Sunday, October 9, 2011

Eight Little Piggies by Stephen Jay Gould; a Review

Oooh. The day has come. One Stephen Jay Gould book too many, and my head has exploded. I've struggled for several weeks with this review, but it won't cohere. In lieu of a "book review" proper, then, I offer these observations. If you already know Gould and his popular and literate writings on science, go ahead and skip to the next paragraph. If you don't know him, you can turn to almost any of my other reviews for enthusiasm and encomium. I think he's one of the most important writers of the twentieth century especially for his understanding of human bias and the way cultural expectations limit and inform what science finds and reports, as well as how public opinion interprets science, or Mis-interprets. He died in 2002, after a productive career as biologist, paleontologist, and evolutionary theorist; he taught at Harvard for most of his career, and was widely lauded for his Evolutionary theory of "Punctuated Equilibrium" (developed with Niles Eldridge, 1972) as well as for his writing about the History of Science. He is entertaining, literate, amusing, lucid and always generous to his ideological opponents: he epitomized civil discourse. And is sorely missed. On the other hand, when opponents claimed that Punctuated Equilibrium was "Evolution by Jerks," he quickly quipped that Gradualism was "Evolution by Creeps."

This book is something like the sixth collection of his popular essays, on most of Gould's usual topics: evolution, the history of ideas, anatomical peculiarities, animal and human behavior, and opposition to human determinism. Reviewing Bully for Brontosaurus just last month I mentioned Gould's essay on DiMaggio's record hitting streak, and compared it to Gould's unbroken streak of monthly essays for Natural History magazine. In the introduction, Gould remarks how much he enjoyed it when Bruce Bochte, a former major league baseball player, made the same comparison. Gould was then (pre-1993) standing at 208 successive issues since January 1974, and would publish four more books of the collected columns before his death in 2002. The columns were planned to end in January of 2001, a goal Gould accomplished.

What's new in this book is a marked shift in Gould's style to a freer, more irreverent choice of analogies and parenthetical comments, as well as a venture in a new direction : "contemplative and highly personal ruminations." He also explicitly takes up a "theme of transcendent (and growing) importance . . . . anthropogenic environmental deterioration and massive extinction of species on our present earth." He professes to have previously avoided it not because he didn't find it important, but because he felt so strongly about it, referring to Wordsworth's phrase about "thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears" and, he adds parenthetically, "perhaps for words as well."

And what Gould says about environmental destruction is powerful. For one thing, he directly addresses the way "Development" boosters distort evolutionary theory to make it seem to give its blessings to extinction of species. I said that Gould usually deals civilly with his opponents on issues of science and political interpretations of it. In an essay called "The Golden Rule," he makes a bit (or a bite) of an exception, citing a June 7, 1990 pro-development "opinion piece" in the Wall Street Journal by Michael D. Copeland "(identified as 'executive director of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Montana')."

Copeland cited me in the service of a classic false
argument—the standard, almost canonical misuse of my
profession of paleontology in debates about extinction
. . . . to uphold arguments by developers about the
irrelevance (or even, in this case, the benevolence)
of modern anthropogenic extinction. This standard error
is a classic example of failure to understand the
importance of scale. (45)

Copeland neatly twists the words of "Mr. Gould" referring to the Permian extinction's "estimated 96 per cent extinction of species" and yet a claim that "the actual number of living species has probably increased over time." Copeland's conclusion, and what he implies Gould and other paleontologists might say, is that "we may be wasting time, effort and money on animals that will disappear over time, regardless of our efforts."

The time scales—hundreds of millions of years-- of evolution and geology on earth cannot conceivably, Gould argues, be grasped in a way that justifies rapid destabilization. We may indeed "all disappear over time," but to predict that a mass extinction would not bring catastrophe to our human cultures, Gould observes, is a fantasy, and to argue that recovery of "number of living species" will occur skips the little detail that such recovery may take place about 10 million years down the road, and is thus irrelevant if our entire species has so little prospect of surviving that long in rapidly destabilized environmental conditions. Gould quite acutely sums up:

to say that we should let the squirrels go [a species
threatened by the development for which Mr. Michael D.
Copeland was promoter and mouthpiece
] because all species
die (at geological scales) makes about as much sense as
arguing that we shouldn't treat an easily curable childhood
infection because all humans are ultimately and inevitably
mortal. (46)

Gould further argues that paleontology shows us this:

1. We live on a fragile planet now subject to permanent
derailment and disruption by human interventions;
2. Humans must learn to act as stewards for this threatened
world. (ibid.)

He sums up the reality:

[The] planet will recover from nuclear holocaust, but we
will be killed and maimed by billions, and our cultures
will perish. . . .The earth will prosper if polar icecaps
melt under a global greenhouse, but most of our major cities,
built at sea level as ports and harbors, will founder,
and changing agricultural patterns will uproot our
populations." (48)

Serious food for thought and ammunition for our thinking about these issues. And this is just one essay, of thirty-one.

It's a hefty book, at 435 pages in the Norton paperback, with—Bless Academia!—a full and rich Bibliography and an Index. It's the ninth book by Gould I've read this last year (2010/2011) and the thirteenth since I first discovered The Flamingo's Smile some time in the late 1990s. I meant to read all his books and it looked like I could easily and happily do that in a year. My theory was that the more time I spent reading him the better, combining as he does good reading and important information. Up until a month ago, I thought I had only two more books to go. I was mistaken! I now have a list of 26 books. No wonder I have foundered on book #13—I'm only halfway through!.

I recommend the book, absolutely, but by the end of it I felt that perhaps I preferred the more straightforward writer that I knew from earlier books. Or perhaps—and this is the worm beneath the nail—my discomfiture, and my trouble with reviewing the book came because of uncertainty. In Eight Little Piggies Gould writes about contemporary genetic research and theories like the "molecular clock" which, it is proposed, may override natural selection and random variations as the mechanisms for evolutionary change. As Gould argued strenuously for natural selection, and therefore for the survival struggle, I began to suspect that perhaps I myself have been guilty of the cultural bias he so often evokes. Perhaps my 'search image' for arguments against the excrescences of class society, against Herbert Spencer's translation of "survival of the fittest" to justify cut-throat Capitalism, were over-riding my rational understanding. Perhaps I have been misreading Gould. And misrepresenting. Perhaps I had a hard time writing about this book because I could not make it say what I wanted it to say. Perhaps...perhaps this has all been just a dream.

This is a book of riches, but only one in a vast dragon's hoard, it seems. And danger lurks when one suspects that HC SVNT DRACONES. I hope someone out there will explore this territory and report back.

August 2011

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