Monday, September 5, 2011

Bully for Brontosaurus, by Stephen Jay Gould. A review.

I was recently troubled to see Stephen Jay Gould described in an alleged "review" on as some self-promoting intransigent "Atheist," so I want to start my review of this 1991 book by citing its epigraph:

Pleni sunt coeli/ et terra/gloria eius. Hosanna in excelsis.

("Heaven and earth are full of thy glory: Hosanna in the highest.")

And in his essay on probability, logic and Joe DiMaggio's record hitting streak, Gould wrote: "The best of us will try to live by a few simple rules. Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with thy God, and never draw to an inside straight." (472, "The Streak of Streaks").

As I near the end of this year of reading Stephen Jay Gould's complete works (book-form), I begin to run out of superlatives. I am in fact in the same position as a 1941 Yankees fan after one of the games in DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak: such a fan could laughingly say of the game "Nothing new. Just another hit!" And I can say of Bully for Brontosaurus: "Nothing new. Just another hit!" It's hard to find adjectives to distinguish one book in such a long streak of excellent books. Gould's amazing feat is to have so many books all maintaining superior levels of intelligence, articulation, patience, scientific knowledge, literacy, history and compassionate philosophy. So here is "just another hit in the streak" of Gould's writing in natural history, logic and veracity, and related subjects like art, music, history, philosophy, architecture, poetry and sport.

I can also say that at least one of his books of essays should be required reading for any adult concerned with one of the following areas of needful thought.

1. Evolution. First of all, what is the scientific definition of Evolution and what does it mean? Many of us admit that we don't understand all the theorems of physics, let alone quantum physics, so we don't offer opinions about whether the law of inertia is "true" or not, and certainly can offer no thoughts about relativity. So why is every prating fundamentalist political candidate ready to reject what is not a matter for laypersons to decide? What IS science's theorem of evolution? Is it "Descent with Modification" or "Survival of the Fittest"? Does evolutionary theory entail Hobbes' "War of all against all"? Is "Survival of the Fittest" a struggle between individuals to see which can dominate? Is it gladiatorial? "Nature red in tooth and claw"?

Who is Herbert Spencer, and what relationship do his nineteenth-century philosophy and political applications have with Darwin and Darwin's theories? Why is it so important to know the difference? Do we begin a long moral slide to Fascism, specifically Hitler's Nazi propaganda and killing machines, when we subscribe to evolutionary ideas? Whose? Darwin's? Darwin, who said, "Talk of fame, honor, pleasure, wealth, all are dirt compared with affection"?

Understanding these issues might help to explain why honest and well-intentioned people like William Jennings Bryan for example (see below), and some misguided religious figures have campaigned inexorably against "it," mistaking capitalism, scientism, past German militaristic fascism, and Herbert Spencer's and Nietzsche's philosophical theories, for Evolution.

Editorial aside. After Michelle Bachman's recent (Fall, 2011) bald stump speech claim that "Evolution is not a scientific fact, just a theory, with gaps," I have to add that most such fundamentalists and conservatives who reject Evolution have no base of knowledge from which to make such claims and do so only to "be popular" (i.e., to appear more pietistically Christian), since their political and philosophical stances are certainly Spencerian "Survival-of-the-Fittest" and even Fascist in their eagerness to rid the world of inferior and lower-order people. The attorney general of Nebraska recently compared people on welfare to raccoons, and many rightwing political doctrines hold that all Arabs are Muslims are Ragheads are Terrorists are Evil and represent not just obstacles to our access to their oil but the anti-Christ. Hitler used the Jews and Gypsies and Commies and Degenerates (gays) as hatred-incentives; today's Hitlers use Arabs and Commies and Feminists and Gays and the poor. Gould would have said all this more clearly and more kindly. [End of editorial.]

2. Evolution and theology. Does evolution inevitably conflict with Christianity, or with Christian fundamentalism, or at least with the creation story in Moses' Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament, mainly Genesis)? If we are not to believe anything except what Genesis tells us, how are we to believe that the earth circles the sun and that space probes do not locate the stars and sun and moon "above" us, but all around, infinitely all around? What is the main intellectual reason to deny "Creation Science," or now "Intelligent Design" a place in the science curriculum of public schools? Are all scientists who "support" evolution necessarily atheists? Is there an inherent contradiction between religion, morality, and science? Or are there simply different appropriate "fields" and methods of study? Science does not claim to explain or explain away what is not a question verifiable by scientific examination. Science itself offers no theological opinions, despite what individuals may or may not believe.

3. Social Policies and opinions that mask as Science. Aside from evolution itself, there is the problematic fact that some alleged scientists try to use science to justify class privilege, laissez-faire capitalism, and racial and gender hierarchies. History has provided a wealth of examples: Criminal types. Childish or effeminate races and cultures, with the clear understanding that child is of a lower moral order than an adult and that the masculine of anything is innately superior to the "feminine." (See St. Augustine for theology that pictures the infant and child as corruption and damnation and females as the source of sin.) People who are feeble, reprobate, degenerate, inferior. Supposedly scientific studies that predicate criminality, intelligence, depravity, on the 'innate' characteristics of social classes, races, genders, nationality, or physiognomy. Gould is an infallible guide to such charlatans and offers good guides for recognizing why these theses sometimes sound so good and authentic until they are closely examined.

4. Ignorance, or inadequate education.Finally, the underlying problem in all these areas besides dishonesty and self-interest: inadequacy of logic, clarity, statistical training, scientific methods (and knowing there are several), comprehension of such concepts as geologic 'deep' time. For instance, we do not realize the stars we see are essentially random distributions in space. We see patterns, and many societies have given those patterns 'meanings.' We don't know random when we see it! In another book, Eight Little Piggies Gould says of our easy mistakes about deep geologic time and human historical time, that we cannot grasp the right scale. In the scale of millennia, most species become extinct. But in the scale of human history, human existence here and now, that doesn't mean we should be careless about destroying the very habitat for which we are so fit, and which our children and children's children will rely on. We also don't understand statistics very well(and here Gould cites the wonderful Twain exclamation "Lies, damned lies, and statistics!"). For instance, an average or mean income of $5,000 for a "town" of 10 families could mean that nine families have nothing and one family has $50,000.

Gould addresses misunderstandings of the "Mean"(or "Average") here in one of his most personal essays, recounting how, because he works with statistics, tendencies, distributions and correlations, he was able to avoid despair in 1982 when –diagnosed with a rare and serious cancer at about age 40—he learned it was "incurable" with a median mortality of only eight months after discovery. Gould in fact survived another twenty years. If that sounds like a miracle, you need to read Section Nine of Bully for Brontosaurus on "Numbers and Probability" which is presented so lucidly you won't even remember why you didn't understand "mean, median and mode."

Probably one of the two most important contributions Gould made to evolutionary science was to comprehend and elucidate the misconceptions, even among scientists, of evolution as "Progress" based primarily on statistical and "tendency" misunderstandings. The "Progress" metaphor of history is seen primarily as a story of "advancement" toward complexity of organism, and is based, finally, on the image of "us" as the crowning glory. Oliver Sacks wrote of Gould, "No one has written of our illusions about progress in nature with more wit and learning." A way to think about the logical fault behind the idea of progress in evolutionary history is hinted at by considering a drunk who staggers along beside a wall and finally falls into the gutter on the other side of the sidewalk as "headed for the gutter all along" (in a non-figurative sense). Some events can only vary in one direction; no life form could ever develop that is "less" than one-celled. So the "distribution" is and must be skewed. That does not mean either tendency or intention. Think about it; read here, and maybe get the book Full House for a thorough statistical elucidation of tendencies (along with an explanation of why .400 hitting in baseball is a thing of the past).

The greatest of Gould's lifelong achievements, however, was perhaps social, and not scientific. He was an implacable opponent of demagogues and charlatans that falsely enlist bad "science" for social or personal gain, as well as a debunker of fuzzy thinking and the "unthinking emotionalism that can be a harbinger of fascism" so easily. Yet Gould was almost inimitable in his patient and—in my view—generous explications of falsehoods, their perpetrators and their camouflaged contradictions. One of the essays here was a paragon of such civil discourse, an examination of why William Jennings Bryan had spent the last decade of his life campaigning with fervor to abolish the teaching of evolution in American Public Schools.

The book's title refers to the complexities of, and rationale for, scientific taxonomies and the ticklish opposition between "Brontosaurus" (popular title) and "Apatosaurus" (technically correct), and there are less weighty topics considered in Bully for Brontosaurus: The unique adaptive traits and intelligence of Platypus and Echidna which are often ignored because the demeaning labeling of them as "lesser mammals" implies they are therefore inferior, when they are only distinct. The historical reasons we have the inferior QWERTY keyboard (all those letters, very common letters, typed by the weak littlest fingers) instead of a more ergonomically efficient one are located in the old key-jam tendencies of obsolete typewriter technology. The Cardiff Giant hoax of Cooperstown NY is compared to "that other one," Abner Doubleday's invention of baseball, and an interesting history of baseball ensues, arguing that it came from versions of stickball, from the "non-cricket" side of class divisions in England. In Dr. Gould's Cabinet of Curiosities are rudimentary limbs which are not "partial wings," a painter's theories of camouflage in nature, plus a literal buffet of topics: choral singing, Lavoisier, Kropotkin the" anarchist," and Voyager's trip out of the solar system. Justice Scalia and Jimmy Carter appear as guests whom Gould treats with warmth and welcome.

In his Preface, Gould notes that some people look down their noses at "popular science writing." He compares his style to vulgarisation, and claims that in France it has only positive connotations, unlike cheap or sensationalist dumbing-down which of course he opposes on all counts. But eloquently, wittily, with erudition and charm. And an intelligence that—because of his writing—has not passed away.

A Post-Script on William Jennings Bryan

Having been raised in Nebraska, where William Jennings Bryan is somewhat of a folk hero as a gallant Populist native son, I was surprised to read about the earnestness of Bryan's campaign against Evolution. Bryan? Who opposed war, argued for the independence of the Philippines, for women's suffrage, for the direct election of senators and the graduated income tax? Bryan the Populist, the champion of "the little man"?

Gould points out that from 1904 until WWI in Bryan's famous "Prince of Peace" speech delivered all over the world, he said merely, "While I do not accept the Darwinian Theory, I shall not quarrel with you about it" (420). What could have changed his mind so drastically? It is often claimed that Bryan's last years—he died just days after his "humiliation" by Clarence Darrow at the 1925 Scopes Trial in Tennessee—represent a degeneration in general. The Encyclopedia Britannica at one time lamented that this heated campaign was "inconsistent with many progressive causes he had championed" (Gould, 418).

Gould, however, honors Bryan's claim that his opposition to evolution after WWI was completely consistent with his lifelong beliefs, and Gould sets out to find out how and why he became so adamant. What Gould found is a lesson again in the necessity of separating a poorly understood scientific theory from its supposed social and political proponents. William Jennings Bryan listed three reasons for opposing evolution, all ideological: "For peace and compassion against militarism and murder. For fairness and justice toward farmers and workers and against exploitation for monopoly and profit. For absolute rule of majority opinion against imposing elites."

Why had Bryan interpreted the science of Origin of the Species as inimical to these causes? Gould found convincing evidence that two specific books had alarmed William Jennings Bryan toward the end of World War I, which one must remember he opposed so vehemently that he resigned from Wilson's staff in protest of U.S. entry into the war. First, a report of conversations of the German Great General Staff at their headquarters where American Vernon Kellogg was "tolerated" in the international and nonpartisan effort for humanitarian relief of Belgians. Kellogg reported that "The creed of the Allmacht (omnipotence) of a natural selection based on violent and competitive struggle is the gospel of the German intellectuals." He wrote that the Germans believed that the "human group which is in the most advanced evolutionary stage. . .should win in the struggle for existence" (Gould, 424). Thus Kellogg as well as the Germans, it seems, conflated this militant doctrine with Darwin's scientific theories about species. [The British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and even Belgians, along with Americans, had long practiced the theory in colonial conquest, slavery, genocide, and imperial expansion but without, perhaps, the jargon? jpr]

The other book, written by English commentator Benjamin Kidd, conveyed the same idea about Evolution but for a contrary reason. Kidd was a philosophical idealist and believed Darwin had created a terrible social force to liberate the "pagan soul" "previously (but imperfectly) suppressed for centuries by Christianity and its doctrines of love and renunciation"(425). It was not the science he objected to, but the "hold which the theories. . .obtained on the popular mind in the West." He thought that "everywhere through civilization an almost inconceivable influence was given to the doctrine of force as the basis of legal authority. . . "(425).

Thus a science about origin of species becomes conflated with, and blamed for, Nietzsche's nihilistic Ubermensch and Spencerian social ideology at a time of the most inflamed Imperialist struggle of the West (Europe & its "white" colonies both present and former) against the rest of the world. Germany, Italy, and Japan decide to use this ideology in extremis to wrest a share of the world's colonialized wealth. And suddenly we have an imaginary crusade for force and hatred by some "elite" powers to overthrow the former naive and innocent Christians of the world. I oversimplify as Gould never does, but then he is exemplary and I am impatient. I am already older than he lived to be, and have accomplished so relatively little that I admit to irascibility. It's mostly at myself and my social impotence, so please, Christians and anti-evolutionary readers, (if you've read this far) don't blame science, or Gould, for my little bursts of sarcasm. (Elsewhere Gould takes on Spencer, whom he uncharacteristically labels "that Victorian pundit of just about everything" and Spencer's crude and effective translation of imperial aims into "pseudo-scientific" doctrine. See The Panda's Thumb.)

"The Darwinian theory" which Bryan agreed to tolerate in 1904, he thus attacked after he became convinced of its viciousness by this equation of Spencer's bare-knuckles capitalism, German militarism and ideology, the glorification of force, and the potential overthrow of Christian "love and renunciation," with the innocuous science of Darwin and its insights about the origin of species. Bryan misunderstood evolution to argue that man reached "his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate—the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak"(421). He remarked that this conception "would weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and the power of wealth." All of this anathema proceeded from the mouth of scientists and intellectuals, supposedly, and Bryan's populism like all populism always skirted the danger of reactive anti-intellectual know-nothing politics. After Bryan read the direct testimony that Germany's aggressions were associated with precisely the social ideology Bryan feared, the one both they and he attributed to Darwin, he changed the "Prince of Peace" speech. "And fell into a declension...And all we mourn for" (Polonius, Hamlet).

No comments:

Post a Comment