Short works

Books : reviews

Stephen Jay Gould.
Ever Since Darwin: reflections in natural history.
Pelican. 1977

rating : 3 : worth reading

Stephen Jay Gould.
The Mismeasure of Man.
Pelican. 1981

rating : 2.5 : great stuff

Stephen Jay Gould.
An Urchin in the Storm.
Norton. 1987

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 8 March 2015

Ranging as far as the fox and as deep as the hedgehog (the urchin of his title), Stephen Jay Gould expands on geology, biological determinism, “cardboard Darwinism” and evolutionary theory in this sparkling collection.

This is a collection of some of Gould’s essays from The New York Review of Books. They are “essays” rather than reviews: Gould calls them commentaries on the books themselves. That is, rather than review each book itself for style, coverage, or whatever, Gould writes an essay on the subject matter of the book, and on how well the book itself addresses that context. Since the books are mostly about evolution and geology, Gould is very well placed to perform this exercise. On reading Gould’s own essays, we learn more about the subject matter than we learn about the reviewed book; in some cases we possibly learn more about the subject matter than we would do so reading the book in question.

There is no bibliographic information provided on the original essays publication dates. However, there is a statement in the colophon about the accompanying drawings, which are dated 1963–1987. So the essays themselves are 30–50 years old, and we need to be aware that what we have learned is potentially somewhat out of date.

Not everything is dated, however. In his essay on Evelyn Fox Keller’s biography of Barbara McClintock, A Feeling for the Organism, he notes:

p164. … her contempt for what academic departments call “good citizenship”—primarily a euphemism for submission to myriad, meaningless hours of soul-sapping committee work

Despite its age, many of the more philosophical points are timeless. In his essay on Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin’s Not in Our Genes, which discusses the nature-nurture debate and the need for holistic thinking, Gould opines:

pp153-4. Dialectical thinking should be taken more seriously by Western scholars, not discarded because some nations of the second world have constructed a cardboard version as an official political doctrine. The issues that it raises are, in another form, the crucial questions of reductionism versus holism, now so much under discussion throughout biology (where reductionist accounts have reached their limits and further progress demands new approaches to process existing data, not only an accumulation of more information).

When presented as guidelines for a philosophy of change, not as dogmatic precepts true by fiat, the three classical laws of dialectics embody a holistic vision that views change as interaction among components of complete systems, and sees the components themselves not as a priori entities, but as both products of and inputs to the system. Thus the law of “interpenetrating opposites” records the inextricable interdependence of components: the “transformation of quantity to quality” defends a systems-based view of change that translates incremental inputs into alterations of state; and the “negation of negation” describes the direction given to history because complex systems cannot revert exactly to previous states.

The writing is intellectual, punchy rather than precious, and Gould lavishes praise and heaps scorn where it is due. He enjoys skewering Capra’s holism credentials in The Turning Point:

p224. Consider the peculiarity of that last sentence: “the subatomic particles-and therefore, ultimately, all parts of the universe…” The self-styled holist and antireductionist is finally caught in his own parochialism after all. He has followed the oldest of reductionist strategies. As it is with the structure of physics, queen of the sciences, so must it be, by extrapolation, with all of nature. You don’t exit from this Cartesian trap by advocating holism at the lowest level. The very assertion that this lowest level, whatever its nature, represents the essence of reality, is the ultimate reductionist argument.

Again, on Capra:

p225-6. I thought that Capra and I would be kindred spirits, since we maintain a similar commitment to a holistic and hierarchical perspective. Yet I found myself getting more and more annoyed with his book, with its facile analogies, its distrust of reason, its invocation of fashionable notions. In some respects, I feel closer to rational Cartesians (at least we have a common basis for disagreement) than to Capra’s California brand of ecology. I guess I’m just a New York holist.

However, he reserves his most withering scorn for his penultimate essay, on Jeremy Rifkin’s Algeny (a word coined to mean the modern alchemy of genes):

p230. I regard Algeny as a cleverly constructed tract of anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship. Among books promoted as serious intellectual statements by important thinkers, I don’t think I have ever read a shoddier work. Damned shame, too, because the deep issue is troubling and I do not disagree with Rifkin’s basic plea for respecting the integrity of evolutionary lineages. But devious means compromise good ends, and we shall have to save Rifkin’s humane conclusion from his own lamentable tactics.

It’s not all scorn, it’s just that scorn is so quotable! There is interesting biology and geology (although some out of date), good writing, and trenchantly stated opinions. All in a series of bite sized chapters suitable for intermittent reading. Read for how to write essay-style reviews, even if not for the reviews themselves.

Stephen Jay Gould.
Wonderful Life: the Burgess Shale and the nature of history.
Hutchinson. 1989

rating : 1.5 : unmissable

Stephen Jay Gould.
Bully for Brontosaurus: reflections in natural history.
Hutchinson Radius. 1991

Stephen Jay Gould.
Eight Little Piggies: reflections in natural history.
Jonathan Cape. 1993

Stephen Jay Gould.
Questioning the Millennium.
Jonathan Cape. 1997

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 21 June 1998

With its small pages and large, widely spaced type, Gould has produced more a long pamphlet than a book, a small island of sanity in a vast sea of millennial madness. (And yes, he points out that 'millennium' really does have two 'n's.) He explores three questions:

All this in his usual sane, clear style -- although rather more religion than I might have liked -- and fortunately very little about baseball!

Stephen Jay Gould.
I Have Landed: splashes and reflections in natural history.
Vintage. 2002

Stephen Jay Gould.
The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.
Harvard University Press. 2002