
This is an exhilarating, absorbing and broad-ranging book—but Gould is most fascinating when he talks about his own subject—evolution. Always he reminds us that although we can look backwards and see how the world around us has evolved, this does not mean that if we ran the clock backwards and re-started, the world would eventually be as it is now. We have already seen that the Burgess Shale records a fortuitous start to the chain that led to mankind. Another piece of evidence concerns a later time.
Mammals, our ancestors, were around at the time of the dinosaurs. But they were tiny, and with no apparent great future: it was the dinosaurs that were dominant. But for a cosmic cataclysm that destroyed the dinosaurs, mammals would probably have stayed small and insignificant. There would never have been humans, there would never have been thought, there would never have been language.
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SOURCE: Haegel, Nancy M. “The Questions Scientists Can Answer.” Commonweal 117, no. 16 (27 September 1991): 553-55.
[In the following review, Haegel offers a positive assessment of Bully for Brontosaurus, calling the work a “rich and integrated collection of essays.”]
Bully for Brontosaurus is Stephen Jay Gould's fifth volume of essays collected from his monthly contributions to Natural History magazine. The author himself calls it the best of the five, in part because “I have become a better writer by monthly practice.” This bit of encouragement to those who practice the writer's craft is especially welcome from Gould, the acknowledged master of the popular science essay. For the past twenty years, the Harvard paleontologist and author, most recently of Wonderful Life, has been sharing his knowledge of evolution with the public in a style which has become uniquely his own.
The title essay is classic Gould. It begins with a discussion of stamps from Monaco, looks back to a crucial meeting in 1913 affecting the course of zoological naming, and concludes with commentary on a recent brouhaha about the brontosaurus on a U.S. postage stamp. Early on, Gould asks the reader to “Bear with me,” and, on many occasions, one does have to make that commitment, as he unearths intriguing connections among seemingly unconnected events.
The book consists of thirty-five essays. The main themes will be familiar to those acquainted with Gould's work—evolution (with pointed reminders of our historical and continuing tendency to misunderstand or misuse the theory), the oddities of nature, apparent trivia with a larger story to tell. Because of the similarity and repetition of themes, this is a book best savored in small bites, more enjoyable as a snack than a cover-to-cover meal. It is the essays, not the book as a whole, to which readers respond.
And respond they do. Gould has received thousands of letters over the years. The correspondence, reflected in postscripts or subsequent essays, moves the author outside a world populated primarily by land snails (his favorite research topic) and Nobel Prize winners (his friends and colleagues). Gould's interaction with librarians, octogenarians, and former presidents (a letter from Jimmy Carter receives a lengthy reply) gives credence to his statement that “the ‘perceptive and intelligent’ layperson is no myth.”
Gould loves to expose myths, myths associated with everything from the origins of baseball to the origins of life. He finds, as the saying goes, that truth is stranger than fiction, even if truth can't always fulfill the self-serving aims of the myth makers. His greatest intellectual scorn is reserved for creationists. While celebrating the Supreme Court's 1987 decision striking down a Louisiana statute requiring equal time for “creation science,” Gould calls attention to the continuing tendency of many, even among the highly educated, to err in their understanding of science and its aims.
This confusion is the central theme in an essay titled, “Justice Scalia's Misunderstanding,” in which Gould comments on Scalia's dissenting vote in the 1987 case: “We (scientists) do not search for unattainable ultimates. … Our documentation of life's evolutionary tree records one of science's greatest triumphs, a profoundly liberating discovery. … We have made this discovery by recognizing what can be answered and what must be left alone. If Justice Scalia heeded our definitions and our practices, he would understand why creationism cannot qualify as science. He would also, by the way, sense the excitement of evolution and its evidence; no person of substance could be unmoved by something so interesting.”
Scientists must confine themselves, at least professionally, to ideas that can be tested, theories that can be “affirmed or denied,” Gould reminds us. The existence of a creator or his role in creation is not one of these.
An essay with the intriguing title, “Male Nipples and Clitoral Ripples,” debunks another common fallacy, a false theory of evolution which requires that all structures have a purpose, past or present. After numerous requests from readers, Gould was compelled to address this question and, using the example of nipples in male mammals, puts it quickly to rest. “Males and females are not separate entities, shaped independently by natural selection. Both sexes are variants upon a single ground plan, elaborated in later embryology. Male mammals have nipples because females need them. …” Those interested in clitoral ripples will have to read the essay for themselves.
Amid stories of kiwi eggs, frogs that brood young in their stomachs, and the Voyager photo encounter with Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune (the “greatest technological and intellectual triumph of our century”), the author also comments on matters of current public debate. Environmental concerns receive special attention. Gould has always been ready to point out the tenuousness of human existence in the “copiously branching bush” (his favorite metaphor for evolution) that describes the development of life on earth: “We certainly cannot wipe out bacteria (they have been the modal organisms on earth from the start, and probably shall be until the sun explodes); I doubt that we can wreak much permanent havoc upon insects as a whole (whatever our power to destroy local populations and species). But we can surely eliminate our fragile selves—and our well-buffered earth might then breathe a metaphorical sigh of relief at the ultimate failure of an interesting but dangerous experiment in consciousness.” Echoing the prophet Micah, Gould believes that Homo sapiens should walk humbly on the earth.
Intellectually disciplined passion shines through all the essays. In a moving reminiscence about his experiences in the New York All City High School Chorus, Gould pays tribute to his director, Peter Wilhousky: “His only rule, tacit but pervasive, proclaimed: ‘No compromises.’ … As I worked with Wilhousky, I slowly personalized the dream that excellence in one activity might be extended to become the pattern, or at least the goal, of an actual life.” He then comments on our current discussion concerning diversity and excellence and suggests that pluralism and excellence are attainable goals, “but only if we can recover, and fully embrace, Wilhousky's dictum: No compromises.”
Stephen Jay Gould's gift as a science writer is that he himself embraces that dictum. The result is a rich and integrated collection of essays. Gould sets down and adheres to three rules for science writing for the public—“no compromises with conceptual richness, no bypassing of ambiguity or ignorance, removal of jargon, but no dumbing down of ideas.” Would that those same rules be applied to all public discourse on the major issues—political and ethical as well as technological.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1540
SOURCE: Shapiro, Arthur M. “A Humanist at Heart.” New Leader 74, no. 12 (4 November 1991): 24-5.
[In the following review, Shapiro focuses on Gould's views concerning the creation-evolution debate in Bully for Brontosaurus.]
This book [Bully for Brontosaurus] landed on my desk at an interesting moment. Shortly before, I had been asked by a representative of a student Fundamentalist organization if I would publicly debate one of the pitchmen from the Institute for Creation Research. No, I responded, the creation-evolution “debate” is a gross oversimplification; there is no conflict unless one's ideological presuppositions demand one. But I said I would be glad to participate in a genuine discussion of the philosophical issues. Fine, he replied. Nevertheless, in an interview with the campus paper the day prior to the scheduled event, he billed it as a “debate” no fewer than six times.
Of the 35 essays in Bully for Brontosaurus—Stephen Jay Gould's fifth collection of his monthly columns for Natural History magazine—several deal with creationism and the alleged creation-evolution debate. Gould is a practitioner of evolutionary biology, a working paleontologist, and our foremost interpreter of Darwin for the masses. He dedicates one piece to the memory of Federal Judge William Overton, who wrote the perceptive and eloquent anticreationist decision in McLean v. Arkansas (1982). With my recent experience very much in mind, I turned with great interest to the essay “Genesis and Geology,” where I found these unexpected words:
Genesis and geology happen not to correspond very well. But it wouldn't mean much if they did—for we would only learn something about the limits to our storytelling, not even the whisper of a lesson about the nature and meaning of life or God.
Meaning of life? God? Based on his own declarations in the past, I had always regarded Gould as too much of a materialist and rationalist to allow that life might have a meaning. Then again, it cannot be an accident (can it?) that he calls his column “This View of Life,” an expression derived from the first sentence of the famous last paragraph of Origin of the Species. In that passage, Darwin attempts to defuse the charge of atheism by invoking the name of the Creator and implying that evolution is God's chosen means of creating a biosphere.
Gould is the third great popularizer of evolutionary biology, a worthy successor to Thomas Henry Huxley and J. B. S. Haldane. Huxley was known as “Darwin's Bulldog,” and was a prolific, but never prolix, lecturer and essayist on behalf of evolution in the second half of the 19th century. He is best remembered for his triumph over Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in a creation-evolution debate at Oxford on June 30, 1860. That confrontation is dissected in Gould's essay “Knight Takes Bishop?”—with the surprising result that both its circumstances and the outcome are cast in doubt. Even if the day was not an unequivocal victory for Huxley, however, there was a time when his evolutionary writings were in every farmhouse in America, thanks to cheap editions published by Appleton.
Huxley coined the term “agnostic” and detested theological pomposity, but held no animosity for religion per se. True, he wrote that “extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science, as the strangled snakes beside that of the infant Hercules.” Yet he also declared that “the antagonism between science and religion … appears to me to be purely factitious, fabricated on the one hand by short-sighted religious people, who confound theology and religion, and on the other by equally shortsighted scientific people, who forget that science takes for its province only that which is susceptible of clear intellectual comprehension.”
J. B. S. Haldane was one of the founders of theoretical population genetics and a particularly creative and insightful biomathematician. A Communist from 1937 to at least 1949, he contributed wonderful columns on science and society—many of them evolutionary in theme—to the British Daily Worker. Those essays, like Gould's, were repeatedly collected and published in book form. His break with the Party, largely over Stalin's imposition of a political “line” in biology, reduced but did not end his output as a popularizer.
The author of an introduction and notes to Engels' unfinished Dialectics of Nature, J. B. S. clearly evolved far beyond the position of his father, the physiologist J. S. Haldane, on the matter of religion. In his book entitled Materialism, the elder Haldane openly wrestled with the problem of science and faith, ultimately concluding that science was not enough.
Gould is a self-confessed Marxist, too, though not so brashly and vocally as J. B. S. was. (Ironically, the Institute for Creation Research has been propagandizing in the Soviet Union, where its speakers report instant bonding with the audience when Gould, as a prominent evolutionist, is labeled a Marxist and thereby discredited.) In fact, he is a phenomenally effective subverter of the intellectual status quo precisely because of his cautious, low-key style.
Scientists tend to be remarkably resistant to any change in their general philosophy, which typically is a sort of studied naïve realism: The world exists, and their mission is to render it comprehensible. The idea that it indeed might not exist, or that there might be important problems concerning the human ability to access or apprehend it, is intolerable except in the loftier realms of physics and cosmology. Biologists in particular are very defensive of the standard view. (As I tell my students, to question the objectivity of practicing science is akin to questioning sexual performance—once one has to think about it, one probably cannot do it.) But Gould, who is read faithfully by a great many scientists as well as by the laity, undermines that realism without his readers realizing what he is up to.
There is a long and unfortunate history, for instance, of evolutionary ideas being used to rationalize prejudice. Interestingly, the ideas have been much more labile than the prejudice, so that very different and even blatantly contradictory “explanations” have been advanced to explain why white male Homo sapiens are the pinnacle of the biosphere. Gould believes it can be shown that such cases are not simply opportunistic invocations of biology by political actors, that they actually are instances where so-called scientific “fact” was socially constructed. His book called The Mismeasure of Man dealt primarily with this theme, but it appears consistently throughout his work. By being sweetly reasonable and always on the side his readers fancy themselves on, Gould gets away with planting seeds of doubt about scientific objectivity, while its shrill ideological critics on the hard Left merely provoke quizzical stares.
The question then arises as to whether science is fundamentally different from the humanities in these matters. The “critical theory” movement, eagerly embraced by academic Marxists in the United States, is tied to the proposition that there are no objective standards in the humanities: The “canon” is an epiphenomenon of politics. Is scientific reality, too, simply an epiphenomenon of politics?
One of Gould's most famous essays “deconstructs” the human chin, reducing it to a noncharacter, a byproduct of the intersection of developmental fields in embryogenesis, a product of the dangerous scientific process of “reification.” Still, that does not mean Gould ignores chins when he looks at people; he may even find some especially attractive. His professional work as well as his popular writing demonstrate that he is unwilling to deconstruct biology as a whole. Evolution really happened, and it can be reconstructed by combining material evidence and logic.
That assertion is rejected by creationists on the one hand and worshippers of the philosopher Sir Karl Popper on the other, and might be viewed as meaningless by a hard-nosed deconstructionist. Gould's historical revisionism, preoccupied as it is with stripping away claims of self-evidence and exposing the ideological assumptions underlying advances in evolutionary biology, eschews epistemological nihilism. It is less successful in avoiding what might be called normative anachronism.
I realize after reading this collection that I have always taken Gould for more of a radical than he is—or perhaps thinks he is. He loves baseball. He is willing to set aside the laws of paleontological nomenclature to allow the U.S. Postal Service to mislabel Apatosaurus as the more familiar Brontosaurus on a postage stamp. In “Kropotkin Was No Crackpot” he places the Prince squarely in the Russian historical tradition. In “The Passion of Antoine Lavoisier” he observes that “Human nature is flexible enough to avert the baleful effects of intoxicated unity. … Our revolution remained in the rational hands of … Franklins, Jeffersons and Washingtons; France descended from the Declaration of the Rights of Man into the Reign of Terror.” And, as he acknowledges the possibility of the coexistence of Darwin and God, Gould quotes G. K. Chesterton on painting (“but you may substitute any creative enterprise”): “Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.”
Bully for Brontosaurus reflects the same historical perspective Gould applies to politics and the practice of science in general. He is unafraid of publicly contradicting himself or of declining to pursue his argument to its most extreme conclusion. He isn't much of a Marxist. Rather, he reveals himself as an old-fashioned, humanistic liberal, full of Enlightenment values in spite of himself, with his heart definitely in the right place.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1143
SOURCE: Morris, Simon Conway. “Rerunning the Tape.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4628 (13 December 1991): 6.
[In the following review, Morris examines Gould's treatment of the idea of contingency in Bully for Brontosaurus.]
Does Natural History really matter? To judge from the continuing conversion of our cathedrals of science, most notably the Natural History Museum in London, into the marketing triumph of theme-parks, seemingly not. So when Stephen Jay Gould canters into view, lowers his lance and goes full tilt into battle on behalf of evolution and natural history, the respectful bystanders throw their hats in the air and let out a resounding cheer; or do they? There is no doubting Professor Gould's energy, enthusiasm and commitment in bringing biological issues to an enormous public; heir to T. H. Huxley, his books sell in their tens of thousands, and the lecture-halls are packed to hear him. In this collection of essays [Bully for Brontosaurus,] we are set for a whirlwind tour. Never mind the hyperbole and the name-dropping, who else would even try and meld the Gombe chimps, kiwis and the frozen world of Neptune's moon, Triton, into a single paragraph?
In recent years, Gould's principal complaint has been that evolutionary theory, as encapsulated in neo-Darwinism, has become ossified. His views have done much to stir the established orthodoxies, even if, when the dust settles, the edifice of evolutionary theory still looks little changed. Now, Gould's target has moved, and we are invited to cling to any handhold as we stare into the chasm of historical contingency. Rerun the tape of life, he says, and the planet might pulsate with life, but assuredly not with readers of the TLS. Rerun the tape of history, and Hitler would have crashed to the ground, dying in the abortive Beer Hall Putsch of 1923.
To the historian, contingency has an eerie fascination, but at one level it is simply trite, given that the record is unique. Is it any more interesting for evolutionary biologists? Here lies a little irony. Some years ago, Gould was involved with an influential school of palaeontologists who sought a “nomothetic” view of evolution. This in itself was a bold agenda: based on such matters as evolutionary processes operating through a hierarchy of levels, the geometry of life being expressed via the by-now-famous hypothesis of punctuated equilibria, and the recognition of time's arrow in the asymmetrical manner in which lineages waxed and waned, they sought to reveal deeper patterns in the biological universe. I doubt whether Gould has abandoned these precepts, but subtly the emphasis has changed. Now, with words like “quirky,” “unpredictable” and “alternatives,” a far more random outcome in the lottery of life is espoused.
It would be futile to deny contingency, but perhaps patterns still emerge. Take some of the examples Gould presents in Bully for Brontosaurus. Monotremes are peculiar mammals that lay eggs. One of them, the spiny ant-eater, has an extraordinarily large brain. The significance of this remains unknown, and Gould explains how hidebound scientists persisted in regarding the spiny ant-eater as irredeemably inferior and primitive despite its giant brain. But this increase in cranial capacity is a wonderful example of evolution parallel to other groups of mammals. Rerunning the tape of life, which effectively is what every lineage of species does, produces convergent results so often that there does seem to be a predictability in the story.
Elsewhere, Gould discusses the fascinating example of the kiwi and its egg, so gigantic that, shortly before laying, the female must waddle, legs splayed. The reason for this oological monstrosity appears to lie with the kiwi being an effectively miniaturized giant moa (now extinct). Scaling down by the principles of relative growth, technically known as allometry, reveals that the egg is the “right” size for the type of bird. So the apparent quirkiness of the kiwi egg falls into a general pattern. But there is something else about the kiwi that receives only passing mention, and that is the extraordinary convergence between kiwis and mammals. This is hardly surprising, however, to any card-carrying Darwinian, given the contingent absence of the mammals from the original faunas of New Zealand (except for the flying bats). I am sure Gould would be the last to deny convergence, but surely it undermines much of his thesis of contingency. History, both evolutionary and human, can repeat itself. Rerun the tape: in evolution brains get larger, and in history, yet another megalomaniac arises to order the destiny of millions.
One bugbear of evolutionists has been the teleological argument of organic design. Gould has done much to bring a central theme of Darwinism, that supposed perfection in design is a jury-rigged compromise adopting some improbable pieces of anatomy, to general notice. But some of these essays contain hints that somehow the Darwinian explanation is only partly correct. But is this a serious attack? Not on a closer reading. In one essay it is explained how slight and fortuitous resemblances between certain mimic butterflies and their models are thrown up by variation. Natural selection follows and seems to be quite sufficient to account for the astonishing congruence in wing-patterns. So what's the problem? As Richard Dawkins has stressed elsewhere, a 5 per cent eye is a whole lot better than no eye. Again, it is explained how the eggs of certain frogs contain a chemical (prostaglandins) that switches off gastric secretions. Frogs brood their young in all sorts of ways, and, hey presto, in these frogs the stomach is promptly employed to brood young. As Gould notes, “Some lineage was bound to exploit this possibility” (my emphasis).
But there are higher matters to consider than this. Again and again, Gould stresses how essential is the role of myth to our species, how deep are our spiritual needs. But the connection with these essays is hardly clear. As he himself admits, admiration for the theory of evolution is hardly likely to enrich our sense of the numinous, and the exclamatory and breathless descriptions of the wonders of natural history begin to sound strained. Gould appears to be seeking a noble vision, but the way forward is indeed uncertain. Who can doubt that the living world appeals to deep psychic needs, but in these essays the real issues are skirted. Professor Gould himself complains about the anti-intellectual atmosphere, the copycat writing of tired textbooks, the less than subtle pressures exerted by creationists on biological texts, and the banality of much education in the United States. Enjoyable as many will find these essays, will they really open the doors to a wider and deeper understanding of science? By dint of force of character and high intelligence, he has risen to the heights of American academia. But the view he offers us is ultimately curiously bleak, and the problem of how to recapture our sense of wonder by scientific enterprise (if indeed that is possible) remains unanswered.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3454
SOURCE: Smith, John Maynard. “Taking a Chance on Evolution.” New York Review of Books 39, no. 9 (14 May 1992): 34-6.
[In the following review of Wonderful Life and Bully for Brontosaurus, Smith discusses Gould's concept of contingency and his views about whether or not science is necessarily progressive.]
Although very different in style and content, the last two books by Stephen Jay Gould—Wonderful Life and Bully for Brontosaurus—and Ernst Mayr's Toward a New Philosophy of Biology are ultimately about the same questions. Is evolutionary biology a science? If so, what kind of a science is it? Mayr's book is a collection of essays, published over the past thirty years, and addressed both to biologists and philosophers. His aim is to clarify the concepts that underlie evolutionary biology. His central theme is that these concepts make evolutionary biology an autonomous science, and not merely a subbranch of physics. This claim must not be misunderstood. Like all serious biologists, he believes in the unity of science: in particular, he believes that the laws of physics and chemistry are the same in living and inanimate matter. The claim for autonomy rests on the existence of concepts—for example, natural selection, genetic program, species—that are needed if we are to understand biology. These concepts are consistent with physical laws, but could not be deduced from them.
In distinguishing between physics and biology, he points to the different role of laws in the two sciences. In physics, laws are intended to be universal. Popper's falsifiability criterion depends on this: a single case of levitation would be sufficient to falsify Newton's law of universal gravitation. Such laws do exist in some branches of biology. For example, the “central dogma of molecular biology” that information can pass from nucleic acid to nucleic acid, and from nucleic acid to protein, but not from protein to nucleic acid, is intended to be such a law, universal as far as life on earth is concerned. As yet, there is no convincing falsifying evidence. The law is important for evolutionary biology, because it provides one explanation for the noninheritance of acquired characters. In evolution, such laws are hard to come by. Even the “law” that acquired characters are not inherited has exceptions, because not all heredity depends on the sequence of bases in nucleic acids. We do, however, have theories about evolutionary processes, although, as Mayr points out, there is hardly a theory in biology for which some exceptions are not known.
An example will help to make clear the nature of such theories about evolution. It is appropriate to choose a theory for which Mayr himself is largely responsible, that of “allopatric speciation.” It holds that when a species divides into two reproductively isolated species, a period is required during which the two populations are spatially separated. The study of the geographical distribution of animals and plants lends empirical support for this view, and there are theoretical reasons, from population genetics, why it should be true. But, as Mayr was well aware, it is not a universal truth. There is at least one process—the formation of a hybrid between two species, followed by a doubling of the number of chromosomes—whereby new species have arisen without spatial isolation. The existence of such exceptions, however, does not make the theory uninteresting or unimportant. Most biologists agree that, at least in animals, speciation did require a period of geographical isolation in the great majority of cases.
Evolutionary biology is full of theories of this kind. The fact that we expect our theories to have exceptions makes it hard to test them. I will return to the problem of testing later. For the moment, let me only say that it is a more serious problem than either Mayr or Gould seems to allow. It makes me envious of my colleagues in molecular biology. They can usually settle their problems by experiment: I seem to live with mine. Of course, my problems are more interesting.
Gould's Wonderful Life is an account of the Burgess Shale, and its philosophical implications. As always, he follows the admirable policy of writing at the same time for amateurs and professionals. I envy him his ability to do this, although I think he would find it harder if, like mine, his view of the world was essentially mathematical. First, the story. Fossils of animals with shells and carapaces first appear some 570 million years ago: their rather sudden appearance marks the beginning of the Cambrian. The Burgess Shale in British Columbia is a Cambrian rock formation in which soft-bodied animals are exquisitely preserved. Their fossils were first found by the American paleontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott. He interpreted them as primitive members of groups—jellyfish, crustacea, clams, and so on—that are still with us today. Gould argues that this interpretation, which was certainly mistaken, arose from Walcott's belief that evolution was progressive, from simple beginnings to a complex end.
Recent work by Harry Whittington, and his colleagues Derek Briggs and Simon Conway Morris, of the University of Cambridge, has shown that the fauna were far more diverse than Walcott supposed. Early in the Cambrian, a wider range of body plans existed than is present today. Animals are built on a number of different plans, but those with the same body plan may live very different lives. Thus sharks, snakes, vultures, and humans all have the same body plan—they are all vertebrates—despite their different ways of life. Similarly, squids, snails, and clams have the same body plan—they are mollusks. It seems that, early in the Cambrian, all the currently existing body plans already existed: a few have not been observed, but this may be an imperfection of the record. In addition, there are animals that appear not to belong to any existing plan. The extent of this early diversity may have been overestimated. For example, it turns out that the strangest of them all, Hallucigenia, was restored the wrong way up: properly inverted, it turns out to be a relative of the existing segmented worm, Peripatus. As it happens, Gould is cautious about Hallucigenia. In any case, I do not doubt that he is right in thinking that the animals were immensely diverse. Subsequent evolution has reduced the number of body plans, not increased it, even if it has given rise to ways of life—for example, life on land, flight, tool-making—that did not then exist.
The message that Gould draws from this is that evolution is contingent. It is not the case that, initially, there were a few simple organisms, and that, as time passed, there was a steady increase in diversity and complexity, leading inevitably to the emergence of an intelligent, tool-using, talking animal—ourselves. If one was able to replay the whole evolution of animals, starting at the bottom of the Cambrian (and, to satisfy Laplace, moving one of the individual animals two feet to its left), there is no guarantee—indeed, no likelihood—that the result would be the same. There might be no conquest of the land, no emergence of mammals, and certainly no human beings. It may have been a matter of chance which body plans, or “phyla,” survived: for example, there might have been no vertebrates.
The book reflects two themes that run through all that Gould has written. First, science is done by individuals, whose conclusions are influenced by the beliefs they bring with them. Second, evolution is contingent: it is not a stately law-governed progression, leading inevitably to human intelligence. To say that an event is contingent is not the same as saying that it is random. Chance events can lead to predictable outcomes. For example, the decay of a single radioactive atom is the paradigm of randomness, but the behavior of a large lump of radioactive material can be accurately predicted. Hence the contingency of evolution does not depend merely on the random nature of genetic mutation. It arises because mutations have qualitatively different effects, and because these effects can be amplified. Thus a chance change in a single molecule can, if present in a fertilized egg, alter the nature of the individual that develops: natural selection can then amplify a change in an individual to a change in a whole population. This amplification of quantum events, combined with the unpredictability of the environment, makes it impossible to foretell the longterm future, although it may still be possible to explain evolution in retrospect.
I agree with Gould that evolution is not in general predictable. I am willing to predict that, if the chemical companies introduce a new insecticide, the whitefly in my greenhouse will be resistant to it in ten years or less. In Gould's “replay from the Cambrian” experiment, I would predict that many animals would evolve eyes, because eyes have in fact evolved many times, in many kinds of animal. I would bet that some would evolve powered flight, because flight has evolved four times, in two different phyla; but I would not be certain, because animals might never get out on the land. But I agree with Gould that one could not predict which phyla would survive and inherit the earth.
In the replay experiment, what can one say of the emergence of human beings? Clearly, it is enormously unlikely that human beings indistinguishable from ourselves could have evolved. But what of intelligent, tool-using, talking animals? In an article on “the probability of intelligent extra-terrestrial life,” Mayr argues that such life is infinitely unlikely. His argument seems to run as follows. Life has existed on earth for some five thousand million years, during which time many hundreds of millions of species have evolved: of these, only one is intelligent and technological; therefore, the chance of such life existing elsewhere is vanishingly small. This argument seems to me so manifestly false that I fear I must have misunderstood it. After all, life on any other planet could also exist for thousands of millions of years, and produce hundreds of millions of species, so why should it not also give rise to one intelligent species? Given that intelligence emerged here, I do not think one can say more than that it is a possibility. (There is an ingenious but difficult argument, based on the anthropic principle, showing that extra-terrestrial life is very unlikely, but I think it is based on an assumption—Bayes's postulate—that I find unacceptable.)
Although I agree with Gould about contingency, I find the problem of progress harder. I agree with him in rejecting the Victorian notion of a stately and inevitable progress toward the omega point. Empirically, individual lineages do not necessarily progress: they are as likely to lead to tapeworms, or to nothing at all, as to lead to man. As Darwin understood, there is nothing in the theory of natural selection that predicts progress in any global sense: only a tendency to get better at whatever you happen to be doing. But if we concentrate only on the most complex entities present in the biosphere at any moment, we can identify the following stages: replicating RNA molecules; simple bacterium-like cells (“prokaryotes”); cells with a nucleus and internal structure (“eukaryotes”); eukaryotes with sex; multicellular animals and plants; social animals; animals with language. This looks like progress, if only in the sense of an increase in the amount of information transmitted between generations. The series could only occur in this order. Some of the transitions have occurred just once (as with the origin of eukaryotes, or of language), others several times. I think Gould would say that all of them are contingent, not inevitable: if so, I agree. But I do think that progress has happened, although I find it hard to define precisely what I mean.
Gould's Bully for Brontosaurus is a collection of essays that first appeared in Natural History. He displays his usual gift for arguing from the particular to the general, and from the peculiarities of the individual scientist to the content of the science. His interests are catholic. How far does a classification of human populations on the basis of the languages they speak correspond to one based on their genes? How did the typewriter keyboard become fixed in a manifestly suboptimal arrangement? Are flamingoes pink because it makes them less visible against the sunset? What really happened in the debate between T. H. Huxley and “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce at the 1860 meeting of the British Association?
One thing I find impressive about Gould's essays is that they often tell me something that I ought to have known but didn't. I have space to dwell on only one of them, which is relevant to the topic of this review. I'm afraid I had never heard of N. S. Shaler, professor of geology at Harvard during the latter part of the last century. Gould tells us that Shaler puts forward a version of the fallacy which, earlier in this review, I ascribed to Mayr. Shaler argued that it is infinitely improbable that, without divine guidance, evolution should have led to the appearance of human beings. Hence our existence demonstrates the presence of “the guidance of a controlling power intent on the end.” His friend and contemporary William James pointed out his mistake, concluding, “Where only one fact is in question, there is no relation of probability at all.” Of course, Shaler's argument and Mayr's are different: Shaler argued that, because the evolution of man was exceedingly unlikely, there must have been divine guidance, and Mayr that, because it was unlikely, no comparable and equally unlikely event has happened elsewhere. Although different, both arguments draw unjustified conclusions from a single unlikely event, observed only after it had happened. I plan to spend this evening playing bridge. Each hand I am dealt will be exceedingly unlikely, in the sense that it could not have been predicted, but none of them will surprise me. Of course, if someone correctly predicts, before the deal, which cards I will be dealt, I will be very surprised—or, perhaps, very suspicious.
There is an amusing final twist to Gould's essay on Shaler. After it was published, he received a letter from Jimmy Carter apparently defending Shaler's position. But in fact Carter's position may not be quite the same. He wrote, “You seem to be straining mightily to prove that … it is unlikely that cognitive creatures would have been created or evolved.” I'm not sure that this is what Gould argued, or would agree to. Both of us, I think, agree that it is exceedingly unlikely that, in the “rerun” experiment, exactly the same cognitive creatures—with five fingers on each hand, a vermiform appendix, thirty-two teeth, and so on—would have evolved. But I do not agree that it is unlikely that “cognitive creatures” of some kind would have evolved. I just don't know.
I'm not sure where Gould stands on this. The question is important, not so much because of its possible theological relevance as because it raises questions about prediction in biology. Richard Lewontin discussed the question in a review of Wonderful Life in these pages.1 Can we predict what biological forms are likely, or even possible? He concluded his review as follows:
We cannot know the answer unless we have a theory of biological form that is deduced from some general principles of biological organization, rather than inferred from the collection of objects. Or it may be that no such principles exist, and that in this broadest sense, life has no meaning.
In seeking a theory of biological form, I would probably place greater emphasis than Lewontin on the principles of engineering design. I suspect that there are only a limited number of ways in which eyes can possibly work, and, maybe, only a limited number of ways in which brains can work. But I agree that it would be good to know whether such principles exist, and, if so, what they are. I also agree that, in his words, “a description of all the organisms that have ever been cannot decide the issue.”
For me, the hard question raised by these books is the matter of testability. One does not have to be a hard-nosed Popperian to think that the progress of science—and I do think that science progresses—depends on the possibility of testing theories by observations, experimental or otherwise. If, as Mayr suggests, our theories always have exceptions, and if, as Gould argues, evolution is contingent and unpredictable, how can we test our ideas? Gould's answer is interesting. He argues that Darwin developed a method of testing that is appropriate for historical science, a method which is as rigorous as the experimental testing of a universal physical law. This is to require that our theory can explain data from different sources, for example, from embryology, biogeography, the fossil record, vestigial organs, taxonomic relationships, and so on. He quotes Darwin's words:
Now this hypothesis may be tested … by trying whether it explains several large and independent classes of facts, such as the geological succession of organic beings, their distribution in past and present times, and their mutual affinities and homologies. If the principle of natural selection does explain these and other bodies of facts, it ought to be received.
This is fine, but we must be clear what it does for us. It provides a method of testing theories about the mechanisms of evolution which we believe to apply in a wide range of cases: in the quote from Darwin, it is the theory of natural selection, which we believe to apply in all evolutionary events. Sometimes we have other ways of testing such theories. For example, the theory that predicts the relative numbers of males and females can be tested qualitatively for all sexual species. The neutral theory of molecular evolution can be tested quantitatively by any molecular sequence data. More specific theories relevant to particular groups—for example, concerning why some monkeys are monogamous, or why some plants are self-fertile—can be tested by comparative methods. As Mayr implies, the most we can hope for in such cases is a theory that explains most of the observations. The important point, however, is that these are theories intended to explain a class of events by a common mechanism; they are not intended to explain unique events.
We can sometimes hope to explain unique events. For example, Gould discusses the suggestion of the physicist Luis Alvarez that the extinction of the dinosaurs, and of many other taxa, was caused by a meteorite collision. Although the matter is still controversial, the effects of such a collision would have been so extensive that it should be possible, in time, to establish its truth or falsehood beyond reasonable doubt. Evolutionary origins are usually more difficult. For example, I have for many years been interested in the origin of sex. This was, in all probability, a unique event: it happened in an unknown species. Although I can think up plausible scenarios, it is hard to see how they can be tested. It is equally hard to test ideas about the origin of language. It is easier to test ideas about why sex has been retained by most species, but lost by some, or about how and why human languages have subsequently diverged. In these cases, we are studying events that occur repeatedly.
Finally, although theories about origins are hard to test, it may be easier to test ideas about the origin of life, because this may have been an inevitable, non-contingent event, given conditions on the primitive earth. I am interested to find that Gould also thinks that contingency may have entered the scene after the origin of life.
Gould tells us that, at Harvard, they have divided the sciences according to procedural style and not conventional discipline: that is, not into physical and biological, but into “experimental-predictive” and “historical.” I hope they will not make the division too deep. Evolution may be a historical science, but it differs from the study of human history in having a theory about the mechanism of change, based on the laws of inheritance, the concept of natural selection, and the theory of population genetics. Only an unusually dogmatic Marxist, or perhaps an equally dogmatic Thatcherite, would claim that there is any comparable body of theory concerning the mechanisms of historical change. This difference has important implications for how evolution should be studied, and how it should be taught. If they are not careful at Harvard, they will finish up training a lot of molecular biologists who do not know what the right questions are, and a smaller number of evolutionary biologists who know the questions, but have not the knowledge to answer them.
New York Review, June 14, 1990.
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SOURCE: Gonzales, Moishe. “Postmodern Biology?” Telos 25, no. 92 (summer 1992): 181-86.
[In the following review, Gonzales argues that Wonderful Life acts as an example of how postmodernism may have infiltrated the biology and paleontology disciplines.]
Nothing seems to annoy scientists more than the suggestion that their work is dependent on or influenced by something outside of science. The paradigmatic image of a dogmatic Cardinal Bellarmino coercing Galileo into recanting his discovery of Jupiter's moons has terminally discredited any attempt to judge scientific claims within any allegedly higher extra-scientific tribunal, be it theological, metaphysical or political. Yet scientific research remains an entirely human undertaking and, as such, subject to the vicissitudes of history and other extra-scientific constraints. As R. G. Collingwood concluded, “Natural science as a form of thought exists and always has existed in a context of history, and depends on historical thought for its existence … no one can understand natural science unless he understands history.”1 After all, Newton was not the first unlucky person ever to be hit over the head by over-ripe apples and the excogitation of the concept of gravity was certainly not the mere result of such an unfortunate accident. Clearly, cultural and historical developments such as the rise of capitalism and the discovery of the Americas—developments which contributed to rendering the old Aristotelean worldview untenable—also had something to do with it.
At any rate, historians and philosophers of science, from Alexandre Koyré to N. R. Hanson, have dispelled the Enlightenment myth of scientists struggling singlehandedly against superstition and dogma with no weapons other than their extraordinary power of intellection. Creativity, sheer genius or even unrelenting hard work are necessary, but not sufficient to explain scientific advancements and breakthroughs; cultural conditions are also essential. Thus, as Hanson has shown, Galileo's pioneering efforts in formulating a law of falling bodies would not have succeeded had he not already managed to internalize much of Giordano Bruno's ontology privileging space over time. Had Galileo followed predominant medieval customs and Aristotelean practices he would have attempted to differentiate through space rather than, as he in fact did successfully, through time—something that requires mathematical tools such as calculus, which at that time had not yet been invented—thus heading into a series of blind alleys.2
Although Bellarmino may have been right in smelling something theologically suspect behind Galileo's transformational equations, this does not mean that the autonomy of science is in question. By now even the most entrenched multiculturalists and feminists, who occasionally indict Western science as a “Eurocentric white male ideology,” must have learned their lessons from disastrous experiences such as the Soviet sanctioning of Lysenko's genetics as the only “politically correct” approach. Over the centuries modern science has managed to establish a formidable record for self-correction thus discouraging any external interference. However, such a process is neither very rapid nor immediately obvious—at least not to the scientists involved in the particular controversies. As Kuhn has indicated, it usually takes a generation or more before what subsequently appear as immediately obvious refutations become widely acknowledged in the scientific community.3 Furthermore, for every instance of a successful refutation or self-correction, there are always scores of failures whose just reward is subsequent oblivion. This is why it is useful, while the debate is far from closed, to point out possible hidden cultural interferences contributing to questionable conclusions.
Stephen Jay Gould's reconstruction of evolutionary theory in his wonderful book, Wonderful Life, suggests interesting analogies to current academic fashions such as postmodernism. In fact, the cul de sac that Gould works himself into at the end of the book turns out to be surprisingly reminiscent of similar problems encountered by most versions of postmodernism. More specifically, the problems Gould runs into in postulating radical contingency with his theory of punctuated equilibria are exactly the same problems postmodernity generates with its vindication of a radical relativism against the universalism and one-dimensionality of modernity. Coincidentally, the problem with Gould's book turns out to be exactly the same as Jimmy Stewart's in Frank Capra's 1947 movie It's a Wonderful Life, which Gould took as the model for the title. The point is to emphasize, as in the movie, that little things do count and can have surprisingly momentous consequences. Thus, in the reconstruction of human evolution, the survival of an organism as seemingly irrelevant as the Pikaia provides a good example of this. Without it evolution, as it has in fact taken place, would not have been possible (he is careful enough to point out, however, that the demise of the Pikaia would not necessarily have meant that there would have been no chordate future and, consequently, no subsequent evolution). But Gould apparently did not study the film too closely, probably as a result of having seen it as a child and not having paid very careful attention to the actual structure of the plot. While it is true that one of the film's main subplots is to emphasize to what an unexpected extent the hero's actions have important consequences, the drama of It's a Wonderful Life is orchestrated from above by a heavenly bureaucracy determined to make sure things ultimately do not stray too far from the pre-ordained plan. In other words, the alternative scenario, constructed as the result of a particularly wrong choice by Clarence, the angel dispatched to see that George Bailey does not do anything stupid, such as committing suicide, is presented as ultimately artificial and, when all is said and done, nothing more than a pedagogical device meant to insure that things keep moving along the right predetermined path. The movie's main plot, rather than Gould's unwarranted privileging of one of its main subplots, contradicts precisely what Gould proposes as the main thesis of Wonderful Life, i.e., that all we have is “just history”—a process going nowhere and insensitive to whatever catastrophes, ruptures and discontinuities may take place in the process. It's a Wonderful Life operates entirely within a heavenly teleological framework all too reminiscent of an interpretation of the New Deal as a benevolent Washington bureaucracy intent on keeping small town America running along its entrepreneurial capitalist tracks.
Wonderful Life seeks to debunk whatever is left in popular consciousness of gradualist and progressivist readings of an evolutionary theory well managed by the hidden hand of natural selection. Worse yet, the arguments presented in Gould's book do not really make a very convincing case for the utterly contingent character of evolution. When all is said and done, its plot is actually much closer to that of It's a Wonderful Life than Gould may care to admit. As Robert Wright has pointed out in a careful and detailed review,4 Gould's theory of punctuated equilibria postulates such a strong concept of contingency and adaptability that, when combined with three other widely accepted features of evolutionary theory Gould never questions (but which are essential to reject if he is to demonstrate his thesis), renders the eventual development of intelligence very likely. The three enthymemes in question are the claim that evolution exhibits a tendency towards 1) growing organic complexity, 2) growing complexity of organic information processing capacity, and 3) that all evolution is characterized by a tremendous inventiveness.
Even if one were to grant that the Pikaia did bite the dust during the Burgess upheaval, or that the dinosaurs had not died out to clear the way for mammals to develop, or that several of what have been essential links in the evolution of Homo Sapiens never made it, it remains highly probable that some intelligent form of life, not necessarily the one that in fact did develop, would have evolved. After all, it only took a few hundred million years to go from single-cell organisms to us, and Homo Sapiens have been around only some 250,000 years—a short span by Gould's own estimate of 5 billion years as the Earth's probable life-span. During all that time other evolutionary routes very likely would have been found in case the actual one had been cut off. Asian Homo Erectus, Neanderthals, etc. may very well have made it. After all, extremely complex features such as wings and eyeballs were developed several times independently. Why rule out a similar fate for intelligence?
Gould's argument that these species were actually cut off and that only Homo Sapiens did in fact evolve only once also overlooks that the evolution of one species within the same evolutionary niche often entails the demise of competing ones. Thus it may very well be that the reason other evolutionary branches did end up being cut off was precisely that the one that did eventually make it did so at their expense. Here one need not postulate any transcendental force or similarly intractable metaphysical processes to see that intelligent life, while not absolutely inevitable, was at least very likely to develop under the given conditions.
For the purposes of the present discussion, all these considerations concerning possible merits and shortcomings of Gould's account, while interesting, are actually secondary. What is more significant is that Gould has in fact shifted his position from the 1970s when, as a Marxist engaged with groups such as “Science for the People,” he deployed his theory of punctuated equilibria to debunk conformist interpretations of evolutionary theory as a gradualist progression to perfection—subtle or not so subtle apologies for the status quo characterized by a capitalism predicated on competition as the mechanism paving the way to the perfect society. By vindicating the discontinuous character of evolution, Gould could vindicate the Marxist theory of revolution as qualitative upheavals exploding after relatively unproblematic periods of quantitative development. In Wonderful Life, however, the emphasis is now on the radically contingent character of the existing evolutionary result.
Why is this suddenly a significant issue? It is easy to understand a shift away from the need to vindicate evolutionary discontinuities as the functional equivalent of social revolution. In the age of post-communism and of the systematic collapse of revolutionary ideologies, revolution is decidedly out of fashion. But why bother to show the contingency of intelligent life? Although creationism has been making a comeback in some of the more backward states, it does not seem to be having much of an impact anywhere but in some rural high school biology courses in what used to be called the Bible Belt. Questions concerning the status of any possible transcendent Being presumably behind the evolutionary process or as an alternative explanation for the origins of life are similarly no longer considered all that interesting and have not been raised too often in relation to discussions concerning evolutionary theory. The answer lies elsewhere. And here is where an examination of postmodernism may help shed some light on this puzzling new Fragestellung. If postmodernism has had an impact in just about every other scholarly field during the last couple of decades, it is not unreasonable to expect that, overtly or covertly, it may also have made some inroads into the seemingly remote disciplines of biology and paleontology.
This suspicion is not entirely unfounded. In fact, one of the main thrusts of postmodernism has been to insist on the contingency of Western civilization and its “arbitrary” character in order to challenge not only its implicit claims to universality but its very foundations—“Western metaphysics.” The inability of modernist ideologies to deal effectively with what have recently become the most burning social issues of the day (racism, sexism, ecology, etc.)—issues which only a couple of decades ago were safely subsumed and exorcised by ideologies such as Marxism under the general rubric of an exploitation readily remediable by means of a particular resolution of the traditional class struggle—has raised doubts concerning the entire edifice of Western civilization now accused of being logocentric, phallocratic, patriarchial, inextricably racist etc.
Historically, of course, many of these ideas are much older, going back to the pre-WWII reflections of thinkers such as Heidegger and Wittgenstein, who sought recourse to Being or the primacy of Lebensformen in order to go to the roots of what have only more recently exploded as major social issues. With Heidegger, the main problem was to find a solution to the crisis of Europe which exploded at the turn of the century with the collapse of what Carl Schmitt called the jus publicum Europœum and the earlier redefinition of international relations by the American Monroe Doctrine.5 Rather than analyzing the problem historically, in terms of the displacement of a Eurocentric perspective, Heidegger blamed it all on technology and its roots in Western civilization. He went back to a Being logically and historically prior to Western civilization in order to reground thinking itself on more stable foundations—foundations not susceptible to technological involutions. The resulting relativism, of course, delegitimated all traditional values in favor of an undetermined will whose radical freedom would allow it to go in all possible directions—including Nazism.
Wittgenstein's crisis was a more personal one. His homosexuality could in no way be reconciled with the predominant bourgeois, Judeo-Christian values which he proceeded to relativize in terms of a plurality of qualitatively different Lebensformen, all equally valid within their own contexts and irreducible to any hypostatized higher system.6 The result was roughly equivalent to Heidegger's: all norms are contingent and contextual, and no particular set can be deployed to judge or overshadow another. Once again, seemingly irresolvable problems of Western civilization were solved by throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
This is obviously not the place for any extensive critique of some of the more influential philosophies of the 20th century, especially since the only point here is to trace, grosso modo, the shifting character of socio-political agendas in the 1970s and 1980s, in order to offer a possible explanation for both the focus and theoretical quandaries of Gould's book. Yet, it is important to locate the historical and philosophical roots of a postmodernism which, after the demise of the New Left, has become generalized as a major cultural phenomenon affecting almost all scholarly disciplines as well as the latest configuration of “radical chic” politics. Why postmodernism has become so popular may have to do with the problems generated, but not yet resolved, by recent social changes precipitated by advanced industrial societies' rapid pace of rationalization. Only the three most significant disruptions need be mentioned here, without, however, elaborating on their extensive implications in any great detail: 1) the industrialization of the household and the resulting obsolescence of the primary traditional role of women as housewives; 2) the new negative demographic dynamics in advanced industrial societies, generated in part by the obsolescence of women's traditional roles, the technologization of the reproductive functions by means of new contraceptive technologies, and the integration of women in the previously predominant male workforce; and 3) the ecological crisis brought about by a greatly intensified exploitation of nature without fully knowing or taking account of its possible consequences.
Clearly, the traditional counterculture of modernism—Marxism—was not up to the new challenges since it tended to reduce all these problems to class conflicts and, consequently, was equally insensitive to the urgency of their solution—at least not sufficiently sensitive for those forced to bear the consequences of these momentous disruptions.7 Furthermore, given the new demographic dynamics, to the extent that much of the new labor power was now imported, class conflicts tended to translate into minority and racial problems not readily susceptible to traditional Marxist solutions. Thus, like modernity, Marxism had also become terminally obsolete.
Impatience with modernity's seeming inability to even adequately conceptualize these problems paved the way for the postmodernist alternative. But this alternative was peculiarly reminiscent of what it opposed, at least in the sense that it ontologized, in a paradigmatically Western way, the problems of Western civilization, to which it contraposed a radical relativism whose very formulation was possible only from the very same Western perspective it was meant to displace.8
Gould's theory of punctuated equilibria suffers a similar fate. Most of its alleged innovative features are not all that new since, as many commentators have repeatedly pointed out, they can be readily found in most of the illustrious predecessors he proceeds to attack and his genuine innovation, the positing of the radical contingency of the evolution of intelligent life is rather questionable. He does, however, manage to write highly entertaining accounts of evolutionary theory which tend to be all the more popular to the extent that they fall fully in step with predominant radical trends.
R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1945), p. 177.
Cf. N. R. Hanson, Patterns of Discovery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), pp. 37-49.
Cf. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1964). Even more relevant is the work of Karl Popper and Paul K. Feyerabend.
Robert Wright, “The Intelligence Test,” in The New Republic (January 29, 1990), pp. 28-36.
Cf. Carl Schmitt, Der Nomos der rde im Völkerrecht des Jus Publicum Europœum (1950) Second Edition (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1970).
See Albert W. Levi, “The Sources of Wittgenstein's Ethics,” in Telos 38 (Winter 1978-79), pp. 63-76.
Cf. Zygmunt Bauman, “The Left as the Counter-Culture of Modernity,” in Telos 70 (Winter 1986-87), pp. 81-93.
Cf. Gérard Raulet, “From Modernity as One-Way Street to Postmodernity as Dead End,” in New German Critique 33 (Fall 1984), pp. 155-178.
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SOURCE: Kohn, Marek. “Pick and Mix.” New Statesman and Society 237, no. 6 (29 January 1993): 49.
[In the following review, Kohn praises Gould's “spirit of intellectual generosity” in Eight Little Piggies.]
Looks like Hallucigenia wasn't such an apparition after all; merely upside down. The weirdest and most memorable of the fauna in the bestiary of the Burgess Shale, the trove of fossils about which Stephen Jay Gould wrote the award-winning Wonderful Life, has now been reinterpreted. It never quite made sense as an organism living anywhere more real than a Dr Who set, but it can be rationalised by a couple of assumptions and rotation through 180 degrees. This removes it from a class of its own, and places it neatly into a caterpillar-like group which stumps around certain damp regions of the southern hemisphere to this day.
Hallucigenia owes much of its celebrity to its name, the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” of taxonomy. Gould's own favourite name-bearer is Peripatus, which happens to be one of Hallucigenia's newly identified relatives. A shame that the fossil hallucination has vanished, he admits, but that is outweighed by the insight into Peripatus and its ilk.
This is knowledge to “revel” and “rejoice” in: Gould delights in having his error corrected. “The Reversal of Hallucigenia,” one of 31 essays in [Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History,] exemplifies the spirit of intellectual generosity that illuminates his vision of science.
Gould would not be the great science writer that he is if he were not also a great humanist. He questions not just radically, but sympathetically. In his essays on scientists, his purpose is to recover the “interesting and honorable” rather than to pay homage to the correct. By treating the individual with warmth and respect, he is able to celebrate science as a human endeavour—which means accepting the inevitable presence of vanity, folly and ideology.
Tellingly, not all his readers respond in the same spirit. At least one newspaper presented the reversal of Hallucigenia as though it had knocked the keystone from the arch of Wonderful Life, and thus from Gould's view of the history of life on earth. There are those who cannot stomach Gould's central theme of contingency. How eccentric, they think, to argue that humans are the product of historical circumstance; that if the wind had blown a different way, there would be nobody around to talk of destiny.
A sense of overarching purpose is by no means the sole preserve of the religious. It is the principal error of vulgar Darwinism too. Gould cites his favourite example from a newspaper popular science query column. “Why do humans have two breasts?” The answer given is that the optimal number is the normal number of offspring plus one, providing a safety margin without excessive costs.
But the basic organisational principle of our bodies is that features tend to come in pairs. That's just the way we are. Evolution does not impose optimal designs; it is “the science of history and its influence.” But we profoundly want to feel optimal, because being “right” is next door to having destiny, and not so far from being created in God's image.
One big drawback to being perfect would be that you'd have nothing to spare for future development. If each organ were perfectly configured for one task alone, as implied by the traditional idea of divine creation, nothing could change without damaging the organism. Where activities are shared between different structures, one can preserve vital functions while another evolves into something new. Redundancy is vitality.
The truth of that proposition is demonstrated by these essays both in argument and in form. The themes are familiar, as are some of the personalities and organisms; unsurprisingly, as this is the sixth collection from Gould's series in Natural History magazine. But just as a novelist may rework the same themes and characters productively, Gould only enriches the texture of his writing with each successive phase.
Darwin presides, as ever; incidental characters include Goethe, Mozart, and Archbishop Ussher, seen in his full roundness as a man of learning, not just as the man mocked by glib posterity for saying the world began on 23 October 4004 BC. Everybody recognises the weakness of that proposition, but not so many appreciate the truth at the heart of Gould's writing: that there's a lot more to evolution than natural selection.
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SOURCE: Gould, Stephen Jay, and John Horgan. “Escaping in a Cloud of Ink.” Scientific American 273, no. 2 (August 1995): 37-41.
[In the following interview, Gould discusses Marxism, science and truth, relativism, punctuated equilibrium, Darwinism versus creationism, and historical inquiry.]
Stephen Jay Gould hasn't even appeared yet, and already he has me guessing. Although the world-famous author and evolutionary biologist has taught at Harvard University since 1967, he asked me to meet him here in New York City, where he was born and raised and still keeps a home. Minutes earlier a woman in a French maid's uniform admitted me into a museumlike townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side. She leaves me to wait for Gould in a jewel box of a library with an original Warhol above the fireplace. The room is lined with old, leather-bound books devoted to such topics as the history of the Dutch Republic.
Even an intellectual as voracious as Gould, I feel certain, would never have cracked these books. He must have placed them here to provide a veneer of intellectuality. Could Gould, scourge of social Darwinism and all forms of genetic determinism, champion of those with low IQ, self-proclaimed baseball lover, be a status-symbol monger? What I find hardest to believe is not that Gould is a hypocrite but that he is a flagrant hypocrite.
Of course, he isn't. Gould makes his entrance in khaki pants and Oxford shirt, the rumpled professor studiously unconcerned with material appearances. When I remark on the beauty of his home, he informs me that it belongs not to him but to his fiancée, or, rather, to her ex-husband. It will soon be sold. Gould and his wife-to-be are moving downtown to a neighborhood and an apartment more to Gould's liking. “It is incredible, isn't it,” Gould agrees, his eyes sweeping across the room. His nose wrinkles, as if invaded by an unpleasant odor. “But it isn't me.”
So who is he, then? Gould has prohibited personal inquiries, but I am more curious about his intellectual psyche anyway. Most scientists take comfort in showing that our world is somehow inevitable, necessary. But throughout his career, Gould, now 53, has insisted that virtually nothing is inevitable. He revels in randomness, or, to use his preferred term, contingency.
Gould began staking out his turf in the 1960s by attacking the venerable doctrine of uniformitarianism, which held that the geophysical forces shaping the earth and life have been more or less constant. In 1972 he and Niles Eldredge of the American Museum of Natural History introduced punctuated equilibrium (also called “punk eek” and, by critics of Gould and Eldredge, “evolution by jerks”). The fossil record, they argued, does not support Darwin's view of evolution as a gradual, continuous unfolding; instead the evidence shows long periods of stasis “punctuated” by relatively rapid bursts of speciation. In subsequent papers Gould and Eldredge contended that speciation must stem not only from natural selection operating at the level of individuals, as conventional Darwinian theory would have it, but also from more complex, contingent factors.
Gould's great bugbear is lack of originality. Darwin himself, critics of punctuated equilibrium like to point out, recognized that evolution might have a variable pace. Something about Gould's authorial style also provokes his detractors—and he has legions—to speculate about hidden agendas. Does his antipathy to genetic determinism stem from Marxist leanings? Is he a closet relativist, who believes science is merely a projection of its culture? Is he engaged in some Oedipal tussle with Darwin? One of Gould's longtime sparring partners, Edward O. Wilson, who also works at Harvard's magnificent Museum of Comparative Zoology, has warned me that pinning Gould down is difficult. “Steve uses the squid tactic,” Wilson explains. “When attacked, he escapes in a cloud of ink.”
Gould is as squidlike in person as on paper. He talks in a rapid-fire murmur, laying out even the most complex argument with an ease that hints at vast knowledge held in reserve. He decorates his discourse, like his writings, with quotations, which he prefaces with, “Of course, you know the famous remark of—” He often appears distracted, as if he is not paying attention to his own words. I have the impression that mere speech is not enough to engage him fully; higher-level programs of his mind roam ahead, conducting reconnaissance, trying to anticipate possible objections to his discourse, searching for new lines of argument, analogies, quotations.
When I ask about early influences, Gould acknowledges having been inspired by Thomas S. Kuhn's notorious Structure of Scientific Revolutions. According to Kuhn, the history of science consists of periods of calm, “normal” research, during which workers are in thrall to a single paradigm, sporadically interrupted by revolutions; then scientists who are usually young and un-indoctrinated force their colleagues to yield to a new paradigm for reasons that are often arational. Structure led Gould to hope that he, a young man from a lower-middle-class family in Queens whose parents were not college graduates, could make an important contribution to science. The book also helped him to reject the “inductivist, ameliorative, progressive, add-a-fact-at-a-time-don't-theorize-till-you're-old model of doing science.”
When I ask Gould if he believes, as Kuhn does, that science does not advance toward truth, Gould denies that Kuhn holds such a position. “I know him, obviously,” Gould says of Kuhn, a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Although Kuhn is the “intellectual father” of the relativists, he nonetheless realizes that “there's an objective world out there,” Gould asserts, and that “we have a better sense of what it is now than we did centuries ago.”
Science is much too boring, Gould continues, for any scientist to be a true cultural relativist. “You've got to clean the mouse cages and titrate your solutions, and you've got to clean your petri dishes.” No one could endure such tedium unless he or she thought it would lead to “greater empirical adequacy.”
Gould glides past queries on Marx just as easily. He admits he finds some of Marx's ideas compatible with his own. Marx viewed social change as occurring in the “punctuational mode, in which you accumulate small insults to the system until the system itself breaks.” I hardly have to ask the next question: Is Gould, or was he ever, a Marxist?
“You just remember what Marx said,” Gould replies before my mouth has closed. Marx himself, Gould “reminds” me, once argued he was not a Marxist, because Marxism had become too many things to too many people. No intellectual, Gould explains, wants to identify himself too closely with any “ism,” especially one that has become so capacious. Moreover, Marx “really got caught up in notions of predestiny and determinism, particularly in theories of history, which I think ought to be completely contingent. I really think he's dead wrong on that.”
So Gould is neither a relativist nor a Marxist. Is he a Darwinian? Trying to ease into the topic, I recall that in their original 1972 paper Gould and Eldredge referred to punctuated equilibrium as an “alternative” to Darwin's gradualism. In a 1993 retrospective they call it merely a “complement.” Does this word change represent some sort of concession to Darwin's supremacy? “I didn't write that!” Gould exclaims. John Maddox, the editor of Nature, stuck “complement” in the paper's headline without checking with the authors. “I'm mad at him about that,” Gould fumes.
He then proceeds to argue that alternative and complement do not have such different meanings. “If you claim something is an alternative, that doesn't mean it operates exclusively,” he says. “I think punctuated equilibrium has an overwhelmingly dominant frequency in the fossil record, which means gradualism exists, but it's not really important in the overall pattern of things.”
Darwin “had the answer right about the basic interrelationships of organisms,” Gould concedes, but “that's only a beginning”; evolutionary biologists had other crucial issues to explore. Such as? “Oh, there are so many I don't know where to start,” Gould responds. Theorists still had to determine the “full panoply of causes” underlying the history of life, from molecules on up to large populations of organisms. Then there are “all these contingencies,” such as the asteroid impacts that are thought to cause mass extinctions. “So I would say causes, strengths of causes, levels of causes and contingency.” He muses a moment. “That's not a bad formulation,” he says, whereupon he removes a little notebook from his shirt pocket and scribbles in it.
Further, Darwinism might be superseded by some greater theory, just as Newtonian mechanics was by quantum mechanics. “The evolution of life on this planet may turn out to be a very small part of the phenomenon of life,” he says. So Gould believes that life exists elsewhere in the universe? “Don't you?” he counters. I tell him I think the question is entirely a matter of opinion. To my delight, Gould winces; for once, he has been caught off guard.
Yes, of course, the existence of life elsewhere is a matter of opinion, he snaps, but one can still engage in informed speculation. Life seems to have emerged rather readily here on the earth, since the oldest rocks that could show evidence of life do show such evidence. “The immensity of the universe, and the improbability of absolute uniqueness of any part of it, leads to the immense probability that there is some kind of life all over.”
But like a rebellious son who rails at his own father yet bristles when others do so, Gould can also be fiercely protective of Darwin. He recalls with great satisfaction how in the 1970s he exposed the “lies” of creationists who had seized on punctuated equilibrium as an indication that the theory of evolution was not universally accepted. Gould has also dealt harshly with some scientific challenges to mainstream Darwinism—such as Gaia, the notion that all species somehow cooperate to perpetuate their mutual survival. “Gaia is just a metaphor,” he says. “I don't see anything causal in Gaia.”
Gould is similarly suspicious of the nascent field of artificial life. While intrigued by the potential of computers for exploring alternative evolutionary scenarios, he worries that some artificial lifers are too prone to see evolution in mathematical terms. “Oh, you know Bertrand Russell's famous comment,” Gould says. Russell, he enlightens me, once remarked that he wanted to understand “‘the Pythagorean power with which number holds sway above the flux.’ Isn't that a great line?” Gould repeats it, with even more relish. “It's a very deep philosophical position, but I also think it's very deeply wrong,” Gould chuckles.
My allotted time with Gould is almost up, and I am still unsure who he is. As far as I can tell, his view of life can be summed up in the old bumper-sticker aphorism: Shit Happens. Gould, of course, puts it more elegantly. Many scientists, he notes, distinguish between science, which involves the unveiling of universal laws, and history, which deals with particulars and contingency. “I think that's a false taxonomy. History is a different type of science.” Gould admits that he finds the fuzziness of history, its resistance to straightforward analysis, exhilarating. “I love it! That's because I'm a historian at heart.”
Perhaps this is the key to understanding Gould. If the history of life is a bottomless quarry of factoids, he and other scientists can keep mining it forever without worrying that their efforts have become trivial or redundant. That is certainly Gould's hope. For more than a decade, he has been working on a massive treatise called The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. He hopes to finish the book, which is already more than 1,000 pages long, by next spring. Will Gould, having released this vast cloud of ink, then turn to other intellectual pursuits? “Oh, evolutionary theory is so expansive,” he says with a serene smile, “there's enough there to keep anyone going for a lifetime.”
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SOURCE: Alessio, Carolyn. “Evolutionary Ideas.” Chicago Tribune Books (3 March 1996): 9.
[In the following review, Alessio compliments the essays in Dinosaur in a Haystack.]
True or false: The shells of most snails coil to the left (sinistrally). False, according to Stephen Jay Gould in Dinosaur in a Haystack, the latest volume in his collection of monthly columns from Natural History magazine. Most snails' shells coil dextrally, or to the right, Gould says, despite the tendency of 17th century engravers to illustrate them in reverse. Gould examines this phenomenon in light of evolutionary history and its often unpredictable intersection with convention and circumstance. Engravers may have carved most organisms backwards, he theorizes, but we only notice the result for snails and for a few other asymmetrical creatures. “Such near universality,” Gould says, “might be regarded as a worthwhile convenience.”
The orientation of snails' coils is only one of the naturalistic subjects Gould examines in the 34 essays of Dinosaur in a Haystack. Gould, a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, museum curator and Harvard professor, has published more than 13 books, seven of them collections of his Natural History columns. As in Gould's previous volumes, the essays in Dinosaur in a Haystack examine evolution in relation to a cornucopia of disciplines such as history, literature, music, art, astronomy, botany and zoology. An avid Darwinist, Gould characterizes evolution as the “most exciting and the most portentous natural truth that science has ever discovered.”
At the center of Gould's evolutionary approach is punctuated equilibrium, a revolutionary theory about the origin and history of species that he co-developed with Niles Eldredge in 1972. Gould defines punctuated equilibrium as the theory that the majority of evolutionary history is characterized by stability interrupted by brief spurts of evolutionary change and speciation. This idea of “stasis as data” contrasts radically with the long-held idea of “progress as an organizing principle.”
Gould doesn't confine his theory of punctuated equilibrium to his scientific work. The concept also seems to metaphorically shape Dinosaur in a Haystack.
The majority of essays are benign discussions, replete with trivia. Punctuating these pleasant but staid essays are riveting examinations of trends that misrepresent or pervert the tenets of Darwin. The latter category, most evident in the essays on dinosaurs and eugenics, reveals a Gould who is least sentimental and compromising, both in language and in thought. Ironically, in these essays Gould comes closest to his self-proclaimed goal of writing for “professionals and lay readers alike—an old tradition, by the way, in science writing from Galileo to Darwin, though effectively lost today.”
In “Dinomania,” one of the most comprehensive and unsettling essays, Gould begins with the current craze for dinosaurs and the 1993 film Jurassic Park, then links them to the larger themes of evolution and the ethical responsibility to portray dinosaurs accurately to the public: “For paleontologists, Jurassic Park is both our greatest opportunity and our most oppressive incubus—a spur for unparalleled general interest in our subject, and the source of a commercial flood that may truly extinguish dinosaurs by turning them from sources of awe into cliches and commodities.”
Gould worries about scientific errors advanced in the film. Though he commends writer Michael Crichton on his clever and realistic plot—making living dinosaurs out of DNA extracted from dinosaur blood preserved within mosquitoes and amber—Gould strenuously objects to the genetic engineers' use in the story of modern frog DNA to fill in the missing spaces in their dinosaur programs. Not only is such an operation genetically impossible, Gould says, but this scientific lapse indicates a drastic misunderstanding of evolution and Darwinism. Frogs and dinosaurs are not even close evolutionary relatives, and further, Gould points out, evolutionary “closeness” involves timing of branching on the tree of life, not external appearances.
Evolutionary misunderstandings aren't always confined to film and entertainment, according to Gould. In “The Most Unkindest Cut of All,” the book's most disturbing essay, Gould examines the Wannsee Protocol, a document in which the Nazis horrendously misused evolutionary biology and genetics. Written on the 50th anniversary of the protocol, this essay dissects the 1942 document's false expropriation of the term “natural selection” to justify Hitler's plan for the “final solution of the Jewish question.”
As a Darwinist, Gould is doubly appalled by the misappropriation. He notes that the theory of natural selection has endured a long history of “bogus” Darwinian formulations. Collectively called “social Darwinism,” these misinterpretations are often used to rationalize social exploitation. But the Wannsee Protocol's use of “natural selection” startled even Gould:
To think that the key phrase of my professional world lies so perversely violated in the very heart of the chief operative paragraph in the most evil document ever written! What symbol of misuse could possibly be more powerful?
Many of the essays in Dinosaur in a Haystack consider less tragic topics, and there Gould displays a more equivocal tone. Overall, one might compare his essays to the ornate Victorian museums that he exalts, resplendent in bounty and scope, but with overcrowded specimen cabinets that can bewilder the average visitor.
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SOURCE: Oakeshott, Robert. “The Charm of the Even Queerer.” Spectator 277, no. 8766 (20 July 1996): 31.
[In the following review, Oakeshott offers a positive assessment of Dinosaur in a Haystack.]
When and why was the column—or more accurately the puzzle strip—‘Believe it or Not’ by Ripley, axed by the Sunday Express? From memory, it relied quite heavily on reports of prodigies of one kind and another, though with more two-headed chickens than young Mozarts. At boarding school in the 1940s I became rather an addict and can't believe I am the only one among Spectator readers in that age group.
In the same genre, though at a somewhat more high-brow level, are various anthologies collected by the late Lieutenant Commander R. T. Gould. As others of my age group among Spectator readers will doubtless again recall, this Gould (as opposed to the author of the book under review) was a fairly regular performer on the Brains Trust, also in the 1940s. His anthologies have attention-grabbing titles like Oddities and Enigmas, though I have to say that I was slightly disappointed with the contents of one of them that I lately borrowed from the London Library: slightly but not wholly. For example, for those who don't know it, I recommend his explanation of the Indian Rope Trick: the rope is really ‘jointed wooden rods with a flexible cover.’ But it's the detail, such as his ‘interlocking cone joints,’ which make the explanation memorable.
Does anyone write, does any publisher publish, such anthologies these days? I'd be pleased to hear about them if the answer is ‘yes.’ But whatever the answer to that, I can most strongly recommend, for those who have not yet come across them, the different—but still, I fancy, just adjacent—anthologies of a rather different Gould. The author of Dinosaur in a Haystack is not a retired Lieutenant Commander RN. In fact he's neither ex-service nor indeed British. As many readers will surely know, he is a professor of both geology and zoology—the link is supplied by his secondary school nickname, ‘fossil face’—at Harvard, as well as being the Curator for Invertebrate Palaeontology in that university's Museum of Comparative Zoology.
If you haven't read Gould's Wonderful Life, his account of the quite astonishing fossils in the so-called Burgess Shale, and if you have any sort of curiosity about what are surely our queerest ancestors in the pre-mammalian evolutionary record, then there is a splendid intellectual and natural history treat waiting for you. That is a full book-length case study. Dinosaur in a Haystack is not that, but essentially an anthology of case studies. As the author tells us in the introduction, it is the seventh in a continuing series. The case studies, perhaps better the scientific essays, which make them up, originate in monthly pieces by Gould in the US periodical, Natural History. There are a total of 34, so they span his monthly output over roughly a three-year period. In one of the most exciting, which deals with the amphibious and terrestrial ancestors of the great warm-blooded whales, Gould allows himself to add a ‘stop press’ epilogue to his original piece.
Of course, even for addicts like me, not all of Gould's pieces have a level of interest equal to the best. Nevertheless, Dinosaur in a Haystack is a true Box of Delights, to borrow a Masefield title. There are far more that I would strongly recommend than I have space to mention. Among the top pieces for me is the one already noted, ‘Hooking Leviathan by its Past,’ which explores the pre-maritime history of our ocean whales and sees off with splendid elegance what is evidently one of the most often repeated creationist objections to evolution.
The second in the collection resurrects from his normal obscurity the sixth-century abbot Dionysius Exiguus, who was in effect responsible for the consequential decision that our era should start from year 1 rather than year 0. I recommend it strongly, despite a failed attempt at a joke in its title and the risk that millennium buffs who read it may become millennium bores. Especially because of T. H. Huxley's verse eulogy to the poet—‘And lay him gently down among / The men of state, the men of song’—I found the piece on ‘Tennyson and Science’ (‘The Tooth and Claw Centennial’) a real delight. Finally, for me, there is a memorable highlight in the first essay, when Gould contrasts the beautiful mathematics of Galileo's universe with the incommensurability of the earth's daily rotation and its annual passage round the sun. The latter necessarily prefigures further changes in our leap year arrangements if the earth survives for no more than about another 4,000 years. But then that contrast is a wonderful example of what the great biologist J. B. S. Haldane was pointing to in the second of two of his most famous aphorisms which Gould rightly prizes. Almost everyone knows the first of those: about the Almighty's inordinate fondness for beetles. At least as good as a sign-off line is a sentence from a piece by the great man entitled Possible Worlds and published in 1927:
My suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose but queerer than we can suppose.
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SOURCE: Wheeler, David L. “An Eclectic Biologist Argues That Humans Are Not Evolution's Most Important Result; Bacteria Are.” Chronicle of Higher Education 43, no. 2 (6 September 1996): A23.
[In the following review, Wheeler examines Gould's opinions about the limits of natural selection in Full House.]
Stephen Jay Gould's brain could be viewed as the product of a few billion years of evolution, but he is using it these days to argue that progress isn't inherent in the evolutionary process.
Humans, he says, shouldn't be regarded as evolution's most important invention. “I don't deny that the consciousness of one species has had a profound impact on the planet,” he says. “But that doesn't change the fact that it is still one species, one lineage out of millions and billions, and therefore a very curious, unpredictable result that has just happened to have occurred once.
“Run the story a hundred more times and you might get multicellular complexity often,” he says, “but I don't think you would get self-conscious creatures arising very frequently. You might not even get land that has been colonized.”
Dr. Gould, a professor of geology and zoology at Harvard University, combines that argument with many others in his new book, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin He teaches a popular Harvard undergraduate course on the “History of Earth and Life” and is often credited with being the chief explainer of evolutionary biology to popular audiences.
PLAYING POKER WITH READERS
At the beginning of the book, he imagines that he is playing poker with his readers. If they persist through the tough passages, he writes, they will be rewarded with an insight at the end—maybe even a hand that beats his full house.
Dr. Gould also uses the term “full house” to describe how he likes to view variation, whether in batting averages or brachiopods, a phylum of marine invertebrates. Researchers, he says, should stop thinking that they can sum up populations in single numbers, such as averages or extremes. Instead, he says, they should look at the whole flowing spectrum of variation—the bell-shaped curve that so often describes populations.
His most personal encounter with the danger of averages occurred, he says, in 1982, when he read that the median time until death following a diagnosis of the cancer he had—abdominal mesothelioma—was eight months. He is now considered to be in remission.
A DOT THAT COULD DISAPPEAR
Viewed in the “full house” context, he argues, humans should think of themselves not as the rulers of the planet, but as a species that is living in the “Age of Bacteria.” Humans are simply a dot on one side of the curve of biological complexity, he says—a dot that could easily disappear. Bacteria, though, are the most populous organisms on earth, living at the bottom of the ocean, in human mouths, on the surface of hot coals, in puddles on glaciers. Bacteria, he says, are the root of the tree of life and have formed the entirety of life for half of its history. “I've never studied bacteria,” he says, “so it's not as if I am elevating a favorite creature.”
Much of Dr. Gould's own scientific work has, in fact, focused on snails. But he has written broadly about subjects ranging from baseball to Beethoven. He is the Cal Ripken, Jr., of essayists, with an unbroken streak of columns in the monthly Natural History magazine. Sitting in his apartment in SoHo (he goes to Harvard for the spring semester), he pulls out a pocket calendar to check which one he is working on now—it's number 263. He's also the author or editor of 15 books, many of them collections of his essays. The Mismeasure of Man, Dr. Gould's book on pseudo-scientific forms of racism, won a National Book Critic's Circle Award. In the works is a long, scholarly book on evolution; he has written 1,200 pages so far and says it should be out before the turn of the century. It will be “my analysis of the Darwinian traditions and where they need to be enlarged,” he says.
The windowless office in his apartment looks like a librarian's fantasy. It is lined with dark wood paneling and shelves filled with things he loves: Victorian books with marbled covers, scientific journals, autographed baseballs. A ladder rolls around the room to allow access to the upper shelves.
On a small table sits an I.B.M. typewriter. Dr. Gould doesn't use a computer to write. “I know what I want to say when I sit down to write,” he explains. Besides, he says, “I have the world's best secretary.”
He has plenty of opinions, too. Dinosaurs are “overexposed.” The life-on-Mars research is “probably wrong.” Most psychologists who attempt to apply evolutionary principles to the brain are “taking a very interesting neurological principle about brain modularity and bastardizing it in a reductionistic manner.”
Even his critics grant that Dr. Gould is popular with lay readers, but this has also made him a favorite target of attack. In The New York Review of Books last year, John Maynard Smith, a prominent British evolutionary theorist, said of him that “the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists.”
TED WILLIAMS'S BATTING AVERAGE
Dr. Gould doesn't usually take on his critics directly in his books, preferring instead to explain his own ideas. In Full House, he returns to baseball, a favorite subject. Since Ted Williams batted.406 for the Boston Red Sox in 1941, no hitter has passed the.400 mark in a full season, he notes. Baseball scholars and statisticians have tried to attribute this failure to better gloves for fielding, more-scientific managing, or tougher playing conditions, like the preponderance of night games. But for Dr. Gould, the disappearance of.400 hitting is the result of a general improvement in the caliber of play, which has resulted in shrinking variation in batting averages. The curve that describes the averages has pulled in tightly around the middle, and the extreme that used to represent those over.400 has disappeared, he says.
Focusing in this way on a single number, like the.400 batting average, can make it impossible to spot a trend, he argues. “Here you have a phenomenon that's very much discussed by a lot of very smart people,” he says. “There are a hundred theories out there about why no one hits.400 anymore, but they are all backwards, because they are all based on the unquestioned assumption that.400 hitting is a thing that went away.”
‘WALL OF MINIMAL COMPLEXITY’
When this perspective is applied to the history of life, Dr. Gould says, the importance of bacteria emerges. A similar pattern, he says, would also apply to other planets that may harbor life.
The curve of biological complexity, he says, has a “left wall of minimal complexity,” because life can be only so simple and still be life. But the curve's “right tail,” of extreme complexity, grows out quite accidentally and is not the result of an automatic ascension, he argues. “It's only rarely you get a funny little right tail of complex organisms like us.”
Some of the themes in Full House have been introduced in Dr. Gould's earlier writing, and some have been criticized by other evolutionary biologists. Dr. Gould is a participant in a decades-old scholarly debate that is described by his friend Niles Eldredge, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, in Reinventing Darwin: Debate at the High Table of Evolutionary Theory.
Put simply, some scientists, sometimes labeled “ultra-Darwinists,” believe that natural selection working on genetic variation in populations—the principle often popularly conceived of as “survival of the fittest”—is all that is needed to explain how life has evolved. Other embellishments are not necessary, they say. Dr. Gould and many other scientists favor a more pluralistic approach to explain the history of life. “Natural selection is simply not the only true cause of evolutionary events out there,” he says. To insist on that, he says, “is a bizarre, reductionistic way of looking at the world.”
GENETICISTS VS. PALEONTOLOGISTS
The debate often has pitted population geneticists against paleontologists—fossil experts like Dr. Gould. The geneticists, Dr. Eldredge notes, have taken the attitude that paleontologists shouldn't even try to make theoretical contributions. Dr. Smith, the British scientist, once wrote in the journal Nature that the reaction of a population geneticist to a paleontologist who talks about evolutionary theory is “to tell him to go away and find another fossil, and not to bother the grownups.”
Dr. Gould and many other paleontologists believe that the fossil record shows that forces other than natural selection—five mass extinctions, for example—also have shaped the history of life. Individual species can remain relatively unchanged and new species may not appear for long periods of equilibrium, but sudden periods of rapid branching into new species can occur, he says. Dr. Gould and Dr. Eldredge refer to this pattern as “punctuated equilibrium,” a term they introduced in a 1972 paper. Dr. Gould says he never made any claims that the theory overturned the basic tenets of Darwinism, but still it has drawn considerable rhetorical fire.
THE DARWINIAN PARADIGM
Daniel Dennett, a philosopher and a professor of arts and sciences at Tufts University, is a strong believer in the basic Darwinian paradigm of natural selection (The Chronicle, May 17). He spent much of two chapters of his 1995 book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, attacking Dr. Gould's arguments on punctuated equilibrium and other topics. Dr. Dennett says he felt that unless he dealt with Dr. Gould's arguments, his own opinions wouldn't be taken seriously. “I had to put in a pre-emptive strike,” he says. “I had to show people I wasn't ignorant.”
Dr. Dennett agrees with Dr. Gould that a global pathway to progress isn't built into evolution. But he does believe that the improvements of species in local environments result in good designs—such as wings, eyes, and brains—that can be predicted. “Replay the tape a thousand times, and the Good Tricks will be found again and again, by one lineage or another,” he writes.
Dr. Gould is eager to respond. “Dennett says biology is engineering,” he says. “I'll grant him clarity, at least.”
He rises from his armchair and leaves the circle of light cast by a lamp to pull Dr. Dennett's book off a shelf. He thumbs through it to find the relevant passage: “Biology is not just like engineering; it is engineering. It is the study of functional mechanisms: their design, construction, and operation,” he reads aloud.
A lot of biology is engineering, Dr. Gould agrees, and a lot of the engineering is done by natural selection, just as Dr. Dennett and others insist.
“But that isn't why you have 500,000 species of beetles and 50 species of priapulids [a category of worms],” he says, settling back into his chair. Just because the beetles have branched into new species faster than other organisms doesn't mean they are designed better, he argues.
Mass extinctions have had an enormous influence in steering the course of evolution, he believes. “The only reason we are sitting here today,” he says, is that an asteroid “blasted the dinosaurs out, and the mammals got through.”
Those who look at evolution through the lens of engineering are going to miss things, he says. “You can't explain flying by looking at the problem of flying. The first wings weren't developed to fly. They arose not as adaptations but as side consequences. We read and write and compose operas not because we were designed to do that by evolution. It is a side consequence of a big, good brain.”
It's time for Dr. Gould and his brain to head for the CNN studio in New York to react to the news that life—bacterial life—might once have existed on Mars. He is surprised when he looks outside and sees that it is raining. He heads for the subway, trying to flag down a cab as he goes, but they are in short supply.
On the street, a man with black sideburns shaved to look like thunderbolts strides past a woman wearing a ring that pierces one eyebrow.
The whole population looks different from the extremes, however. Along comes a paunchy, balding guy in a blue button-down shirt, jeans, and hiking boots. Full house.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1238
SOURCE: Alexander, R. McNeill. “The Game of Life.” New Scientist 152, no. 2050 (5 October 1996): 46-7.
[In the following review, Alexander focuses on Gould's views about trends in evolution in Full House and the problems associated with interpreting means, averages, and statistics.]
Diagnosed as suffering from abdominal mesothelioma, Stephen Gould went to the library to read about the disease. There he found the statistic that the median time from diagnosis to death was eight months. His case sounded hopeless until he wondered why the median was given, rather than the mean. The reason, he surmised, was that a few long-term survivors were skewing the probability of dying to the right. Plainly, the distribution could not extend far to the left (no one survives for less than zero time after diagnosis), but it might extend to the right over many decades. Happily, Gould's place was on the right tail of a strongly skewed distribution, and one improved by recent advances in treatment.
His new book Full House is about strongly skewed distributions and their implications for the concept of progress, in baseball and evolution. In baseball, a batting average for the season of 0.400 is exceedingly good. The best professional players before 1930 frequently achieved 0.400 averages, but no one has done so since 1941. Gould tells us that we should not conclude that his countrymen are not the men they used to be (indeed, it would be very odd if standards in baseball were falling in contrast to the manifest improvement of performances in athletics). He finds that the authorities have fiddled with the rules from time to time to keep the mean of the distribution fairly constant at 0.260, so the mean tells us nothing about standards. The standard deviation has fallen steadily over the past century, however, a trend that he attributes to improved standards. If the mean is held constant artificially while the standard deviation falls, the scores of the very best players in successive years can be expected to fall.
The discussion of baseball may be read for its own sake, but many readers are likely to value it more for the light it throws by analogy on the largest theme of Full House, the concept of progress in evolution. Gould attacks the perversity of the traditional view of progress through an Age of Invertebrates and an Age of Reptiles to an Age of Mammals in which, despite the name, most individual organisms are bacteria and most species are beetles. He prefers not to focus on the mammals at the right tail of the skewed distribution of complexity, but to look at the whole range.
The modern horse is often thought of as a pinnacle of perfection, the culmination of evolution of grazing, running mammals. Gould is less complimentary. He sees Equus as a remnant of a remnant, the sole surviving genus of a formerly successful family within an order, the Perissodactyla, that has fallen on hard times. The history of horse evolution is not a study of progress, but a tale of a promising start leading to ultimate failure. It starts with Hyracotherium, a terrier-sized animal with many toes on each foot and low-crowned teeth. A path leads from it through a complex evolutionary tree of many, diverse species to the sole survivors: large modern horses with a single toe on each foot and high-crowned grazing teeth.
This may seem like inexorable progress if we ignore fossil genera that are off the main line of evolution to Equus, but we think of that line as the main one only because Equus is the genus that happens to have survived. If the survivor were Nanippus (small and three-toed, it became extinct only 2 million years ago) our impression of the progress of horse evolution would be very different.
Gould's new book is an expanded version of the presidential address that he gave to the Paleontological Society in 1987. He showed then that apparent trends in the sizes of foraminiferans and the brains of mammals are better viewed as expanding variance with a fixed lower limit of size, rather than as trends of increasing size. Since then others have joined him in refusing to see evolution as steady progress. Gould tells us how Bruce McFadden in 1988 analysed the history of the horses and found a complex pattern of branching with many reversals of direction. He describes how Dan McShea, in a series of papers since 1992, has found no consistent trend to complexity in the evolution of backbones. He also describes what is perhaps the most telling of these examples—G. Boyajian and T. Lutz's analysis in 1992 of the evolution of ammonite shells. These have sutures that make simple curves in the earliest fossils, but became on average increasingly complex as evolution progressed. Boyajian and Lutz used fractal dimension as an objective measure of complexity, and compared ancestors with their identified descendants. Rather than a general trend to increased complexity, they found a tangled web of lines in which complexity decreased as often as it rose, with simple-sutured shells present throughout. If the starting point is the simplest possible structure, evolution will result in increasing mean complexity even if lines of descent are random walks.
The same sort of thing happened on a larger scale, in the evolution of the whole range of living things. The starting point was inevitably simple, probably the simplest structure consistent with life. Starting from there, diversification could result only in the appearance of more complex forms. If increased complexity is seen as advance (which it by no means always is), the course of evolution must seem like progress. But we should remember that simple bacteria persist in immense numbers and formidable biomass. The message is important for professional biologists, but Gould's new book is as accessible to intelligent general readers as its predecessors, in all respects but one; a rudimentary knowledge of baseball will be an advantage.
Gould's message is that it is commonly misleading to focus on the most “advanced” or complex organisms at the extreme right of the frequency distribution. Rather, we should look at the whole distribution, the spread of excellence. It is an important message with great potential for redirecting our thoughts, but I hope we will not heed it all the time. We should often think in the way he advocates, of diversification rather than directional change, but we should not abandon the adaptationist view that is presented so strongly in Richard Dawkins's Climbing Mount Improbable (Review, 27 April, p 48). There are contexts in which we should focus on the extremes and reflect on the modern horse as the ultimate (so far) running mechanism. Gould himself focuses shamelessly on the tail of the frequency distribution when he enthuses about baseball players.
Like other important statements on evolution, Gould's message has potential for misunderstanding. He emphasises that, if there is a limit at one edge of the range of possibilities, diversification can be expected to shift the mean. A drunkard staggering on the pavement must eventually fall into the gutter because the houses on the other side prevent him from falling that way. Creationists will probably tell us that Gould sees evolution as a drunkard's random walk, and has presented a more extreme view than ever before of perfection being generated by chance. But Gould is not telling us that the diversity of life is the product of undirected chance, merely that the distribution of complexity that we see is no evidence of a persistent, directed trend.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3375
SOURCE: Jones, Steve. “Up against the Wall.” New York Review of Books 43, no. 16 (17 October 1996): 33-4.
[In the following review, Jones criticizes Dinosaur in a Haystack as informative but irritating and discusses Gould's “spread of excellence” concept in Full House.]
Stephen Jay Gould on a bad day can be the Lincoln Continental of science writing—ponderous, well upholstered, and designed to travel in a straight line. Comfortable, certainly; assured—no one can doubt that—and if you turn on the radio you are certain to get grand opera; but, somehow, well, just too Executive Style, too Harvard Yard, to sell anywhere except in America.
His latest pair of books, though, shows evidence of a dramatic shift in design. Dinosaur in a Haystack, published last winter and the seventh in his series of miscellaneous pieces collected from Natural History magazine, sits firmly among the whitewall tire school of essayists. The new volume, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, is a far more radical work. In it, Stephen Jay Gould uses a lifetime obsession with baseball, a close call with cancer, and an enormous knowledge of the history of life to build a case that links sport, disease, statistics, and evolution into a seamless narrative and—although as a fellow science writer I say it through somewhat clenched teeth—he does so brilliantly.
First, however, those haystack-dwelling dinosaurs. It is easy to be needled by this book, which treads a fine line between polymathy and self-parody. Suppressing ignoble thoughts of card indices and the Internet, we gazing rustics cannot but be astonished by Gould's continuing avalanche of words. How, indeed, can one head carry all he knows? As Gould points out in the preface, he is not a modest man. He ascribes his success as a feuilletonist to “one great gift from nature's preeminent goddess, Fortuna—a happy conjunction of my own hypertrophy with maximal utility in a central professional activity. … I can always find legitimate and unforced connections among the disparate details.” Diligencia and Amor helped too.
Gould's pride in understanding the plot of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera is evident, as is his pleasure in being able to read a Latin dedication or finding a tie between the stoneless plum and US immigration policy. (Luther Burbank, who developed the plum, was also a “liberal” eugenicist who, in contrast to the conservatives who campaigned against migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, welcomed the prospect of combining them in a new American hybrid.) One of the few lapses to which Gould is willing to admit is “by-passing a youthful opportunity to learn the Papiamentu creole of Curaçao.”
All this can be—frequently is—irritating. The range of topics is as eclectic as ever and the paragraphs speed effortlessly by; but somehow, rather like driving across the Great Plains, for most of the time we seem not to be going anywhere special. There is, of course, plenty of instruction, well seasoned by anecdote, on the way. Medieval thinkers didn't actually believe the earth was flat: that was a myth invented by nineteenth-century rationalists anxious to mock the established church; and the phrase “sweetness and light” comes from an Aesopian fable on the bee. What is more, evolution happened in three fits and a start (sudden bursts of change separated by eons of tedium; a theme often returned to in these writings) and the naming of new dinosaurs shows surprising signs of political correctness. Out goes Pachycephalosaurus, in comes Maiasaura: for the terrible lizards, thick bonehead gave way to earth mother as soon as Jurassic Park boosted their image.
Some essays stand on their own. Edgar Allan Poe is thought of more as an artist of the macabre than of the malacological; but Gould points out that Poe's only volume to be reprinted during his lifetime is the unjustly neglected Conchologist's First Book: or, A System of Testaceous Malacology, arranged Expressly for the Use of Schools. Gould (himself no mean mollusc man) proves neatly that this is a work of plagiarism extracted by Poe, with the collusion of one author but not the others, from several separate sources. The same tenacity in chasing down original documents is manifest elsewhere. Everyone knows about the Wannsee Conference and most are aware of the link between Hitler's eugenic views and the science of the time. It took Gould to go to the Protocol summarizing the conference's conclusions to find in it a perverse argument on racial purity based on Mendel and a precise Darwinian statement that those Jews who might survive the hard treatment of the camps should be killed as they are “the product of natural selection” and hence likely to fight back if set free.
In the end, though, dinosaurs, in haystacks or out of them (the title comes from the search for a very few bones in a very large expanse of rock at the end of what Gould would not call the Age of the Giant Reptiles) must surely not be far from having run their allotted course. Two more volumes are promised before the close of the present millennium. The Age of the Mammoth Essay, woolly or otherwise, will then be over.
Stephen Jay Gould as a scientific writer has certainly not come to the end of his evolutionary road. Full House breaks new ground in combining exemplary popular science with a new insight into the nature of evolution. Gould himself sees it as exceptional. The book is his “most beloved child,” nurtured for fifteen years. In it, for the first time in the history of science writing, he succeeds in making statistics interesting.
Baseball plays a central part in the argument (and is not, as in too many of his earlier essays, a mere decoration of it). In 1941, Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox attained a seasonal batting average of.406—the first player to break.400 since 1930—and the last ever to attain that starry height. In the years before 1930, such averages were commonplace—but sixteen years after his annus mirabilis even Ted Williams could do no better than.388 (his second highest lifetime tally). Since Pearl Harbor, these high scores have simply disappeared. It is—is it not?—the old story: the noble game become squalid, immersed in cash, lacking in dedication; a perfect illustration of the universal complaint of the middle-aged that things aren't what they used to be.
The slump is not restricted to the United States. A glance at the cricket figures gives just the same picture. The high scorers of the late nineteenth century are simply not around in such numbers today. Cricket is just one example of Britain's apparent decay. My entire life has been filled with homilies of national decline—the collapse of the pound, the disbanding of the Beatles, the motor industry, the royal marriages, and the Empire.
Gould's triumph is to see that cricket scores and baseball averages are mere reflections of a universal truth found in every competitive system. These include team games and evolution (and, for that matter, currency, empires, car builders, and marriages). He uses statistics to unite these apparently disparate fields. Ever since Disraeli and his “damned lies” about statistics, that dismal science has had a bad press. Even scientists have sneered: Lord Rutherford famously said that “If your experiment needs statistics, you should have done a better experiment.” Those are easy words for a physicist. For those who deal with baseball or biology the subject is impossible to avoid. It is all about collections of numbers: not individual figures in isolation, but each point considered in relation to all others. Even a simple set of numerals has hidden depths. Is the mean the same as the figure occurring most frequently? How much spread is there between the data, and is the pattern skewed? Perhaps most of the points are near the center; or there may be an undue proportion at the extremes. All this is the fodder of statistics; tedious, pedestrian, scarcely worth bothering with for an obsessive sports fan for whom only a single figure—that batting record—counts. And why should a biologist tracing life's progress until it culminates in Homo sapiens bother with such intellectual stamp-collecting?
Gould makes the telling point that this is where the.400 fallacy and some of the most important misunderstandings of evolution both lie. When it comes to baseball, a single number says almost nothing. A hitter can be considered only in the context of what everyone else is doing. No doubt Gould himself, perfectly rounded though he has become, could do some amazing high hitting if he played in a league of eight-year-olds, but that would not say anything useful about the real quality of his game—or that of his opponents. In the same way the score of the odd exceptional player from the past contains almost no information about what is actually going on in baseball.
What in fact has happened in that sport is that, just as in every other individual competitors have got much, much better. It is not true that today's sportsmen are less dedicated or less able than their predecessors. Gould, champion of the new science of sabermetrics (the study of sports statistics, named after the Society for American Baseball Research) shows that with his analysis of winning times for the Boston Marathon (shorter by over half an hour between 1900 and 1980 but—an important part of his argument—remarkably unchanged since then). In baseball, too, things have taken a turn toward excellence. In the 1870s, the average pitcher was five foot nine, nowadays he's a considerably more intimidating six foot three. Far from standards declining they have much improved.
The truth comes, as it must, out of analyzing all the figures, not just picking on special cases. Although, thanks to careful massaging of the rules, the overall baseball batting average of.260 has scarcely changed in the past century, the spread around that mean—the variance in averages—has gone down dramatically. Not only are there no more.400 hitters, their ignominious fellows who scarcely ever take a decent whack at the ball (they took Gould some looking for since they do not feature in the record books) have disappeared as well. As a result, the standard deviation (the statistical measure of spread) of batting averages went down consistently from 1870, but in the last thirty years has scarcely changed at all.
As Gould points out, this is because, just as in the Boston Marathon, baseball has got about as far as it is physically possible to get: players are up against the wall of what the human frame can do. A generation of brilliant hitters is facing an equivalent era of superb pitchers and fielders. Indeed, the best fielders nowadays succeed in 99.7 percent of their attempts: they simply have no room to get much better.
Ironically enough, all this leads not to an escalation of batting scores, but to an impasse in which players are more evenly matched than they were in the old days. The result—a fast and competitive game, but no more.400 hitting. The Giants really are standing on the shoulders of Babes: Ted Williams or even Babe Ruth would be very ordinary players in today's rich, fit, and competitive world in which no one can tower above the rest. Baseball makes sense only when considered as a system, and not by blindly concentrating on its high points. In the public mind, though, evolution still goes onward and ever upward to one single pinnacle—Homo sapiens; and, too often, a narrowly defined subset of that obstreperous species. By so thinking, most people have, like the sages of baseball, missed the whole point of the grand evolutionary game.
Gould seems to have discovered a universal law. In the race to erect tall buildings in New York, there was at first quick progress. The 700-foot Metropolitan Life Tower of 1909 was twice the height of its tallest predecessor, the 386-foot Park Row Building. In recent years, though, each succeeding victor, lofty though it is, has beaten its predecessor by less than 10 percent. Soon, no doubt, skyscraper walls will themselves be up against the wall and the laws of engineering will put a stop to how high New Yorkers can get. At the other end of the scale, no creature can be smaller than a single cell. Inevitably, therefore, from its beginning, life could do only one thing—get larger. This it has certainly done and there are all kinds of evolutionary “laws” that suggest why, in an ever-improving world, it should. That increase in size is, though, inevitable as there is nowhere else to go: it is not progress but physics.
From this simple but arresting finding Gould moves to some remarkable illustrations of other ways in which statistical analysis of a distribution—a “full house” of numbers—can change our view of life (in his case, quite literally so). In 1982, at the age of forty, Gould was diagnosed with abdominal mesothelioma, a disease with a median survival of eight months. Fifteen years later, he is still very much around. Statistics helped him stay optimistic. The median is the halfway point: half the patients will be dead in thirty-two short weeks. In other words, half of the variation in mortality must be squeezed into that brief period: anyone who lasts for longer has a “tail” of time—up to threescore years and ten—into which he might survive. Once the terrifying figure of eight months is seen as just a fragment of the whole story there is hope. The median is not the message. Every patient is part of a distribution, and to understand his plight must use all the information available and not see himself as uniquely damned. I have often taught introductory statistics, but nowhere have I seen a more telling statement of what it really means.
Humans have a fatal tendency to look for examples, rather than at a whole system. Gould's point is that what matters is the population, not the individual; and, in evolution, that means the population of every creature, extant or extinct. If God is in the details, then evolution is in the variance. His argument—and it is a compelling one—is that too much attention has been paid to changes in individual averages (batting or biological) and not enough to the increase and decrease of overall variation over time. He pokes modest fun at those nineteenth-century illustrators who forgot to include what came before in their panoramas of ancient life—an age of marine reptiles in seas devoid of fish, of mammals flourishing in the absence of any creature that does not suckle its young. Only the most recent winners—be they fish, flesh or fowl—counted: the ecosystem, life's National League, in which they played the game simply did not matter.
The “spread of excellence” of his title is not an inexorable progress since Plato or the Paleolithic but reflects changes in the pattern of diversity within the world as a whole. We may be ourselves on some tentative sprig of the evolutionary tree but the tree itself has been the same shape and size for millions of years and will not alter much in the future. Certainly the average creature (if such a multiple chimera could be imagined) may be a little more complicated than it once was, but the modal organism—the one that is most typical of life as a whole—is still, as it has been since the beginning, a single-celled creature without a nucleus. “In fact,” Gould writes, “more than half the history of life is a tale of bacteria only.”
We are, as a result, mere froth on the Age of Bacteria. A few creatures have moved on but any idea of overall advance is “a delusion based on social prejudice and psychological hope. … We grasp at the straw of progress (a desiccated ideological twig) because we are still not ready for the Darwinian revolution.” Man's problem is a reluctance to see himself in the context of a world which has been around for longer than he has. His second-best friend, the horse, illustrates the problem. Every text shows its proud advance from a terrier-like creature of fifty million years ago toward Bucephalus; but, in fact, today's horse is just a pathetic remnant of a group that once had a wild diversity of species. Our idea of progress—in horses or humans—comes from looking only at a small part of the story. Gould has a holistic view of evolution. Although individual bits of the system may appear to move forward, life as a whole is about as good as it is ever going to get. Evolution inhabits an M. C. Escher world, its players trudging ever onward but not upward.
Full House concentrates, understandably, on real animals and plants; as a paleontologist Gould likes to look directly at the past. However, even molecular biology (what used to be called comparative anatomy, a subject nowadays ameliorated with large research grants) shows the conservatism of existence. Mouse chromosomes are just reshuffled versions of those that make us human, and the genes that render a fly's eyes white rather than red or put a notch in its wing play an important part in our own embryos. Biologists are now so used to stasis that every new gene is put through a computer to establish where else in the living world it might be found. We are even blasé about putting human DNA into bacteria to persuade them to make proteins once uniquely our own; but that, too, is a statement of how little change there has been on the road from bug to Beethoven. The human genome (but not that of supposedly primitive bacteria) is full of the rusting hulks of genes that once did a useful job but have retired to degenerate in comfort. Molecular geneticists have, without realizing it, become the pessimists of biology. Wherever they look they find not improvement, but rigidity mitigated by decay.
In the light of this, Gould is perhaps a little too vigorous in demolishing what he claims to be a universal view of evolution. Darwin himself (although he once penciled “never say higher or lower” as a marginal note) did become convinced that it was a progressive force, a view helped by the reformist times in which he lived. But modern biologists (again, today's reactionary milieu helps) are more willing to accept stasis or even decline as a law of nature than was the more hopeful generation that went before.
There may as a result be a few wisps of straw in the hair of Gould's carefully erected Homo progressi us, at least insofar as those actively involved in evolutionary research are concerned. However, the public view of evolution is still the one so mightily undermined in this book. Every high-school text has as its classic of adaptation the spread during Darwin's lifetime of a gene for black wings through the moths of England in response to the grime of the factories which helped the great evolutionist to live in comfort. There is an irony in the fact that, since smoke control, the gene—far from disappearing as it should in a world that moves forward as circumstances change—remains common in most of Britain and that it was abundant in North America long before the birth of Henry Ford, whose smoking chimneys had no effect on its fortunes.
My own car, as it happens, is not a Ford but a BMW (one, I hasten to add, close to its extinction date). Since it was built, sixteen years ago, BMWs have got even better—but so has every other make. The process has been going on since cars began and, in spite of what the ads say, the difference in quality among marques—be they Rolls or Pinto—is getting less and less. Soon there will be no more room for advance in the evolution of the internal combustion engine. What changes there are will be in the details: following Gould's argument, cars, like skyscrapers, baseball hitters, and life, will have hit the wall of what is possible. Who knows? Given what the new model could do, my next vehicle may be a Lincoln Continental.
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SOURCE: Shermer, Michael. “Evolution Up against a Wall.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (20 October 1996): 10.
[In the following review, Shermer addresses Gould's discussion of the ways various systems change over time in Full House.]
For the past 15 summers, I have either competed in or directed “Race Across America,” a 3,000-mile, nonstop, transcontinental bicycle race. In the race's first decade, the transcontinental record plummeted from 12 days and 3 hours to 7 days and 23 hours, but for the past five years it hasn't budged even though half of the cyclists routinely break earlier records. Why?
Some of the race's pioneers, not surprisingly, believe that they were simply better than today's competitors; current riders blame weather conditions and other variables. Now I know that both sides are wrong, thanks to the work of Harvard paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and trendsetter Stephen Jay Gould, whose new book, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, explains how the world develops over time, from the history of life to the history of sports.
Gould advances an interesting theory of biological life by applying it to one of his favorite interests, baseball. No one has batted.400 in baseball since Ted Williams in 1941 (for every 10 times at bat, he had four hits), and this unsolved mystery continues to stimulate books and brouhahas. The mystery is now solved, says Gould. It is not because players were better then (what he calls the Genesis Myth: “There were giants in the Earth in those days”) or because players today have tougher schedules, night games and cross-country travel (Rod Carew says night games are easier on the eyes and travel by jet beats a train any day). It is because the overall level of play among all players has marched ever upward toward a hypothetical outer wall of human perfection.
Paradoxically,.400 hitting has disappeared because today's players are better, not worse. The majority are better, making baseball's creme de la creme stand out from mediocre players far less than in the past. Today's best ballplayers may be absolutely better—improved training, equipment, diet—than players 50 years ago, but every position in the field now is manned by players who are also so much better than before.
OK, so what? For Gould, the disappearance of.400 hitting is just one of many examples of how various systems change over time and how our biased notion of progress has led us to misunderstand historical change. “All of these mistaken beliefs arise out of the same analytical flaw in our reasoning—our Platonic tendency to reduce a broad spectrum to a single, pinpointed essence. This way of thinking allows us to confirm our most ingrained biases—that humans are the supreme being on this planet; that all things are inherently driven to become more complex. …,” he argues.
Evolution can be illustrated similarly by a range of organisms spanning from simple cells to complex mammals. In the spread of life, there is a “left wall” of simplicity: anything simpler would not be alive. What else could evolution have done, Gould asks? For life to evolve, it had to get more complex. Evolution reflects “an increase in total variation by expansion away from a lower limit, or left wall, of simplest conceivable form.” The same thing goes for size: “Size increase is really random evolution away from small size, not directed evolution toward large size.”
Why is this idea revolutionary? Because, Gould says, change is a result of the whole system (the “full house”) expanding, not because life is progressing toward a fixed goal. As Gould has written before, evolution is not “going” anywhere. It is massively quirky and accidental, and we are but a minor twig on the richly branching bush of life. “The vaunted progress of life is really random motion away from simple beginnings, not directed impetus toward inherently advantageous complexity.”
Applying the model to science and the creative arts, Gould wonders why, in a gene pool significantly larger than in the 17th century and with endlessly greater opportunities for children to become artists, we don't see the likes of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Gould cautiously suggests that “perhaps the range of accessible styles can become exhausted, given the workings of human neurology and the consequent limits of understanding. Perhaps we can reach a right wall of potential popularity, where our continued adherence to an ethic of innovation effectively debars newcomers, whatever their potential talents, from becoming the Mozart of the new millennium.”
Gould is on to something about baseball, possibly about bacteria, but I'm not so sure about Bach. In baseball, Williams' feat of 1941 would not be discussed today had he gotten three less hits at bat (the difference between.406 and.399 in his 185 hits out of 456 at bats). Would Williams have been deprived of at least one hit per 54 games by today's players, who routinely dive and leap to steal what used to be sure hits? Definitely.
As for bacteria, Gould's most vocal critics—philosopher Daniel Dennett and biologist Edward O. Wilson—will challenge Gould on his rejection of progress in evolution. They will need to provide evidence that small evolutionary sequences of life that can vary in either direction have a tendency to move to the right (more complex) rather than the left. They will also need to explain why the mechanism of natural selection would work to produce greater complexity rather than just local adaptations.
And Bach? Well, cultural relativists will be offended by Gould's assumption that there is an outer wall for art and music. Is there? Who knows? How is it measured? There is no.400 equivalent in the arts.
So, our transcontinental cycling record, like most running, swimming and baseball records, is now hovering near an absolute outer wall of human perfection. Liquid diets, aerodynamic equipment, specialized training and experienced strategies every year take the best cyclists near this upper wall. And along with them, mediocre athletes are now shattering what used to be “unbreakable” marks. The transcontinental record, like.400 hitting, will be broken, but not often and not by much. The house is rather full now, the spread of excellence has narrowed and is approaching that outer wall, and the truly great must work extra hard to stand out. But somehow, they do.
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SOURCE: Vines, Gail. “Sermons in Stones.” New Statesman 125, no. 4312 (29 November 1996): 48.
[In the following review, Vines discusses possible reasons behind the popularity of Gould's books about evolution and science and offers a mixed assessment of Life's Grandeur.]
The palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould is a publishing phenomenon. The author of more than 200 evolutionary essays collected in eight volumes, he has produced another full-length book [Life's Grandeur,] to follow his bestselling Wonderful Life. Why do people buy his books in such vast numbers? Granted, Gould is a talented writer, but why should so many people want to read about evolution?
Intriguingly, it is one of the few topics that sells science in the high street. Cosmology, consciousness and quantum physics also shift books, while worthy tomes about chemistry and engineering languish on the shelf. Could it be that as we struggle to make sense of Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins we are searching for clues to the meaning of life? That's how the publisher Ravi Merchandani explains the sales figures. He reckons that popular science books are read not so much as useful sources of empirical facts but as metaphysics and philosophy.
No wonder science books with an “origin” story fly out of the shops. (If they mention God, so much the better.) And when it comes to moral tales about evolution, no one can surpass Gould in finding sermons in stones and books in babbling brooks. He makes “the singular and the small speak to the general and the great,” according to the Cambridge historian James Secord. Like a good sermon, he engages our imagination and our sympathies, then moves them on.
As an analytical tool the technique has its limitations. And Gould's style, verging on chummy bonhomie, can jar.
He wants us to repent the sin of pride—our tendency to regard ourselves (and our close animal relatives) as more “advanced” or complex organisms. We should, instead, celebrate the whole range, the “spread of excellence.” In a way, Gould writes evolutionary stories for postmodern times: progress is out, diversity is in. Life on earth is remarkable not for where it is leading, “but for the fullness and constancy of its variety, ingenuity and diversity.” Nothing is inevitable; Gould's favourite word is “contingency.”
The illusion of progress springs from the logical mistake. In any given situation, if the starting point is the simplest possible structure, evolution will perforce result in an increase in average complexity. But that doesn't mean there is a directed trend towards complexity, Gould argues. If you look at the vast range of life forms alive and extinct, all you find are random fluctuations between more and less complex forms.
Gould rounds off his argument with a paean to the micro-organism. Biologically speaking, the 1990s are best regarded not as the Age of Mammals, but of Bacteria—which is what most individual organisms are and have always been.
Professor of both zoology and geology at Harvard, and now in his mid-50s, Gould has long pursued academic research alongside popular writing. Cast as a latter-day Montaigne, he combines erudition with a celebration of popular culture. Here he turns to poker for the metaphor of the “full house”—a hand of cards that runs the gamut of the possible. He wants us to valorise “variation” itself as “the rich raw material of any evolving system” and to acknowledge the terrible mistakes we can make when we focus instead on averages or extremes.
Gould drives home his point with a prolonged and (to my mind) rather tedious discussion of a revered American institution, the game of baseball. Gould—a self-proclaimed fan, with 11 hefty shelves of books on the sport—wants to know why the batting averages of the best professional players today come nowhere near the performances of the best in the 1930s. The explanation is meant to reveal the perils of relying on averages.
Life's Grandeur is a challenging, if at times irritating, mix of biological insights, folk culture and philosophical deliberations. In many ways Gould's popular work harks back to Darwin, who, Secord says, “fought for evolution by writing best-selling discourses on orchid fertilisation and earthworms.”
Nor did the father of evolution shy away from metaphysical assertions. Gould takes his title from the great Victorian, who proclaimed in his Origin of Species: “There is grandeur in this view of life.”
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SOURCE: Bywater, Michael. “Planet of the Bugs.” Spectator 277, no. 8785 (30 November 1996): 48-50.
[In the following review, Bywater examines Gould's arguments about evolution in Life's Grandeur.]
We live in interesting times and I sometimes wonder if we realise just how interesting they are. Perhaps we only see the symptoms. Cultures blur and decline, the hamburger-and-rock ethic governs the world, economies burst, shudder and cling on by their fingertips, porn floods the Internet, statecraft implodes towards the centre, ideologies shatter, politicians twitter helplessly about religion and ethics, the Church of England buys into the logo shibboleth. We conflate the symptoms and claim a diagnosis: lack of respect, lack of morality, lack of purpose, lack of sense.
But these are only symptoms. The disease goes far deeper, and there is no cure. All the technologies of the century are as nothing compared to the tremendous dethronement of mankind which began with the birth of heliocentricity, which was continued through Newton, Darwin, Einstein and Heisenberg, and which has been more or less completed by the geneticists, palaeontologists and geologists of the last 30 years.
Stephen Jay Gould's new book finishes the process, removing the last source of our species' traditional self-respect. Once, we believed that the world was the centre of the universe, made for us, and that we ourselves were made in the image of the god who made it. Heliocentrism and the astronomers' revelation of deep space made us think again, and we relocated ourselves to a galactic outpost, but one nevertheless chosen by a god whom we needed, because there was simply no other explanation for our existence. Then came Darwin's model, and Mendel's method, and the clear-minded had to accept that this was a story of the evolution of species by natural selection and genetic mutation; worse still, that we were not the stars of the last act of this story, nor even its dénouement, but simply an interestingly successful irrelevance in the act currently in progress.
But there was still comfort to be had; comfort of a sort, in crumbs. We could tell ourselves that we were an inherent consequence of evolution, which by its very nature tends to produce ever more complex and sophisticated species, culminating in ourselves, with our great brains, our ingenuity, and our unique self-consciousness. We were, in short, still special.
Life's Grandeur explains, gently but firmly, that we are not; and, in doing so, shatters the last pedestal in our gallery of classical illusions, the Platonic. It is characteristic of Gould's wit (using the word in its original sense) that he approaches the overturning of Plato's famous notion of our lives as shadows on the cave wall (and of the ‘ideal’ which must therefore cast those shadows) by wondering why, when the game baseball appears to have generally improved over the years, the measure of batting excellence—the 0.400 batting average—no longer seems attainable. His tools are those of the statistician; the story he tells is one of a giant category mistake, which he calls ‘the myth of reified variation’; the players are means, medians, modes, standard deviations and skewed distributions.
What a wonderful story it is; and how glad it makes me that I was forced, at school and university, to study statistics, looked down upon as a laborious and plodding branch of arithmetic for those too dull-witted to comprehend the glories of tensor calculus. The truth is that statistics is one of the most powerful tools of our age, and one regularly and deviously perverted by manipulators of all sorts, from political spin-doctors to grant-hungry health fascists; one, too, so regularly swallowed and regurgitated whole by ignorant media folk that, were anyone smart enough to make me editor of something, the first thing I'd do would be to sack one of my pointless, fashionable, metropolitan columnists and hire a statistician. But even if you are practically innumerate, Gould will guide you through his argument, which is this:
We believe that evolution has a bias towards increasing complexity, and that therefore a complex, self-conscious species like us is the natural culmination of the evolutionary process. Statistical methods show us otherwise. Evolution starts, because it has to, at a level of minimal complexity. If it at first sight appears to move towards increasing complexity, that's because it has nowhere else to go. We can—and have—become fixated on measuring complexity because that's the parameter which makes us look good; but we fool ourselves if we believe that evolution is driven in that direction. It's a sort of statistical self-delusion rather like measuring ‘average’ wealth. If Bill Gates moved to a blighted council estate in the depressed north-east, an ambitious local politician might be able to get away with saying that the mean per capita income had suddenly jumped from, say, £9,500 a year to £300,000 a year; but it would be a very foolish resident who tried to get away with spending it. The truth is that wild extravagances on the far right-hand ‘tail’ of the distribution curve have negligible effect on the ‘mode,’ or most common value, in the population.
And that is where we live: on the far right-hand edge of the complexity curve. We aren't there because some in-built characteristic of evolution ‘wanted’ us to be there; if you rewound time to the Cambrian explosion of life-forms and then hit ‘Replay,’ there would be only the most infinitesimal chance that we, or anything like us, would arise again. True, there would be something at the right-hand tail of the complexity curve, because the curve has to have a right-hand tail; but it wouldn't be us. And the modal life-form would almost certainly be, as it always has been, single-celled organisms. Bacteria, if you like. The most successful complex species on earth are rats, bats and antelopes; but above all, this is the planet of the bugs.
Where does this leave poor humanity, struggling for self-respect? That's what I mean when I wonder if we know how interesting our times actually are. The thing we can take most comfort in is the understanding that Plato was wrong, 180° out of phase. We are not, whatever politicians, quacks, race-supremacists, body-fascists and fashion pundits tell us, all varyingly imperfect imitations of a Platonic ideal. The reality is variation: the thin and the fat, the short and the tall, the black and the white; ‘ideals,’ of whatever sort, are an intellectual abstraction at best, a dangerous delusion at worst.
There are those who would wish otherwise. Hell, I wish otherwise, and I keenly lament the necessity to leave behind the religious faith which was once a source of so much beauty, hope and comfort. But seeing our politicians, on both sides of the Great Centrist Divide, claiming divine affection and attempting to instill god-fearing decency in the population, is as senseless and depressing a spectacle as watching a harassed father trying to persuade his adolescent son to believe once again in a Father Christmas who will bring him no presents if he is naughty.
This isn't a question of ‘loss of faith,’ of a prolonged Augustinian dark night of the soul which will, God willing, presently lift and allow Christendom to flourish once more. It is, even in the eye-blink duration of our species' existence, a sudden and potentially catastrophic cultural upheaval which must be apprehended even by the most devoutly transcendentalist intellect. It's no good just murmuring tempora mutantur and forgetting the rest: nos et mutamur in§ illis. Here we are, the products of chance, our existence not even inherent in the aleatoric system which brought us into being. Designing a worldview and a public and private morality to cope with our understanding of our circumstances is perhaps the most difficult, and thrilling, challenge so far to face our species.
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SOURCE: Gould, Stephen Jay, and Michael Krasny. “Interview with Stephen Jay Gould.” Mother Jones 22, no. 1 (January/February 1997): 60-3.
[In the following interview, Gould responds to questions about Full House and discusses various topics such as the popularization of science, how his work has been received, and coping with cancer.]
With more than 15 books in print, including Wonderful Life and The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould has been called the dean of popular science writers. A professor of geology and zoology at Harvard University, Gould is best known for his writings on dinosaurs and his talent for explaining evolutionary science in lay terms.
In his latest book, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, Gould, in typical contrarian fashion, argues that our assumptions about trends and evolutionary progress are wrong—using eclectic examples, like the disappearance of 400 hitting in baseball, as proof. In an interview with Mother Jones, Gould talks about the limits of Darwinian theory, and reminds us that we do not live in the “age of man,” but, instead, in the “age of bacteria.”
[Krasny]: How do you respond to criticisms that you are a “popularizer” and not a serious scientist?
[Gould]: Anything, even the conceptually most complex material, can be written for general audiences without any dumbing down. Of course you have to explain things carefully. This goes back to Galileo, who wrote his great books as dialogues in Italian, not as treatises in Latin. And to Darwin, who wrote The Origin of Species for general readers. I think a lot of people pick up Darwin's book and assume it must be a popular version of some technical monograph, but there is no technical monograph. That's what he wrote. So what I'm doing is part of a great humanistic tradition.
Of all your work, what has stirred up the most controversy?
The material on evolutionary theory, because you have a very committed group of strict Darwinian thinkers among technical scientific audiences. And although Darwin's my hero and his theory is a good one, a lot of the work I've done is meant to question strictly Darwinian notions.
Darwin's principle of natural selection leads to the prediction that the proper way to analyze any evolutionary trend or evolutionary development is to see the new features as adaptive to environments. And that's a perfectly good principle. The problem is that there are many evolutionary biologists who view everything that happens in evolution—every feature, every behavior—as directly evolved for adaptive benefit. And that just doesn't work. Whenever you build a structure for adaptive reasons, the structure is going to exhibit properties that have nothing to do with adaptation. They're just side consequences.
Could you give an example?
I'll give you the obvious one: Let's say the human brain gets big for natural selection reasons. Let's say it's an adaptation. There are some things we needed to do on the savannas of Africa for which a big brain was good. Now that doesn't imply that everything the big brain can do is therefore an adaptation. But that's the error that many so-called evolutionary psychologists make. Our brains didn't get big so that we could write, so that we could read, so that we could compose operas, so that we would know the facts of our personal mortality—those arise as side consequences of building a big brain for other reasons.
Not to mention random things that occur in evolution. We wouldn't be here if the impact of a large extraterrestrial body hadn't removed the dinosaurs. That wasn't adaptation or natural selection. That was just a bad break. Mammals happened to survive because they were tiny little creatures that could hide—because they never had any evolutionary success competing with dinosaurs. And so it's lucky that we're even here.
You take issue with the tendency to characterize evolution in terms of trends.
People are storytelling creatures. We like stories that go somewhere, and therefore we like trends—because trends are things that either get better or get worse, so we can either rejoice or lament. The point of my latest book, Full House, is to show that we mistakenly depict many things as trends moving in some direction. We take the “full house” of variation in a system and try to represent it as a single number, when in fact what we should be doing is studying the variation as it expands and contracts. If you look at the history of the variation in all its complexity, then you see there's no trend.
Well, when we think about evolution, we have a tendency to focus on the most complex creature at any given time. Once, the most complex creature was a bacterium, then it was a jellyfish, then a trilobite, then a fish, and then us. But the history of the most complex creature is not a surrogate for the general thrust of evolution as a whole.
At the origin of life you had to have creatures of minimal complexity because, given the nature of chemistry and physics, you can't precipitate a hippopotamus out of the primordial soup. So, you're going to begin with a creature of bacterial grade, the simplest kind of cellular organization. And there's only one direction for change—toward more complexity. But very few creatures move in that direction. Occasionally a couple of species dribble off in the direction of complexity, but that doesn't define a trend or a thrust. The most outstanding feature of life's history is that through 3.5 billion years this has remained, really, a bacterial planet. Most creatures are what they've always been: They're bacteria and they rule the world. And we need to be nice to them.
Nice to bacteria?
Right. I don't think this leads us to any startling new ideas about how we can keep going, but if I can impart some increased respect for those creatures that we consider simple and inferior, then I'll have done a good deed.
In your book you examine the inability of baseball players to hit.400 anymore and argue that it's because hitting has improved.
The overall batting average has been about.260 throughout the history of baseball. But the variation around that average has shrunk. It's at least plausible that variation declines because play improves.
A batting average is a comparison between hitting and pitching. So if everybody's improving, as long as they improve at the same rate, the batting average will remain constant. But it gets to the point where everyone is so good that there's just not much variation anymore.
Hitting.400 in baseball is a good example because there's a “right wall,” if you will, of human limits. Given how our muscles work, there's just so much that the human body can do. There will always be a few individuals who, by dint of genetic gifts and obsessive commitment and training, will stand close to that right wall. That's where Ty Cobb was in 1911 and where Tony Gwynn is today. But there is this limiting wall. What has happened in baseball is that all aspects of play have improved enormously. Back in 1911, average play was so far inferior to where Ty Cobb was that his batting average could be measured as.420. Today, Tony Gwynn is just as good, maybe even closer to the wall than Cobb was. But the average player has improved so much that Gwynn's performance—equal to or better than Cobb's—is not measured as high.
In Full House you also use your bout with cancer to explain your theory about statistical fallacies. Why did your doctor initially withhold information from you?
I think she was being compassionate. You see, the form of cancer I had—abdominal mesothelioma—was said to be incurable at the time. Luckily, I got it when they figured out some techniques that turned out to work pretty well. But my doctor didn't know me, and I think she rightly feared that if I got the standard articles about my cancer and read “median mortality: eight months,” I would misinterpret that in the usual way people do, namely: I'll probably be dead in eight months. But luckily I had statistical training, and I didn't read it that way.
A measure of central tendency—a mean, a median, or a mode—is not a prediction about me. It's just a measure that summarizes the variation of the whole. I said, look, if the median mortality is eight months, meaning that half the people die within eight months of diagnosis, where am I going to fit? Am I likely to be in the upper half or the lower half? What is the curve like for the half that lives longer? Maybe it has an extended right tail that goes on for many years. I decided that I was likely to be on that right tail.
What are your thoughts on the controversy surrounding current scientific funding? Do you agree that it is too politicized?
How did scientists get money in the past? They were either lucky and independently wealthy, like Darwin, or they had patrons, like Galileo. Universities or governments have become patrons only in the last few generations. Many of the great scientists of the past were in debt to their patrons in the same sense that modern scientists are influenced by what their granting agencies want.
Do you think science is becoming more accessible to the public?
Oh, no doubt about it. When I was interested in dinosaurs as a kid in New York in the '40s, what was there to sustain my interest? There were no films or lunch boxes or pencils emblazoned with dinosaurs. If you were interested in dinosaurs, you were seen as a nerd on the school playground. Just as the British are fond of saying that wars are won or lost on the playing fields of Eton, I think many scientific careers are squelched on the playgrounds of Shady Oaks Elementary. There are always some really committed people, like me as a kid, who take the teasing, but many people who would have been very good scientists were just permanently derailed.
Your childhood nickname was “fossil face.” Did you put up with a lot as a kid?
No more than New York kids inevitably put up with. The only time I ever got beat up was when I admitted to being a Yankee fan in Brooklyn. That was kind of dumb.
How do you get children to form an interest in science?
I think it's there already. That's why I take heart. It's true that the level of scientific knowledge among adults is very low, but that's not because there isn't a natural interest. I think most kids are fascinated by the natural world. I've often said that if you could quantify the mental power involved in all the dinosaur names correctly known and correctly spelled by 5-year-old kids in America, you could move any mountain on earth.
What do you suppose accounts for children's obsession with dinosaurs?
I once asked Sheldon White, the child psychologist, and I loved his answer: “Big, fierce, and extinct.”
What ultimate effect would you like your work to have?
I hope it will be one further step in the kind of humility that would benefit humans enormously with regard to our powers and possibilities on this planet. I think we want to be around for a while. We'd better understand that we weren't meant to be, and we don't have dominion over everything, and we're not always as smart as we think.
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SOURCE: Barr, Stephen M. “Mismeasure of Man.” Public Interest 127 (spring 1997): 120-23.
[In the following review of Full House, Barr argues that, contrary to Gould's suppositions about complexity and the “success” of a species, “it is quite doubtful that proliferation of species is a sign of success.”]
Stephen Jay Gould's latest book, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, is a grab-bag of miscellany—his successful struggle with cancer, the disappearance of the.400 hitter in baseball, Plato's theory of ideas, the history of life on earth. Somehow though he manages to weave all of this together into a grand philosophical synthesis about the meaning of life and the nature of reality.
The root of much evil in the world, according to Gould, lies in the simple statistic called “the average,” or at least in the confusions that it engenders in the popular mind. One average in particular bothers Gould a great deal, because it leads to an understanding of evolution that he thinks mistaken. The fact that the average complexity of organisms on earth has increased over time suggests to many people that natural selection is a mechanism for producing complexity and, therefore, ultimately, for producing us. Even many who accept what Gould regards as the atheistic implications of Darwinism “cling” to the notion that we are the goal of evolution, the highest rung of a ladder. If one looks closely at the fossil record, however, one finds, according to Gould, that evolution has no preference for complexity. A particular lineage is just as likely to evolve toward less complexity as toward more—if it can. However, since life started with one-called organisms, it had, on average, nowhere to go but up.
Even though the average complexity of organisms has increased over time, one-celled creatures still (and always will) vastly predominate in number. We do not live in the vaunted Age of Mammals or the Age of Man, says Gould, but in the Age of Bacteria. Far from being the goal of evolution, we are, “a tiny twig on life's tree.” This “twig” undergoes a kind of evolution itself in the course of Gould's book, reappearing as “a tiny twig on the floridly arborescent bush of life,” “a tiny twig, born just yesterday on an enormously arborescent tree of life,” and “only a recent twiglet on an ancient and enormous genealogical bush.” Only our “parochialism” and “traditional human arrogance” (as opposed, one imagines, to the cosmopolitanism and traditional self-deprecation of bacteria) leads us “to continue our traditional support for our own cosmic importance,” and “to continue to view ourselves as better than all others by cosmic design.”
What truly matters in evolution, Gould asserts, is not complexity but “success.” For him, evolutionary success is a matter of counting, though he does not make clear why this is so or whether one should count by species or by individuals. That 80 percent of multicellular species are arthropods leads Gould to conclude that arthropods are more successful than we vertebrates. And even among the mammalian minority of vertebrates, “the greatest successes” are “bats, rats, and antelopes,” not primates, who can boast only 200 species. However, to evaluate the success of a single species, such as Homo sapiens, the counting must be by individuals; and, on this basis, Gould judges bacteria to be the champions and the human race a flop.
There is a problem of consistency here, which Gould does not notice. There are more species of antelopes than of primates, but more human beings than antelopes; more species of fish than of mammals, but more dogs than snail darters. In any case, it is quite doubtful that proliferation of species is a sign of success. Homo sapiens has a flexibility made possible by his complexity, and, in particular, by his intelligence, which allows him to take advantage of a thousand ecological niches without fragmenting into a thousand different species. Nor does the number of individuals seem a more sensible measure of success. Size obviously has a lot to do with bacterial “success.” There are more bacteria than people for much the same reason that there are more grains of sand than boulders.
Indeed, it is difficult to understand why Gould should stop at living things. There are vastly more molecules in the atmosphere than bacteria on (or in) the earth. Why is this not the Age of Air? And why should one not count the dust under one's bed and compare it to the population of China? Does not the fact that cosmic evolution has produced more dust particles than Chinese tell us something? One could even apply the same criteria to ideas. Disraeli observed that “Mormon counts more votaries than Bentham.” We are worse off now, for more people will buy books on astrology than will buy Full House. Indeed, Gould's ideas could be said to be but a twig on the arborescent bush of human opinion.
Gould is overawed by other large numbers. The vast age and size of the universe in comparison to human scales are further evidence to him of human insignificance in the cosmic scheme. But these numbers can be looked at in another way. The universe must be as old as it is for life to have had time to evolve, and as large as it is for such huge times to be possible. (General Relativity relates the size and longevity of the universe.) Size and number are matters of physical requirements not “cosmic importance.” There are basic physical reasons why living things must be small compared to the universe and large compared to atoms.
The “plain meaning” of evolution for Gould is that we were not “meant to be here”; we are a cosmic accident. The emergence of complex beings may have been an inevitable consequence of evolution (even if not its “goal”), but that complexity did not have to take the form of high intelligence. Says Gould:
If we could replay the game of life again and again, … the [organisms] of greatest complexity would be wildly and unpredictably different in each rendition—and the vast majority of replays would never produce … a creature with self-consciousness. Humans are here by the luck of the draw, not the inevitability of life's direction or evolution's mechanism.
Nor, he insists, are we here by some “cosmic preference.” Gould seems strangely unaware that these considerations cut rather against atheism than against belief in a Creator. Religious believers say that we are here by the preference not of the cosmos but of God. It is atheists who imagine that evolutionary mechanisms, the inevitability of life's direction, or some cosmic necessity are sufficient to explain human existence.
Gould believes that the notion of “the average” has confused our ideas not only about the meaning of life but about the very nature of reality. It has left “a legacy as old as Plato, a tendency to abstract a single ideal or average as the ‘essence’ of a system, and to devalue or ignore variation among the individuals that constitute the full population.” This gives rise to our cultural “hangup” over what is “normal.” Opposed to this Platonic error is the Darwinian truth. The world is not “objectively divided into obvious categories. Taxonomies are human decisions.” To those who claim that some “fundamental categories [are] invariant across time and culture,” he replies, “Not so—not for these or for any subjects. Categories are human impositions upon nature.” Even the idea that there are two sexes is, he claims, a recent cultural development.
It is not clear what any of this has to do with Darwin or biological science, but it certainly has nothing to do with Plato. Averages are not “our closest operational approach to essences.” An essence is the intelligible form of something and is not at all a statistical concept. If every person in the world were to be blinded, that would not make sightlessness normal for man or a part of his nature or essence. Nor is a blind eye merely an example of variation; it is defective as an eye, because it does not fulfill the biological function that is evident from its form. On these points, Darwin, and modern geneticists have no disagreement.
That categories are not “imposed upon nature” is, if possible, even clearer in the physical sciences. For instance, an electron and a photon are quite distinct kinds of things. That an electron has electric charge, and mass, and is a “fermion,” while a photon is neutral, massless, and a “boson,” involves very fundamental distinctions that are true across time and culture—indeed, to the limits of the known universe. The structure of the physical world turns out to be expressible in the forms of mathematics, the very realm of pure essences. It is not an accident that some of this century's greatest mathematicians and mathematical physicists have considered themselves Platonists.
The stated aim of this book is to “complete the Darwinian revolution.” But there have been other revolutions since Darwin—in physics, mathematics, cosmology, and molecular biology—and they too have things to teach us about the universe and about man, things one will not learn from this book. I recommend it, however, for those who take pleasure in fossils.
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SOURCE: Harman, Nicholas. “Any Advance on a Thousand.” Spectator 279, no. 8833 (15 November 1997): 44.
[In the following review, Harman praises Questioning the Millennium, complimenting Gould for addressing the various ways that the passage of time has been calculated.]
It's one of those known facts, isn't it, that millenniums are significant? For instance they make religions go millenarial, a word lots of people use as if they know what it means. But hold on a minute. There has only been one before, and there may never be a human one again. Whenever Christ's reign on earth began, it was not 2,000 years before the year 2000, and even more certainly not on the first day in December because, among many other things, the bishops have messed about with the calendar in the intervening centuries.
Confused? Don't worry. This small book [Questioning the Millennium] will equip you with brilliant millennial put-downs for the next two-and-a-half-years' worth of dinner-party conversations, including the assurance that it does not matter a hoot whether the century closes at the end of '99 or of '00. Gould even explains why there are two Ns in ‘millennium’ (although his publisher's handout got it wrong) and one in ‘millenarial.’ Gould, in other words, is indispensable. He is the champion who, with shining prose and baseball analogies, fights to correct non-scientists' scientific misapprehensions.
His assignment here is to set us right on dates. If God was a watchmaker, he suggests, his work cannot be relied upon for appointments. A week is the longest reliable unit of time: months contain hidden minutes as well as the obvious stray days; the moon's circumambulance matches no precise fraction of the sun's; years leap all over the shop. That is why the Prayer Book goes on so about when it will be Easter, why Russia's October Revolution happened in November, why Muslims should wait until someone in Mecca actually sees the horned moon arise before they properly begin their Ramadan fast.
Once, when I was a schoolboy, a teacher tried to show how duodecimals would work far better than counting in tens. This drove me to give up maths, previous pedagogues having driven me to give up religion. Yet cultures have power even when they are contested. Europeans counted on their fingers before they were Christian and, with guns and trade goods, imposed on the world a calendar based shakily on tens. Even so, the early doctors of the church did their work before Christendom borrowed zero from the Arabs. God's time, and His son's, is not decimal. The Bible touches the millennial span only to point out that ‘a thousand ages in Thy sight are as an evening gone,’ plus some numerology about the binding of Satan amid the dark mysteries of Revelations, a word whose Greek equivalent is Apocalypse. Gould reckons the millennium craze is no more significant than his children's pleasure when the car's speedometer spreads a swathe of zeros across the dashboard. He is not, you will understand, much in sympathy with the irrational.
But he finishes his book with a personal story so apt, so finely written, so touching, that any suspicion of callous rationality flies out of the window. And the arch-millenarian Bishop Ussher, Primate of All Ireland, was entirely rational when, in 1650, he calculated the earth's age and sell-by date, cross-checking the Old Testament against the other archaic histories. That immense feat of scholarship set the creation in 4004 BC, and on the same assumptions the Apocalypse on 23 October 1997. So there. Apocalyptics, though, do not give up when they back The End and it falls before the finishing post. They just sit down and work out a new date. People crave for eras that end roundly with a lot of noughts, to make breaks in the relentless flow of history. Yet in real life, away from the Heseltine-Mandelson fantasy of how to waste the lottery money, people in Britain do not seem much thrilled, or alarmed, at the prospect of 2000. The worst prediction the papers have dreamed up so far is that all the computers will conspire, on 31 December 1999, to cancel our insurance policies. But cheer up. If so, they will cancel our debts as well. A true-believing millenarian would surely start borrowing now.
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SOURCE: Masters, Alexander. “A Messy Mathematician.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4958 (10 April 1998): 30.
[In the following review, Masters offers a mixed assessment of Questioning the Millennium, asserting that Gould does not explore the issue adequately.]
Stephen Jay Gould's questions [in Questioning the Millennium] are: What does “the millennium” mean, When does a millennium begin, and Why are we so interested in the subject, anyway? “I began to think about this book,” he writes, “during the first week of January, 1950.”
The first essay, “What?,” is the longest. It bothers Gould that we use the same word to mean entirely different things. A millennium is a length of time lasting a thousand years, not the transition at the end of a thousand-year period. And the Millennium, for which we are preparing with such eagerness and razzamatazz, is not a time of impending joy; it is the biblical time of Apocalypse. Gould's attempt to unite this mixed bag of definitions and popular connotations is weak, however: he begins with a stab at psychology, progresses with some pleasant history and doesn't capture his subject until page 70, two-thirds of the way through.
In “When?” he does much better. It was a sixth-century monk named Dionysius Exiguus who began the practice of dividing time at Christ's appearance, but Dionysius made a mistake. He forgot to include a year zero. (It wasn't until the eleventh century that the West became familiar with the notion of using zero as a number in its own right, standing alone at the dividing line between positive and negative numbers.) So, if we insist that a decade has ten years, the first Christian decade must begin on January 1, 1 AD (the feast of Jesus's circumcision) and end on December 31, 10 AD. The first Christian century therefore ends on December 31, 100 AD; and the second Christian millennium, on the same day in 2000 AD. Gould knows a remarkable young autistic man who is a prodigy at calculating the day of the week for any date, whether thousands of years in the future or in the past. His solution to the problem is that the new millennium begins “in 2000. The first decade had only nine years.” In fact, speaking strictly, it has already begun. Dionysius also miscalculated the day of Christ's birth. It was in 4 BC, or earlier. It couldn't have been on December 25, 1 BC, because by then Herod had been dead for already three years.
In “Why?” Gould discusses the length of a year. “God,” he writes, is not “Pythagoras in Galileo's universe.” He is a messy mathematician: he has made our year last 365.242199 … days. The Julian calendar approximated this awkward number by introducing an extra day every fourth year. This doesn't quite work, because a true year lasts just under 365 and a quarter days: the leap-year adjustment makes an average overestimate of eleven minutes and fourteen seconds per year. By 1578, the calendar was ten days in advance of the true year, and the delicate issue of deciding the date of Easter (which occurs on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox, and so depends on the interaction of both the lunar and the solar cycle) was a practical nightmare. Pope Gregory solved the problem by blithely eliminating the days between October 5 and October 14, inclusive (thereby sparking off riots throughout the Christian world), and decreeing that, from then on, century years are not leap years, except every fourth century year. Thus 2000 AD will be a leap year.
At his best, Gould is a splendid guide through tangled scientific subjects—clear, stylish and full of inspiring confidence. In these essays he seems lazy. The subjects are surveyed, but not explored. In “When?” he writes that he had intended “to spend only a few hours in research for this chapter,” and it shows. In “What?,” he waffles. Only in “Why?” does he find his stride. Throughout the book, Stephen Jay Gould mentions his young autistic friend. “Why?” ends with a fascinating discussion of the boy's habits and why, of all possible obsessions, he fixed on day-date calculation.
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SOURCE: Page, Ra. “It's the Way They Tell 'Em.” New Statesman 127, no. 4406 (9 October 1998): 47-8.
[In the following review, Page criticizes the content of Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, but notes that Gould is a “great essayist.”]
The trouble with science is that it's not taught properly. Unlike politics, philosophy or art, which have always been studied as socially entrenched histories of ideas, science is handed down as a string of disembodied facts, laws and dictates usually inaccurate, always incomplete and fatally amputated from the humanity that concocted them. Science students aren't likely to read a single primary text by any of the scientists they study until at least postgraduate level—Einstein is interpreted for them by Eddington, Darwin by Dawkins. The originators themselves seem increasingly anonymous and their ideas unaccountable.
Of the many science “interpreters” vying for attraction, the essayist Stephen Jay Gould is perhaps the most respectful of the original scientific experience. “I do not believe in vicarious experience,” he writes in this [Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms,] his eighth collection of essays, “and will go to great, even absurd, lengths to stand on the very spot, or place a hand on the very wall.” Whether by pairing seemingly unrelated events or by zooming up close on previously neglected writings, his essays always put the original human end of discovery first. Darwin's natural selection, for instance, is re-examined as “a direct and purposeful assault” on Robert Boyle's natural theology; the recent Martian fossil excitement as a symptom of our misreading of Darwin; the Mauritius dodo as the first New World victim of western genocide; and Isambard Kingdom Brunel as the inspiration for Turner's The Fighting Téméraire (1838).
Central to the project of rediscovery is Gould's essay on Leonardo da Vinci and his unprecedented insight into fossil origins. So often depicted as a kind of intellectual time-traveller transported with all the future's wisdom into an ignorant past, Leonardo was actually, Gould contends, consummately engrossed in the ideas of his age. He was propelled, too, by a distinctly pre-modern philosophy of his own, namely the belief that the earth was a macrocosm and the human body a microcosm of the same kind of organism (rivers being the Earth's veins, the rise and fall of tides its breathing).
If we are to read Gould the way he wishes us to read other scientists, we mustn't overlook the influence of his own background. In a confessional introduction he argues that “Wordsworth's wisdom cannot be gainsaid that the child is father to the man,” and admits that growing up in the heart of New York City has imbued him with a love of human endeavour that nature's wonders could never outshine. Only in this light should we view his programmatic construction of a “humanistic natural history” with its “sensitive and intelligent conjunction of art and nature, not the domination of one by the other.” But by turning the scientist on science itself, and by elevating human design to the point of equalling natural design, Gould is, despite his denials, perpetuating the false distinction between nature and artifice that evolutionists have so often warned against—precisely because mankind is a subset of nature's overall splendour.
It's hardly surprising that, in elevating mankind in the way (if not to the same extent) that God once was, Gould runs up against the same problem as theologians of old: determinism. In stressing the unlikelihood of any conscious species evolving in a planetary ecology, given the monumental complexity of natural selection, Gould repeatedly confuses what is unpredictable in principle. To say consciousness was an evolutionary miracle is not to say it was without natural cause, and thus deterministically inevitable, given the earth's particular conditions. Unless Gould has recourse to quantum uncertainty (still very much outside his remit as a biologist) he has no rational grounds for appealing to free will as he does in his essay on genocide.
Still, Gould's writing is a triumph of casual illumination and calculated construction: he entices the reader with the most oblique and intriguing introductions without ever forcing generalities out of his particulars. He is among the great essayists of his generation.
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SOURCE: Appleyard, Bryan. “The Royal Road of Science.” Spectator 281, no. 8881 (24 October 1998): 53-4.
[In the following review, Appleyard comments on Gould's smug attitude in Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms and argues that Gould is too forgiving of science as a discipline.]
[Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History] is Gould's eighth volume of essays collected from his monthly series in the magazine Natural History. That series has now established him as one of the great essayists of his time. Clever, accessible, conscientious and humane, he has become science's finest and most persuasive advocate. Even if this volume were a total disaster, Gould's reputation would remain intact.
But, of course, it is not—though, for a while, I feared the worst. The introduction is weak and ponderous. Gould has a tendency to cuteness and whimsy that can lead to a meandering and somewhat smug contemplation of his own thought processes. He is pleased with himself—he has much to be pleased about—but, at his worst, he makes us oppressively aware of the fact.
His worst, however, is rare and his best fills most of the rest of this volume. He is, perhaps, the greatest living and working Aristotelian. He is sceptical of Platonic forms and grand schemes. Indeed, scientifically, he is perhaps most famous for his resistance to the hard, purist Darwinism of Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins. For Gould, reality is too complex and too subtle to be caught in such a simple net. Natural selection happens—no writer is more convincingly in awe of Darwin's insight than he—but it happens in the midst of many other strange and contingent things.
And, above all, it is not, as is commonly assumed, progressive. For moral, political and scientific reasons, Gould is opposed to the idea that evolution is a process of inevitable improvement. Such a view, as he has written elsewhere, tends to encourage eugenics, a destructive, anthropocentric view of nature and, in any case, it is wrong. Organisms go neither back nor forwards, they merely adapt to changing environments.
Within science, Gould is a dissident. Though hard Darwinism has taken on many modifications and nuances, it remains the dominant mode of thought in biology and, increasingly, in psychology and sociology. His essays are, therefore, genial protests against this orthodoxy as well as a broader appeal to a humane sense of the wonder, variety and ultimate irreducibility of life. Above all, he sees science both as the royal road to the truth and as an essentially human and cultural enterprise. Idealistically he believes that the one view does not compromise the other.
So, for example, his opening essay takes on the popular idea that Leonardo da Vinci was a kind of time traveller, a contemporary figure who happened to live in the 15th and 16th centuries. Much ink has been expended on establishing the ‘modernity’ of Leonardo. This is an illusion according to Gould. Why, Leonardo asked, do we find fossilised sea-shells on the tops of mountains? His answer was the modern one, that these rocks were once under the sea. But his reason for this answer was the distinctly unmodern belief that the earth was the macrocosm to the microcosm of the human body. It moved and breathed like the body. It moved and breathed like the body. The mountain-top fossils were evidence of this. Leonardo was, in short, right for the wrong reasons.
Such an argument puts Leonardo's science back where it belongs—in the cultural context of the Renaissance—and subverts the arrogant claims of modernity. The past is not prologue, it is autonomous and true to itself.
Similarly, in his essay ‘The Great Western and The Fighting Temeraire,’ Gould takes on the familiar formula that science progresses and art does not. As a result of this view, artists tend to be remembered as unique creators, and scientists and technologists forgotten as merely stepping-stones on the way to something better. Brunel, the builder of the Great Western, is forgotten—this may be true in America—and Turner, painter of The Fighting Temeraire, is remembered.
Gould points out that the fire-breathing tug in this hugely popular painting is routinely seen as the bad modern set against the wonderful old of the ethereal warship that it draws to the breaker's yard. In fact, Turner loved technology and its visual effects, so the tug is ‘not spiteful or demonic,’ it is a ‘workaday boat.’ The real villains of the picture are ‘the bureaucrats of the British Admiralty who let the great men-of-war decay, and then sold them for scrap.’
One can quibble with this interpretation—indeed I think Gould weakens his case by implying the picture needs villains. But I don't think one can argue with the importance of the idea that
Art and science are different enterprises, but the boundaries between them remain far more fluid and interdigitating, and the interactions far richer and more varied, than the usual stereotypes proclaim.
From these and from every other essay in this book, one glimpses the characteristic Gouldian vision of an integrated and humane culture in which science's royal road passes through and is defined by specific times, places and purposes. Furthermore, this culture is continuous. The scientists of the past may have been found to be wrong, but they are not irrelevant. By learning of their efforts and errors, we can better understand ourselves. And, in the minutiae of their lives and works we can grasp something of the best that we can be.
Gould writes, for example, of the unsung work of the curators of natural history museums. They are, he says, laughed at because they deal merely with fragments of extinction. But:
I have never met a curator who would not prefer the happier task of restoring a remnant to vitality. Nearly anyone in this line of work would take a bullet for the last pregnant dodo.
This is a moving and noble sentiment that joins the present to the past in a single, benign chain. There is, of course, a malign chain—humans drove the dodo to extinction and we now do even worse damage to the spectrum of biodiversity. But Gould's task is to fight pessimism by making it clear that we can choose to be better. Thomas à Becket was murdered at Canterbury Cathedral, he says, but it remains the finest Gothic building in England. He cannot have seen Lincoln—but, again, we need not quibble.
This possibility of human choice is not just feel-good hand waving. It lies at the heart of his case against the hard Darwinians who would explain and excuse all human behaviour in the name of evolution.
As for the potential path of genocide and destruction [he writes] let us take this stand. It need not be. We can do otherwise.
Consciousness and its offspring, culture, change everything. Science is not separate from society and people are not nature's puppets. Gould's essays are a superbly literate expression of a warm imagination that takes delight not in reduction but in the expansion of our imaginations to encompass the diversity of things.
The weakness in this vision is that Gould is just too nice. His vision is true of science and of that of many of his heroes, but it is not true of science as a whole. The cold confidence of Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins or the inane scientism of Lewis Wolpert are the true faces of contemporary science. And the empty neophilia of so much of our present culture is the expression not of integration but of fragmentation. The issue Gould does not address is the possibility that his vision of science, like his version of Darwinism, may be dissident. And the Gould essay that I want to read is the one that asks the question: how do we survive science if its insights, like those of hard Darwinism, are proved or believed to be right?
Gould's advocacy of the institution of science is, in fact, the advocacy of an old and beleaguered scientific culture, one which was content to accept the authority of the non-scientific imagination. That authority has gone to be replaced by that of a new, ahistoric and illiterate priesthood. Gould is a good man in a bad world but, like many good men, he does not quite realise how bad it is.
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SOURCE: Cowen, Robert C. “Religion Has No Bone to Pick with Science.” Christian Science Monitor 91, no. 77 (18 March 1999): 19.
[In the following review, Cowen praises Gould's assertion of the importance of religion in conjunction with science in Rocks of Ages.]
Make no bones about it, Stephen Jay Gould has found religion. The popular paleontologist hasn't embraced any particular creed. That would violate his self-proclaimed tendency toward atheism. He has done something more transcendent in [Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life]. He has recognized religion for what it essentially is—a major mode of thought that helps us cope with the bewildering universe in which we live.
Professor Gould sees science as a complementary mode that describes the natural world and how it works. It traces cosmic evolution and dates our arrival. But it can't give us a sense of purpose or define our duty to each other, to our planet, which we now dominate, or to life itself. That, Gould asserts, requires the methods and traditions of religion in its fundamental role, which includes “all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship among people.”
We need both thought modes—what he calls these “rocks of ages”—to live fully today and to meet the challenges of the coming millennium.
That's a grand vision, but what's new? Thoughtful scientists and theologians have acknowledged this partnership for over a century, as Gould himself points out. What goaded him to fire up his word processor is media hype about “the war” between science and religion and about scientists finding God in nature.
There is no “war.” If science had a religious enemy, it would be dogmatism that would force science to describe nature in terms of some specific doctrine. Dogmatism lost that battle. Science and religion form a partnership based on mutual respect for, and understanding of each other's distinctive nature. What works in one domain won't work in the other. This is Gould's central theme.
Science can discover how to clone animals. But it can't settle the issue of how to use that knowledge. The moral discourse can put limits on human experimentation. But it can't specify how babies develop or plants grow. Science and religion with their distinctive goals and methods cannot fuse. Yet they intermingle at every twist and turn of human experience.
This leads to Gould's major peeve. Trouble erupts in the partnership when practitioners in one domain try to extend their methods and biases into the other “magisterium,” to use Gould's terminology. Religious censorship of science is the classic example. But the reverse offense is more prevalent today. Sometimes scientists act as though their expertise entitled them to a special voice in setting public policy and morality. It doesn't.
And too often, the news media overplay the scientist-finds-God theme. The awe inspired by Hubbell Space Telescope pictures, the wonder of living organisms' exquisite adaptation to their environment lie within the beholder. They are not an objective property of scientific knowledge. Matter's modes do not reflect the hand of deity. As Gould notes, we should stop seeking spiritual truth in material nature and instead look within ourselves.
Gould makes his points with authority, insight, and his trademark good humor, although he sometimes waffles on to the extent of overkill. Verbal economy is not his style.
Nevertheless, his thought-provoking, entertaining essay defines a basic necessity. If we are to survive into the distant future, we must learn to manage our planetary environment in sustainable fashion. We need guidance from both science and religion to do it.
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SOURCE: Johnson, Phillip E. “Material Principle.” Commonweal 126, no. 8 (23 April 1999): 29-30.
[In the following review, Johnson focuses on the papal statement that Gould uses in his analysis of religion and science in Rocks of Ages.]
In October 1996 Pope John Paul II sent a statement on biological evolution to the Papal Academy of Sciences. After some general remarks, John Paul observed that Pius XII's encyclical Humani generis in 1950 had described the theory of evolution as “a serious hypothesis,” worthy of in-depth study and not contrary to the Catholic faith—provided that it was not presented as certain, proven doctrine, and that it did not purport to displace entirely the role of revelation in questions of origins. John Paul updated that judgment, saying that since 1950 discoveries have been made in a variety of fields which support the theory, so that now evolution should be regarded as more than merely a hypothesis. “The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.”
Rocks of Ages is basically a heavily padded version of an essay that Stephen Jay Gould wrote about the pope's statement for his regular column in Natural History magazine. Gould quotes the part of the statement summarized above to support his interpretation that John Paul accepts evolution as “effectively proven fact.” Gould ignores the remainder of the statement, which takes a different direction. The pope went on to say that the theory of evolution is not merely derived from data but also “borrows certain notions from natural philosophy.” Next, he added that “rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based. Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist, and spiritualist explanations.”
Finally, John Paul carried over from Humani generis one very specific limitation on evolutionary thinking: “Theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.” In the original essay, but not this book, Gould took note of the pope's “insistence on divine infusion of the soul,” and described it as a concept having “metaphorical value,” but which he personally suspects to be “a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature.”
What was the pope getting at? Gould thinks that Pius XII allowed consideration of evolution only reluctantly, with the hope that the theory would be discredited, whereas John Paul realizes that evolution is now so heavily supported by scientific evidence that even devout Christians must accept it unreservedly. Gould goes on from this premise to the conclusion that the church seems to have accepted in principle his own concept of “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA). The magisterium (teaching authority) of the church is over morals and values; the magisterium of science is over questions of fact. So long as religion sticks to questions of value and science sticks to determining issues of fact, Gould thinks that science and religion can live together at peace.
We might call this the Pax Scientifica, for it would be a peace that reflects the scientific materialist assumption that knowledge (as opposed to subjective belief) belongs exclusively to the realm of fact occupied by science. The realm of value assigned to the church is more like a radio talk show, where all opinions are equal and none is authoritative. Any attempt by the church to assert a genuine teaching authority would have to rest on assumptions of fact, such as the divinity of Christ, and these would be checkmated by science.
For example, Gould says that his settlement would forbid the church to teach that miracles have actually occurred, because that would be a claim of fact within the magisterium of science, which rejects supernatural interventions as a matter of principle. Among the questions of fact which scientists would determine, then, are such questions as whether God directed and guided the evolution of life, whether Jesus actually rose from the dead, and whether there is a factual discontinuity between animals and humans attributable to divine intervention. The answers would all be negative. The rules of NOMA give scientists exclusive authority to say which factual claims are real and which are illusory, and scientists will say that the alleged supernatural events upon which the church bases its magisterium are among the illusions.
I am sure that the pope never meant to accept so one-sided a peace, nor does he accept the fact/value distinction as propounded by scientific materialists like Gould. On the contrary, the heart of the pope's statement was its attempt to distinguish between empirical science on the one hand, and materialist philosophy on the other. The pope did bend over backward to say how deeply the church respects the methods and results of scientific investigation on questions of fact, but that is not all he said. He was equally careful to say that current versions of evolutionary theory are influenced by controversial philosophical notions, and that scientists step beyond the boundaries of their own magisterium when they insist that a materialist philosophy can explain all of reality.
The statement was bound to be misunderstood, because scientists like Gould do not recognize a distinction between science and materialism. As Gould's Harvard colleague and intellectual ally Richard Lewontin has put it, the essence of a scientific viewpoint is to understand that “we exist as material beings in a material world, all of whose phenomena are the consequences of material relations among material entities.” To Gould and Lewontin materialism is one of the facts, and so they can make no sense of the pope's insistence that there is something in man which is not an epiphenomenon of matter. Hence they simply ignore the point and assume that when the pope accepts science he effectively accepts materialism, even if he is a bit slow to realize all the consequences. If there is to be an effective dialogue between science and theology, it will have to focus on distinguishing between the facts that scientists know because of their reliable methods of investigation, and the philosophical assumptions they are tempted to make because they want science to have a monopoly in the production of knowledge.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1997
SOURCE: Weigel, George. Review of Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, by Stephen Jay Gould. Commentary 107, no. 5 (May 1999): 67-70.
[In the following review, Weigel argues that there are several biases evident throughout Rocks of Ages.]
Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard/NYU paleontologist whose formidable skills as a popularizer have made him one of the world's most successful science writers, now deploys those same skills in discussing for nonspecialist readers the future relationship between scientists and religious believers. His aim [in Rocks of Ages] is to resolve what he aptly terms “the supposed conflict between science and religion.”
However fevered its history, the quarrel between science and religion, is, Gould argues, “a debate that exists only in people's minds and social practices, not in the logic or proper utility of these … equally vital subjects.” The conflict, in short, is an artificial one, sustained by ignorance and bias in both camps. Resolving it involves recognizing its artificiality—something that, Gould boldly suggests, both Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley, the 19th-century English biologist and advocate of scientifically grounded agnosticism, were prepared to do.
Gould's proposal is that both science and religion adopt a principle of “respectful noninterference” between their “nonoverlapping magisteria,” or “NOMA” (his acronym). With such a principle in place, he claims, the putative problem simply dissolves. Scientists will talk about “the factual character of the natural world,” and religious people will talk about their distinctive realm. Life will go on without rancor.
Peace-through-NOMA is suggested at the very outset of this brief book. Gould then attempts to explain and defend his principle of “noninterference” through a historical ramble in which he revisits Darwin's and Huxley's personal struggles with the deaths of their children, Galileo's 17th-century battle with the Church, the Vatican statements on evolution by Popes Pius XII and John Paul II, the biologist J. B. S. Haldane's 1927 Gifford lectures on science and religion, and contemporary American court battles over high school biology textbooks.
At the end, NOMA reappears as the centerpiece of a more comprehensive concept of the human condition. We must, Gould writes, “establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes—a universe whose indifference to human striving, suffering, and glory is, he insists, the precondition for human freedom.
One can readily agree with Gould that the alleged conflict between religion and science, symbolically represented by the Galileo affair and the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” in Tennessee over the teaching of evolution in the public schools, reflected misunderstandings of religious authority that need not impede a serious encounter today.
(One might add, though Gould does not, that both these episodes also involved misunderstandings of the degree of certitude available to science, a subject to which I shall return.) A new conversation between science and religion, neither of which is going away and both of which will have a profound impact on the 21st century, would surely benefit all concerned.
But, on the terms that Gould suggests, a serious conversation is most unlikely. For as he conceives it, NOMA amounts to rather more than setting the rules of engagement between two teaching authorities. Gould's NOMA comes with an intellectual price tag—namely, the admission that religion and science are two “utterly different” human enterprises, or, to use the cliche, apples and oranges.
Gould candidly admits that there is nothing original in his “blessedly simple” and “entirely conventional” NOMA principle, as indeed there is not. Like similar proposals, however, what it fails to grapple with is that apples and oranges are both fruit—which means that they have important things in common. The same must be said of science and religion, both of which aim to understand the truth of the human condition. To treat science and religion as “utterly different” is convenient for certain kinds of scientists (deeply skeptical about religion but “tolerant”) and certain kinds of religious believers (tepid and/or intellectually insecure). But it does not help us think very seriously about either realm.
Gould's proposal unravels even as he explores the rationale for his NOMA principle. He himself is an agnostic, convinced that in matters religious, “open-minded skepticism [is] the only rational position because, truly, one cannot know.” This seems, at first blush, a humane, even a generous, position. But on closer examination, Gould's skepticism, like Thomas Huxley's, is not open-minded at all, but rather sets strict boundaries on the sorts of reasonableness it is prepared to recognize. One result of his particular form of skepticism—a result lethal to any serious intellectual engagement between science and religion—is that faith is reduced to fideism: a will-to-believe that is the antithesis of rationality. The assumption that one's interlocutor is, in some deep sense, irrational, is not the most promising ground on which to open a conversation.
There are other serious problems with Gould's understanding of religious conviction and religious believers. He claims, for instance, to have a “great respect for religion,” and indeed an enduring fascination with it, because “organized religion has fostered, throughout Western history, both the most unspeakable horrors and the most heartrending examples of human goodness in the face of personal danger.” Leaving aside the question of how “organized religion” fostered the Gulag Archipelago or Mao's even more massive slaughter, we are still left here with a narrowly instrumental view of religious belief and practice: religion is interesting because it motivates people to do things, for good or for ill. Or, as Gould also stipulates, religion deals with “the realm of human purposes, meanings, and values,” a realm completely divorced from the realm of fact with which science wrestles. Alas, it is but a short step from here to the inference that, while science deals with the “real world,” religion is about, well, something else—lifestyle, perhaps.
That biblical religion has made truth-claims about the origin, nature, and destiny of the created world simply does not count in Gould's NOMA universe. But if truth is truth and not simply a cultural construct (as Gould insists is the case with respect to scientific claims about natural phenomena), there must be a considerable, and considerably interesting, overlap between two modes of human inquiry committed to the same end. History amply demonstrates that life on that overlapping terrain can be bruising. But it need not be so if both parties maintain a certain modesty about their respective competencies.
At the opening of the modern scientific age, the Church made a serious error by failing to heed the advice of the great Counter-Reformation Jesuit theologian Robert Bellarmine. During the Galileo affair, Bellarmine argued that, faced with scientific proofs that seemed to contradict religious truths, it was better for believers “to say that we do not understand, rather than affirm that what has been demonstrated [scientifically] is false.” The Church has since learned Bellarmine's lesson in epistemological humility. Gould's proposal—that religion cede the “real world,” and indeed anything properly describable as “knowledge,” to science—suggests that the shoe is now on the other foot, and that a dose of Bellarmine's caution is needed in the laboratories.
Gould's skepticism also distorts his view of intellectual history. Although you will not learn it from Rocks of Ages, biblical religion has done more for Western civilization than motivating men and women to noble (or reprehensible) behavior. It has, for example, helped make science possible. Absent a culture influenced by three biblical truth-claims—that the natural world is a “creation” (i.e., an ordered reality); that history is linear; and that human beings have a unique place in the created order—it is not easy to see how what we know as the scientific method could have emerged. The scientific method was not, after all, the product of cultures formed by the notions that Fate is in charge of things, or that humanity is a plaything of the gods, or that the natural world is an accident, or that history is cyclical. It was the product of an intellectual universe shaped in no small part by Genesis 1-3 and John 1.1-14.
Although he strives to keep his rhetorical equilibrium throughout Rocks of Ages, the bile rises in Gould's throat when politics enters, stage left, and he reviews the recent battles over public-school curricula between defenders of evolutionary theory and advocates of “creation science.” His narrative of one struggle in which he personally took the field against the unwashed fundamentalist rabble—a 1981 Arkansas textbook controversy that resulted in a major defeat for “creation science”—further defines the boundaries of Gould's tolerance, and suggests that, for him, respectful noninterference means conceding the entire public square to one account of humanity's origins and nature.
One need hardly hold a brief for “creation science,” which muddles both creation and science, in order to notice that there is far more going on between today's “evolutionists” and “creationists” than a debate over the age of rocks—just as, in the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” there was more going on between the contending attorneys Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan than a debate over the pedagogy of a teacher named John Scopes. However clumsily, advocates of “creation science” have rung a bell alerting the rest of us to the fact that, as taught in many elementary-and secondary-school science classes, evolutionary theory carries with it a lot of philosophical baggage. Many science texts today do not simply propose that an evolutionary mechanism explains certain aspects of the material world (which no thoughtful person would contest). Rather, their implicit claim is that the material world is all there is, period. And that, irony of ironies, sounds like an establishment of religion, or at least its functional equivalent.
Materialism is an idea with large consequences. Any all-purpose explanatory scheme for grasping things as they are implies an anthropology, a concept of the human person. Take, for example, Stephen Jay Gould himself, who tells us more about his metaphysics and his anthropology than he perhaps realizes when he writes, quoting the poet Robert Frost, that “Homo sapiens … ranks as a ‘thing so small’ in a vast universe, a wildly improbable evolutionary event, and not the nub of universal purpose.” Gould finds this notion of accidental man “exhilarating” and “a source of … freedom and consequent moral responsibility,” though he concedes that some may find it “depressing.” But “depressing” hardly seems the mot juste. To think of human beings as congealed stardust, the accidental by-products of random biochemical processes, is to think of ourselves, in the final analysis, as meat. The history of this bloodiest of centuries is replete with examples of the devastation that follows upon such a—there is no other word for it—desecration of the human person.
There will indeed be a new conversation between science and religion in the 21st century. Developments in physics, astronomy, biochemistry, theology, and biblical studies are inexorably recasting the hoary either/or debates between scientific materialists and religious believers. And the new conversation will require more scientific literacy than many religious philosophers and theologians have managed to acquire in the past. But the fact is that, in recent decades, there has been far more intellectual openness on the religious side of this cultural divide than there has been among many scientists. If you are looking for the exhilaration of intellectual freedom these days, you are more likely to find it at the Vatican Observatory than in most university departments of paleontology. And if “fundamentalism” is the willful suspension of critical judgment because of prior metaphysical commitments, then one need go no farther for examples than today's legions of materialists and naturalists.
This materialistic fundamentalism is a severe obstacle to what Stephen Jay Gould states as his heartfelt goal: “a respectful, even loving concordat between … science and religion.” Respect, much more love, would seem to require taking others for what they claim to be—in this instance, in touch with the truth. Biblical religion has long since granted that to science. It remains for science, at least as represented by Rocks of Ages, to reciprocate.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1977
SOURCE: Goodenough, Ursula. “The Holes in Gould's Semipermeable Membrane between Science and Religion.” American Scientist 87, no. 3 (May/June 1999): 264-68.
[In the following review, Goodenough criticizes Gould's central argument in Rocks of Ages, noting that the “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) principle Gould presents is difficult to accept because he fails to adequately address the “magisterium of religion.”]
Lifelong Stephen Jay Gould readers will find in Rocks of Ages much that is delightfully familiar: graceful language flecked with occasional irreverence, wonderful anecdotes about Darwin and his friends and their times, and the side trips—to the Scopes trial, to the Vatican, to the flat-earth controversy—that slowly circle back to the main thread as engaging commentaries are proffered on the passing scenery. As always, Gould shoots some wonderful baskets, often from way outside the circle.
But it is the main thread that must be considered here, for Gould has most emphatically written a book that has a point and one point alone. That point is given the acronym NOMA, which stands for non-overlapping magisteria, where a magisterium is “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution.” The two magisteria that fail to overlap are science and religion, and Gould declares the NOMA thesis to be “intellectually sound,” “eminently practical” and “laudable.”
NOMA is a simple, humane, rational, and altogether conventional argument for mutual respect, based on non-overlapping subject matter, between two components of wisdom in a full human life: our drive to understand the factual character of nature (the magisterium of science) and our need to define meaning in our lives and a moral basis for our actions (the magisterium of religion).
Moreover, he claims that “most religious and scientific leaders actually do advocate the precepts of NOMA,” the exceptions including creationists and militant atheists with a “blinkered concept of religion.”
Such a gauntlet obviously invites response.
The first difficulty arises in considering Gould's definition of a magisterium, in which “each domain of inquiry frames its own rules and admissible questions, and sets its own criteria for judgment and resolution.” He has no difficulty describing the tools that govern the magisterium of science—they encompass, of course, the scientific method, wherein “conclusions must remain open to empirical test and potential rejection.” Indeed, of Thomas the Apostle, Gould writes:
Poor doubting Thomas. At his crucial and eponymous moment, he acted in the most admirable way for one style of inquiry—but in the wrong magisterium. He espoused the key principle of science while operating within the different magisterium of faith.
In contrast, Gould fails to describe the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution in the magisterium of religion. We learn that the outcome of religious inquiry is meaning and morals, but it is not at all clear how these are to be discerned, discussed or resolved except that we are assured that the process is “logically distinct” and “fully separate in styles of inquiry” from science. Gould's conclusion that the tools employed by doubting Thomas are out of line in the magisterium of religion is in fact likely to irritate, possibly outrage, some contemporary theologians. Moreover, since he tells us that “dogmatic theology” is “contrary to most people's concept of religion” (news to me) and because “the validity of (ethical) principles can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science,” we emerge with several opinions about how the process should not work but little about how it should.
Given this vacuum, it is useful to look at traditional religions and ask how their systems of ultimate meaning and ethical value have been deduced and consolidated. My sense is that each system is based on some sort of cosmology—God is in covenant with the Jews, Jesus is redeemer, the Buddha shows us the path to enlightenment—cosmologies that are rendered in poetry and art and texts and are thereby infused with meaning and value. Ethical precepts then flow from these cosmologies, whether via the direct revelation of religious visionaries or by subsequent Talmudic-like inquiry: The precepts are invariably embedded in the central account or story.
Gould is apparently not persuaded that these accounts are a valid substrate for the religious quest. In a remarkable section, he announces:
The first commandment for all versions of NOMA might be summarized by stating: “Thou shalt not mix the magisteria by claiming that God directly ordains important events in the history of nature by special interference knowable only through revelation and not accessible to science.”
So much for most of the cosmology of traditional religions, called into being before scientific inquiry was available. Such a jettisoning of miracle-based cosmologies is of course the agenda of the “militant atheists” that Gould reviles. It is also the agenda of writer Ken Wilber, who states in Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion (1998): “If religion is to survive in a viable form in the modern world, it must be willing to jettison its bogus claims.” But what is to replace them? If meaning and ethics are responses to large stories, and if our scientific understanding of nature is disallowed as a source of new stories, then where are the new stories to be found? By what criteria do we validate our moralities if we throw out revelation, authority and scientific inquiry? Wilber responds that these issues melt away once we engage in years of Buddhist meditation and discover “the reality of pure Spirit,” a response that I do not find very helpful. But no more helpful is Gould's statement: “I … construe as fundamentally religious all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship among people.”
Not only does Gould refrain from identifying the tools for meaningful discourse and resolution in the magisterium of religion, but he also tells us that this discourse will generate two outcomes—ultimate meaning and moral value—that he invariably utters in the same breath. From my perspective, these outcomes relate to very different sets of propositions: Quests for ultimate meaning generate answers to “why” questions (“why is there anything at all?”) that cannot be answered by science, whereas ethical quests generate answers to “how should we proceed?” questions that cannot be answered by science. Moreover, their consideration would seem to entail quite different tools of inquiry. In the end, a system of ultimate meaning involves personal beliefs and can therefore harbor whatever level of irrationality is needed. In contrast, a system of moral values entails beliefs that are generated by some sort of social discourse, meaning that their “truth” must make some sort of communal sense before it can carry the de facto validation of consensus. To be sure, a community can agree on the validity of “irrational” beliefs, but there is always the possibility that a doubting Thomas will hold them up to question.
Again the real difficulty is that both sets of questions must be asked and responded to in the context of an overarching cosmology. We seek the meaning of—what? The universe, life, human self-awareness, time—topics that our scientifically derived understanding has much to tell us about. Similarly, as we seek ways to generate ethical consensus, we bring to the table our concepts of human nature and the dynamics of social systems, topics about which our scientifically derived understanding also has much to report. So whereas religion may not have much to report. So whereas religion may not have much of “factual” relevance to say to science, science has plenty of interesting things to say to religion: It provides much of the “what” for the “why” and “how” questions that confront us. There are, to be sure, other important inputs on offer as well, notably in the art and insights inherent in our wisdom/religious systems. But if there is a membrane separating the magisteria of science and religion, it is decidedly semipermeable. Gould is curiously self-contradictory on this point. He can write, “Science and religion must ask different, and logically distinct, questions—but their subjects of inquiry are often both identical and maximally meaningful,” and can acknowledge that nature is “bursting with relevant information to spice our moral debates.” But then he claims that ethical questions “cannot be answered, or even much illuminated, by factual data of any kind.”
So why does Gould flip and flop here? As near as I can tell, much of the problem derives from the fact that the book attempts to make a second point, namely, that scientists are prone to commit the naturalistic fallacy—to derive “oughts” from “ises”—on a grand, overbearing scale. This point is often made with startling acrimony in an otherwise gentle text:
Scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world's empirical constitution.
Why shouldn't readers view me as just another arrogant scientist attempting to demote religion to impotence and inconsequentiality?
NOMA places equally strong restrictions upon the imperialistic aims of many scientists (particularly in suppressing claims for possession of moral truth based on superior understanding of factual truth in any subject).
NOMA does forbid a scientific entry into fields where many arrogant scientists love to walk, and yearn to control.
I do get discouraged when some of my colleagues tout their private atheism (their right, of course, and in many ways my own suspicion as well) as a panacea for human progress against an absurd caricature of “religion” erected as a straw man for rhetorical purposes.
Who are these “many scientists”? Given the recent spate of locker-room towel-snapping published in The New York Review of Books, I looked for such imperialistic aims in recent books by scientists and science-popularizers—Daniel Dennett, E. O. Wilson and Robert Wright—but came up short. To my reading, these books show great respect for the magisterium of religion as Gould defines it. No question about it: Our scientific understandings of nature have on occasion been accorded the status of ultimate truth and ethical certainty by scientists and nonscientists alike, and Gould has served as an important watchdog in calling these aberrations to our attention. But to caricature “many scientists” as having “imperialist” agendas smells of “I have a list.” At the least, one would have hoped that Gould would have documented these claims with the same care that he documents the statements of 19th-century theologians so that we are able to evaluate them. It would seem that much of his reluctance to celebrate the role that scientific understandings can play in informing our quest for meaning and ethics flows from his fear—unjustified among the “many scientists” I know—that scientists will somehow abuse this process.
To close on the positive note that this book deserves, I (and, I would venture, most scientists) am in full-throated agreement with the concept at the heart of his message, that “the causes of life's history (cannot) resolve the riddles of life's meaning” and that nature
greets us with sublime indifference and no preference for accommodating our yearnings. We are therefore left with no alternative. We must undertake the hardest of all journeys by ourselves: the search for meaning in a place both maximally impenetrable and closest to home—within our own frail being.
Gould's vision of the project before us is equally rich.
To anyone who feels cosmically discouraged at the prospect of life as a detail in a vast universe not evidently designed for our presence … consider the much greater fascination and intellectual challenge of such a mysterious but knowable universe, compared with a “friendlier” and more familiar cosmos that only mirrors our hopes and needs.
And then, the eloquent passage that first appeared in Wonderful Life (1989):
We are the offspring of history, and must establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes—one indifferent to our suffering, and therefore offering us maximal freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our own chosen way.
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SOURCE: Pope, Stephen. Review of Rocks of Ages, by Stephen Jay Gould. Christian Century (2 June 1999): 622-27.
[In the following review, Pope argues that Gould's NOMA principle in Rocks of Ages is not “sufficiently complex” and that science and religion are more closely intertwined than Gould asserts.]
We could avoid all sorts of nasty fights, Stephen Jay Gould argues [in Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life,] if we would stop expecting science to provide validating evidence for religious dogmas or biblical events. Nor ought we to turn to religion to resolve questions of a properly scientific nature. He wants no more natural theology, no more “anthropic principle,” no more attempts to find scientific confirmation for religious beliefs, and no more fundamentalist “creation science.” In short, “science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven.”
Gould's thesis is that, at their best, science and religion occupy separate intellectual spheres and have usually pursued a policy of peaceful coexistence summarized in the acronym “NOMA,” or “Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” (By “magisterium” he means only something like a distinctive zone of reflection, discussion and debate.) His position flows from an apparently straightforward claim: that science concerns itself with empirical realities, whereas religion addresses matters of meaning, ultimacy and moral values. Gould argues that conflict between science and religion has more often than not been the result of a misdirected desire to resolve anxiety about our place in the universe, and that this conflict is psychologically, ethically, scientifically and religiously unnecessary.
Gould's argument is informed by a deep suspicion of ideological appeals to nature, especially in the guise of anything resembling social Darwinism. He insists that we ought not to give ethical authority to science; rather, “we must simply admit that nature offers no moral instruction at all.” Yet even if this is true, our ideas and normative perspectives often function to direct our observation of nature and our ascertainment of relevant facts. Consequently, Gould's dichotomy of value-free science versus value-invested religion may not be sufficiently complex.
The appeal of Rocks of Ages lies in its commonsense moderation. Readers braced for something like Richard Dawkins's vehement denunciations of the “emptiness of theology” or familiar with E. O. Wilson's substitution of evolution for religion will find Gould refreshingly irenic, nuanced and broad-minded. Rather than repeating the tired cliche that the Roman Catholic Church is simply a bastion of anti-intellectual dogmatism and antiscientific authoritarianism, for example, Gould sees that it has been a cautious defender of science in general and evolutionary theory in particular. Similarly, he portrays William Jennings Bryan, who led the anti-Darwinian attack at the Scopes “monkey trial,” not as a raving yahoo but as the progressive populist and principled (if, in this case, misguided) moralist that he was.
NOMA has its critics, and the book is disappointing in its failure to take them seriously. Phillip Johnson, professor of law and author of Darwinism on Trial, attacked Gould's earlier presentations of NOMA for advocating an anachronistic and artificial separation of morality and reality. Moral claims are highly dependent on descriptive beliefs and assumptions regarding human conduct. In fact, Gould's own book on the IQ controversy, The Mismeasure of Man, amply demonstrates how dependent moral positions are on premises about what are purported to be descriptive realities. Moreover, Johnson argues, Christian religious affirmations concerning God, Jesus Christ and eternal life (to name a few) clearly are not about some vague “meaning” but refer to realities, even if revealed and deeply mysterious ones. Johnson is right that a great deal of religion is descriptive rather then prescriptive. Christianity, for example, describes the way the world is—created, fallen and redeemed—not just the way we ought to act within it. Yet even though concepts like the “fall” and “redemption” concern what is “real” in some sense, they cannot be classified as simply “empirical,” as if they could be addressed through lab work or field studies. The truth and meaning of Christian beliefs cannot be established or even directly examined by means of scientific investigation. They are not, however, completely independent of what neuroscience teaches us about humanity, any more than what we think about creation is utterly independent of what we know from ecological science.
Gould also fails to address the criticisms leveled at NOMA from the other end of the spectrum. Dawkins has been harshly critical of Gould—even accusing him of “self-serving dishonesty”—for pulling his punches when it comes to religion. He takes Gould to task for downplaying the extent and depth of direct contradiction between science and religion. According to Dawkins, religious claims about such things as the resurrection of Jesus or the last judgment refer to events that cannot be accepted by a scientifically educated person. The “realities” which these beliefs affirm lie within the domain of science, claims Dawkins. If Gould were to admit this he could no longer affirm the NOMA principle.
Gould attempts to strike an admirable balance between his own self-professed agnosticism and even skepticism, on the one hand, and respect for the consciences of religious people and the moral contributions made by religious communities, on the other. He is not, however, as strict an interpreter of NOMA as one might initially assume. He thinks that science can act as a check on religious claims, at least inasmuch as religion makes empirical claims about nature, human behavior and the world.
Gould should actually have called his principle “POMA,” for “Partially Overlapping Magisteria”—a position which would be both more interesting and trickier to defend. POMA is exemplified in his decision to rule out miracles and other forms of divine intervention on the principle that since they are not accessible to science, they cannot be true. In taking aim at “creation science,” he actually targets something much wider—the belief in a God who cares for and orders creation. Gould does not think that theism is intellectually tenable, at least if taken to affirm the existence and activity of a personal, benevolent and almighty God whose will orders history and nature. He not only accepts the standard methodological restriction of science to nature (“science isn't concerned with God, only with nature”), but denies that logic or evidence gives any support for belief in “supernature” or the transcendent. So, Dawkins asks, why respect it?
Yet Gould certainly communicates a serious appreciation for the functional value of religion in the lives of millions of people, even if he does not happen to share their piety. He is also aware that science cannot answer the big and inescapable existential questions that we all encounter. Gould's modesty in this regard is admirable, especially when contrasted with E. O. Wilson's overly confident substitution of evolutionary mythology and morality for religion or with Dawkins's dismissal of religious questions as silly anachronisms.
In a world increasingly explained by science, Gould strives mightily to make room for religion. Yet readers will be surprised that someone as historically minded as he is ignores the immense complexity and diversity of “religion.” For him, the term includes not Mayan witchdoctors, Iranian Imams or Appalachian snake handlers, but only bourgeois Westerners who embrace the liberal values of compassion, tolerance and equality. There is, however, no such thing as generic “religion,” only Lutheranism and Syrian Orthodoxy, Reform Judaism and Jainism, and so forth. It is, therefore, exceedingly difficult for anyone to formulate substantive global generalizations about the relation between “science” and “religion” as such.
Neither Johnson nor Dawkins provide knockout blows to NOMA. But by not taking the opportunity to respond to their criticisms, Gould limits the usefulness and persuasiveness of his book. Readers participating in, or at least seriously committed to, the religion-science dialogue will enjoy and learn from Rocks of Ages, but they will not find in it a fully coherent and deeply satisfying theory of the proper relation between these major human endeavors.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608
SOURCE: Flynn, Tom. “But They Do Overlap.” Free Inquiry 19, no. 4 (fall 1999): 69.
[In the following review, Flynn asserts that Rocks of Ages, which purports to help bridge the divide between science and religion, actually does the opposite.]
“Faith and knowledge are totally different things,” wrote Schopenhauer, “which for their mutual benefit have to be kept strictly separate, so that each goes its own way without paying the slightest attention to the other.” In a sentence, that's the message of biologist-essayist Gould's latest book.
Gould is a deservedly decorated veteran of the evolution wars. Surely his job would be simpler if believers would quit shouting that Darwinism leads to atheism or if sophisticated atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel C. Dennett stopped implying the same thing. But his arguments [in Rocks of Ages] lead him into successive quagmires.
Gould's theory of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) counsels “mutual respect, based on non-overlapping subject matter, between two components of wisdom in a full human life: our drive to understand the factual character of nature (the magisterium of science), and our need to define meaning in our lives and a moral basis for our actions (the magisterium of religion)” (p. 175). Science and religion command separate territories; properly understood, they cannot conflict.
To establish this, Gould must argue that knowledge is ultimately fragmentary. If science and religion do not overlap, neither can embrace the whole of understanding. No discipline can. Gould imagines wisdom as a mosaic, a “picture gallery” each of whose many canvases is “circumscribed by a sturdy frame” (p. 53). He would get an argument from E. O. Wilson, whose recent Consilience envisioned eventual unification of knowledge under the mantle of science. In fairness, engaging such epistemological issues would compel Gould to have written a different book. But that he so offhandedly dismisses the unity of knowledge reveals much about his method.
That he speaks wistfully of “true religion” (p. 42) reveals even more.
Gould defines religion as religious humanists might, as the “realm of human purposes, meanings, and values” (p. 4). “True religion” must not dabble in factual statements, whether about the physical world or a supernatural one. Belief in miracles, especially, is disallowed: “Thou shalt not mix the magisteria” (p. 84). Astonishingly, Gould claims that cosmologies and miracle teachings are “contrary to most people's concept of religion” (p. 106). Few existing faiths will accept confinement to the limited range Gould wants to fence off for them.
Science, too, goes before the fun-house mirror. Questions of meaning and value simply lie beyond its purview: “[M]oral issues … must proceed under a different magisterium” dedicated to “ethical ‘ought,’ rather than a search for any factual ‘is’ …” (p. 55). This is G. E. Moore's critique of the naturalistic fallacy—famous, but still controversial among philosophers. Many believe our understanding of reality must shape ethical judgments. In simply asserting one side of this very open debate, Gould roots his definition of science in brazen question-begging, as he all but confesses in the book's longest footnote (p. 55-57).
Still, Rocks of Ages has genuine virtues. Gould plumbs religious literature for quotes counseling humility before science, a resource for humanist debaters. A delightful concluding chapter savages today's muddleheaded efforts to conflate religion and science: the soul as quantum, the anthropic principle, and more.
After Gould redefines them, science and religion live in peace. But they bear little resemblance to science or religion as understood by most practitioners of either discipline. Ultimately, Rocks of Ages functions as an ironic demonstration that the war between science and religion is real. If they can only be reconciled through definition-mongering this egregious, perhaps their conflict cannot be brushed aside. Perhaps this war must be fought and won.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2178
SOURCE: Ruse, Michael. “Both Sides Now.” Skeptic 8, no. 2 (spring 2000): 81-3.
[In the following review, Ruse contends that although he and Gould agree on many of the points presented in Rocks of Ages, Gould's NOMA concept is “a lot less fair-minded than appears at first sight.”]
Stephen Jay Gould is justly honored not only for his contributions to science but also for his sensitive and humane spirit, something which shines forth from his popular writings, especially his monthly column in Natural History. Nor should we forget his many activities on behalf of tolerance and understanding, not the least is the work he has done to support the harmonious and fruitful mutual existence of science and religion. One of the proudest moments of my life was to stand shoulder to shoulder with Gould in Arkansas in 1981, as we appeared as expert witnesses for the ACLU in its successful attack on a law demanding that children of the state be taught Creationism alongside evolution in their biology classes.
Recently, Gould has tied things together in Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, in which he expounds the principle by which he tries to preserve harmony and dignity between science and religion. Essentially his principle is one of separation: good fences make good neighbors. He thinks that science and religion speak to different dimensions and properly understood do not and cannot overlap and conflict. He speaks of science and religion as separate “Magisteria”—domains of understanding—and Gould advocates the principle of “NOMA”—Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Science has its dimension and religion has its dimension and ne'er the twain shall meet. Creationism must be wrong because it is a biblical (hence religious) doctrine presuming to speak of astronomy and biology (scientific doctrines).
Things are not quite this simple. The Gouldian separation ploy requires some further work. Prima facie, Genesis does tell us things which conflict with science—six days of creation, world-wide flood, tower of Babel, and so forth. If you are to insist that there is no conflict—and, in respects, I am happy to go along with Gould on this—then you have got to work to show that Genesis properly understood and science properly understood do not conflict. Prima facie conflict is no more than that—prima facie—and not definitive.
But note now what usually happens, historically and conceptually, when you try to rule out conflict. It is religion which has to modify, in order to fit in with science unmodified. The scientist tells us that the universe is roughly 15 billion years old, and the religious believer shifts the interpretation of Genesis. The scientist tells us that life evolved with descent with modification, and the religious believer shifts again. The scientist negates Noah, and again the believer falls into place. And so on. This is fine and dandy, but what if the believer wants to go the other way? What if the believer insists that the science has to yield instead of the religion? I suspect that most people who work on the science/religion relationship from the science side of the divide, including both Gould and myself, would get very tense at this point. We would insist that, in the empirical realm, it is science which rules supreme and religion must make way. That is all there is to it. I suspect that if we are ourselves believers we would add something about our powers of reason being a gift from God, and hence—far from being a denial of true religion—this advance of science is a wonderful affirmation of our respect for God. God did not expect us to sit on our bottoms in ignorance, but to go out and to explore this wonderful creation.
But does this mean that—for all that you are trying to convince yourself that this is what you wanted all along—the person working from the domain of religion must simply give way passively, never revising his or her beliefs except to trim yet more from the content? Is he or she at no point to look across to science for inspiration and understanding? This seems to be Gould's understanding of NOMA, and I confess that here I cannot follow him. If you interpret the divide in this stringent a way, then I fear that science is unjustifiably constraining the freedom of the theologian or the person of religion. This is to deny him or her the right to revise and reinterpret one's faith in the light of scientific advances.
Perhaps, if like certain liberal theologians of the last and present century, you are able to understand your faith solely in terms of ethical principles—Christianity reduces to moral sentiments about loving your neighbor and so forth—then probably you can go along with Gould. But if you think your faith makes existence statements—ontological commitments to such things as God being creator, of Jesus being the divine incarnate, and of the promise of eternal life for the saved—then I simply do not see how you can avoid trying to understand these statements and commitments in the light of the existence statements and ontological commitments of science. Comparison and influence comes with the territory.
To show my unease, take the discussion at the end of Rocks of Ages. Gould speaks harshly of the contributions of speakers at a Templeton-sponsored conference, “Science and the Spiritual Quest,” held at Berkeley. I will not speak to the overall quality and content of the presentations, but consider what Gould has to say in reaction to reports of various offerings. First, he is very critical of the attempt (by F. Russel Stannard) to interpret the God/Jesus relationship in terms of the complementarity of the wave and particle natures of the electron. “Wooly metaphor misportrayed as decisive content” says Gould. “I don't see what such a comparison could indicate except that the human mind can embrace contradiction (an interesting point, to be sure, but not a statement about the factual character of God), and that people can construct the wildest metaphors” (216).
But with respect, why should not Stannard play with such ideas and metaphors and analogies? Frankly, I do not know if it makes ultimate sense to talk of the Trinity. How can one thing be something else at the same time? Generations of critics—many inspired by science—have gone after Christianity on precisely this point. Yet, if it turns out that scientists are talking about something apparently having contradictory properties, why should not the Christian see if there is help and understanding in the new science for the old religious belief? Is the wave/particle complementarity of the electron precisely what Christians have been claiming? You may not illuminate anything in the end—Heisenberg's Principle is that if an electron is taken as a wave at some instant then it is no particle, and conversely. There is no claim that the electron is a wave and a particle at one and the same time. This may all be too weak for the Christian. But surely it is legitimate for the believer to try to see if modern physics has a kind of understanding which throws light on Christian claims.
Next Gould criticizes Arthur Peacocke when he argues that modern biology suggests that God creates in a sequential fashion rather than all at once. “Has the factuality of an old-fashioned creating God been proven because Darwin used developmental language to describe the genealogical history of life?” Rhetorically, Gould asks: “Is Mr. Peacocke's God just retooling himself in the spiffy language of modern science?” (217) Well, yes of course he is in a sense, but what is wrong with that? As a devout Anglican, Peacocke believes that God was creator. How can he fail then to ask how God was a creator? What else is Peacocke to do but to ask if then God creates in an evolutionary fashion? Why should one not say, as does Catholic priest Ernan McMullin, following Saint Augustine, that however God created, his creation was one which only unfurls gradually, as we get the expression of the seeds of development. And why should not Peacocke turn to science to find out how precisely this Augustinian suggestion should be understood?
Third, I will mention Gould's comments on the anthropic principle, an idea which he considers either “utterly trivial” or “completely illogical” (218). Now let me say that this is a negative position not that far from my own. Despite the efforts of John Leslie, my long-time colleague and friend at the University of Guelph, I am inclined to think that the physicists of today are trying to resurrect arguments that the biologists of yesterday showed to be fallacious. And before them, David Hume cast a very cold, skeptical eye on this kind of caper. But one of the main reasons why I have never written formally on the topic of the anthropic principle, and probably never will, is simply because I do not know enough physics to give a formal proof of my suspicions and prejudices. I leave that to others and so I think should Gould. It is not enough simply to sneer and then dismiss.
The people promoting the anthropic principle are serious thinkers, often knowing a lot of physics. To show them wrong, you too need to know some physics. Just as Gould would (rightly) claim that if you are going to show the Creationists wrong about the fossil record, you need to know some palaeontology. Phillip Johnson's ludicrous claims about Archeopteryx are refuted by an understanding of avian evolution, not by sneer and bluster. The same is true of physics. Even if you show that the anthropic principle does not do what its supporters claim, it is still open to the believer to argue that the design-like nature of the universe fleshes out one's faith, giving it deeper meaning. The same is true of the organic world. This has surely been the position of most sophisticated believers since Aquinas. Natural theology complements revealed religion. It does not replace it.
No one has more respect than I for Stephen Jay Gould. I fear, however, that the fence he would build between science and religion lies too far on one side's land and not enough towards the middle. This is no trivial matter. There are some really serious issues still facing the person concerned to harmonize science and religion. Crucially, it is part of Judaeo-Christian theology that humans are not simply animals, nor is our existence on this earth simply a matter of contingency. We are made in the image of God (whatever that might mean) and, although the universe may not exist for our special benefit, we humans do have a rather special place in the scheme of things.
Yet it is Gould most prominently who has been preaching the non-directedness of evolution and the absolute radical contingency of our own existence. As he noted in his 1989 Wonderful Life “Since dinosaurs were not moving toward markedly larger brains, and since such a prospect may lie outside the capabilities of reptilian design … we must assume that consciousness would not have evolved on our planet if a cosmic catastrophe had not claimed the dinosaurs as victims. In an entirely literal sense, we owe our existence, as large and reasoning mammals, to our lucky stars.” (Gould is here referring to the asteroid that hit earth 65 million years ago, killing the dinosaurs and making possible the rise of the mammals.)
I simply do not see how the Jew or Christian can or should leave matters untouched at this point, passively accepting the science as given and gutting the religion of absolutely central content: evolution is contingent and hence we humans cannot make claim to special status. As it happens, there are a number of options which present themselves here to the believer. (I discuss the various options in some detail in a book to appear next year: Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?) One that I favor is to argue that Gould's scientific contingency says nothing about the theological non-contingency of Judaeo-Christianity. But if you are going to go this route—or any other—you are surely going to engage in precisely the kind of enterprise for which we have just seen Peacocke criticized. In Gould's rather unkind way of putting things, you are going to have to reinterpret your faith in the “spiffy language of modern science.” My point is that I do not see how you could avoid doing this, which leads me to conclude that Gould's NOMA is a lot less fair-minded than appears at first sight.
Both Stephen Jay Gould and myself would describe ourselves as “agnostics”—how I hate that word with its odor of indifferent fence-sitting, true of neither of us—and I suspect that we both find as offensive the militant atheism of a Dawkins as the strident literalistic Calvinism of a Plantinga. But we must take care not to deny those who do not share our skepticism the right to explore and develop their beliefs in the light of modern science.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5233
SOURCE: Blackford, Russell. “Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion.” Quadrant 44, no. 4 (April 2000): 8-14.
[In the following review of Rocks of Ages, Blackford cautions that Gould misinterprets the nature of religion as well as its scope.]
While there is considerable controversy about Stephen Jay Gould's contributions to evolutionary theory, he is an eminent scientist, an important socio-political thinker, and an exemplary prose stylist whose lucid books and essays are a source of pleasure as well as knowledge. Unfortunately, he seems to have reached such authorial prominence and saleability that publishers now allow him to indulge himself on subjects where he is out of his field, or his depth, or both. Gould remains incapable of writing a thoroughly bad book, but he has gone close to doing so with his 1999 effort, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life.
The book's redeeming features include its detailed and plausible reinterpretation of the Scopes trial and the personalities involved. Though Gould has fought hard against the intellectual menace of creation science, he provides a sympathetic portrait of William Jennings Bryan, the supposed villain in the Scopes case, demonstrating in passing that the high school biology text which John Scopes and Clarence Darrow sought to defend in the mid-1920s contained its share of obnoxious speculation along racist lines.
But my interest is in Gould's central arguments. Rocks of Ages advocates a single idea, that there is no conflict between science and religion:
Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that co-ordinate and explain those facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. Similarly, while scientists must operate with ethical principles, some specific to their practice, the validity of these principles can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science.
Gould calls his “central principle of non-interference” that of “Non-Over-lapping Magisteria” (NOMA). In this usage, a “magisterium” is a domain of authority in teaching; the principle of NOMA is that religion and science are non-overlapping domains of intellectual authority. Because they do not overlap, they cannot contradict each other, and they should coexist in mutual respect.
Readers who might be inclined to side with Gould on this are likely to change their minds once the NOMA principle is fully unpacked, for its contents are rather surprising. Anyone who expects it to harmonise religious and scientific claims will be disappointed, since it does no such thing, and Gould specifically disavows that objective. The NOMA principle makes religion invulnerable to some kinds of scientific attack, but only by ruling out many religious claims as illegitimate in the first place. By this, I mean that Gould says they are not legitimate as religious claims.
He does not attack religious beliefs in a relatively young Earth merely on the basis that it is irrational to maintain them in the light of well-established scientific knowledge. Instead, he argues that it is illegitimate in principle to have any religious beliefs with empirical consequences. But, as H. Allen Orr has noted in a perceptive review available on the internet, “What Gould would likely dismiss as superstitious and superficial trimmings is what the actual religious world typically deems the heart of the matter.”
The best way to get a handle on the NOMA principle is to examine how Gould attempts to justify it philosophically. He does this in a strange little chapter entitled “NOMA Defined and Defended.” The chapter takes up nineteen pages of large print, and the early pages are wasted on an argument developed from the supposedly Aristotelian concept of the “golden mean.” Gould proposes that we should adopt neither an extreme viewpoint of expecting inevitable conflict between science and religion nor the other extreme, expecting some kind of harmonious integration. Rather, we should follow the “golden mean” and find a position where science and religion do not overlap at all.
I don't think this is even developed as a serious argument. It is more a rhetorical device to put us in a mood for compromise. Orr points out that Gould misrepresents Aristotle's actual position, since Aristotle used the concept of a mean as an approach to normative ethics, not a method of resolving competing truth claims.
If Gould had troubled to look more closely at Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, he would have found an analysis of the moral virtues as states of character by which we “stand well or badly” with reference to passions such as fear, joy and anger. A virtue is a disposition or state of character that enables us to prosper and do our work well. Ordinarily, it is a virtue to be inclined to neither an excess nor a deficiency of the relevant passion: we should be inclined to friendliness, for example, not surliness or obsequious flattery. Nowhere does Aristotle argue that the correct or virtuous disposition must necessarily be smack in the middle of the possibilities, or that we should adopt a life of moderation in all things. According to Aristotle, some things are to be shunned completely; he lists such passions as spite and envy and such actions as adultery, theft and murder.
These ideas make sense as a possible approach to normative ethics, but Aristotle's point is that the passions are the sorts of things of which we can have too much or too little. While the moral virtues can be thought of in this way, the same is certainly not the case with intellectual virtues, involving enquiry into matters of truth and falsity. The mean is not a principle for settling arguments about competing philosophical theories, such as those about the relationship between science and religion.
I don't know how Gould received such a misapprehension or whether it is original to him, but he is plainly and badly wrong when he states that the centrepiece of Aristotle's philosophy was “the resolution of most great issues at a resting point between extremes.” Aristotle's view could not be more different from this. The whole “argument” is a dead-end, and several other pages of Gould's key chapter are equally wasted on inconclusive waffle about oil and water, apples and oranges, chalk and cheese.
What remains of the key chapter is an argument based on the “is-ought” distinction drawn by David Hume (whose views about ethical matters were totally inconsistent with Aristotle's, but never mind that). These central pages of the chapter are physically dominated by a long footnote in much finer print, which snakes across three pages and takes up about two of them in all. In this wonderful anaconda of a note, Gould more or less apologises for his argument's low level of philosophical sophistication. In mitigation, he states a wish to be understood by intelligent general readers, not just those who are trained in philosophy, but the problems he admits overlooking are not, as he asserts, marginal ones that can be ignored for the sake of simplicity. They are fundamental.
Such as it is, the argument is that answers to “moral issues about the value and meaning of life, both in human form and more widely construed” are not logically entailed by any number of propositions about the factual “is” of “the material construction of the natural world.” This is correct, but it cannot be used to prove what Gould wants.
What is most striking about this, the central argument in Rocks of Ages, is that its author wants to equate the religious realm and that of ethical discussion. Gould believes the following impossible things: first, religion just is the domain of discussion about ethics (interpreted broadly to include issues of value and “purpose”), the “ought” realm; second, science cannot impinge on this (broadly understood) ethical realm.
Gould rules out conflict between science and religion, not so much by holding back the long reach of science (though the book contains an element of this), but by radically constraining the claims that religion can legitimately make.
The ethical realm is, in different senses, far narrower yet far wider than the religious realm. It is narrower because the organisations, teachers and texts of religious movements have never confined themselves to making “ought” statements or related statements about value, meaning or purpose. Rather, they have put forward factual-sounding statements about the existence of supernatural beings, such as gods, nymphs, demons and ancestral spirits. They have made claims about the dispositions and activities of these beings or have invoked over-arching forces or principles, such as Moira, Karma or the Tao. They have described unseen places, such as Hades, Valhalla, Paradise and Purgatory. They have posited deep components or aspects of the human makeup, such as the soul or Atman.
However remote they may be from empirical investigation, these claims take the form of “is,” not “ought” statements. If science is unable to dispute them, it is for reasons other than the logical gap between “is” and “ought” upon which Gould relies. Even if it worked as far as it goes, Gould's argument could show only that science is unable to criticise ethical discussion that takes the pure form of “ought” statements. It could not show that science will never collide with the very different kinds of statements that dominate religious speech and writings.
As it happens, many of the propositions that can be derived from the holy books, taken at face value, are scientifically testable. Most notoriously, it is possible to calculate from the Old Testament at least a rough idea of the age of the universe. As Gould points out in another of his recent books, Questioning the Millennium, there are sufficient gaps and ambiguities in the Bible's genealogies to stretch or contract the total age of the Earth somewhat, so that we are not stuck with Bishop Usher's answer that it was created on 23rd October 4004 BC. However, Usher cannot have been too far wrong, even if he fudged the data to obtain a neat result—the creation of the world just on 4000 years before the birth of Jesus.
Leaving aside for a moment such possibilities as a symbolic or allegorical interpretation of the seven days of Genesis, the gaps and ambiguities are not sufficient to allow for an answer as remote as 10,000 BC or as recent as 2000 BC. Moreover, we can obtain a more precise figure by cross-checking biblical events against other, uncontroversial, historical facts. Even if the first three chapters of Genesis, the myths of the Creation and the Fall, are interpreted in some timeless, allegorical or symbolic sense, the fourth chapter moves us into a chronicle of postlapsarian history that is more difficult to reinterpret. In any event, we are told Adam's age when he died (930 years), making it harder to manipulate the biblical time scale from mankind's creation.
Yet, for better or worse, we have well-established scientific knowledge that the Earth has been around for billions of years. A proposition that can be derived from the Bible, that the Earth is no more than, say, 10,000 years old, turns out to be unequivocally false.
Unfortunately for Gould's enterprise, religions are not secular ethical philosophies dressed up with symbols. They are encyclopedic explanatory systems that make sense of the world of human experience in terms of a supernatural realm and its workings. They end up making statements about humanity's place in the space-time universe that are open to conflict with scientific statements about physical nature. With the example of Genesis and its genealogies, reinterpretations are possible, and not just of the first three chapters, but it seems wrong-headed to rule out the religious legitimacy of accepting the book's literal words.
Admittedly, not all religious propositions are like this. Some, such as the existence of the timeless, non-physical God of Thomist theology, may appear so metaphysical that scientific theory can never support or undermine them. I believe, however, that this impression is largely illusory, and I'll return to it at the end of this article.
Gould is well aware of the encyclopedic character of actual religions, but dismisses it as a thing of the past:
At earlier periods of most Western cultures, when science did not exist as an explicit enterprise, and when a more unified sense of the nature of things gathered all “why” questions under the rubric of religion, issues with factual resolutions now placed under the magisterium of science fell under the aegis of an enlarged concept of religion.
But this is perverse. The “enlarged” concept of religion that Gould refers to is the only one with any historical plausibility, not merely for “most Western cultures” but for virtually all human cultures, Western or otherwise, at all periods of history. Nothing has been “enlarged” when we think about religion in this way. In denying the legitimacy of “is” type beliefs based on biblical authority or supernatural revelation, claiming these are violations of the NOMA principle, Gould is actually rejecting the entire historical and popular concept of religion.
In summary, certain literal-minded religious claims cannot rationally be believed in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, so Gould would apply the NOMA principle to declare all religious claims with empirical content a priori illegitimate. But that is an artificial constriction of the range of religious claims. Across the historical and geographical sweep of human experience, religious organisations, teachers and texts have made a hodgepodge of claims extending far beyond the ethical realm.
Conversely, much of what lies on the “ought” side of the Humean gap is secular rather than religious discussion. It is true that the institution of religion dominated ethics until recently, but that is not a reason to equate the two. Derek Parfit, in his philosophical masterpiece Reasons and Persons, laments that (historically), “Belief in God, or in many gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning.” Parfit celebrates the historically recent development of non-religious ethical philosophy: “Since we cannot know how Ethics [freed of religion] will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.”
Gould makes the historical claim that ethical discussion, including the search for meaning, has centred upon the institution of religion. Therefore, it is appropriate to use the word religion to denote this kind of discussion. Parfit would agree with the historical claim but add that ethical discussion has been the worse for exactly that reason. Several points need to be made here.
First, Rocks of Ages claims to be a book about the compatibility of religion and science. It is no use Gould putting an argument that something quite different from the normal concept of religion can justifiably be called “religion,” and then arguing that this is compatible with science. What a let-down! Second, the argument for using the word religion in this way is appallingly weak. We might as well use the word autocracy to describe the study of government on the ground that, historically, most governments have been autocratic. The fact is that modern ethical philosophy is often non-religious or anti-religious, and it is insulting to thinkers such as Parfit or Peter Singer to adopt terminology that suggests they are really playing the religion game.
Gould's shuffling of words blurs the fact that ethical thinkers may wish to subject moral claims emerging from the institution of religion to severe critique. While religious believers may be convinced that moral claims made by a church, priest or holy book are particularly authoritative, it is arguable that the opposite is true, that organised religion is a force for ethical backwardness. Readers of Justice Michael Kirby's article “Remaining Sceptical: Lessons from Psychiatry's Mistreatment of Homosexual Patients” (Quadrant, January-February 2000), which includes some pertinent discussion of the Catholic Church's attitude to homosexuals, could be forgiven for drawing that robust conclusion.
I should add that the church's view has biblical support, since Leviticus, chapter 20, verse 13, has this to say on the subject: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death.” Religious organisations, then, do not even have a special authority within the magisterium of ethical discussion. They tend to fossilise ancient, irrational and cruel moral viewpoints.
Though it is not possible to infer an ethical conclusion from any number of purely empirical statements, scientific knowledge can and does overlap with ethical discussion. To demonstrate this, it is enough to point out that we all have ethical beliefs that take a conditional form: “If homosexual acts cause earthquakes then they are evil and should be forbidden.” Combined with a purely empirical (though false) statement—“homosexual acts cause earthquakes”—this provides us with a perfectly valid argument that we ought to prohibit homosexual acts. If it is accepted, empirically, that earthquakes have nothing to do with homosexuality, then the argument is demolished. This kind of reasoning is typical of how real-life attempts to draw ethical conclusions rely upon empirical knowledge.
To repeat, empirical statements alone, or assisted by purely logical statements, will not yield ethical conclusions. Some of the premises in an ethical argument must ultimately come from neither logic nor the realm of empirical fact. This is the central problem of meta-ethics and it raises the spectre that normative ethical claims may ultimately have no objective foundation at all. But what Gould has touched on here is not an argument to separate the “ought” realm only from the findings of science. If the argument works as drastically as Hume thought it does, it must also separate the “ought” realm from the “is” claims that are typically made by religion. Hume, of course, thought that ethical claims are no more than reports about the speaker's subjective feelings.
To press this point, note that it is possible to derive a conclusion such as “we ought to execute homosexuals” from two premises: first, “If God thinks homosexuality is an abomination then we ought to execute homosexuals” and second, “God abominates homosexuality.” The second premise can be found in the book of Leviticus, but it is not clear why anyone would accept the first premise. It would seem more rational to believe the following: “If God thinks homosexuality is an abomination then God is maleficent.”
If we try to base our ethical beliefs on the thoughts or commands of God, we quickly reach a series of familiar paradoxes that Plato developed in his dialogue the Euthyphro. Theologians have subtle ways of trying to get around this. Rather than saying that we ought to behave in certain ways because God commands us to do so, they encourage us to recognise God's benevolence and respond to this with love. We are supposed to do what God wants out of this love for Him or perhaps out of recognition that doing what He wants will be deeply fulfilling.
Intellectual manoeuvrings along these lines seem to resolve the paradox, but only by appealing to our preexisting dispositions (to please those we love) or to what will make us flourish or be fulfilled (as a matter of fact). However, if we are entitled to bring these factors into ethical discussion, it seems that the empirical knowledge made available by science can also be combined with our dispositions to act in certain ways or with prudential factors relating to our own expectations of fulfilment.
The dilemma for Gould is that any argument based on the Humean “is-ought” gap must either make religious knowledge just as irrelevant for ethical conclusions as scientific knowledge or allow for wormholes through the vacuum that supposedly separates “is” and “ought.” Once we allow for any philosophical wormholes, though, scientific knowledge becomes just as relevant to ethical discussion as religious knowledge. Whichever way we approach the problem, it is impossible to identify religion with the ethical realm while keeping science out of it. Gould should have paid attention to the subtleties surrounding the Humean argument, rather than avoiding them with the excuse that he was writing for general readers.
The NOMA Principle requires that religious teachers and organisations no longer put forward such doctrines as a particular age for the Earth or the miraculous interference of God in the processes of biological evolution. In particular, Gould describes the religious doctrine of a young Earth as “a dogmatic and idiosyncratic reading of a text upon a factual issue lying within the magisterium of science.” But what does fall within the magisterium of religion if it cannot legitimately have teachings about such things?
True, there is now overwhelming scientific evidence that the Earth is billions of years old, that life itself has existed here for most of that time, if in rudimentary form, and that even mankind is many times older than the book of Genesis seems to allow. True, the teaching in state schools of false doctrines based upon a particular religious viewpoint would be a misuse of taxpayers' money. But Gould wants to say that such doctrines are illegitimate a priori as an intrusion into the “magisterium” of science.
By advocating such a principle as NOMA, Gould ends up foreclosing areas of debate that his central argument suggests should fall within the magisterium of religion. For example, he castigates, as a violation of the NOMA principle, what he calls “the misguided search for intrinsic meaning within nature.” But wasn't the magisterium of religion supposed to have authority over issues of value, purpose and meaning?
He states that we must seek morality within ourselves, a proposition that Hume might have agreed with but which rules out most religious positions from antiquity to the present. The more closely the principle of NOMA is scrutinised, the more obviously it is incoherent and intellectually untenable.
In a chapter called “NOMA Illustrated,” Gould reveals that his “skeptical friends and colleagues” do not challenge the logic of the argument for NOMA so much as his claim that “most religious and scientific leaders actually do advocate the precepts of NOMA.” He devotes the rest of the chapter to some examples which are supposed to prove this improbable claim.
First, he examines the trial and punishment of Galileo. He states that he does “not urge a totally revisionist reading,” perhaps to make clear that he does not endorse Arthur Koestler's grumpy, anti-intellectual attack on Galileo in The Sleepwalkers, for example. As Gould acknowledges, the facts are that Pope Urban VIII did defend the geocentric model of astronomy as religious dogma, that Galileo was forced to recant under threat of torture, and that he was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life.
It is difficult to work out what Gould is really arguing about the clash between Galileo and Pope Urban. The best that he can do is plead that the social situation was complex and that Galileo was provocative towards the pope in his great Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems. But none of this shows the NOMA principle in action. Galileo, by the way, had his own theory about how science could be reconciled with religion, but it was quite different from Gould's. His presentation of such a theory appears, if anything, to have aggravated the ecclesiastical displeasure that he experienced. If Gould had lived in the seventeenth century and offered his NOMA principle to the church, he might well have found himself in much the same uncomfortable situation as Galileo.
In any event, Gould next spends some pages on the 1950 papal encyclical Humani Generis, but has to concede (in a footnote) that this apparently violated the NOMA principle because it rejected the notion of human ancestry except by a single set of parents. In other words, it ruled out some scientific possibilities on the basis of religious dogma. Gould tries to get around the problem by stating that he cannot judge whether or not this was a violation of the NOMA principle because he does not know “how symbolically such a statement may be read.” To this point, however, the relevant chapter of Rocks of Ages does not demonstrate that religious leaders have historically favoured the NOMA principle. On the contrary, it shows Gould trying to explain away embarrassing counter-examples.
It took until 1950 before a pope was prepared, somewhat grudgingly, to accept that the theory of evolution might be correct. It took until 1996 for a pope to accept it as factually established. Pope John Paul II's statement in that year is, indeed, a praiseworthy case of the church's accepting that it would be irrational to dispute a well-established scientific theory. However, as Gould says, this was “novel and newsworthy.” One such novel example does not establish the claim that “most religious … leaders do actually advocate the precepts of NOMA.” Furthermore, the basis adopted by the church in very recent times—a preparedness to reinterpret its teachings in the light of sufficiently well-established science—is (ironically) Galileo's solution to science-religion conflicts, not Gould's newfangled version.
Gould finishes off the chapter by describing a disagreement between Isaac Newton and his friend the Reverend Thomas Burnet. Burnet attempted to reinterpret the six days of creation without introducing any divine interference with physical laws. Newton argued that the Earth might have revolved more slowly at the beginning of creation, while Burnet objected to any miraculous explanation for the shortening of the diurnal cycle. Reading Gould's account, it is clear that Newton won the intellectual debate. If an all-powerful God exists, why should He not interfere in such matters if He so chooses? Burnet could not rebut this telling point, and nor can Gould.
To allow scientists to appeal to miracles in their day-to-day formulation of hypotheses, design of experiments and painstaking observations would be poor research methodology, but we don't need Gould to tell us that. On the other hand, contrary to what Gould claims, there is always the theoretical possibility, within a theistic worldview, of divinely ordained causal anomalies in nature. The principle of NOMA demands that religion abandon its belief in miracles, but why should it? If an omnipotent God exists, He is no doubt capable of suspending the operation of scientific laws. Like Newton, Galileo was more rigorous in his thinking than Gould: he proposed that the miracle of God's commanding the sun to stand still at the battle of Jericho be reinterpreted in a manner consistent with heliocentric astronomy; but he did not deny that the miracle happened.
Gould concludes by attacking some rival attempts to achieve a rapprochement between science and religion, and he hits some targets. For example, he dismisses out of hand a journalist's clumsy attempt to justify the doctrine that Jesus was simultaneously fully human and fully divine by drawing a parallel with the supposed fact that light is both a wave and a particle. As Gould says, this is just a wild metaphor. I add that light can be thought of for some purposes as like a wave in a medium, similar to water waves or sound waves. For other purposes, it can be thought of as made of tiny portions of matter, “particles.” But no scientist seriously proposes that light is, by theological analogy, “fully a wave and fully a particle,” which would be truly inconsistent.
In other instances, however, Gould seems to go wrong. He brings up the strong anthropic principle, the speculative idea that the universe has fantastically improbable features that make it compatible with the existence of us, its observers. This idea can easily be transformed into a modern version of the teleological argument for the existence of God, the argument from design. Gould, however, reduces it to the following parodic interpretation:
If the laws of nature were just a tad different, we wouldn't be here. Right. Some other configuration of matter and energy would then exist, and the universe would present just as interesting a construction, with all parts conforming to reigning laws of a different nature. Except that we wouldn't be around to make silly arguments about this alternate universe. So we wouldn't be here. So what?
The argument which Gould is rejecting here may have weaknesses. For a start, it seems to depend on the probability that fundamental physical laws and constants should turn out to be just so … but does it make sense to raise issues of probability about the most fundamental facts of physical nature itself? Even if it does, the evidence may lead us to conclusions other than that of design. In particular, there are theories that allow multiple universes to exist in one sense or another, in which case, it is not so strange that we find ourselves in one that happens to have physical laws consistent with our presence.
Gould, however, does not reach these issues because he imagines that, if the physical laws of the actual universe had been slightly different, “the universe would [nonetheless] present just as interesting a construction.” But would it? The argument is usually developed along the lines that a very slight difference in the most fundamental laws of physical nature would have prevented any form of physical complexity sufficient to provide a substrate for interesting developments such as life, intelligence and consciousness. Accordingly, a universe with different laws would not “present just as interesting a construction.”
Whatever the argument's flaws, it seems to me a quite legitimate one put in support of cosmological design or even a designer. If it fails, it does so on rationally articulable grounds involving sophisticated counter-arguments, not because Gould has been able to misrepresent and mock it. This brings me to my final point.
The most rarefied religious propositions do appear to defy empirical testing, which suggests that they may, indeed, be immune to any critique based on science. Just as no set of empirical statements, alone or in conjunction with merely logical truths, can add up to an “ought” statement, it may be that they can never add up to certain kinds of metaphysical statements or their contradictions. Gould does not make this point, but it seems a plausible reason for thinking that religion and science are compatible. All the same, scientific statements may play a legitimate part in arguments for or against such metaphysical propositions as the existence of a timeless, non-physical God. Taken together with deeply held metaphysical or epistemological beliefs or background assumptions, scientific knowledge may well provide some of the premises for appropriate philosophical arguments.
As with the domain of “ought” statements, there seems to be a need to find a source for these deep beliefs or assumptions outside of either logic or the realm of empirical fact, and it is, once more, difficult to identify a source. However, it seems possible to argue about even the most rarefied claims of the most sophisticated and self-conscious religions, such as that God exists, but outside of time. If these claims are open at all to rational support or criticism, then the relevance of premises from the realm of science cannot be ruled out.
Gould himself acknowledges that atheism is “in many ways my own suspicion.” Where does he get that “suspicion”? Is there any rational basis for it, or is it merely some kind of neurological twitch from which he suffers? If the latter, why mention it? I cannot read Gould's mind, but I am inclined to think that his atheistic suspicion flows from his clearly articulated vision of a universe with no discernible purpose. Whether Gould's suspicion is right or wrong, I am not surprised that Rocks of Ages fails to establish a demarcation line between the domains of science and religion.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1381
SOURCE: Coyne, Jerry A. “Is NOMA a No Man's Land?” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5071 (9 June 2000): 29-30.
[In the following review, Coyne discusses what he sees as Gould's many analytical errors in Rocks of Ages, particularly his failure to provide an acceptable definition of religion.]
Like everyone else, scientists have mid-life crises. They are seized by the urge to forsake their daily tasks and embrace one or another of the great metaphysical problems that have engrossed philosophers and theologians throughout the ages. The result is often a big book dealing with the human condition. So common is this tendency that it has acquired a name: philosopause. Accordingly, in his new book, Stephen Jay Gould sets aside his usual topics and turns to one that older scientists can rarely resist: the relationship between science and religion. Sadly, however, Gould has foundered on Rocks of Ages, adding little to the work of those who have already addressed this problem.
Gould begins by observing that both science and religion sometimes overstep their boundaries, with religion in effect making scientifically testable statements about nature, and scientists inferring ethical or social beliefs from nature. An obvious example of the former is American creationism, recently notorious for its successful crusade to downgrade evolution in the Kansas school curriculum. Scientists, on the other hand—particularly those adhering to “evolutionary psychology”—sometimes try to base moral or social precepts on our evolutionary history.
Using examples drawn from Darwin, Galileo, Cardinal Newman, and other scientists and theologians, Gould shows that these territorial violations have occurred throughout history. His purpose is to prevent their recurrence by proposing a principle of reconciliation called “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” which he saddles with the acronym “NOMA.” This principle leaves both religion and science with important but distinct tasks:
Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.
Gould grants these “magisteria” equal status and asserts that we must accept the values of both. He calls for intense dialogue between religion and science, not to unite them, but to encourage greater harmony and mutual understanding.
This is a worthwhile suggestion, and is nearly as old as science and religion themselves. But Gould goes further and runs into trouble. First, he never defines “religion.” Although what we think of as “science” is fairly well delimited, “religion” can mean many things, including religious institutions themselves, Church doctrine, beliefs of prominent theologians, practices of ordinary religious people, and so on. Gould's failure to clarify this key term in his argument is not only disturbing in itself, but causes terminal confusion when combined with the second problem: his unwillingness to stick to a single notion of NOMA. Instead, he offers several versions that are used interchangeably.
He first conceives of NOMA as a utopian vision. In an ideal world, religion and science would logically form harmonious, non-overlapping realms of activity. Further, he believes that science and religion should be structured to allow peaceful coexistence. He therefore redefines NOMA as “the potential harmony through difference of science and religion, both properly conceived and limited.” The word “proper” is the red flag here. Imagining “proper” science is easy—the vast majority of scientists are happy to pursue their calling as an entirely materialistic enterprise. But what is “proper” religion? It seems to be religion that does not overlap with science.
Unfortunately, real religion is frequently and stubbornly improper, for the religious beliefs of many people are in absolute conflict with the findings of science. Evolution provides the most prominent example—not only fundamentalists, but also many mainstream Protestants and Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Orthodox Jews, Native Americans, Scientologists, Muslims and Hindus, subscribe to creationist narratives. Beliefs about human origin are not the only religious violations of NOMA. Christian Scientists, for example, entertain a spiritual theory of disease, and many Hindus believe that disability is a sign of past spiritual transgression.
Gould limits religion to the views of liberal Western theologians, many of them agnostics in all but name. But there is more to religion than the opinions of scholars. By casting himself as the arbiter of “proper” religion, Gould simply redefines terms to satisfy his utopian vision. Thus NOMA undergoes another metamorphosis—from an achievable utopia to an actual description of reality. That is, the apparent clashes between religion and science create genuine discord, but in reality involve neither science nor religion. Referring to those who oppose religions with naturalistic tenets, for example, Gould notes: “If these colleagues wish to fight superstition, irrationalism, philistinism, ignorance, dogma, and a host of other insults to the human intellect (often politically converted into dangerous tools of murder and oppression as well), then God bless them—but don't call this enemy ‘religion.’” Improper intrusions of scientists into meaning and morals are fairly rare, and nearly all of us decry or rebuff them. But many religious people will be insulted to hear that NOMA requires them to abandon essential parts of their faith. Nevertheless, that seems to be Gould's prescription.
Gould's example of an illusory violation of NOMA is American evangelical Christianity and its belligerent creationism. To maintain the reality of NOMA, he contends that creationism is neither proper religion nor even an outgrowth of religion (“Religion just can't be equated with Genesis literalism …”). To support this view, he first argues that creationists form only a vocal minority of American believers and are nearly absent elsewhere. There are indeed relatively few creationists who try to sneak their misguided “science” into public schools; yet surveys consistently show that nearly 50 per cent of Americans believe that humans were directly created by God within the past 10,000 years, and 40 per cent think that creationism should replace evolution in the biology classroom.
Gould also demotes creationism by noting that its opponents include “the great majority of professional clergy and religious scholars.” Again, “religion” is construed as the views of intellectual theologians. Finally, he maintains that creationism is actually a sociopolitical movement having nothing to do with real religion. Many who have fought creationism would disagree. Indeed, so would creationists themselves, who believe that teaching evolution undermines biblical authority, morality and the spiritual meaning of life. But Gould is right to recognize that fundamentalist views have sociopolitical repercussions. In a speech that would seem surreal anywhere but the United States, Congressman Tom DeLay pointed an accusing finger at Darwin after the Littleton, Colorado, school shootings: “our school systems teach the children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud.”
Questionable analyses similarly characterize other arguments given by Gould. One example is his claim that religion is (and should be) the main source of morality. This assertion ignores an intense debate about the wellsprings of ethical belief. Does religion directly create moral views, or only codify and buttress morals taken from secular sources? There may be some ethical beliefs deriving largely from religion, but in many cases (such as the idea of equal rights for women and ethnic minorities, and of the immorality of slavery), one can argue that religious institutions simply embraced earlier changes in secular morality.
Finally, it need hardly be pointed out that atheists are not automatically amoral. Gould senses this difficulty, but finesses it by claiming that all ethics is really religion in disguise. To distinguish the two, he says, is to “quibble about the labels,” and he decides to “construe as fundamentally religious (literally, binding us together) all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship of people.” But one cannot evade this problem by defining it out of existence.
Rocks of Ages is a scrappy affair, seemingly assembled in haste. Three of the chapters are stitched together from earlier essays, and the seams are discernible. The writing, too, is well below Gould's usual standards; all too often his pen seems to be on automatic pilot (“Science and religion interdigitate in patterns of complex fingering, and at every fractal scale of self-similarity”). In the end, Rocks of Ages is an unsatisfying quarrel about labels and not a substantial contribution to the science-religion debate.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1568
SOURCE: Malik, Kenan. “Inventing Allies in the Sky.” New Statesman 130, no. 4525 (19 February 2001): 49-50.
[In the following review, Malik criticizes how Gould equates religion with morality in Rocks of Ages.]
By the time you read this, children in the American state of Kansas will, with any luck, be reading The Origin of Species in their classrooms. In August 1999, the Kansas Board of Education, under pressure from creationists, removed evolution (as well as the Big Bang theory) from the school science curriculum. It took a vocal campaign by scientists and others—and the unseating of two antievolution members of the board in local elections—to help nudge the authority back into the modern world.
The Kansas affair is the latest in a long line of attempts by religious fundamentalists in the United States to proscribe the teachings of modern science. For many, it is also the latest example of why science and religion cannot coexist. For more than three decades, the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould has been a trenchant critic of creationism and a widely admired populariser of evolutionary science. But, perhaps surprisingly, he rejects the idea that science and religion are mortal enemies. “These two great tools of human understanding,” he argues, “[operate in] complementary not contrary fashion in their totally separate realms.” Science involves “inquiry about the factual state of the natural world,” while religion is a “search for spiritual meaning and ethical values.” Science and religion belong to distinct “magisteria,” or domains of knowledge. Gould portentously dubs this thesis of peaceful coexistence the principle of Noma—Noma being short for “Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” For Gould, creationism reveals not the hostility of religion to science, but the failure of some fundamentalists to respect the edicts of Noma.
[Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life] will no doubt confirm the worst fears of Gould's enemies, many of whom have long accused him of giving succour to creationists. Even Gould's admirers, however, will find it hard to accept his arguments here. There is, Gould acknowledges, little “original” about Noma. Unfortunately, there is nothing right about it, either.
The Noma thesis conflates two distinct debates—one about the relationship between facts and values, the other about the relationship between science and religion—and treats neither with any sense of rigour. Facts and values, according to Gould, belong to distinct, incommensurate realms of knowledge. They may be entirely unrelated, but each is an indispensable part of human life. Science deals with facts, religion with values. Hence religion not only can coexist with science: it is necessary for it to coexist with science. Every step in this argument is flawed.
The shadow of social Darwinism looms large over any debate about facts and values. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, social Darwinism argued that morality (how we ought to behave) derived from the facts of nature (how humans are). Might was right, in other words, and ought derived from is. This became an argument to justify capitalist exploitation, colonial oppression, racial savagery and even genocide.
As a consequence, it has become an article of faith in the post-Holocaust world that facts and values must be kept distinct. But if our values do not emerge from the facts of our existence, whence do they derive? Unless we wish to believe that values are simply plucked out of the sky, then we must accept that there is some relationship between the kind of values that we hold, the kind of beings that we are, and the kind of world in which we live. For instance, that humans, and only humans, are moral creatures derives from the specific character of human beings. In medieval Europe, pigs and cats were put on trial for murder. Today, we recognise this as absurd and cruel. Humans, on the other hand, are not simply natural, but also social and historical beings. They possess both free will and a moral sense, and hence are accountable for their actions. It was precisely the failure to understand these facts of human existence that led social Darwinists down such a disastrous path.
Or take the question of equality. Modern western societies, unlike those of a few centuries ago, believe in equality and democracy, in principle if not in practice. This is not because we are inherently more noble than our forebears. Rather, values have changed partly because social and economic circumstances allow for new freedoms that were unthinkable in the past, and partly because we have new conceptions of human nature that render beliefs such as the divine right of kings untenable.
So ought does not equate with is, in the way many social Darwinists argued. But nor is ought entirely separate from is. Ethical norms have to take into account our conceptions of both human nature and the nature of society. Here, we come across the second major problem with Gould's argument: his peculiar conception of religion as simply a moral code. To him, religions don't embody (or should not embody) a vision of reality. So his is a concept of religion stripped of virtually everything we normally associate with it—belief in the supernatural, worship of a god or gods, a myth about origins, the acceptance of an afterlife.
But how is it possible to understand Christianity, for instance, without taking into account the Christian belief that Jesus was the son of God, that he died for our sins, that he was resurrected after death and ascended into heaven, and that his death and his resurrection were the consequences of humans being fallen creatures (and without recognising that the prescriptions of Christian morality derive from this description of “reality”)?
It is true that science can never disprove the existence of God as such. Science and religion conflict only when such a god manifests Himself physically in the universe. But in virtually no religion is a god so bashful as to be absent from our physical world. All religions embody certain descriptive “truths” about the world—truths based not on any empirical reality, but on mysticism, superstition and revelation. And precisely because such truths run counter to what we know about empirical reality, they conflict with a scientific view of the world. Gould is right to show that, for much of the past millennium, there was a fruitful relationship between science and religion, particularly in Christianity. But religion in the pre-modern world meant something very different from what it does now. Before the scientific revolution, religion was the only was of making sense of reality. People did not think of themselves as “having” a religion, just as nobody today thinks of themselves as “having” a physics. In those days, God was simply what is.
As science developed, it made use of the tools and methods of religion, whose precepts were contrary to those of revealed truth. The idea of God as a lawmaker, and the universe as the rational product of his designs, played an important part in the development of the idea of a mechanistic universe whose behaviour could be understood through the laws of nature. The success of science in creating such a vision of the universe, however, transformed religion from being the only means of understanding reality to being an anachronistic dogma whose descriptions of reality inevitably conflicted with those of science.
The descriptive truths of a religion are not peripheral to it, but the central core that justifies its moral prescriptions. And because these prescriptions derive from an irrational, superstitious, dogmatic description of our existence, they themselves tend to be irrational, superstitious and dogmatic. Hence the deeply reactionary religious strictures on social issues such as abortion, contraception and homosexuality, and on scientific concerns such as cloning and embryological research.
The conflict is between not just science and religion, but also religious and humanist ethics. Gould himself is not a believer (he calls himself an “agnostic”), and has long advocated a humanist view of ethics. So why does he equate religion with morality, in a way that is not only wrong, but pernicious? Partly, I think, through a desire to restrict the claims of science. Gould has always argued, and rightly so, against the idea that all truths are ultimately scientific. History, philosophy, even poetry, can teach us important things about ourselves and our world. The existence of non-scientific truths does not, however, mean that such truths have to be religious.
Gould accepts that “ethical people [need not] validate their moral standards by overt appeals to religion.” But, he counsels, “let us not quibble over labels.” This is to miss the essence of the distinction between religious and non-religious ethics. They embody profoundly different attitudes towards what it is to be human, and about how we construct our moral world. By equating religion and morality, Gould undermines the possibility of a humanist ethics, of prescriptions based on a rational view of the world. As Bertrand Russell put it in Why I Am Not a Christian?: “It is we who create value … It is for us to determine the good life.”
And we can only do so, Russell observed, by adopting a scientific, not a religious, viewpoint: “Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in.”
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