Stephen Jay Gould

Key to Stephen Jay Gould's popularity is his ability to present
sophisticated scientific insights in a highly polished literary format, the
essay. We can not take this for granted because the essay is as much of
technical construction as the poem or the novel. Writing a good essay is as
much as a challenge as writing a good sonnet.

The method of the essay is to take some personal or particular piece of
information or anecdote and develop it along more general lines, so that
you end up with a universal observation about humanity and the world. "Male
Nipples and Clitoral Ripples" is a Gould classic. He points out that
heterosexual intercourse is a highly problematic activity, because the
inappropriately located clitoris does not get directly stimulated during
coitus. This leads him to the observation that evolution follows no
rational design. If it did, the clitoris would be more strategically
placed. (Those of us who were politically active in the 1960s will recall
that this accident of evolution was one of the main causes of the woman's
liberation movement of the period, as expressed in Anne Koedt's pamphlet
"Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.")

Another Gould classic is "The Median Isn't the Message," which uses the
discovery that he has cancer to make some points about statistics. (Both of
these essays are in "Bully for Brontosaurus.") He finds out from Harvard's
medical library that his mesothelioma, a lethal form of cancer associated
with exposure to asbestos, has a median mortality rate of 8 months. After
further investigation, he discovers that the statistic is "right-skewed"
which means that people with good profiles like his own can survive for
years. He ends his essay with a light-hearted comment on discovering his
obituary in a Scottish newspaper. Quoting Mark Twain, he says, "The reports
of my death are greatly exaggerated."

The modern essay as a literary form was invented by Montaigne. He took
advantage of a technological breakthrough to make this invention possible.
The printing-press made it possible for the first time for the average
wealthy person to keep a library in his home. Montaigne assembled a library
of all the Greek and Roman classics and sprinkled his essays with
quotations from them. A Montaigne essay, like a Bach fugue, follows fairly
strict patterns. He begins with some observation about an everyday event,
like a stomach ache, and then proceeds to a discussion of more general
concerns. The personal anecdote is like a stone hitting the water, and the
rippling effect forms the body of the essay.

Today we are witnessing another major technological breakthrough that
allows literary innovations to take place, namely the Internet. It provides
us with a cyber-library that is much vaster than anything Montaigne had at
his disposal. For Marxists, the possibilities are endless. For example, we
can integrate passages from Marx and Engels, whose major works are archived
on a server at the University of Colorado, into our email discussions. I
find the essay a useful medium for my own thoughts, since they are about
the right size for email. I try to keep my posts to under 10,000 bytes,
which are actually about the size of a typical Montaigne essay. I am in the
process of pulling together all my essays for the Marxism Web Site under

(One of the things that puzzles me about Marxism is how few of us feel
comfortable with this style. Whenever you encounter a good essay from a
Marxist, the effect can be bracing. A Monthly Review issue of a couple of
years ago had one by Michael Parenti that was memorable. It is about his
father's bakery in the Bronx, which turned out the most delicious bread he
has ever tasted. He discusses his conflict with his father who wanted him
to take over the business. Eventually the business folded because it could
not keep pace with competition from corporate bakeries like Wonder, whose
product has no taste or nutritional value. He concludes the essay with
biting observations about the tendency of capitalism to reduce the quality
of life while it advances private profit.)

* * * * *

Last night Stephen Jay Gould spoke at the Brecht Forum on "Science and
Human Destructiveness."

The general question of the social role of science was viewed through the
prism of the career of Alfred Russell Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin.
Wallace developed a theory of natural selection independently of Darwin and
the two men came to an agreement to publish their initial findings jointly
in 1858.

Wallace was also a Fabian Socialist, and was deeply concerned about the
conflicts between science, which he regarded as intrinsically good, and
society which he regarded as a corrupting influence. These concerns form
the content of "Forecasts of the Coming Century," which was written near
the end of the 19th century.

Like all Fabians and much of late 19th century utopian socialism, Wallace
believed strongly in progress. Marxian socialism had little impact on these
thinkers, who instead tried to blend a progressive strand of Social
Darwinism with vague socialist beliefs. They were very much products of
Victorian culture and viewed their mission as enlightening the public. They
have a kinship with Dickens and other reformers of the era.

Wallace thought that science could raise mankind to a higher level in the
coming 20th century only if the forces of superstition and greed were
defeated. His book catalogs all the great breakthroughs of the era,
including the steam engine, telegraph and electric light.

By the same token, he was dismayed by capitalism's tendency to keep society
in its thrall. He attacks military spending and the increasing class
differentiation in English society. While more wealth was being produced,
the gap between rich and poor was also increasing at the same time. As a
scientist, he was particularly outraged by the negligence of industrialists
who exposed workers to mercury and phosphorus, by-products of
manufacturing. These substances could injure or kill the worker and Wallace
called for the imprisonment of any guilty factory-owner.

Where Wallace falls short is in recommending how fundamental change can
take place. He makes rhetorical appeals to the need for workers to take
things into their own hands, but the only practical recommendation found in
his book is for bread to be dispensed to the needy.

Gould proposed that Wallace's point of view was entirely too naive about
science. Science has no innate good qualities. It is simply a form of human
activity that can be put to good or evil purposes. He illustrated this with
a discussion of the Guillotine. Guillot, the inventor, thought that the
machine was good because it could reduce suffering for those facing capital
punishment. They would be put out of their misery instantly. Who could ask
for more? Ironically, one of the victims of the Guillotine was Lavoisier,
the great scientist who had actually served on a panel with Guillot to
examine the bogus claims of Mesmer.

The opposite point of view from Wallace's, which Gould also takes exception
to, is that science is intrinsically evil. He said that this view emerged
during the mid to late-nineteenth century and found its expression in Mary
Shelley's "Frankenstein." During the discussion period, I asked him for an
example of this tendency in today's world. He cited Jeremy Rifkin, who
believes that science and technology are the problem, rather than their
social use.

Gould said that the problem we face today is that science has produced
potentially death-producing technologies which are far more "productive"
than those of the past. When mankind only had spears and bows and arrows at
its disposal, genocide was less feasible. Today, nuclear weapons make it
highly feasible.

Gould had little to say in his talk about the particular question of social
organization. During the discussion period, when confronted directly with
the question of the responsibility of capitalism in making science and
technology highly risky to the survival of humanity, he shrugged his
shoulders and said, "Science is my specialty, not politics."

Of course, what is implied by this is the notion of a "value-free" science,
which is deeply rooted in the Western European tradition. Immanuel
Wallerstein has questioned this in an article in a recent copy of New Left
Review and speculated whether ecology might provide the synthesis between
ethics and science that the bourgeois world-view abolished in the 17th

Gould's reluctance to tackle political questions directly is a function of
the general decline of socialist culture which at one time had the ability
to include first-rate scientists in its ranks. There is little doubt that
Stalinism is largely responsible for this, since it politicized science in
the most regrettable fashion. While it was able to inspire someone like
J.B.S. Haldane on its better days, it also drove a wedge between Marxism
and science in the aftermath of the Lysenko travesties during its worst days.

Many scientists are open to a socialist perspective, because they have a
front-row seat on the ecological crisis. The Lamont-Daugherty Earth Science
Laboratory at Columbia University is home to many research scientists who
are raising the alarm over global warming. A green Marxism has the
potentiality to win these scientists over to socialism. One of the
unfortunate aspects of David Harvey's "brown Marxism" is that it
essentially writes off such scientists as being "apocalyptic."

In all of the discussion that is currently raging on Doug's LBO-Talk list,
the focus is exclusively on working people. It as if a bunch of doctors are
arguing about what cure to give to a patient. Some argue for surgery, while
others argue for medication. The sad truth is that, for the most part, the
working-class patient doesn't have a clue that there is anything
fundamentally wrong with his or her situation. In the case of the
scientists, there *is* a strong sense that something is fundamentally wrong.

Marxism has an obligation to reach people in motion. The intellectual
ferment around the problems of global warming demand a Marxist analysis.
Once this analysis gains some kind of influence among the scientists at
places like Lamont-Doherty, the net effect on bourgeois rule can be almost
as powerful as a general strike. Capitalist rule depends on the
intellectual assent of the mandarins. I would argue that it is urgent to
reach this class of people today and break them away from their corporate
benefactors. This is part of the general task of reconstructing the
socialist movement, which will eventually include the heavy battalions of
the working-clas.

Louis Proyect