on 12 July 2009
Gould's collection of essays cleverly envelopes science, history and baseball with insight, wit and irony. It's very difficult to get bored despite the clearly technical subject matter. There is a triumvirate of themes running through the book:
1. There's no directional bias in evolution. In other words, there is no grand plan to creation and everything has happened by chance.
2. Evolution is a happenstance of small gradual changes over millennia of millennia punctuated by relatively rapid changes in what Gould calls punctuated equilibria.
3. Not every evolutionary mutation is an adaptation for some future use but can be a chance change that gets co-opted to some use, what Gould calls exaptation. An example would be the ever growing hominid brain that over 2 million years gets co-opted for reading and writing which could never have been guessed at at the start.
[And in defence of his ideas (especially no. 3 above) Gould picks bones with Richard Dawkins.]
Gould asks the reader to challenge accepted scientific explanations as these are usually presented and defended tenaciously by vested interests whether or not the dogma is true for as Gould explains, science is "rooted in creative interpretation" sometimes leading to "prejudice" as in the science of eugenics.
You will not agree with everything Gould writes but you will firstly be fired up and secondly find that he is a clever dick.
on 13 January 2010
This anthology is drawn from the books Stephen Jay Gould wrote during his lifetime, including the ones compiled from 300 essays he wrote for Natural History magazine. I've given The Richness of Life five stars, but as Stephen Gould is an iconoclast I can imagine that readers who are wedded to the orthodoxy that evolution has been an inevitable progression towards Homo sapiens won't like it.
The editors, Paul McGarr and Steven Rose, have done an excellent job of selecting a representative sample of Gould's writings. The 44 chapters are divided into seven sections:
3. Evolutionary Theory
4. Size, Form, and Shape
5. Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology
6. Racism, Scientific and Otherwise
In this section Stephen Gould shares personal stories about himself, including his love of baseball.
Here, Gould's purpose is to rescue from oblivion a person or episode overlooked by most popular histories of science.
This section covers 'creationism' and Gould's contention that religion and science belong to non-overlapping realms of inquiry.
However, overall, the themes are mainly those identified by the previous reviewer, demola.
on 10 February 2011
Not an easy read for a non-specialist! I came to this book via an article in New Scientist which I occasionally buy and read. Although I knew about Darwin and his revolutionary take on the world, I had sort of assumed that his was the final word. It has taken me over a month to read this mainly because of the density of ideas and some of the very specific biological language. Gould's writing itself is, however, crystal clear, gently humorous and very stylish. His tenor put me in mind of the late Alistair Cooke's Letter From America where a seemingly slight anecdote illuminates a complex and often contentious idea. I found the book entertaining, thought provoking, immensely civilised and it made me hugely proud to be of the same species as Stephen. Oh yes, I found that if you translate his baseball writings into cricket stats it made total sense!!
Highly recommended if you aren't shy of hard work!
on 15 September 2010
This is a very useful selection from the writings of the late Stephen Jay Gould, with an excellent introduction by Steven Rose. It does not correspond exactly with my choice of Gould's best and most important pieces, but it's hard to criticise the editors when Gould's output was so large and varied. It is certainly a good starting point for anyone who is new to Gould, and will no doubt lead them to look at his other work.
Gould's output falls into four main areas. Firstly, there is his contribution to evolutionary theory: he developed (with Niles Eldredge) the theory of punctuated equilibrium (linked to the concept of species selection); he emphasised that evolutionary history consists of a branching bush, not a ladder of progress; he argued that chance (or rather "contingency") plays a large part in evolutionary history; he contended that not every feature of an organism can be explained by functional adaptationism; and he showed that organs can often be adapted and used for purposes which are different from the ones they first evolved to perform.
Secondly, Gould saw that science is a human activity which is influenced by the social, historical and ideological context in which it takes place. His historical biographies of scientists always show them to be products of their times. In this context Gould is also excellent at showing the dialectical interaction between theory and factual evidence in the development of scientific knowledge.
The third area of Gould's work is his lifelong battle against those crude biologically deterministic theories (such as sociobiology and evolutionary psychology) which try to explain away human behaviour as being mainly determined by our genes. An example of what Gould was up against is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins refers to living creatures as "lumbering robots" programmed by their genes. And in an interview published in "New Statesman" (26th March 1999), while discussing cloning, Dawkins said: "Cloning Saddam Hussein would be horrible. Cloning David Attenborough, or someone we all admire, might be fine."
This is the sort of genetic determinism that Gould demolishes. Does Dawkins really think that the nastiness of the dead dictator and the niceness of the admirable Attenborough are simply the result of their genes, and nothing to do with their upbringing, experiences, social circumstances and life-history? Gould has pointed out that nature's clones (identical twins) have already shown us that having identical genes does not mean having the same personality.
Unlike Dawkins, Gould has a grasp of the subtle and complex interaction between our genetic potentiality and the environmental factors which play an enormous part in making us what we are. Gould also points out the real danger of genetic determinism: it suggests that social problems and inequalities are the inevitable result of our biology rather than things that we can put right.
Fourthly and finally, Gould has written about the relationship between science and religion. Gould (an agnostic) believed that there need be no inevitable conflict between the two as long as each sticks to its own sphere and leaves the other alone. Religion should leave science to get on with explaining nature, and science should leave moral debates to religion. I think Gould is on shaky ground here. He is understating the conflict between science and religion; he is playing down the reactionary role that religion still plays in society; and he is failing to analyse the SOCIAL roots of morality. He rightly says that we should not leave moral decisions just to scientists, but I would also say that we shouldn't leave them to priests either!
Nevertheless, even though I am an atheist myself, I do not believe that Richard Dawkins' crude version of atheism is any better than Gould's "softness" on religion. Dawkins is like the philosophers of the Enlightenment in that he thinks that religious beliefs can be dispelled by directly confronting them with rational, scientific arguments. He fails to understand that atheists have to do more than just show religion to be superstitious nonsense: it is necessary to understand its social roots and to get rid of the oppressive and alienating social conditions which make people turn to what Marx, in the famous "opium of the people" passage, called "the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless circumstances." (For more on this see my review here on Amazon of Dawkins' book, "The Selfish Gene".)
Gould is one of my favourite writers. He is not perfect. His writing style (especially in his later books) can at times be repetitive and self-indulgent. But he is always worth reading: he never fails to make you think. I thoroughly recommend this book.