Will they jump or should we push?

The Hedgehog, The Fox, and the Magister's Pox
August 15, 2003

Philip Anderson muses over Stephen Jay Gould's final discourse

An air of closure and a sense of obligation attend the reviewing of the last book of a renowned and recently deceased author. I will attempt an overall view of Stephen Jay Gould in passing only and by implication: this book alone contains quite enough to occupy a reviewer. It amounts to two books in one: the concluding third is a closely reasoned and carefully written attack on E. O. Wilson's Consilience and thus a continuation of the sociobiology wars on a new front, while the preceding part of the book appears to be an attempt to heal that other breach, known as the "science wars".

The hedgehog and the fox of the book's title come from a proverb written down by Erasmus and quoted in one of the earliest books on natural history, Conrad Gesner's Historia Animalum (1551), wherein the fox is the epitome of flexible, pragmatic cunning, and the hedgehog of single-minded persistence - having but a single means of defence, but one quite adequate. However, it never became clear to me who the hedgehog and fox represented. The magister of the title seems to be introduced merely to make a half-rhyme; the "magister's pox" refers to an early attempt by the church to censor allusions in Gesner's book to the humanists. ( Magister is a medieval word for scholar or teacher, of which Gould was fond.) The first two-thirds of the book is in large part a discursive history of the relations between science and other magisteria over the past five centuries. Here, Gould recognises that science had to fight its way to recognition, sometimes in opposition to humanistic studies and, in some periods, in alliance with them against the church. But scientific epistemology stood and still stands in contrast to those of these other two magisteria, the one relying for its truth test on faith, the other inheriting from the Renaissance its reliance on authority - which was classical in the period Gould speaks of.

This rather tortuous discussion brings us, finally, to an examination of two modern battles of the science wars: that ignited by C. P. Snow's "Two cultures" lecture in Cambridge in 1959, and more recently in regard to excesses committed under the name of "science studies". Gould's tendency to confuse the issues seems to weaken his case. With Snow's lecture, confusion arises from Gould's claim that the separate "intellectual" (read "literary intellectual") culture was merely a phenomenon of the English elite in the 1950s. But he then contradicts himself by using "intellectual" in this conventional way. Anyone who witnessed the 1950s and has no axe to grind can be in no doubt the term was then widely used to describe someone akin to a Susan Sontag or, in a perversion of the word, a "neoconservative intellectual" such as Irving Kristol. (Brilliant scientists such as Richard Feynman or Francis Crick or Murray Gell-Mann did not count.) Literary intellectuals everywhere - not just in Cambridge - were then largely ignorant of science. I do not agree with Gould that scientists are, or even were, as devoid of general culture as "intellectuals" are of science.

In discussing the science wars, Gould dismisses the science studies groups as being representative of the humanities as a whole. They are, he says, a harmless minority not to be taken seriously. He also argues - and I agree - that many scholars of science studies have important things to say about the way our profession works, but one would hope that these observations would be expressed in a way that could not be appropriated by science's enemies. Even under former US President Bill Clinton's relatively enlightened administration, a clique of fashionable jetsetters on Long Island managed to close down one of the great national laboratories, and under the present aggressively Christian regime science is being daily enlisted by the cabinet secretary in charge of health to serve its particular purposes.

These early chapters are heavy going. Gould seems to take over the verbosity of the 16th and 17th-century naturalists he is writing about; his sentences occasionally extend to half a page and are much decorated with obscure Latinate words. He takes particular delight in heading his chapters with rhyming onomatopoeic phrases such as that of the book's title, or "The rite and rights of a Separating Spring". It should be great fun, but it is not.

When Gould comes to the attack on Wilson the discursiveness pretty much ceases - the arguments are direct and clear. It may be valuable to know that some history exists between Gould and Wilson, as is related in Ullica Segerstrale's book Defenders of the Truth . Three decades ago, publication of Wilson's Sociobiology evoked a strong response from Gould and seven colleagues. They saw in sociobiology - the contention that behaviour is strongly influenced by genetics - a threat to the Marxist position that the human is born a "blank slate" and behaviour is controlled by nurture. Gould inveighed against the abuses perpetrated in the name of Darwinism - social Darwinism, eugenics, the 19th-century doctrine of progress and racism - and saw Wilson as supporting these. The idea that human behaviour patterns are genetic is now widely accepted, but the attacks on sociobiology have limited use of the term.

The book Gould describes and selectively quotes from does not much resemble the Consilience I remember reading. According to Gould, Wilson's "consilience" - a term invented by the 19th-century Cambridge don William Whewell for the "leaping together" of lines of argument from different sciences - depends wholly on reductionism. "WilsonI argues thatI reductionism is supreme, uniting all the disciplines. Wilson holds that everything in nature is possible to predict mathematically." To be sure, these words from the book's jacket may not be Gould's own, and he is careful not to accuse Wilson of any such extreme claim anywhere in the text; nonetheless this seems to be the impression he means to leave with the reader.

He rests his argument on the twin themes of emergence and contingency. Emergence is the appearance of new regularities, laws or concepts as we go from the smaller scale, "reduced", level towards the more complex. By contingency Gould means the dependence of the actual course of events on historical happenstance. He seems to feel that these ideas are excluded from the physical scientist's lexicon but, as we know, emergence appears the minute we try to put elementary particles together into macroscopic pieces of matter, and contingency is a less precise way of expressing "sensitive dependence on initial conditions", popularly known as "chaos". Both, from my own reductionist point of view, are beautiful examples of what I thought Wilson meant by consilience, in that the laws and phenomena of chaos or broken symmetry express themselves in systems that are constituted very differently. The mathematics of chaos was independently discerned in the fields of population biology, weather and the motions of the solar system, inter alia , with consilience among these fields being recognised only later. I do not accept that Wilson restricts his thinking to naive reductionism.

To be sure, Gould is right that Wilson is overoptimistic in the few pages he devotes to extending consilience to the humanistic magisterium.

Humanistic studies depend to a great extent on empathy. While this may well be a genetically derived trait, to be analysed in scientific terms, it is not clear how to deal with its content scientifically. But Gould seems to reject even the possibility that human behaviours such as religion, altruism and art are, like language, innate capacities of the human mind.

We know that no genetic disposition to a particular language exists, but that the ability to use language is inborn. Why should this not apply to these other traits? Why is that not a reasonable subject for study?

Gould mentions, and emphasises in earlier books, his concept of "non-overlapping magisteria". He insists that science has no business in the magisteria of religion or the humanities, and vice versa. To me, this is a non-starter and, even if desirable, would be unenforceable. His attempt to police scientific knowledge is alarmingly pertinent in view of the present US administration, and should not be ignored.

Gould's elaborate style and wide erudition, however casually organised, appeal to many. He offers a plethora of intriguing anecdotes from the early history of science, but the sum does not amount to an argument focused on the issues he raises. Those of us who tend to read with a mental blue pencil will be more than usually distracted.

Philip W. Anderson, Nobel laureate, is emeritus professor of physics, Princeton University, New Jersey, US.

The Hedgehog, The Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending and Minding the Misconceived Gap between Science and the Humanities

Author - Stephen Jay Gould
ISBN - 0 224 06309 X
Publisher - Cape
Price - £17.99
Pages - 4

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