Bicycles, Baseball, Bacteria & Bach
A review of Stephen Jay Gould’s Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin.
For the past 15 summers I have either competed in or directed the 3,000-mile, nonstop, transcontinental bicycle Race Across America; for the first decade the transcontinental record plummeted from 12 days 3 hours to 7 days 23 hours, but for the past five years it hasn’t budged even though half the field now routinely breaks earlier records. Why? Some of the pioneers, not surprisingly, believe that they were simply better; current riders claim weather conditions and other variables. I now know that both sides are wrong, thanks to the work of paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and trend setter (and observer) Stephen Jay Gould, whose new book, Full House, explains how systems change over time — from the history of life to the history of sports.
Gould claims that things like .400 hitting in baseball are not “things” at all, in the Platonic sense of fixed “essences.” They are artifacts of trends, which disappear when the overall structure of the system changes over time. No one has hit .400 in baseball since Ted Williams did it in 1941 (for every 10 times at bat he got 4 hits), and this unsolved mystery continues stimulating books and brou-ha-has. The mystery is now solved, says Gould. It is not because players were better then (what he calls the Genesis Myth — “There were giants in the earth in those days” — or as Ted Williams said, “the ball isn’t dead, the hitters are, from the neck up”), or because players today have tougher schedules, night games, and cross-country travel (Rod Carew says night games are easier on the eyes and travel by jet beats a train any day). It is because the overall level of play — by everyone from Tony Gwynn and Eddie Murray to Backup Bob and Dugout Doug — has inexorably marched ever upward toward a hypothetical outer wall of human performance. Paradoxically, .400 hitting has disappeared because today’s players are better, not worse. But all of them are better, making the créme de la créme stand out from the mediocre far less than before. The best players may be absolutely better (better training, equipment, diet) than players 50 years ago, but they are relatively worse compared to the average level of play. It was easier for Ted Williams to “hit ’em where they ain’t” 50 years ago than it is for Wade Boggs today, because every position in the field is manned by players whose average level of play is much better than before.
So what? For Gould the disappearance of .400 hitting is just one of many examples of how systems change over time and how our bias of progress and complexity has led us to misunderstand historical change. “All of these mistaken beliefs arise out of the same analytical flaw in our reasoning — our Platonic tendency to reduce a broad spectrum to a single, pinpointed essence. This way of thinking allows us to confirm our most ingrained biases — that humans are the supreme being on this planet; that all things are inherently driven to become more complex; and that almost any subject can be expressed and understood in terms of an average.” In baseball there is a bell curve variation from worst to best players; what has happened in the past century is that while the league average has remained the same, the “spread” (in Gould’s subtitle) has shrunk as the entire system has marched closer toward that outer limit. It is this spread that matters, not the single point on it. As an example of the latter Gould relates his personal battle with abdominal mesothelioma, a rare and usually fatal form of cancer for which he was given eight months to live. That was in 1982. What happened? The “eight months” was a median that did not describe the variation within the entire system (the spread) which, fortunately for Gould, has a long right tail on which he is located.
As in baseball and disease prognosis, evolution can be illustrated by a bell curve of organisms from simple cells to complex mammals of today. But what else could evolution have done, Gould asks? In the spread of life, there is a left wall of simplicity — any simpler and it would not be alive. For life to evolve it could only have gotten more complex — evolution reflects “an increase in total variation by expansion away from a lower limit, or ‘left wall,’ of simplest conceivable form.” Same thing with size: “Size increase is really random evolution away from small size, not directed evolution toward large size.”
Why is this idea revolutionary? Because, Gould says, change is a result of the whole system (the “full house”) expanding, not a progressive march of an average “toward” something. As Gould has expounded in several books and countless essays before, evolution is not “going” anywhere in a teleological sense. It is massively contingent and we are but a minor twig on the richly branching bush of life. “The vaunted progress of life is really random motion away from simple beginnings, not directed impetus toward inherently advantageous complexity.”
Full House finishes with an epilog on culture, applying the model to science and the performing and creative arts. Like the disappearance of .400 hitting Gould wonders why, in a gene pool significantly larger than in the 17th century, and with endlessly greater opportunity, we don’t see the likes of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Gould cautiously suggests that “perhaps the range of accessible styles can become exhausted, given the workings of human neurology and the consequent limits of understanding. Perhaps we can reach a right wall of potential popularity, where our continued adherence to an ethic of innovation effectively debars newcomers, whatever their potential talents, from becoming the Mozart of the new millennium.”
Gould is on to something about baseball, possibly about bacteria, but I’m not so sure about Bach. For baseball consider these numbers: only seven players have hit .400 since 1900, and three of those in one year (1922). Add Williams in 1941 and the list is complete at eight, out of tens of thousands that have played. It’s amazing anyone comes close in today’s game of specialization. But the difference between .400 and George Brett’s .390 in 1980, for example, based on his 175 hits in 449 at bats, is five hits! That computes to only one hit in every 32 games. How many times did Brett face top relievers in late innings, or defensive alignments (based on computer analysis of his hitting style) that Williams and Cobb never faced? Surely at least once every 32 games. William’s feat of 1941 would not be discussed today except for three hits (the difference between .406 and .399 in his 185 hits out of 456 at bats). Would Williams have been deprived of one hit per 54 games by today’s players who routinely dive and leap to steal what used to be sure hits? Definitely.
As for bacteria, Daniel Dennett and Ed Wilson will challenge Gould on his rejection of progress in evolution, but they will need to provide evidence that small lineages free to vary in either direction have a tendency to move to the right (more complex) rather than the left, and why the mechanism of natural selection would work to produce greater complexity rather than just local adaptations.
And Bach? Well, cultural relativists will be offended by Gould’s assumption that there is an outer wall in art and music. Is there? Who knows? How is it measured? There is no .400 equivalent in the arts.
So the transcontinental cycling record, like most running, swimming and baseball records, is now hovering near an absolute outer wall of human performance. Liquid diets, aerodynamic equipment, specialized training, and experienced strategies every year take the best cyclists near this upper wall, and along with them mediocre athletes are now shattering what used to be “unbreakable” marks. The transcontinental record, like .400 hitting, will be broken, but not often and not by much. The house is rather full now, the spread of excellence has narrowed and approaches that outer wall, and the truly great must work extra hard to stand out. But somehow they do.
(Three Rivers Press, 1996, ISBN 0609801406)
This review was originally published in Los Angeles Times.