- The Structure of Evolutionary Theory
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I've been a fan of Stephen Jay Gould ever since reading Ever since Darwin (1977), his first book of collected essays drawn from his monthly column in Natural History magazine. For 25 years, without cease, he cranked out 300 of these often wonderful and usually provocative pieces, publishing the last one in 2001. How he accomplished this in addition to writing about a dozen other books, including the huge tome I am reviewing, plus pursuing a parallel career as a paleontologist, is only partially explained by the fact that he slept only about 4 hours a day. Seemingly, like Newton, he was "never at rest." In size and scope, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is undoubtedly his magnum opus.
A source of my admiration of Gould was the way in which he was able to wear the "two hats" of science and history. I started as a science student and it was not until graduate school that I was first exposed to, and immediately enthralled by, the history of the subject—so much so that I abandoned a career in physics and subsequently obtained my Ph.D. in the history of science. I think the fact that Gould continued to pursue both fields (around the same time in both of our lives) was a major source of his philosophical and methodological approaches to the history of science. He walked a fine line between, on the one hand, imposing our current knowledge of science upon the past (namely, viewing the past fully from the present and thus not being sensitive to the historical problems within their original context) and, on the other hand, over-contexualizing the past to the point that scientific knowledge is viewed as completely constructed by local conditions and thus without a core of objectivity. Although this latter issue has become widely known through the rise of so-called postmodern thinking (and the debate over it dubbed the "Science Wars"), the problem was at the heart of the history of science even as I (and probably Gould, too) was first studying it in the latter 1960s. Gould often points out that an idea that today may appear rather stupid may not really be so if seen in its original context; it clearly bothered him that too many scientists of the past, who made important contributions to their field, were only known by some mistake they may have made. Yet, when something was clearly wrong, he vehemently believed it should be exposed; this is manifestly seen in his widely read book The Mismeasure of Man (1981), in which he analyzed the methodological errors in the original work of those supporting so-called scientific racism. This is also shown in his vehement and protracted campaign against various varieties of creationism.
These tensions—and the "two hats"—are apparent in the book under review. It starts right on the dust-cover, with the superpositioning of two images: a drawing of a fossil coral from the plate of a 17th-century text and a picture of a snail on tall grass with the sun setting in the background. The fossil coral Gould fancies as a visualization of the logical structure of Darwin's theory presented in the book; the lovely photograph of the snail, as readers familiar with Gould's essays will know, is not surprising—for snails were a major locus of his scientific research. Believe me, Gould had the ability to engage the reader with this lowly creature (something I usually only think about when occasionally dining in a French restaurant), and in one essay brought a woman to tears over the extinction of a species of his beloved snails on a south Pacific island.
After a long (about 90-page) introductory/ summary chapter (containing an epitome...