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The Science & Humanism of Stephen Jay Gould reviewed in Human Ecology Review


The Science and Humanism of Stephen Jay Gould

By Richard York and Brett Clark

New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010.

ISBN: 978-1583672167

Reviewed by Stefano B. Longo, University of Illinois, Springfield

Undoubtedly, Stephen Jay Gould is one of the great thinkers of the Twentieth Century. Gould was a leading figure in the fields of evolutionary biology and paleontology, and made important theoretical and empirical contributions to those fields over his accomplished career. The Science and Humanism of Stephen Jay Gould, by sociologists Richard York and Brett Clark, broadly examines the philosophical underpinnings of Gould’s work, and its application for understanding the interweaving relations among and between natural and social systems. This book provides a concise, yet remarkably thorough, survey of key aspects of Gould’s powerful worldview and philosophy, applying a rich overarching analysis of a scientific perspective that reveals numerous insights into the complexity of nature and, compellingly, society. It explores the larger themes that run through Gould’s work, including historical change and contingency, as well as the structural and multilevel character of his analysis. In addition, the book examines Gould’s long running critique of biological determinism and his efforts towards developing a humanistic component for understanding the interrelationship between nature and the human condition.

York and Clark insightfully connect the power of Gould’s scientific contributions with the potential that is immanent within his materialist science and historical perspective. As a historian of science himself, Gould understood the sociological realities of scientific study, including the relevance of historical context and social settings in the production of scientific knowledge. Thus, York and Clark describe how the Gouldian worldview developed a reflexive analysis that is relevant to numerous endeavors. Indeed, Gould embraced the value of knowledge acquisition that is, and could be, produced outside the traditional purview of the natural or physical sciences in a manner that is seldom seen by practicing scientists.

Gould recognized that academic openness and knowledge integration are essential components for the potential of the scientific enterprise to contribute to the welfare of the human condition. Thus, he developed a holistic research program, and was not afraid to move from his home in the natural sciences to find connections and relationships in all forms of knowledge, including the social sciences, the humanities, and, of course, everyday life. Gould was also committed to the life of a public intellectual, as he was able to expand from academic science into mainstream writing. He recognized that it was necessary to reach others outside of the

small group of colleagues or academics that engage in scientific research about the complexity of nature, and educate on its relevance to a broader audience.

The authors assert that an essential feature of Gould’s perspective was his commitment to a radical tradition within the natural sciences, drawing on the logic of a dialectical analysis. Consistent with his holistic approach to knowledge acquisition, Gould contributed to a scientific analysis that acknowledged the interpenetration of parts and wholes and systemic properties, including those emanating from the social and historical environment. As a result, his work eloquently critiqued the commonly held assumptions associated with functionalism and determinism that have often plagued both the natural and social sciences.

While Gould rejected the direct application of biological theory to social phenomenon or biological explanations for social behaviors and human nature, the Gouldian worldview provides an analytical framework for scholarship that transcends common disciplinary constraints. In his work, Gould insisted that the human condition was not simply an inevitable result of biological forces, such as evolution for example. On the contrary, he maintained that humans have the biological potential and flexibility to produce a diversity of individual behaviors and social arrangements, as is visible in the variability of cultural forms societies have taken throughout history. Thus, ethical decisions about the form and character of social organization must be made with a different set of standards than those offered in the physical and natural sciences and therefore unavoidably enter into the realm of humanism. That is to say, science can and does inform us about material conditions, but not what we should do about them.

Gould’s reflexive approach reveals the fundamental nature of practicing science as a social act, thus illuminating the many biases that become entrenched in its development, interpretation, and application. For instance, embarking on a thorough historical analysis of the scientific studies of intelligence ranking and IQ, Gould debunked biologically deterministic theories of innate, immutable, and quantifiable human intelligence. Drawing on Gould’s work, the authors highlight that science does not occur in a social vacuum and that research programs, studies, questions, and interpretation of data are enmeshed in a historical setting that, at minimum, sways the process toward some inferences and conclusions and not others. Thus, science is not a neutral or socially unhindered process.

Through examining the Gouldian approach to science and nature, York and Clark contribute to a tradition of historical and sociological study of science, and present the contextual significance of the scientist’s work. The book offers agreat introduction to Gould and his work, and also provides further insight for those already familiar with it. Additionally, this book contributes a unique analytical approach by, for example, putting Gould’s work in the context of larger traditions within the social sciences and humanities.

The Science and Humanism of Stephen Jay Gould is relevant for practitioners of natural and social sciences, particularly environmental social science, by presenting a theoretical foundation for studying human and non-human systems. The book demonstrates the necessity for active confrontation with reductionist tendencies produced by parochialism and by conventional disciplinary boundaries associated with the modern university system when examining complex systems, and recognizes the many facets of knowledge production that can be enhanced by the Gouldian worldview. York and Clark explore the ties between the scientific and humanistic elements of Gould’s scholarship that opened a pathway for the study of nature and society, which acquired and integrated knowledge in a manner that moved beyond the academic lip service often given to interdisciplinary study. Following in Gould’s footsteps, York and Clark successfully embark on a true foray into the practice and application of interdisciplinary synthesis.

from Human Ecology Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, 2011

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