Monday, August 4, 2008

Wonderful Life Part 1

Sandwalk: Science and Philosophy Book Club: <i>Wonderful Life</i>

Over at Sandwalk, Larry Moran announced a discussion forum on Gould's Wonderful Life. Too bad for me the group will meet in Ontario, which is a bit too far from South Coast, California to be practical. I'd have fun hearing other people's take.

In addition to the announcement, Larry posted critiques of the book written by Dennet and Dawkins, which I hadn't seen before. In part 1 of 2 posts, I'll make a brief statement about my own opinion of Wonderful Life. (Ahh the wonder of the internet, a vehicle so flexible as to provide a venue for an obscure evolutionary biology professor to comment on a 20 year-old book...). In part 2, I will respond to one specific sentence in Dawkins' critique of the book, that I found provocative. (...and comment on 20-year old comments on a 20-year old book).

Part 1. Wonderful Book?
Even though I tend to disagree with the main thesis (but that's exactly Gould's contrarian m.o., see link here and below), Wonderful Life is perhaps my favorite popular science book ever. I re-read this book before submitting my first grant five years ago (on ostracod phylogeny) - because Gould took the subject of arthropod anatomy, and weaved a fascinating and engaging tale, without sacrificing detail. I wanted to mimic this enthusiasm for biology in my own writing. I wanted to learn from his masterful performance, and to feel again the excitement of biology that he conveyed, and to try to relay that same excitement I feel for my own work. (The grant was funded by the way).

In addition to the amazing, other worldly, impossible animals vividly described - in a time before Science Channel computer graphics - I realize now that a huge part of the inherent interest of the book is that Gould told a story about people. It's about Walcott, constrained by dogma to shoehorn ancient animals into categories of the living. It's about Whittington, and Briggs and Conway-Morris toiling away to overturn dogma through detailed and exacting reconstructions based on the fossils. We also learn details about these characters as people, I especially remember Walcott. I remember his family, the legendary story of the Burgess shale discovery (and why it is probably false) and I remember the increasing sway that administration held for Walcott as his career advanced. Some of my favorite science books are told through the eyes of the scientists themselves: The Beak of the Finch and The Altruism Equation are two examples that come to mind.

Another positive for me is the sheer brazenness of the whole undertaking of Wonderful Life. Gould concocts the thesis that his own field of paleontology has just re-written the history of life, and has changed mankind's view of the place of humans in the universe. As Copernicus and astronomy displaced Earth (and therefore humans) from the center of the universe, a quiet revolution in paleontology was displacing humans from atop an iconographic ladder of progress, just by diligently yet passionately scratching away at some shale. I guess the non-confrontationist in me finds the thought of such audacity in self-aggrandizing story telling exhilarating.

I've argued here on Evolutionary Novelties before that this audacity allowed Gould to promote pluralism within the field of evolution by taking a stand that opposes much of the field. For Wonderful Life, the question of pluralism comes down to the idea of contingency versus determinism. If we "replay the tape" of life - could we predict the outcome?

(Here, I will indulge in a Gouldian tangent, an aside that ends up being longer than the main idea, and note that this theme of contingency versus determinism is fun to lecture about and students seem to like it. They've encountered the idea before in stories and movies like Bradbury's Sound of Thunder (read the short story, I don't recommend the movie), where a time traveler changes the present by accidentally stepping on a butterfly in the distant past. They know (I assume) that Marty McFly changed his life for the better when he traveled in time and accidentally induced his dad to stand up to Biff. They know the movie Minority Report (I asked the students this year if they know that one), where the pre-cogs can predict crimes, and people are arrested before they can commit them (most students don't know the Phillip K. Dick story the movie is based on though). Even romantic comedies have played with the idea, such as when Bill Murray's character experiences Groundhog Day over and over and over; when Drew Barrymore starts afresh every morning in 50 First Dates, while Adam Sandler tries to woo her over and over.)

In Part 2, I will address the provocative criticism written by Dawkins, and quoted on Sandwalk: "Gould expects us to be surprised. Why? The view that he is attacking—that evolution marches inexorably towards a pinnacle such as man—has not been believed for years. But his quixotic strawmandering, his shamless windmill-tilting, seem almost designed to encourage misunderstanding."

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