Dinosaurs in the Haystack

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 my psyche.

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 service!

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, percept