Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin
J nan old literary theme, from Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son to Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, our most beloved child is often the most problematic and misunderstood among our offspring. I worry for Full House, my adored and wayward boy. I have nurtured this short book for fifteen years through three distinctly different roots (and routes): (1) an insight about the nature of evolutionary trends that popped into my head one day, revised my personal thinking about the history oflife, and emerged in technical form as a presidential address for the Paleontological Society in 1988; (2) a statistical eureka that brought me much hope and comfort during a life-threatening illness (see chapter 4); and (3) an explanation that, once conceptualized, struck me as self-evident and necessarily correct, but also diametrically opposed to all traditional accounts, for a major pu7.zle of American popular culture-the disappearance of 0.400 hitting in baseball.
All three roots arose from a common insight in the form most personally exciting to intellectuals-the eureka or a-ha! moment that inverts an old way of seeing and renders both clear and coordinated something that had been muddy, inchoate, or unformulated before. (I speak of a deeply personal experience, not a claim full of hubris about absolutes. Such eurekas only remove scales from one’s own eyes and break idiosyncratic impediments. The rest of the world may always have known what you just discovered. But then, some eurekas are more generally novel.) My insight made me view trends in an entirely different way: as changes in variation within complete systems, rather than as “a thing moving either up or down” (hence the subtitle of this hook, The Spread of Excellence). With insight came fear-and for two reasons. First, the theme may seem small and offbeat at first. Why should a different explanation of trends become a subject of general interest? Moreover, and second, the key reformulation (thinking of whole systems expanding or contracting, rather than entities on the move) is fundamentally statistical and must be presented in graphical terms. I did not fear for incomprehensibility. The key idea is as simple as could be (a conceptual inversion, not an arcane mathematical expression), and I knew that I could present the argument entirely in pictorial (not algebraic) terms. But I also knew that I would have to lay out the argument carefully, first making the general point and then developing some simple and preliminary examples before taking on the two main subjects: 0.400 hitting and a resolution of the problem of progress in the history of life.
But would people read the book? Would readers persist through the necessary preliminaries to reach the key reformulations? Would they maintain interest through a graphical development, given our cultural disinclination toward anything that smacks of mathematical style? Yet, I remain convinced that this hook presents a novel argument of broad applicability-and that persistent readers may emerge with satisfaction, and in agreement with the father as he pardoned his prodigal son (and justified mercy to his other, persistently obedient child): “it was meet that we should make merry and be glad.”
So let me make a deal with you. As a man who has spent many enlightening, if unenriching, hours playing poker (hence the hook’s title), I want to propose a bet. Persist through to the end, and 1 wager that you will he rewarded (perhaps even with a royal flush to beat my full house). In return, I have made the book short (remarkably so compared with my other effusions), hopefully clear and entertaining (if methodical in building up to the two main examples), and imbued with a promise that two truly puzzling, important, and apparently unrelated phenomena can be explained by the conceptual apparatus here developed.
The rewards of persistence should be twofold. First, I think that my approach of studying variation in complete systems does provide genuine resolution for two widely discussed issues that can only remain confusing and incoherent when studied in the traditional, persistently Platonic mode of representing full systems by a single essence or exemplar-and then studying how this entity moves through time. I find both resolutions particularly satisfying because they are not so radical that they lie outside easy conceivability. Rather, both solutions make eminent good sense and resolve true paradoxes of the conventional view, once you imbibe the revised perspective based on variation. How can we believe, as the traditional approach requires, that 0.400 hitting has disappeared because hatters have gotten worse, when record perfi>rmances have improved in almost any athletic activity? My approach shows that the disappearance of0.400 hitting actually records the increasing excellence of play in baseball-and this makes satisfying sense (but cannot be coherently grasped at all under traditional modes of thought about the problem).
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