Stephen Jay Gould on a bad day can be the Lincoln Continental of science writing—ponderous, well upholstered, and designed to travel in a straight line. Comfortable, certainly; assured—no one can doubt that—and if you turn on the radio you are certain to get grand opera; but, somehow, well, just too Executive Style, too Harvard Yard, to sell anywhere except in America.
His latest pair of books, though, shows evidence of a dramatic shift in design. Dinosaur in a Haystack, published last winter and the seventh in his series of miscellaneous pieces collected from Natural History magazine, sits firmly among the whitewall tire school of essayists. The new volume, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, is a far more radical work. In it, Stephen Jay Gould uses a lifetime obsession with baseball, a close call with cancer, and an enormous knowledge of the history of life to build a case that links sport, disease, statistics, and evolution into a seam-less narrative and—although as a fellow science writer I say it through somewhat clenched teeth—he does so brilliantly.
First, however, those haystack-dwelling dinosaurs. It is easy to be needled by this book, which treads a fine line between polymathy and self-parody. suppressing ignoble thoughts of card indices and the Internet, we gazing rustics cannot but be astonished by Gould’s continuing avalanche of words. How, indeed, can one head carry all he knows? As gould points out in the preface, he is not a modest man. He ascribes his success as a feuilletonist to “one great gift from nature’s preeminent goddess, Fortuna—a happy conjunction of my own hypertrophy with maximal utility in a central professional activity…. I can always find legitimate and unforced connections among the disparate details.” Diligencia and Amor helped too.
Gould’s pride in understanding the plot of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera is evident, as is his pleasure in being able to read a Latin dedication or finding a tie between the stoneless plum and US immigration policy. (Luther Burbank, who developed the plum, was also a “liberal” eugenicist who, in contrast to the conservatives who campaigned against migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, welcomed the prospect of combining them in a new American hybrid.) One of the few lapses to which Gould is willing to admit is “by-passing a youthful opportunity to learn the Papiamentu creole of Curaçao.”
All this can be—frequently is—irritating. The range of topics is as eclectic as ever and the paragraphs speed effortlessly by; but somehow, rather like driving across the Great Plains, for most of the time we seem not to be going anywhere special. There is, of course, plenty of instruction, well seasoned by anecdote, on the way. Medieval thinkers didn’t actually believe the earth was flat: that was a myth invented by nineteenth-century rationalist anxious to mock the established church; and the phrase “sweetness and light” comes from an Aesopian fable on the bee. What is more, evolution happened in three fits and a start (sudden bursts of change separated by eons of tedium; a theme often returned to in these writings) and the naming of new dinosaurs shows surprising signs of political correctness. Out goes Pachycephalosaurus, in comes Maiasaura: for the terrible lizards, thick bonehead gave way to earth mother as soon as Jurassic Park boosted their image.
Some essays stand on their own. Edgar Allan Poe is thought of more as an artist of the macabre than of the malacological; but Gould points out that Poe’s only volume to be reprinted during his lifetime is the unjustly neglected Conchologist’s First Book: or, A System of Testaceous Malacology, arranged Expressly for the Use of Schools. Gould (himself no mean mollusc man) proves neatly that this is a work of plagiarism extracted by Poe, with the collusion of one author but not the others, from several separate sources. the same tenacity in chasing down original documents is manifest elsewhere. Everyone knows about the Wannsee Conference and most are aware of the link between Hitler’s eugenic views and the science of the time. It took Gould to go to the Protocol summarizing the conference’s conclusions to find in it a perverse argument on racial purity based on Mendel and a precise Darwinian statement that those Jews who might survive the hard treatment of the camps should be killed as they are “the product of natural selection” and hence likely to fight back if set free.
In the end, though, dinosaurs, in haystacks or out of them (the title comes from the search for a very few bones in a very large expanse of rock at the end of what Gould would not call the Age of the Giant Reptiles) must surely not be far from having run their allotted course. Two more volumes are promised before the close of the present millennium. The Age of the Mammoth Essay, woolly or otherwise, will then be over.
Stephen Jay Gould as a scientific writer has certainly not come to the end of his evolutionary road. Full House breaks new ground in combining exemplary popular science with a new insight into the nature of evolution. Gould himself seems it as exceptional. The book is his “most beloved child,” nurtured for fifteen years. In it, for the first time in the history of science writing, he succeeds in making statistics interesting.
Baseball plays a central part in the argument (and is not, as in too many of his earlier essays, a mere decoration of it). In 1941, Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox attained a seasonal batting average of 406—the first player to break 400 since 1930—and the last ever to attain that starry height. In the years before 1930, such averages were commonplace—but sixteen years after his annus mirabilis even Ted Williams could do no better than .388 (his second highest lifetime tally). Since Pearl Harbor, these high scores have simply disappeared. It is—is it not?—the old story: the noble game become squalid, immersed in cash, lacking in dedication; a perfect illustration of the universal complaint of the middle-aged that things aren’t what they used to be.
The slump is not restricted to the United States. A glance at the cricket figures gives just the same picture. The high scorers of the late nineteenth century are simply not around in such numbers today. Cricket is just one example of Britain’s apparent decay. My entire life has been filled with homilies of national decline—the collapse of the pound, the disbanding of the Beatles, the motor industry, the royal marriages, and the Empire.
Gould’s triumph is to see that cricket scores and baseball averages are mere reflections of a universal truth found in every competitive system. these include team games and evolution (and, for that matter, currency, empires, car builders, and marriages). He uses statistics to unite these apparently disparate fields. Ever since Disraeli and his “damned lies” about statistics, that dismal science has had a bad press. Even scientists have sneered: Lord Rutherford famously said that “If your experiment needs statistics, you should have done a better experiment.” Those are easy words for a physicist. For these who deal with baseball or biology the subject is impossible to avoid. It is all about collections of numbers: not individual figures in isolation, but each point considered in relation to all others. Even a simple set of numerals has hidden depths. Is the mean the same as the figure occurring most frequently?How much spread is there between the data, and is the pattern skewed? Perhaps most of the points are near the center; or there may be an undue proportion at the extremes. All this is the fodder of statistics; tedious, pedestrian, scarcely worth bothering with for an obsessive sports fan for whom only a single figure—that batting record—counts. And why should a biologist tracing life’s progress until it culminates in Homo sapiens bother with such intellectual stamp-collecting?
Gould makes the telling point that this is where the 400 fallacy and some of the most important misunderstanding of evolution both lie. When it comes to baseball, a single number says almost nothing. A hitter can be considered only in the context of what everyone else is doing. No doubt Gould himself, perfectly rounded though he has become, could do some amazing high hitting if he played in a league of eight-year-olds; but that would not say anything useful about the real quality of his game—or that of his opponents. In the same way the score of the odd exceptional player from the past contains almost no information about what is actually going on in baseball.
What in fact has happened in that sport is that, just as in every other, individual competitors have got much, much better. It is not true that today’s sportsmen are less dedicated or less able than their predecessors. Gould, champion of the new science of saber-metrics the study of sports statistics, named after the Society for American Baseball Research) shows that with his analysis of winning times for the Boston Marathon (shorter by over half an hour between 1900 and 1980 but—an important part of his argument—remarkably unchanged since then). In baseball, too, things have taken a turn toward excellence. In the 1870s, the average pitcher was five foot nine, nowadays he’s a considerably more intimidating six foot three. Far from standards declining they have much improved.
The truth comes, as it must, out of analyzing all the figures, not just picking on special cases. Although, thanks to careful massaging of the rules, the overall baseball batting average of .260 has scarcely changed in the past century, the spread around that mean—the variance in averages—has gone down dramatically. Not only are there no more .400 hitters, their ignominious fellows who scarcely ever take a decent whack at the ball (they took Gould some looking for since they do not feature in the record books) have disappeared as well. As a result, the standard deviation (the statistical measure of spread) of batting averages went down consistently from 1870, but in the last thirty years has scarcely changed at all.
As Gould points out, this is because, just as in the Boston Marathon, baseball has got about as far as it is physically possible to get: players are up against the wall of what the human frame can do. A generation of brilliant hitters is facing an equivalent era of superb pitchers and fielders. Indeed, the best fielders nowadays succeed in 99.7 percent of their attempts: they simply have no room to get much better.
Ironically enough, all this leads not to an escalation of batting scores, but to an impasse in which players are more evenly matched then they were in the old days. The result—a fast and competitive game, but no more .400 hitting. the Giants really are standing on the shoulders of Babes: Ted williams or even Babe Ruth would be very ordinary players in today’s rich, fit, and competitive world in which no one can tower above the rest. Baseball makes sense only when considered as a system, and not by blindly concentrating on its high points. In the public mind, though, evolution still goes onward and ever upward to one single pinnacle—Homo sapiens; and, too often, a narrowly defined subset of that obstreperous species. By so thinking, most people have. like the sages of baseball, missed the whole point of the grand evolutionary game.
Gould seems to have discovered a universal law. In the race to erect tall buildings in New York, there was at first quick progress. The 700-foot Metropolitan Life Tower of 1909 was twice the height of its tallest predecessor, the 386-foot Park Row Building. In recent years, though, each succeeding victor, lofty though it is, has beaten its predecessor by less than 10 percent. Soon, no doubt, skyscraper walls will themselves be up against the wall and the laws of engineering will put a stop to how high New Yorkers can get. At the other end of the scale, no creature can be smaller than a single cell. Inevitably, therefore, from its beginning, life could do only one thing—get larger. This it has certainly done and there are all kinds of evolutionary “law” that suggest why, in an ever-improving world, it should. that increase in size is, tough, inevitable as there is nowhere else to go: it is not progress but physics.
From this simple but arresting finding Gould moves to some remarkable illustrations of other ways in which statistical analysis of a distribution—a “full house” of numbers—can change our view of life (in his case, quite literally so). In 1982, at the age of forty, Gould was diagnosed with abdominal mesothelioma, a disease with a median survival of eight months. Fifteen years later, he is still very much around. Statistics helped him stay optimistic. The median is the halfway point: half the patients will be dead in thirty-two short weeks. In other words, half of the variation in mortality must be squeezed into that brief period: anyone who lasts for longer has a “tail of time—up to threescore years and ten—into which he might survive. Once the terrifying figure of eight months is seen as just a fragment of the whole story there is hope. The median is not the message. Every patient is part of a distribution, and to understand his plight must use all the information available and not see himself as uniquely damned. I have often taught introductory statistics, but nowhere have I seen a more telling statement of what it really means.
Humans have a fatal tendency to look for examples, rather than at a whole system. Gould’s point is that what matters is the population, not the individual; and, in evolution, that means the population of every creature, extant or extinct. If God is in the details, then evolution is in the variance. His argument—and it is a compelling one—is that too much attention has been paid to changes in individual averages (batting or biological) and not enough to the increase and decrease of overall variation over time. He pokes modest fun at those nineteenth-century, illustrators who forgot to include what came before in their panoramas of ancient life—an age of marine reptiles in seas devoid of fish, of mammals flourishing in the absence of any creature that does not suckle its young. Only the most recent winners—be they fish, or fowl—counted: the ecosystem, life’s National League, in which they played the game simply did not matter.
The “spread of excellence” of his title is not an inexorable progress since Plato or the Paleolithic but reflects changes in the pattern of diversity within the world as a whole. We may be ourselves on some tentative sprig of the evolutionary tree but the tree itself has been the same shape and size for millions of years and will not alter much in the future. Certainly the average creature (if such a multiple chimera could be imagined) may be a little more complicated than it once was, but the modal organism—the one that is most typical of life as a whole—is still, as it has been since the beginning, a single-celled creature without a nucleus. “In fact,” Gould writes, “more than half the history of life is a tale of bacterial only.”
We are, as a result, mere froth on the Age of Bacteria. A few creature have moved on but any idea of overall advance is “a delusion based on social prejudice and psychological hope…. We grasp at the straw of progress (a desiccated ideological twig) because we are still not ready for the Darwinian revolution.” Man’s problem is a reluctance to see himself in the context of a world which has been around for longer than he has. His second-best friend, the horse, illustrates the problem. Every text shows its proud advance from a terrier-like creature of fifty million years ago toward Bucephalus; but, in fact, today’s horse is just a pathetic remnant of a group that once had a wild diversity of species. Our idea of progress—in horses of humans—comes from looking only at a small part of the story. Gould has a holistic view of evolution. Although individual bits of the system may appear to move forward, life as a whole is about as good as it is ever going to get. Evolution inhabits an M.C.Escher world, its players trudging ever onward but not upward.
Full House concentrates, understandably, on real animals and plants; as a paleontologist Gould likes to look directly at the past. However, even molecular biology (what used to be called comparative anatomy, a subject nowadays ameliorated with large research grants) shows the conservatism of existence. Mouse chromosomes are just reshuffled versions of those that make us human, and the genes that render a fly’s eyes white rather than red or put a notch in its wing play an important part in our own embryos. Biologists are now so used to stasis that every new gene is put through a computer to establish where else in the living world it might be found. We are even blasé about putting human DNA into bacteria to persuade them to make proteins once uniquely our own; but that, too, is a statement of how little change there has been on the road from bug to Beethoven. The human genome (but not that of supposedly primitive bacteria) is full of the rusting hulks of genes that once did a useful job but have retired to degenerate in comfort. Molecular geneticists have, without realizing it, become the pessimists of biology. Wherever they look they find not improvement, but rigidity mitigated by decay.
In the light of this, gould is perhaps a little too vigorous in demolishing what he claims to be a universal view of evolution. Darwin himself (although he once penciled “never say higher or lower” as a marginal note) did become convinced that it was a progressive force, a view helped by the reformist times in which he lived. But modern biologists (again, today’s reactionary milieu help) are more willing to accept stasis or even decline as a law of nature than was the more hopeful generation that went before.
There may as a result be a few wisps of straw in the hair of Gould’s carefully erected Homo Progressi us, at least insofar as those actively involved in evolutionary research are concerned. However, the public view of evolution is still the one so mightily undermined in this book. Every high-school text has as its classic of adaptation the spread during Darwin’s lifetime of a gene for black wings through the moths of England in response to the grime of the factories which helped the great evolutionist to live in comfort. There is an irony in the fact that, since smoke control, the gene—far from disappearing as it should in a world that moves forward as circumstances change—remains common in most of Britain and that it was abundant in North America long before the birth of Henry Ford, whose smoking chimneys had no effect on its fortunes.
My own car, as it happens, is not a Ford but a BMW (one, I hasten to add, close to its extinction date). Since it was built, sixteen years ago, BMWs have got even better—but so has every other make. The process has been going on since cars began and, in spite of what the ads say, the difference in quality among marques—be they rolls or Pinto—is getting less and less. Soon there will be no more room for advance in the evolution of the internal combustion engine. What changes there are will be in the details: following Gould’s argument, cars, like skyscrapers, baseball hitters, and life, will have hit the wall of what is possible. who knows? Given what the new model could do, my next vehicle may be a Lincoln Continental.
October 17, 1996