June 2003

Christian Walters

nonfiction

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox by Stephen Jay Gould

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox is Gould's last book on natural history (he has some baseball memoirs still to come). In it, he examines the conflict between science and the humanities. He touched on this subject in Rocks of Ages, discussing the conflict between science and religion. In both cases, Gould felt the conflicts largely artificial, built upon a mutual misunderstanding of goals and methods.

We are used to the notion that scientists and artists don't share common ground. Poets don't often care how their flowers pollinate themselves. Chemists generally do not sculpt. Musicians do not compose odes to photosynthesis. And, except for a handful of Sagans, Dawkinses, and Goulds, scientists do not write well (to their detriment -- Gould points out several times how a well-presented argument can often carry the day over a clumsy, well-researched one). I'd bet a dollar that most can't sing, either.

Gould claims the breach formed during the Renaissance, when some people claimed there was more to learn from new knowledge, through observation and experimentation. This was in contradiction to the long-held view that the path to knowledge lay in studying ancient wisdom. Of course, there is knowledge to be gained in both, which is why we study the works of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Michelangelo in addition to Newton, Galileo, and Darwin.

As usual in human history, we're not so good at leaving each other alone to do our own things. We are probably hardwired into finding a simple dichotomy that blinds us to the more subtle complexities. Fight or flight. Do or die. Good vs. evil. Right and wrong. These are all simple, inaccurate representations of much more complex issues, likely held over from our evolutionary past. (With all due respect to President Bush, the same can be said for "you're either with us or against us.")

Healing the rift will, of course, take a lot of work for all concerned. There is a lot of mutual pride-swallowing and some realization that the other side has value. The humanities crowd should admit that science is a great tool for uncovering hard facts about the material world, and the scientists must see that the humanities are better discussing things like morals and the human condition. It was important to Gould that all parties work together.

It's unfortunate that we'll have to do it without him. As I write this review, it is one year to the day since Gould's death (May 20, 2002). He'll probably be remembered among his peers for his work on punctuated equilibrium. But everyone else will remember his popular writing, doing as much as anyone to bring the subtle complexities of the world into the public consciousness. Or at least they'll remember him on The Simpsons, when Lisa dug up that angel skeleton.

I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Gould a couple of times. It was always tough to get a word in. He had so much in his brain pushing to get out. Once I got him to scoff at Elaine Morgan's aquatic ape theory and admit that the Atlanta Braves were a better baseball team than his Yankees, all in one breath. (Of course, the Yankees went on that year to beat the Braves in six games in the World Series. It figures that one of the few times Gould was wrong, he would be happy about it.) In general, you were better off letting him talk, because so much came out that you couldn't help but learn.

Gould wrote much like he talked. His prose is dense with parenthetical asides, long footnotes, obscure references, and humorous anecdotes that occurred to him at the time. If you're not used to all that, it can take you a couple of chapters to get in the groove. It's worth the effort, although I imagine his editors double-dosed on Rolaids when he submitted a manuscript. Be prepared.

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox by Stephen Jay Gould
Harmony Books
ISBN: 0609601407
288 Pages

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