Book Log – Full House by Stephen Jay Gould

Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin by Stephen Jay Gould


A fine book from that master teller of evolution’s tales.

The overall purpose of the book is to show how we must look at the whole of a situation, the “full house” of the title to see and understand patterns. Part of Darwin’s revolution that has not taken hold is that we, as people, do not represent the height of evolutionary progress, and in fact, are a fairly insignificant blip in the history of history. He uses some graphical and logical techniques to show:

a) The disappearance of the 0.400 hitter in baseball actually demonstrates improved play.

and

b) We are not living in the Age of Man. We are living in the Age of Bacteria, as it always have been since the dawn of life. Life has no inherent bias towards progress or complexity. It just sometimes happens that way.

These two items are related to each other by the concept of “walls”.

Mr. Gould theorizes a “right wall” of human achievement in baseball. In the beginning of the game, just about anybody could play, and the spread of ability was wide. In the book, he shows a bell curve with a wide bottom. You had a few aces, that could pound hell out of the ball, and were aided by the fact that there were only a few pitchers that could match those skills for hitting. The average hitter hit 0.260 back then, and they hit 0.260 now. But the variety of abilities was wider, and only a few touched the “right wall” of ability.

As baseball progressed, pitcher and batters improved in ability. If one advanced before the other, the rulemakers would adjust the rules to keep things in balance. Lower the mound, move it closer or further away from home base. Improve the gloves. Better shoes. Advanced training techniques. Advanced strategy. It’s an arms race of arms and bats. The whole of the bell curve moved to the right on the ability axis, but the average hitting stayed the same, because pitcher matched batter in advancement. But the spread of abilities shrunk, necessarily as the masses moved towards the right wall. A larger pool of people were allowed access (minorities, geographically), and more of the players were closer to the right wall.

So. We end up with fewer 0.400 hitters, because it takes more today to bat 0.400 than it did back then, but only because the overall level of play is higher, not because batters aren’t as good today.

With respect to humans and bacteria, there is a left wall of complexity. A living thing can only be so simple, and the history of life started with simplicity. Stephen uses the analogy of a drunk on a sidewalk. If to one side, the left, is the wall of a bar, and to the right a gutter, and the drunk randomly staggers back and forth, eventually he will end up in the gutter. Not because he has a penchant for reaching the gutter, but because random chance will eventually put him there.

So it is with complexity and progress in life. It may seem like we’ve been progressing from bacteria to fish to mammals to man with steady purpose, but really we’re just drunks in the gutter. The simple forms of life have continued to grow and change, such that the overwhelming majority of life is still bacteria. Overwhelming, I tell you. He goes on for pages about how much bacteria there is. Multicellular life is but a small, small twig on the evolutionary bush. Really, people, we don’t stand a chance. So start making nice to the little guys.

So that’s it. 0.400 hitters disappeared because we’re bouncing off the right wall of human ability, and humans came to exist because life just happened to bounce off the bar wall of simplicity and ended up in the gutter of self-consciousness.

There are two other little points the author makes worth noting.

The first is that Darwin never liked the term “evolution”, but grudgingly used it because it had become a popularized term by his second book. He preferred “descent with modification”. So the education person of Georgia who wanted to relabel “evolution” as “biological change over time” probably would have pleased Darwin. So, my apologies to them for thinking ill.

The second point was a final chapter rant about using the term “cultural evolution”. The author hates it, and wishes everyone would stop using it. The processes that change our culture have very little in common with the processes that cause evolution, even in a very metaphorical sense. So, stop using it, if you were. He recommends “Cutural change”.

And he’s dead now, so respect the man’s wishes.