Today, what do batting averages, evolution, and the
economy have in common? The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Stephen Jay Gould is up to
an odd business in his book, Full
House. His theme is subtle. He says we don't
look at the full range of cases when we talk about
progress. For example, we talk about the evolution
of species as though human beings were the highly
organized end result of evolutionary progress.
To do that we have to close our eyes to the full
range of biodiversity. In nature's "full house" of
all living things, the most successful species
aren't humans; they're bacteria. The mass of living
bacteria is far greater than the mass of all other
life. The diversity of bacterial species is far
larger. And bacteria have survived far longer than
any other living creatures.
Gould (who loves baseball) uses batting averages to
make his point. He asks, why has no one batted over
400 since 1941? Does that mean today's batters
aren't as good? No, Gould assures us, it's actually
because the quality of baseball players has risen.
Does that sound crazy? Well, it makes perfect sense
if you know some mathematical statistics. Gould
looks at statistics through the eyes of an
intelligent layman, and he leads us through his
learning process. The gist of it goes like this:
In a world filled with possibility, everyone does
well and there's less variability. Though Gould
doesn't mention it, economists have known this for
a long time. They track income inequality. In a
healthy free economy, a small range of incomes
indicates good times. When times are hard, the
variation increases and you find many poor people
balanced by a few very rich ones.
As quality of baseball play has improved, it has
also become far less variable. In earlier days of
baseball, a few great batters were far better than
the average batter. And they were up against far
more variable pitchers, basemen and fielders.
Therefore batting averages were far more widely
Now the distribution of ability among all players
has tightened up as they become more uniformly
good. And we'll never see anyone bat like Ted
Williams again in our lifetimes.
Gould goes on to describe what he calls the right
wall. Distribution curves for performance approach
absolute human limits on the right side. The closer
we come, the less the variation can be. He doubts
that Isaac Stern or Vladimir Horowitz played
better than Paganini or Liszt did. We've long since
come close to that right wall of human performance
in violin and piano playing.
Gould tells us we can't understand evolution
without looking at the full house -- the whole
variation -- of living things. Evolutionary
adaptation has produced many living things,
ourselves included. Without understanding the
variation, we'll believe all the wrong things.
We'll believe that baseball has deteriorated -- and
we'll believe that we are the end product of the
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gould, S. J., Full House: The Spread of
Excellence from Plato to Darwin. New York:
Harmony Books, 1996.
Lienhard, J. H., and Davis, L. B., Jr., An
Extension of Statistical Mechanics to the
Description of a Broad Class of Macroscopic
Systems. Zeitschrift für Angewandte
Mathematik und Mechanik (ZAMM), Vol. 22, No.
1, 1971. (This article lays out the statistical
basis for the connection between equality of income
and "good times" in a free economy.)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Note added on April 30, 2016: This episode was first aired in January, 1997.
Stephen Jay Gould (whom I refer to as currently living) died of cancer in
2002 at the age of only 60.
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