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Fin de Pontificat Jousting Produces a Strange Mixture of Truth & Fiction

Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, by Stephen Jay Gould, (New York: Harmony Books, 1996, 244 pp., $25)

BY Clement Kennedy

November 24, 1996 Issue | Posted 11/24/96 at 2:00 PM

 

GOING BY Stephen Jay Gould's own statement of intent, Full House is an attempt to rectify a wayward conceptual habit of Western man. It is a scientist's venture into the realm of philosophy.

Gould, a gifted professor of zoology and geology at Harvard, argues that Plato's philosophy encouraged subsequent thinkers to erroneously treat abstract concepts as having real existence outside the mind. He examines cases where trends are treated like things, as when .400 batting averages in baseball are thought to be actual entities; so their disappearance in recent times has to be explained in the same causal way just as other natural or tangible phenomena, like the erosion of soil, for example. Confronted with a grouping of some kind that exhibits a range of variation, Gould argues that we are making a mistake in taking the average and then proceeding to study the characteristics— the “essence”—of the average, as if that were the real thing. Gould treats variation itself as the fundamental reality, finding in Darwin a paradigm of this approach: “Darwin's revolution should be epitomized as the substitution of variation for essence as the central category of natural reality.”

Gould argues that just as previous scientific revolutions were interpreted as robbing mankind from its privileged position in the cosmos, the effect of his, approach is to dislodge man from even having a privileged position among other creatures. Darwin at least allowed for the idea of progress, with evolution directed, teleologically, toward more complex species. In other words, there is a purpose and a plan. But Gould charges that Darwin was merely aping the Victorian zeitgeist; and that the mechanisms of evolution—random variation and natural selection— actually have no need of such a hypothesis, which Gould suggests is only a sop to human arrogance. For the author, Homo Sapiens doe not culminate the evolutionary process. According to Gould, bacteria have been, are, and always will be the dominant form of life on earth. More complex creatures arise from a purely random mechanism that is as likely to move backwards as forward, he reasons.

There is no middle ground for Gould between Bible-thumping fundamentalism and his own brand of hard-line materialism: “Only two options seem logically available.… We might, first of all, continue to espouse biblical literalism and insist that the earth is but a few thousand years old, with humans created by God just a few days after the inception of planetary time.”

It seems a bit arrogant to dismiss a priori more nuanced theistic positions. The 1950 encyclical Humani Generis demonstrated evolution's compatibility with the faith. Anyone who understands God's use of secondary causality should be able to look Darwin squarely in the eye. The Pope made this abundantly clear in his recent talk on evolution theories.

It gets worse when Gould discusses the “radical contingency” of human life, i.e., the sum of all the necessary conditions that had to be in place for human life to emerge at all. While many reasonable people see evidence of an other-thanrandom process at work, Gould speculates about other randomly possible universes in which human life did not arise. It all supports his view of human life as a kind of non-event.

Brother Clement Kennedy, O.S.B., is a monk at Prince of Peace Abby in Oceanside, Calif.