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"Science is an integral part of culture"
August 26, 2008 10:31 PM   Subscribe

The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive, an online library dedicated to the Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002). Includes an excellent selection of videos. And The Official Stephen Jay Gould Archive [still under development], which includes two of his books and his Harvard course online.

The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive was created by Miguel Chavez, a student at Yuba College in Northern California.

From The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive, links.

Fun Steinberg cartoon in Gould's book, Ontogeny and Phylogeny.

Darwin's Origin of the Species online at The Official Stephen Jay Gould Archive.
posted by nickyskye (40 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
Great post.

Every time I see Richard Dawkins in a headline, I miss Steven Jay Gould a little more.
posted by felix betachat at 10:36 PM on August 26, 2008


Every time I see Richard Dawkins in a headline, I miss Steven Jay Gould a little more.

I'll second that motion.

"Objectivity cannot be equated with mental blankness; rather, objectivity resides in recognizing your preferences and then subjecting them to especially harsh scrutiny — and also in a willingness to revise or abandon your theories when the tests fail (as they usually do)." — Stephen Jay Gould

I'm re-reading "The Blind Watchmaker" for the second time - which is a tremendous book - and it strikes me how this quote from Gould pretty much sums up my view of Dawkins' over-the-top evolutionary evangelism. A complete lack of skepticism is what makes creationists so annoying and it is hardly more attractive in scientists.

So yeah, I miss SJG a little more too.
posted by three blind mice at 12:41 AM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


Dawkins' over-the-top evolutionary evangelism

oh please
posted by DU at 4:17 AM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


SJG was like a funny, cool version of that pharyngula guy. Kinda like how Cory Doctorow wants to be Lawrence Lessig but ends up looking like the StarScream to his Megatron.
posted by Eideteker at 4:20 AM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


Thank you.

I took a couple of classes with Gould in college, which rank among the great intellectual experiences of my life -- they literally changed my world view and shaped my own eventual development as a social scientist. To this day, I'm compelled by what I learned from listening to him think on his feet. I got to know him well enough that we maintained an occasional correspondence that lasted through my grad school years.

He was a decent and good man, not just a brilliant one. He had an amazing attitude about life, and he truly cared about his students. Even lowly undergrad music majors who happened to be into evolutionary theory.

I miss him, and this is a terrific FPP.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:42 AM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


This should punctuate my morning equilibrium.
posted by srboisvert at 5:17 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


evolutionary evangelism

That has to be the stupidest thing I've ever seen here.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:23 AM on August 27, 2008 [5 favorites]


Dawkins' over-the-top evolutionary evangelism

oh please

That has to be the stupidest thing I've ever seen here.


You may not like or understand it, but the fact is that Dawkins is incredibly offputting to a lot of people, including me. Every time I'm exposed to his smug dismissiveness I want to join the Primitive Baptists and go thump a Bible at him.
posted by languagehat at 5:49 AM on August 27, 2008 [4 favorites]


his smug dismissiveness

I keep hearing this claim and I keep not seeing it. He's calm, factual and understanding. The fact that objectivity pops a worldview balloon doesn't make him dismissive. He's just the messenger.
posted by DU at 6:00 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


I keep hearing this claim and I keep not seeing it. He's calm, factual and understanding.

Nah, I agree with languagehat on this one. I'm aligned with Dawkins views for the most part but his particularly aggressive messenger-style actually makes me reconsider my position. Since this is a Gould thread, let me quote this Dawkins review on the web:

Stephen Jay Gould was all too happy to relegate science and religion to their respective corners. He eloquently refers to science and religion as two magisteria that: "do not overlap, nor do they encompass all enquiry." In an essay entitled "A Darwin For All Reasons," Gould wrote:

"The Darwin bashers and boosters can both be refuted with simple and venerable arguments. To the bashers, I can assert only that Darwinian evolution continues to grow in vibrancy and cogency as the centerpiece of the biological sciences - and, more generally, that no scientific truth can pose any threat to religion rightly conceived as a search for moral order and spiritual meaning."

Dawkins takes umbrage at this, saying it is implausible that any questions relating to "ultimate meaning" would involve science taking a back-seat."


Yep. Its like this rigid view of epistemology. I agree Science is the best tool out there for understanding the Universe we live in. I'm not ready to agree it is the only tool.
posted by vacapinta at 6:17 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Every time I'm exposed to his smug dismissiveness I want to join the Primitive Baptists and go thump a Bible at him.

Very true - though being right almost always makes him even more annoying.
posted by Old Rittenhouse at 6:18 AM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


Everyone should read Gould. The book collections of his Natural History columns were a boon to me as a teenager and are still rewarding to read today. He was a hell of a writer and his enthusiasm for science is infectious.

That said, his writing on "non-overlapping magesteria" is baloney.

The first teacher who sparked my interest in evolutionary biology was an ardent Gouldian with special reserves of enmity for Dawkins. Before I even read The Selfish Gene (and was transformed by it) I was hearing the same-old complaints regarding Dawkins: he's shrill, he's doctrinaire, he's an ultra-reductionist, he's a Darwinian Fundamentalist.

But as the tide of pro-actively anti-scientific religious provincialism has swept over the US in the past ten years, I can't help but view Dawkins, warts and all, as the absolute best representative of scientific rationalism in no small part due to his tenacity. I wonder how many of my friends would be hurling the same epithets at Huxley if this were the late 19th century.

Perhaps if Dawkins didn't have a British accent people wouldn't be so quick to call him names.
posted by inoculatedcities at 6:32 AM on August 27, 2008 [4 favorites]


Yep. Its like this rigid view of epistemology. I agree Science is the best tool out there for understanding the Universe we live in. I'm not ready to agree it is the only tool.

What else did you have in mind? Runic divination? Crystals? Astrology? Telekinesis? Holy Books?
posted by inoculatedcities at 6:36 AM on August 27, 2008 [3 favorites]


I always admired Stephen Jay Gould's clarity of writing in Natural History, and would read his column first when I got the magazine. He is missed. Thanks for this post.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 6:42 AM on August 27, 2008


What else did you have in mind? Runic divination? Crystals? Astrology? Telekinesis? Holy Books?
posted by inoculatedcities at 2:36 PM on August 27


Law, Literature, Art, Culture, Linguistics, Anthropology, Sociology, Philosophy.
posted by vacapinta at 6:43 AM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


Which Dawkins comes out against, somewhere? I've read most of was he's written. He's quite a fan of those things too.
posted by inoculatedcities at 6:45 AM on August 27, 2008


But as the tide of pro-actively anti-scientific religious provincialism has swept over the US in the past ten years, I can't help but view Dawkins, warts and all, as the absolute best representative of scientific rationalism in no small part due to his tenacity.

Also, I cannot agree that the best way to fight extremism is with extremism in the other direction. I've seen to many political arguments to believe that ever convinces either side.
posted by vacapinta at 6:46 AM on August 27, 2008


Which Dawkins comes out against, somewhere? I've read most of was he's written. He's quite a fan of those things too.
posted by inoculatedcities at 2:45 PM on August 27


You asked me what other things there were in the world besides "Science" and I was answering that. But, in any case, find me a passage where Dawkins agrees that, say, the study of great Poetry or Literature is a valid path to a noble and enlightened life and I'll grant you the point.
posted by vacapinta at 6:50 AM on August 27, 2008


Law, Literature, Art, Culture, Linguistics, Anthropology, Sociology, Philosophy.

I have highlighted 3 sciences in your list of non-sciences.
posted by DU at 6:58 AM on August 27, 2008 [4 favorites]


I had a chance to hear Gould give a talk once. Glad I went. I was shocked when I heard that he'd died. I was at a conference when I found out, not too long after his talk. There was an air of disbelief about the people discussing his untimely death. Of all the people out there, he seemed to be one of the ones that should have been selected for, rather than against.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:11 AM on August 27, 2008


vacapinta - No. You said science isn't the only tool for understanding the universe, implying that other methods of inquiry exist to investigate the nature of reality that are not scientific.

You offered a few examples (literature, art, culture) which can be all be classified as culture, which I accept. Cultural experience contributes to a deeper understanding of human life. Culture, however, does not require of the creator or consumer to make their experience an investigation of reality. Culture encompasses works of fantasy and imagination that may allow one to experience reality more vividly, but are not necessarily beholden to truth.

Law, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy, are domains of knowledge that are of benefit insofar as they are scientific. Science isn't dogma, it's methodology.
posted by inoculatedcities at 7:14 AM on August 27, 2008 [4 favorites]


They don't seem to have Apple Brown Betty. It's obviously not science-oriented, but it's still one of my favorite SJG editorials.
posted by zarq at 7:15 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


inoculatedcities, I'm with you. I think that scientists are trying to understand the universe with the best tools they have.

Dawkins rubs people the wrong way because he has the guts to say what most other atheists are too polite to articulate aloud.

Religion has always had carte blanche; it's always been an untouchable, tex-exempt elephant in the room. One mustn't discuss it because one never knows who will be offended.

Bollocks. When they started teaching "Creationism" in science class, someone had to stand up. Whoever took that gig was going to be hated for it, and Dawkins did it anyway.
posted by chuckdarwin at 8:28 AM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


Dawkins rubs people the wrong way because he has the guts to say what most other atheists are too polite to articulate aloud.

I'm a big fan of his books, but not his apparent addiction to extremist sensationalist statements. Announcing that teaching religious principles to one's child is abuse is neither constructive, nor particularly respectful.

It is possible to both criticize the excesses of religion and demand rigorous scientific analyses without telling the faithful that they're fuckwits.
posted by zarq at 8:51 AM on August 27, 2008


I'll accept that Dawkins is shrill as long as it comes with the admissions that his critics are incredibly shallow for thinking that matters at all.
posted by srboisvert at 8:56 AM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


the difference between Dawkins and Gould, when it comes to religion, is that Gould concedes a moral magisterium to religious people, Dawkins does not-- on the basis of the inherent savagery of many scriptural passages, whether you're a Christian, a Jew, or a Muslim, Dawkins doesn't simply think you're qualified to lecture him or anybody else on ethics. he also argues the inherent dangers of religious belief -- wars, etc, and argument that, as far as I can remember, didn't particularly concern Gould. but then Dawkins, an exception in neurotically PC academia, is blissfully politically incorrect -- his contempt for people like evangelicals and hardline Muslims is obvious, and I don't see why he should take the trouble to pretend otherwise. he also thinks that moderates are part of the problem, not of the solution. his opinion on mostly secular Jews (such as Gould) still calling themselves Jews out of loyalty to murdered relatives is also as un-PC as the rest of his ideas. again, not that I agree with all of the above, but he makes his point clearly and builds a real argument against Gould's "magisteria" position, whether you agree or not.


Dawkins is incredibly offputting to a lot of people

yeah, he's clearly intolerant of morons, he's biased like that. oh, a lot of people dislike his insistence on shifting the burden of proof over to the believers -- somehow believing because it makes you feel good and using that as evidence of the existence of Jesus doesn't meet Dawkins criteria, and that's indeed offputting to a lot of people. the fact that it's not really about Dawkins having to show a believer that his or her personal God does not exist, but about you the believer having to sort out with Hinuds, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, etc which of the many Gods is the one who actually exists (or the ones, if you're a polytheist), if at all, can be incredibly offputting, even. unlike Gould, he's unwilling to take any shit.

Anyway:
The overall batting average has been about .260 throughout the history of baseball. But the variation around that average has shrunk. It's at least plausible that variation declines because play improves. A batting average is a comparison between hitting and pitching. So if everybody's improving, as long as they improve at the same rate, the batting average will remain constant. But it gets to the point where everyone is so good that there's just not much variation anymore. Hitting .400 in baseball is a good example because there's a "right wall," if you will, of human limits. Given how our muscles work, there's just so much that the human body can do. There will always be a few individuals who, by dint of genetic gifts and obsessive commitment and training, will stand close to that right wall. That's where Ty Cobb was in 1911 and where Tony Gwynn is today. But there is this limiting wall. What has happened in baseball is that all aspects of play have improved enormously. Back in 1911, average play was so far inferior to where Ty Cobb was that his batting average could be measured as .420. Today, Tony Gwynn is just as good, maybe even closer to the wall than Cobb was. But the average player has improved so much that Gwynn's performance -- equal to or better than Cobb's -- is not measured as high.
Maybe Dawkins knows about cricket, though.
posted by matteo at 9:07 AM on August 27, 2008


"When they started teaching 'Creationism' in science class, someone had to stand up. Whoever took that gig was going to be hated for it, and Dawkins did it anyway."

This assumption is the reason we're still having this debate today. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Evolution is not the enemy of religion. Folks who treat it like it is perpetuate a pointless debate. People who treat the Origin of Species as a counterpoint to the Bible (The Simpsons did this, ugh) are missing the point, and are sinking to the level of the pulpit-pounding, bible-thumping demagogues. The majority of people don't care one way or another until it looks like their way of life is threatened. If you show that science and religion can (and do, in all sorts of places) coexist, the problem falls to the wayside and returns to the realm of the wackos and the kooks whom no amount of reason or compassion will ever reach.
posted by Eideteker at 9:59 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Whoever took that gig was going to be hated for it, and Dawkins did it anyway."

Dawkins isn't the first. Hopefully he won't be the last. Fundamentalists have been trying to ban the teaching of evolution since the years immediately following WWI. Hence, the Butler act and the subsequent Scopes trial in 1925. Gould, Myers and Dawkins were and are simply the latest scientists to be outspoken on the subject.

I suspect Dawkins inspires greater ire than the others because he attacks religion and its adherents indiscriminately, without acknowledging that there are both religions and degrees of observance which are neither destructive nor particularly interested in forcing their views on nonbelievers. As his opponents have found, it's easier to simply vilify everyone than see nuance.
posted by zarq at 10:57 AM on August 27, 2008


That's a nice thought, Eideteker, but it's wrong. The people who are treating the Origin of the Species as a counterpoint to the Bible are the wackos and the kooks, and they are doing their damnedest to get to the point where no one gets to learn anything about that supposed counterpoint.

The problem isn't that they are trying to get Creationism taught in science class (though, depending on where you're coming from, that in itself could certainly be viewed as a problem, as it undermines the understanding of basic scientific methodology), the problem is that they're trying to get Creationism taught in science class in lieu of evolution. They want children to be taught that evolution is wrong and untrue, and that creationism is the truth they should accept instead.

If the kooks and wackos didn't have enough influence to affect how other people's children should be taught, this debate would indeed be over. But they do, and casting all the blame on people who want to stand up for proper science education seems like an almost willful misunderstanding of the entire situation.

All that said, it's a shame that we had to drag a perfectly nice Stephen Jay Gould thread into this debate again.
posted by Caduceus at 10:58 AM on August 27, 2008


If you show that science and religion can (and do, in all sorts of places) coexist, the problem falls to the wayside and returns to the realm of the wackos and the kooks whom no amount of reason or compassion will ever reach.

What exactly does coexistence entail? Another religion's fundamentalists wants their religion taught as state-sanctioned fact to my kids in all public schools. Coexistence shouldn't mean that they should be allowed to manipulate my government into proselytizing their religion to my children.
posted by zarq at 11:09 AM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Evolution is not the enemy of religion.

fuck yes it is if you like your Scripture to be the inerrant word of God, as millions of American evangelicals do.
posted by matteo at 11:10 AM on August 27, 2008


"The people who are treating the Origin of the Species as a counterpoint to the Bible are the wackos and the kooks, and they are doing their damnedest to get to the point where no one gets to learn anything about that supposed counterpoint."

Actually, I was referring equally to the so-called "Darwinists", dogmatic and vitriolic proponents of evolution who have fallen into the us vs. them trap. My comment was intentionally vague to highlight the similarities between combatants on both sides.

The reason these debates gain any traction is because people feel threatened. The kooks and wackos have influence because of jerks like Dawkins who conflate teaching evolution with banishing religion. Fight one battle at a time. What's important is your children, not getting revenge on the system that fucked up your childhood. That's just falling prey to the system, because your kids will grow up doing the same thing. That's the very definition of the system. Instead, teach them science but let them make their own minds up about religion.
posted by Eideteker at 11:37 AM on August 27, 2008


This thread illustrates its own subject matter remarkably well.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:50 PM on August 27, 2008


hmmm. Been thinking about this thread all day. Was at work and couldn't write. I'm a non-theist/atheist, who respects the methodolgy of science. Don't like group religion of any kind.

Comments in this thread prompted me to think about the nature of knowledge, of knowing, the dance of science with attempting to know the unknown with what is already known.

I agree Science is the best tool out there for understanding the Universe we live in. I'm not ready to agree it is the only tool.

A map of a place could be said to be a scientific representation of a geography. But going to that place, feeling it, being there with all one's senses and conscious mind is another kind of tool of understanding, no?

Without what is unscientific, curiosity, dreams, visions, fantasy, hope, yearning, passion, patience, integrity, honesty, emotions, hunches, intuition, playfulness could there be scientific progress?

science isn't the only tool for understanding the universe, implying that other methods of inquiry exist to investigate the nature of reality that are not scientific.

Understanding the universe and investigating the nature of reality seem to be two different but possibly related things. I think one can understand practical aspects of the universe without knowing the nature of reality. Isn't the nature of reality more a philosophical topic than a scientific one?

Math is used as a tool of science in understanding the universe. But Albert Einstein said that "as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality."

So there seems to be some interesting room for play in understanding the universe. I'm not talking room for religious hogwash but room for there to a variety of ways of accurately, sanely, astutely knowing reality, which may or may not include science.

Cultural experience contributes to a deeper understanding of human life. Culture, however, does not require of the creator or consumer to make their experience an investigation of reality. Culture encompasses works of fantasy and imagination that may allow one to experience reality more vividly, but are not necessarily beholden to truth.


Being a consumer or having an ordinary day without scientific rigor still requires practical savvy, which may require investigation into any number of practical applications of the truth. Cultures can be "understood as systems of symbols and meanings that even their creators contest, that lack fixed boundaries, that are constantly in flux, and that interact and compete with one another"

Just because something is symbolic doesn't mean it's necessarily not reality based or less truthful, does it?

Stephen Jay Gould said "Science is an integral part of culture". But science also cannot develop without culture, it arises out of culture and evolves within the culture in which it exists.
posted by nickyskye at 7:10 PM on August 27, 2008 [4 favorites]


Isn't the nature of reality more a philosophical topic than a scientific one?

Tell that to the scores of people working in M-theory.
posted by chuckdarwin at 2:40 AM on August 28, 2008


ooh, That's a cool link chuckdarwin, thanks :) But isn't M-theory an understanding the universe type of science, rather than the nature of reality?

On a much broader and more subjective level, the private experiences, curiosity, inquiry, and selectivity involved in the personal interpretation of an event shapes reality as seen by one and only one individual and hence is called phenomenological.

posted by nickyskye at 8:28 AM on August 28, 2008


Possibly, depending on who you're asking. There are a lot of people working in this field, some of whom probably think they are trying to understand the nature of reality... it's no longer just the domain of Philosophers, though.
posted by chuckdarwin at 8:42 AM on August 28, 2008


Dawkins meets Sheldrake.

Richard [Dawkins] seemed uneasy and said, "I don’t want to discuss evidence". "Why not?" I asked. "There isn’t time. It’s too complicated. And that’s not what this programme is about."
posted by symbollocks at 10:46 AM on August 28, 2008


symbollocks - I think the money quotes are the ones alluding vaguely to the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting telepathy that Dr. Sheldrake (and he alone) has! But that wiley Dawkins character, the Great Dictator of Science, keeps hiding it from us!

Or wait...no.
posted by inoculatedcities at 6:51 PM on August 28, 2008


@ nickyskye: Asimov may have put it best... "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny ...'"

I think you're absolutely right: scientific progress depends on our cultural and philosophical foundations. The ability to make that intuitive leap of faith.... :)
posted by zarq at 7:45 AM on September 8, 2008


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