Critique On “Darwin’s Middle Road” by Stephan Gould

During the late 1900s, the interest of the general public was piqued by a series of eloquently expressed essays by Harvard Professor Stephan Jay Gould, published in the magazine Natural History. Spanning over a period of 27 years, his monthly columns explored an array of various themes; primarily the social inequalities constructed by the ideology of biological determinism prevalent in the academic world during his time as well as to question conventional ways of thinking, particularly in his essay ‘Darwin’s Middle Road’ published in December, 1979. Here, Gould introduces to his readers, in a very detailed and contemplative manner, different schools of thought; skillfully employing various analogies and illustrations to simplify otherwise perplexing phenomena and successfully conveying his ideas to the readers. However, he fails to represent both sides of the argument fairly, occasionally slipping into a condescending tone, hence reducing the overall credibility of his essay. Gould presents to the readers, two extremes of the spectrum of scientific research; namely ‘inductivism’ and ‘eurekaism’, meticulously providing the elaborate definitions and drawbacks of both these approaches. In painstaking detail, Gould discusses the evolutionary theory presented by Darwin as a result of an elaborate process of research in contrast to a sudden inspiration as Darwin leads us to believe in his autobiography. Gould then suggests that the ultimate solution to any enigma is an amalgamation of the deductive reasoning as well as creativity and luck.

Gould presents to the readers, two extremes of the spectrum of scientific research; namely ‘inductivism’ and ‘eurekaism’, meticulously providing the elaborate definitions and drawbacks of both these approaches. In painstaking detail, Gould discusses the evolutionary theory presented by Darwin as a result of an elaborate process of research in contrast to a sudden inspiration as Darwin leads us to believe in his autobiography. Gould then suggests that the ultimate solution to any enigma is an amalgamation of the deductive reasoning as well as creativity and luck. Throughout the essay, Gould manages to maintain a contemplative tone; although at several instances his vocabulary betrays the bias he feels towards different subjects. Gould uses the essay to explore each matter that he mentions in a detailed and reflective manner, hence achieving a deeply philosophical effect. This entices the reader to continue reading until the very end. By mentioning the works of several notable figures of science, including Charles Darwin, Gould attempts to impress upon his readers the academic validity of his arguments, reinforcing the aforementioned philosophical effect. Furthermore, by frequently discussing and drawing analogies from various different fields of discipline, Gould creates in his essay an aura of intense contemplation. However, he fails to remain objective while discussing these different themes. His use of phrases such as ‘inductivity claimed’, ‘for it touted’ and ‘an alternative equally extreme and unproductive’ reveal his skeptic attitude towards the main supporters of the theories and to further emphasize his incredulity he occasionally uses satire.

Throughout the essay, Gould manages to maintain a contemplative tone; although at several instances his vocabulary betrays the bias he feels towards different subjects. Gould uses the essay to explore each matter that he mentions in a detailed and reflective manner, hence achieving a deeply philosophical effect. This entices the reader to continue reading until the very end. By mentioning the works of several notable figures of science, including Charles Darwin, Gould attempts to impress upon his readers the academic validity of his arguments, reinforcing the aforementioned philosophical effect. Furthermore, by frequently discussing and drawing analogies from various different fields of discipline, Gould creates in his essay an aura of intense contemplation. However, he fails to remain objective while discussing these different themes. His use of phrases such as ‘inductivity claimed’, ‘for it touted’ and ‘an alternative equally extreme and unproductive’ reveal his skeptic attitude towards the main supporters of the theories and to further emphasize his incredulity he occasionally uses satire; for example when he says of eurekaism that ‘we ordinary mortals must stand in awe and thanks’. Outspoken in his views, Gould uses emotional phrases such as ‘equally disenchanted’ together with a frequent use of first pronouns. All of these aspects of his writing combine to allow Gould to voice his thoughts on the matter; transforming him from a neutral observer of these scientific dilemmas to a highly knowledgeable scholar with firm opinions that he argues with subjective zeal.




In explaining the technical details, it has to be observed that Gould’s attention to details is his most prominent strength when addressing his literary work. His ability to deconstruct complex theories into simple concepts helps him present his ideas and arguments with startling clarity, easily understandable for the general public to whom this article is being addressed. At every turn in his essay, Gould provides an explanation of the origin of the term as well as a brief definition of it, hence ensuring his audience faces no difficulties in grasping the crux of his arguments. For instance, he provides the meaning of the term inductivism in the fourth paragraph as a theory that holds ‘that great scientists are primarily great observers and patient accumulators of information’ (434). For Gould and his colleagues, this term may have been a part of a vocabulary used in everyday life, requiring no extended definition or explanation. However, Gould made sure that by defining it, he does not alienate the public, which after all is his main audience. By hence stepping out of his own social spheres, realizing the characteristics of his readers and connecting with them thus, Gould demonstrates admirable acuity of mind. This commendable quality of this can be observed in different instances of the essay, such as when he explains the phenomena of eurekaism as ‘an ineffable something, accessible only to persons of genius’ (434). He then also provides us with the historical origin of the term ‘Eureka’ in the fifth paragraph (435), helping the readers to thoroughly understand the name, and appreciate its historic significance. As a consequence, not only does the audience truly understand the arguments to its cores but is also able to truly appreciate the various views that follow.

Although his definitions are more than enough to help the audience understand the terms he is discussing, Gould follows these explanations with metaphorical illustration and imagery; examples from ordinary lives in order to clarify the abstruse ideas. At the start of the essay, he relates the approach of inductivism to the building of a house implying that a theory cannot be formed until the concrete facts are laid down, much as a building cannot take form without bricks (343). This particular comparison allows the readers to view this theory in a three-dimensional structure, understanding the theory that science relies heavily on strong, factual evidence. He also describes eurekaism as a ‘bolt that strikes only a few special people’ (343). Here, the audience i.e. the regular public will be able to comprehend eurekaism as an event where a lightning bolt strikes a person. This incidence (lightning bolt) is well known for all sorts of people, as is the circumstance where it falls upon certain people. Those who have not experienced this, are not able to truly envision what the encounter entails, much as those who are not ‘persons of genius’ cannot contribute significantly to the wonders of science. These analogies are cleverly chosen; capturing perfectly the meaning of the terms as Gould intends to portray them. Instants, where Gould uses imagery primarily to emphasize a statement, include, in paragraph eighteen, his description of Darwin’s evolutionary theory at a particular instant as a ‘jigsaw puzzle…missing a piece or two at the time’ (438); implying that the elaborate inductive method of research had almost completed the theory. Gould hence provides the audience with the ability to compare unknown, esoteric objects and theories with images and items they might find familiar, hence allowing them to fully understand, in great detail, the arguments he is attempting to convey.

This heavy use of metaphors is accompanied also by the significant amount of illusion. Peppered throughout his essay are references to mythical or historical events for example when he refers to Christian Evangelists and the golden mean of Aristotle in the second paragraph (434). These have been used to either to provide another phenomenon with a common thread as his topic of discussion or to, once again, provide further clarity for the concepts he is mentioning. Further examples include his allusion to ‘heroic tales from Washington’s cherry tree to the piety of Crusaders’ in paragraph eleven; events he labels as myths, results of false hope in the same vein as Darwin’s discovery of the finches in depicted to be (436). One particular example stands out from the rest; ‘Darwin’s own Odyssey’ (435), a description for Darwin’s search for an answer to the sundry circumstances he is facing. This allusion to a Greek legend who already been mentioned in great detail at the very start of the essay contributes significantly to maintaining fluidity in the essay. By masterfully connecting the introduction to the rest of the essay ensures a smooth transition for the reader, who is able to effectively link new ideas to the concepts previously described by Gould. This strength, however, acts a double-edged sword. Whilst it does present some readers with a deeper familiarity with an unknown topic, it operates under the assumption that the reader is well acquainted with the events Gould is alluding to. In this regard, Gould fails to connect with his readers, unable to provide recognizable landscapes for the readers to navigate. Instead, a substantial portion of his audience may be bombarded with references to events they know nothing about. For instance, the legend of George Washington and his father’s cherry tree, first mentioned by Weems (8-9), or the golden mean of Aristotle, might not be known to some readers and the mention of these will only serve to further enhance the state of confusion said reader finds him/herself in. Furthermore, these frequent digressions often create disruptions in an otherwise smooth flow of the essay. Although Gould does provide references to a few, simple phrases such as ‘frying pan and the fire’ in the second paragraph (434) such examples are sparse compared to the abundance of the enigmatic allusions found in the text. This forces the reader to question whether Gould kept in mind his intended audience when making such references. Overall, consequently, the elementary effect of the text, produced by the previously discussed definitions, is diminished and the simple elegance constructed by Gould to help the general public maneuver through the difficult terms is compromised.




This strength, however, acts a double-edged sword. Whilst it does present some readers with a deeper familiarity with an unknown topic, it operates under the assumption that the reader is well acquainted with the events Gould is alluding to. In this regard, Gould fails to connect with his readers, unable to provide recognizable landscapes for the readers to navigate. Instead, a substantial portion of his audience may be bombarded with references to events they know nothing about. For instance, the legend of George Washington and his father’s cherry tree, first mentioned by Weems (8-9), or the golden mean of Aristotle, might not be known to some readers and the mention of these will only serve to further enhance the state of confusion said reader finds him/herself in. Furthermore, these frequent digressions often create disruptions in an otherwise smooth flow of the essay. Although Gould does provide references to a few, simple phrases such as ‘frying pan and the fire’ in the second paragraph (434) such examples are sparse compared to the abundance of the enigmatic allusions found in the text. This forces the reader to question whether Gould kept in mind his intended audience when making such references. Overall, consequently, the elementary effect of the text, produced by the previously discussed definitions, is diminished and the simple elegance constructed by Gould to help the general public maneuver through the difficult terms is compromised. Another glaring weakness of the text is the lack of examples it produces to support its claim and unfair representation of both theories in the singular example he gives. Much of the essay is dedicated to Darwin’s quest in search of an ultimate evolutionary theory and in systemically debunking Darwin’s autobiography. Although Gould provides sound evidence for his claims, in form of the works Howard E. Gruber and Silvan S. Schweber (438-9), these are directed solely to prove false Darwin’s claim that the idea of this theory came to him in a stroke of genius i.e.

Another glaring weakness of the text is the lack of examples it produces to support its claim and unfair representation of both theories in the singular example he gives. Much of the essay is dedicated to Darwin’s quest in search of an ultimate evolutionary theory and in systemically debunking Darwin’s autobiography. Although Gould provides sound evidence for his claims, in form of the works Howard E. Gruber and Silvan S. Schweber (438-9), these are directed solely to prove false Darwin’s claim that the idea of this theory came to him in a stroke of genius i.e. eurekaism. This is done by recounting an elaborate, and sometimes tedious, account of the role research played in the theory’s development. After reading this exhaustive description of inductivism, the impression is given that this particular method of thinking has a far more crucial part to play in science. This implication is substantially different from the conclusion, of ‘marrying both these views’, which Gould is attempting to draw. While it is easy to understand why Gould chose the infamous Darwin as his main subject, including a few more examples or scientific breakthroughs would have provided Gould the opportunity to reinforce his arguments and add all the more credibility to his work. Ideal examples could have included the pivotal, yet completely incidental, the discovery of penicillin by Dr. Alexander Fleming in 1928 (Lax). Such an example would have helped the readers identify several instances where both these methods play equally significant roles. As it is, Gould seems more preoccupied with providing his readers a complete and seemingly unnecessary background of Darwin’s work and research methods which ultimately result in discrediting eurekaism, thus undermining Gould’s thesis.
To conclude, Gould provides his readers with an informative and extensive essay, weaving into his words several vivid images and allusions as well as his own opinions on the discussion. He allows the readers to explore, in great detail, various instruments and methods used to produce the wondrous theories of science, and he achieves this by dissecting, in great detail, the quest of one of the most renowned scientists of this world. Throughout the essay, he demonstrates his masterful manipulation of words and crucial understanding of his audience. Providing more historical evidence for his ultimate theories would have helped Gould present a more solid and persuasive argument, allowing him to do justice to both theories. Nonetheless, he has managed, in a refreshing manner, to include his audience in his essays, and invite them, in simple yet elegant words, to an otherwise perplexing and baffling world of science.


Works Cited

Lax, Eric. The mold in Dr. Florey’s coat The story of the penicillin miracle. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2004. Print

Weems, Mason Locke. The Life of Washington the Great. Augusta, GA: George P. Randolph, (1806), Print.


Feature Image Credits: Stock Snap

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