on 6 December 2012
This was the first Stephen Jay Gould book I ever read - thirty years ago - and I immediately became a Gould fan. It is the second in the long series of books collecting together the essays he wrote for the journal "Natural History". Despite being three decades old, most of the essays in this book are still a must for anyone interested in evolutionary theory.
All of Gould's writings are excellent: he never fails to make you think. But I like his earlier writings (such as this book) best, because his writing style then was at its most sharp and concise. Gould's later stuff is still well worth reading, but his later writing style could at times be rather repetitive and self-indulgent.
I now apologise because the following summary of Gould's ideas is taken from my Amazon review of "The Richness of Life", a book which brings together a selection of Gould's writings from all of his publications.
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".)