Nabokov and Gould

The Evolution of Butterflies--Nabokov v. Gould

If Nabokov was right was Gould wrong?

I would say that Gould was largely responding to the comments of people outside the historical sciences that the historical sciences are not science in the way Physics or Chemistry are.  (Nonsense and chauvinism, of course)  But he probably saw the chief criticism (Paleontologists as "stamp collectors") as fitting Nabokov par excellence.  He might have collected and studied the butterflies, but he didn't contribute anything radically new to understanding them.  Additionally, I would venture to guess that Gould would still support his main point.  Nabokov's work was not radically innovative or ground-breaking in any substantive sense.

I am only speculating.  But Gould tended to think of himself as something of a prose artist--and when he's at his artiest his writing and his clarity suffer correspondingly.  When he's producing wildly metaphorical works like "The Spandrel of San Marcos" and "D'Arcy Thompson and the Science of Form"  or most egregiously "The Paradox of the Third Tier"  both writing and science suffer.  Which is not to say that he was in any way anything less that a great scientist and a fine writer--but that sometimes the two seemed to get in each others' way with the resultant effect that neither message carried well.

In short, I find myself in a mid-position.  Even if Nabokov was right about the evolution and expansion of blues--it is the kind of small, but significant contribution made by one devoted to a small segment of the field.  I don't think it rises to the level of scientific genius--but it certainly is powerful and interesting work and deserves not to be neglected.  In other words, it is the valid result of good and carefully conducted research and clear thinking about the problem at hand.  A good and helpful discovery within its field, but genius?  That is so difficult to say.


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