Philosopause

Philosopher of science Kim Sterelny has written a review of the biographical collection, Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on His View of Life, out last year. I’m pointing to it because of this:

The current norm of science is that research consists in the publication of peer-reviewed papers in specialist journals. As one nears retirement, it may be acceptable to switch to writing reflective what-does-it-all-mean review papers, and even a book or two: This is known as going through philosopause. Gould went through philosopause early, and Allmon attempts to explain why, connecting the form of Goulds work as an essayist and book author with his humanism, his liberalism and his interest in exploring murky, large-scale questions. He broke with conventional norms of science writing not just because he wanted to reach more people, but because of what he wanted to say.

What a great concept, “philosopause!” A perfect term for many people’s scientific productivity.

Let’s hope that it doesn’t get replaced by a new one: “blogopause”…

Sterelny is the author of the unfortunately titled 2001 book, Dawkins vs Gould: Survival of the Fittest. So he’s in a position to know something about Gould’s sometimes-provocative, sometimes-nonsensical take on contemporary biology.

Despite this important legacy, Goulds own place in the history of evolutionary biology is not secure. In late 2009, I attended an important celebration of Darwins legacy at the University of Chicago, in which participants reviewed the current state of evolutionary biology and anticipated its future. Gould and his agenda were almost invisible. No doubt this was in part an accident of the choice of speakers. But it is in part a consequence of Goulds ambivalence regarding, or perhaps even hostility toward, core growth points in biology: cladistics, population genetics, ecology.

Sterelny has a curious view of biology’s “growth points.” But it is indubitably true that Gould’s later scientific work, like species selection, remains peripheral, and Gould badly misfired in his thinking about the Synthetic theory. I found his work endlessly frustrating – tilting at windmills on many relatively simple theoretical issues, while belittling those who failed to share his idiosyncratic views about others.