From baseball to Frankenstein


Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History
By Stephen Jay Gould
Jonathon Cape, 1996. 480 pp., $25 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

What do baseball, beeswax and yo-yo crazes have in common? They all serve as introductions in the latest collection of scientific essays by Stephen Jay Gould. And always they lead, like good entrees, to Gould's love affair with the tough cookies, the big issues of the evolution of life on earth and the "great themes of time, change and history".

These themes are addressed in the more technical essays and in the more "populist" essays, for example on whether the year 1999 or 2000 is the last year of the 20th century (2000 wins, thanks to a sixth century monk who fixed the starting year for Christian time as 1 AD instead of 0 AD, but Gould recognises the merits of the popular aesthetic case for 2000 as the first year of the next millennium).

A new bid was put in by the French Revolution for 1792 to be the new, secular, Year 1 which would have re-jigged the whole millennium thing, and Gould segues into a look at the revolutionary metric changes to imperial scientific measurement proposed by the French astronomer Laplace — the centigrade scale replacing Fahrenheit, the circle divided into 400 degrees, the day into 10 hours, etc.

Gould notes that, although the "shrewd and unpolitical" Laplace was no revolutionary (his "major accomplishment was to serve every government from the Revolution to the Restoration and to die in bed"), but these were historical times and political and scientific change was in the air.

It is, of course, Gould's passion — evolution — where the themes of history and change are developed at length. Gould departs from Darwinist orthodoxy by challenging Darwin's view of an evolutionary process which is gradual and always steadily changing towards better-fitting biological models. Gould proposes a theory of "punctuated equilibrium" — that evolution is marked by long periods of stability most of the time, with significant change a rare event, usually provoked by environmental stress.

Gould acknowledges that his theory is still subject to debate, but he uses it effectively to counter Darwin's idea, later abused by sundry "social Darwinists", that the evolutionary struggle for existence is a palaeontological version of Gladiators, a contest for competitive advantage, with the spoils to the victors and "inferior folks either put to the wall or precipitated into the lower classes".

Luck, argues Gould against this view, plays more than its part in the relatively rare moments of evolutionary restructuring. We, for example, have an asteroid collision with the Earth 65 million years ago to thank for wiping out the staggeringly successful dinosaurs and allowing the mammals to escape from under their feet.

Gould argues that Darwin's gradualism is flawed by his concept of evolutionary progress (as red in tooth and claw as this progress may be). Although Darwin's revolutionary achievement was to replace God with materialism, his evolution was still directional, with Homo sapiens as the crowning achievement.

Foolish hubris and species arrogance, says Gould. He mounts a sound scientific case against the concept of evolutionary progress, but he loses his way when he seeks support from political history. He argues that "the primary socio-political theme of Western life since the late seventeenth century" is the idea of historical progress, which has been a mistaken ideological underpinning to the mistaken scientific concept of progress in evolution.

Gould cites the "failure and inadequacy of Marx's theory of historical stages towards a communist ideal" as evidence for the falsity of progress in history and evolution.

Marx, however, never had such a schematic, deterministic conception of history. He stressed that history is not the triumphal march of inevitable progress, rather that progress depends on conscious human intervention. The end of the horrors of slavery, feudalism and the more primitive versions of capitalism were the result of active class struggle. Socialism is not some utopia, existing only in the fanciful inevitability of Marxist dogma, but something that can be achieved only through further class struggle.

Gould gets tangled up in the endless loop (which he in fact warns against) about arguing from nature to human society and back, as the sociobiologists (animals fight for territory, therefore we have wars) do when they "justify social phenomena as an inevitable reflection of natural laws" which were often determined in the first place by social ideology. Gould falls foul of the same error by taking a shallow view of history, justifying his scientific theory of evolution with it, and arguing back from this science to prove his pessimistic and anti-Marxist theory of history.

Is this a sign that Gould is becoming more conservative in these times of political despair? Possibly. Gould attempts to use the "legend of historical progress" to disprove that there ever was a historical war of science against religion, of secular enlightenment against Christian irrationality and dogma. He attempts what George Bernard Shaw once called the humanist rescue mission of Christianity by claiming that religion is solely about ethics and does not aspire to a scientific understanding of the world. Yet this ignores the fundamental role that supernatural myths play in the Christian belief system.

Humanism, however, does have its upside, and Gould fights the good fight against various forces of darkness such as his perennial favourites, the creationists. Eugenicists (those who would control the breeding, especially of "inferior" people, to manipulate superior genetic "stock") are also taken to task. So too are Hollywood movie-makers who turned Frankenstein's monster from the Mary Shelley creation (a person made evil by the failure to nurture "learning and compassion" in him) into the Boris Karloff monster doomed by "bad" genes.

Despite the occasional slip into the conservative swamp, Gould still remains the progressive, non-elitist scientist who demonstrates that "intellectual complexity" is not beyond the ken of ordinary people, especially in the hands of one to whom writing comes as easily as ocean-going to a whale. Gould's scientific essays are those of the talented and sincere humanist whose writing can move the heart as well as the intellect.