Dinosaurs in the
Does it matter whether a world ends with a bang or a whimper?
by Stephen Jay Gould
The fashion industry thrives on our need to proclaim an identity from
our most personal space. For academics, who by stereotype (although not
always in actuality) scorn the sartorial mode, office doors serve the
same function. Professorial entranceways are festooned with testimonies
of deepest beliefs and strongest commitments. We may, as a profession,
have a deserved reputation for lengthy and tendentious proclamation, but
our office doors feature the gentler approach of humor or epigram. The
staples of this genre are cartoons (with Gary Larson as the unchallenged
número uno for scientific doors) and quotations from
gurus of the profession.
Somehow, I have never been able to put someone else's cleverness so
close to my soul. I wear white T-shirts, and although I wrote the preface
to one of Gary Larson's Far Side collections, I would never identify
my portal with his brilliance. But I do have a favorite quotation--one
fit for shouting from the housetops (if not for inscription on the doorway).
My favorite line, from Darwin of course, requires a little explication.
Geology, in the late eighteenth century, had been deluged with a rash
of comprehensive, but mostly fatuous, "theories of the earth"--extended
speculations about everything, generated largely from armchairs. When
the Geological Society of London was inaugurated in the early nineteenth
century, the founding members overreacted to this admitted blight by essentially
banning all theoretical discussion from their proceedings. Geologists,
they ruled, should first establish the facts of our planet's history by
direct observation, and then, at some future time when the bulk of accumulated
information becomes sufficiently dense, move to theories and explanations.
Darwin, who had such a keen understanding of fruitful procedure in science,
knew in his guts that theory and observation are Siamese twins. They are
intertwined and continually interacting; one cannot perform first while
the other waits in the wings. In a letter to Henry Fawcett in 1861, Darwin
reflected on the false view of earlier geologists. In so doing, he outlined
his own conception of proper scientific procedure in the best one-liner
ever penned. The last sentence is indelibly impressed on the portal to
About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only
to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at
this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles
and describe the colors. How odd it is that anyone should not see that
all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any
The point should be obvious. Immanuel Kant, in a famous quip, said that
concepts without percepts are empty, whereas percepts without concepts
are blind. The world is so complex; why should we strive to comprehend
with only half our tools? Let our minds play with ideas, let our senses
gather information, and let the rich interaction proceed as it must (for
the mind processes what the senses gather, while a disembodied brain,
devoid of all external input, would be a sorry instrument indeed).
Yet scientists have a peculiar stake in emphasizing fact over theory,