Ever since C. P. Snow published The Two Cultures, scientists and “humanists” have been compelled to endure reciprocal taunts: scientists can't write; humanists can't think.
Neither has ever been true, but we are blessed today with an unuusual abundance of scientific writers who not only speak to their colleagues but also make the delights of physical and biological science available to poets, philosophers, sociologists and college students as well. Books by author-scientists such as Stephen Hawking, Roger Lewin, Oliver Sacks, and Gerald Weissmann charm us but none succeed more than Stephen Jay Gould. Paleontologist and professor of the history of science at Harvard, Gould has a special knack for holding the interest of professionals and amateurs alike.
Fearless of controversy, he has nobly opposed that dismal oxymoron, “creation science” while simultaneously fighting for decency in our understanding of ourselves. The Mismeasure of Man, despite the apparent political incorrectness of its title, remains a most thoughtful and readable contribution to the struggle against racism and the use of false science to say that genetics can justify treating people and cultures inequitably.
Eight Little Piggies is the whimsical title of his latest anthology culled from Natural History magazine. It joins five previous collections (Ever Since Darwin, The Panda's Thumb, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes, The Flamingo's Smile, and Bully for Brontosaurus) that provide lucid discussions of problems as diverse as why chickens may occasionally have teeth, why chocolate bars get smaller, why the Scopes trial was a set-up, what the theory of punctuated equilibrium means, and why no one-including John Olerud-will ever hit .400 in the major leagues again.
This volume, writes Gould, is “a book of middle life.” More reflective than earlier collections, it is less concerned with biological minutiae than with generalizations. He is, however, as keen as ever to attack “the pitfalls of biological determinism and the simple silliness of sociobiology,” and he is as willing as ever to extend, amend, adapt and apply evolutionary thinking to our most interesting natural mysteries and moral conundrums.
What is best, however, is that he is a whacking good story-teller. It will not matter if you have no previous interest in trigonian clams, the proper classification of the ancient Hallucigenia, or an account of Mozart as a “bratty kid at the acme of precocity”; it won't matter because Gould has a singular ability to extract from strict scientific inquiry lessons that have wide application.
Perhaps even more impressive than the specific stories he tells is the implicit account of the nature of science contained within these tales. Gould is no Bowdlerizer; he writes for the intelligent laity, which means that he disdains jargon but spares no one without the interest to assimilate a difficult concept. He is no dilettante; he is an expert in his field and has made major contributions to both paleontological research and theory. He is, in short, no mere popularizer of science; he is a scientist who dares to be popular. It is a rare thing to find someone who combines the deepest commitment to democracy with the unwillingness to suffer fools.
Moreover, as fascinating as the substance of Professor Gould's work is, it is the synthetic form of his method that stands as a model for us all. As a unique lover of music, baseball and fossils, we have learned to expect no less of him than skillfully woven tapestries incorporating colours from all parts of the intellectual spectrum and revealing patterns of wisdom that no one of us historian, biologist, ethicist or geologist-could easily produce on our own. As teachers of students whose fate will largely be framed by the synthesis of culture and technology, we have an obligation to broaden our own discourse, to build bridges between the formerly alien domains of science and the arts, for as practitioners of college education, we must demand much of ourselves.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the School of Liberal Studies at Seneca College and is Editor of The College Quarterly.