Stephen Jay Gould, or the Effects of Bad Ideas

A pendentive or spandrel or something – from a Czech church! See, it all fits together as long as you never leave this blog.

I’ve read a bunch of Dawkins (the evolutionary biology stuff, not his attempts at intellectual self-immolation), and some E.O. Wilson, and of course Darwin and other writers on evolutionary biology, especially back when Scientific American was still worth reading. The one guy I could never get into was Gould. His ideas, when he wasn’t just laying out common stuff, were shapeless and frankly weird. Spandrels? Huh? Even his big deal, Punctuated Equilibrium, seems to be addressing a ‘problem’ that really isn’t a problem unless you make it one. First off, what is ‘equilibrium’ evolutionarily speaking? It’s even less definable than whatever Gould meant by spandrels or pendentives or whatever. That during some periods millions of years ago, the tiny fraction of living creatures that happen to leave fossils left fossils that don’t appear to change much over the course of significant amounts of time, from which we generalize that nothing much was changing? That’s equilibrium? And from that we conclude that structural forms (not appearance or behavior, few clues of which are left as fossils) did not change much if at all, until some event ‘punctuates’ the stasis? Not going into it in depth here, but, as Dawkins points out, this, insofar as it is true, is merely a minor gloss on evolutionary theory.

Whenever I did read something from Gould, I was left with a general ‘huh?’ feeling – as if what he thought he was saying was much more profound and interesting than what he actually said. So, years ago, when I read somewhere that Gould was not held in high regard as a scientist by other evolutionary biologists, that fit the picture I already had of him.

So, yesterday, over at Chaos Manor, Jerry Pournelle mentions in passing:

Few graduates of any school at any level in the United States have been taught about Stalin and Lysenko. Many are till taught that the Marxist Stephen Jay Gould was a competent scientist, not a Marxist transmission belt of the Party line. Few have been taught how Marxism and Communist theory dominated American universities during some of the Cold War.

I had not heard this before.  Dr. Pournelle is speaking here about the Marxist need for human nature to not exist, so that the Unfolding of History ™ is not constrained in its creation of  the New Soviet Man to people the Worker’s Paradise. Such a position would be awkward, to say the least, for an evolutionary biologist to maintain, as what they study is, fundamentally, the *nature* of living things as it has been formed by natural selection.  Giraffe necks, bird migrations, mating behaviors, etc. – all result from impersonal selection pressures applied by a mindless universe to inheritable differences in existing forms.*  Humans are animals and a part of nature – therefore, when evolutionary biologists turn their eyes toward people, they are inescapably trying to understand human nature as created by natural selection. There’s no real getting around that.

But, if human nature is nothing but a social construct, then you create a new human nature merely by constructing a new society. But the major premise here is demonstrably false: human nature at its core shows no signs of being a social construct, and every sign of being an inheritable set of core behaviors and physical adaptations. Human nature says that, no matter what society we are in, we won’t be able to breath water or flap our arms and fly to the moon. The only messy parts – and they’re only messy because it serves the purposes of academics and revolutionaries to make them messy – are exactly where the universals of human nature end and the particulars of that nature as expressed within a subject culture begin.

Here, I want to draw attention to one particular bad side-effect (or perhaps essential and central feature) of thinking like a Marxist. Marx found Hegel’s rejection of logic and embrace of philosophy by direct apprehension of the whole intoxicating: once you don’t need to make sense (no logic) and you either get it or you don’t (direct apprehension) well, the speculative world is your oyster!

One drawback is that you can’t do science this way, a fact even Hegel recognized when he allowed that logic is still useful for scientists and other little people. But it should be clear that science has, therefore, nothing to say in the Big Picture that those with properly enlightened consciousness have directly grasped. Conflict is always decided in favor of the historical dialectic.

Thus, the bad habits of thought produce Lysenko and Gould. Such life-long habits are hard to set aside even when you might want to make sense. And that is what I think I was getting out of Gould years ago – that he was not constrained by having to make sense, and so could not even do it consistently when he wanted to.

* Of course, it’s much more subtle than this one-sentence summary. And, of course, metaphysics kicks in to address the question of how it is that matter should have such interesting characteristics for natural selection to act upon in the first place.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

2 thoughts on “Stephen Jay Gould, or the Effects of Bad Ideas”

  1. Okay, I’ll bite. I confess to enjoying Gould’s meandering, reflective style, although some of his best essays have nothing to do with science. I think he missed his vocation, and would have been better as a more generalist essayist. He’s got an interesting one about how his high school choir’s quality deteriorated after his director, who was strict, retired and they started focusing on “diversity” instead of quality.

    Spandrels and PE aren’t too profound, no, but they do point out small ideas that might be useful, both against those who cheerlead evolution with just-so stories about fitness supposedly selecting features and critics who object to the same in favor of literalism.

    Gould’s lamest, most overrated idea is the vapid “non-overlapping magisteria”.

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