Pocket Protectors and Politics: Is (Stephen Jay Gould’s) Science Political?

Gould-evolution-coverChadwick Jenkins in Popmatters (via bookforum):

[S]o we come to the subject of this essay: David F. Prindle’s well intentioned but deeply flawed effort, Stephen Jay Gould and the Politics of Evolution. Prindle’s project is one that I cannot help but applaud. He endeavors to expose the deep connections between the political and the scientific beliefs of a prominent public figure.

By all rights, this ought to be a stellar book, but it quickly flounders in its inability to forge any real causal (or even implicative) connection between Gould’s politics and his science. Indeed, Prindle offers us an almost immediate opportunity to gauge his failure by providing a rare glance into the process of publication. He reproduces two reader reviews that he received from a publisher other than Prometheus Books.

One reader excoriates Prindle’s project as completely wrong-minded insofar as science is an objective pursuit and politics play no role. The other reader revealingly claims that Gould’s “political and social views biased his scientific views” and that these “social attitudes… led him to his exaggerated views on the role of chance in evolution” (p.12; emphases mine).

Now this leaves Prindle in a rather precariously moderate position, and in this case the moderate position is not necessarily the rational one. On the one hand, reader 1 disavows any linkage between the scientific and the political. On the other hand, reader 2 basically disavows anything resembling the scientific. Everything is simply political.

Both worldviews, at least, can claim to be coherent. Prindle, in attempting to forge a weakly buttressed middle ground, finds himself steeped in contradiction. The problem arises from the “Credo” he includes in his introduction, in which he proclaims that he believes that “there is such a thing as objective reality in nature, independent of the human mind” (p. 12). Only a few short pages later, Prindle asserts that Gould’s “scientific ideas were seamlessly wedded to his political positions, so that his methodological and philosophical stance always buttressed his political values and vice-versa” (emphasis mine).

Let us think about this carefully for a moment-something that Prindle obviously never bothered to do. There are only a few possibilities here:

1) Gould’s pursuit of scientific method led him to certain political beliefs (Prindle explicitly denies this);

2) Gould pursued science in a more or less purist manner and his scientific insights fortuitously coincided with his political outlook, in which case the science is all that truly matters (this approximates the first reader response that Prindle rejects);

3) Gould held certain political beliefs and he twisted his scientific outlook to buttress those beliefs (this conforms to the second reader response that Prindle’s Credo contradicts);

4) Gould’s political beliefs predisposed him to certain insights into the truth; and finally

5) by some magic coincidence, Gould’s science and his politics not only coincided but were mutually reinforcing.

Since Prindle rejects the first three positions, that leaves us only with the last two.