Stranger Fruit

Gould and the worst science books ever

Others have noticed that John Horgan has presented his own personal list of the ten “worst science books.” Many of his choices aren’t science books per se and he obviously ignores his own excerable The End of Science which was, frankly, drivel that brought much joy to postmodernist critics during the “Science Wars” of the 1990’s. He’s also, in my opinion, unfair to E.O. Wilson … but that is an argument for another day.

Horgan does, however, get Gould’s Rocks of Ages correct when he describes it as “Gould at his pompous, verbose worst. He managed somehow both to pander and condescend to readers.” In 2000 I reviewed the book for Journal of History of Biology [33(3): 420 -422.] and here is part of what I had to say:

Stephen Jay Gould’s status as a public intellectual is well known. As the Huxley of late-Twentieth Century America, he has often touched on the relations between science and religion, and as such it comes as little surprise that we would eventually be confronted with a volume outlining his views. The work is largely an expansion of essays found in three of Gould’s previously published books – essays which are extracted from his column in Natural History. Thus, to the dedicated Gouldite there is little new here. Indeed, given the repetitive nature of much contained in this work, most readers will have got the message by page 45, and will have little reason to continue as Gould hammers his point home.

Gould’s claim is simply this. The magisterium of science covers the empirical world, while that of religion covers the realm of moral values and ultimate meaning. These two realms form “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) which do not extend beyond their respective boundaries. Gould sees this principle of NOMA as the key that allows science and religion to co-exist. He freely admits that his solution is “nothing original” (p. 3) being a form of Aristotle’s Golden Mean which grants “dignity and distinction to each subject.” Yet within this comfortable solution there are problems. Gould describes Pius XII’s statements on evolution in Humani Generis (1950) as “a helpful perspective from an intelligent and concerned outsider” rather than the incursion across NOMA that it must surely represent. So intent is he on being irenic, and thus not wishing to disenfranchise a Catholic readership, that he chooses to ignore any hints of Papal traditionalism and dogmatism (see p. 70 ff.). In framing his argument, Gould uses persuasive rhetoric to ensure the reader accepts his viewpoint. He aligns himself with such sages as Darwin and Huxley, along with other “seekers of wisdom” and “people of goodwill” (p. 170). NOMA is a “humane, sensible, and wonderfully workable solution” (p. 92). It is a “logically sound, humanely sensible, and properly civil way in a world of honorable diversity” (p. 170). One feels positively boorish and illiberal disagreeing with Gould, but disagree I must.

The work suffers from one overarching flaw. Gould defines religion so as to essentially ensure the success of his proposal of NOMA, but in so doing gives the reader a theology solely with jurisdiction over ethics and morals, thus relegating religion from much of its previously held domain. To Gould, ethics and morals are the essence of “true religion” (p. 42, a phrase which frankly reminds me too much of Creationist claims regarding “true science”). Religion is stripped of most of its traditional meaning and power – there is no talk of origins, design, progress, purpose, guided process, or a personal deity. In short, we are left with a view of religion that would be alien to any theologian within the Judeo-Christian tradition and many others besides. By defining religion thusly, it becomes easy for Gould to claim no overlap or conflict between his non-overlapping magisteria – science retains all its power and prestige, while religion becomes redefined so as not to cause any trouble. Rather than “strongly upholding the general importance of religion” (p. 93), NOMA neuters it. …

In the preface of his work, Conkin [the review was one of both Gould and Conkin’s When All The Gods Trembled: Darwinism, Scopes, and American Intellectuals]  accuses those who claim that science and religion “when fully or properly understood, do not conflict” of making a claim that “reflects either stupidity or a deliberate refusal to define terms and think rigorously” (p. ix). I suspect Conkin would have little time for Gould’s oversimplified (and somewhat disingenuous) solution of NOMA. Frankly, I see little reason why other philosophers, historians and theologians should either.


  1. #1 coturnix
    November 22, 2006

    I agree that this is single bad Gould book and it deserves to be on the list (as well as Horgan’s own). As for Consilience, my only beef is the misuse of the term “consilience”, used here with almost opposite meaning from what Whevell intended. As you may have guessed, I’d replace it on this list with The Selfih Gene.

  2. #2 Kapitano
    November 22, 2006

    If religion is concerned with ethics, wouldn’t that effectively make the church the arbiter of matters concerning how people should live? Issues like abortion, marriage, and sexuality. Plus justice, revenge, and the justifiability of war. And what constitutes humane treatment, torture and reasonable force?

    Call me old fashioned, but a priest twisting the words of some old fairy stories to fit his prejudice isn’t the kind of person I want telling me how to live.

    I’m a big fan of Gould, but he went seriously wrong here. Which is disappointing, for someone who argued so well against creationists.

  3. #3 Richard
    November 22, 2006

    I agree completely — The Rocks of Ages belongs on the list. I always assumed that NOMA was Gould’s way of trying to get religion to buzz off and leave science alone. If so, it was a foolish idea, doomed to failure. If he really believed that religion was concerned with ethics and morality alone, he had a strange idea of religion.

  4. #4 John Wilkins
    November 22, 2006

    The following gives a good overview of the relations between science and religion in the fin de siecle 19thC:

    Brooke, John Hedley (1991), Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives: Cambridge University Press.

  5. #5 quitter
    November 24, 2006

    I’m suspicious of any book that declares “the end of” something. I read The End of Science (or as much as I could before tossing it) over a decade ago and remembered it as a real unimaginative piece of crap. And that’s really the problem, people who predict “the end of” things just aren’t imaginative enough to think of the new directions, the unanswered questions, and the ability of people to find new ways to explore the world.

    I am, therefore, very suspicious of this “End of Religion” book.

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