Science, Art, and Religion Are Friends: A Review Revisited
Today is a cheat day. In the interest of producing more content, I’ve been toying with revisiting things I’ve written for school over the last 15 years. I’m posting this book review dated October 17, 2005 because I intend to look again at one the essays discussed below. The conflict between science and religion, as well as between science and art, are perennial concerns and prime examples of false dilemma. Stephen J. Gould was a rare popular and respected scientist who understood the connections between these apparently disparate fields.
I’m posting my original essay with no revision but for changing double-spacing to single-spacing after periods and adding quotation marks around a chapter title. Since I claim to be able to help clients improve their writing, it might be interesting to demonstrate how my own writing has developed over time. I am still proud of this essay, but I can’t but be dismayed by the choppy sentence structure, missing hyphens, repetitive phrasing, abrupt conclusion, and the misspelling of Gould’s first name! My next post will be a review of just the article on the dating of Earth’s creation, so there will be something to directly compare with.
Book Review: Eight Little Piggies, by Steven J. Gould
Steven J. Gould makes the world of evolution accessible and personal in his Eight Little Piggies. In this collection Gould illuminates the workings of evolution in animal biology in short essays that capture the imagination. The essays are more than just technical descriptions of the matter in question. They are told almost like stories, complete with anecdotes, drama and humour. It is typical of the essays to do more than describe some obscure biological point. Some are poignant comments on the state of our world and some are enjoyable for highlighting the beauty of the natural world, a beauty highlighted all the more through constant comparison and reference to the arts. Even the driest of essays, (a discussion of the evolution of inner ear bones from jaw bones) is worth the read if only for the short, punny poem at its end.
One element that lends particular interest to the essays is the insightful and oftentimes surprising exploration of human nature and history. Given that the subjects of Gould’s works are evolution and paleontology, forays into humanity are all the more appreciated. In several places, Gould states that humanity is doomed to eventual extinction and we should not think of ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution. Yet, despite this seemingly fatalistic view, Gould’s essays show as much interest in the human spirit as any of the great works of literature. “What the hell! Two bucks on Homo Sap to win – at least for a little while,” quips Gould after an explanation of how luck factors into the survival of species. Human life and culture are very important to Gould and it shows in his work. In “Mozart and Modularity”, Gould uses an article written by Daines Barrington about the nature of Mozart’s genius to illustrate a principle of evolution. Barrington describes a meeting with Mozart, who though a musical genius at the young age of eight, still had the emotional makeup and interests of a child. Gould uses the anecdote about Mozart as a jumping off point to refute an argument, given by Georges Couvier in 1812, that evolution can only occur by a change of a single part of a whole. Rather, all new changes would have to occur simultaneously and optimally in all parts in order to for evolution to work, thus evolution is practically impossible as there is a near zero chance that all the necessary changes could be made at once. But, just as Mozart’s musical genius did not translate to other aspects of his personality, so too can small evolutionary changes in an organism occur without total integration into the entire being. Most remarkably, Gould ends the essay by stating that Barrington’s piece on Mozart might be considered as both a work of science and art and that “our intellectual life would benefit by more integration.”
The sentiment that art and science are complementary, not contrary, is a theme that repeats itself throughout these essays. Whether it is Mozart, Coleridge or Darwin’s way with words, Gould constantly and consistently draws from artistic examples to introduce his points and lend interest to the subject at hand. Even religion is discussed in connection with the science of evolution, or rather, the evolution of evolutionary science. Gould spends an essay defending the methods of James Ussher, the man famous for fixing the date of creation at October 23, 4004 B.C. at noon. Though the essay obviously does not support that conclusion, it does support the methods used by Ussher; a strict adherence to the known science of the time and by consulting a variety of biblical sources. Gould criticizes the tendency of modern scientists to dismiss out of hand the outdated and disproven works of older authors. Since the studies of Paleontology and evolution are concerned more or less with the history of the earth, Gould argues that Ussher, and by extension creationists, are really seeking that same goal of uncovering the details of that history. Instead of dismissing Ussher’s work, Gould says we should be appreciating the natural curiosity about our world that continues to drive humanity to discovery.
Of course, art, religion and human history are not the real focus of Gould’s essays. Though they do offer insight into these matters and sometimes tell us about the people involved, the essays are about evolution. Each essay deals with a single topic which is usually one example of the way evolution works. At times, the material is a little dense and requires some prior understanding of evolution and geology. But overall, the essays are rewarding for their insights. Not all readers will be interested in whether the two-barred or the checkered pigeon evolved first, nor is, as Gould says, the average person aware of the existence, let alone the implications of the discovery of particular fossils. However, by relating these scientific facts and findings to ideas about human history and development, the essays are made much more interesting and accessible. Gould is able to extend his understanding of humanity to the animal world as well. In the first group of essays, Gould talks about how extinctions happen by using various documented examples. Whether the cause is human intervention or natural, Gould makes the case personal and emotional. People are willing to sympathize with the fate of some of the cuter or more majestic animals, such as giant pandas and Galapagos tortoises. But it is characteristic of Gould’s writing style to make the reader feel sympathy for the extinction of an almost unheard of species of limpet. Such is the power of his writing style. The title of the book is itself a testament to Gould’s lighthearted style. Eight Little Piggies refers to an essay where Gould dispels the misconception that five digits on each hand/foot is the base number throughout evolutionary time.
Overall, this collection of essays is an enjoyable and engaging read. Since the essays are grouped by general themes, it is not necessary to read them order. Each is self contained, with little reference to other material. Anyone who is interested in evolution, the animal world or paleontology should find these essays well worth the read.