I first encountered the writing of Andrea Barrett a number of years ago when I chanced to see this title and was almost spellbound by the metaphorical I first encountered the writing of Andrea Barrett a number of years ago when I chanced to see this title and was almost spellbound by the metaphorical ramifications—all the people and all the ways it could be applied: "Servants of the Map" indeed! I was not disappointed. Barrett is unique in my experience (and I've now read five of her books from Lucid Stars (1988) to The Air We Breathe ( 2007/). Barrett writes predominantly about science and history, and about geography and genealogies. She recreates historical circumstances that pull into focus moments of evolution in human knowledge and technology. Her characters are people caught up in these changes. Moreover, she casts the events within the political and social contexts of the times. The characters are also powerfully drawn: she knows that forward motion of a story needs to be pulled along by powerful desires. Blessedly, sexual desire itself is the least meaningful among other passions. Her women characters, especially, are notable by their curiosity and their need to know, to learn, to experience as strongly as male characters. Sexual needs, romantic love, marriage and other liaisons occur, of course: bonds between parents and children, siblings, spouses, and friends pull powerfully at the people. But such relationships are not the subject matter: rarely do they rank more importantly than arts (writing, drawing, engraving, taxidermy) and sciences (botany, natural history, geography, mapping, fossil-hunting, medicine, for instance).
The opening story, for which this collection is named, illustrates the political-scientific-personal-geographical clusters that figure in her writing. Young Max Vigne is starting with a British expedition in 1863 to map areas of mountains of the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush near Kashmir. He writes his wife Clara in England, and these letters are interspersed with a narration that queries what he doesn't write, the experiences he hides from Clara, and the growing power of the books he has brought with him. He becomes more and more fascinated with botanical research as he studies Asa Gray's Lessons in Botany and Vegetable Physiology, Joseph Hooker's Himalayan Journals, and Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species.
Far from the world of comfortable families in English homes, Max is transformed by his forced immersion in the brutal masculine world of the Survey and disoriented by his experiences in what is now largely Afghanistan. Toward the end of a long year he is so changed he is not certain he can ever go back. His life becomes driven by the larger mission of European science, mapping botanical distributions in service of the cause of evolutionary evidence. He reads Darwin, and begins to see that his location and work could make him an important figure in this science: A mountain is an island on the land. The identity of many plants and animals, on mountain summits, separated from each other by hundreds of miles of lowlands, where the alpine species could not possibly exist... the glacial period affords a simple explanation of these facts. The lichens of the far ends of the Himalaya are related, descending from a common ancestry. (Darwin)
During winter months in Srinagar in the first year, Max becomes almost hallucinatory; he meets a woman of dubious status and utter availability, becomes her lover and companion, and reads more Darwin. He does not write Clara from October to April, 1864. The story concludes with a paragraph he writes to her then, and several he cannot: Who am I? Who am I meant to be? I imagine a different life for myself, but how can I know, how can anyone know, if this is a foolish dream, or a sensible goal? Have I any scientific talent at all?
Every story delivers an inoculant of history. 1905: "The Cure" deals with treatments of tuberculosis and the new germ theory of Pasteur. 1853: in "Two Rivers" a young widow and her deaf sister work in the Mauvaises Terres of the Dacota Country mapping and unearthing fossils to be shipped to Philadelphia; before her husband died, she and the sister helped start the first sign language schools for deaf children; incidentally the story entails a Rappite settlement, one of the wave of American idealistic communities of the mid-century. 1979: a Physics professor from Poland, being feted by an academic bunch in Pennsylvania, tells an American girl the story of how his mother helped restore the Polish buffalo after they were nearly exterminated by the German army in World War II.
Barrett's political understanding is also sophisticated. The story of Max Vigne and the Survey recognizes that the true object of the British expedition was not merely an expansion of knowledge, disinterested and enlightened, but part of British plans for domination, invasion, and annexation in competition with France and Russia—the Great Game, in other words, of late nineteenth-century Colonialism in Asia and North Africa and the Middle East. Stories of Irish immigrants refer to British political policy that exacerbated the potato blight famine, and deceptive promises for emigration to North America.
In this book, the stories create intertwining family trees that will be more extended in three other books. The earliest one is Ship Fever (1996) with a number of stories; the eponymous story deals with the nightmarish loss of life in Ireland from the famine and politics but then also on the emigration ships and the epidemics of what would be later known as Typhus in addition to starvation and untreated crowded illnesses on the crossing. Then came the book The Voyage of the Narwhal (1999) with a character that was a lost sibling in Ship Fever. It was in this book, Servants of the Map, that Barrett came to understand she was weaving a structure with characters continuing between the books, much like the genealogies over the last century by German-Ojibwe author Louise Erdrich. By the time Barrett wrote her succeeding novel, The Air We Breathe (2007), she includes a complete genealogical chart of the characters from the four books. The earliest birthdates are in the late 1700's; the latest are 1955 and 1957.
Date I read it is approximate; recently re-read in July 2012...more
When I finished reading the eight stories in Ship Fever I felt as if I had just read eight intense short novels in such quick succession that I was aWhen I finished reading the eight stories in Ship Fever I felt as if I had just read eight intense short novels in such quick succession that I was a little dizzied by the whirl from world to world. The last of these eight stories is, in fact, a novella to my mind: nearly a hundred pages long; the title story "Ship Fever" takes us to the Irish potato famine years, 1847-1849, the desperation and suffering both in Ireland and in the emigration passage, and the subsequent crises of contagious diseases by the emigrants in ships little better than the slave ships which had plied their profitable and inhuman business trips across the same Atlantic.
Three of the main characters, in their early thirties perhaps, live in Quebec. Arthur Adam Rowley is a wealthy humanitarian traveling in Ireland with relief workers as he writes news articles, opinion pieces and tries to meet with influential people who could provide some relief for the disastrous suffering. Back in Quebec family friend Lauchlin Grant reads a letter from him to Rowley's wife Susannah. In it, Rowley describes the deaths from starvation and attendant illnesses—bodies lying unburied, frozen corpses partly eaten by rats, no food and no work, and little relief of any kind. Rowley rails about the misinformation and prejudice of the London papers: "Always the potatos; not a word about the ships that sail daily for England with Ireland's produce, which might have been used to feed the starving."
Both of them are frustrated by their sense of inactivity and uselessness—she as a middle-class wife whom her husband wants to protect. Dr. Grant, on the other hand, wants to practice medicine but after his advanced studies in France he feels stymied by "knowledge he'd begun to think he would never use." He had learned to be suspicious of the popular mid-century medical treatments: blood-letting and purgatives, which effectively has prevented him from being accepted as a practicing physician in Quebec. . When Grant is invited to work at the Grosse Isle Quarantine Station, where Irish emigrants were beginning to arrive in great numbers, he takes the position without hesitation.
A friend with whom he had studied has just published a paper on the distinctions between typhus and typhoid fever, and writes from a distinguished Pennsylvania Hospital: "Increasingly I lean toward the theories of Henle. These fevers must be due to some sort of pathogenic microbes, and not, as the miasmatists content, to noxious exhalations given off by filth." Barrett's story rests on research, and part of that research is this we are great medical debate of the nineteenth century: the suspicions of germ theory versus the idea that diseases came from "filth," from "miasma." Germ theory will not be firmly established for another forty years or so, by the later researches of Louis Pasteur on immunization and septicemia. The "miasmatists" predominate here, and thus the widespread resentment of "dirty Irish" and their diseases being allowed into North America. The story does show how certain folk-medicine practices actually predated some of the contagion premises of modern medicine, but in the chaos of thousands dying on an overcrowded little island and in the slums, ghettos and quarantine camps into which the emigrants were forced, recovery was rather by chance than by treatment.
Grant's horror overwhelms him as he encounters unendurable conditions on the incoming ships. Human ordure (there are no "facilities" below deck for the crowded starving passengers), dirty straw rags and bedding clutter the waters around the ships. In the hold, "the smell was staggering. In an open area, scores of unshaven men and emaciated women huddled together, some weeping. Children lay motionless." Others were collapsed: "They shook with chills, their muscles twitched, some of them muttered deliriously. Others were sunk in a stupor so deep it resembled death."
The hospital on Gross Isle has but 150 beds, and already 220 patients. The staff are building shelters but there is not enough room, not enough food or supplies, or medical staff, or beds. To Dr. Grant it is evident that the arrivals need food, water, shelter, and most of them are desperately ill—anything contagious in such conditions has spread and multiplied—it's called "Ship Fever," although it's a compound of dysentery, cholera, typhus and typhoid fever. On this third ship, even the Captain has died and the crew is sick; more than a hundred were buried at sea: "all his theories and knowledge were worth nothing here." While clearing a ship of corpses, a young woman is discovered alive: her name is Nora Kynd. She has two younger brothers, just boys, who are sent on without her. Like my own Irish great-grandmother Catherine Hagerty was when she arrived, they are illiterate.
It is May, 1847: long months follow during which time thousands, tens of thousands, die including many of the doctors, nurses, orderlies, policeman, priests, and nuns. By only May 26 thirty-six ships have arrived with 13,000 emigrants. Some ships are lost on the crossing. Anti-immigrant sentiment is whipped up by belief that the illnesses the Irish carry are a result of their innate slovenliness and primitive laziness. I never realized how strong the anti-Irish prejudice was, and always wondered about a little song I had heard as a child, to the tune of "The Irish Washerwoman": Did you ever go down to old Ireland to see How dirty and ragged the Irish can be? Go down in the cellar and look at their pies, And maggots roll out with their little green eyes.
The long story's weaving of the historical period's political currents, the humanitarian disaster, the suffering caused by resistance to new medical science, and the human sacrifice of all those who came to work at Grosse Isle creates both illumination and engrossment in the personal experiences of the period. This kind of accomplishment is the distinct mark of Barrett's personal genius. As a story-teller she has great power, creating vivid personalities that seem as real and complex as the historical currents in which they are caught up.
The book contains seven other stories, set variously in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries; in one story a woman's grandfather had been a child friend and apprentice to the monk Mendel, and knew the intimate story of why Mendel's valuable genetic research had been lost for so long. In another, Barrett creates a fictional delirium for the last days of the Swedish taxonomist Linnaeus in which he seems to see all his students who had scoured the earth for plants and animals to send back to Europe to be named and categorized, although many of the proteges died in their explorations. In "The Littoral Zone," i.e., the zone where land and sea meet, an affair begins between scientists that leaves both persons inhabiting a different kind of "littoral zone" for the rest of their lives.
"Rare Bird" is a story reminiscent of the movie Miss Potter, vividly portraying the marginality of unmarried women in the past, and their utter lack of control or decision on how or where they would live and what they would do. "Oh, sad is the fortune of all womankind. She's always controlled; she's always confined." Controlled by her parents until she's a wife, Then a slave to her husband for the rest of her life." (Childe's Ballads) In the story, a woman's father educates his daughter with her brother in natural history, learning the names of plants and bird, with frequent visits from learned scientists. When the father dies, the brother forgets that she has been his intellectual companion and begins to expect her to behave "modestly." It also examines the struggle between science and traditional knowledge by testing the belief that swallows, instead of migrating, dove en masse into bodies of water where they lived in suspended animation through the winter.
Ship Fever was a National Book Award winner and displays a rare kind of creative intelligence. In retrospect this is the first in a series of four sophisticated books that—so far—have been the most distinguished of Andrea Barrett's work, and which achieve, it seems to me, a style she was reaching for in her first three or four books. In this mature work she tells utterly human stories, peculiarly sharpened in a very distinctive way, making accessible the complex intelligence of her characters and how their lives are driven, not just by family, affection or social success, but by concerns for work and knowledge, especially during historical moments of technological changes and therefore of social upheavals.
One can also remark the maturity of feminism in them; it is still true that in most books by most men, women characters play a particular gender role: they are seen in relationship to their attractiveness to men, and in their maternal and marriage and nurturing functions (or the absence of same). Recently, for example, I read Michael Ondaatje's The Cat's Table. I admire him as a writer, I enjoyed the book, but I was aware that the story represented only a male look at the women: their attractiveness or lack of it was how we came to know them in a manner utterly unlike the relationship of male characters to the story. We never need to know if Mr. Daniels, or Mr. Nevil, or Mr. Mazappa is attractive, or graceful, or lean, or "has a libido," but two of the five women characters are distinguished mostly by the young narrator seeing their breasts (or perhaps more). One of the male characters indulges in a disturbing diatribe about women's insanity. Another sings boldly at the piano: "Every month, the changing of the moon. I say, every month, the changing of the moon, The blood comes rushing from the bitch's womb." There is no corresponding prejudice against men on the part of the women. Of the five, three are sexual to the main character (of whom one is a mute Sri Lankan girl), one is a puzzling unmarried woman, and the last is a bare caricature of social snobbery, "baubles and beads." On the other hand there are three sympathetic young boys who grow to manhood, one tragically, plus eight adult men.
All too often women writers imitate this style and structure in their writing. I have been surprised that in a mostly-female writers' group I belong to, ninety percent of the other women's writing is from the male point of view. If there is a doctor, lawyer, doghandler, or stranger in a story, it is a man. The central characters—are men. I often call attention to the preponderance of male characters in their writings. I know, I'm in Nebraska, and these are all non-professional women, but still it surprises me. So by mature feminism I mean merely an easy awareness of the multiplicity of women's lives, their capacity to be the "heros" of stories as well as men are, with career dreams, deep interests beyond human relationships, and interesting dilemmas that have nothing to do with marriage or being "attractive."
As a woman who has long been castigated as "too intellectual" and "too independent" and "too serious," I enjoy meeting these kinds of women characters and inhabiting worlds created by such a writer. ...more
I want to preface this complicated review by saying that I doubt if we would have seen the book as it was published had not Gould died in 2002 during I want to preface this complicated review by saying that I doubt if we would have seen the book as it was published had not Gould died in 2002 during its preparation; he never saw the galleys, never had a chance to check his facts and examine his logic. I think my disappointment with the book flows from this neglect. The book fails at the level of consistency and care in the writing. It is a monstrous compendium, but although it has what I call "infelicities," one cannot fail to learn from the works of this polymath with a photographic memory and a seemingly endless appetite for analysis, analogy, and thought.
Stephen Jay Gould's publications can be divided into three types. The first and probably most important are his technical scientific articles and books, like The Structure of Evolutionary Theory or Phylogeny and Ontogeny. A second vein of writing is to be found in his thirty years of essays for lay readers, mostly from the periodical Natural History and later collected in a series of ten books, such as Urchin in a Storm, Hen's Teeth and Horses' Toes, Dinosaur in a Haystack, and The Flamingo's Smile. With the Natural History essays I would classify his book reviews, often for New York Review of Books, a perhaps classier clientele than his more popular audience but still essentially non-technical. I would also place here his occasional writings: graduation speeches, addresses to the American Society for the Advancement of Science, letters to editors, etc.
The third category, however, comprises books for non-technical readers, like this one, pursuing philosophical theses. I have not read many of these; some discuss reconciling science and art, science and religion, and here science and the humanities. But this one is the least successful of all of his books I've read, and for a specific reason. I have been what I will call a literary intellectual since I was a small-town teen-ager reading whatever I could find: Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, and James Salinger when he was new and shockingly wonderful in the Fifties. I took undergraduate honors in English and French, a doctorate at Berkeley, and worked most of my life as a professional theatre artist and university professor. I am not a scientist, particularly not a paleontologist or evolutionary theorist although I am passionately interested, and I would not begin to critique Gould's knowledge of those fields. But I do know considerably more than Stephen Jay Gould did about literature and the arts, especially about the last forty years in the humanities in American universities. When Gould ventures opinions about postmodernism, he does it from hearsay, the shallowest of acquaintances. Although he writes often about "classical" art and music and Shakespeare, his appreciation of contemporary aspects of the humanities is limited and out-of-date. So this book was the least satisfying for me of all of his work so far, about eighteen books out of thirty, some of which I reluctantly acknowledge I won't read—his book on baseball, for instance, or probably on the Evolution of the Gryphaea, whatever that is or those are.
That said, I do want to try to give some kind of overview that would allow less opinionated readers to determine whether or not they might find the book entertaining and edifying. Gould's argument in this book is that any conflict between Science and the Humanities is unnecessary, unfortunate, and may spring from the history of science's emergence. This beginning Gould locates in the European Renaissance, curiously in spite of the Renaissance and not because of it. At this beginning there was an inherent controversy between "classicists"—Europeans who held Greek and Roman writers as almost sacred authority on everything—and the "moderns" of that day, like Francis Bacon, Rene DesCartes, and Isaac Newton, who were less inclined to defer to ancient speculation and more interested in direction observation of phenomena and inductive reasoning therefrom, as Bacon proposed in his Novum Organum, specifically countering Aristotle's Organum. Thus the initial and somewhat inevitable "Battle of the Books" satirized by Jonathan Swift, where the battle is between the Ancients (classical authorities) and those Moderns (science).
Gould leaves a contemporary source of conflict and ambiguity in a kind of limbo for much of the book, however, and it is inherent in his early turn to the OED for a definition of the Humanities, deriving "Humanities" from its usage to refer to the study of the Greeks and Romans, or Greek and Latin. Of course in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of Bacon and Newton, the "Humanities" was this enthusiastic study of the recently discovered Ancients, the Classics. When Swift speaks of the battle between the Ancients and the Moderns, it is indeed this split he satirizes, between an almost idolatrous attitude toward the Classics and the argument of Scientists for new and original observations. There have been many subsequent definitions, however, of "the moderns" and of the "Humanities," and I will return to these evolutions when it makes a muddle in Gould's argument.
In the putative war of Science and the Humanities, then, Gould cites four supposed episodes. First, of course, is this Renaissance struggle to define and justify a scientific methodology not dominated by reference to what the classics said. The second war of science and humanities or religion, a somewhat confused collation in the nineteenth century, was partly fueled by anti-Catholic sentiments and receives short shrift, since both of these wars were exaggerated in Gould's opinion. A new debate occurred in the mid-1900s, influenced by C.P. Snow's book Two Cultures,1959, which seems now to have been an overestimate of the extent to which scientific technology could—if not fettered by non-scientists—solve all former world problems like poverty and hunger, a belief epitomized perhaps by the naive pronouncement that "no one needs to be poor" now because scientists can "go to" these poor undeveloped (ignorant) areas and "show them" how to raise enough food, etc. Snow was persuaded by a storm of responses to modify his dichotomy later.
The fourth episode, in the late twentieth century, was, in Gould's view, unresolved, I thought. In one sense it is now the essence of conservative attacks on college educators and educations, on the civil and human rights successes in the eighties. I would point to the 2011 abolition of Chicano studies and banning of books in Arizona as a characteristic part of the war. Of course, the current war is not exclusively against multiculturalism; conservative politicians are also anti-science: Evolution is a scheme dreamed up to discredit God's creation, and Climate Change is a mythical attempt to scare people away from fossil fuels, the very basis of our civilization. But Gould first deals with "Postmodernism and the millennial science wars"(95-112). Gould characterizes the opponents as "supposedly. . .a group of radical self -styled 'postmodernist' scholars in the humanities and social science departments of American universities...dubbed 'relativists'...and scientists...dubbed 'realists.' " Who did the dubbing is unclear; I am always suspicious of the passive voice. The 'relativists' made charges against "those researchers in the conventional science departments of institutions with statements aimed at their liaisons with corporations and the military and their often conservative politics on social issues." An example of these charges is the following statement arcanely derived from the "Preface" written by Stefan Collini to a 1998 reprint of Snow's Two Cultures in which Collini quotes a Wolf Lepenies (and I'm getting this all second and third-hand through Gould): "Science must no longer give the impression it represents a faithful picture of reality. What it is, rather, is a cultural system, and it exhibits to us an alienated interest-determined image of reality specific to a definite time and place."
Curiously, to me, Gould slams down the glove: "them's potentially fighting' words." But Gould has invested essay after essay--in fact the whole of his 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man and much of his career--to precisely this point, it seems: a denial of Scientific Infallibility. He has traced time and again the influence of socialization on supposedly "objective" science, both in method and conclusion. He usually argues that very often such bias is hidden even from the scientist himself and often we only see it in historical retrospect.
Gould does then point out that some of the reactions from scientists were over-exaggerated. The supposed "realists" (scientists vs relativists, remember) did sometimes deny "the validity of any social analysis of scientific practice, and would not even admit that unconscious political and psychological preferences might influence scientific belief," except as "clear and correctable" individual failures. They even went perhaps so far as to claim that science was the only method to "any form of knowable truth," and that technology "lay behind all advance and improvement in the dynamics of Western history. So we see hotly opposing viewpoints. Yet Gould claims the rumor of "war" was overblown because most scientists were oblivious to it, and many of the "relativists" were "poseurs rather than genuine scholars."
I disagree, and I deplore his sarcasm and his presumption, although I also see that there need not be conflict between science and the humanities in an ideal world. I also fault his definition of postmodernists as "self-styled" and as being a phenomenon of 1990s American universities. It shows that he was exceptionally unaware of large world philosophical issues since mid-century. His ensuing examples of dichotomous keys in scientific taxonomies are indeed evidence of that cultural trait. It especially illuminates the "cultural system" aspect of science when he investigates the way those keys are subtly scaled to always split between a "better" and a "lesser." Our old Elizabethan Chain of Being in operation again with the guise of objectivity and the service of science. It is in this analysis of curious particulars which illustrate generalities that Gould is always at his best, and this investigation of unconscious structures of value through dichotomies is fascinating. But the discovery of western dichotomous thinking is not new with Gould, and had he been more familiar with those "self-styled 'postmodernist' scholars' he would have found much in "postmodern" anthropology and linguistics to excite his sympathies.
At last Gould arrives at his conclusive argument that science and the humanities should agree on a modification of the "radical" attack. The "myth of objectivity—the belief that scientists achieve their special status by freeing their mind [sic?] of constraining social bias and learning to see nature directly...drives a wedge between science and the humanities because historians, sociologists, and philosophers of science [not to mention a good many others] know that such a mental state cannot be achieved." By this admission Gould mends the gap, i.e., reveals himself and many intelligent scientists as in essential unity with the modified charge by scholars in the humanities. In this agreement, he sees the way that science itself benefits by learning from the humanities.
But then, without making explicit how slippery the term " humanities" is throughout this book, Gould appends an extensive consideration of the "other" culture war: not science vs. arts and letters (a safer way to describe the social sciences, humanities, and arts disciplines of universities, including history, geography, anthropology, political science, and philosophy with literature, music, theatre, dance) but the war between what I will call the cultural relativists and the cultural absolutists, or multiculturalism and "Western Civ. And this is where the real "War" is today.
Gould confusingly turns to Swift's seventeenth-century satire and uses the clumsy, because outdated and inappropriate here, metaphor of Ancients & Moderns. Swift came down squarely on the side of the "Ancients" (Greeks, Romans, and a few Medievals) against the "Moderns" (which were then the new Scientists, Bacon, DesCartes etc.) and he stages a mock debate between a Bee representing the Ancients, and a Spider as Science. In his debate any pretensions by the spider to be of benefit are swept aside. Swift doesn't use reason, and besides his attack on the spider is an attack on Science, so how can Gould embrace his image, and conclusion? In Gould's usage here the "Spiders" seem to become the "self-styled postmodernists" and finally are revealed as multiculturalists versus "the Ancients." That is to say, viewed in the spirit of Swift, Gould defends the Moderns, or Science. But here he reverses himself, preferring the Ancients to the Moderns, in this case multiculturalists. For he says, "At worst, they [current partisans of the spider] may actively disparage the old mainstays as nothing but repositories of prejudice written by that subset of society" known as "dead white European males (or DWEMS for short)." This is his own personal acronym, however, so I don't know to whom that subset is supposedly "known" and is that DWEMS as opposed to DBEMS, or Dead Black European Males? Isn't 'white European' a bit of a tautology? This kind of carelessness is not representative of Gould. Nor is the logical sleight of hand which substitutes for the Spider partisans, not Science, but today's Humanities. And how this whole topic arose in a book about Science and the Humanities is unclear.
His irreverence and lack of analytical logic here echoes a liberal sprinkling throughout the book of snide jabs and mockery which Gould usually eschews, preferring the civility which is a prerequisite for reasonable discussion. I read with a chill things like "cultists," "partisan codes," "language police," and "poseurs not genuine scholars." And at this point, I have to wonder what this book would have been had Gould lived to proof the galleys before publication. Because of his death he never had the chance, and I want to think that is the reason these infelicities remain which he might have later deleted.
Again, to his credit, he then acknowledges the validity of the counter charges: "Current partisans of the Bee (Western classics) can dispense worthy platitudes about upholding standards and retaining a canon universally validated by enduring. . . . But these good arguments are often accompanied by resistance, or actual aversion, to the scientific and political complexities that permeate our lives . . . .Moreover, defense of the 'great books' too often becomes a smokescreen for political conservatism and maintenance of old privileges." I particularly embrace his courage and humility when he adds parenthetically "particularly among folks like me—white professors past sixty--who don't wish to concede that other 'kinds' of people might have something important, beautiful or enduring to say."
The book ends with a long disquisition about, and seemingly with, E. O. Wilson about who gets to use the word "Consilience" and why Wilson is wrong in his recent book, and frankly by then I didn't care any more, not having read the Wilson book. I understood the importance of a running debate about whether scientific knowledge will ever be able to endorse certain versions of morality. Wilson appears to have affirmed that it will and was quoted as saying: "For if ought is not is, what is?" i.e., if morality is not a given social contract, what is? Which must give most attentive readers the heeby-jeebies.
I wore out here, however, as this book seems to have packed in everything but that old utilitarian sink and all to try to stretch the old Erasmus/Aesop Fox & Hedgehog cliche to cover an argument for separate domains of knowledge (Magisteria) functioning cooperatively. And if you have lasted this far, believe me, I understand your fatigue.
There's been a revolution in evolution. A number of them, in fact. If you've been keeping a vision of the perfection of life forms through a crude sur There's been a revolution in evolution. A number of them, in fact. If you've been keeping a vision of the perfection of life forms through a crude survival-of-the-fittest paradigm in the back of your intellectual closet, it's time to toss that out for a new model. The revolution examined in Wonderful Life had taken place between 1966 and 1989, when Gould wrote this National Best Seller to stir up some public awareness of the importance of this revision of the history of nature. In fact it becomes an argument about the nature of history itself; subtitled The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, the book is built around a chronology of discoveries from a British Columbia fossil bed entitled the Burgess Shale. Fossils were taken from the bed as early as 1909, but full studies didn't begin until 1966. Within the next twenty years it had become apparent that these fossils directly contradicted the evolutionary story as it has been told in diagram, picture, diorama and prose since Darwin first proposed "descent with modification." NOTE: Because of the importance and ineffability of geological dates and distances, I am going to use numerals instead of the stylistically preferred words, perhaps to increase the impact or memorability.
Our general sense of the narrative unintentionally sees the earth's history as human history, i.e., from then and them to us. Another way to understand it is to see that it lays out phylogeny (the evolution of new life forms) as if it were similar to ontogeny (the gestation process for an individual creature). That is to say, we think of the coming-to-be of any sexually reproduced life as a union of 2 cells, becoming 4, becoming 8, becoming 16, etc., the coordination and complexity increasing with the number of connections. In a similar way we picture the history of life as a one-celled creature (Prokaryotes) "becoming" a two-celled creature (Eukaryotes) and soon (in geological time) producing multicelled creatures who then "produce" more and more complex creatures, like a family tree going from old and primitive to new and complex (humans). The problem with this vision is that, of course, the one-celled creatures still dominate the world: bacteria and blue-green algae. Land creatures didn't succeed fishes the way one government succeeds another; land creatures came in addition to the water world. And in fact insects may be the major "success" story as far as survival and certainly numbers.
There is of course another strain of false ideation in our sense of life's history. We explain why more complex and "higher" creatures come into being, and "replace" ancestral forms, we answer Progress. And usually the story includes lots of words like "conquered," "bested," "drove out," "vanquished." This strain comes from social Darwinism, and is not inherent in the concept of evolution as a word meaning change, without a sense of teleology or improvement. It was why Africans were slaves: they had not "progressed," as the native peoples of the American continents also were still "primitive" and their societies were not "complex," and so we "conquered" because we stand for Progress. Enslavement and genocide are facts of history; progress is more questionable, and is certainly not part of evolutionary biology.
The analysis of Burgess Shale fossils underlines both of these notions, at least enough to make this book a must-read, if for no other reason than the fact that social Darwinism is alive and well in the neo-conservative and fundamentalist attacks on human rights and equality. I'll do my best to spell out why the discoveries of little creatures in prehistoric times matters today. For one thing, the Burgess Shale contains fossils of soft body parts; one of the problems with the fossil record had always been the difficulty finding fossils for creatures without hard parts: bones, shells, carapaces. Discoveries subsequent to 1989 involve new technological equipment, but the Burgess Shale (and since Gould's book more and more discovered sites) provided uniquely the peculiar conditions in which soft body parts did not decay and disappear. The fossils also lie in geological time at the most fascinating period in life's evolution: the Cambrian Explosion. Imagine this scenario: the earth is 4.5 billion years old (a wild approximation) and the first living creatures don't "occur" until 1 billion years later. One-celled creatures. And then? Another 2 billion years before there is two-celled life. Out of a history of 4.5 billion, it was 3 billion years before there were two-celled creatures. That's two-thirds (2/3) of earth's existence. Then another half-billion years pass with no significant change. Suddenly (in geological time), only an estimated 570 million years ago, the Cambrian Explosion ends the Paleozoic Era. The Cambrian is only 5 million years long, which is inconceivably long, but only a gasp in 4.5 billion. In case your math is shaky, a billion is 5,000 million, not 500 or 50 or 5. 5 million years is .01% of a billion. A relative jiffy. In this marvelously brief period every basic life form yet known "exploded" into being. The ancestors of every known phylum developed. (See Gould's Dinosaur in a Haystack for a number of accessible essays that confront the Cambrian Explosion, attempts to disprove the burst of life forms in such a short time, and their ultimate failure.) And from then on life forms proliferated.
At least that was the story until the Burgess Shale creatures tweaked this somewhat. At top count in 1989 there were 32 phyla--the major divisions of animal life forms like sponges, coral, arthropods, mollusks, echinoderms, and chordates (or vertebrates and their kin). But the unexpected discovery from the Burgess fossils in 1966-1989 was the presence of from 15 to 20 creatures so different from anything living and from each other that each might represent a distinct phylum. I.E., instead of 32 phyla, 52. But those "other" creatures have no descendants. No other phylum from the Cambrian has disappeared besides Trilobites which died in the biggest extinction of history. (I won't bother with when or what it's called, but it wiped out 96% of all marine species, and the Trilobite phylum completely.) Until 1989 that was the only phylum that ever disappeared. Now we know that 15-20 phyla disappeared "without issue." Well before the great extinctions.
It takes Gould 323 pages of clear and stimulating prose to communicate how stunning and how surprising and even puzzling this news was to biologists and to evolutionary theory. Briefly, since the Shale preserves soft parts the newly discovered animals can be compared in some detail to the others contemporary with them, the ones who "had issue." There is absolutely no hint of why one form should survive and another die out. There is nothing more primitive about the ones that did not survive. Evolutionary theory has always had a tendency to consider survivors as superior (a tendency Gould opposed throughout his career), a sense that survivors were "more complex" and "adaptable." The illustrations are excellent, and it is marvelous to study these non-survivors in their intricate and fascinating detail—e.g., five eyes, sweeping horns and shields, intricate probosces and appendages. And to follow Gould's theory that their extinction without "descent" is inexplicable. Other evolutions we believe follow climate and chemical changes in the environment: volcanic activity, ice ages, the drying of an ecology. But there was no such change in the Cambrian. Inexplicable is the word. Contingency is Gould's favorite. We "complex" humans were not destined to be. Every fork in the road is only partly determined. Evolution is not purposeful. History is contingent.
We now know (discovered during roughly the same period as the Burgess fossils) that a great extinction 65 million years ago was caused by the collision of the earth with a large meteorite or comet, some six miles across. It is easy to see why the atmosphere then laid down a thick layer of clay in the stratigraphic record and that this fallout would most impact the breathing and feeding of the largest animals. The (non-flying) dinosaurs all died, not gradually but in a geologically very short time. After this extinction, mammals, most of which had been small prey, began to flourish. But dinosaurs had been the major land animals for over 150 million years. Without that collision in space, where would we be? It's an unsettling contingency. When fitness is equated with superiority, and fitness is defined as survival, something quite twisted happens in human minds. But survival is not always fitness, and here history begins to teach us something really significant.
Read this book. Read a number of his books. It's a little difficult to know where you are if you read them in non-chronological order; Gould's books started in 1977, and several more have been published since his death in 2002, so theories and discoveries change. But it's all vastly fascinating.
PS: A nice synthesis of Gould's general theory from a 1994 Scientific American article is available online at "http://brembs.net/gould.html." It includes an illustration of the Burgess shale fossils. (I don't know how to make this function as a link.)
Numerologists would boggle at this book’s various numerical coincidences, as does Gould himself. First, as the title suggests, this is the last of his Numerologists would boggle at this book’s various numerical coincidences, as does Gould himself. First, as the title suggests, this is the last of his books of essays from Natural History; it is also neatly the tenth such collection. There were exactly 300 such essays, one published in every issue for 30 years, with not one missed, as Gould says, “despite cancer, hell, high water or the World Series.” There is also a quarter-century between his first popular book and his first scientific book in 1977 and this book and a major scientific title in 2002. And then there was the fact that January 1, 2001, the date of the last essay, was the first day of the new millennium. That essay was the title essay for the book, and celebrated a personal centennial: Gould’s grandfather arrived, a young Hungarian immigrant, in NYC in 1901. In Gould’s library was a book of his grandfather’s, an English grammar with an inscription celebrating the day: “I Have Landed, Sept. 11, 1901.” While the book was being prepared, that date sadly took on a different and opposite connotation for Americans, so a separate section was added at the end of this book to balance the celebratory opening.
And as a final coincidence, one completely unforeseen, in 2002, Gould died swiftly of a previously unsuspected cancer, so that the title I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History could be the title of a sober eulogy. The dedicatory invocation at the end of the first essay, especially, takes on haunting connotations: “Dear Papa Joe, I have been faithful,” it begins, and it concludes, “I have landed. But I also can’t help wondering what comes next.”
All this is irrelevant to the content, but I pass it on because in pursuing my intention to read all of the books of Stephen Jay Gould I have developed such respect and gratitude for his devotion to the task of educating the non-scientists of the world without patronizing or simplification that his death at the comparatively young age of 60 still saddens me, ten years later. He was that rare thing in America today, a public intellectual with wealth of knowledge plus a passion for a just, rational and humane world. I also have developed that most dangerous of attitudes, an odd kind of personal liking, and even, on occasion, irritation with his quirks and imperfections. He is so overt, so open, and so enamored of his sense of humor, his delight in the ‘signifying’ detail, his classicism, and his antiquarian books. We can ill spare him.
The great value of the book, of course, is impersonal and extensive: it consists of intelligent and articulate writing, a passion for explication, thorough knowledge of science and the history of science, almost the history of knowledge. With Gould, every fact becomes a doorway to an interconnected universe, and as one reads, these connections light up illuminating previously concealed significance. I'll take, for instance, his acute ability to find concrete examples of his perhaps favorite theme, that of the often invisible influence of social assumptions and hidden preconceptions upon the conclusions of scholarship, including the sciences As Gould tries again and again to persuade readers, when something just "feels right," then the need to examine one's premises and reasoning is even more imperative. What it "fits" may be something completely unrealistic.
In the essay "Jim Bowie's Letter and Bill Buckner's Legs" Gould examines two very different examples of the way facts can be—and are—blinked in the human need to make events conform to a pre-existing mental idea or pattern. At the site of the Alamo, Gould found a letter written by Bowie to the Mexican general Santa Ana exploring a negotiated surrender. This letter contradicts the popular legend that Bowie joined his impulsive co-leader William B. Travis (widely recognized as impetuous and vainglorious) in declaring their intentions to fight to the death rather than surrender or escape. The letter is prominently displayed in glass at the historical site in San Antonio, Texas, but official information–even in the Tom Wolfe novel, A Man in Full—maintains the legend. Gould points to this example of myth-perpetuation with contrary evidence "hidden in full sight," as only one small example of what he ventures to call a trait of the human brain, its operation as a device to recognize patterns. Depending on the patterns generated by the beliefs and fables of a society, its members will tend to see facts through a selective bias that pushes the facts to fit the patterns.
But it's not just patriotism or heroic great-men narratives that are so influenced. The second example in this essay deals with a sports myth: that of the catastrophic failure of Boston Red Sox first-baseman Bill Buckner to snag a grounder to end a ninth inning in a sixth World Series game in 1986 that –had the Sox won—would have brought them their first World Series ring since 1918. And had Buckner picked up the ball, the Sox would –well, that's the point at which the "story" ignores the facts: they would only not have lost yet. The score was already tied. Had Buckner gotten the third out, the game would have continued into extra innings. And that's Gould's point. The Mets had already gained their two-point deficit.. So if Buckner had picked up the grounder, and stepped on first base, there's no guarantee that the Sox would have won.
How did the story come about that Bill Buckner "lost" the game for the Sox, and "lost" the Series? This was, as I said, the sixth game. For you who don't follow American Baseball, a World Series is the last round in a series of playoffs. The two teams play for the best of seven games. So at least four games must be played. The Red Sox had already won three games by this game, the sixth in the 1986 series, so if they had won the game, the World Series would end with them the champions. But even if they lost this game, there was still a seventh game to play. How did one play in the sixth game "take away the Series"?
Gould collected the evidence of this revisionist history—much of it in sports journalism, where writers seldom have time to track down details of apocryphal stories that "everyone knows." The revelatory fact, however, is that the story of Buckner's Disaster occurs also in "rarefied books by the motley crew of poets and other assorted intellectuals who love to treat baseball as a metaphor for anything else of importance in human life or the history of the universe." (Gould himself has used baseball as a major metaphor, in Full House, an investigation of how statistics are so poorly understood that evolution can be seen, wrongly, as a story of increasing complexity, and therefore an inherent dynamics with humans as the apex.) As he says, "something deep within us drives accurate messiness into the channels of canonical stories, the primary impositions of our minds upon the world." Neither story, perhaps, is of great importance, but these "common styles of error—hidden in plain sight, and misstated to fit our canonical stories—occur as frequently in scientific study as in historical inquiry.' I will add, as well, that because they "fit" patterns these fictional versions of reality are widely employed in political discourse. If you want to persuade people, and animate them to emotional investment in political decisions, you can't bother with the "accurate messiness" of reality. Yes, crime has decreased as prison populations have increased, for instance, but there is not a one to one correspondence from state to state, or in types of crimes, or even over time. That two phenomena co-occur is no clue to causation. And yet, how does one answer false conclusions?
Then we must also deal with the problems caused by who writes or concocts the stories we hear. It is true that the victors tell the world their version of what happened. And so we think that what is coincides with what ought to be; might therefore creates right. History, sociology, psychology, as well as science, are all infected with this seemingly inevitable "silly and parochial bias." Thus we read of the first land animals as having been "a conquest," and hear the story that dinosaurs were "doomed" to fall "in favor of" the triumph of mammals (us). But fish still constitute a good 50% of all vertebrates, those lucky victors on land not having gained any advantage (yet). And dinosaurs only died because of a once-in-known-history collision of an extraterrestrial object with earth. Dinosaurs had held pride of place for over 130 million years. Mammals didn't "vanquish," but were an accident of history, "for reasons. . . that probably bear no sensible relation to any human concept of valor"or " intrinsic superiority."
All this is a summary of the meaty gist of just one essay among thirty-two, dealing with everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to theories of human race, from the mosaics at San Marco in Venice to the landscape paintings of Frederic Edwin Church, from Freud's evolutionary fantasies ("the penis as a symbolic fish, so to speak, reaching toward the womb of the primeval ocean") to Nabokov's "other" vocation as a lepidopterist, and several analyses of racism both toward Jews and blacks ("Age-Old Fallacies of Thinking and Stinking").
Especially in light of a book published posthumously, I must just add my regret that for all Gould's vast knowledge he never found the occasion to study Post-Colonial theory seriously, a rubric which includes gender studies, culture studies, ethnic studies, philosophy, and significant portions of post-modern thinking. He would there have found ample support for his arguments about human tendencies to think in terms of super-imposed social story forms; in general, the term in the humanities for these forms is "Master Narratives." As a historian of science, however, and –as he will humorously say, a 'white professor over sixty,'—his cultural idols remained uniquely European, and overwhelmingly male, although he recognized gender bias as one of those patterns which compromised accuracy only too often. Gilbert & Sullivan, Bach, Handel, Shakespeare: all worthy arts, but not comprising all the worthy. He admits in another book* that this Eurocentrism and devotion to European classics all too often occurs among "folks like me...who don't wish to concede that other 'kinds' of people might have something important, beautiful, or enduring to say." This generous acknowledgment of the desire of some scholars, professors, intellectuals and scientists to "maintain old privileges" is thoroughly indicative of what I, with some hesitation, call Stephen Jay Gould's intrinsic goodness; he may sometimes make light of certain vices, joking about the Baconian metaphors of "masculine science" "ravishing the formerly innocent Miss Nature," a crudity that estranges me, but he is, was, and now will always be, the quintessential man of good faith.
*The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox. ...more
When Stephen Jay Gould, eminent evolutionary scientist and prolific writer, died in May of 2002, some of his previous forecasts--about "the end" or " When Stephen Jay Gould, eminent evolutionary scientist and prolific writer, died in May of 2002, some of his previous forecasts--about "the end" or "the penultimate reflections," or "before the millennium calls a halt"--seemed to be eerie foreshadowings of the virulent cancer which killed him. He had, however, long planned to end his columns for Natural History magazine, and the books that collected them, with the January 1 issue of 2001, the date he would celebrate as the first day of the new century. I think it rounded out to an even 300 successive issues for which he delivered, on time and on the dime, some very polished and often profound pieces of sophisticated science writing for the public.
In Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms(1998), Gould presents twenty-one essays which span his unique mix of interests in science, society, art and literature and history. Gould is first and foremost an evolutionary biologist and paleontologist, but he is also a science historian. The history of science, studied in its cultural contexts, is a sobering study of how much we are all—scientists included--shaped by mostly unconscious cultural expectations. We "think" that what we "think" is the result of "thought and observation," whereas the extent to which our beliefs are shaped by unthinking prejudices should humble us all.
I am reading all of Gould's books this year (or as long as it takes), having read fifteen thus far of some twenty-six, and I am reading them in roughly chronological order. One of the problems with such a diachronic, or longitudinal, study is not knowing the changes in context, in social politics, and philosophy, over the twenty-one years from 1977 to 1998. Nor do I know how much has changed since then, as I write now in late 2011. Moreover, I am not a scientist, only one of his interested general public. I may not fully grasp the innuendos of a given essay, what the topical debate was at the time he wrote it, if he changed his mind later, or how widely accepted his beliefs were or are. To claim to represent Gould's views on any subject, then, is rather like the common fallacy of claiming that Shakespeare believed, because he wrote it, that "there's nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." Because I do know Shakespeare, and the background and context, I know that, far from believing that, he saw it as a moral equivocation leading to human chaos. He gave those lines to someone he considered to have very wrong values: Iago, in Othello, to be precise Therefore, I think to be safe I'll just sketch a few of Gould's essays here, hoping to entice readers to pick up a few books by this deep, graceful, humorous and above all ethical philosopher of science.
One of the biographical sketches that caught my attention was a story of Leonardo DaVinci's notebooks on natural history. Yes, the Mona Lisa, and The Last Supper, yes, his war machines, his irrigation ideas, but also his novel observations of such preconditions to establishment of contemporary geology as the temporal and historical nature of horizontal earth strata, the differentiation in size of riverine deposits from source to mouth, the presence of fossils and emphatic argument that they are remains of organisms, and their deposition at different times---and many more "first" analyses. Now look at the Mona Lisa again in its entirety and notice even her figure and hair as extended figuration of the processes of "living nature" in the background.
On the other hand, Gould argues, DaVinci is not the original "Yankee at Camelot," nor is he a Space Alien. His observations, in fact, reveal the timeliness of certain early debates. DaVinci died in 1519, a time of great interest and curiosity. The Renaissance did not subscribe to a "flat earth" mythology; that it did was first suggested in the 1800's, perhaps as a way to claim that modernity had advanced!
There are many curious and provocative gems in this book: The origin of Aquariums and how they changed the graphic representation of marine environments. The controversy over Linnaeus's terms and illustrations for the clam, which presented it as basically a living female genital (which seems to reveal deep mental disturbances in the consciousness of the all-male science fraternity in the "Enlightenment").
The theory of evolution proposed as one of "increasing cephalization"—i.e., having more and more "head-room" (by which theory a child is more evolved than an adult) and, most impressively, the gyrations the theorist went through to try to classify data so that it would seem to support the theory.
Then there is a fascinating Art History essay on paleolithic cave art and various theories about its chronology and function. French structuralist theory, as alluring as it once looked, makes what now seem artificial and baseless suggestions of "function and meaning" here. Structuralism looks for opposing values, and decides to make male-female the axis for differentiation, and then decides cow-like animals are female and horse-like animals are male. Am I too much the sarcastic feminist if I say, "Well, of course!"?
The more interesting aspect of the theories, however, relates to ideas about chronology. I am a scholar of art history as it pertains to performance and literary art, and I am well aware of the "Whiggish" and Positivist interpretation of all art history according to modernist superstitions about progress in civilizations. Such interpretations—i.e., that the later is better, or vice versa--underlie methods for estimating chronology by determining, on no particular concrete scale, what is "better." Whatever features the better art has are supposed superior, advanced, progressed, developed; i.e., later in time. (With the exception, of course, of periods of "decadence," which complicate the issue.) But would the new be better if you didn't already know it was new?
Gould cleverly traces this double-bind in dating cave art as theorists looked for "an internal criterion that could order this earliest art into a chronological sequence." They settled, predictably on "the venerable technique of art historians of later times—the analysis of styles." Gould argues that if we had only Michaelangelo's The Last Judgment and Picasso's Guernica, and did not already know that Picasso was several centuries later than Michaelangelo, and knew nothing of the rest of art history in Europe from the 1500s to the 1900s, the two pieces of art could not be ordered in time. The so-called "analysis of styles" would be reduced to mere statements of differences. Neither painting could objectively be called better or worse, earlier or later.
In 1986, cave-art theory summed up: "From the earliest images onward one has the impression of being in the presence of a system refined by time" representing "15,000 years of apprenticeship followed by 8,000 years of academicism"(Ruspoli). Gould raises his familiar complaint about social positivism, by reminding us that even Darwinian evolution "is not a theory of progress." In fact, any "progressivist paradigm for the history of art" is based on the fact that "it just 'feels right' to us that the very earliest art should be primitive. Older in time should mean more rudimentary in mental accomplishment." The corollary, of course, is that closer to our time, in fact in our time precisely, should mean more (one of the magic words) "advanced."
Imagine the chagrin when carbon-dating and other newer techniques of science were able to determine that, in fact, the paintings denoted "earlier" in this theory were no older, or newer, than others. Both "kinds" of paintings supposedly discerned by the art historians (remember, "apprenticeship" and then "academicism") were equally distributed throughout time. There was no such development or progress or progressive change.
We are in our times accustomed to see everything, it seems, change at near-light-speed rates. We live immersed in a bath of public relations (both blatant commercials and more subtle spin doctors for psychology, medicine, philosophy, health, etc.) which continuously chime, "The Newest! The Latest! The Best!" It is therefore deeply engrained in us that progress is inevitable and normal, and that we, each younger generation even, is better, is the "coming thing," is "the beginning of the new." Maybe we would be wiser to realize what Buddha observed 600 years before Common Era time: All is impermanent. Not necessarily better or worse; always changing. I'm sure there is an Old Testament prophet who says something similar. Maybe "there is nothing new under the sun."
At least we have the writings of Stephen Jay Gould who reminds us again and again that we are not the apex of creation, neither as a civilization nor as homo sapiens, and nudges us toward being content with the beauty of differentiation and diversity, always with vivid examples and always, or almost always, with patience and wit.
How can I better summarize this 1995 book by paleontologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould than simply to say, " 34 Natural History Essays, How can I better summarize this 1995 book by paleontologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould than simply to say, " 34 Natural History Essays, 460 pages, with a valuable Index and Bibliography ranging from William Blake and both Bacons (Sir Francis of Elizabethan science and Roger the contemporary painter), Humphrey Bogart, P.T. Barnum, Lewis Carroll, Anton Chekhov and Noam Chomsky, to Lord Bertrand Russell, Oliver Sacks, Mary Shelley, and Voltaire. Not to mention the scientists!
Gould, professor at Harvard and NYU, curator and important theorist himself in evolutionary science, engaged throughout his life in an effort to eradicate the chasm between science and social understanding, or between academic and intellectual discourse and the rest of "us." His concern is always to correct faulty or downright false ideas about science in general and evolution most particularly. He constructs graceful, often humorous, but meticulous arguments about important ideas, starting from a detail, e.g., a historical event, a curious happenstance in the life of some artist, politician, or scientist, or even sports star, and leading with precision to general conclusions and theories.
For example the ninth essay in the book is going to be deadly serious and worrisomely abstract about the debate between Gradualism (or Uniformitarianism) and Catastrophism (or Punctuated Equilibrium, as one of Gould's major scientific theories has it). But Gould doesn't begin in the abstract or with scientific jargon: he starts with some innocuous and amusing remarks on "Tongue Worms, Velvet Worms, and Water Bears." Illustrations of these eerie tiny creatures add greatly to the interest; one species is aptly called Hallucigenia. Gould leads the reader gently around to the fact that some scientists have cited these creatures as arguments against the Cambrian Explosion. And here we are embarking on geology and paleontology and the history of life, but carried along by little living fantasias to provoke the curiosity and by transparent prose. What is the Cambrian Explosion? A geologically brief time (a mere 5 million years long!) nearly 550 million years ago. What exploded? Life! Most major groups of today's creatures first appear in discernible fossils during that "explosion" of life forms.
Gradualists found it unlikely that this all happened so (relatively) fast. It goes against the grain of what is by now an almost unconscious expectation for uniform and gradual changes. Gould, the original 20th-century "catastrophist" in a way (and I oversimplify), is delighted therefore to share new data that uses Tongue Worms et al. to affirm, not deny or minimize, the Cambrian Explosion. The argument against it cited the Tongue Worm phyllum as representative of most early life in being soft-bodied so we couldn 't know much about origins. It could have evolved at any time after or before the Cambrian Explosion because of course there is no fossil proof: the absence of this and other phylla in early strata might be because soft bodies wouldn't leave fossils. So maybe the phylla of Tongue Worms evolved well after the supposed burst. Or before.
But a new method for identifying the presence of what we might call Shell-less Bone-less Chicken-less Eggs (folk-song) found that these weird tiny creatures did, in fact, first occur during that 5-million-year episode of "Let there be (multi-cellular) life!" Can you imagine the intellectual satisfaction of actually following this elucidation?
Dinosaur in a Haystack takes its name from a curious phenomenon, that of not having found Dinosaur fossils where (and because) they were not expected to be. A common theme of Gould's penetrating essays on the interaction of social gestalts and scientific theories is that finding anything requires, first, the capacity to imagine that the thing exists somewhere, and, second, the ability to predict where to look. Plus, the third, a conviction that one must look painstakingly. The proverbial needle in the haystack is impossible to find in a casual search, especially if the searcher is not really sure there is one. Once the search is motivated by expectation of value and an image of what is being sought, then it makes sense to take apart the haystack straw by straw, with the inevitable result that if it's there it will be found.
The particular example here of missing dinosaurs serves multiple purposes for Gould. First, it is part of a six-essay centerpiece under the general title "Origin, Stability, and Extinction." All six deal with the problem of expectations, the resistance to theoretical changes, and how shifting expectations or models then begin to yield new results. The dinosaur example figures in a story of the once ridiculous suggestion that a large meteor or part of a comet "struck the earth at the end of the Cretaceous period, sixty-five million years ago, triggering one of the five great mass extinctions of life's history," the one which killed all, yes, all dinosaurs. Gould notes that when Nobel-winning physicist Luis Alvarez and colleagues including his son Walter, Helen Michel and Frank Asaro, "first proposed their radical hypothesis of catastrophic extinction," paleontologists rejected it with "ridicule and vehemence."
Beyond the general difficulty of accepting such a new and unheard-of proposition, the hypothesis entailed a larger and more general historical debate in evolutionary science: the above-mentioned Gradualism vs. Catastrophism. The Alvarez hypothesis was announced in 1979, coincidentally only a few years after Gould himself and colleague Niles Eldredge had staked their young careers on publication of an anti-gradualist thesis in "Punctuated Equilibria" (1972; published as a book Punctuated Equilibrium post-mortem, in 2007). Most paleontologists argued that although the dinosaurs became extinct over a period of time toward the end of the Cretaceous era, there was no evidence that they had all died in such a short period as would be caused by a single event. And what kind of collision could possibly affect the whole globe?
Part of the hold of Gradualism is that it allows for the myth that all of life has been evolving naturally toward the creation of the ideal creature, the highest and most complex creature, our humble selves. If catastrophes actually figure significantly in evolution, then the role of chance, of contingency and specific histories, would argue against steady advancement toward improvement. Nevertheless evidence began to accrue to support the Collision thesis: some of it geographical—a crater off the Mexican Yucatan; some of it mineralogical—involving unusually high concentrations of a mineral rare in indigenous earth, and "shock crystals" or "shocked quartz." So scoffing paleontologists were challenged—either to find or definitively not-find-- fossil evidence.
The argument that dinosaurs died off gradually, over a long period of geological time, was based on the way fossils seemed to disappear gradually. There were no dinosaurs right up to the very edge of the supposed "cataclysm." A determined search, straw by straw, as it were, was made in order to prove that the dinosaur fossils were not there. In conclusion, however, scientists posted a graceful acknowledgment of defeat: "there is no significant change (in occurrence) between the lower, middle, and upper thirds of the formation. . . .These findings are consistent with an abrupt extinction scenario." The "missing" dinosaur remains were found, after all. In this case it's not that they were "expected," but that the search had to absolutely eliminate all possibility that certain species had survived to the same point in time.
Finally, in 1994 there was visual confirmation of what an asteroid might do to a planet when the Shoemaker-Levy comet fragments bombarded Jupiter. One fragment produced "a fireball that exceeded the brightness" of the entire planet, and a gas plume some 1300 miles in height. Fragment G, the largest, was only about 2.0 to 2.5 miles in diameter. The Cretaceous-ending object was 6.0 miles across. Doubters became believers as the physics of planetary impact were vividly demonstrated.
Cultural paradigms die slowly, often agonizingly, for societies and for individuals. To change the very framework through which we view the world is wrenching and disorienting. Imagine today how many fundamentalists—with no science training and relying only on popular, often distorted impressions of evolutionary theory—simply cannot bear to contemplate what seems to them only a wild and unsupported theory which would (again, in the popular distortions of evolution) honor only the bestial in human beings, deny divine agency, contradict their religious foundations and endorse cruel competition, chaotic mayhem. Even if one is not a Christian fundamentalist, I think one needs a strong science background to resist the image that Social Darwinism seems still to project as justification for the worst excesses of dog-eat-dog corporate capitalism. (See new book by Robert H. Frank, The Darwin Economy ! What ox-pucky!)
There are also essays here on re-visioning what is right in front of us, partly because of new technology, but also because of slowly shifting paradigms. For instance, scientists can now conceive of asking whether a thirty-acre fungus is to be granted status as an individual? And since female aphids—dare we call them mothers?—can generate up to a billion little aphids parthenogenetically (i.e., without sexual fertilization), are these offspring individuals, or clones, or can clones be individuals? At last, it seems scientists are coming around to my way of thinking ( I say this only partially in jest as a Buddhist in philosophy and practice) and beginning to loosen rigid culturally biassed definitions of individuality. Nineteenth-century science, confined and defined as it was in Europe, was not likely to notice or consider any broader or fuzzier or more inclusive definition of individuals as long as the model or ideal "progressive" society was one measured by a supposed individual struggle for survival, in which the individualist end of the continuum was obviously either God's idea (Spencer) or the idea that had replaced God (Nietzsche).
Perhaps even thirty or twenty years ago a question of the individuality of a vast fungus would have been considered out of bounds. For one thing, what could be the "test" or "evidence" of individuality? Thus the organic complexity of a fungus was left in limbo, but believed to be completely different from the social sense of individuality. In fact, the "humongous fungus among us" (Gould) was a bit scary ideologically, simply too much like Star Trek's Borg, a cancerous envelopment of individuals who thereby lost their separate beings and were subservient to the oppressive "commune." In the sauve qui peut mindset of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, utter personal freedom and separation, even isolation from attachments and bonds, defined a progressive and fully matured individual. From this perspective scientists and philosophers (and psychologists) argued that social insects are not individuals; they have no individual freedom. (See my review of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter mystery, Whose Body?)
Genetic science has been a major factor in shifting science's purview. And now (perhaps) the fungus is an individual, by genetic analysis. The aphid clone is—a clone of perhaps a billion. All right, billion individuals. Bees and ants are individuals even without individual competition to leave the most (personal) progeny. It seems whenever males are not the kings of a portion of creation, and I am talking of the negligibility of the males in ants, bees and aphids, the Buddhist principle of interbeing is given more room to reverberate. Fish who change gender to suit the needs of the school!! Medusas, or other kinds of jellies, which are individuals without a single brain and without benefit of sexual reproduction, being made up of a big cohort of sisters, or a consort of sorority? I'm straying from Gould here, but no wonder.
I tell you, this evolution/paleontology/biology/science stuff is a gas. And Gould, -- well, he's a mine from which we derive pure energy. Elegant, thorough, coherent, articulate, and (usually) clear and graceful. Dinosaur in a Haystack is a little on the self-indulgent side of his work, it seems to me, but still: these collections of his Natural History columns are readable, literate, often humorous, and always food for serious thought. Even for non-scientists. Like me.
PS: There is an intriguing section on eugenics including the odd connection between the innocuous-seeming Luther Burbank and holocaust politics, plus a masterful analysis of a Creole language in Curacao and the literary and linguistic prejudices against it. And if you ever wondered why there was a controversy about when the "new millennium" started, see "Dousing Diminuitive Dennis's Debate (or DDDD=2000)." ...more
Eight Little Piggies by Stephen Jay Gould; a Review. By Juanita Rice.
Oooh. The day has come. One Stephen Jay Gould book too many, and my head has exploEight Little Piggies by Stephen Jay Gould; a Review. By Juanita Rice.
Oooh. The day has come. One Stephen Jay Gould book too many, and my head has exploded. I've struggled for several weeks with this review, but it won't cohere. In lieu of a "book review" proper, then, I offer these observations. If you already know Gould and his popular and literate writings on science, go ahead and skip to the next paragraph. If you don't know him, you can turn to almost any of my other reviews for enthusiasm and encomium. I think he's one of the most important writers of the twentieth century especially for his understanding of human bias and the way cultural expectations limit and inform what science finds and reports, as well as how public opinion interprets science, or Mis-interprets. He died in 2002, after a productive career as biologist, paleontologist, and evolutionary theorist; he taught at Harvard for most of his career, and was widely lauded for his Evolutionary theory of "Punctuated Equilibrium" (developed with Niles Eldridge, 1972) as well as for his writing about the History of Science. He is entertaining, literate, amusing, lucid and always generous to his ideological opponents: he epitomized civil discourse. And is sorely missed. On the other hand, when opponents claimed that Punctuated Equilibrium was "Evolution by Jerks," he quickly quipped that Gradualism was "Evolution by Creeps."
This book is something like the sixth collection of his popular essays, on most of Gould's usual topics: evolution, the history of ideas, anatomical peculiarities, animal and human behavior, and opposition to human determinism. Reviewing Bully for Brontosaurus just last month I mentioned Gould's essay on DiMaggio's record hitting streak, and compared it to Gould's unbroken streak of monthly essays for Natural History magazine. In the introduction, Gould remarks how much he enjoyed it when Bruce Bochte, a former major league baseball player, made the same comparison. Gould was then (pre-1993) standing at 208 successive issues since January 1974, and would publish four more books of the collected columns before his death in 2002. The columns were planned to end in January of 2001, a goal Gould accomplished.
What's new in this book is a marked shift in Gould's style to a freer, more irreverent choice of analogies and parenthetical comments, as well as a venture in a new direction : "contemplative and highly personal ruminations." He also explicitly takes up a "theme of transcendent (and growing) importance . . . . anthropogenic environmental deterioration and massive extinction of species on our present earth." He professes to have previously avoided it not because he didn't find it important, but because he felt so strongly about it, referring to Wordsworth's phrase about "thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears" and, he adds parenthetically, "perhaps for words as well."
And what Gould says about environmental destruction is powerful. For one thing, he directly addresses the way "Development" boosters distort evolutionary theory to make it seem to give its blessings to extinction of species. I said that Gould usually deals civilly with his opponents on issues of science and political interpretations of it. In an essay called "The Golden Rule," he makes a bit (or a bite) of an exception, citing a June 7, 1990 pro-development "opinion piece" in the Wall Street Journal by Michael D. Copeland "(identified as 'executive director of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana')."
Copeland cited me in the service of a classic false argument—the standard, almost canonical misuse of my profession of paleontology in debates about extinction. . . . to uphold arguments by developers about the irrelevance (or even, in this case, the benevolence) of modern anthropogenic extinction. This standard error is a classic example of failure to understand the importance of scale. (45)
Copeland neatly twists the words of "Mr. Gould" referring to the Permian extinction's "estimated 96 per cent extinction of species" and yet a claim that "the actual number of living species has probably increased over time." Copeland's conclusion, and what he implies Gould and other paleontologists might say, is that "we may be wasting time, effort and money on animals that will disappear over time, regardless of our efforts."
The time scales—hundreds of millions of years-- of evolution and geology on earth cannot conceivably, Gould argues, be grasped in a way that justifies rapid destabilization. We may indeed "all disappear over time," but to predict that a mass extinction would not bring catastrophe to our human cultures, Gould observes, is a fantasy, and to argue that recovery of "number of living species" will occur skips the little detail that such recovery may take place about 10 million years down the road, and is thus irrelevant if our entire species has so little prospect of surviving that long in rapidly destabilized environmental conditions. Gould quite acutely sums up: To say that we should let the squirrels go [a species immediately threatened by the development for which Mr. Michael D. Copeland was promoter and mouthpiece] because all species die (at geological scales) makes about as much sense as arguing that we shouldn't treat an easily curable childhood infection because all humans are ultimately and inevitably mortal. (46)
Gould further argues that paleontology shows us the facts: 1. We live on a fragile planet now subject to permanent derailment and disruption by human interventions; 2. Humans must learn to act as stewards for this threatened world. (ibid.)
He sums up the reality: "[The] planet will recover from nuclear holocaust, but we will be killed and maimed by billions, and our cultures will perish. . . .The earth will prosper if polar icecaps melt under a global greenhouse, but most of our major cities, built at sea level as ports and harbors, will founder, and changing agricultural patterns will uproot our populations." (48)
Serious food for thought and ammunition for our thinking about these issues. And this is just one essay, of thirty-one.
It's a hefty book, at 435 pages in the Norton paperback, with—Bless Academia!—a full and rich Bibliography and an Index. It's the ninth book by Gould I've read this last year (2010/2011) and the thirteenth since I first discovered The Flamingo's Smile some time in the late 1990s. I meant to read all his books and it looked like I could easily and happily do that in a year. My theory was that the more time I spent reading him the better, combining as he does good reading and important information. Up until a month ago, I thought I had only two more books to go. I was mistaken! I now have a list of 26 books. No wonder I have foundered on book #13—I'm only halfway through!.
I recommend the book, absolutely, but by the end of it I felt that perhaps I preferred the more straightforward writer that I knew from earlier books. Or perhaps—and this is the worm beneath the nail—my discomfiture, and my trouble with reviewing the book came because of uncertainty. In Eight Little Piggies Gould writes about contemporary genetic research and theories like the "molecular clock" which, it is proposed, may override natural selection and random variations as the mechanisms for evolutionary change. As Gould argued strenuously for natural selection, and therefore for the survival struggle, I began to suspect that perhaps I myself have been guilty of the cultural bias he so often evokes. Perhaps my 'search image' for arguments against the excrescences of class society, against Herbert Spencer's translation of "survival of the fittest" to justify cut-throat Capitalism, were over-riding my rational understanding. Perhaps I have been misreading Gould. And misrepresenting. Perhaps I had a hard time writing about this book because I could not make it say what I wanted it to say. Perhaps...perhaps this has all been just a dream.
This is a book of riches, but only one in a vast dragon's hoard, it seems. And danger lurks when one suspects that HC SVNT DRACONES. I hope someone out there will explore this territory and report back.
I was recently troubled to see Stephen Jay Gould described in an alleged "review" on goodreads.com as some self-promoting intransigent "Atheist," so I was recently troubled to see Stephen Jay Gould described in an alleged "review" on goodreads.com as some self-promoting intransigent "Atheist," so I want to start my review of this 1991 book by citing its epigraph: Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria eius. Hosanna in excelsis. ("Heaven and earth are full of thy glory: Hosanna in the highest.")
And in his essay on probability, logic and Joe DiMaggio's record hitting streak Gould wrote: "The best of us will try to live by a few simple rules. Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with thy God, and never draw to an inside straight." (472, "The Streak of Streaks.")
As I near the end of this year of reading Stephen Jay Gould's complete works (book-form), I begin to run out of superlatives. I am in fact in the same position as a 1941 Yankees fan after one of the games in DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak: such a fan could laughingly say of the game "Nothing new. Just another hit!" And I can say of Bully for Brontosaurus: "Nothing new. Just another hit!" It's hard to find adjectives to distinguish one book in such a long streak of excellent books. Gould's amazing feat is to have so many books all maintaining superior levels of intelligence, articulation, patience, scientific knowledge, literacy, history and compassionate philosophy. So here is "just another hit in the streak" of Gould's writing in natural history, logic and veracity, and related subjects like art, music, history, philosophy, architecture, poetry and sport.
I can also say that at least one of his books of essays should be required reading for any adult concerned with one of the following areas of needful thought.
1. First of all, what is the scientific definition of Evolution and what does it mean? Many of us admit that we don't understand all the theorems of physics, let alone quantum physics, so we don't offer opinions about whether the law of inertia is "true" or not, and certainly can offer no thoughts about relativity. So why is every prating fundamentalist political candidate ready to reject what is not a matter for laypersons to decide? What IS science's theorem of evolution? Is it "Descent with Modification" or "Survival of the Fittest"? Does evolutionary theory entail Hobbes' "War of all against all"? Is "Survival of the Fittest" a struggle between individuals to see which can dominate? Is it gladiatorial? "Nature red in tooth and claw"? Who is Herbert Spencer, and what relationship do his nineteenth-century philosophy and political applications have with Darwin and Darwin's theories? Why is it so important to know the difference? Do we begin a long moral slide to Fascism, specifically Hitler's Nazi propaganda and killing machines, when we subscribe to evolutionary ideas? Whose? Darwin's? Darwin, who said, "Talk of fame, honor, pleasure, wealth, all are dirt compared with affection"?
Understanding these issues might help to explain why honest and well-intentioned people like William Jennings Bryan for example (see below), and some misguided religious figures have campaigned inexorably against "it," mistaking capitalism, scientism, past German militaristic fascism, and Herbert Spencer's and Nietzsche's philosophical theories, for Evolution.
Editorial aside. After Michelle Bachman's recent (Fall, 2011) bald stump speech claim that "Evolution is not a scientific fact, just a theory, with gaps," I have to add that most such fundamentalists and conservatives who reject Evolution have no base of knowledge from which to make such claims and do so only to "be popular" (i.e., to appear more pietistically Christian), since their political and philosophical stances are certainly Spencerian "Survival-of-the-Fittest" and even Fascist in their eagerness to rid the world of inferior and lower-order people. The attorney general of Nebraska recently compared people on welfare to raccoons, and many rightwing political doctrines hold that all Arabs are Muslims are Ragheads are Terrorists are Evil and represent not just obstacles to our access to their oil but the anti-Christ. Hitler used the Jews and Gypsies and Commies and Degenerates (gays) as hatred-incentives; today's Hitlers use Arabs and Commies and Feminists and Gays and the poor. Gould would have said all this more clearly and more kindly. [End of editorial.]
2. Evolution and theology. Does evolution inevitably conflict with Christianity, or with Christian fundamentalism, or at least with the creation story in Moses' Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament, mainly Genesis)? If we are not to believe anything except what Genesis tells us, how are we to believe that the earth circles the sun and that space probes do not locate the stars and sun and moon "above" us, but all around, infinitely all around? What is the main intellectual reason to deny "Creation Science," or now "Intelligent Design" a place in the science curriculum of public schools? Are all scientists who "support" evolution necessarily atheists? Is there an inherent contradiction between religion, morality, and science? Or are there simply different appropriate "fields" and methods of study? Science does not claim to explain or explain away what is not a question verifiable by scientific examination. Science itself offers no theological opinions, despite what individuals may or may not believe.
3. Social Policies and opinions that mask as Science. Aside from evolution itself, there is the problematic fact that some alleged scientists try to use science to justify class privilege, laissez-faire capitalism, and racial and gender hierarchies. History has provided a wealth of examples: Criminal types. Childish or effeminate races and cultures, with the clear understanding that a child is of a lower moral order than an adult and that the masculine of anything is innately superior to the "feminine." (See St. Augustine for theology that pictures the infant and child as corruption and damnation and females as the source of sin.) People who are feeble, reprobate, degenerate, inferior. Supposedly scientific studies that predicate criminality, intelligence, depravity, on the 'innate' characteristics of social classes, races, genders, nationality, or physiognomy. Gould is an infallible guide to such charlatans and offers good guides for recognizing why their theses sometimes sound so good and authentic until they are closely examined.
4. Finally, the underlying problem in all these areas besides dishonesty and self-interest: inadequacy of logic, clarity, statistical training, scientific methods (and knowing there are several), comprehension of such concepts as geologic 'deep' time and scale. For instance, we do not realize the stars we see are essentially random distributions in space. We see patterns, and many societies have given those patterns 'meanings.' We don't know random when we see it! We don't understand statistics (and here Gould cites the wonderful Twain exclamation "Lies, damned lies, and statistics!"). For instance, an average or mean income of $5,000 for a "town" of 10 families could mean that nine families have nothing and one family has $50,000.
Gould addresses misunderstandings of the "Mean"(or "Average") here in one of his most personal essays, recounting how, because he works with statistics, tendencies, distributions and correlations, he was able to avoid despair in 1982 when –diagnosed with a rare and serious cancer at about age 40—he learned it was "incurable" with a median mortality of only eight months after discovery. Gould in fact survived another twenty years. If that sounds like a miracle, you need to read Section Nine of Bully for Brontosaurus on "Numbers and Probability" which is presented so lucidly you won't even remember why you didn't understand "mean, median and mode."
Probably one of the two most important contributions Gould made to evolutionary science was to comprehend and elucidate the misconceptions, even among scientists, of evolution as "Progress" based primarily on statistical and "tendency" misunderstandings. The "Progress" metaphor of history is seen primarily as a story of "advancement" toward complexity of organism, and is based, finally, on the image of "us" as the crowning glory. Oliver Sacks wrote of Gould, "No one has written of our illusions about progress in nature with more wit and learning." A way to think about the logical fault behind the idea of progress in evolutionary history is hinted at by considering a drunk who staggers along beside a wall and finally falls into the gutter on the other side of the sidewalk as "headed for the gutter all along" (in a non-figurative sense). Some events can only vary in one direction; no life form could ever develop that is "less" than one-celled. So the "distribution" is and must be skewed. That does not mean either tendency or intention. Think about it; read here, and maybe get the book Full House for a thorough statistical elucidation of tendencies (along with an explanation of why .400 hitting in baseball is a thing of the past.
The greatest of Gould's lifelong achievements, however, was perhaps social, and not scientific. He was an implacable opponent of demagogues and charlatans that falsely enlist bad "science" for social or personal gain, as well as a debunker of fuzzy thinking and the "unthinking emotionalism that can be a harbinger of fascism" so easily. Yet Gould was almost inimitable in his patient and—in my view—generous explications of falsehoods, their perpetrators and their camouflaged contradictions. One of the essays here was a paragon of such civil discourse, an examination of why William Jennings Bryan had spent the last decade of his life campaigning with fervor to abolish the teaching of evolution in American Public Schools.
Having been raised in Nebraska, where William Jennings Bryan is somewhat of a folk hero as a gallant Populist native son, I was surprised. Bryan? Who opposed war, argued for the independence of the Philippines, for women's suffrage, for the direct election of senators and the graduated income tax? Bryan the Populist, the champion of "the little man"?
Gould points out that from 1904 until WWI in Bryan's famous "Prince of Peace" speech delivered all over the world, he said merely, "While I do not accept the Darwinian Theory, I shall not quarrel with you about it" (420). What could have changed his mind so drastically? It is often claimed that Bryan's last years—he died just days after his "humiliation" by Clarence Darrow at the 1925 Scopes Trial in Tennessee—represent a degeneration in general. The Encyclopedia Britannica at one time lamented that this heated campaign was "inconsistent with many progressive causes he had championed" (Gould, 418).
Gould, however, honors Bryan's claim that his opposition to evolution after WWI was completely consistent with his lifelong beliefs, and Gould sets out to find out how and why he became so adamant. What Gould found is a lesson again in the necessity of separating a poorly understood scientific theory from its supposed social and political proponents. William Jennings Bryan listed three reasons for opposing evolution, all ideological: " For peace and compassion against militarism and murder. For fairness and justice toward farmers and workers and against exploitation for monopoly and profit. For absolute rule of majority opinion against imposing elites."
Why had Bryan interpreted the science of Origin of the Species as inimical with these causes? Gould found convincing evidence that two specific books had alarmed William Jennings Bryan toward the end of World War I, which one must remember he opposed so vehemently that he resigned from Wilson's staff in protest of U.S. entry into the war. First, a report of conversations of the German Great General Staff at their headquarters where American Vernon Kellogg was "tolerated" in the international and nonpartisan effort for humanitarian relief of Belgians. Kellogg reported that "The creed of the Allmacht (omnipotence) of a natural selection based on violent and competitive struggle is the gospel of the German intellectuals" He wrote that the Germans believed that the "human group which is in the most advanced evolutionary stage. . .should win in the struggle for existence" (Gould, 424). Thus Kellogg as well as the Germans, it seems, conflated this militant doctrine with Darwin's scientific theories about species. [The British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and even Belgians, along with Americans, had long practiced the theory in colonial conquest, slavery, genocide, and imperial expansion but without, perhaps, the jargon? jpr]
The other book, written by English commentator Benjamin Kidd, conveyed the same idea about Evolution but for a contrary reason. Kidd was a philosophical idealist and believed Darwin had created a terrible social force to liberate the "pagan soul" "previously (but imperfectly) suppressed for centuries by Christianity and its doctrines of love and renunciation"(425). It was not the science he objected to, but the "hold which the theories. . .obtained on the popular mind in the West." He thought that "everywhere through civilization an almost inconceivable influence was given to the doctrine of force as the basis of legal authority. . . "(425).
Thus a science about origin of species becomes conflated with, and blamed for, Nietzsche's nihilistic Ubermensch and Spencerian social ideology at a time of the most inflamed Imperialist struggle of the West (Europe & its "white" colonies both present and former) against the rest of the world. Germany, Italy, and Japan decide to use this ideology in extremis to wrest a share of the Colonialized Wealth of the World. And suddenly we have an imaginary crusade for force and hatred by some "elite" powers to overthrow the former naive and innocent Christians of the world. I oversimplify as Gould never does, but then he is exemplary and I am impatient. I am already older than he lived to be, and have accomplished so relatively little that I admit to irascibility. It's mostly at myself and my social impotence, so please, Christians and anti-evolutionary readers, don't blame science, or Gould, for my little bursts of sarcasm. (Elsewhere Gould takes on Spencer, whom he uncharacteristically labels "that Victorian pundit of just about everything" and his crude and effective translation of imperial aims into "pseudo-scientific" doctrine. See The Panda's Thumb.)
"The Darwinian theory" which Bryan agreed to tolerate in 1904, he thus attacked after he became convinced of its viciousness by this equation of Spencer's bare-knuckles capitalism, German militarism and ideology, the glorification of force, and the potential overthrow of Christian "love and renunciation," with the innocuous science of Darwin and its insights about the origin of species. Bryan misunderstood evolution to argue that man reached "his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate—the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak"(421). He remarked that this conception "would weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and the power of wealth." All of this anathema proceeded from the mouth of scientists and intellectuals, and Bryan's populism like all populism always skirted the danger of reactive anti-intellectual know-nothing politics. After Bryan read the direct testimony that Germany's aggressions were associated with precisely the social ideology Bryan feared, the one both they and he attributed to Darwin, he changed the "Prince of Peace" speech. "And fell into a declension...And all we mourn for" (Polonius, Hamlet).
The book's title refers to the complexities of, and rationale for, scientific taxonomies and the ticklish opposition between "Brontosaurus" (popular title) and "Apatosaurus" (technically correct), and there are less weighty topics considered in Bully for Brontosaurus: The unique adaptive traits and intelligence of Platypus and Echidna which are often ignored because the demeaning labeling of them as "lesser mammals" implies they are therefore inferior, when they are only distinct. The historical reasons we have the inferior QWERTY keyboard (all those letters, very common letters, typed by the weak littlest fingers) instead of a more ergonomically efficient one are located in the old key-jam tendencies of obsolete typewriter technology. The Cardiff Giant hoax of Cooperstown NY is compared to "that other one," Abner Doubleday's invention of baseball, and an interesting history of baseball ensues, arguing that it came from versions of stickball, from the "non-cricket" side of class divisions in England. In Dr. Gould's Cabinet of Curiosities are rudimentary limbs which are not "partial wings," a painter's theories of camouflage in nature, plus a literal buffet of topics: choral singing, Lavoisier, Kropotkin the" anarchist," and Voyager's trip out of the solar system. Justice Scalia and Jimmy Carter appear as guests Gould treats with warmth and welcome and collegial disagreement.
In his Preface, Gould notes that some people look down their noses at "popular science writing." He compares his style to vulgarisation, and claims that in France it has only positive connotations, unlike cheap or sensationalist dumbing-down which of course he opposes on all counts. But eloquently, wittily, with erudition and charm. And an intelligence that—because of his writing—has not passed away.
This book (1987) examines the ideological role of the opposed concepts of time as a straight line and time as a cycle in the evolution of "deep time."This book (1987) examines the ideological role of the opposed concepts of time as a straight line and time as a cycle in the evolution of "deep time." It concentrates on an explication des textes, dealing with three "seminal documents in the history of geology." They are Thomas Burnet, Sacred Theory of the Earth (1691), James Hutton, Theory of the Earth (1795), and Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology (1830-1833).
I thought this would be a banquet for me: Stephen Jay Gould and "Myth and Metaphor." The role played by cultural ideologies in the study of natural history is one of Gould's major preoccupations that stands almost equal in his work to his accomplishments as a scientist in evolutionary biology/geology. And of course it is a good book. Readable and literate, as always. Interesting. But he is more interested in his topic that I could get.
There is no science more closed to my imagination than geology: I cannot, cannot, cannot, grasp the import of "billions of years." Astronomy might seem just as closed for its likewise impossible infinitudes: it is just geology of the cosmos, one might say. But at least I can see sun, moon, stars, the planets occasionally, and from Mauna Kea this spring I looked at the Beehive Nebula, the Sombrero Nebula, and of course the Great Nebula in Orion. I saw the rings around Saturn; I saw 2 moons of Saturn. It's true that at Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado, and to a lesser degree at the Ashfall Fossil Beds in Nebraska, I have seen fossils in situ and that made geological time almost comprehensible.
So it may be significant to say that even I found gems scattered liberally throughout the book. A satirical drawing by Henry de la Beche correctly attributed for the first time since its publication in 1830, for instance. One chapter tells of James Hampton, a Washington DC janitor who from 1950 to his death in 1964 followed the promptings of visions to build "The Great Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly" which can be seen in the National Museum of American Art. It is built from junk, trash, cardboard, thrown-out furniture, insulation board, carpeting and everything aglitter with gold and aluminum foil. This book, Gould says, congealed during the ten minutes during which he first contemplated this folk sculpture, "stunned by the clear and intricate concept of the ensemble." Stained glass windows of churches in Canterbury, Norwich, King's College and Chartres also illustrate the depth of the symbolism of cyclical time in Christianity.
On the other hand, he is equally articulate about the degree to which the 20th century cannot even see either cycle or arrow very clearly as deep analogies, because European history has so dominated our vision that we are completely saturated with Whiggish (and he explains the adjective) ideas of time as not just a straight line, but a straight line of progress, leading to "US NOW" and explaining why "WE" must dominate. Must "spread democracy." Must "teach entrepreneurship and free market principles." (The quotation marks here mark my own ironic harvest of popular sentiment and political jargon, not Gould.
It is, of course, a rich and significant book. But more for geologists, I think, than the general reader. I don't think I could significantly read even Charles Lyell, Gould's great model, so how can I fully appreciate an explication of any of these texts, let alone a comparative one. ...more
For many non-scientists, this may be only a 3- or 4-star book especially if "stars" only indicate how enjoyable the book was for that individual to reFor many non-scientists, this may be only a 3- or 4-star book especially if "stars" only indicate how enjoyable the book was for that individual to read. This book, however, is a classic in 20th-century science, the work of a very young Stephen Jay Gould who in 1977, when he was 33, more or less turned biological theories of embryonic development and evolutionary theory on their heads by reclaiming the theory which was known as Recapitulation when it was popular in the late 1900s, but which had been thrown out since by Mendelian studies of inheritance.
"Ontogeny"—the development of a being; embryonic development. "Phylogeny"—the evolutionary development of life on earth. From "Phylum, a major category of living beings, below Kingdom and above Class; i.e., Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order , Family, Genus, Species. (Life and Domain lie above this hierarchy in a more precise account.)
The theory that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny is probably familiar to many college grads who have had biology. Or perhaps more widely, I don't know. But I would assume many people have a rough image of how the first stages of a human embryo seem to resemble a lizard, a fish, a puppy, etc. Before the twentieth century there were two major theories to explain the growth of an embryo prior to the 20th century: Preformationism and Recapitulation. Preformationism in some versions goes so far as to hypothesize that within a human embryo there is not just the miniature person, but the germ of that person's resurrected body which will linger past death. With our sophisticated electronic microscopes and sonograms, x-rays, cat-scans, mri scans, it seems hardly credible that educated, adult "scientists" of Europe held such a theory, and so completely. The primary champion of Preformationism in the 1800s was the Swiss naturalist Charles Bonnet who called his theory the triumph of reason over appearance.
Gould observes: "From our perspective, no idea could be more absurd than the encapsulation of all human history in the ovaries of Eve—the homunculus in the egg, the next homunculus in the egg of the homunculus, box within box, to prospective future generations of incredible tininess."
Preformationism was discarded in favor of Recapitulation once geology had drawn enough of a picture of previous animal life in geological time, and the descent of species from common ancestors became widely accepted. Recapitulationists, once they understood that original life on earth had been made up of tiny few-celled relatively simple organisms that were the forebears of more and more multiple-celled and complex organisms, saw in the process of development a similarity to the growth of a human embryo. Referred to often as "Haeckel's theory" Recapitulation was abandoned around the beginning of the 1900's.
Gould's 1977 book was his first major publication, and as he did throughout his career he wrote the book as both biological theory and as a history of ideas, for both scientists and the more general reader. That's me, a general reader, more fascinated by the history of ideas to begin with, for the very reason that Gould includes this narrative to demonstrate that how 'unscientific' are scientific theories; that is to say, how much science is influenced and affected by social beliefs clearly not supported by any 'evidence' in the strict observations that are supposedly the basis of theory.
On the other hand, the thesis of his book also became fascinating, as much for the evidence he offered as for the theory he was proposing. And daring it was for a young scientist to write upon recapitulation, "a subject currently unpopular" (in 1977): "I would not have spent some of the best years of a scientific career upon it, were I not convinced that it should be as important today as it has ever been," he wrote. He also said that he would not have been so daring had it not been for a curious phenomenon: that when he happened to mention privately to other scientists what he was contemplating, he only too frequently got this reaction: "He takes me aside, makes sure that no one is looking, checks for bugging devices, and admits in markedly lower voice: 'You know, just between you, me, and that wall, I think that there really is something to it after all.' "
The central theory that drives the book and which made it a groundbreaking publication in biology was the argument that true Recapitulation (although not of adult stages of ancestors) accurately theorized the importance of a change in developmental timing, or heterochrony. Recapitulation was the basis for Gould's thesis that in fact heterochrony is exceptionally important in phylogeny: for a very specific example, Gould explains in some detail that human beings evolved because the primate ancestral embryo became retarded so that the development of the brain, and of the animal in general, continued to grow and develop at the foetal stage of growth. A simplistic overstatement, for instance, is that human beings are distinguished by the fact that we continue to grow and mature until the age of 20 or so: thus the brain has grown proportionately so much larger that it accounts for the difference in skull shapes, jaws, and many other traits.
The Panda's Thumb, Stephen Jay Gould (Norton, 1980) Subtitle: More Reflections in Natural History
Here's a bedside book that will repay you with intelliThe Panda's Thumb, Stephen Jay Gould (Norton, 1980) Subtitle: More Reflections in Natural History
Here's a bedside book that will repay you with intelligent and, above all, hopeful dreams, for I've failed to mention that Gould is an exemplary intellectual. He is generous even to those he most vehemently opposes for racism, sexism, class bias or other charlatanry. He assures us that "survival of the fittest" does not mean a declaration of Hobbes' "War of all against all," and reminds us that "fitness" is measured by being appropriate for an environment, and is not a degree on a mythical chain of being from lowest to highest and always in contest. Evolution, he argues, is not directional: bacteria and one-celled organisms may have been "first," but that doesn't mean we are the "last" and therefore the goal to which evolution has worked. Bacteria are still here, and still dominate the world in terms of numbers and types and mass, and even the beetles are doing better to "fit" than the House of Mammal. Gould's writing is combative and respectful, humanly hopeful, humorous and, above all, articulately knowledgeable. A boon companion if there ever was one.
Bertolt Brecht claimed that, contrary to dreary bourgeois ideology, entertainment and learning are not mutually exclusive, and the essays of paleologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould epitomize how happily delight and discovery can cohabitate. From about 1970-2000, the Harvard prof wrote a monthly column for Natural History Magazine where he perfected the art of the essay form, traversing the range of human interests, art, geology, music, architecture, physics, taxonomy, politics, history, philosophy and sport. Gould's trademark humor and whimsy grace an essentially serious mission: to rescue the public from misunderstandings and distortions of science through mismanaged "popularizing" versions and skewed campaigns by pseudoscientific crusaders, detractors and proponents. His thesis is simple, and it should appear self-evident upon adequate reflection. It is that science is both more and less than an objective version of the final answers. It is more than this or that answer in being a methodology that refers only to questions that can have verifiable answers. It is less than objective in that it is always inflected if not infected by contemporary social perspectives that frame what is possible to believe within the blinders of the ideologies which we always inhabit. If these claims seem questionable to you, I can only suggest you follow Gould's historical, logical and evidential tracings of, always, primary sources. He speaks with authority of the science and the history, and is meticulous in explanation of his documentation. He does all this without dumbing down the science or the history, or talking down to the reader.
The Panda's Thumb, one of many Gould essay collections, was published in 1980 allows the reader to test one of Gould's themes at the source; i.e., that science changes, that it is replete with claims later rejected, and that scientific theories are somewhat subjective always. To read it now is to contemplate recent history and science. (And, sadly, in the interim the common perception of science has become more and more skewed, not less, by the social ideologues of Creationism.)
These essays come from the first decade of Gould's columns but are already a characteristic mix of the specific and the general. "Bathybius and Eozoon" recounts a fascinating and instructive story of "brilliant errors" and shows the vacillations of scientific claims. Gould also laments that big discoveries are often heralded by the public media at the onset but the media fails to take notice of later disproofs. Another essay, "Piltdown Revisited," examines in detail the long-accepted "Piltdown Man," English Hominid fossils uncovered during the early 20th century (1909-1916), which were revealed to have been a fraud only at mid-century, after more than 30 years.
There are 31 essays here, averaging about nine pages long; each seizes upon an issue of science anchored and exemplified in some particular and usually curious feature--of zoology, anatomy, the history of ideas, for instance. One of the sections examines spurious claims about evidence for relative inferiority and superiority of human races, genders, and classes, hierarchies once proven by anatomical claims, like, for instance, women's smaller skulls, lower classes' supposed pronounced jaws, ratios of the ulnar bones compared to those of Chimpanzees. The sad truth is that some such claims, as, for instance, supposed correlations of gender or race with Intelligence Quotients, as some "thing" found in "nature," rest on not only dubious, but sometimes falsified data.
There are two sources for this falsification. First are the either malicious or perhaps delusional claims about fictive examinations never conducted; I am thinking here of the scandal of Sir Cyril Burt in the 20th century. Second are those examinations which yield to the beliefs of the scientist probably unconsciously, like a Ouija board game, where no one may be aware of consciously prodding the gamepiece to move but it does.
Another analogy would be measurements a costumer receives from a actor: "Oh, yes, I checked and my waist is about 24 inches." The wise costumer never quibbles, but tactfully urges an independent check by saying something like, "Yes, but I have my own method." Here one may give the example of Paul Broca, distinguished French scientist of the 1900s, who measured the relative capacity of human skulls from different races, choosing, probably unwittingly, the largest Caucasian (European) skulls, the skulls of Bushmen or what was once called the "Pygmy" peoples to represent African, etc. The supposed capacity was arrived at by weighing how many grams of metal pellets the skull could hold. When such experiments were later repeated, the truth emerged that skulls are like bags of fruit: the fruit a seller can put in a bag is always less than the fruit that the bag can be made to hold by the buyer. (For details about this, see Gould's book, "The Mismeasure of Man," a definitive rebuttal for such pseudo-science and for Intelligence Test claims and classifications of idiots, morons, and various such pseudoscientific classes of inferiors and deficients.)
Not all the sections are so depressing. One set of essays examines the mechanics of evolutionary change: just how does it take place? Among the ideas advanced are that of the "Hopeful Monster," suddenly born as a result of a random mutation and just in the nick of time to save its species from extinction. One can easily think of objections, but let a scientist talk about it. What about "Lamarckism"? In Evolution Basin in the high Sierra Nevadas there is a pass called "Lamarck Col." Who was Lamarck and what was, or is, his theory? Gould will tell you about the theory that organisms respond to a perceived need during their lifetime, such as a giraffe stretching its neck further and further to reach receding tree leaves, and then bequeathing the "acquired characteristic" of a longer neck to its progeny. Are there sudden leaps in evolution, or slow changes? Did Darwin champion Social Darwinism? Was he even a "Darwinist"? Gould cites Marx's comment that he was not a Marxist, and we know how Tolstoy protested "Tolstoyism." How did our brains evolve? How did we ever get up on our hind legs? And when? And why? Why do we live longer than other animals our size?
From Mickey Mouse to anglerfish, from dinosaurs to birds, South American marsupials to plate tectonics and turtle migration. How old is life on earth? How do we know the earth is slowing its rotations? Are we losing the moon? With nods to Bach, Teilhard du Chardin, Maria Montessori, the windows of Chartes Cathedral and bacteria who build anatomical magnets to know which end's up.
Published in 2000, this collection of essays from Natural History Magazine is subtitled Penultimate Reflections in Natural History because the "millenPublished in 2000, this collection of essays from Natural History Magazine is subtitled Penultimate Reflections in Natural History because the "millennial issue" of January 2001 was to carry the 300th in an unbroken series of Gould's monthly columns since 1973, which would be the last. His "Preface" doesn't say why he was ending the series. Like John Lennon at 30 observing that he had, "goddess willing, a good 40 years of productivity yet," Gould had good reason to expect ample years for more writing and research in Paleontology and Evolutionary Biology, unless he knew then that a swift malignant cancer would soon snuff out his light in 2002.
However it was, the brightness of Gould's searching brain here assays the very foundations of science (especially paleontolgy and "evolution")and its nemesis, Social Ideologies founded on distortions and prejudice. He investigates the difference between questions which can or cannot be asked of science, the crucial difference between valid scientific methods and theories which are often demonstrated to be mistaken or misinterpreted, on the one hand, and fraudulent evidence, invalid methods and inappropriate topics like God's existence, whose religion is 'right,' and which human beings are 'more valuable' or 'more evolved' than others. It is in his probing analysis of the devastating effects of the latter that his light is most valuable.
Let us take Darwin's theory of "descent with modification" as a scientific thesis, and the fulminations of that "chief Victorian pundit of nearly everything "(as Gould calls him) Herbert Spencer, so-called philosopher when he should more rightly be called apologist to Capitalism "bloody in tooth and claw." Spencer took Darwin's findings and turned them on their heads: he devised the slogan "survival of the fittest" to mean that evolution is the history of Progress, and thus the struggle for existence is purification; Thomas Huxley called his theory the "gladiatorial" school of evolution. As many historians have noted, this theory should really be called "social Spencerism."
Specifically, Spencer called for an end to all state-supported services--education, postal services, regulation of housing, even public sanitary systems. He thought that any social intervention in suffering is counterproductive because it promotes the "vitiation of the race through the multiplication of its inferior samples." Charities and philanthropists he calls "pauper's friends" who "defeat the sharp...spur to the lazy and so strong a bridle to the random."
Does his program sound familiar in 2011? Andrew Carnegie who had been troubled by a devout Christian conscience was vastly relieved that Spencer "reconciled God and capitialist society"; Carnegie had worried about the suffering of the poor, but now "I got rid of theology" and realized that "All is well since all grows better." He acknowledged that "while it may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race" and concluded that we should welcome the "great inequality of environment, the concentration of wealth...in the hands of a few" because it was "essential for the future."
Gould studies the interweaving of such social ideology with political slogans such as those that justified the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire tragedy of 1911 when the horrifying spectacle of human beings leaping from the upperstories of the Trade Center buildings to escape fire in 2001 was prefigured in the deaths of all 50 young women who were forced to jump from the 8th through 10th floors of the Asch building because all safety exits had been blocked. Another 110 women perished in the fire.
This fascinating and important lesson in the ideology we could call today neo-conservatism is only a fraction of the assets of this important book. Highly, highly recommended. ...more
These book reviews by Stephen Jay Gould essays first appeared, from 1963 to 1987, in The New York Review of Books, a doughty publication if there everThese book reviews by Stephen Jay Gould essays first appeared, from 1963 to 1987, in The New York Review of Books, a doughty publication if there ever was one, but Gould manages to hold to his infinitely readable style even in the company of sometimes somewhat grandiose pontificators there. (I mean that in the friendliest of humor for I quite enjoy NYRB. ) And humor, as always with Gould, is a strength in these ruminations, which use book reviewing as another point of entry to lucid and persuasive philosophical gambits. The humor is spiced with drawings by David Levine.
From 19th-century attempts to find anatomical evidence of hierarchies of race and gender (which merits full and detailed examination in Gould's The Mismeasure of Man) to Carleton Coon's theory of separate human origins, Robert Ardrey's distortions of Australopithecus discoveries, and William Shockley's scaled "racial ratios of IQ," Gould is a kind of flawless GPS to orient the public in the foreign lands of scientific claims. Moreover in spite of accidents and arguments, passions and fashions, Gould's voice and persona retain composure. Although he admits to experiencing anger and disgust and grief at times, he keeps his wits and stands his ground. At the precise point where I become often literally speechless at what seem to me "lies, damned lies, and more lies," Gould proceeds with dignity and a lethal logic to articulate the precise sources of misrepresentations, distortions and misunderstandings. He is thus a model of patient and immovable resistance to the hysterical and antirational. What a gift to spend a couple of hours in his company.
And he has, it seems, "world enough and time," at the tip of his tongue: geological history and social history, biography and biology, the arcana of Bacon, Newton, Hobbes, Descartes, Pascal and Montaigne. He can discourse on Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism and counter it with his own expertise in Darwin verbatim, Darwin in context, and Darwin via Thomas Henry Huxley. He knows the crooks and demagogues just as intimately—concocted "IQ Experiments," the planting of forged "fossil stones" by spiteful colleagues to mislead a German Professor, and other examples of bad faith—hypothesizing about motive, but in the end understanding the human source of all scientific ideas and methods, and the implication of the human heart in interpersonal motives and social ideologies.
The first two sections of the book discuss the "irreducibility of history" and contingency; one strain of argument stresses structuralist and historicist alternatives to what Gould calls "the mistaken functionalist paradigm of adaptation that still  shapes Darwinian theory. His answer to the problems of social images of popular evolutionary teleology is to show how unique and unrepeatable each historic epoch and change has been; i.e., that the path of history was not laid out beforehand as a kind of inevitable "stairway to the stars," if we take the Victorian British Empire to be the major constellation in those stars, or even our illustrious selves.
The third section deals explicitly and directly with the social, political and intellectual ramifications of biological determinism, with essays entitled "Genes on the Brain," "Jensen's Last Stand," and "Nurturing Nature." The books reviewed are Promethean Fire (by Charles L. Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson—yes, that E.O. Wilson), Bias in Mental Testing (by Arthur R. Jensen, yes that Jensen), and, a book he much admires, Not in our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature (by R.C.Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon J. Kamin) respectively. Throughout, the book is Gould's plea for rationalism, lamenting "the perilous slide from our current ignorance into a glorification of the nonrational." A recurring target here, as will be true in much of his writing to come over the next dozen years, is "NeoDarwinism," an image or interpretation of Darwinian natural selection to mean a history of "progress" and "teleology" which tracls the evolutionary path to humans as if it were the only path, or even a major one, and then calls that path "progress" from lower to higher, from formlessness to complexity. Such a path, of course, would allow one to have credited Francis Fukuyama's 1989 proposal of "The End of History." Such a version of the grand positive conqueror's history always brings to my mind the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip in which Calvin is gratified to realize the grand scheme of the universe, which was all "to produce me!!´ He spreads his arms to say, "Now I'm here and history is vindicated." (Watterson, 1991: Scientific Progress Goes Boink!)
Gould's range of knowledge and interest allows him to spice this rich ideological meandering with references from Kurt Vonnegut and Dorothy Sayers to Groucho and Karl, from Gilbert & Sullivan to Gunnar Myrdal. He gives special attention to dissecting the spurious rise of a the idea of a "well-known 80-20 split" between the influences of nature (inherited and ineradicable and unavoidable genetics) and nurture (education and environment)—a mythical belief that is pretty well laid to firm and not-so-gentle rest as one of many fallacies of "hereditarian" arguments for the source of complex human social behaviors. Gould deplores the continued implicit dependence on such debunked data of, for instance, the fraudulent claims of Sir Cyril Burt with which racialist "scientists" like Arthur Jensen and others pad their claims of "It has been shown..." and "Studies have revealed..." He explicitly praises the book Not in our Genes for going beyond the debunking of determinist claims--e.g., about IQ and various artificial measurements for determining social value and hierarchical placement--and attempting a useful model of the actual, and intricate, interactions of culture and biology.
Human frailty (call it prejudice or venality) will "infect" scientific claims, data, and so-called discovery, which is not to say that there is nothing useful or valid about science, but often not what the public thinks. Just as Quantum Physicists admit that any attempt to observe, witness, record, or measure phenomenon will influence the results, there is no disconnect between observer and observed. (Which Buddhist philosophy has always posited.) When there is observation, there is presence. Human presence. Which changes "things." Stephen Jay Gould would—and did—claim that the best we can do is to put our beliefs, fears, and expectations under the microscope of our consciousness to find out where our biasses lie, and then do our best to disprove the very conclusions we like so well. If nothing else, we should communicate our social, personal and ideological position in order to at least alert the reader's caution.
Unless you are a paleontologist, neontologist, entomologist, evolutionary scientist, and/or scientific philosopher, reading this book will be harder tUnless you are a paleontologist, neontologist, entomologist, evolutionary scientist, and/or scientific philosopher, reading this book will be harder than almost anything beyond your basic Physics textbook. It addresses in an openly partisan, but civil and objective, argument the main debate about evolution since around 1970 when Gould and Eldredge published their first claim for "punctuated equilibrium."
Sound thrilling? Well, perhaps you should have read Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, a masterful dissection of the so-called "sciences" which established during the 19th century (colonialism, remember?) the "scientific" reason why European men needed to rule the world. What was that reason? The proof that European males were superior "in evolution" to males of other races, which were then ranked hierarchically, and to females of all races. By measuring the volume of the craniums and the lengths of armbones of all "types" of people, it was easy to demonstrate that European men had typical measurements that were "farthest" from the proportions of chimpanzees. The conclusion, therefore, is that European males were more evolved, were of higher species, were less like animals (and more like angels). If you read that, then you will understand the carrot that drew me, a non-scientist, to struggle through long chapters about speciation, clades, geological time, morphological variants, etc.
Gould understands, as did Claude Levi-Strauss and Mircea Eliade, that Myth performs itself in the farthest reaches of our thinking, and distorts thereby the imagined objectivity of scientific evaluations. He sets out to show that contemporary beliefs about evolution model cultural expectations for the strivings of individuals to excel, and thereby absolutely neglect or rationalize away the primary evidence of fossil records. By the time he gets to the final sections of the book, he is ready to examine the ramifications of the revisions of "Punctuated Equilibrium" in our beliefs about the very nature of life.
As I closed in on the end, my margins are full of remarks redolent of heady intellectual agreement: "Wow! Wow! Wow!" Heck, surely I can confess to this inarticulate elation if Shakespeare can hit the climactic note of one of his four greatest tragedies with the words: "Howl! Howl! Howl! Howl! Oh, you are men of stone!"(Lear, of course.
Stephen Jay Gould and Edward Said: you are sorely missed. ...more