Dawkins vs. Gould Part 3: The Aims and Limits of Science

Dawkins vs. Gould Part 3: The Aims and Limits of Science July 10, 2018

Finally, where do Dawkins and Gould differ in the matter of science itself?

In the first two installments of my review of Kim Sterelny’s Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest, I talked about how Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould differed in the way they conceptualized natural selection and in the way they described the history of the development of life on Earth. Now we look at the way these two scientists approach the history and methodology of empirical inquiry, and its strengths and limitations as a source of knowledge.

The Science Worshipper

Sterelny describes the way Dawkins defines science, with all its Pollyanna idealism and candle-in-the-dark rhetoric:

Dawkins is an old-fashioned science worshipper (Here I line up with him, not Gould). Like all scientists, he accepts the fundamental Popperian point that scientific theory is always provisional, always open to revision in the light of new evidence and new ideas. And he accepts, of course, that in the short run human error and human prejudice can block our recognition of important evidence and good ideas. But Dawkins is wholly untouched by the postmodern climate of current intellectual life. For him, science is not just one knowledge system among many. It is not a socially-constructed reflection of the dominant ideology of our times. To the contrary: though occasionally fallible, the natural sciences are our one great engine for producing objective knowledge about the world. In many cases, we can be confident that received scientific opinion is right, or very nearly right. And that knowledge is liberating. In short, for Dawkins science is not just a light in the dark. It is by far our best, and perhaps our only, light.

Anyone who has been involved in discussions here at Driven to Abstraction knows I think this sloganeering is a whitewash that has little to do with the reality of how science operates in our society. Nevertheless, it perfectly describes Dawkins’s dogma.

The fact that Dawkins is “wholly untouched by the postmodern climate of current intellectual life” is nothing for him to be proud of. This simply means that he has held to a nostalgic positivism that went out with the passenger pigeon, and kept his fingers in his ears when philosophers were analyzing the close relationship between knowledge and power. As the term “science worshipper” implies, Dawkins makes no effort to be objective about science’s limits or its downside.

Science As a Social Practice

Gould’s attitude toward the nature and limitations of empirical inquiry is a lot more nuanced. His essays about scientific matters are investigations of the cultural context of how knowledge is created, and he treats inquiry as a form of storytelling that reveals a lot about the aims and biases of its practitioners. Though a prominent scientist, Gould cautions that science can’t answer all meaningful questions about our world; he is suspicious of attempts to apply scientific methodology to social and cultural issues.

To Gould, the idea that a prestigious and profitable institution like science, with its vast social influence, is free of bias or vested interests borders on magical thinking. His approach to the social practice of science is similar to that of Thomas Kuhn, who rejected the idea that scientists are always ruthlessly subjecting their ideas to testing and criticism. Instead, Kuhn described scientists as working within a particular paradigm, and spending most of their time validating rather than testing the theories they support.

Science That Oppresses

Gould also spends a lot of time and effort talking about how science—particularly as it relates to human evolution—has been used in ways that have oppressed and marginalized. His book The Mismeasure of Man is about science as a legitimating institution, and how white Westerners have tried to apply science to validate their dominance and superiority over the “lesser races.” Its reissue contained an addendum on the shoddy research contained in The Bell Curve, which supposedly demonstrated that there are race-based disparities in IQ. Recently Charles Murray, one of the authors of The Bell Curve, was featured on Sam Harris’s podcast; Harris treated him like a respectable researcher whose work had been unfairly maligned by regressive leftists.

In one of his essays in Dinosaur in a Haystack, Gould makes clear his idea of science as a problematic human endeavor; in our dialogue with nature, we often hear what we want to hear:

I shall not, in this forum or anywhere, resolve the age-old riddle of epistemology: How can we “know” the “realities” of nature? I will, rather, end by simply restating a point well recognized by philosophers and self-critical scientists, but all too often disregarded at our peril. Science does progress toward more adequate understanding of the empirical world, but no pristine, objective reality lies “out there” to capture as our technologies improve and our concepts mature. The human mind is both an amazing instrument and a fierce impediment—and the mind must be interposed between observation and understanding. Thus we will always “see” with the aid (or detriment) of conventions. All observation is a partnership between mind and nature, and all good partnerships require compromise. The mind, we trust, will always be constrained by a genuine external reality; this reality, in turn, must be conveyed to the brain by our equally imperfect senses, all jury-rigged and cobbled together by that maddeningly complex process known as evolution.


The difference between how Dawkins and Gould each define science, and the nature of inquiry itself, couldn’t be more striking.

Whose ideas make more sense to you? Can science be separated from the activity of those who practice it? Are there cultural aspects to inquiry that we need to acknowledge?

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