An Urchin in the Storm: Essays about Books and Ideas

An Urchin in the Storm: Essays about Books and Ideas

by Stephen Jay Gould

Ranging as far as the fox and as deep as the hedgehog (the urchin of his title), Stephen Jay Gould expands on geology, biological determinism, "cardboard Darwinism," and evolutionary theory in this sparkling collection.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Science
  • Rating: 3.85
  • Pages: 256
  • Publish Date: October 17th 1988 by W. W. Norton Company
  • Isbn10: 0393305376
  • Isbn13: 9780393305371

Read the Book "An Urchin in the Storm: Essays about Books and Ideas" Online

Some are more informative than many books are too this isnt going to be one of those reviews. There are any number of people on this site who write wonderful book reviews on books I would no more dream of reading than flying to the moon. Not because they say awful things about the books in their reviews, necessarily but rather because Im just never likely to get the time to read those books. That there are people I can rely on to read them for me and to give me enough information about them to be getting on with is one of the many things I really do love about this site. Admittedly, I am unlikely to read any of the books he reviews here even the ones that he raves about. Another book Ive read recently discusses the evolution of the eye. This would be somewhat costly for an animal and so no creatures larger than insects have developed that have compound eyes. As he points out, if one was the design some of the features animals have, it would not be hard to offer much better solutions, that is, if one could start with a blank sheet of paper and thats his point. I enjoyed this book, perhaps not as much as I have previously enjoyed his essays, but these reviews still make for interesting reading all the same.

From 19th-century attempts to find anatomical evidence of hierarchies of race and gender (which merits full and detailed examination in Gould's The Mismeasure of Man) to Carleton Coon's theory of separate human origins, Robert Ardrey's distortions of Australopithecus discoveries, and William Shockley's scaled "racial ratios of IQ," Gould is a kind of flawless GPS to orient the public in the foreign lands of scientific claims. The first two sections of the book discuss the "irreducibility of history" and contingency; one strain of argument stresses structuralist and historicist alternatives to what Gould calls "the mistaken functionalist paradigm of adaptation that still 1987 shapes Darwinian theory." His answer to the problems of social images of popular evolutionary teleology is to show how unique and unrepeatable each historic epoch and change has been; i.e., that the path of history was not laid out beforehand as a kind of inevitable "stairway to the stars," if we take the Victorian British Empire to be the major constellation in those stars, or even our illustrious selves. The third section deals explicitly and directly with the social, political and intellectual ramifications of biological determinism, with essays entitled "Genes on the Brain," "Jensen's Last Stand," and "Nurturing Nature." The books reviewed are Promethean Fire (by Charles L. Throughout, the book is Gould's plea for rationalism, lamenting "the perilous slide from our current ignorance into a glorification of the nonrational." A recurring target here, as will be true in much of his writing to come over the next dozen years, is "NeoDarwinism," an image or interpretation of Darwinian natural selection that posits a history of "progress" and "teleology," viewing the evolution of humans as if it were the only path, or even a major one, and then calls that path "progress" from lower to higher, from formlessness to complexity. He gives special attention to dissecting the spurious rise of the idea of a "well-known 80-20 split" between the influences of nature (inherited and ineradicable and unavoidable genetics) and nurture (education and environment)a mythical belief that is pretty well laid to firm and not-so-gentle rest as one of many fallacies of "hereditarian" arguments for the source of complex human social behaviors. Gould deplores the continued implicit dependence on such debunked data of, for instance, the fraudulent claims of Sir Cyril Burt with which racialist "scientists" like Arthur Jensen and others pad their claims with "It has been shown..." and "Studies have revealed..." He explicitly praises the book Not in our Genes for going beyond the debunking of determinist claims--e.g., about IQ and various artificial measurements for determining social value and hierarchical placement--and attempting a useful model of the actual, and intricate, interactions of culture and biology.

Gould touches on some common themessuch as racist strains within science (notably a critique of "The Bell Curve" by Jensen) and incisive analysis of sociobiology and human evolutionand, because of his stubborn (and thus consistent point of view), it even reads more like a book instead of a collection. I saw many pictures, read many papers, and had many discussions about Hutchinson with Dr. Lehman and it was a delight to read Gould's thoughts about him.

I just didn't enjoy it as much as the other two of his books I've read. Halfway through, I was even considering removing this from my bookshelf...and then I read the last three essays-- Keeping it. We're especially motivated to transplant a gene to make corn plants resistant to the herbicide Round-Up. And when we do, we learn again and again-- we don't know what we're doing We end up with high levels of glyphosate in the food supply. (Okay, the high level of gluten in modern wheat isn't the result of genetic engineering but rather of selective breeding for high protein content, but it's still a prime example of science ignoring sense.) I'm not arguing "don't do it" but I am arguing, "think about the side-effects." Test the results before dumping them on hungry people.

But these are not really book reviews as we know them, or as I'm trying to type here, but rather essays on topics the books bring up for our author, particularly touching on his chosen field of evolutionary biology.

But vigilance will pay off in better understanding of evolution.

What sounds super boring is a great read, as he not only likes to argue about books, but also does a great job of putting them into a bigger context.

Stephen Jay Gould was a prominent American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. Gould helped develop the theory of punctuated equilibrium, in which evolutionary stability is marked by instances of rapid change.