Stephen Gould Addresses Annual Phi Beta Kappa LectureNov. 16, 2000
Contemporary scientist Stephen Jay Gould spoke to a full house in Jones Concert Hall last week, discussing the inevitability and value of contingency and unpredictability in the natural world.
Using references on a variety of topics - from sports to movies - Gould outlined two main arguments for why predicting the future is a virtual impossibility. His speech, "Questioning the Millennium: Why We Cannot Predict the Future," was Baylor University's annual Roy B. Albaugh Phi Beta Kappa lecture.
"There are two great reasons why we cannot predict the future," Gould explained to the crowd of faculty, staff, students and visitors. "The first is the nature of the mind. Man's mind is too limited to do this. Second, so far as we can tell, the world doesn't seem to work in a way that is conducive to predictability."
He conceded that there is some measure of predictability within the natural laws of science. However, when people seek to know the future, their questions usually lie outside the parameters of natural law foresight. "Their questions are not of a predictability nature, but very specific. Will culture survive? Will arts and industry continue? Will the greenhouse effect melt all of the earth's ice?"
For his first argument - that man's mind is too limited for predicting the future - Gould gave two major points to support this idea.
First, he said the mind is not a machine but is subject to predisposition and prejudice. "It's hard to know which factors are true certainties and which are influenced certainties," Gould said.
Second, he said the mind is not a good instrument for prediction because it tends to work on a system of patterns. "The human mind seeks a device. Homosapiens take information in patterns and tell stories. The problem is that when we try to think of the future, we try to see patterns," he said. Because of this, there is little room for error in terms of the unpredictable.
Gould said that for the most part, humans are not comfortable when we cannot predict a series of events, such as the history of life. "We have suspicions that life was an accident but we don't like that. We want to see the process of evolution. Without it, we have great anxiety. Overcoming that anxiety, however, can be quite liberating."
In summary, Gould said that however factual nature is, it cannot be without the influence of things like religion and philosophy. Humans should therefore embrace randomness not as a basis, but as a key component in understanding our world.
He ended his speech with a slide presentation showing pop culture's preoccupation with the evolution of man, particularly the pictorial of man moving from animal to human including cartoon excerpts and various covers of his own books.
Gould's lecture brought laughter and applause from an attentive crowd during his nearly two-hour presentation, which ended with an unannounced question-and-answer session in which he took about 10 questions from the audience.
Dr. Wade Rowatt, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, said he enjoyed Gould's visit and presentation.
"I appreciated Gould's cross-disciplinary perspectives on who we are, where we've been, how we think, and why it's so difficult to predict the future," Rowatt said. "Although some might constructively criticize his somewhat extemporaneous speaking style, I thought it allowed him to model how he thinks about complex and profound issues. His responses to some of the questions posed by students during the Q & A time were particularly insightful."
Dr. Ben Pierce, associate dean for sciences in the college of arts and sciences and professor of biology, got a sneak preview of Gould during his time in Waco.
"I had the honor of picking up Gould from the airport, and the two of us spent over an hour together prior to his lecture talking about a variety of topics," Pierce said. "It was one of the most enjoyable times I have spent in my entire academic career."
As for the lecture, Pierce said he was extremely pleased. "I thought Gould's lecture was insightful and thought-provoking. I have heard him speak on several occasions and have always come away stimulated and excited about science. He did a marvelous job of weaving together evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology, history and even sports into a thought-provoking discussion about making predictions."
Gould earned his undergraduate degree in geology from Antioch College in 1963 and earned a Ph.D. in paleontology from Columbia University in 1967. He currently is the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and professor of geology at Harvard University, curator of Invertebrate Paleontology in the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology and adjunct member of the department of the history of science. His courses include paleontology, biology, geology and the history of science. Since 1996, he also has been the Vincent Astor Visiting Research Professor of Biology at New York University and now divides his time between New York and Cambridge.
He is the current president of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and won the American Book Award for The Panda's Thumb and the National Book Critic's Circle Award for The Mismeasure of Man. His newest book, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, focuses on the relationship between science and religion.
A popular essayist for Natural History Magazine, Gould's other acclaimed books include Full House, Ever Since Darwin, The Flamingo's Smile, Wonderful Life, Bully for Brontosaurus, Dinosaur in a Haystack and Questioning the Millennium.
Each year, the Baylor Phi Beta Kappa chapter presents a public lecture by a distinguished scholar. The Roy B. Albaugh Phi Beta Kappa Lectureship was endowed in the late 1970s by Mrs. Oma Buchanan Albaugh in memory of her late husband, a Waco business and civic leader from his move to Waco in 1920 until his death in 1964.
For more information about Phi Beta Kappa or the lecture series, visit the website at www.baylor.edu/~phibetakappa/.