THE HEDGEHOG, THE FOX,

AND THE MAGISTER'S POX

Mending the Gap Between

Science and the Humanities

By Stephen Jay Gould

Harmony. 274 pp. $25.95

Stephen Jay Gould, the admired science essayist and Harvard professor of evolutionary biology, died before he could polish the text of this rambling, periodically engaging but ultimately unsatisfying book. It's worth reading, but one must put up with an overly colloquial, long-winded style, a strain of self-importance and, finally, a tired if worthy argument espousing a "fruitful union of these seemingly polar opposites," science and the humanities.

Gould derives the first part of his title from a famous line of the ancient Greek poet Archilochus. In Erasmus's Adages, which he cites, the phrase can be clunkily Englished as "The fox devises many strategies; the hedgehog knows one great and effective strategy." (This will not replace the formulation used by Isaiah Berlin: "The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing.") Thus the two animals represent two approaches to survival, to thinking, to life: "Diversify and color, or intensify and cover. . . . Scramble or persist."

Yet even as he establishes this division, Gould knocks it down: Instead of choosing between either of these styles of thought, he says that science and the humanities should instead take up the philosophy of e pluribus unum, "one from many." That is, the rival disciplines should act as a hybrid, with the common goal of intellectual exploration. In fact, the two don't really compete with each other at all: Science seeks to understand the facts of nature, while the humanities address life's moral dilemmas, artistic creations and spiritual puzzlements. In short, both scientist and humanist should be flexible, though still willing to stand up for core truths.

To bolster his argument for cross-discipline cooperation, Gould looks at the background to several classics in the history of natural science: Conrad Gesner's Quadrupeds (1551), John Woodward's History of the Earth (1695), as well as works by Nehemiah Grew, John Ray and Ambroise Pare{acute}. Why these particular books? All of them are in Gould's library. In an aside, he explains that he wanted "to base a volume . . . upon largely unknown examples taken from specific passages in antiquarian books from my own collection." The result seems a little precious and rather hit or miss: Gould loosely describes his cherished treasures, talks about the lives of their authors and examines the impact of their ideas -- but seldom in what you'd call any real, satisfying depth. For instance, in his pages on Woodward's History of the Earth and Jonathan Swift's Battle of the Books he never mentions the leading contemporary authority on both, Joseph Levine, author of Dr. Woodward's Shield and Between the Ancients and the Moderns.

Few people doubt that scientists are often cultivated men and women, with interests far beyond the lab, who might well learn from their reading as well as from their research. But Gould has a hard time finding examples of humanists knowledgeable about or useful to science. For instance, he turns to Edgar Allan Poe's first published work, a book on conchology (yes, the study of mollusks and their shells), to show that the young writer was hired as co-author because he knew French. This, Gould gloats, is an item "that the literary critics never uncovered" and indicates that Poe "served science well because he possessed the humanist's skill of fluency in French." This strikes me as pathetically weak. To know French hardly makes one a humanist.

Similarly, Gould describes Nabokov's butterfly researches with surprising ignorance of the secondary sources. Critics, he claims, argue "that as a literary man, Nabokov used his knowledge of butterflies primarily as a source for metaphors and symbols." Hardly. Every knowledgeable Nabokovian makes the same general point as Gould: The Russian-American writer brought an equally rapt, exacting attention to both lepidoptery and fiction. Here, Gould could easily have cited Nabokov's revealing, and seemingly paradoxical, dictum that he believed in "the passion of science and the patience of poetry."

Gould's familiarity with the humanities is obviously that of a highly cultivated, wide-ranging evolutionary biologist -- in other words, enthusiastic, spotty and rather conventional. He's hardly a Renaissance man bestriding the two cultures. No shame in that, of course, but as a result he overlooks evidence that would support his case for "mending the gap between science and the humanities." For example, early on Gould debunks the view that science utilizes pure and unbiased observation, "for how could we ever discern a pattern, or see anything coherent, amid an infinitude of potential perceptions, unless we employed some theoretical expectation to guide our penetration of this plethora." Basically, this same approach -- sometimes referred to as "the hermeneutic circle" -- characterizes how critics come to understand any text or work of art: a back-and-forth motion between hypothesis and supporting evidence, each being modified as new details warrant.

Eventually, Gould moves on to a brief discussion of C.P. Snow's 1959 lectures, The Two Cultures, which he admits made an exaggerated argument (that physicists and English professors no longer spoke the same language or valued the same things). From here he segues into an account of the recent "Science Wars," when the new field of cultural studies dared to examine science as a social construct rather than a fortress of supposedly impartial factuality. He concludes that few scientists even knew about the critique, let alone cared -- hmm, that sounds like two cultures to me -- but agrees that science does need to be aware of prejudice (e.g. against women or African Americans) and sensitive to the deformation of research caused by, say, the need for funding. Who would argue with this?

In the last third of his book, Gould mounts an extended, detailed and relatively dense critique of Edward O. Wilson's Consilience. Sociobiologist Wilson -- also of Harvard -- hopes for the discovery of some underlying Theory of Everything, which will give unity to science and the humanities and anything else left lying around. Gould feels that this dream of unification, of finding the ultimate field theory of life, the universe and everything, is wrong-headed: Consilience should instead represent -- guess what? -- a harmonizing of science and the humanities, always recognizing their respective merits and spheres of activity. Here is by far the most closely argued part of The Fox, the Hedgehog and The Magister's Pox (this last phrase, by the way, referring not to syphilis but to the defacing of a text by a Catholic censor). Still, one feels the author growing shrill over Wilson's differing point of view.

In his last pages, Gould would appear to be calling for a change in the way we organize our universities:

"The sciences and humanities have everything to gain (and nothing to lose) from a consilience that respects the rich, inevitable and worthy differences, but that also seeks to define the broader properties shared by any creative intellectual activity, but so discouraged and so often forced into invisibility by our senseless (or at least highly contingent) parsing of academic disciplines. These professional divisions . . . became inadaptive long ago as meaningless separations became hardened by claims for superiority, jargon, incomprehension, ordinary pettiness, fights over university parking spaces, and simple lack of adventurous spirit, combined with the greatest natural impediments to any serious intellectual effort: God's unfortunate limitation of the day to a mere twenty-four hours, and our active professional careers to fewer years than threescore and ten."

Did I mention that Gould sometimes writes empurpled sentences that go on and on, rather like late Henry James? Or that they sometimes yearn to breathe free and so push hard against the confining bonds of grammar? Was this book dictated perhaps?

I'm sorry to be so critical of a revered contemporary "magister" -- one of Gould's favorite words -- who wrote so widely about natural history in a dozen volumes of essays. At his best, Stephen Jay Gould could paraphrase and popularize with the energy, authority and intelligence of another Wilson, the literary journalist Edmund Wilson. But not this time. No doubt publishers and family probably felt it their duty to bring out this final work, but I don't think many readers will find Gould's arguments original or satisfying. *

Michael Dirda's email address is dirdam@washpost.com. His online discussion of books takes place on Thursday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com

Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002)