Tuesday, January 17, 2017

I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould

I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Numerologists would boggle at this book’s various numerical coincidences, as does Gould himself. First, as the title suggests, this is the last of his books of essays from the journal Natural History. It is also neatly the tenth such book. Moreover, there were exactly 300 such essays, one published in every issue for 30 years, with not "one missed," as Gould says, “despite cancer, hell, high water or the World Series.” There is also a quarter-century between his first popular book and first scientific book in 1977, and this book and a new major scientific title in 2002.

And then--numerologically speaking-- there is the fact that January 1, 2001, the date of the last essay, was the first day of the new millennium. And that essay was the title essay for the book, and celebrated a personal centennial: Gould’s grandfather arrived, a young Hungarian immigrant, in NYC in 1901. In Gould’s library was a book of his grandfather’s, an English grammar with an inscription celebrating the day: “I Have Landed, Sept. 11, 1901.”

While the book was being prepared, that date sadly took on a different and opposite connotation for Americans, so a separate section was added at the end of I Have Landed to balance the celebratory opening.

And as a final coincidence, one completely unforeseen, in 2002, Gould died swiftly of a previously unsuspected cancer, so that the title I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History could also be the title of a sober eulogy. The dedicatory invocation at the end of the first essay, especially, takes on haunting connotations: “Dear Papa Joe, I have been faithful,” it begins, and it concludes, “I have landed. But I also can’t help wondering what comes next.”

All this is irrelevant to the content, but I pass it on because in pursuing my intention to read all of the books of Stephen Jay Gould I have developed such respect and gratitude for his devotion to the task of educating the non-scientists of the world without patronizing or simplification that his death at the comparatively young age of 60 still saddens me, ten years later. He was that rare thing in America today, a public intellectual with wealth of knowledge plus a passion for a just, rational and humane world. I also have developed that most dangerous of reviewer attitudes, an odd kind of personal liking, and even, on occasion, irritation with his quirks and imperfections. He is so overt, so open, and so enamored of his sense of humor, his delight in the ‘signifying’ detail, his classicism, and his antiquarian books. We can ill spare him.

The great value of the book, of course, is impersonal and extensive: it consists of intelligent and articulate writing, a passion for explication, thorough knowledge of science and the history of science, almost the history of knowledge. With Gould, every fact becomes a doorway to an interconnected universe, and as one reads, these connections light up illuminating previously concealed significance. I'll take, for instance, his acute ability to find concrete examples of his perhaps favorite theme, that of the often invisible influence of social assumptions and hidden preconceptions upon the conclusions of scholarship, including the sciences. As Gould tries again and again to persuade readers, when something just "feels right," then the need to examine one's premises and reasoning is even more imperative. What it "fits" may be something completely unrealistic.

In an essay called "Jim Bowie's Letter and Bill Buckner's Legs," Gould examines two very different examples of the way facts can be—and are—blinked in the human need to make events conform to a pre-existing mental idea or pattern. At the site of the Alamo, Gould found a letter written by Bowie to the Mexican general Santa Ana exploring a negotiated surrender. This letter contradicts the popular legend that Bowie joined his impulsive co-leader William B. Travis (widely recognized as impetuous and vainglorious) in declaring the intention to fight to the death rather than surrender or escape. The letter is prominently displayed in glass at the historical site in San Antonio, Texas, but official information–even in the Tom Wolfe novel, A Man in Full—maintains the legend. Gould points to this example of myth-perpetuation with contrary evidence "hidden in full sight," as only one small example of what he ventures to call a trait of the human brain, its operation as a device to recognize patterns. Depending on the patterns generated by the beliefs and fables of a society, its members will tend to see facts through a selective bias that pushes the facts to fit the patterns.

But it's not just patriotism or heroic great-men narratives that are so influenced. The second example in this essay deals with a sports myth: that of the catastrophic failure of Boston Red Sox first-baseman Bill Buckner to snag a grounder to end a ninth inning in a sixth World Series game in 1986 that –had the Sox won—would have brought them their first World Series ring since 1918. And had Buckner picked up the ball, the Sox would –well, that's the point at which the "story" ignores the facts: they would only not have lost yet. The score was already tied. Had Buckner gotten the third out, the game would have continued into extra innings. And that's Gould's point. The Mets had already gained their two-point deficit.. So if Buckner had picked up the grounder, and stepped on first base, there's no guarantee that the Sox would have won.

How did the story come about that Bill Buckner "lost" the game for the Sox, and "lost" the Series? This was, as I said, the sixth game. For you who don't follow American Baseball, a World Series is the last round in a series of playoffs. The two teams play for the best of seven games. So at least four games must be played. The Red Sox had already won three games by this game, the sixth in the 1986 series, so if they had won the game, the World Series would end with them the champions. But even if they lost this game, there was still a seventh game to play. How did one play in the sixth game "take away the Series"?

Gould collected the evidence of this revisionist history—much of it in sports journalism,
where writers seldom have time to track down details of apocryphal stories that "everyone knows." The revelatory fact, however, is that the story of Buckner's Disaster occurs also
in "rarefied books by the motley crew of poets and other assorted intellectuals who love to treat baseball as a metaphor for anything else of importance in human life or the history of the universe." (Gould himself has used baseball as a major metaphor, in Full House, an investigation of how statistics are so poorly understood that evolution can be seen, wrongly, as a story of increasing complexity, and therefore an inherent dynamic with humans as the apex.)
As he says, "something deep within us drives accurate messiness into the channels of canonical stories, the primary impositions of our minds upon the world." Neither story, perhaps, is of great importance, but these "common styles of error—hidden in plain sight, and misstated to fit our canonical stories—occur as frequently in scientific study as in historical inquiry."

I will add that because they "fit" patterns, these fictional versions of reality are widely employed in political discourse. If you want to persuade people, and animate them to emotional investment in political decisions, you can't bother with the "accurate messiness" of reality. For instance, yes, crime has decreased as prison populations have increased, for instance, but there is not a one to one correspondence from state to state, or in types of crimes, or even over time. That two phenomena co-occur is no clue to causation. And yet, how does one answer false conclusions?

Then we must also deal with the problems caused by who writes or concocts the stories we hear. It is true that the victors tell the world their version of what happened. And so we think that what is coincides with what ought to be; might therefore creates right. History, sociology, psychology, as well as science, are all infected with this seemingly inevitable "silly and parochial bias." Thus we read of the first land animals as having been "a conquest," and hear the story that dinosaurs were "doomed" to fall "in favor of" the triumph of mammals (us). But fish still constitute a good 50% of all vertebrates, those lucky victors on land not having gained any advantage (yet). And dinosaurs only died because of a once-in-known-history collision of an extraterrestrial object with earth. Dinosaurs had held pride of place for over 130 million years. Mammals didn't "vanquish," but were an accident of history, "for reasons. . . that probably bear no sensible relation to any human concept of valor"or " intrinsic superiority."

All this is a summary of the meaty gist of just one essay among thirty-two, dealing with everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to theories of human race, from the mosaics at San Marco in Venice to the landscape paintings of Frederic Edwin Church, from Freud's evolutionary fantasies ("the penis as a symbolic fish, so to speak, reaching toward the womb of the primeval ocean") to Nabokov's "other" vocation as a lepidopterist, and several analyses of racism both toward Jews and blacks ("Age-Old Fallacies of Thinking and Stinking").

Especially because this book was published posthumously, I must just add my regret that for all Gould's vast knowledge he never found the occasion to study Post-Colonial theory seriously, a rubric which includes gender studies, culture studies, ethnic studies, philosophy, and significant portions of post-modern thinking. He would there have found ample support for his arguments about human tendencies to think in terms of super-imposed social story forms; in general, the term in the humanities for these forms is "Master Narratives." As a historian of science, however, and –as he will humorously say, a 'white professor over sixty,'—his cultural idols remained uniquely European, and overwhelmingly male, although he recognized gender bias as one of those patterns which compromised accuracy only too often. Gilbert & Sullivan, Bach, Handel, Shakespeare: all worthy arts, but not comprising all the worthy. He admits in another book* that this Eurocentrism and devotion to European classics all too often occurs among "folks like me...who don't wish to concede that other 'kinds' of people might have something important, beautiful, or enduring to say." This generous acknowledgment of the desire of some scholars, professors, intellectuals and scientists to "maintain old privileges" is thoroughly indicative of what I, with some hesitation, call Stephen Jay Gould's intrinsic goodness; he may sometimes make light of certain vices, joking about the Baconian metaphors of "masculine science" "ravishing the formerly innocent Miss Nature," a crudity that estranges me, but he is, was, and now will always be, the quintessential man of good faith.

*The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox.

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