The Books of Stephen Jay Gould

reviewed by Karl Johanson

Collections of science essays have long been among my favourite books. While discussing such collections at Noncon 15 Cath Jackel recommended Gould so I grabbed a few of his essay collections. One advantage of short essay collections is that you can leave one in the bathroom and get through an essay per trip if you speed read or are mildly constipated.
Gould is one of those writers with that amazing talent of making learning not just fun but fascinating. His use of analogies in teaching evolution science extend to a essay on whether baseball evolved or was created spontaneously (Bully for Brontosaurus). Gould also manages to provide intricate detail necessary to accurately describe complicated topics without losing the reader in a sea of trivia.
For me the aspect of Gould's writing I am most appreciative is his respect for others with opinions which are different from his or now know to be wrong. Rather than attack someone who say believed that stratified rock formed during the Biblical flood and not over millions of years, he tends to show their reasons for believing as well as the reasons they are wrong. Often firmly believed hypothesis which are now known to be wrong were based on sensible analysis of what was know at the time (for example, I know that the Earth orbits the sun (or rather the both orbit a common centre of gravity very near the core of the sun) and not the other way around because someone told me, not because I figured it out. With no evidence other than my eyes I would likely conclude the latter.) Gould's respect for other opinions only seams to falter when he refutes pseudoscientific justification for racism. He quite eloquently points out that the notions such as "Caucasians have larger brains than negros" are not only unproven but irrelevant.
Scientists are often accused of using the scientific method as a religion. No doubt there are those who believe in scientific knowledge without understanding. There are those for whom white lab coats and science journals are as crosses and scriptures to a Christian. Gould doesn't seam to take this true believer attitude to science. In the essay "Adam's Navel" in the collection The Flamingo's Smile Gould talks about the work Omphalos by Philip Henry Gosse (1857). Put simply Gosse believed that the Earth was only a few thousand years old and that fossil and geological evidence to the contrary was put on Earth by god to grant the Earth a sensible past. In discussing and replying to this idea Gould manages to sums up science rather eloquently. "Science is a procedure for testing and rejecting hypothesis, not a compendium of of certain knowledge. Claims that can be proved incorrect lie within its domain (as false statements to be sure, but as proposals that meet the primary methodological criterion of testability). But theories that cannot be tested in principle are not part of science. Science is doing, not clever cogitation; we reject Omphalos as useless, not wrong."

Originally published by Under the Ozone Hole Number Six – November, 1993

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