Thursday, September 20, 2007

Science: mechanistic or narrative?

“Everyone needs a good mechanic” - Stephen Jay Gould

I'm going to take a break from the series on evolutionary misconceptions to comment on an epistemological dichotomy in science that never struck me before reading Gould.

It's taken me a long time to realise properly where my strengths lie. The clues have been there: predilections for pure mathematics, physics, puzzle solving, collecting and ordering. But long ago I was caught in a zeitgeist that said “anyone can do anything” if they set their mind and effort to it. My feeling is that it cropped up in particular in certain strands of feminist and Marxist analysis, specifically as a reaction to social determinism. There is some merit either way, but that's not where I'm headed here.

Yet I feel that it's possible to be happier and more successful in life if you can properly identify where your sympathies lie, and go with the grain rather than against it. [That is, if you have the time and luxury to properly follow that process to conclusion.]

I've been knocking around a lot (doesn't sound like Harvard material, does it?), but I've found that I'm more content and productive with the mental gymnastics of analytical work. Specifically, solving the puzzles in mechanics and number theory are more satisfying to me than constructing or deconstructing narrative.

The full quote above – from Gould's book Dinosaur In A Haystack – is:
“Everyone needs a good mechanic, including the heavens, but give me an earthly naturalist any day, for humans are storytellers.”

This is not to say that biology is not analytical or logic-based – far from it. But when Gould emphasises narrative over the “stasis” of the models made for mechanistic worlds, I have to put up my hand for a different kind of analysis. Not a more sophisticated form, but different. When Gould discusses mathematics and physics, he does so with an obviously cool appreciation, and acknowledges his distance from those disciplines.

A friend of mine, who is also very analytical,is not scientifically trained, but he is a very creditable amateur anthropologist and a particularly keen devourer of history. Needless to say, he likes narrative. But he can also discuss physics.

So is that a genuine dichotomy? Is physics hard and model-based, and biology infusive and narrational? In reality, they may be more like points on a spectrum. Across which, if we have the temperament, we can aim to stretch our capabilities.

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