March 2nd, 2009
|02:26 pm - The Richness of Life
I'm reading The Richness of Life, which is a collection of pieces by Stephen Jay Gould. I like Gould better than Dawkins. I think he had a more nuanced (and accurate) view on many issues, and more realism about human nature. His difference of opinion is one of emphasis only - he put more emphasis on the role of chance on the way life has developed on earth, and his model of evolution emphasises long periods of stability, punctuated by big changes associated with mass extinctions and catastrophic events. His view of current forms isn't that they are the best they can be, but that they are the best of the alternatives which were readily available.
He is also much stronger - in my opinion - on the impact that social power relations have on the types of explanations and hypotheses that are favoured or even imagined by scientists. I gave an example of this a few weeks ago, when I mentioned a study which suggested that we had twice as many genes from female as male ancestors. The researchers said 'It is hard to imagine any other explanation than that in the past men had two wives'. While doubting the finding itself, I was able to imagine alternative explanations with ease. Gould looks at the racial essentialism of the 19th and 20th centuries, showing this tendency in action, in the way hypotheses were framed and tested, in good faith, by men who were trying to be scientific but simply could not imagine the alternatives. I could do a whole post on this section of the book, which is brilliant.
One thing that does make me cringe a little is that in arguing with other evolutionary biologists, Gould uses language which I have seen quoted out of context by creationists. It's not Gould's fault. He died in 2002. Not only did he not predict how dirty and public the creationist fight would get, but he isn't able to complain, sue them, argue back etc. So they go through his works, taking sentences out of context. It's disgusting behaviour, and it's not Gould's fault.
Ironically, Gould's attitude to these same people who now abuse his memory is one of tolerance. He favours the idea that he and his colleagues should leave religion to the people who value it, just say 'not my area', and get on with science in a separate sphere. Once again, I think this attitude has been abused by unscrupulous people, now he isn't around to clarify it.
I like Gould's writings. A scientist who understood things other than science. Such as art.
Yes, I agree. He's also politically outspoken. He quotes a biologist Herve 'Men of the black races have a brain scarcely heavier than that of white women', and comments 'I do not regard as empty rhetoric a claim that the battles of one group are for all of us.'
Edited at 2009-03-02 02:40 pm (UTC)
He also came across as a truly likeable sort of person, with a sense of humour. The extent to which science has become politicised, and the spitefulness and childishness of what passes for political debate in our age, both horrify and sadden me. We need more peope like Gould today, people capable of mking a reasoned argument without losing their temper or resorting to name-calling.
We live in barbarous times.
|March 2nd, 2009 02:58 pm (UTC)
He also managed in general to retain good humour in the face of long illness and constant belittling from the other faction of Darwinians. If you consider what - not Dawkins himself, but his allies and acolytes - said about Gould, in tones of withering contempt for him as a scientist, his refusal to depart from his habitual equanimity is a model to us all.
Ironically, I suspect that one of the reasons why creationists like quoting him is not that he had issues with dogmatic Darwinism so much as that sometimes his fellow-Darwinians seemed to hate him even more than they hated creationists.
Yes, good humour and courage.
"[Gould's] view of current forms isn't that they are the best they can be, but that they are the best of the alternatives which were readily available."
To some extent, any evolutionary biologist would agree with this. But I think that for many (Gould quotes some of them) this agreement then gets overlooked when considering details for instance of human biology, where every fine detail such as a penchant for particular art forms is assumed to have arisen due to direct selective pressure.
Absolutely. Most things that aren't "urgent" will pop up due to indirect selective pressure, and will only be hammered into a different shape if they strongly affect selection.
Gould invented the somewhat-annoying jargon term 'spandrel' for a side-effect which later finds a function.
Yes, I would have assumed that was a fundamental point of agreement for any evolutionary biologist myself!
Having said that my main exposure to the field has been through reading a few of Dawkins' science books, so I may not have the full picture. I have to say that despite his public image as a 'hectoring' individual I'd characterise Dawkins himself as unfailingly polite and good-humoured, and noticeably careful to aim his criticism at the ideas of other people, not the people themselves.
I haven't read any Gould, although my wife's copy of 'Dinosaur in a Haystack' sits opposite me. I'll have to give him a go.
I don't feel that Dawkins is as bad as many people make him out to be. In his books he comes across as sensibly ideas-focused. I do know someobody who used to work with him who says he was dreadful, but perhaps it was a personality clash in that case.
I find the Dawkins-faction approach to be too narrow, and too rigid. I think this is partly the effect of the creatist debate. Being under serious threat has a bad effect IMHO. That's another bad thing the creationists have brought about.
I don't think anyone could fail to enjoy SJG's science writing. The first book by him I ever read was 'Not in our genes' in the early eighties. This is one which Dawkins has disparaged very harshly, but I think is excellent. Wonderful Life is also a really good book I think.
ETA - shit, not in our genes isn't by Gould - I thought he was co-author - well, it is 25 years since I read it.
Edited at 2009-03-02 04:43 pm (UTC)
|March 2nd, 2009 04:27 pm (UTC)
Gould is absolutely wonderful - so much more intelligent than Dawkins, and,a s you say, so nuanced. He had a marvellous sense of humour, as well as being quite astonishingly well read. Whereas Dawkins on literaure made me want to hulr the book across the room (have you read those dreadful chapters in Unweaving the rainbow? He comes across as a philistine, for whom literature ended in the 19th century, and who doesn't understand even that), Gould's little excursions into art and philosophy that start his essays were always entertaining and often enlightening. And I'd kill to be able to write as well as that!
I haven't read Unweaving the Rainbow. I certainly agree with him that greater understanding doesn't destroy the pleasure and magic of things. But then - you think why read the book. I thought it would be a rehash of what everyone else says on the subject.
I could do a whole post on this section of the book, which is brilliant.
Please do. Not having much interest in biology, I have never read any books by Gould. I just associate him with the "model of evolution emphasises long periods of stability, punctuated by big changes". I have read Dawkins, mostly for his HPS rather than biology.
You don't need to be interested in biology to read Gould. A friend used to give me his books for Christmas, just because he was such a good essayist.
The funniest bit of the discussion on cranial size and shape was the way that German and French scientists bent over backwards to prove that the typical size and shape of skull which was average in Germany (or France) was obviously indicative of superior intellect. Not so funny was the comparison of the skulls of women and people of various ethnic groups to apes'.
|March 2nd, 2009 09:15 pm (UTC)
I've read one of his books - at times it got too deep for me, but the feeling of, how can I explain, reaching out rather than simply 'teaching' kept drawing me back in...
I'll look out for this one :)
The Richness of Life is one of those big comprehensive readers, with essays book reviews, chapters from his books etc. It gives a big picture, but it is quite a doorstep.