Gould and Storytelling

When reading Steven Jay Gould’s Sociobiology :The art of storytelling, I could not help but be reminded of two other articles by him that I have read this semester for a class I’m taking about evolution. The first one,  Punctuated Equilibria: an alternative to phyletic gradualism, begins with a critique of  “a priori assumptions”, almost identical to the one in this paper that Gould quotes, where Ludwig von Bertalanffy says “If selection is taken as an axiomatic and a priori principle, it is always possible to explain auxiliary hypotheses”. Gould explains what he finds important about this quote when he introduces it, saying “that natural selection must fail because it explains too much—a paradoxical but perceptive statement”. Gould applies this same exact type of criticism to phyletic gradualism (the theory itself isn’t that important, what I’m getting at has more to do with Gould’s rhetorical strategies than the science), and is what he bases his argument for punctuated equilibrium on. Yet, in this paper, and The Spandrels of San Marcos and the Panglossian Paradigm: A critique of the adaptionist programme (where he explicitly argues against what he sees as the tyranny of the “adaptionist programme”), he spends much more time focusing on what is wrong with the conceptual basis for the arguments that he opposes, than providing evidence for what he is proposing. 

I noticed this tendency the first time I read Gould’s other two papers, but I found it especially interesting in light of the paper we read by him for this class. At one point in the paper, Gould describes how an explanation of the function of dorsal fins is an example of the faults of a dogmatic view of natural selection. Yet, Gould says, “(Yes, I know the litany: It might have performed both functions. But this too is a story)”. With this little nod, Gould acknowledges that he is presenting a story here too, just as the explanations for natural selection do too. By admitting his own bias, and tendency towards storytelling, Gould makes his argument more effective, and can continue the same strategy that he accuses the sociobiologists of using in his critique of them. 

By choosing to attack questions of theory, and dogma, in a similar way across his writings, I think that Gould shows the pervasiveness of the “cloven hoof-print of theory” (from his paper on punctuated equilibria), or in this case, the tendency towards storytelling that he sees in the sociobiologists. Gould sums this up, explaining why he presents this argument the way he does, when he says that ” All science is embedded in cultural contexts, and the lower the ratio of data to social importance, the more the science reflects the context”. With issues like behavior, especially with humans, Gould suggests that we can’t help but form narratives from them, and that progress can be made by acknowledging that tendency. 

A natural question that came to mind when writing this, is where do writers fit in? Writers don’t have to be married to detail, and empirical truth in the same way that scientists do, it’s not their job. Yet, they are an important part in how science is conveyed, and how socio-biological ideas continue to be perpetuated. As story tellers, writers can easily reflect the tendency of behavioral explanations to fit a pre-existing idea or a story. Gould hopes for a future where people acknowledge how “It makes all the difference in the world whether human behaviors develop and stabilise by cultural evolution or by direct direct Darwinian selection for genes selecting for different traits”. I think that his idea is relevant to what we’ve discussed in this course, because it presents another possibility for literature. In a world where darwinian evolution, and cultural evolution are clearly separated with “mutual illumination between two vigorous separate disciplines”, the storytelling aspect that gives good writing its strength, can be used to build the cultural explanations that it is better suited, rather than weakening biological ones. 

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