Gould: The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox

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Stephen Jay Gould, The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox : Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities. New York : Harmony Books, 2003. 274 pages.

Stephen Jay Gould, who died in 2002, was a paleontologist and a noted voice speaking on behalf of Darwinian evolution. He also had a justifiable reputation as a readable and eloquent popularizer of science, a reputation based on a series of books that collected the monthly columns he wrote for Natural History magazine for 25 years, including Ever Since Darwin, Bully for Brontosaurus, and The Panda's Thumb.

This book, which takes the alleged war between science and the humanities as its topic, gives the impression that it must have been written by pod people who took over Gould's body. His usual grace and wit are nowhere to be found, the style is excruciating, and the narrative cohesion is nonexistent. The text is so peppered with interjections, asides, parentheses, glosses, and erudite circumlocutions that it is virtually unreadable.

I can't blame the difficulty on the loftiness of the subject, which comes through clearly enough when the author's prose gets out of the way for a bit. However, whether there is even a war in progress is called into question by the unusual array of straw men that Gould erects and then barely manages to shoot down.

Just where the difficulty is with the writing it's hard to say. Perhaps loosening the size constraints imposed by a magazine column is at fault, resulting in sentences and paragraphs that out-Victorian the most Victorian of convoluted writing. Regardless, the text needed a much, much heavier hand with the editing than it received.

It's rare that I choose not to finish a book that I've started; I finally gave up on this one about halfway through. Time is short and my stack of far more interesting and enlightening books grows large. Although I've enjoyed Gould's collections of essays, I can't recommend wasting any time with this book.

The following lengthy quotation illustrates Gould's tortured style and unironically supports his contention that some scientists can't write with any felicity whatsoever:

Humanists, for my second point, rightly stress the virtues and felicities of stylistic writing, not as a mere frill or foppish attribute, but as a primary aid to attention and understanding. Scientists, on the other hand, and as a virtual badge of membership for admission to our professional club, tend to assert that although brevity and clarity should certainly be fostered, the nurturing of verbal style, as an issue of form rather than substance, plays no role in the study of material reality.

In fact, this explicit denial of importance to modes of communication has, unfortunately, engendered a more than merely mild form of philistinism among many scientists who not only view verbal skills as unimportant, but actually discount any fortuitous stylistic acumen among their colleagues as an irrelevant snare, casting suspicion upon the writer's capacity for objectivity in presenting the data of nature. In an almost perverse manner, inarticulateness almost becomes a virtue as a collateral sign of proper attention to nature's raw empirics versus distilled human presentation thereof. (And yet, to cite a pair of ironies, proving that the best scientists have always understood the value of both assiduous data gathering and elegant communication, John Ray composed even his denial of the importance of good writing – see the quotation on page 47 – in his characteristically prose. And the famous motto "Le style c'est l'homme même" (style makes the man) did not emanate from a leader among the literati, but from the finest naturalist of eighteenth-century France, and a great writer as well – Georges Leclerc Buffon, whose forty-four-volume Histoire naturelle, equally admired for both style and content, became the first great encyclopedia of modern approaches to the study of nature. [ ) sic].

Because we have cut ourselves off from scholars in the humanities who pay closer attention to modes of communication, we have spun our own self-referential wheels and developed artificial standards and rules of writing that virtually guarantee the unreadability of scientific articles outside the clubhouse. Some of our conventions might also be called ludicrous in their utter failure to achieve a stated end, and in the guaranteed clunkiness of style thus engendered by rules that any good writer would immediately recognize as crippling. In my favorite example, scientists have trained themselves in the most unfelicitous of all English modes: the unrelenting passive voice. If you ask scientists for a rationale, they will reply with the two standard defenses: economy of presentation and objectivity of statement. Neither, in fact, makes any sense. Sentences in the passive voice tend to be longer than the corresponding active statement, while immodesty and personal glorification can proceed just as readily without the dreaded "I." Which of the following do you prefer for brevity, modesty, and just plain felicity: "The discovery that was made was no doubt the most significant of our times"; or "I have discovered a procedure to solve the persistent problem..."?

Sometimes, at least, our unquestioned dedication to such literary barbarisms can yield some humor to lighten a tough day at the office. I once, for example, blue-penciled the following comment from the dissertation of an earnest graduate student, committed to following the rules and joining the club, but untutored in the fundamentals of English prose. He wished to make the important point that his elaborate measurements of human skulls required more than a morning's work, and that he had to insert a break between the two halves of his protocol. He wrote, "The room was then left for lunch" – and I could only imagine the office furniture grabbing a quick roast beef sandwich when the human occupants took a break at midday. [pp. 132-133]

-- Notes by JNS

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