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Stephen Jay Gould and the Politics of Evolution

By: David F Prindle

249 pages, no illustrations

Prometheus Books

Hardback | Jun 2009 | #181868 | ISBN-13: 9781591027188
Availability: Usually dispatched within 5 days Details
NHBS Price: £21.95 $29/€25 approx

About this book

Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould was, until his death in 2002, America's best-known natural scientist. His monthly essays in "Natural History" magazine were widely read by both scientists and ordinary citizens with an interest in science. One of his books won the National Book Award, and another was a best-seller in three countries. Philosopher Daniel Dennett proclaimed him 'America's evolutionist laureate'. While many people have written about Gould's science, pro and con, and a few have written about his politics, this is the first book to explore his science and politics as a consistent whole.

Political scientist David F. Prindle argues that Gould's mind worked along two tracks simultaneously - the scientific and the political. All of his concepts and arguments were bona fide contributions to science, but all of them also contained specifically political implications. As one example among many, Prindle cites Gould's controversial argument that if the 'tape of evolution' could be rewound and then allowed to unspool again, nothing resembling human beings would likely evolve. This was part of his larger thesis that people are not the result of a natural tendency toward perfection in evolution, but the result of chance, or as Gould put it, contingency. As Prindle notes, Gould's scientific ideas often sought to attack human hubris, and thus prepare the ground for the political argument that people should treat nature with more restraint. Prindle evaluates Gould's concepts of punctuated equilibrium (developed with Niles Eldredge), 'spandrels', and 'exaptation'; his stance on sociobiology, on human inequality and intelligence testing; his pivotal role in the culture wars between science and fundamentalist Christianity; and, claims that he was a closet Marxist, which Prindle disputes. He continually emphasises that in all these debates Gould's science cannot be understood without an understanding of his politics. He concludes by considering whether Gould offered a new theory of evolution.

Genius, Marxist, sage, ideologue: the legacy of Stephen Jay Gould is nothing if not controversial. David F. Prindle, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, provides an absorbing account of the biologist's scientific work, viewed through the lens of his explicitly political writing. Aided by the intrinsic charm of Gould's public persona, Prindle brings an otherwise dry textual analysis to life. Besides providing a deeper understanding of the concepts that propelled Gould to the forefront of his field, he puts the Kuhnian question underpinning that work into stark relief: not whether science should be isolated from the politics of the time and place in which it is created, but whether such a thing is possible. -- Seed, Seed Picks, April 2009 "A welcome addition to our understanding of late 20th-century evolutionary science, of which we know little, and a provocative introduction to a major figure." -- Science, November 6, 2009

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