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30 of 38 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Biologists, red in tooth and claw, 25 Nov. 2008
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This review is from: Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest (Revolutions in Science) (Paperback)
Given that it covers a particularly vitriolic skirmish between two huge, polarising and consistently outspoken opposing generals in the Science Wars, Kim Sterelny had on his hands a fascinating topic. He quite easily could have crammed this brief volume full of the proverbial sizzling gypsies - gory details of the academic handbags which were exchanged in full view of an admiring dilettante public - but inexplicably, he chose not to. Instead, the fieriest debate is reduced to its desiccated intellectual premises and is presented worthily and dryly. This is, no doubt, second nature to a professional scientist like Sterelny, but it displays a lack of worldliness for an aspiring popular author; a worldliness, ironically enough, possessed in oodles by both of his subjects.

Unlike your usual zoologist (though granted, I don't know that many), Richard Dawkins invites extremes of adoration or vitriol from just about anyone who's heard of him (and, given his gift for self publicity, that's most people); The late Steve Gould was (on this side of the ditch at any rate) of less general reknown but equally susceptible, in the right circles, to excitable opinion.

Dawkins the zoologist is a crusading atheist - irony intended - and devoted son of the enlightenment; Gould the paleontologist was possessor of a more open-minded view on woolly artsy pursuits like religion, literature and architecture, allowing them to bleed into his professional scientific opinion in a way that horrified the purist in Dawkins. Also, apparently, Gould was a Marxist. Battle lines accordingly drawn.

Now, to his (professional, if not authorial) credit, Sterelny abstains from addressing Gould's politics, and instead succinctly and patiently outlines the camps' respective differences in evolutionary theory - differences which are relatively subtle to non specialists, truth be told - but (no doubt being a good scientific chap - clean fight, fair play and all that) refrains from descending into the real particulars of the debate, in particular referring only in passing to a petulant and protracted exchange in the New York review of books following publication of Daniel Dennett's Dawkinsesque Darwin's Dangerous Idea. (How about that for a bit of alliteration, by the way).

Such noble prurience is a mistake, in this reviewer's opinion, for it neuters a book which, had it been rendered breathlessly enough, could have been a rip-snorter.

If it were me I would have extracted much of the debate in full and provided some journalistic context around how it came about, and certainly extracted some of the peachier exchanges. For example, how about this one:

"[Dennett's] limited and superficial book reads like a caricature of a caricature--for if Richard Dawkins has trivialized Darwin's richness by adhering to the strictest form of adaptationist argument in a maximally reductionist mode, then Dennett, as Dawkins's publicist, manages to convert an already vitiated and improbable account into an even more simplistic and uncompromising doctrine. If history, as often noted, replays grandeurs as farces, and if T.H. Huxley truly acted as "Darwin's bulldog," then it is hard to resist thinking of Dennett, in this book, as "Dawkins's lapdog."

Cracking stuff - but it finds no place in Sterelny's volume, and I had to look it up online (it, and the whole vituperative article from which it came, is reproduced at the New York Review of Books' website.)

Sterelny's main problem seems to be that he is such a frightfully good egg he can't bring himself to dramatise proceedings, which are screaming out for it, at all. He confesses an intellectual kinmship with Dawkins but then is so scrupulously fair to Gould in his assessment of their competing arguments that it is hard to comprehend what he even sees in Dawkins' view.

That might be my bias: while much taken by Dawkins' and Dennett's books when I first read them, I have found more resonance in Gould's humanist, pragmatic view the more I've read of it (and the older I've got), so (as a point of disclosure) I come out on the other side of the argument to Sterelny. That's not my problem with his book; however, quite the opposite: it's the very bloodlessness of it.

Olly Buxton
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 20 May 2010 16:12:01 BDT
GoatHorns says:
Spot on in my opinion

Posted on 25 Oct 2011 23:21:00 BDT
Last edited by the author on 25 Oct 2011 23:27:28 BDT
Hud955i says:
Hi OB, yes I think that's your bias, but one you're entirely entitled to, and it's very clear where you are coming from. So I gave you a yes for helpful - you helped me decide that this is a book I very much wanted to read. I can certainly enjoy a good journalistic dog fight, but on this occasion I wanted to understand the science. In other words I don't regard Sterelny as having a "problem", or his book as being a "mistake". There's room for all approaches, I think.

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Oct 2011 00:38:23 BDT
Olly Buxton says:
Hi - I have just finished Roger Lewin's inferior "Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos". It is a less coherent book and now a bit dated but in an odd way is quite insightful on the "Emergents" versus the "reductionists"

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