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On Gould’s History

February 2, 2008

Razib has posted his thoughts on Chapter 4 of Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory and ends with:

I suspect that defenders of this reputedly brilliant work will claim the long build up cashes out in a stupendous climax which will leave me aghast at its audacity. We shall see, but after 341 pages, 1/4 of the narration, I’ve been treated to a nearly useless prologue and passable if self-indulgent history of science.

This reminds me of one of the paradoxes about Gould. Among historians (and the public) he was believed to represent mainstream science, a belief not shared by many scientists. Among scientists (and the public) he was believed to represent mainstream history of science, a belief not shared by practicing historians.

  1. February 2, 2008 at 4:30 pm

    Michael Shermer has an interesting if a bit hagiographic article on Gould for which he wrote to a number of biologists and historians of biology and asked for their opinions about Gould’s influence. I think it’s in Science Friction, though I don’t remember where it was originally published. In any case, Ron Numbers wrote back that he viewed Gould as the second most influential historian of science, after Kuhn. It’d be interesting to have a deeper sense of other historians views, though.

  2. John Lynch
    February 2, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    The Shermer piece was in Social Studies of Science, if I remember correctly. Frankly, I think Numbers is mistaken if we’re talking about influence among historians. Like Kuhn, Gould has had great influence but more on the public than on the profession. Gould’s historical work is rarely cited by historians, as far as I can tell, and certainly less so that, say, Peter Bowler or Martin Rudwick.

  3. February 2, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    Well, is it interesting that many of us have had our copies of Theory for how long? Years? and other than looking up the occasional item are only now reading it, inspired by our collective conversation rather than the prospect of what the book actually says?
    Or did the book just go on sale or something…

  4. February 2, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    and other than looking up the occasional item are only now reading it, inspired by our collective conversation rather than the prospect of what the book actually says?
    to talk to xtians you are advised to read the bible. to talk to someone of other political camp you are advised to know their canonical works. if i read gould’s magnum opus i expect to never be told to read gould by bora or larry moran again.

  5. Umkomasia
    February 2, 2008 at 6:32 pm

    You’re still debating the issue years after his death. I think that says it all.

  6. John Lynch
    February 2, 2008 at 6:55 pm

    @ Umkomasia
    If you mean debating his status as an historian among historians, I don’t think there is any debate – he’s not a major player. If you mean as an “public” historian/intellectual, then there is also no a debate – he was a major player.

  7. February 3, 2008 at 12:43 am

    Gould’s historical account in Structure is definitely self-serving (and if I remember correctly he essentially says as much), but I have actually appreciated the connections made between Paley, Cuvier, and Darwin on the “funtionalist side” and Goethe, Geoffrey, and Owen on the “formalist side.” I know Bowler and Rudwick are generally more respected amongst historians, but could you point me to any critiques of Gould’s historical work? This isn’t a “dare” or challenge because I enjoy Gould’s writing, but rather I’d like to know more specifics about what issues historians might have with what he has written. If anything I think Gould’s done much to dispel a number of oft-repeated myths that have shown up in popular literature/textbooks (i.e. the example of the giraffe’s neck and Lamarckism, the “lying stones” of Beringer, the contrast between uniformitarianism and catastrophism, etc.), but if professional historians have taken issue with Gould’s explanations I’d definitely like to know more about it.

  8. February 3, 2008 at 4:23 am

    I am a practicing historian of science, albeit the mathematical and not the biological sciences, and a fan of Gould’s popular writings. I would certainly never consider Gould as a historian of science and have never seen him referenced as such by historians of science. The Numbers’ quote is interesting for a different reason; although his impact was immense Kuhn was actually not a very good historian of science. His book on the Copernicus Revolution is seriously inaccurate on several major historical points, exactly those points that he needs to support his erroneous theory of scientific revolutions.

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