Stephen Jay Gould: On the Reduction/Anti-Reduction Debate

At this point in the chain of statements, the classical error  of reductionism often makes its entrance, via the following argument: If our  brain’s unique capacities arise from its material substrate, and if that  substrate originated through ordinary evolutionary processes, then those unique  capacities must be explainable by (reducible to) “biology” (or some other  chosen category expressing standard scientific principles and procedures).

The primary fallacy of this argument has been recognized  from the inception of this hoary debate. “Arising from” does not mean “reducible  to,” for all the reasons embodied in the old cliche that a whole can be more  than the sum of its parts. To employ the technical parlance of two fields,  philosophy describes this principle by the concept of “emergence*,” while science  speaks of “nonlinear” or “nonadditive” interaction. In terms of building  materials, a new entity may contain nothing beyond its constituent parts, each  one of fully known composition and operation. But if, in forming the new entity,  these constituent parts interact in a “nonlinear” fashion—that is, if the  combined action of any two parts in the new entity yields something other than  the sum of the effect of part one acting alone plus the effect of part two  acting alone—then the new entity exhibits “emergent” properties that cannot  be explained by the simple summation of the parts in question. Any new entity  that has emergent properties—and I can’t imagine anything very complex  without such features—cannot, in principle, be explained by (reduced to)  the structure and function of its building blocks.

— Stephen Jay Gould, In Gratuitous Battle


* A note he qualifies his use of “emergence”:

Please note that this definition of “emergence” includes no  statement about the mystical, the ineffable, the unknowable, the spiritual, or  the like—although the confusion of such a humdrum concept as nonlinearity  with this familiar hit parade has long acted as the chief impediment to  scientific understanding and acceptance of such a straightforward and  commonsensical phenomenon. When I argue that the behavior of a particular  mammal can’t be explained by its genes, or even as the simple sum of its genes  plus its environment of upbringing, I am not saying that behavior can’t be  approached or understood scientifically. I am merely pointing out that any full  understanding must consider the organism at its own level, as a product of  massively nonlinear interaction among its genes and environments. (When you  grasp this principle, you will immediately understand why such  pseudosophisticated statements as the following are not even wrong, but merely  nonsensical: “I’m not a naive biological determinist. I know that intelligence  represents an interaction of genes and environment—and I hear that the  relative weights are about 40 percent genes and 60 percent environment.”)

10 thoughts on “Stephen Jay Gould: On the Reduction/Anti-Reduction Debate

  1. Right: water has real properties, like its liquid state between 0-100 degrees Centigrade at mean sea level pressure, that emerge from but are irreducible to its elements. Few would deny that humans manifest some real capabilities for interacting with their environments that emerge from but that are irreducible to their elemental biochemistry; e.g., bipedal locomotion, opposable-thumb gripping skills, binocular vision. Let’s assume that consciousness too emerges from unconscious neural processes. Does that make consciousness real, equipping the human with real abilities to navigate their environments by, e.g., focusing attention across multiple sensory modalities, making intentional decisions, planning and executing intricate action sequences, interpreting others’ behaviors? Or does consciousness possess only unreal properties rising up from the collective unconscious like Godzilla emerging from a cinematic Tokyo Bay? Are the properties of consciousness similar to Godzilla’s gigantic stature and flaming breath — describable and adaptive but imaginary? Is consciousness a fictional construct generated by the multitudes of interconnected neurons that, blind to their own fiction-writing capabilities, treat as real, much as the swarming denizens of cinematic Tokyo acted as if Godzilla were real?

    Can’t you picture some PoMo installment of the Godzilla franchise in which some neurophilosopher shows up on the beach attempting to persuade the panicked masses that the monster isn’t real, that he’s real only if you treat him as real? Now, all together, let’s just concentrate our attention, realize that Godzilla is only a fictional construct, decide to go plan our daily affairs recognizing that he’s just an illusion. I can even get a glimmer of what the neurophilosopher leading man might look like… This would work best as a short, not unlike the Bambi Meets Godzilla I so enjoyed as a stoned college student. It’d take us no time at all to storyboard this thing out, Noir, if we put our minds to it for an hour or two.


    • You make a humorous addition to this mix. Thanks! 🙂

      Yea, I don’t think Gould was defending consciousness per se in the above, which word he never uses, but was describing the argument against absolute reductionary Physicalism in brain processes which is an altogether different topic.

      But either way I’ve been presenting various arguments in the last four of five posts or there abouts from both sides of the divide on this…


    • I’m inferring that my little Godzilla parody rubbed you the wrong way. Sorry — just trying to infuse a bit of levity. Honestly, the Godzilla thing came to mind while I was writing the comment about emergence, so I just went with it. I gotta learn to suppress these ludic impulses.


      • Whoosh… woa, there… how does my statement:

        “You make a humorous addition to this mix. Thanks! :)”

        imply that I was rubbed the wrong way?

        Reading your other post as well… it seems you are the one taking things seriously. I did not intend any seriousness in my answers like that or any personal infraction. Dang, ktismatics, if it sounded that way… sorry! I was just trying to make explicit what I was trying to do in the posts in question. Not trying to say anything about you per se. No need for you to “suppress these ludic impulses” … I rather like them 🙂


      • Okay, good. So did you really think that my sample agent query letter was a parody? I assumed your comment at my place was payback for my little joke here. Or maybe you really did think the query letter was so bad it had to have been a joke. Or maybe you were picturing readers of my sample letter copying it in hopes of promoting their own books? Now that would be funny.


      • Oh, no…your letter was great. It was me that went quirky, not you… as I was reading it … it dawned on me that a book of letters about the efforts of someone such as yourself in let’s say an Italo Calvino or Stanislaw Lem fashion could create an eloquent parody of so many efforts: letters for job offers, letters to literary agents, letters to government, letters to news agencies, etc..

        Not your letter as it was presented which was definitely not a parody and was in fact excellent and to the purpose. It was me not you that suddenly saw the quirkiness of an idea of a series of parodies in book form of contemporary situations in letter writing. Your letter was not a parody and sorry if my quirkiness came out that way 😦


  2. Whew, that’s a relief. I’m quite nervous and uncertain about this whole agent-submission business. Absolutely I see your quirky idea now. I bet you’d get a kick out of my series of house brochures. I wrote a new one every week when we were trying to sell our house before moving to France. Instead of just listing the specs — square feet, bathroom fixtures, etc. — each one told a little narrative. The first one was titled “Veil,” and It began like this:

    Imagine a part of the world where houses are indistinguishable one from another. I have been to such places. Every house the same architectural style, the same color. All the houses on a block run together, so it’s not clear where one house ends and the next begins. No street addresses. Encountering the indistinguishable exteriors, an onlooker is tempted to infer that the occupants of these houses likewise are indistinguishable one from another.

    This would be a mistake.

    Inside, each house explodes in a riot of diversity. Strange food preparation rituals bring forth delicacies unknown in the bazaars. Harem girls sigh behind perfumed silken curtains, while eunuchs play games of chance for stakes meted out in drams, essences, human souls. Someone writes a history of times that never were in a language that has never been spoken. To one entering such a home no personal favor can be denied, for this visitor has been inside and can never forget.

    And so on, eventually making the pitch that, even if our house looked not all that different from the others on the block, it was special. These were great fun to write, and writing them diffused my anxieties about salesmanship. Believe it or not, the house actually sold, I think it was the tenth week on the market. The final brochure, on display when the offer came in, was called “Home is a Woman.” Maybe I can recapture some of this ludic glibness while shopping the novels.


    • Yes, exactly! Did you ever read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities… much like what your describing in this vignette, he allowed for series of philosophical reflections on cities as in a prism, subtle reflections that like crystals held your mind and expanded your thoughts.

      In one section of Cities and Memories he describes:

      “In vain, great-hearted Kublai, shall I attempt to describe Zaira, city of high bastions. I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past: the height of a lamppost and the distance from the ground of a hanged usurper’s swaying feet; the line strung from the lamppost to the railing opposite and the festoons that decorate the course of the queen’s nuptial procession; the height of that railing and the leap of the adulterer who climbed over it at dawn; the tilt of a guttering and a cat’s progress along it as he slips into the same window; the firing range of a gunboat which has suddenly appeared beyond the cape and the bomb that destroys the guttering; the rips in the fish net and the three old men seated on the dock mending nets and telling each other for the hundredth time the story of the gunboat of the usurper, who some say was the queen’s illegitimate son, abandoned in his swaddling clothes there on the dock.

      As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”

      Unlike Lem or Borges, Calvino allowed for the minimalist explosion of echoes to haunt one and follow one as one walked one’s own city, seeking in the cobble stones, the swing of a door, a shadowed hallway, a slight twist in the cobwebs over one’s bed a moment of attentiveness that reveals nothing less than the mystery of being in the material surfaces of existence. Caught between the crystal and the fire he offered neither resolution nor unquestioning belief, but the singular ability to wonder and let the awe that surrounds things speak without human intervention.

      Calvino, Italo (2013-08-12). Invisible Cities (pp. 10-11). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.


  3. Your meditation on Calvino is also very evocative, Craig. As a reader, I too appreciate text that extend their reach into the world and my interactions with it. I suspect that both of us hope to work this magic in our own writings: world-building that spills off the page and surrounds you. Of course I know youd agree that it”s also tantalizing to be enclosed inside a Borgesian labyrinth or confronted by the impenetrable otherness of a world like Solaris. I read Invisible Cities a few years later, while in France probably. Eventually Marco Polo acknowledges to Kublai that all of these cities he’s been describing are the same city, his home city. The excerpt you’ve posted demonstrates that he could have worked the same magic even if he’d hailed from, say, a suburb of Kansas City rather than Venice.


    • Yes, we would then realize the meaning of imagination, and of Calvino’s use of the crystal and the flame. The difference between the condensation of light and its ultimate release into the unfathomable universe.


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