Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwinby Stephen Jay Gould
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.
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 walla 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 kingdomvirtually 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 complexthey 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 argumentsbut expect a wall of opposition from pious and diehard progressivists.
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
- Crown Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.00(w) x 8.99(h) x 0.80(d)
Meet the Author
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).
- Date of Birth:
- September 10, 1941
- Date of Death:
- May 20, 2002
- Place of Birth:
- New York, New York
- Place of Death:
- Boston, Massachusetts
- B.S., Antioch College, 1963; Ph.D., Columbia University, 1967
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