Communicator (communicator) wrote,
Communicator
communicator

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.
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