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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  May 2002

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE May 2002

Subject:

Stephen Jay Gould addenda

From:

Louis Proyect <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 24 May 2002 09:32:34 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

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Last night I wandered over to Barnes and Noble to browse through the new
book section, especially to look at some of Stephen Jay Gould's last
titles. (This is a pleasure that shopping on amazon.com, etc. will never
replace.)

There were a couple of items of note to folks like us. In "I Have Landed",
the 10th and final collection of Gould's essays, there is one that deals
with the friendship between Karl Marx--near the time of his death--and E.
Ray Lankester, a young evolutionary biologist. Gould frames it as something
of a mystery: what do a cranky and elderly revolutionist and a young
scientist would have anything in common. His answer is that Karl Marx
appeared as a much more benign figure before Stalinism, Pol Pot and all the
other terrible things that would besmirch his name. So a young
free-thinking natural scientist might have reached out to an elderly social
scientist in admiration, while Karl Marx, whose illnesses had made him
increasingly more cranky, welcomed the warmth and support of an intelligent
young man. I will only state that Gould's analysis leaves something to be
desired and urge you to look at John Bellamy Foster's writeup of their
relationship in "Marx's Ecology". Basically John sees an intellectual
affinity between the two, especially in light of Marx's life-long
commitment to study of the natural sciences in general and his embrace of
Darwin's theory in particular. Also, Lankester is far more of a progressive
than is indicated in Gould's essay.

However, my own interpretation of Gould's essay is that it is subtle
attempt to explain his own life-long attempt to blend a passion for science
and social justice. In effect, his own career was a synthesis of Marx and
Lankester.

The other book of note is "Rocks of Ages", which attempted to establish
some kind of truce between religion and science. This book came as a
complete surprise to many in light of Gould's willingness to be an expert
witness in cases involving local school administrations and "creationists"
suing to get their nonsense included in science curriculums. They saw him
as selling out to the bible-thumpers.

In fact, the book was seen as a subtle polemic against organized religion
in this Independent review. My only take on this is that Gould was closer
to Marx on this question than all the crude attempts to "expose" religion
on the part of the atheist left. Marx said that religion is the opiate of
the masses but that it was pointless to make war on it until the MATERIAL
CONDITIONS OF CAPITALIST LIFE were transformed.

Independent on Sunday (London), February 11, 2001, Sunday

FROM CHAOS TO LAST TRUMP;  DO RELIGION AND SCIENCE NEED TO BE AT WAR? NOT
ACCORDING TO STEPHEN JAY GOULD, FINDS MATTHEW J REISZ

Matthew J Reisz

Rocks of Ages

By Stephen Jay Gould

CAPE pounds 14.99

Science and religion, writes Stephen Jay Gould, "belly right up to each
other, and interdigitate in the most intimate and complex manner". Yet
there is no intrinsic conflict between them. Science (ideally) focuses on
factual questions like the descent of man from other species, or the causes
of mass extinctions. These are largely separable from values and issues of
morality - do we have a right to drive other species to extinction? - which
are expressed in most societies in religious terms. Mutual respect means
that religion and science should neither yearn for some mushy New Age
synthesis nor ignore each other completely but engage in serious, sometimes
heated, discussion and debate. This may seem a surprising ideal for a
Jewish agnostic inclining to atheism who has fought long and hard against
"creation science", but Gould develops it with his usual eloquence and
wealth of intriguing examples.

In general, he suggests, science and religion have coexisted fairly
happily. Since the 17th century, pious scientists have found ways to work
at their day jobs without worrying about theology. The Reverend Thomas
Burnet (1635-1715) viewed God as a skilled craftsman who set the universe
going once and for all (and not as a bodger who has to keep patching things
up with miracles). We need scripture to tell us about the Creation and the
Last Judgement. Everything in between is subject to natural law and can be
explained by science.

Historically, of course, there have been many turf wars as science has
encroached upon areas formerly determined by religious dogma, but Gould
believes that a reasonable accommodation is possible over time (and
presumably that religions can survive the many concessions this requires).

The genuine struggles over Darwinism unfortunately led to the notion of an
all -out war between science and religion - and the grossly simplistic
myths of Galileo and Columbus as knights of truth slaying the dragons of
benighted piety. The current Pope may have made an exemplary statement
about evolution, but what about the Creationists, whose battles for equal
time on the school curriculum were only squashed by the Supreme Court in
1987? Gould savages their attempts to promote "the legislatively mandated
teaching of palpable Nonsense", yet stresses they are hardly an indictment
of religion in general but specific to one particular brand of "mostly
Southern, rural, and poor" American Protestantism.

Oddly enough, however, the most famous confrontation - the celebrated
"monkey trial" of 1925 - also reveals something about illegitimate
scientific pretensions. The trial was largely engineered by William
Jennings Bryan, a populist politician and former Secretary of State who had
always embraced progressive causes. So why did he retreat into
fundamentalist obscurantism in old age? Because he believed that Darwinism
was allied to illiberal attitudes. And so it often has been, not only among
the German militarists of the time but even in the very biology textbook
which was at issue in Tennessee. It is now hard not to shudder as one reads
its supposedly scientific view of mental retardation or its bald statement
of Caucasian racial superiority.

It is fairly clear what it means for religions to respect science, but what
about the opposite? Both Darwin and his leading lieutenant Thomas Huxley
lost dearly loved children and firmly rejected traditional Christian
consolation while remaining at least polite about the broader religious
impulse. Yet it is impossible, as Gould admits, totally to separate factual
and ethical issues, if only because sensible moral codes have to deal with
people as they are. Knowledge of "the facts of mammalian sexuality", for
example, might set alarm bells ringing "if we decide to advocate
uncompromising monogamy as the only moral path for human society".

Today, however, many self- proclaimed Darwinians go much further and write
overheated books about the "naturalness" (or otherwise) of altruism, child
abuse, domestic violence, homosexuality, promiscuity, rape, sexual roles
and racial differences. Many draw explicit moral lessons or offer concrete
suggestions for public policy. It is clear from Gould's other works that he
regards most of this literature as pernicious rubbish and an arrogant
misuse of science (or pseudo-science). Here again, I think, such people
implicitly rank among his main targets - and this elegant plea for mutual
tolerance is really a disguised polemic.

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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