Stephen Jay Gould's Philosophy & History of Science & the Humanities

By Ralph Dumain

Review of: Stephen Jay Gould, The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap between Science and the Humanities. New York: Harmony Books, 2003. (Sample text)


I rushed through the first five chapters of this book and peaked ahead in the others. While I glossed over a number of details, I'm pretty sure I've got the essence of Gould's argument. It is both instructive and ultimately unsatisfying. I forget which is the fox and which the hedgehog, but Gould is a detail man, strong on specifics and suspicious of generalizations. There is merit in this up to a point, but there are conclusions to be drawn which are beyond Gould's purview.

Ultimately, Gould is skeptical of certain organizing dichotomies which he finds contradicted by the specifics of both the past and present of the sciences. Those dichotomies are the ancients vs. the moderns, the sciences vs. the humanities, science vs. religion. I will explain later what I think Gould is missing.

Gould, having been brought up with the issue framed as the "two cultures" (a debate initiated by C.P. Snow), is out to set the record straight. His agenda is to begin by re-evaluating the received myths of the Scientific Revolution. (19-20) In the process, Gould discusses figures from the history of biology and geology much more than the more famous (to most people) revolutionizers of science like Galileo and Newton.

Chapter 2 features John Woodward (1665-1728) on the natural history of the earth and "worldmaking". I can't read my illegible notes on Chapter 3, but it seems that Gould focuses on taxonomy rather than physics or astronomy—particularly John Ray (1627-1705). Gould's general point is that the Renaissance is still not modern science: there is a presumption of the statis of knowledge, rediscoveries rather than a predisposition to novelty. (36)

Chapter 4: The Scientific Revolution had to clear away a mass of older superstitions; it wasn't just a struggle between science and religion. The problem of suppression even goes beyond this (e.g. the execution of Lavoisier by the Reign of Terror).

Chapter 5: Bacons' paradox, Newton's aphorism (shoulders of giants), et al. George Hakewill (1578-1649)--ancients vs. moderns. Claude Perreault (1613-1688). That's all I jotted down—don't remember a thing.

But the moral of the story here is the peril of our tendency toward dichotomization (83ff). It's not just sciences vs. humanities, ancients vs. moderns, science vs. religion. Even the Galileo case for example was not a straightforward struggle between science and religion.

And here's where Gould gets interesting, for he flashed forward to the Two Cultures debate (1959-63), which begins by Snow inflating a local British phenomenon to generalized proportions. Interestingly, Snow introjects the class question, and the problems of the poor—nations as well as individuals. But, in presuming that scientists are less racist than others, he presumes that the scientific-technical elite is prone to fix these inequalities, just as the snobby humanists are not. (90-95)

Gould also addresses the science wars of the '90s--postmodernism, the Sokal hoax, Gross-Levitt and the science-advocates manning the ramparts. (97ff). As with other dichotomies, Gould deems this a tempest in a teapot, an artificial dispute between canned positions that don't reflect the realities of either real science or sociology of science. He is uneasy about the Sokal hoax, because even though the Social Text editorial board consisted of pretentious wankers (my words, not Gould's), it's a shame that serious social studies of science could be dismissed on the basis of this incident. (100) Nor is science a sacred institution. Most scientists are implicit realists; they wouldn't go to the trouble if they didn't think they were after objective knowledge. However, most scientists are parochial and philistine—they don't know what's going on outside their little world; they don't read, and they don't even know the science wars are going on. (101)

The balance of chapter 5 is about Bacon's contradictions: he probably was more on the money about the four "idols" than he was about real science.

Now I think you can see why Gould reacts as he does. But before I interject my own opinions, here’s a quick peak ahead to the later chapters.

Gould discusses the disaster of positivism (114).

As part of his assault on E.O. Wilson's Consilience, Gould rejects Wilson's view of the failure of the Vienna Circle (and of the Enlightenment generally—?), which Wilson explains scientifically (a lack of actual scientific development itself?), which Gould sees as a paradoxically Romantic view of science. (196-9)

As part of his rejection of reductionism, he argues for the notion of emergence (221-4).

Gould is skeptical of empiricism and reductionism, and doesn't believe in the absorption of ethics by science, as Wilson allegedly promises in Consilience. (243-6)

So much for my fragmentary notes.

These additional fragments hopefully will give you a picture of what makes Gould tick here. Gould is suspicious not only of dichotomies but of what they are based on: the attempt to unify very messy affairs. While Gould maintains that science yields objective knowledge, he doesn't take a purist attitude towards defending it. He is skeptical of turf wars and of the premature attempts of either the sciences or the humanities to colonize one another. As I read further in the book, presumably I will encounter his argument about magisteria. Pace the worshippers at the Temple of Science, he doesn't believe in the fetishization of science as the sole means to truth. Sensitive to contingency, Gould rejects excessively generalized claims. Presumably this has something to do with magisteria and the separate-but-equal valorization of the sciences and humanities.

I'm sure Gould is also motivated by the ideal of transcending narrow specialization, of wholeness and being a well-rounded person—he even mentions this in his book. But, paradoxically, I think Gould, like the rest of us, is not a "universal" person, but is just the kind of person he is. Loathe to generalization, he restricts himself from drawing appropriate general conclusions from his specific examples counteracting other generalizations. Others have suggested to me that he also has his limitations as a theoretician in biology itself--which I am not prepared to judge. But he is at bottom a paleontologist with breadth and an interest in both the history of ideas and the humanities, i.e. a scientist who reaches outward. Gould recognizes specimens of ideology when he sees them, but he has no general view of ideology, or the dynamics behind the relation of generalized ideological positions to empirical realities. He's just skeptical of them.

But however more complicated the relation between science and religion is historically, in the case of Galileo or in other instances, that doesn't mean that they constitute valid ideally autonomous realms that don't inherently contradict one another. And however different the humanities are from scientific theories and methods, there is more to the humanities than aesthetic appreciation, for there is cultural and literary criticism as well, and there are evolving world-view issues that affect the humanities as much as they do the sciences. Ultimately, there has to be some adjustment to minimize the contradictions in one's overall world-view to accommodate a coherent relation to both "magisteria". And it's preposterous to maintain the validity of religious belief in the light of scientific knowledge and the scientific world-view. Suspicious of spurious syntheses, Gould fails to rise to the level of generalization where some synthesis, however loosely formulated, is mandated.


Chapter 6: Reintegration in triumphant maturity

Gould rejects the hype endemic to pro-science P.R., i.e. the triumphalism which he says reached its apotheosis with Mach. (114) Understanding the social embeddedness of science helps science as well as reconciles it with the humanities. Objectivist mythology shields scientists from confronting their own biases. (116)

More historical examples: gender bias in Bacon and Grew, but esp. Jon Ray, whose biases show up in his taxonomic work, particularly the classification of birds. This shows our long-standing propensity twards a dichotomist bias. (117)

Gould mentions the incunabula of Aquinas on Aristotle, mentioning inter alia the notion of the four humours and the theory of correspondences.

He covers with some skepticism scientists' downgrading of good writing and the favoring of an impersonal, "objective" style. (130) Reading academic papers out loud is a bad practice. But humanists should follow the practice of scientists and have more slide shows and other visual aids. (134)

The practice of Western science is geared toward quantitative and experimental techniques suitable to relatively simple systems. (137) History is thus ignored. History is particular and contingent, not the product of general laws. An example is the entirely contingent way in which the Civil War was fought, and it could have had the opposite outcomes. (138)

The humanities can teach science some lessons:

(1) on social influence, cognitive biases;
(2) stylistic and rhetorical dimension of argument;
(3) modes of knowing.

The humanities can help science popularization and the remediation of public suspicion.

Is does not imply ought (142-3): there are limits of science, factual claims, in the determination of ethics. It's important to understand this to negotiate with religious people.

Chapter 7: "Sweetness and Light"

By way of Jonathan Swift's "The Battle of the Books" Gould reviews the war between the Ancients and the Moderns, in this case represented by the bee and the spider, which Gould seeks to reconcile. He is naturally disposed towards compromise. He has sympathies for the ancients, misses the loss of the old culture, as contemporary culture shrinks to the point of self-referentiality (150). He dislikes the narrowness of specialists, and ahistoricality in culture.


Now we come to Part III, on Consilience, where Gould will ultimately confront E.O. Wilson in Chapter 9, "The False Path of Reductionism". This will prove to be the philosophical climax of the book. Following that is an epilogue, consisting of Gould's last colorful anecdotes, restating his distrust of generalities and his approval of the motto e pluribus unum. Now I have to say there are some virtues of Gould's approach, for in his love of details as opposed to abstractions, he comes up with some very interesting historical examples that would not normally surface in generalized discussions. We see his talent at work in chapter 8: "E Pluribus Unum".

First, Gould cites Geertz on the phoniness of the science wars, stressing pluralism and disciplinary specificity and denying there is any unitary "science". (156) Gould limits himself to some very interesting examples illustrating the virtues of both fusion and pluralism.

(1) Haeckel was an artist in addition to a scientist, publishing in 1904 Artforms of Nature. Its illustrations are redolent of Art Nouveau. They were criticized for being scientifically inaccurate, but this flaw was blamed on Haeckel's "artistic" tendency rather than on deficient technique. (157)

(2) Nabokov enjoyed a significant career working in a zoological museum and writing about butterflies. Literary theorists have analyzed Nabokov's style but have had nary a word to say about science as a source of his literary craft. Others have read symbolism into his descriptions of butterflies, but Nabokov denied such symbolism, expressed a preference for factual accuracy, and criticized Poe and Bosch for inaccurate detail! (165)

(3) Now turning to the "pluribus" side, Gould references Abbott Handerson Thayer, an amateur naturalist. Teddy Roosevelt of all people blamed Thayer's artistic temperament for some inaccuracies in Thayer's work. But Thayer also made an important scientific discovery, overlooked by scientists, based on artistic principles. Note Thayer's 1896 paper on protective coloration, explaining countershading as it had not been explained before. He recommended camouflage as a military tactic and was influential in the implementation of camouflage by the US Navy!

(4) Edgar Allan Poe's only work that received a second edition in his lifetime was his 1839 work The Conchologist's First Book. It was dismissed by literary scholars as hackwork or plagiarism. But in addition to plagiarizing, Poe made an original contribution to scholarship, with respect to the generally overlooked soft anatomy of molluscs, adding information from Cuvier he gleaned due to his knowledge of French.

These marvelous examples illustrate Gould's gift for detail, and of course they are all examples from the biological sciences, where detail comes before mathematical abstraction. These are compelling examples illustrating his thesis of the complementary value of the sciences and the humanities, as opposed to the stereotypical views of both. As a generalizer rather than a detail man, I sure never would have thought of any of this. Of course, I don't even remember much of my high school honor’s biology, which was a ballbuster but which I forgot after acing the Regents exam.


Part III: Consilience, Chapter 9: "The False Path of Reductionism". This is the key philosophical chapter of the book. Here Gould confronts E.O. Wilson's rehabilitation of William Whewell's forgotten neologism "consilience" and argues how Wilson got Whewell wrong, and more importantly, why Wilson himself is wrong. Wilson's argument that the humanities—that is, the realm of culture, value, and ethics—will be absorbed into natural science, is shown to be logically flawed and that "ought" cannot "only" not be subsumed into "is", but that the realm of culture and the valuation of culture and ethics cannot be explained in terms of evolutionary origins but can only be understood historically and not as a matter of empirical natural science.

Gould's argument is important in a number of ways, following upon his unique approach to the intertwined history of the arts and humanities. The mainstay of Gould's technical arguments involve the key concepts of emergence and contingency. His second line of argument, the relation between fact and value, is also of importance. However, Gould fails to tie up loose ends; he does not provide an answer as to how the two ways of knowing actually cohere, and what the way of knowing in the humanities exactly consists of. That is, Gould believes in at least the consistency of the results of the sciences and the humanities' ways of knowing (as did Whewell, though Whewell was also a theologian,  a position to which Gould does not subscribe), but ultimately he doesn't show what his path to consilience—which opposes Wilson's—leads to.

This argument and this inconclusiveness is very important. Were Gould a philosopher and cultural theorist, he would have to come up with some schematic on the triangulation of subjectivity, material objectivity, and social/cultural objectivity, and hopefully he'd do better than Popper. But that is not his bailiwick: Gould's mind worked differently.

This also raises the question of what Marxism has contributed that bourgeois thought did and could not, as well as how Marxism fell down on the job, esp. given the screw job done to it by the Soviet Union and all its offshoots. I'm going to write a couple further installments: detailing chapter 9 of Gould's book, and another on the lessons of Lenin (pro and con). There are of course also lessons accruing to much of what has been labelled "Western Marxism", in which various individuals have also committed a number of metaphysical errors—Sartre, Marcuse, etc. There are also implications regarding the shortcomings of the so-called "new atheism", which is actually politically inferior to the radical freethought of yesteryear and narrower even than the secular humanists of the first half of the 20th century. More to come.

Written 19, 24, 25 January 2008
Edited & uploaded 15 January 2010

Postscript: I never did get around to following up on my promises in the last paragraph. The loose ends will have to remain for the time being.

15 January 2010

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