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Stephen Jay Gould
Copyright Date: 1996
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Gould shows why a more accurate way of understanding our world is to look at a given subject within its own context, to see it as a part of a spectrum of variation and then to reconceptualize trends as expansion or contraction of this “full house” of variation, and not as the progress or degeneration of an average value, or single thing.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06339-6
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [ix]-[xii])
  3. A Modest Proposal
    (pp. 1-4)

    In an old literary theme, from Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son to Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, our most beloved child is often the most problematic and misunderstood among our offspring. I worry for Full House, my adored and wayward boy. I have nurtured this short book for fifteen years through three distinctly different roots (and routes): (1) an insight about the nature of evolutionary trends that popped into my head one day, revised my personal thinking about the history of life, and emerged in technical form as a presidential address for the Paleontological Society in...

  4. Part One How Shall We Read and Spot a Trend?

    • 1 Huxley’s Chessboard
      (pp. 7-16)

      We reveal ourselves in the metaphors we choose for depicting the cosmos in miniature. Shakespeare, unsurprisingly, saw the world as “a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Francis Bacon, in bitter old age, referred to external reality as a bubble. We can make the world really small for various purposes, ranging from religious awe before the even grander realm of God (“but a small parenthesis in eternity” according to Sir Thomas Browne in the mid-seventeenth century), to simple zest for life (as stated so memorably in a conversation between the paragons for such a position, Pistol and...

    • 2 Darwin Amidst the Spin Doctors
      (pp. 17-29)

      I have often had occasion to quote Freud’s incisive, almost rueful, observation that all major revolutions in the history of science have as their common theme, amidst such diversity, the successive dethronement of human arrogance from one pillar after another of our previous cosmic assurance. Freud mentions three such incidents: We once thought that we lived on the central body of a limited universe until Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton identified the earth as a tiny satellite to a marginal star. We then comforted ourselves by imagining that God had nevertheless chosen this peripheral location for creating a unique organism in...

    • 3 Different Parsings, Different Images of Trends
      (pp. 30-42)

      The more important the subject and the closer it cuts to the bone of our hopes and needs, the more we are likely to err in establishing a framework for analysis. We are story-telling creatures, products of history ourselves. We are fascinated by trends, in part because they tell stories by the basic device of imparting directionality to time, in part because they so often supply a moral dimension to a sequence of events: a cause to bewail as something goes to pot, or to highlight as a rare beacon of hope.

      But our strong desire to identify trends often...

  5. Part Two Death and Horses:: Two Cases for the Primacy of Variation

    • 4 Case One: A Personal Story
      (pp. 45-56)

      In 1982, at age forty, I was diagnosed with abdominal mesothelioma, a rare and “invariably fatal” form of cancer (to cite all official judgments at the time). I was treated and cured by courageous doctors using an experimental method that can now save some patients who discover the disease in an early stage.

      The cancer survivors’ movement has spawned an enormous literature of personal testimony and self-help. I value these books, and learned much from them during my own ordeal. Yet, although I am a writer by trade, and although no experience could possibly be more intense than a long...

    • 5 Case Two: Life’s Little Joke
      (pp. 57-74)

      The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best—and therefore never scrutinize or question. Ask anyone to name the most familiar of all evolutionary series and you will almost surely receive, as an answer: horses, of course. The phyletic racecourse from small, many-toed protohorses with the charming name eohippus, to a big, single-toed Clydesdale hauling the Budweiser truck, or Man O’ War thundering down the stretch, must be the most pervasive of all evolutionary icons. Does any major museum not have a linear series of cases against a long wall, or up the center of a main...

  6. Part Three The Model Batter:: Extinction of 0.400 Hitting and the Improvement of Baseball

    • 6 Stating the Problem
      (pp. 77-79)

      During my lifetime, two events clearly stand out above all others as milestones in the history of batting in baseball: Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six-game hitting streak (see page 32), and Ted Williams’s seasonal batting average of 0.406. Unfortunately, I missed them both because I was too busy gestating during the season of their joint occurrence in 1941. Boston Red Sox manager Joe McCarthy had offered to let Williams sit out the meaningless doubleheader of the season’s last day (the Yankees had clinched the pennant long before). Williams’s average stood at 0.3995, and would have rounded up to an even 0.400. No...

    • 7 Conventional Explanations
      (pp. 80-88)

      More ink has been spilled on the disappearance of 0.400 hitting than on any other statistical trend in baseball’s history. The particular explanations have been as varied as their authors, but all agree on one underlying proposition: that the extinction of 0.400 hitting measures the worsening of something in baseball, and that the problem will therefore be solved when we determine what has gone wrong.

      This chorus of woe may be divided into two subchoirs, the first singing a foolish tune that need not long detain us, the second more worthy of our respect as an interesting error reflecting the...

    • 8 A Plausibility Argument for General Improvement
      (pp. 89-97)

      However tempted we may be to indulge in fanciful reveries about dedication during “the good old days,” the accepted notion that decline in batting skills caused the extinction of 0.400 hitting just doesn’t make sense when we consider general patterns of social and sports history during the twentieth century. This context, on the contrary, almost guarantees that hitting has improved along with almost anything else we can measure at the apogee of human achievement. Consider just three of many arguments that virtually cement the case, even before we examine a single baseball statistic.

      1. Larger pools and better training. In 1900,...

    • 9 0.400 Hitting Dies as the Right Tail Shrinks
      (pp. 98-110)

      Granting the foregoing argument that hitting must be improving in some absolute sense as the best athletes first rush, and then creep, toward the right wall of biomechanical limits on human performance, only one traditional explanation remains unrefuted for viewing the extinction of 0.400 hitting as the deterioration of something at bat—the possibility that, while hitting has improved, other opposing activities (pitching and fielding) have gotten better, even faster, leading to a relative decline in batting performance.

      This last holdout of traditionalism fails the simplest and most obvious test of possible validity. If pitching and fielding have slowly won...

    • 10 Why the Death of 0.400 Hitting Records Improvement of Play
      (pp. 111-128)

      So far I have only demonstrated a pattern based on unconventional concepts and pictures. I have not yet proposed an explanation. I have proposed that 0.400 hitting be reconceptualized as an inextricable segment in a full house of variation—as the right tail of the bell curve of batting averages—and not as a self-contained entity whose disappearance must record the degeneration of batting in some form or other.

      In this different model and picture, 0.400 hitting disappears as a consequence of shrinking variation around a stable mean batting average. The shrinkage is so exceptionless, so apparently lawlike in its...

    • 11 A Philosophical Conclusion
      (pp. 129-132)

      Some people regard this explanation as a sad story. One can scarcely decry a general improvement in play, but the increasing standardization thus engendered does seem to remove much of the fun and drama from sports. The “play” in play diminishes as activities become ever more “scientific” in the pejorative sense of operating like optimized clockwork. Perhaps no giants inhabited the earth during baseball’s early days, but the best then soared so far above the norm that their numbers seemed truly heroic and otherworldly, while our current champions cannot rise nearly so far above the vastly improved average.

      But I...

  7. Part Four The Modal Bacter:: Why Progress Does Not Rule the History of Life

    • 12 The Bare Bones of Natural Selection
      (pp. 135-146)

      I quote verbatim from a discussion held in 1959:

      Huxley: I once tried to define evolution in an overall way somewhat along these lines: a one way process, irreversible in time, producing apparent novelties and greater variety and leading to higher degrees of organization.

      Darwin: What is “higher”?

      Huxley: More differentiated, more complex, but at the same time more integrated.

      Darwin: But parasites are also produced.

      Huxley: I mean a higher degree of organization in general, as shown by the upper level attained.

      Charles Darwin died in 1882, Thomas Henry Huxley in 1895—so, unless I am reporting a seance,...

    • 13 A Preliminary Example at Smallest Scale, with Some Generalities on the Evolution of Body Size
      (pp. 147-166)

      In the case of 0.400 hitting, I spoke of a limit or “right wall” of human biomechanical possibility, and I illustrated the decrease in variation of batting averages as the full house of hitters moved toward this upper bound. In this section on complexity in the history of life, I shall present something close to a “mirror image” case—an increase in total variation by expansion away from a lower limit, or “left wall,” of simplest conceivable form. The cases may seem quite different at first: improvement in baseball as decrease in variation by scrunching up against a right wall...

    • 14 The Power of the Modal Bacter, or Why the Tail Can’t Wag the Dog
      (pp. 167-216)

      I believe that the most knowledgeable students of life’s history have always sensed the failure of the fossil record to supply the most desired ingredient of Western comfort: a clear signal of progress measured as some form of steadily increasing complexity for life as a whole through time. The basic evidence cannot support such a view, for simple forms still predominate in most environments, as they always have. Faced with this undeniable fact, supporters of progress (that is, nearly all of us throughout the history of evolutionary thought) have shifted criteria and ended up grasping at straws. (The altered criterion...

    • 15 An Epilog on Human Culture
      (pp. 217-230)

      Most of this chapter has focused on constraints imposed by life’s origin at a left wall of minimal complexity, followed by a passive trend to the right as life diversified. As in all other examples for this book, I emphasized how explicit consideration of all the variation (the “full house”) can engender proper understanding, while the old Platonic strategy of abstracting the full house as a single figure (an average construed as an archetype, or an extreme example to excite our wonder or horror), and then tracing the pathway of this single figure through time, usually leads to error and...

  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 231-237)
  9. Index
    (pp. 238-244)