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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Jay Gould’

10 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Stephen Jay Gould, the Greatest Science Essayist of All Time, on Evolution and Storytelling

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“Any decent writer writes because there’s some deep internal need to keep learning.”

Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941–May 20, 2002) was a man of uncommon genius and arguably our era’s greatest science essayist. In March of 2000, he took part in the annual meeting of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, themed Challenges for the New Millennium, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Despite the poor sound and video quality, this interview recorded at the event takes us on a wide-ranging tour of Gould’s singular mind, exploring such timelessly fascinating subjects as the secret of great writing, the importance of history in science, the evolution of evolutionary theory, and the challenges to science literacy among the general public.

Transcript highlights below.

When the interviewer suggests that Gould is “a man on a mission to teach us how to think about evolution correctly,” he rebuts with a heartening testament to the only true reason to do anything, one articulated even more passionately by Ray Bradbury and by Charles Bukowski:

If I have a mission … and this might sound not exactly what you expect of people, but again, ask any writer and, on this note, nobody’ll tell you anything different … I write those essays for myself — any good writer has to. That is, of course I want to facilitate learning … it’s great, but I think if you did it only because you felt some desire to impart something to other folks [and] you weren’t doing it out of some deeply internal need, you could only do it for a while — once you got the success, there wouldn’t be an impetus anymore. I think any decent writer writes because there’s some deep internal need to keep learning.

On the qualities his favorite essays have in common:

The [essays] I like best best usually take up an unknown or an odd subject, something that was was never written about — but — if you can use something that is unknown to illustrate a larger generality, then I really get pleased.

On why pattern-recognition is the key to human creativity and fundamental to our evolutionary wiring for storytelling — something Gould himself excelled at:

The mind, basically, is a pattern-seeking machine… We tend to seek patterns… and then we tell stories about them. I think we’re pretty much conditioned to look for a pattern and to try to interpret it in terms of certain stories.

Though he shares some of Richard Feynman’s concerns about the failures of scientific culture in modern society, specifically regarding creationism vs. evolution, Gould holds greater faith in the supremacy of critical thinking over ignorance. When the interviewer marvels how he can be so popular given he writes about evolution in a country that still teaches creationism in some school curricula, Gould replies:

Why should it be contradictory that writers on evolution be popular? Creationism is a small, dogmatic minority in this country, and they make more noise than their numbers. And it’s a distressing issue, and it’s true that the vast majority of Americans don’t know a lot about the history of life and don’t think a lot about evolution — but it’s such an intrinsically fascinating subject that the majority of Americans are very favorable for science and very interested in it, and there’s hardly a concept that’s been discovered by science that’s more intrinsically exciting to people than evolution and the study of how life came to be as it is.

For more of Gould’s enduring genius of science communication, see his extensive literary legacy and the especially wonderful, bittersweet I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History — the tenth and final collection of his essays, originally released months after Gould’s death in 2002 and republished in 2012 with a brilliant cover by Sam Potts.

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23 MAY, 2013

Uncommon Genius: Stephen Jay Gould On Why Dot-Connecting Is The Key to Creativity

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“The trick to creativity, if there is a single useful thing to say about it, is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time.”

“Originality often consists in linking up ideas whose connection was not previously suspected,” wrote W. I. B. Beveridge in the fantastic 1957 tome The Art of Scientific Investigation. “The role of the imagination is to create new meanings and to discover connections that, even if obvious, seem to escape detection,” legendary graphic designer Paul Rand seconded. Indeed, longer ago than I can remember, I intuited the conviction that creativity is a combinatorial force — it thrives on cross-pollinating existing ideas, often across divergent disciplines and sensibilities, and combining them into something new, into what we proudly call our “original” creations. Paula Scher has likened the process to a slot machine; Dorion Sagan has asserted that science is about connections; Gutenberg has embodied it. And some of history’s most celebrated creators have attested to it with the nature of their genius.

A slim and near-forgotten but altogether fantastic 1991 book by Denise Shekerjian titled Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born (public library) synthesizes insights on creativity from conversations with 40 winners of the MacArthur “genius” grant — artists, writers, scientists, inventors, cultural critics.

In the first chapter, titled “Talent and The Long Haul,” Shekerjian seconds the notion that a regular routine is key to creativity:

There’s no use trying to deny it: a conscious application of raw talent, far more than luck or accident, is at the core of every creative moment. … The cultivation of aptitude, far more than coincidence or inspiration, is responsible for most creative breakthroughs.

[…]

The trick to creativity, if there is a single useful thing to say about it, is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time. Everyone has an aptitude for something. The trick is to recognize it, to honor it, to work with it. This is where creativity starts.

Among the geniuses illustrating her point is the great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, whom we lost eleven years ago this week and who has done more for the popular understanding of science than anyone since Carl Sagan by demonstrating why science and philosophy need each other with his singular blend of a humanist’s sensitivity and a scientist’s rigor. But Gould’s greatest gift, per his own account, is what Arthur Koestler has famously termed “bisociation” — the ability to link the seemingly unlinkable, which lies at the heart of innovation, the kind of pattern-recognition science says fuels creativity and is the architecture sustaining all “original thought.” Gould tells Shekerjian:

My talent is making connections. That’s why I’m an essayist. It’s also why my technical work is structured the way it is. How do the parts of the snail shell interact? What are the rates of growth? Can you see a pattern? I’m always trying to see a pattern in this forest and I’m tickled that I can do that. … I can sit down on just about any subject and think of about twenty things that relate to it and they’re not hokey connections. They’re real connections that you can forge into essays or scientific papers. When I wrote Ontogeny and Phylogeny I had no trouble reading eight hundred articles and bringing them together into a single thread. That’s how it went together. There’s only one way it goes together, one best taxonomy, and I knew what it was.

But this gift — the same crucial talent-of-the-future that Vannevar Bush identified in 1945 when he presaged “a new profession of trail blazers … who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record” — wasn’t, perhaps because of its abstract and thus intangible nature, easy for Gould to identify at first:

It took me years to realize that was a skill. I could never understand why everybody just didn’t do that. People kept telling me these essays were good and I thought, All right, I can write, but surely what I’m doing is not special. And then I found out that it’s not true. Most people don’t do it. They just don’t see the connections.

Gould notices another aspect of his poorly understood kind of genius — people’s tendency to conflate it with a kind of general-purpose, omniscient intelligence:

A lot of people think I’m very well read because I quote all these sources and they’re reasonable quotations. They’re not hokey. They’re not pulled out. And I keep telling them, ‘I’m not particularly well read. I just don’t forget anything.’

I’m not badly read — I’m just sort of an average intellectual in that respect — but the thing is, I can use everything I’ve ever read. Most people cannot do that. They’ll probably access just a couple of percent of what they have. So, therefore, when they see me citing so much they assume I have fifty times more but I don’t. I’m using a hundred percent of what I have. They’re using two percent of what they have.

With a sentiment Steve Jobs would come to echo just a few years later in his famous proclamation that “creativity is just connecting things,” Shekerjian summarizes:

Gould’s special talent, that rare gift for seeing the connections between seemingly unrelated things, zinged to the heart of the matter. Without meaning to, he had zeroed in on the most popular of the manifold definitions of creativity: the idea of connecting two unrelated things in an efficient way. The surprise we experience at such a linkage brings us up short and causes us to think, Now that’s creative.

But she concludes by emphasizing something celebrated creative minds like Alexander Graham Bell (“It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.”) and Thomas Edison (“Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.”) also knew — the idea that genius is nothing without consistent effort:

Stephen Jay Gould’s talent for forging vital connections happens to go to the heart of creativity, but, even so, it’s a talent that wouldn’t amount to much if he didn’t work at it. Endurance counts for a lot in cultivating talent to the point of being able to do creative things with it — endurance and a concentration of effort to a specific sphere of activity. As D. N. Perkins, another researcher in the field of creativity, put it: Be creative in a context, for to try to be original everywhere, all at once, all the time, is an exhausting proposition.

For more of Gould’s genius, see the indispensable I Have Landed — the tenth and final of his timeless essay anthologies, originally published in 2002 mere weeks after Gould passed away from cancer. As for Uncommon Genius, it is uncommonly excellent in its entirety.

Thanks, Ken

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17 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Charles Bukowski, Arthur C. Clarke, Annie Dillard, John Cage, and Others on the Meaning of Life

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“We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”

The quest to understand the meaning of life has haunted humanity since the dawn of existence. Modern history alone has given us a plethora of attempted answers, including ones from Steve Jobs, Stanley Kubrick, David Foster Wallace, Anais Nin, Ray Bradbury, and Jackson Pollock’s dad. In 1988, the editors of LIFE magazine posed this grand question head-on to 300 “wise men and women,” from celebrated authors, actors, and artists to global spiritual leaders to everyday farmers, barbers, and welfare mothers. In 1991, they collected the results, along with a selection of striking black-and-white photographs from the magazine’s archives that answered the question visually and abstractly, in The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here (public library). Here is a selection of the answers.

Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard:

We are here to witness the creation and abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.

According to the second law of thermodynamics, things fall apart. Structures disintegrate. Buckminster Fuller hinted at a reason we are here: By creating things, by thinking up new combinations, we counteract this flow of entropy. We make new structures, new wholeness, so the universe comes out even. A shepherd on a hilltop who looks at a mess of stars and thinks, ‘There’s a hunter, a plow, a fish,’ is making mental connections that have as much real force in the universe as the very fires in those stars themselves.

Ralph Morse

Albert Einstein's study shortly after his death, Princeton, New Jersey

Legendary science writer Stephen Jay Gould:

The human species has inhabited this planet for only 250,000 years or so-roughly.0015 percent of the history of life, the last inch of the cosmic mile. The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time–and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan.

Moreover, the pathways that have led to our evolution are quirky, improbable, unrepeatable and utterly unpredictable. Human evolution is not random; it makes sense and can be explained after the fact. But wind back life’s tape to the dawn of time and let it play again–and you will never get humans a second time.

We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer — but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves — from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way.

Bill Owens

Graduation dance

Frank Donofrio, a barber:

I have been asking myself why I’m here most of my life. If there’s a purpose I don’t care anymore. I’m seventy-four. I’m on my way out. Let the young people learn the hard way, like I did. No one ever told me anything.

Leonard Freed

Harlem summer day

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke:

A wise man once said that all human activity is a form of play. And the highest form of play is the search for Truth, Beauty and Love. What more is needed? Should there be a ‘meaning’ as well, that will be a bonus?

If we waste time looking for life’s meaning, we may have no time to live — or to play.

Franco Zecchin

Sicily

Literary icon John Updike:

Ancient religion and modern science agree: we are here to give praise. Or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention. Without us, the physicists who have espoused the anthropic principle tell us, the universe would be unwitnessed, and in a real sense not there at all. It exists, incredibly, for us. This formulation (knowing what we know of the universe’s ghastly extent) is more incredible, to our sense of things, than the Old Testament hypothesis of a God willing to suffer, coddle, instruct, and even (in the Book of Job) to debate with men, in order to realize the meager benefit of worship, of praise for His Creation. What we beyond doubt do have is our instinctive intellectual curiosity about the universe from the quasars down to the quarks, our wonder at existence itself, and an occasional surge of sheer blind gratitude for being here.

Abbas

Fireman at scene of bomb explosion, Belfast, Northern Ireland

Poet Charles Bukowski:

For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own God.

We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our educational system.

We are here to drink beer.

We are here to kill war.

We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.

We are here to read these words from all these wise men and women who will tell us that we are here for different reasons and the same reason.

Myron Davis

A boy and his dog, Iowa

Avant-garde composer and philosopher John Cage:

No why. Just here.

Duane Michals

The Human Condition

The Meaning of Life is a cultural treasure in its entirety, and the screen does the stunning photographs no justice — do grab yourself an analog copy.

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