Pocket Protectors and Politics

Is (Stephen Jay Gould’s) Science Political?

by Chadwick Jenkins

7 January 2010

Our biology granted us a faculty (rationality) that allows us, when desirable or necessary, to deny aspects of our biology.
Stephen Jay Gould, 1991 

We are no longer comfortable with the notion of purity. Perhaps this is our postmodern cross to bear (the very image of a “postmodern” cross, of course, reeking with the irony that buttresses so much that passes for the postmodern).

Plato believed that speculative thought led to the true reality. Experience deceived insofar as everything we actually experienced was subject to change. Truth was the immutable. Reality was borne by thought, not by concrete experience.

Thus abstract science (in this case, philosophy) revealed to us the truth of the cosmos and that truth was perforce consistent, rational, and pure. Even Aristotle (a far more down-to-earth philosopher) recommended a separation between the purity of the speculative and the messiness of the pragmatic.

These days, thinkers (and those that pass for thinkers) have mostly abjured the notion of purity and of truth. Instead, we have (wittingly or no) misinterpreted the Nietzschean insistence upon perspectivism in order to disavow any notion of an objective truth. Things are how I see them—at least for me. How you see them may be another matter, but most of our contemporary thinkers don’t really care what you see.

Let’s take an admittedly glib, but nonetheless apt, example: the U.S. Supreme Court’s the Supreme Court’s newest justice, Sonia Sotomayor. She has spent a decent amount of time recently defending her “Wise Latina” quip (the assertion that she “would hope” a Latina would make a better judge than a white man). She claims it was a rhetorical flourish that fell flat. If that is the case, she is a rather poor rhetorician insofar as she used the same flourish in several speeches.

No matter. The point is that in those speeches she claims, in contradistinction to Sandra Day O’Connor, that there simply is no objectivity. (O’Connor wrote that a wise man and a wise woman would basically come to the same judgment.) According to Sotomayor (and in conformity to Obama’s search for a justice of “empathy”), there is a qualitative difference between judgments made by people of different backgrounds.

Now this means one of two things. Either it means that Latinos are inherently closer to the truth of the world than anyone else (in which case it is a blatantly racist remark) or it means, ultimately, that there is no possibility of any such thing as objectivity. Period.

Let me make myself clear—or perhaps transparent. I am a Sotomayor supporter. I agree with nearly all of her court decisions. I firmly believe that she was rightly appointed. I also firmly believe that her “Wise Latina” speech is wrongheaded and counterproductive.

This is not what Nietzsche meant by his perspectivism. The fact that I am limited in my point of view does not mean that there is not an objective truth. It only means that my access to that truth is partial. There is a huge divide between this assertion and Sotomayor’s.

It may be the case (and always was the case, as Plato would acknowledge) that our access to truth is skewed by perspective, but that ought not to lead us to disavow our endeavor to reach the truth insofar as we are capable of it. It is a cheap truism that my experiences inform my ability to judge. An attempt to overcome the limitations of experience is the sign of a true judge (the very kind of judge I believe Sotomayor to be, despite her flawed rhetoric).

cover art

Stephen Jay Gould and the Politics of Evolution

David F. Prindle

US: May 2009

And so 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).

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