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Science vs. the humanities in a shrugfest

  • Oct 7, 2012
Gould, while touching briefly on the more headline-grabbing battle between science and religion (which he has apparently tackled in full elsewhere), takes on the science vs. humanities here.  My suspicion is that the lack of crackling urgency the topic seems to have today is dependent on two key factors:

1).  Science has won!  We are all materialists, we are all reductionists; even if we are not all scientists, we see the fruit of science in the technology that dominates our lives today in so many ways--computing in the workplace, pervasive entertainment convergence technology in the home, mobile communications everywhere, once miraculous medical treatments and pharmaceuticals everyday.  We even recognize, whether or not explicitly as materialists, that the brain is at the very least a powerful machine driving the mind, which perhaps serves as its operating system which enables us to think, live, create, all those things under the umbrella of the humanities.

2).  To a large extent, the division is and has always been an academic one.  People living in the real world read, right, watch, admire, create live, in the humanities, while recognizing the value, impact, and reductionist/materialist rightness of science in its proper place.  We know the world "works", we need not know or even think about it that hard.  Perhaps we are too cavalier in our ignorance of the sciences, but a case could also be made that to the average non-thinking person, even the humanities are a distant land too seldom visited, so why the hub-bub?

Gould's point in this book, which based on these factors seems more dated than the 10 years since its publication, is that science is like the hedgehog, a ":simple-minded" creature in that its only method of self-defense is to curl into ball to surround its soft internal organs with its prickly covering.  On the other hand, humanities are like the "wily" fox, with many methods of defense or escape which he crafts to the occasion.  Gould calls for both approaches to action to resolve the dilemmas facing the sciences and the humanities, in other words, the world today.  He doesn't call for convergence on scientific materialism to resolve problems which is outside the "magisterium" (or realm) of science, such as questions of origin (although Gould reveals a strong bias by condemning Christians who believe the Biblical creation account), morals, ethics, politics , and religion.  Rather, he suggests that scientists use the fox's range of methods by becoming well-read and thinking holistically to approach problems that can not be simply addressed through materialism, and that humanists adopted the hedgehog's scientific method to resolve problems in its magisterium when those problems are really amenable to materialism.   He also calls for the wisdom to know when.

Gould uses the Magister's Pox of his title as a warning of the inability to solve this conflict by force--in this example the censorship (pox) attempted by the Catholic church to erase the nascent scientists names (not even their ideas, just their names) from a 17th century volume in Gould's personal library.  The effort, besides being wrong-minded, turns out to be impossible, in Gould's interesting example.  

So the battle may no longer be in full fight, but Gould's reminder still has an impact.

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Todd Stockslager ()
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I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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Though this final book is not the most accessible of Stephen Jay Gould's meditations on science and culture, it is a complex and revealing look at one of the late paleontologist's great passions: the unity of human endeavor. The titular hedgehog and fox refer to the classic dichotomy of persistence opposed to agility of thought, which Gould uses as a backbone in comparing, contrasting, and balancing science and the humanities. Unlike many scientists, he does not consider humanities (nor religion) to be inferior to his discipline. Drawing liberally from Renaissance and Scientific Revolution sources, Gould shows that the perceived differences in the two cultures are mostly false. Readers of E.O. Wilson'sConsiliencewill find many similarities here, though Gould emphatically rejects Wilson's conclusion that reductionism is an appropriate way to unite the two cultures and offers examples of when such an approach might fail.

If we discover that a majority of human cultures have favored infanticide under certain conditions, and that such a practice arose for good Darwinian reasons, shall we then claim that we have resolved the question of the rightness of such a practice with a "yea"?

This volume is presented by its editor almost unchanged from the manuscript Gould had finished shortly before his death. The result is a book with such unedited detail that its dense blend of history and philosophy is at times overwhelmingly difficult. Nevertheless, Gould's deeply held conviction that ...

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