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Good stuff, bad format! OR Why cheetahs don't run marathons!
on 13 December 1998
Having read many of Stephen Jay Gould's collections of essays with much satisfaction, I was quite excited to try him in the book-length format of "Full House: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin," expecting it to allow him more room for deeper investigation and fuller development of his "excellent" ideas. Instead, 230 pages allowed Gould, one of science's foremost essayists, to be more exhausting than exhaustive.
His topic is interesting and important: how misconceptions about systems and distorting mental representations of them cause false perceptions of trends. Gould walks the reader through elementary statistical method and makes the abstract real and personal by recounting his own harrowing experience with cancer. He then uses the well kept data of baseball to demonstrate the narrowing of over-all variability in a system being perceived as a directed trend, in this case "downward" as .400 hitting disappears. Gould then combats ideas of "progress" being inherent in natural evolution, explaining that since first life was of the simplest organization ("You can't expect a lion to jump out of the primordial soup"), things could only become MORE complex, not less so. Vast time has therefore delivered more sophisticated organization in some organisms as a result of natural selection, but this does not replace or repudiate life's bacterial beginnings, which Gould takes great joy in showing still "rule" our planet. Instead, the most complex of organisms, a group to which we of course belong but which would have and could have existed without us, only represent expanded statistical variability of the entire system. Finally Gould contrasts the inefficient and random nature of biological evolution with the swift and purposeful development of culture and argues for the elimination of the misleading term "cultural evolution." The most overarching theme is that while representations of systems with a single number or attribute can sometimes be useful, we must recognize that these constructs are of our creation and can be very distorting because they are less than the whole, the "Full House" of the title.
Gould could have accomplished all of this in half as many pages as he presents to us in "Full House." The "book" suffers from two types of redundancy. The most annoying and inexplicable kind is simple repetitiveness, phrases and entire sentences used many times throughout, reminiscent of Homeric epic, and not typical of Gould. The other tautology found here is necessary for scientific journal writing, but tedious to the general reader. While I respect Gould's pride in not "dumbing-down" his work for the public and making them dig in and read hard, unless one is a sabermetrician (studying sport statistics) I am afraid a lot of this stuff is stupefying.
When addressing the "German virus" that created the greats of classical music and wondering where the modern equivalents are, Gould asserts that popular demand of novel form has been unfair to latter-day composers of music because all forms have been exhausted. He then dismisses rock music. Perhaps he has tongue in cheek, but I suspect elitism and codgerism. Gould must recognize that society and technology make the music, and jazz, rock, and rap are certainly innovative, if not inherently progressive.
Gould states in the introduction that "Full House" is a companion to "Wonderful Life," another book-length work of his. While I will next read this for his always fascinating ideas, I look forward to returning to the short essay format which made me a Stephen Jay Gould fan.