College Quarterly
Fall 2005 - Volume 8 Number 4
Reviews The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities
Stephen Jay Gould
New York: Harmony Books, 2003

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

The symbolism of the hedgehog and the fox can be traced back to the ancient Greek poet, Archilochus, whose fragmentary writings date from the seventh century BC. The image is meant to suggest that there are two basic ways of knowing: all-embracing theory and detailed practical knowledge: “the hedgehog knows one great thing; the fox knows many clever things”.

Philosophers have long commented upon this distinction. In the previous century, for example, Isaiah Berlin (1953) used Archilochus’ insight to describe Tolstoy. In his view, the Russian novelist and seer yearned for a comprehensive vision of humanity, but was too keen an observer of detail to yield to some catholic system. The tension between the general and the specific can also be given a military interpretation, for Archilochus was a soldier as well. When threatened the hedgehog rolls itself up in a ball with its spiny quills facing outward in defence; for all its cunning, the fox is thwarted.

In one of his last contributions to our civilization, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) adopts the notions of Archilocus to describe our intellectual quests today. The book is perhaps best understood as a refinement of his previous work, Rocks of Ages (1999). A practicing scientist who remained enchanted with the human imagination, Gould was a fearsome adversary both to the rigidly religious who sought to impose their faith on scientific inquiry and to soulless materialists who tried to dismiss philosophy, the arts and religious thinking as inherently meaningless. An agnostic Jew, Gould befuddled his colleagues by regularly singing Handel’s Messiah at Christmas.

In Rocks of Ages, Gould set out a framework for co-existence. There were, he insisted, two great domains of human knowledge. One concerned itself with the description, analysis and explanation of the natural world. This was called science and its methods were such that, although it could never achieve something as glorious as transcendental “truth,” it could provide very reliable information and insight into the material world. When confronted with, for example, protagonists of “creationism” or what is now being peddled as “intelligent design,” Gould could be ferocious. At the same time, he was possessed of an extraordinary aesthetic sensibility and simultaneously fascinated by our species’ apparently unique wish to discover meaning in our own (and every other kind of) existence.

To reconcile these two modes of inquiry and understanding, Gould proposed that there were two complementary “magistria,” two ontological and epistemological categories into which human comprehension could be allocated. One was material and the other immaterial; both were essential and each was required to stay on its own turf. Gould (1983) added famously to the attack on the “naturalistic fallacy,” the belief that we can derive moral imperatives from our observations of nature, in his elucidation of the habits of the Ichneumonoidea, a group of wasps which deposit their eggs in the body of a living “host” which is subsequently eaten alive by the newly hatched larvae. Such ectoparasites defy human notions of good and evil and reveal nature to be “nonmoral.” In the alternative, he believed that people of “faith” had no business invading the domain of science. His commitment to the core of Darwinian science was complete and he appeared in court proceedings and in print as a formidable foe of creationism.

While useful as a strategy to keep aggressive interlopers at bay, there is something faintly unsatisfying about Gould’s approach. The problem is not so much that he is in error as it is that his precious magisteria may be in irreconcilable conflict. It is difficult to keep a foot firmly planted in each camp.

By invoking the ancient ideas of the hedgehog and the fox, Gould advances his argument and takes up new ground. He addresses two of the most important and misunderstood trends in contemporary academic life: relativism and reductionism. The results are little short of inspiring.

As a caution to scientists, Gould happily acknowledges that the mythology of scientific method, the belief in a quantifiable and objective external world and the insistence that bias and subjectivity can be expelled from the scientific enterprise can be taken too far. Science, he concedes, is intrinsically embedded in the fluid norms of the cultures that contain it. This is not so merely in egregious travesties such as T. D. Lysenko’s imposition of Lamarck’s theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics upon Soviet agricultural research during Stalin’s regime or of the popularity of “eugenics” in both Nazi Germany and North America, but also in the day-to-day work of normal science as cultural, political and economic motives identify what is and what is not a pressing scientific problem. Though many scientists are unconscious of the influence of their social settings upon their work and most of those who are alerted to the ubiquity of contemporary “culture wars” may deny that they are affected by external factors, Gould is savvy enough to understand that there is no such enterprise as “pure” science.

Rather than being threatened by cultural relativism, Gould embraces such complicating factors. He is, after all, something of a literary stylist and appreciates the need to be aware both of the humanities and of the general public. “Because,” he says, “we have cut ourselves off from scholars in the humanities who pay closer attention to modes of communication, we have spun our own self-referential wheels and developed artificial rules of writing that virtually guarantee the unreadability of scientific articles outside the clubhouse.” This is, of course, not just a matter of public relations. Gould is attentive to the need to recognize that much of science (including the science of evolution itself) takes place outside the laboratory and is as susceptible as any historical inquiry to the vicissitudes of custom and fashion. Make no mistake: Gould is a stout empiricist and his acuity with respect to social studies does not imply any concession to the task of science, which remains the rigorous study of nature in fact and theory; however, it does permit the expansion of that study to include the accidents, quirks and ideological dead-ends that populate the field as densely as the cumulative wisdom of the ages. There are many things to know and the cunning of the fox is necessary for detailed knowledge.

The attraction of wisdom, of the “one great thing,” remains tempting, of course. For the religiously inclined, “faith” trumps all annoying little facts that stand in the way of received or revealed wisdom. No greater nor more concise expression of the fallacy of faith can be found than in the Epistle of Paul to the Hebrews 11:1, which states that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” This celebration of delusion is one of the strongest weapons which scientists have at hand when confronted by those who seek to deny what is factually in evidence.

Gould, however, is sensitive to the idea that scientists, whose stock in trade is detailed data, are no less susceptible than ordinary mortals to grand schemes. He therefore sets out a case against the attraction of “reductionism.” His particular adversary is E. O. Wilson, whose volume, Sociobiology (2000 [1975]) is iconic for what is now called “evolutionary psychology” and whose more recent work, Consilience (2000 [1975]) stays the reductionist course. Whereas students of the humanities are easily gulled by gods, historicism, logocentrism, Hegelianism in its manifold forms, old-fashioned Whiggery and ideal universes of various sorts—all hedgehog ventures, to be sure—some scientists also have shown a remarkable tendency to bloat the cunning of the fox. Small details, duly guided by several sort of determinism, encourage what is called reductionism, the hypothesis that all human behaviour, all life, all “all” can be reduced to minimalist physical reactions that can be captured by physics or, at most, chemistry.

This was the ideology that supported much genetic research (until we began to understand what genes were really all about) and gave us the illusion that anything from genius to psychopathology was sourced in our genes. It remains the dim hope of those who would like to locate the understanding of everything in some elegant, yet ultimately simple, formula.

Stephen Jay Gould first explained to us that science and the humanities were different. He then explained that both were apt to be seduced by delusions of grandeur. I, for one, wish that he had lived long enough to teach us the more important third lesson.

References

Berlin, I. (1953). The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History. London: George Wiedenfeld and Nicolson.

Gould, S. J. (1983). “Nonmoral Nature” in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History. New York: W. W. Norton: 32-45.

Gould, S. J. (1999) Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballantine.

Wilson, E. O. (1998). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Random House.

Wilson, E. O. (2000). Sociobiology: The New Synthesis – 25th Anniversary Edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at <howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca>.

Reviews

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