Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin

Overview

Few would question the truism that humankind is the crowning achievement of evolution; that the defining thrust of life's history yields progress over time from the primitive and simple to the more advanced and complex; that the disappearance of .400 hitting in baseball is a fact to be bemoaned; or that identifying an existing trend can be helpful in making important life decisions. Few, that is, except Stephen Jay Gould who, in his new book Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, proves that ...
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FULL HOUSE

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Overview

Few would question the truism that humankind is the crowning achievement of evolution; that the defining thrust of life's history yields progress over time from the primitive and simple to the more advanced and complex; that the disappearance of .400 hitting in baseball is a fact to be bemoaned; or that identifying an existing trend can be helpful in making important life decisions. Few, that is, except Stephen Jay Gould who, in his new book Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, proves that all of these intuitive truths are, in fact, wrong.

"All of these mistaken beliefs arise out of the same analytical flaw in our reasoning, our Platonic tendency to reduce a broad spectrum to a single, pinpointed essence," says Gould. "This way of thinking allows us to confirm our most ingrained biases that humans are the supreme being on this planet; that all things are inherently driven to become more complex; and that almost any subject can be expressed and understood in terms of an average."

In Full House, Gould shows why a more accurate way of understanding our world (and the history of life) is to look at a given subject within its own context, to see it as a part of a spectrum of variation rather than as an isolated "thing" and then to reconceptualize trends as expansion or contraction of this "full house" of variation, and not as the progress or degeneration of an average value, or single thing. When approached in such a way, the disappearance of .400 hitting becomes a cause for celebration, signaling not a decline in greatness but instead an improvement in the overall level of play in baseball; trends become subject to suspicion, and too often, only a tool of those seeking to advance a particular agenda; and the "Age of Man" (a claim rooted in hubris, not in fact) more accurately becomes the "Age of Bacteria."

"The traditional mode of thinking has led us to draw many conclusions that don't make satisfying sense," says Gould. "It tells us that .400 hitting has disappeared because batters have gotten worse, but how can that be true when record performances have improved in almost any athletic activity?" In a personal eureka!, Gould realized that we were looking at the picture backward, and that a simple conceptual inversion would resolve a number of the paradoxes of the conventional view.

While Full House deftly reveals the shortcomings of the popular reasoning we apply to everyday life situations, Gould also explores his beloved realm of natural history as well. Whether debunking the myth of the successful evolution of the horse (he grants that the story still deserves distinction, but as the icon of evolutionary failure); presenting evidence that the vaunted "progress of life" is really random motion away from simple beginnings, not directed impetus toward complexity; or relegating the kingdoms of Animalai and Plantae to their proper positions on the genealogical chart for all of life (as mere twigs on one of the three bushes), Full House asks nothing less than that we reconceptualize our view of life in a fundamental way.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post Book World

Bacteria and baseball. Few authors besides Stephen Jay Gould could write convincingly about both...Wandering about [Full House's] well-decorated rooms, nooks, and attics is a pleasure left to the reader.
— John Allen Paulos

Washington Post Book World - John Allen Paulos
Bacteria and baseball. Few authors besides Stephen Jay Gould could write convincingly about both...Wandering about [Full House's] well-decorated rooms, nooks, and attics is a pleasure left to the reader.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A veteran intellectual daredevil, Gould (Dinosaur in a Haystack) climbs further out on a thought-limb than ever before in this paradigm-shattering book. "I am asking my readers," he proclaims, "finally and truly to cash out the deepest meanings of the Darwinian revolution and to view natural reality as composed of varying individuals in populations." The implications of this view are enormous. The most cherished idea Gould challenges is that progress is characteristic of the history of life. In so doing, he undercuts a premise fundamental not only to most religious systems but also to the ideas of many evolutionists (he goes after E.O. Wilson here as vigorously as he does M. Scott Peck). Rather than encompassing a progression from simplicity toward complexity, evolution, says Gould, simply embraces a "full house" of a variety of organisms. Humanity is not a pinnacle of evolution, but an "utterly unpredictable, partly random, and entirely contingent" blip in a distribution pattern. Though Gould relies on much statistical evidence and analysis, he knows how to sugar the pill; for instance, by applying his reasoning to a lengthy, fascinating discussion of the increased rarity of the .400 hitter in baseball. Gould's thinking is solid, but careful readers will note that it is based on fundamental assumptions, including that biological mutation drives evolution, and that matter is primary to mind. The second assumption has received forceful scientific challenge in this century, particularly from quantum physicists. Still, Gould elegantly lays down a gauntlet here, and readers should rush to witness the first thrust in what may become a royal scientific duel. Author tour. (Sept.)
Library Journal
In his first single-subject book of original writing since Wonderful Life (LJ 9/1/89), Harvard paleontologist Gould examines trends in natural variation throughout organic evolution, thereby discrediting the abstract ideas of eternal forms, fixed essences, and intrinsic progress. His insightful study even applies to sports systems, accounting for the apparent extinction of .400 hitting in baseball. In light of fossil evidence and overwhelming biodiversity, he concludes that there is no linear pattern or ultimate design to evolution. Instead, life is a spreading web or a branching bush; variation, rather than progression, is nature's expression of excellence. Consequently, our species is not the inevitable end-goal of evolution. It remains for Gould to consider in his next book the ethical and theological implications of his nonprogressive and naturalistic world view. (Are bacteria really as important as human beings?) Gould's book is rather a dense read for the average patron, but his ideas are important. Recommended for all academic and public library science collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/96.]H. James Birx, Canisius Coll., Buffalo, N.Y.
Kirkus Reviews
Now hear this: Evolution is not progressive. We (humans) are not the be-all and end-all of nature's plan. You've heard these lines before: They are quintessentially Gould.

In this short volume Gould (Dinosaur in a Haystack, 1995, etc.) elaborates on this theme. Among the examples he advances is one that should prove dear to the hearts of baseball fans: Why, Gould asks, are there no .400 hitters anymore? The answer requires looking not at batting but at how the game of baseball has varied over time. There has been a general improvement in play so that the normal curve of batting averages no longer has a tail trailing off to the right where the few .400 stars were to be found. Instead, in Gould's phrase, we have hit a right wall—a boundary reflecting the limits of human performance. A second, longer, and more complex example deals with evolutionary data. If we eliminated human hubris, we would see that it is bacteria that were in the beginning, are now, and ever will be the most populous and successful kingdom—virtually at the left wall boundary in terms of minimally complex organisms capable of life. Over time, there was nothing else for life to do but to expand to the right. However, using fossil records, Gould demonstrates that there was no directionality: Descendants didn't always get more complex—they could just as easily revert to less complex forms. What befuddles the issue is the matter of cultural "evolution"—a word Gould would strike in favor of the word "change." Cultural inventions (including reading and writing) have enabled great leaps of technical "progress" in nanoseconds of time, reckoned by evolutionary standards. As a species, however, we remain an anomalous tail in the full house of life on earth. So we should accept our place with becoming humility.

Gould fans will be charmed at the cogency and cleverness of his arguments—but expect a wall of opposition from pious and diehard progressivists.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674061613
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2011
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 589,362
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Jay Jay Gould
Stephen Jay Gould was the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard University and Vincent Astor Visiting Professor of Biology at New York University. A MacArthur Prize Fellow, he received innumerable honors and awards and wrote many books, including Ontogeny and Phylogeny and Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (both from Harvard).

Biography

Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould was arguably the leading science writer for the contemporary literate popular audience. His explications of evolutionary theory and the history of science are peppered with oddball cultural and historical references, from Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak to Catherine the Great's middle name. But Gould insisted that his work wasn't dumbed-down for nonscientists.

"I sort of operate at one end of what's called popular science," he told a Salon interviewer. "Not because I don't appreciate the other end, I just wouldn't do it well, somehow. But the end I operate on really doesn't sacrifice any complexity -- except complexity of language, of course, complexity of jargon. But I like to think that my stuff is as conceptually complex as I would know how to write it for professional audiences."

In 1972, Gould and fellow paleontologist Niles Eldredge shook up the field of evolutionary theory with their idea of "punctuated equilibrium," which suggests that the evolution of a species is not gradual and continual, but marked by long periods of stasis and brief bursts of change. Over the next several decades, Gould would continue to develop his critique of evolutionary theory, questioning assumptions about evolutionary progress and provoking debates with the likes of evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, philosopher Daniel Dennett and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

From early on in his career, Gould was interested in reviving the scientific essay, in the tradition of Galileo and Darwin. Gould began writing a series of monthly essays for Natural History, the magazine of the American Museum of Natural History. Published as "This View of Life," the well-received essays addressed a broad range of topics in the biological and geological sciences. In his essays, Gould not only explained scientific facts for the lay reader, he critiqued the shortcomings of certain scientific viewpoints and the cultural biases of particular scientists.

Armed with a historical view of evolutionary theory, he tackled the problem of human intelligence testing in The Mismeasure of Man (1981). The book won a National Book Critics' Circle Award, while a collection of essays, The Panda's Thumb (1980), won the American Book Award. Together the books established Gould's presence as one of the country's most prominent science writers.

Gould's popularity continued to widen with the publication of such unlikely bestsellers as Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989), which challenged the notion that humans are the necessary endpoint of evolutionary history. "Not only does [Gould] always find something worth saying, he finds some of the most original ways of saying it," The New York Times said in its review of Bully for Brontosaurus (1993), another collection of essays.

In 1998, Gould was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and his description of that office could apply to his whole life's work. He pledged to "make people less scared of science so they won't see it as arcane, monolithic, and distant, but as something that is important to their lives." Stephen Jay Gould died in May of 2002 of cancer.

Good To Know

In a Mother Jones interview, Gould mentioned that he was teased as a child for his fascination with paleontology. The other kids called him "fossil face." Gould added, "The only time I ever got beat up was when I admitted to being a Yankee fan in Brooklyn. That was kind of dumb."

Gould was diagnosed in 1982 with abdominal mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer. In one of his most famous essays, "The Median Isn't the Message," he explained how statistics are often misinterpreted by nonscientists, and why the grim statistics on his own disease -- with a median mortality of eight months, at that time -- didn't deter him from believing he would live for many more years. "[D]eath is the ultimate enemy -- and I find nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light," he wrote. He died in May 2002 -- 20 years after his diagnosis.

Gould made a guest appearance as himself on The Simpsons in 1997, participating in a town debate over the authenticity of an "angel skeleton" found in Springfield.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Stephen Jay Gould
    1. Date of Birth:
      September 10, 1941
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Death:
      May 20, 2002
    2. Place of Death:
      Boston, Massachusetts

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 11, 2000

    A great read

    Having read many of Gould's other books, I have found this one is among the best. He explains mathematical and biological principles to disprove the idea that as one evolves, one does not get more complex. I recommend this book if you are interested in population studies, evolution, or statistics. This is a great book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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