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Darwin-L Message Log 3:22 (November 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<3:22>From dpolicar@MIT.EDU  Tue Nov  2 22:39:30 1993

From: dpolicar@MIT.EDU
Date: Tue, 02 Nov 93 21:32:45 EST
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: sj gould's popular work

Hm. Unsure if this is at all helpful to you... I am only an interested
layman in this field. But here goes anyway...

> how receptive students are to his writings;

I picked up Gould on my own in high school and college and learned a
fair amount from him. Wasn't a substitute for biology or ethology
classes, both of which I took in college, but helped me make more out of
them. My first ethology class used his text, which I still remember --
and in fact, still own, which is rare for my college texts -- as being
clear and concise and well-written enough to be worth going through
independant of the class.

Collections of essays -- the Panda's Thumb, Ever Since Darwin -- were
pleasure reading. His background on Darwin provided some context for
reading Origin of Species. His emphasis on the historical and political
environment of scientific developments -- recapitulation vs. neotany,
vitalism vs. the preformed-human-in-sperm (I forget the official name),
etc. -- helped clarify what was at the time a very muddy understanding
that popular scientific theories have relationships not only to
experiments but also to politics and prevailing philosophies. And his
examples of "self-perpetuating textbook dogma" stay with me to this day.
There are probably other examples, if I were to dig around in my psyche
long enough.

Of course, all of this adds grist to the mill of a different question:

> whether students can separate Gould's scientific from his political
> conclusions;

I wouldn't call Gould political as much as philosophical, and from my
experience, I'd say probably not... and if one is going to try, it might
be better to read someone else in the first place. His popular writing,
as I recall it, tends to use science in a largely metaphorical mode to
make points about history and bias and suchlike... as evidenced by the
fact that what stays with me over the years is those points, and not the
biology or the paleontology itself. (Though I probably learned a few
things along the way there, too.) 'Course, this may say more about me
than Gould. A big part of my worldview construction in college and
afterward involved trying to reconcile what appealed to me about SJGould
and EOWilson; this had ultimately little to do with biology or ethology
or sociobiology and a lot to do with philosophy.

So anyway, my two cents... use or ignore.

--dave policar
  dpolicar@mit.edu

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