I finished this a week or two ago. To me, Stephen Jay Gould is a truly perfect delegate for science in disseminating technical information to laymens. It's not an easy role to play contrary to popular belief, and a lot of people either abuse it or fail to live up to its importance. But every so often, a Carl Sagan or a Neil Degrasse Tyson or a Brian Green (I know, all my other examples are physicists) comes along and frames the most complex ideas in astonishing simplicity without doing a disservice to the science.
This book is a 'philosophy of science' book. The concept is actually very straightforward, though the ideas are not. Gould corners the seminal works of three fathers of modern geology; one villain, Thomas Burnet, and two heroes, James Hutton and Charles Lyell. Every working geologist has heard of these three most important of men, and their legacies are well documented. Or I should say, they're documented - not very well, according to Gould.
The entire book is a convincing attack on what he coins 'textbook cardboard' - oversimplified and romanticized accounts of scientists which unintentionally cram their reputations and legacies into cookie cutter frameworks, like 'creationist', or 'biblical literalist', or 'empirical scientist'. These reinventions too often fail to recognize the underlying complexity and worldviews of the most famous scientists history can name.
I won't give away any of the storylines that Gould paints for each of these three men, but through direct quotation from both the original works and later interpretations, he exposes as imagined the legacies of each, for better or for worse. The chapter on Lyell in particular was both inspiring and eye opening. The Charles Lyell of textbooks is misrepresented as a sort of empirical robot who finds facts and arranges them in the only way they can be arranged, according to the laws of the beloved scientific method.
I haven't mentioned anything about the title, which is the front and center dichotomatic theme that winds its way through the entire book. SJG writes that he had read each of the three landmark geology texts many times before, but it wasn't until he read them within the context of the age old conflict between time's linear arrow and time's immanent cycle that he truly understood the real thrust of each argument. And using direct quotes, he illustrates the truly grand and masterful visions for which each man stood.
More than anything else, this book is a warning of the disillusions of science. All hail hard evidence has its time and its place and is undoubtedly respectable, but too often the world falls victim to over-flattery of the scientific method, and forgets just what sort of being it is actually acting out the process. Man is not a computing robot, he is a visionary with his own biases and his own interpretations. He is flawed, in short, and while holding him to a standard of perfection like the scientific method is unremittingly beneficial for accuracy, projecting that very standard into real human scientists themselves is a mistake with major consequences. And following that, looking back to times predating the scientific revolution we're still experiencing and laughing at ideas deemed 'primitive' is a worthless endeavor that only highlights our own flaws. Gould takes loony ideas that most people would think to crazy for an internet page and contextualizes them, humanizes their authors, and based on those facts, reinterprets their plausibility.
I think I'm going to return to this book in five or maybe ten years. I'm actually going to plan to do it. Modern scientific paradigms in the realm of the philosophy of science deserve to be critiqued, even if only for its unbridled arrogance. I think as I continue to explore everything scientists around the world are currently undertaking, this book will become more and more important.