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A Reasonable Albeit Tentative Argument
on April 4, 2005
Stephen Jay Gould was a giant of evolutionary theory who, throughout the 1980s, was probably best-known to the general public as an anti-Creationism crusader. It was largely due to Gould's writings and testimony that Creationism is not treated as an equal alternative to Darwinian theory in many school districts around the country. He was a great scientist, but was also exceptionally political. Therefore, to those who knew him only from his public battles, "Rocks of Ages" came as a total shock. The book argues for an equal-yet-different importance of organized religion for our everyday lives. Throughout the book, Gould provides examples demonstrating that many of the so-called conflicts between science and religion are really conflicts of an entirely political nature.
I've occassionally recommended the book to students in my biology and history of psychology classes, and it always provokes a loud debate coupled with disappointment.
In order to understand this book, the reader needs to know that Gould was not only dying of cancer at the time, but was also married to a new wife in the arts. We can attribute his softened stance to these factors, as well as the relative sloppiness of his writing and the weaknesses of his central argument.
Gould's argument is likely to leave die-hards on both sides very unhappy. His position that religion and science are complimentary and equally valid is likely to work only within the confines of a liberal, secular culture in which religion is not interpreted as being literally true. Certainly, this is not a position many Fundamentalists would share, nor is it one that many scientists with axes to grind would agree with. His celebratory, back-slapping text gives one the impression that he is merely stating the obvious, which is very far from the truth. In nonsecular cultures, science and religion compete constantly for both influence and power. Therefore, his hypotheses, while reasonable, are unsatisfying.
There's little evidence of Gould's power as a compelling writer in this text. His sentences ramble, and the most lucid sections are paraphrasings of earlier writings. I've no idea what function, if any, his editor served but this book barely resembles a final draft. Despite its brevity, the book is exceptionally tedious and the blame lies squarely on Gould's shoulders. Given his stance as an agnostic, I found his frequent "Lord Knows" exclamations very patronizing. This is a major disappointment from the author of "Full House," "Mismeasure of Man," and "Bully for Brontosaurus."
This book is a useful introduction to the conflict between science and religion, but only for those willing to wade through it. Despite Gould's protestations, there is no consensus here. For a deeper discussion of the conflict between science and religion (or, even better, the conflict between science and religous belief - which is not synonymous with organized religion), you'll have to look elsewhere.