Friday, April 29, 2016

A World from Dust Argues Against Gould's Book, Not Gould

Sometimes the most helpful comments are the asides. One of these happened a year ago with the second reader to finish the full draft of A World from Dust (to whom I am eminently grateful, by the way). He finished his email with "BTW, you really don't like Gould!" plus an emoticon. That took me back -- it prompted me to make it more clear in the draft that I was arguing against Gould's specific book and his "Tape of Life" theory, not the man himself. I'm not sure if I went far enough, because there seems to be a default assumption that debating a person's ideas involves debating the person himself.

Now that I've published an entire book structured around that argument, I suppose if I could go back and do it again (second edition?) I'd make a simple edit: search-and-replace all the references to "Gould" to make them say "Wonderful Life." I'm not arguing with the man so much as I'm arguing with his book. In terms of most of Gould's thinking, and most especially in his writing style, I came to praise Gould, not bury him. I only want to bury the "tape of life" (like the Atari ET game cartridges in the New Mexico desert?). Gould's innovative and, to use a word that's on its way out, disruptive thinking about evolutionary paths and mechanisms made the field what it is today.

The fact of the matter is that Gould wrote a lot about evolution and contingency, and it's clear that his views were much more nuanced than were contained in Wonderful Life. For example, his masterwork The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is much more detailed and less polemic than Wonderful Life. In Chapter 5 of A World from Dust, I wrote that finding a chemical origin of life reaction would show that the tape of life could be replayed. There's evidence Gould thought so too, and that he thought the tape of life could be replayed to that point.

But, and here's the rub, whatever Gould's views in the rest of his writing, it's Wonderful Life that everyone remembers. He was too good of a writer in that book. His sweeping, magisterial conclusions and quotes were so effective and unnerving that they drown out the nuance of his other works. It's Wonderful Life that people go out of their way to refer to when they talk about this, it's Wonderful Life that the papers in the beginning of my Chapter 12 cite, and it's Wonderful Life that has so undergirded the discourse that its "tape of life" quotes have become an unspoken default.

That's what A World from Dust argues against. Chapter 12 is all about how there should be an open conversation on this topic rather than a conversation-ending default. As that chapter discusses, genetic drift and random flow have their place on the local, species level, but on the planetary level, things become a lot more predictable. I'm not seeking a Kuhnian paradigm shift so much as a Hegelian dialectic -- not a revolution but a conversation.

So I hope it's clear, I do really "like" Gould. But he was just a man, and in his own way a product of his time. He was right on a lot of things and wrong on some other things. And, by writing Wonderful Life, he moved this important conversation forward. That's why it's worth talking about.

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