Tuesday, January 17, 2017

An Urchin in the Storm: Essays about Books and IdeasAn Urchin in the Storm: Essays about Books and Ideas by Stephen Jay Gould

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

These book reviews by Stephen Jay Gould first appeared from 1963 to 1987 in The New York Review of Books, a doughty publication if there ever was one, but Gould manages to hold to his infinitely readable style even in the company of the sometimes somewhat grandiose pontificators there. (I mean that in the friendliest of humor for I quite enjoy NYRB. ) And humor, as always with Gould, is a strength in these ruminations, which use book reviewing as another point of entry to lucid and persuasive philosophical gambits. The humor is spiced with drawings by David Levine.

From 19th-century attempts to find anatomical evidence of hierarchies of race and gender (which merits full and detailed examination in Gould's The Mismeasure of Man) to Carleton Coon's theory of separate human origins, Robert Ardrey's distortions of Australopithecus discoveries, and William Shockley's scaled "racial ratios of IQ," Gould is a kind of flawless GPS to orient the public in the foreign lands of scientific claims. Moreover in spite of accidents and arguments, passions and fashions, Gould's voice and persona retain composure. Although he admits to experiencing anger and disgust and grief at times, he keeps his wits and stands his ground. At the precise point where I become often literally speechless at what seem to me "lies, damned lies, and more lies," Gould proceeds with dignity and a lethal logic to articulate the precise sources of misrepresentations, distortions and misunderstandings. He is thus a model of patient and immovable resistance to the hysterical and antirational. What a gift to spend a couple of hours in his company.

And he has, it seems, "world enough and time," at the tip of his tongue: geological history and social history, biography and biology, the arcana of Bacon, Newton, Hobbes, Descartes, Pascal and Montaigne. He can discourse on Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinism and counter it with his own expertise in Darwin verbatim, Darwin in context, and Darwin via Thomas Henry Huxley. He knows the crooks and demagogues just as intimately—concocted "IQ Experiments," the planting of forged "fossil stones" by spiteful colleagues to mislead a German Professor, and other examples of bad faith—hypothesizing about motive, but in the end understanding the human source of all scientific ideas and methods, and the implication of the human heart in interpersonal motives and social ideologies.

The first two sections of the book discuss the "irreducibility of history" and contingency; one strain of argument stresses structuralist and historicist alternatives to what Gould calls "the mistaken functionalist paradigm of adaptation that still [1987] shapes Darwinian theory." His answer to the problems of social images of popular evolutionary teleology is to show how unique and unrepeatable each historic epoch and change has been; i.e., that the path of history was not laid out beforehand as a kind of inevitable "stairway to the stars," if we take the Victorian British Empire to be the major constellation in those stars, or even our illustrious selves.

The third section deals explicitly and directly with the social, political and intellectual ramifications of biological determinism, with essays entitled "Genes on the Brain," "Jensen's Last Stand," and "Nurturing Nature." The books reviewed are Promethean Fire (by Charles L. Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson—yes, that E.O. Wilson), Bias in Mental Testing (by Arthur R. Jensen, yes that Jensen), and, a book he much admires, Not in our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature (by R.C.Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon J. Kamin) respectively.

Throughout, the book is Gould's plea for rationalism, lamenting "the perilous slide from our current ignorance into a glorification of the nonrational." A recurring target here, as will be true in much of his writing to come over the next dozen years, is "NeoDarwinism," an image or interpretation of Darwinian natural selection that posits a history of "progress" and "teleology," viewing the evolution of humans as if it were the only path, or even a major one, and then calls that path "progress" from lower to higher, from formlessness to complexity. Such a path, of course, would allow one to have credence in Francis Fukuyama's 1989 proposal of "The End of History." Such a version of the grand positive conqueror's history always brings to my mind the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip in which Calvin is gratified to realize the grand scheme of the universe, which was all "to produce me!!´ He spreads his arms to say, "Now I'm here and history is vindicated." (Watterson, 1991: Scientific Progress Goes Boink!)

Gould's range of knowledge and interest allows him to spice this rich ideological meandering with references from Kurt Vonnegut and Dorothy Sayers to Groucho and Karl, from Gilbert & Sullivan to Gunnar Myrdal. He gives special attention to dissecting the spurious rise of the idea of a "well-known 80-20 split" between the influences of nature (inherited and ineradicable and unavoidable genetics) and nurture (education and environment)—a mythical belief that is pretty well laid to firm and not-so-gentle rest as one of many fallacies of "hereditarian" arguments for the source of complex human social behaviors. Gould deplores the continued implicit dependence on such debunked data of, for instance, the fraudulent claims of Sir Cyril Burt with which racialist "scientists" like Arthur Jensen and others pad their claims with "It has been shown..." and "Studies have revealed..." He explicitly praises the book Not in our Genes for going beyond the debunking of determinist claims--e.g., about IQ and various artificial measurements for determining social value and hierarchical placement--and attempting a useful model of the actual, and intricate, interactions of culture and biology.

Human frailty (call it prejudice or venality) will "infect" scientific claims, data, and so-called discovery, which is not to say that there is nothing useful or valid about science, but often not what the public thinks. Just as Quantum Physicists admit that any attempt to observe, witness, record, or measure phenomenon will influence the results, there is no disconnect between observer and observed. (Which Buddhist philosophy has always posited.) When there is observation, there is presence. Human presence. Which changes "things." Stephen Jay Gould would—and did—claim that the best we can do is to put our beliefs, fears, and expectations under the microscope of our consciousness to find out where our biasses lie, and then do our best to disprove the very conclusions we like so well. If nothing else, we should communicate our social, personal and ideological position in order to at least alert the reader's caution.

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