Gould's last book: science wedded to art

April 13, 2003|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox, by Stephen Jay Gould. Harmony Books. 288 pages. $25.95.

Stephen Jay Gould's 22nd -- and last -- book is an intellectual riff on the rift between science and the humanities, completed last May shortly before the Harvard evolutionary biologist succumbed to cancer at the age of 60.

It's a fairly scholarly subject for a work aimed at the nonacademic masses, many of whom probably didn't even know the sciences and humanities had had a falling out. But while these two great approaches to knowledge have staked out opposite ends of campus for centuries, they actually have shared roots.

Gould begins his idiosyncratic study in the 17th century at the start of the Scientific Revolution, a time when radical scholars like Galileo and Newton first espoused the notion that careful observation and experimentation was the best way to understand the inner workings of nature.

The strategy became the foundation of modern science, but ran counter to the prevailing view of how best to augment the storehouse of human knowledge. Most Renaissance scholars professed that everything worth knowing had already been discovered long ago by ancient Greeks and Romans but had been lost or forgotten. Their task, as they saw it, was to recover and publish this lost wisdom.

Readers drawn in by the book's catchy title may be caught off guard by Gould's extravagant prose and exquisitely nuanced arguments. It's not uncommon to find yourself scratching your head, swearing and occasionally snoozing as you try to follow along with a man widely considered to be one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century.

As his fans know, one puts up with Gould's excesses because of the fascinating and unpredictable nuggets of scholarship that bubble up from his seemingly bottomless brain. And this book is no exception.

Some of the more engaging detours, for example, concern the puzzle of why Edgar Allan Poe wrote a textbook on conchology, the study of shells, a subject in which the writer had never had an expressed interest.

Another is the story of how the mostly forgotten 19th-century American painter Abbott Handerson Thayer discovered fundamental concepts about camouflage in the animal kingdom, ideas that would ultimately aid the American and British militaries during both world wars.

In addition to providing some relief from the abstract arguments that dominate much of the book, the stories also illustrate that science and humanistic pursuits such as art and literature are never far removed and can complement one another, one of Gould's major themes.

Part of the problem with this book, however, is that it's only a first draft. Gould, known to be a relentless reviser, died before he could tune it. Out of respect for the scientist, Harmony Books compounded the problem by making the unfortunate decision "to allow his last book to pass from his hands to the reader's hands with only copyediting changes."

If ever there was a place where the rift between science and the humanities is obvious, it is here. Gould's nuanced arguments are often lost in the gumbo of his dense prose. Some passages, meanwhile, are simply fathomless. Gould's last book is probably not his best.

Michael Stroh has covered technology issues for four years, the last two and a half for The Sun, for which he covered the Microsoft trial. He previously worked at The Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times.

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