Science reading group: 'Ever Since Darwin'

Science reading group: 'Ever Since Darwin'

Kickstarting a discussion on Stephen Jay Gould's first popular book form the late 70s, Ever Since Darwin.

A few people had expressed interest in discussing Stephen Jay Gould's book, Ever Since Darwin, as part of a science discussion/reading group. The book was Gould's first collection of essays from his monthly Natural History column.
A few general points first, then some specific ones about the first four essays that comprise the first chapter/section.

Gould's writing style
Always accessible and easy-to-read, his use of analogies, metaphor and examples means that even when he's talking about slightly technical things, it's easy enough to get what he means.

Use of cultural references
Pretty much every single essay contains references from art, music and literature. Some I get, some I don't, but it's clear that he had a an appreciation for fields way beyond his own. As I mentioned in previous threads, this aids his attempts at popularising his work, and this is what many (Dawkins, Maynard Smith) attribute the success of Gould's message to.

Now to the themes of interest that sprung out for me from the intro and first four essays.

Gould's philosophy of science
In the intro/prologue, he makes clear his conception of science, which would contrast with much of the 'neo-Darwinism' camp:

"Science is no inexorable march to truth, mediated by the collection of objective information and the destruction of ancient superstition. Scientists, as ordinary human beings, unconsciously reflect in their theories the social and political constraints of their times. As privileged members of society, more often than not they end up defending existing social arrangements as biologically foreordained."

For Gould, science as a human activity is clearly socially and historically embedded. Historians of science generally share this view – Peter Bowler, James Moore, Janet Browne and Adrian Desmond.

Darwin's delay
Tied into the historically/socially-situated nature of the scientific process is the first chapter's discussion of Darwin's reasons for his two-decade delay in discussing the notion of common descent and more importantly, natural selection. Some background; historians agree that Darwin was a creationist before he went on the Voyage of the Beagle. In 1837 he recorded his first acknowledgement of transmutation, or species change. This in itself did not set him apart, but it signaled a break from creationism in its broadest sense, breaking from fixity of species. His grandfather Erasmus, as well as Lamarck had already put the notion of evolution out there and Adrian Desmond noted in The Politics of Evolution that many social radicals were already some sort of evolutionist. Evolution was a 'common heresy' in the decades preceding Darwin's 'Origin' in November 1859.

A scientistic telling would say he was simply amassing evidence for his theory, and recently John van Whye has downplayed what most think were his fears over the impact of natural selection. Gould thinks that the main fear Darwin had was not lack of evidence, nor the mere acceptance of evolution, but the philosophical implications of a materialist explanation for species change, natural selection, the differential survival and reproductive success of those possessing various heritable characteristics.

Where other evolutionists of the time spoke of vitalism, progression, 'irreducibility of mind' and so on, 'Darwin spoke only of random variation and natural selection'. Notably the idea that the human mind could be explained in scientific terms even unnerved Alfred Russel Wallace, parallel theorist of natural selection. Darwin was acutely aware of how philosophical materialism would be received, “oh you materialist!” he joked in his notebooks.

It was also the materialist properties of the theory of natural selection that had Marx welcoming it:

“Darwin’s work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle. One does, of course, have to put up with the clumsy English style of argument. Despite all shortcomings, it is here that, for the first time, ‘teleology’ in natural science is not only dealt a mortal blow but its rational meaning is empirically explained. ”

Role of class in 19th century science
The professionalisation of science came long after Darwin, in the 19th Century it was primarily the pursuit of rich gentlemen with time on their hands and resources. AR Wallace was actually an exception, he collected specimens and sold them on to rich collectors which funded his own research. Darwin never needed to work:

”How different would the science of biology be today if Darwin had been the offspring of a tradesman and not the son of a very wealthy physician. Darwin's personal riches gave him the freedom to pursue his research unencumbered. Since his various illnesses often permitted him only two to three hours of fruitful work per day, any need to make an honest living would probably have shut him off from research entirely”

Darwin's wealth and social standing also was what secured his place on the Beagle voyage.

That's what popped out from the first section anyway, there is much more interesting, and more political, stuff later in the book, but no use in leaping ahead if others are at different stages. Look forward to comments.

Choccy

Comments

Choccy
Sep 25 2012 21:29

Gonna try and desperately bring this back to life. I know Revol is reading it for sure.
Any fuckin takers like?

georgestapleton
Sep 26 2012 10:24

Is there a pdf available?

Choccy
Sep 26 2012 20:25

Not that I could find. The only torrents or ebooks i could find were for his Structure of Evolutionary Theory.

radicalgraffiti
Sep 26 2012 20:57

i read the book but never got round to commenting about it.