Thursday, 7 December 2006

The Hedgehog the Fox and the Magister’s Pox, Stephen Jay Gould, 2003

The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox Stephen Jay Gould, Jonathan Cape, 2003, 274 pages, hardback, NZ$59.95. ISBN 0-2240-6309-X

Completed just before he died, Stephen Jay Gould’s last book deals with a single, appropriately wide-ranging topic, although it also draws from some of his essays in the collection Dinosaur in a Haystack (1996). Using the subtitle “mending the gap between science and the humanities” Gould examines the often tense relationship between scientists (a job title only coined in 1834) and society. Galileo and Lavoisier are two of the better-known examples of the tension between scientists and the authorities, whether spiritual or secular, who seek to control thought.

In The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox Gould uses pages from historic science books (some containing fascinating handwritten additions) to illustrate the intellectual upheaval involved in the shift from relying on the classics to seeing that “personal observation must replace ancient testimony”. His shrewd comment - that a sheep is identified as a cloven-hoofed animal because one has looked at the hoof, not because Pliny said so – is a reminder of Gould’s skill at communicating concepts. He also displays his talent for debunking myths, finding odd connections, extolling knowledge, shattering preconceptions and exposing ‘creation scientists’ – “one of the greatest oxymorons of our time”.

Stephen Jay Gould’s final work draws together the odd trio of the title, Edgar Allan Poe as a shellfish-plagiarist, censorship, Pope’s Battle of the Books, art nouveau octopuses, Handel’s genius, burning books and invisible flamingos into a smoothly-linked exposition of ideas. It is a fitting memorial to a great communicator for both science and the humanities.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand in 2003

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