Monday, October 30, 2006
The Spread of Excellence
from Plato to Darwin
By Stephen J. Gould
From Kirkus Reviews: Now hear this: Evolution is not progressive. We (humans) are not the be-all and end-all of nature's plan. You've heard these lines before: They are quintessentially Gould. In this short volume Gould (Dinosaur in a Haystack, 1995, etc.) elaborates on this theme. Among the examples he advances is one that should prove dear to the hearts of baseball fans: Why, Gould asks, are there no .400 hitters anymore? The answer requires looking not at batting but at how the game of baseball has varied over time. There has been a general improvement in play so that the normal curve of batting averages no longer has a tail trailing off to the right where the few .400 stars were to be found. Instead, in Gould's phrase, we have hit a right wall--a boundary reflecting the limits of human performance. A second, longer, and more complex example deals with evolutionary data. If we eliminated human hubris, we would see that it is bacteria that were in the beginning, are now, and ever will be the most populous and successful kingdom--virtually at the left wall boundary in terms of minimally complex organisms capable of life. Over time, there was nothing else for life to do but to expand to the right. However, using fossil records, Gould demonstrates that there was no directionality: Descendants didn't always get more complex--they could just as easily revert to less complex forms. What befuddles the issue is the matter of cultural ``evolution''--a word Gould would strike in favor of the word ``change.'' Cultural inventions (including reading and writing) have enabled great leaps of technical ``progress'' in nanoseconds of time, reckoned by evolutionary standards. As a species, however, we remain an anomalous tail in the full house of life on earth. So we should accept our place with becoming humility. Gould fans will be charmed at the cogency and cleverness of his arguments--but expect a wall of opposition from pious and diehard progressivists.
[We read several books by Stephen Jay Gould, beginning with 'Wonderful Life.' We learned a lot from all of them. Gould was both a Marxist and scientist committed to pushing the envelope on the cutting edge of science, letting dogmas fall where they may. We visited with him in Chicago, when he gave a talk on this book. He died not long afterwards, and an appreciation of him by Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, from Monthly Review, in the first comment below. --Carl Davidson.]
Posted by Carl Davidson at 8:10 AM