“Vive la différence, and the potential for fruitful union”

Stephen Jay Gould died too young. He was a controversial paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, historian of science, and a fun writer. Targets of Gould’s criticism range from fundamentalist creationists to sociobiologists. In the “science vs. religion” debates he’s best known for proposing “NOMA,” or “non-overlapping magisteria”; the modern sciences shouldn’t be at war with religion because they don’t address the same questions. He distinguishes science’s description of “is” from religion’s claims of “ought.

In his final book (published after his death), Gould expands the terms from “science and religion” to “science and the Humanities.” He explains: “[Scientific] facts may enrich and enlighten our moral questions (about the definition of death, the beginning of life, or the validity of using embryonic stem cells in biological research).” However, “our yearnings and quest for morality and meaning belong to the different domains of the humanities, the arts, philosophy, and theology—and cannot be adjudicated by the findings of science” (106).1 These domains must work together in order to help us  humans make the most of our existence. This book is Gould’s argument for mending the old breach between science and the humanities by stressing what they share in common and by proposing a merger of their respective strengths (144).

I’m not entirely sold on Gould’s idea of a strict separation between the sciences and the humanities, even though he proposes that they still must cooperate. Ironically, Gould himself provides several reasons for this. As a historian of science, Gould knows by experience that the humanities and sciences cross paths in crucial ways, in his own work and in the work of the scientists whom he’s studied whether they are aware of it or not. It seems to me that the “non-overlapping magisteria” do often overlap. Gould’s final book traces the academic division which emerged over the past few centuries between modern science and the humanities. A self-proclaimed “essayist at heart,” he uses “intriguing little [historical] tidbits that catch a person’s interest and then lead naturally to a broad issue exemplified thereby” (261, see also 157).

There’s the great taxonomist John Ray (1627-1705), whose bird book Ornithology reveals a humorous, and to us obvious, gender bias (121). He also includes pages from Ernst Haeckel’s (1834-1919) Kunstformen der Natur, in which Haeckel compiled his own beautiful illustrations of animals striking oddly Art Nouveau-esque poses, even if somewhat misrepresenting an animal’s common form (159). In another fascinating story, Gould tells of Abbott Handerson Thayer, an artist who made an important discovery about the color patterns of animals, which he argued served important adaptive ends. Most evolutionary biologists know nothing of Thayer today, some might recall his name with derision since he latched onto his initial important impression and tried to turn it into a universal rule in nature to comic results (169). Nevertheless, arts and science joined hands in an important discovery here. Such vignettes are intended to remind us of one of Gould’s most repeated points:

An understanding of the social embeddedness of all aspects of science can forge an essential tie with humanistic studies and greatly aid the technical work of scientists as well (116, emphasis his).

Gould reveals what he calls “a trade secret about my fellow scientists that our little minority with literary pretensions in the business would probably prefer to keep hidden. I do love my colleagues dearly, at least most of them. I stand in awe before their dedication and technical skills. But, to be frank and to put the matter bluntly, the vast majority of scientists are a parochial lot. . . Most scientists have never read a technical work in the history or philosophy of science” (101).

Sure they often enjoy a classical music concert or a baseball game. But in terms of knowing their own history they just don’t usually get into it that much because their current practices are working pretty well; they have a job to do after all! They plug along at their often tedious, expensive, frustrating tasks. Gould’s overarching metaphor identifies this single-minded and dedicated approach (that of methodological naturalism) as the “hedgehog,” whereas the humanities, with their myriad approaches and concerns are likened unto a “fox.” The metaphor is drawn from Archilochus, a 7th-century Greek cited by Erasmus: “The fox devises many strategies; the hedgehog knows one great and effective strategy” (2).

Hedgehogs have many successes, and importantly so, but these successes occur not through—but despite the lack of—absolute “objectivity.” By neglecting the ways of the fox they miss out on a very rich part of their legacy. The fox reveals two compelling reasons why we ought to “cherish good historical anlysis” (103).

First: real, gutsy, flawed, socially embedded history of science is so immeasurably more interesting and accurate than the usual cardboard pap about marches to truth fueled by universal and disembodied weapons of reason and observation (the ‘scientific method’) against antiquated dogmas and social constraints. Second, this more sophisticated social and historical analysis can aid both the institution of science and the work of scientists—the institution, by revealing science as an accessible form of human creativity, not as an arcane enterprise hostile to ordinary thought and feeling, and open only to a trained priesthood; and the individual, by fracturing the objectivist myth that can only generate indifference to self-examination, and by encouraging study and scrutiny of the social contexts that channel our thinking and frustrate our potential creativity (104).

Among other things, learning more about the history of science sweeps away the currently fashionable view that science and religion are natural and eternal enemies. It brushes aside facile belief that “objectivity” reigns in the sciences (let alone history!). Gratitude and humility for the past and hope for the future.

I should add that I don’t think missteps and follies in the history of science should be turned into excuses for dismissing current theories (as we’ve seen in the recent debates about climate change). Rather, they should inject humility into each respective position in order to foster a more fruitful dialog.

Finally, extending this line of thought beyond the sciences, Gould’s suggestions also come in handy when thinking about the “‘new’ new Mormon history.” There are still a few hedgehog historians around, and I’m grateful for them. But in my view, our best current and up-and-coming historians similarly emphasize the importance and fruitfulness of recognizing the cultural embeddedness of our own faith.

1. The cited page numbers are from Stephen Jay Gould, The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011; originally published New York: Harmony Books, 2003). 273 pp. Paperback. $17.95; ISBN: 9780674061668. The book grew out of Gould’s presidential address delivered to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2000. Wikipedia has a decent overview of the book here, and Google Books has a preview.


  1. The new edition doesn’t say why a new printing was done, by the way.

  2. Great thoughts here Blair. I’ll comment more a little later when I have more time.

  3. Walking the boundary here a little has given me a similar viewpoint. Nice to see it expressed with eloquence. Thanks for the review Blair.

  4. Interesting how Michael Ruse’s mostly disappointing response to Nate Oman’s email (http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/more-on-mormons/41942) reveals some Gouldian thinking on this subject, like this: “My point is that I don’t think science addresses some questions—like “Why is there something rather than nothing?”—and it is open to the religious to have a go.” This kind of perspective is somewhat Wittgensteinian in nature: to speak in the language of science about religion (and vice versa) is to speak in a confused way. There’s a reason we don’t sing hymns about quantum physics (which is still too bad, anyway). Nevertheless, there still seems a price to be paid by acknowledging these are two different discourses, but never the twain shall they meet.

  5. The hell we don’t sing hymns about quantum physics–“If you could hie to Kolob in the twinkling of an eye, and then continue upward with that same speed to fly…” “There is no end to matter, there is no end to space…”

  6. Ok. One hymn :)

    And actually that is a very Mormon thing to do, conflate or mix or fuse everything into one discourse. I’ll try and say more about this later if I can.

  7. Wow, what a great pleasure to have just finished a huge and unwieldy science grant and find a wonderfully written review of Gould’s new book which I had not intended to read until now. Gould has been a hero of mine for years uncountable. For most of my life I’ve read his essays in Natural History Magazine and followed his science from his earliest papers. I still make my students read the “The Spandrels of San Marco.” But some of his later thinking seemed confused and I (to my shame) became a Gould Denier. I read his “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory” with sorrow as he seemed confused. I saw him present at a meeting and found myself in disagreement with this views of evolution. But Blair, you have brought me back. This sounds like the Gould I know and love. Thank you for this. I feel myself coming back to what’s important in Gould. His essays and understanding of science.

  8. “socially embedded”, heh.

    Another great review, Blair. You make me want to read more.

  9. Jacob,
    I want to read that post.

    At least from what you’ve written, I think I hate some of Gould’s ideas. Even more I hate his premises.

    “a trade secret about my fellow scientists that our little minority with literary pretensions in the business would probably prefer to keep hidden. I do love my colleagues dearly, at least most of them. I stand in awe before their dedication and technical skills. But, to be frank and to put the matter bluntly, the vast majority of scientists are a parochial lot. . . Most scientists have never read a technical work in the history or philosophy of science”

    I’m not convinced that’s true. He also seems to put himself on a plane above other scientists–like he gets something they don’t.

  10. mmiles: it isn’t that Gould wants to be on a plane above other scientists. I think he’s basically saying some scientists don’t know much about the history of their discipline, something which doesn’t necessarily call into question their current scientific studies. My own anecdotal experience with a few scientists (and more often, with armchair scientists online who want to decry religion) is that they aren’t terribly familiar with the history of various scientific disciplines aside from typical and largely mythical narratives.

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