Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould

Published in 2000, this collection of essays from Natural History Magazine is subtitled Penultimate Reflections in Natural History because the "millennial issue" of January 2001 was to carry the 300th in an unbroken series of Gould's monthly columns since 1973, which would be the last.  His "Preface" doesn't say why he was ending the series.  Like John Lennon at 30 observing that he had, "goddess willing, a good 40 years of productivity yet," Gould had good reason to expect ample years for more writing and research in Paleontology and Evolutionary Biology, unless he knew then that a swift malignant cancer would soon snuff out his light in 2002.

However it was, the brightness of Gould's searching brain here assays the very foundations of science (especially paleontolgy and "evolution")and its nemesis, Social Ideologies founded on distortions and prejudice.  He investigates the difference between questions which can or cannot be asked of science, the crucial difference between valid scientific methods and theories which are often demonstrated to be mistaken or misinterpreted, on the one hand, and fraudulent evidence, invalid methods and inappropriate topics like God's existence, whose religion is 'right,' and which human beings are 'more valuable' or 'more evolved' than others.  It is in his probing analysis of the devastating effects of the latter  that his light is most valuable.

Let us take Darwin's theory of "descent with modification" as a scientific thesis, and the fulminations of that "chief Victorian pundit of nearly everything "(as Gould calls him) Herbert Spencer, so-called philosopher when he should more rightly be called apologist to Capitalism "bloody in tooth and claw." Spencer took Darwin's findings and turned them on their heads: he devised the slogan "survival of the fittest" to mean that evolution is the history of Progress, and thus the struggle for existence is purification; Thomas Huxley called his theory the "gladiatorial" school of evolution. As many historians have noted, this theory should really be called "social Spencerism." 

Specifically, Spencer called for an end to all state-supported services--education, postal services, regulation of housing, even public sanitary systems.  He thought that any social intervention in suffering is counterproductive because it promotes the "vitiation of the race through the multiplication of its inferior samples."  Charities and philanthropists he calls "pauper's friends" who "defeat the sharp...spur to the lazy and so strong a bridle to the random." 

Does his program sound familiar in 2011?  Andrew Carnegie who had been troubled by a devout Christian conscience was vastly relieved that Spencer "reconciled God and capitalist society"; Carnegie had worried about the suffering of the poor, but now "I got rid of theology" and realized that "All is well since all grows better."  He acknowledged that "while it may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race" and concluded that we should welcome the "great inequality of environment, the concentration of the hands of a few" because it was "essential for the future."

Gould studies the interweaving of such social ideology with political slogans such as those that justified the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire tragedy of 1911 when the horrifying spectacle of human beings leaping from the upperstories of the Trade Center buildings to escape fire in 2001 was prefigured in the deaths of all 50 young women who were forced to jump from the 8th through 10th floors of the Asch building because all safety exits had been blocked.  Another 110 women perished in the fire.

This fascinating and important lesson in the ideology we could call today neo-conservatism is only a fraction of the assets of this important book.  Highly, highly recommended.

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