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The Science and Humanism of Stephen Jay Gould reviewed in Counterfire

This View of Life Is Dialectical

by Dominic Alexander

Wednesday, 1 June, 2011

In using a dialectical approach to scientific problems, Gould restores a sense of history to natural history, reflecting a movement from subjective to objective that parallels change in human social history.

Richard York and Brett Clark, The Science and Humanism of Stephen Jay Gould (Monthly Review Press 2011), 223pp.

Darwin concluded his Origin of Species robustly claiming that ‘there is a grandeur about this view of life’, defending his theory against the inevitable objection that life is somehow devalued if it evolved rather than having being created. The scientist and writer Stephen Jay Gould borrowed the phrase for his monthly essays on ‘This View of Life’, through which he became known to a wide public, not least indeed for the sense of wonder and grandeur in the many peculiarities and byways of natural history. Yet exactly what the Darwinian view of life entails has been precisely at issue in controversies between Gould (and others sharing broadly similar perspectives such as Richard Lewontin or Stephen Rose), and other more mainstream figures, such as Richard Dawkins, or Daniel Dennett.

The facts of the evolution of life on earth have not been contested in reasonable circles for a very long time, but the mechanisms of evolution remained at issue for much longer. Darwinian explanations triumphed in the course of the first half of the twentieth century, but disagreements within ‘Darwinian’ theory remain important. Despite the standard notion that science is objective and non-political, the highly social-political ramifications of such notions as the ‘selfish gene’ are obvious. York and Clark, the authors of this book, highlight the rather more congenial implications of Gould’s thinking on natural history in the title itself: science and humanism. Rather than a limited and reductive field of reference, Gould’s learning was broad and his understanding of natural history, science and society was full and complex.

Gould’s opponents’ view of biology and natural history is reductive and atomising. This is the case whether in the guise of a ‘selfish gene’ theory (Dawkins’ notion that individual genes drive evolution and effectively reproduce the organism for the sake of their own survival) or Daniel Dennett’s argument that Darwinism is a ‘universal acid’ eating through the complexities of other fields of knowledge to reveal a simple truth behind them all. Gould’s view of life was not, like these examples, in tune with the neo-liberal triumphalism of the last thirty years. In contrast, Gould captured the multi-layered and multi-faceted sides of life on earth, seeing evolution in terms of dynamic tensions between, for example, developmental structures and natural selection. Gould criticised what is called the ‘neo-Darwinian’ consensus, or rather the ‘ultra-Darwinian’ interpretation of it, that leads to the faulty metaphor of the ‘selfish gene’, and to the various reactionary permutations of socio-biology and evolutionary psychology….

Read the rest of the review in Counterfire

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