Rocks of Ages by Stephen Jay Gould

January 10, 2014

rocks of ages Summary (from the publisher): Writing with bracing intelligence and clarity, internationally renowned evolutionist and bestselling author Stephen Jay Gould sheds new light on a dilemma that has plagued thinking people since the Renaissance: the rift between science and religion. Instead of choosing them, Gould asks, why not opt for a golden mean that accords dignity and distinction to each realm?

In his distinctively elegant style, Gould offers a lucid, contemporary principle that allows science and religion to coexist peacefully in a position of respectful noninterference. Science defines the natural world; religion our moral world in recognition of their separate spheres of influence. In exploring this thought-provoking concept, Gould delves into the history of science, sketching affecting portraits of scientists and moral leaders wrestling with matters of faith and reason. Stories of seminal figures such as Galileo, Darwin, and Thomas Henry Huxley make vivid his argument that individuals and cultures must cultivate both a life of the spirit and a life of rational inquiry in order to experience the fullness of being human.

In Rocks of Ages, Gould’s passionate humanism, ethical discernment, and erudition are fused to create a dazzling gem of contemporary cultural philosophy.

Reaction:

Gould’s basic premise here, that of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria), is one that appeals to my common sense. I whole-heartedly agree that science and religion can (and should) coexist, and that each discipline should stick to addressing questions in its own field. According to Gould, that would leave science to deal with the world of facts and religion to the realm of morality.

Gould further contends that problems typically only arise when one institituion encroaches on the magisteria of the other, such as when religious figures try to impose creationism into school curricula. He goes on at length about the “Scopes monkey trial,” completely destroying William Jennings Bryant in the process. He also touches briefly on the Church’s treatment of Galileo, pointing out that Galileo intentionally set out to antagonize the Pope (which is often omitted in retellings).

On the whole, I found the book to be interesting and yet not quite necessary. As I mentioned above, NOMA seems like such a commonsense approach to me that I have a hard time understanding why this isn’t the default attitude for most people. I am neither religious nor particularly scientific, but if I were, I can’t imagine wasting my time trying to make the other field look bad.

Then again, I suppose there must be others who feel exactly the opposite and would make it their life mission to prove or disprove something in a different magisteria. Perhaps Gould’s work is addressed to them.

Rating:

Rocks of Ages was my first Stephen Jay Gould book, and despite the issues I laid out above, found it to ultimately be a worthwhile read. Still, he was preaching to the choir, as it were, which likely affected my judgment. I give the book 3 stars out of 5.

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