Stephen Jay Gould
Jonathan Cape
208 pp

It was one of the iconic events of the twentieth century: a plenary session on evolutionary biology at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington in 1978, with the naturalist Edward O. Wilson on a panel discussing the line of research he had popularised three years earlier in his book Sociobiology.

Wilson's attempt to bring human society within the scope of biology had provoked a leftist outcry, with 15 of his colleagues writing to the New York Review of Books to denounce what they called his 'genetic justification of the status quo'. As a middle-of-the-road liberal, Wilson resented the attack, and retaliated with broadsides against what he took to be the Marxism of his opponents. (Somewhat perversely, Wilson identified Marxism not with Marx's programme of interpreting history in terms of modes production, but with the Stalinist doctrine that human nature is mutable and that politics can override the facts of nature.) Each side could have learned a lot at that meeting, but when Wilson started speaking, a bunch of demonstrators came on stage to shut him up. They emptied a cup of water over him and shouted the unanswerably idiotic slogan: "racist Wilson, you're all wet now" before running out of the room.

Wilson was not the only one to get wet. Sitting next to him, frozen with embarrassment, was his young Harvard colleague Stephen Jay Gould. Gould was one of the signatories of the letter to the New York Review, but he was also a palaeontologist in his own right. He respected Wilson and knew that the accusation of racism was ridiculous: if Wilson had made a mistake, it lay in postulating rigid universals of human genetics rather than exaggerating human differences. Gould grabbed the microphone, invoked Lenin's 'Left-wing communism: an infantile disorder', and persuaded Wilson to carry on talking despite his dowsing by a stupid demonstrator. Recalling the incident in his latest book, Gould wishes he had been plucky enough to throw "that little cup of water right back into that idiot's face."

If Gould was slow to get violent, he was pretty quick at everything else. He got fired with scientific enthusiasm in 1946, as a poor five-year-old kid wandering round Manhattan with his father and making a chance visit to the Museum of Natural History on Central Park. He started publishing scientific papers in his early twenties, and brought out a notable book on 'punctuated equilibrium' when he turned thirty. (His idea was that evolutionary processes are much more uneven and catastrophic than biologists like to imagine: it was 'evolution by jerks', according to his critics, eliciting a memorable riposte about 'evolution by creeps'.) Gould went on to publish hundreds more essays and books, culminating in 2002 with a work he regarded as the fulfilment of his life as a scientist: the massive but astonishingly readable Structure of Evolutionary Theory.

Gould's main argument has always been that evolutionary science is inescapably historical. Physicists and chemists can feel free to ignore history: after all a quartz molecule is still a quartz molecule whether it was formed a billion years ago in Africa or fifty years ago in Arizona. But when it comes to explaining life on earth, it is not irrelevant that tyrannosaurus went extinct in America 65.3 million years ago, whereas homo sapiens emerged in Africa 65.1 million years later. Gould concludes that evolution could easily have turned out differently than it has: its course, as he puts it, is "not deducible, or predictable at all, from natural laws tested and applied in laboratory experiments, but crucially dependent upon the unique character of antecedent historical states in a narrative sequence."

But if narrative explanation – contingent, contextual and non-predictive as it is – is the currency of evolutionary biology, it has typically been nurtured by humanists rather than scientists. The purpose of Gould's effervescent new book is to eulogise the distinctive rationalities of story-telling and other non-scientific ways of thinking. Gould surveys the rise of self-righteous pugnacity amongst scientists from renaissance quarrels of 'ancients and moderns' to the media-spun 'science wars' of the 1990s, and his case is brisk but pretty compelling: the stand-off may have been understandable in the seventeenth century, but has been "silly and harmful" ever since.

Gould also returns to Edward Wilson. In 1998, Wilson published Consilience, promising to demonstrate that there is nothing in the humanities that is not 'consilient' with the sciences. 'Consilience' is a good word. It was coined, as Gould recalls, by the Victorian eminence William Whewell, who used it to describe how a pattern of explanation is strengthened if it proves applicable over disparate domains – as when Newtonian attraction accounted for the elliptical paths of planets orbiting the sun as well as the acceleration of an apple falling from a tree. Gould himself had revived Whewell's forgotten coinage in a book in praise of Darwin in 1986, and he admits to being 'a bit peeved' that Wilson filched it without acknowledgement. But it is Wilson's misuse of the term that really annoys him. When Wilson insists that it is time for poetry, painting, morality and all the other artistic disciplines to roll over and give up their ghosts to the 'consilient' natural sciences he is, as Gould shows, muddling consilience with reduction. Consilience depends on respecting the diversity of different domains rather than wishing it away; it has nothing in common with Wilsonian slash-and-burn.

Gould never loses sight of the fact that our powers are puny compared to nature's capacity to tax them, and The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister's Pox, like all his previous works, pairs high brilliance with deep modesty. "No person is an island," Gould concludes, and "the bell of universal folly tolls for all of us." As he finished this luminous book, the bell tolled for him too.

Stephen Jay Gould died in May 2002, aged 60. The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister's Pox is available from Amazon (UK).