An Urchin in the Storm by Stephen Jay Gould

An Urchin in the Storm by Stephen Jay Gould is a collection of book reviews, mostly written for the The New York Review of Books. Few book reviews standsthe test of time, but Gould does not write ordinary book reviews. Instead, he discusses issues of broader scope, with the book under review as a point of departure and to some extent as a sparring partner.

GouldGould (1941-2002) was a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science, and his wide arsenal of knowledge shines through. He discusses an array of issues with great wit and a rational, down-to-earth attitude. For example, in a harsh treatment of a book on human sociobiology, he swiftly (and rationally) deals with potential complaints about non-objectivity:

As a severe critic of human sociobiology from its inception, I clearly am not an impartial observer. Yet surely the equation of bland nonpartisanship with objectivity – a silly notion fostered by the worst traditions of television news reporting – must be rejected. We may scrutinize a known critic more carefully, but ultimately we must judge his arguments, not his autobiography [p. 29].*

I think many researchers have perverted ideas about so-called objectivity. In most cases, and particularly in the social sciences, objectivity can only be an Utopian idea that should be left behind sooner rather than later. Researchers are subjects and their rhetoric should reflect their subjectivity. And while I am onto rhetorics, I would like to quote Gould on the role of the narrative:

[The narrative style is storytelling in the grandest mode.] Narrative has fallen from fashion; even historians are supposed to ape the stereotype of physics [the prototype objective science, by the way] and be quantitative, or cliometric. Fine in its place, but not as a fetish. Narrative remains an art and science of the highest order, but of different form [p. 90].

And Gould keeps returning to what essentially is a discussion of scientific method:

Creative science is always a mixture of facts and ideas. Great thinkers are not those who can free their minds from cultural baggage and think or observe objectively (for such a thing is impossible), but people who use their milieu creatively rather than as a constraint – as Darwin did in translating Adam Smith’s economics into nature as the principle of natural selection, and as Hutton did in using the principle of finals causes to construct a cyclical view of the world.
Such a conception of science not only validates the study of history and the role of intellect – both subtly downgraded if objective observation is the source of all good science. It also puts science into culture and subverts the argument – advanced by creationists and other modern Yahoos, but sometimes unconsciously abetted by scientists – that science seeks to impose a new moral order from without [p. 103].

And again:

AnUrchinInTheStormAfter all, isn’t science supposed to be a cool, passionless, absolutely objective exploration of an external reality? […] But we scientists are no different from anyone else. We are passionate human beings, enmeshed in a web of personal and social circumstances. Our field [biology here, but the discussion is universal to all sciences, also the social ones] does recognize canons of procedure designed to give nature the long shot of asserting herself in the face of such biases, but unless scientists understand their hopes and engage in vigorous self-scrutiny, they will not be able to sort unacknowledged preference from nature’s weak and imperfect message [pp. 149-150].

Self-scrutiny! That is what it takes. That is also, unfortunately, what they did not teach in grad-school. The message I take from Gould here is that one cannot discount ones personal and social circumstances in a regression (or in other scientific methods), but that does not mean that our personal views and social situation will not interfere with how we read the results. As he wrote earlier, we cannot, simply cannot, think or observe objectively. As scientists, we are not objects, we are subjects.

Gould defends the narrative style as a scientific method (see quote above), perhaps surprising given his expert fields, but not so surprising as he also did work on the history of science. More surprising, to me at least, was his positive discussion of the dialectical approach, but Gould makes eminent sense out of it. As I work in a social science, his parallel between biological and social interaction was particularly delightful (pp. 153-154).

In a final quote, Gould leaves no doubt about the strong link between scientific knowledge and the social setting:

[A]n important theme advanced by contemporary historians of science against the myth of objectivity and inexorable scientific progress: science is socially embedded; its theories are not simple deductions from observed facts of nature, but a complex mixture of social ideology (often unconsciously expressed) and empirical constraint. This theme is liberating for science; it embodies the human side of our enterprise and depicts us as passionate creatures struggling with limited tools to understand a complex reality, not as robots programmed to convert objective information into immutable truth [p. 230].

I learned a lot from reading An Urchin in the Storm; Gould has so much to teach us (me), like what makes for an interesting book review (see p. 10), about biased reporting in science (p. 37), Darwin and evolution (pp. 59, 204-205), the social element in scientific knowledge (p. 84), the on-off history of the Atlantic (p. 96), the problems with IQ (pp, 132-ff), heritability (p. 147), his view of his own deductive powers (p. 165), the extinct solitaire (pp. 187-188), the governance of academic institutions (pp. 194-195), and a really great Gunnar Myrdal quote (p. 216). (I should have quoted all the sections I refer to here, but it wouldn’t make sense. Perhaps in a later post.) The variety of topics combined with Gould’s honest and witful approach makes Urchin a pleasant and interesting read. As my quotations amply demonstrates, a recurring theme is the scientific method and its social element, and anyone interested, and all scientists, should lend an ear (or rather, an eye) to Gould.

UPDATE: An odd thing about Gould’s reviews is that I was left satisfied without any wish to track down the books themselves and read them myself. Not a single one. Perhaps some of the biographies could be interesting, but none of the books Gould reviewed are now on my Amazon wish list (which is how I keep track of books I want to read). What are on my wish list, however, is another of Gould’s books and a detective novel by Dorothy Sayers which was mentioned by Gould. The point should be discounted somewhat because the Urchin is a rather old collection of reviews, but I am still surprised. So, Gould wrote essayic book reviews, but not reviews which generated much interest in the books themselves. Not even the books he liked.

*Page numbers refer to the 1988 paperback edition.

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2 Responses to “An Urchin in the Storm by Stephen Jay Gould”

  1. What is Science? | Kvams Says:

    […] it up at an airport. Too late did I realize Wilson is the father of human sociobiology although I recently read harsh criticism, offered by Stephen Jay Gould, of the entire discipline. If I had remembered when […]

  2. Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson | Kvams Says:

    […] Jay Gould has written extensively on human sociobiology. Much of it appears in his An Urchin in the Storm. Among his conclusions are that human sociobiology is founded on a flawed mathematical and […]

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