Category: .Gould, Stephen Jay

Grimm’s law

Speaking in Calcutta, during the infancy of the British raj in 1786, the philologist William Jones first noted impressive similarities between Sanskrit and the classical languages of Greece and Rome (an Indian king, or raja, matches rex, his Latin counterpart). Jones’s observation led to the recognition of a great Indo-European family of languages, now spread from the British Isles and Scandinavia to India, but clearly rooted in a single, ancient origin. Jones may have marked the basic similarity, but the brothers Grimm were among the first to codify regularities of change that underpin the diversification of the rootstock into its major subgroups (Romance languages, Germanic tongues, and so on). Grimm’s law … specifies the characteristic changes in consonants between Proto–Indo-European (as retained in Latin) and the Germanic languages. Thus, for example, Latin p’s become f ’s in Germanic cognates (voiceless stops become voiceless fricatives in the jargon). [32-3]

Gould’s view of Popperian falsification

Philosopher Karl Popper has argued for decades that the primary criterion of science is the falsifiability of its theories. We can never prove absolutely, but we can falsify. A set of ideas that cannot, in principle, be falsified is not science.

The entire creationist argument involves little more than a rhetorical attempt to falsify evolution by presenting supposed contradictions among its supporters. Their brand of creationism, they claim, is “scientific” because it follows the Popperian model in trying to demolish evolution. Yet Popper’s argument must apply in both directions. One does not become a scientist by the simple act of trying to falsify another scientific system; one has to present an alternative system that also meets Popper’s criterion—it too must be falsifiable in principle. [256]

An old tradition of scientific writing

Most “popular” writing in science simplifies concepts (usually trivializing them as well, if unintentionally) in the belief, often false, that understanding will thereby be enhanced. Perhaps, sometimes—but for me, the essay is then not worth writing. I will, of course, clarify language, mainly to remove the jargon that does impede public access. But I will not make concepts either more simple or more unambiguous than nature’s own complexity dictates. I intend my essays for professionals and lay readers alike—an old tradition, by the way, in scientific writing from Galileo to Darwin, though effectively lost today. I would not write these essays any differently if I intended them for my immediate colleagues alone. Thus, while I hope that you will appreciate my respect, our bargain may require from you more than the usual item of American journalism demands. [xiii-xiv]

No compromises in explaining science to the public

I deeply deplore the equation of popular writing with pap and distortion for two main reasons. First, such a designation imposes a crushing professional burden on scientists (particularly young scientists without tenure) who might like to try their hand at this expansive style. Second, it denigrates the intelligence of millions of Americans eager for intellectual stimulation without patronization. If we writers assume a crushing mean of mediocrity and incomprehension, then not only do we have contempt for our neighbors, but we also extinguish the light of excellence. The “perceptive and intelli­gent” layperson is no myth. … We must all pledge ourselves to recovering accessible science as an honorable intellec­tual tradition. The rules are simple: no compromises with conceptual richness; no bypassing of ambiguity or ignorance; removal of jargon, of course, but no dumbing down of ideas (any conceptual complexity can be conveyed in ordinary English). [11-12]

Gould on fact and theory

Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of in­creasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.

Moreover, “fact” does not mean “absolute certainty.” The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science, “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms. [254-5]

Gould on scientific objectivity

Darwin, who had such a keen understanding of fruitful procedure in science, knew in his guts that theory and obser­vation are Siamese twins, inextricably intertwined and continually interacting. One cannot perform first, while the other waits in the wings. In mid-career, in 1861, in a letter to Henry Fawcett, Darwin reflected on the false view of earlier geol­ogists. In so doing, he outlined his own conception of proper scientific procedure in the best one-liner ever penned. The last sentence is indelibly impressed on the portal to my psyche.

About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravelpit and count the pebbles and describe the colors. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!

The point should be obvious. Immanuel Kant, in a famous quip, said that concepts without percepts are empty, whereas percepts without concepts are blind. The world is so complex; why should we strive to comprehend with only half our tools. Let our minds play with ideas; let our senses gather information; and let the rich interaction proceed as it must (for the mind processes what the senses gather, while a disembodied brain, devoid of all external input, would be a sorry instrument indeed).

Yet scientists have a peculiar stake in emphasizing fact over theory, percept over concept—and Darwin wrote to Fawcett to counteract this odd but effective mythology. Scientists often strive for special status by claiming a unique form of “objectivity” inherent in a supposedly universal procedure called the scientific method. We attain this objectivity by clearing the mind of all preconception and then simply seeing, in a pure and unfettered way, what nature presents. This image may be beguiling, but the claim is chimerical, and ultimately haughty and divisive. For the myth of pure per­ception raises scientists to a pinnacle above all other struggling intellectuals, who must remain mired in constraints of culture and psyche.

But followers of the myth are ultimately hurt and limited, for the immense complexity of the world cannot be grasped or ordered without concepts. “All observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.” Objectivity is not an unobtainable emptying of mind, but a willingness to abandon a set of preferences—for or against some view, as Darwin said—when the world seems to work in a contrary way. [148-9]