Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Friday, May 24, 2002


My other wish today is to acknowledge the passing of one of my favorite science popularizers, Steven Jay Gould. He has been mentioned in several blogs, including Amygdala, "Robert Musil", and "Godless Capitalist" (Can you guess what he had to say?). I think that many of his detractors, aside from their personal, pejorative reasons (usually centering, for better or worse, on "The Mismeasure of Man"), totally misunderstand his contribution to science. I will "double-quote" from "Godless Capitalist", because this is just so rich with irony.

The point that Eldredge and Gould were making, then, could have been modestly presented as a helpful rescuing of Darwin and his successors from what had seemed to them an awkward difficulty. Indeed that is, at least in part, how it was presented - initially. ... Eldredge and Gould could have made this their main message: Don't worry Darwin, even if the fossil record were perfect you shouldn't expect to see a finely graduated progression if you only dig in one place, for the simple reason that most of the evolutionary change took place somewhere else. ... But no, instead they chose, especially in their later writings in which they were eagerly followed by journalists, to sell their ideas as being radically opposed to Darwin's and opposed to the neo-Darwinian synthesis. [240-241]

Now, I don't necessarily disagree with Dawkins' assessment of Gould's work, but the rich irony of a science popularizer, who has not made any significant contribution to evolutionary biology except for a popular science book, ripping Gould and Eldredge for making too much of their hypothesis, is just too much. Both Gould and Dawkins have become famous and popular spokesmen for science because of their writing and speaking talent, not because of their scientific discoveries. Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. He hasn't taught biology in some time. When is the last time he published an original research article? He wrote some theoretical speculations on brain evolution in the mid '80's (from Web of Science), but nothing but book reviews, opinion pieces on religion and science or evolution, or obituaries since.

The great good that Dawkins, Gould and Sagan (to name a few) have done is to take the worlds of evolutionary biology, paleontology, and astronomy respectively to the people. They made these subjects interesting, accessible, and engaging to millions, and have done untold good in inspiring young people to question the received knowledge that their parents and elders may have taught them, to fight the scourge of "Know-Nothingism" that is inherent in Creationism, and to make the notion of doing science for a living seem appealing. I will miss Dr. Gould's writing, and will cherish the essays that I have still to read.

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