Friday, December 2, 2011

Leonard's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, by Stephen Jan Gould, a review.

Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural HistoryLeonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Stephen Jay Gould, eminent evolutionary scientist and prolific writer, died in May of 2002, some of his previous forecasts--about "the end" or "the penultimate reflections," or "before the millennium calls a halt"--seemed to be eerie foreshadowings of the virulent cancer which killed him. He had, however, long planned to end his columns for Natural History magazine, and the books that collected them, with the January 1 issue of 2001, the date he would celebrate as the first day of the new century. I think it rounded out to an even 300 successive issues for which he delivered, on time and on the dime, some very polished and often profound pieces of sophisticated science writing for the public.

In Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms(1998), Gould presents twenty-one essays which span his unique mix of interests in science, society, art and literature and history. Gould is first and foremost an evolutionary biologist and paleontologist, but he is also a science historian. The history of science, studied in its cultural contexts, is a sobering study of how much we are all—scientists included--shaped by mostly unconscious cultural expectations. We "think" that what we "think" is the result of "thought and observation," whereas the extent to which our beliefs are shaped by unthinking prejudices should humble us all.

I am reading all of Gould's books this year (or as long as it takes), having read fifteen thus far of some twenty-six, and I am reading them in roughly chronological order. One of the problems with such a diachronic, or longitudinal, study is not knowing the changes in context, in social politics, and philosophy, over the twenty-one years from 1977 to 1998. Nor do I know how much has changed since then, as I write now in late 2011. Moreover, I am not a scientist, only one of his interested general public. I may not fully grasp the innuendos of a given essay, what the topical debate was at the time he wrote it, if he changed his mind later, or how widely accepted his beliefs were or are. To claim to represent Gould's views on any subject, then, is rather like the common fallacy of claiming that Shakespeare believed, because he wrote it, that "there's nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." Because I do know Shakespeare, and the background and context, I know that, far from believing that, he saw it as a moral equivocation leading to human chaos. He gave those lines to someone he considered to have very wrong values: Iago, in Othello, to be precise Therefore, I think to be safe I'll just sketch a few of Gould's essays here, hoping to entice readers to pick up a few books by this deep, graceful, humorous and above all ethical philosopher of science.

One of the biographical sketches that caught my attention was a story of Leonardo DaVinci's notebooks on natural history. Yes, the Mona Lisa, and The Last Supper, yes, his war machines, his irrigation ideas, but also his novel observations of such preconditions to establishment of contemporary geology as the temporal and historical nature of horizontal earth strata, the differentiation in size of riverine deposits from source to mouth, the presence of fossils and emphatic argument that they are remains of organisms, and their deposition at different times---and many more "first" analyses. Now look at the Mona Lisa again in its entirety and notice even her figure and hair as extended figuration of the processes of "living nature" in the background.

On the other hand, Gould argues, DaVinci is not the original "Yankee at Camelot," nor is he a Space Alien. His observations, in fact, reveal the timeliness of certain early debates. DaVinci died in 1519, a time of great interest and curiosity. The Renaissance did not subscribe to a "flat earth" mythology; that it did was first suggested in the 1800's, perhaps as a way to claim that modernity had advanced!

There are many curious and provocative gems in this book: The origin of Aquariums and how they changed the graphic representation of marine environments. The controversy over Linnaeus's terms and illustrations for the clam, which presented it as basically a living female genital (which seems to reveal deep mental disturbances in the consciousness of the all-male science fraternity in the "Enlightenment").

The theory of evolution proposed as one of "increasing cephalization"—i.e., having more and more "head-room" (by which theory a child is more evolved than an adult) and, most impressively, the gyrations the theorist went through to try to classify data so that it would seem to support the theory.

Then there is a fascinating Art History essay on paleolithic cave art and various theories about its chronology and function. French structuralist theory, as alluring as it once looked, makes what now seem artificial and baseless suggestions of "function and meaning" here. Structuralism looks for opposing values, and decides to make male-female the axis for differentiation, and then decides cow-like animals are female and horse-like animals are male. Am I too much the sarcastic feminist if I say, "Well, of course!"?

The more interesting aspect of the theories, however, relates to ideas about chronology. I am a scholar of art history as it pertains to performance and literary art, and I am well aware of the "Whiggish" and Positivist interpretation of all art history according to modernist superstitions about progress in civilizations. Such interpretations—i.e., that the later is better, or vice versa--underlie methods for estimating chronology by determining, on no particular concrete scale, what is "better." Whatever features the better art has are supposed superior, advanced, progressed, developed; i.e., later in time. (With the exception, of course, of periods of "decadence," which complicate the issue.) But would the new be better if you didn't already know it was new?

Gould cleverly traces this double-bind in dating cave art as theorists looked for "an internal criterion that could order this earliest art into a chronological sequence." They settled, predictably on "the venerable technique of art historians of later times—the analysis of styles." Gould argues that if we had only Michaelangelo's The Last Judgment and Picasso's Guernica, and did not already know that Picasso was several centuries later than Michaelangelo, and knew nothing of the rest of art history in Europe from the 1500s to the 1900s, the two pieces of art could not be ordered in time. The so-called "analysis of styles" would be reduced to mere statements of differences. Neither painting could objectively be called better or worse, earlier or later.

In 1986, cave-art theory summed up: "From the earliest images onward one has the impression of being in the presence of a system refined by time" representing "15,000 years of apprenticeship followed by 8,000 years of academicism"(Ruspoli). Gould raises his familiar complaint about social positivism, by reminding us that even Darwinian evolution "is not a theory of progress." In fact, any "progressivist paradigm for the history of art" is based on the fact that "it just 'feels right' to us that the very earliest art should be primitive. Older in time should mean more rudimentary in mental accomplishment." The corollary, of course, is that closer to our time, in fact in our time precisely, should mean more (one of the magic words) "advanced."

Imagine the chagrin when carbon-dating and other newer techniques of science were able to determine that, in fact, the paintings denoted "earlier" in this theory were no older, or newer, than others. Both "kinds" of paintings supposedly discerned by the art historians (remember, "apprenticeship" and then "academicism") were equally distributed throughout time. There was no such development or progress or progressive change.

We are in our times accustomed to see everything, it seems, change at near-light-speed rates. We live immersed in a bath of public relations (both blatant commercials and more subtle spin doctors for psychology, medicine, philosophy, health, etc.) which continuously chime, "The Newest! The Latest! The Best!" It is therefore deeply engrained in us that progress is inevitable and normal, and that we, each younger generation even, is better, is the "coming thing," is "the beginning of the new." Maybe we would be wiser to realize what Buddha observed 600 years before Common Era time: All is impermanent. Not necessarily better or worse; always changing. I'm sure there is an Old Testament prophet who says something similar. Maybe "there is nothing new under the sun."

At least we have the writings of Stephen Jay Gould who reminds us again and again that we are not the apex of creation, neither as a civilization nor as homo sapiens, and nudges us toward being content with the beauty of differentiation and diversity, always with vivid examples and always, or almost always, with patience and wit.

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