Stephen Jay Gould

September 11, 2011 • 6:33 am

Today will be an orgy of remembrance of the events of ten years ago; even at 5 a.m. the television was full of the stuff.  I have nothing to contribute to what’s already been said, so I just want to remember another anniversary that took place yesterday: what would have been the 70th birthday of Stephen Jay Gould, probably the most prominent evolutionary biologist of our time (September 10, 1941 – May 20, 2002).  This came to mind because a brief piece on Gould was published yesterday as the “Freethought of the Day” by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. (It is, by the way, worth subscribing to these daily posts, which are both interesting and heartening.)

As I’ve written before, I have mixed thoughts about Gould: his contribution to the public understanding of evolution was an unalloyed good, while I found his scientific contributions mixed.  I suppose that, with the exception of his monographs on snails, I’ve read everything the man ever wrote: all of his books, his scientific papers, and even his last behemoth of a book, The Structure of Evolutionary Thought. (That I found interesting for two reasons: he admitted that there was no convincing evidence for one of his big ideas, species selection, and there was a fascinating discussion of Darwin’s “principle of divergence”—Darwin’s idea on how species arise—which Gould felt was one of Darwin’s most important contributions.)

I knew Steve fairly well, for he was on my Ph.D. committee at Harvard.  Like many, I found him voluble, opinionated, and often arrogant—but never boring.  I crossed swords with him often about his theory of punctuated equilibrium, which, I thought, called needed attention to the patterns of stasis in the fossil record, but was completely wrongheaded as a theory of process, depending as it did on assumptions about population genetics which were already known to be wrong.  I once organized a group of graduate students to meet with Gould on the issue, and in that talk he called me a “hidebound gradualist,” a monicker I’ll never forget—and which I wear with some pride.  Although I think his ideas about the evolutionary process were misguided—at times, for instance, he seemed to hew close to the view that natural selection, compared to species selection, was not terribly important in molding the features and behaviors of organisms—there is no doubt that his efforts spurred a revival of paleobiology, one that continues to this day.

His popular books were superb, especially The Mismeasure of Man, though some of his analysis in that volume has been criticized.  The man could write!  Even when he tackled topics far removed from his field, he always had something interesting to say (his essays on the decline in size of the Hershey Bar and on the neoteny of Mickey Mouse over time were funny and informative, showing how he could draw connections between evolution and the quotidian events of our lives).  But as he became more famous, his essays became more bloated, studded with baroque and distracting digressions that seemed only to demonstrate his erudition.

Gould had two other traits that I much admired. As a workaholic myself, I could only stand in awe of his diligence.  His close colleague David Woodruff described it:

His brontosauran appetite for work is the envy and despair of his colleagues. “He calls me at 11 at night Massachusetts time,” says his frequent collaborator David S. Woodruff, a biologist at the University of California at San Diego, “and we talk until 11 my time. Steve starts getting creative at midnight, works until 2 or 3, then gets up at 6:30.” For relaxation from his disciplined, organized professional life, he lets himself go by singing baritone in the Boston Cecilia Society, a highly regarded amateur chorus. What time is left is jealously guarded for his family. He is close to his widowed mother, who runs a shop on Cape Cod where she sells driftwood sculptures of owls and a small stock of books, the collected works of Stephen Jay Gould. He has attempted to shield his wife, Deborah, and their two sons from the growing publicity attached to his name. A passage in his most recent book revealed that his older son, Jesse, 12, suffers from a learning disability. A friend speaks with awe of Gould spending several hours each night patiently reading and talking to his son, never despairing that he could overcome this problem, like he has so many others, by sheer will and effort.

And the way he dealt with his illness was nothing less than heroic, reminding me of Christopher Hitchens.  At the age of 41, shortly after I left Harvard, Gould was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, which is almost invariably fatal.  He underwent a debilitating round of chemotherapy, in which the drugs were continually infused into his abdomen—and yet he continued his regimen of work, not missing a single one of his monthly columns in Natural History.  And he survived, living another 20 years.  But in 2001 he developed another cancer in his chest, which spread to his brain and killed him soon thereafter—gone at the age of 60.  Yet his teaching assistant told me that he continued to meet his classes at Harvard until the very end (he had moved to New York in the interim), even when he was so weak he could hardly stand.  This was a man determined to live out his life as an evolutionary biologist to its bitterly premature close.

I wish he were still around, for it would be nice to know how his career would have developed.  Toward the end he seemed to become soft on religion, publishing a book that I consider almost as misguided as punctuated equilibrium: Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (1999).  There Gould espoused a harmony between science and faith (an idea he called “NOMA,” after “nonoverlapping magisteria”), arguing that the purview of science included all empirical statements about reality (neglecting the fact that religion makes plenty of such statements), and that the purview of religion was morality (neglecting the fact that morality has a long and honored secular history).  He wrote off fundamentalism and creationism as simply improper forms of religion, also neglecting the fact that millions of his countrymen were religious in precisely those ways.  It was even more galling because I knew full well that Gould was an atheist, and I saw this book as a softhearted attempt to pander to public approbation.  If he didn’t water down his science for the public, why would he water down his atheism?

But let’s remember Gould today for his freethought, something that Annie Laurie Gaylor emphasizes in her tribute to him at the FFRF site.  While he didn’t often talk about religion, when he did (except in Rocks of Ages), he portrayed it as a form of wish-thinking. Here’s a typical quote:

“We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher answer’–but none exists.”

— Stephen J. Gould, interview, Life (December 1988). Cited in Who’s Who in Hell edited by Warren Allen Smith.

What influence did Gould’s scientific work or popular writing have on you?

h/t: Diane G

100 thoughts on “Stephen Jay Gould

      1. That’s where you see the most public reference of his work. You can’t say his work was an unalloyed good to the understanding with that legacy. That’s not of course to say he didn’t do good.

        1. Jerry is not saying everything Gould did was unalloyed good, but rather his contribution to the public understanding of evolution.

          Since NOMA is not related to that I am at a loss as to what point you are trying to make.

        2. That’s where you see the most public reference of his work.

          Which certainly is a scientific way of determining his overall contributions. It would have nothing to do with a set of people, intent on disavowing just one aspect of his life, ignoring all the rest that he had to offer. Oh, no.

          Your comment is so out of step with JAC’s post that it only serves to emphasize the necessity for such posts (you should actually read it).

          Perhaps when you’ve done as much to support, popularize, and defend evolution as SJG did, you will have some standing from which to diss his entire working life over one area of disagreement.

  1. I had known for as long as I can remember that I wanted to be a biologist/zoologist/naturalist type. My first love in biology as I grew older was ethology, but then, largely through my ravenous devouring of Gould’s canon, I discovered the beauty of evolutionary biology. And that’s what I studied for my Master’s degree. I subsequently moved away from academia and the field, but I will always think like an evolutionary biologist.

    As an aside, I can think of few thinkers in the field more divisive, and I’m sure Gould would consider that a compliment (as well he should). And in the Gould partisanship, while I did not always agree with his views, I always defended the style in which he made them. Strangely, some colleagues found his style to be too flowery and grandiloquent for a discussion of science.

  2. Gould wrote an excellent article on Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” which I read some years ago but have unfortunately mislaid. Now would be an excellent time for me to re-read it.

    1. Probably everyone knows this, but In Memorium was written to memorialize Tennyson’s young daughter (7 yo if I recall correctly). The strong line that I recall is: “A deep distress hath humanized my soul.”

  3. Thank you for this balanced and, as far as I’m concerned, spot-on piece.
    My enthusiasm for Gould’s early essays certainly helped steer me into a career in biology, and I subscribed to Natural History magazine for many years, mostly for his monthly pieces (one of my favorites that was not mentioned by Dr. Coyne is the creation-myth of baseball essay).
    But as the years went on, and I learned more science and his writing got more baroque and bloaty, my ratio of eyerolls to a-has just got too high to bear. He really was full of shit, and/or himself, a lot of the time.

    Besides punctuated equilibrium and species sorting (btw, does Larry Moran know that Gould “admitted that there was no convincing evidence for one of his big ideas, species selection”? I’m sure I’ve seen him cite the book specifically for such evidence), I guess his next-biggest contribution would be the whole spandrels-&-exaptation thing. I think the jury’s still out on whether those contributions constitute a net good or not. It muddles discussion of adaptation and adaptations to this day.

    1. I learned most of what I know about about biology from Gould. But, yeah, he did get harder to read as he went on. And he really dropped the ball with the NOMA shit but I don’t think, Jerry, that he was trying to pander to public approbation. His personality was too abrasive for that. I think it’s more likely that he was trying to head off the war that he saw coming. He spent his life trying to defend science in a nation who’s currently most powerful element despises the very idea.

      Punctuated equilibrium made sense to me even before I heard of it. When we learned about evolution in school and Darwin’s idea that it happened very gradually I had trouble understanding the gradual part for two reasons.
      Once a good trick evolved it makes sense that it would fairly quickly go to its optimum form and then stay there until the environment changed or it was out competed. For instance, once some tree climbing thing got webs between its fingers it wouldn’t be long before its fingers got so long that they became wings. Bats do seem to appear out of nowhere in the fossil record and haven’t changed much.
      The other reason I thought of was while playing with my LEGO™ With a finite number of pieces there’s only a finite number of ways that they can go together. In a given size gene pool there’s only so many ways that they can go together and evolution will find the optimum combination. Throw in one more piece and the possible combinations change and a new optimum evolves. So the whole thing proceeds in fits and starts.

    2. (btw, does Larry Moran know that Gould “admitted that there was no convincing evidence for one of his big ideas, species selection”? I’m sure I’ve seen him cite the book specifically for such evidence)

      I don’t believe in species sorting and I’m well aware of the fact that there are no absolutely convincing examples.

      The important point about species sorting is that it is at least theoretically possible and that means that Gould’s hierarchical theory is a viable addition to evolutionary thought.

      It’s also a good example of how macroevolution cannot be explained by just lots of microevolution. I agree with Gould on that point even if species sorting doesn’t happen.

      Gould made me realize that there’s a lot more to evolution than just population genetics. His greatest contribution (with Lewontin) was in pointing out how adaptationist thinking harms evolutionary biology. That’s a point that many evolutionary biologists—and no evolutionary psychologists—still don’t appreciate.

      1. I think many people misunderstand punctuated equilibria.

        The essence of punctuated equilibria is that species don’t change very much for millions of years (stasis) and when change happens it is often associated with speciation by cladogenesis (splitting). This means that the new species and the parental species continue to exist, often in the same environment.

        The changes are not large in spite of what some people believe. The idea of punctuated equilibria has nothing to do with saltations or even moderately large changes. They are the same kinds of small changes seen in modern speciation events—it often takes an expert to recognize the new species.

        The important point is that the change is locked in by speciation and it occurs fairly rapidly compared to the long periods of stasis that preceed and follow cladogenesis.

        It’s widely agreed that the pattern of punctuated equilibria occurs quite frequently in the fossil record so Gould has “won” the fight to establish its existence as a significant phenomenon. Whether it’s the dominant pattern remains to be determined.

        The alternative is gradual transformation of one species into another (anagenesis). Before Eldredge and Gould, most people thought this was the common pattern in the history of life. As it turns out, there are not very many examples of such transformations in the fossil record. I don’t think most people realize how much the thinking about this subject has changed since 1960. We now take it for granted that new species form by splitting off from from a larger population. What Eldredge and Gould showed us was that this was common in the past as well as in the present.

        1. The alternative is gradual transformation of one species into another (anagenesis). Before Eldredge and Gould, most people thought this was the common pattern in the history of life.

          Nonsense. Mayr’s allopatric speciation model was nearly universally accepted and taught as ‘the usual way’ long before 1972.
          Whatever punk eek means or meant, it was never just about clado- vs. anagenesis.

  4. I remember attending a debate in Oxford many years ago where one of the speakers was John Maynard Smith. A person in the audience asked him about certain scientific books of Gould (I’m afraid I don’t remember which), and Maynard Smith said something like “I wouldn’t bother to read them.” I notice that this is in the same spirit as the quotation of Maynard Smith re: Gould that Larry Moran has on Sandwalk.

    1. Here’s the quotation …

      Maynard Smith on Stephen Jay Gould

      I’ve never understood why anyone takes Maynard Smith’s opinion seriously. Maynard Smith is a mathematical population geneticist with very strong adaptationist leanings. Of course he’s not going to like what Gould has to say about macroevolution and hierarchical evolutionary theory.

      I don’t see any evidence that Maynard Smith ever tried to understand what Gould and his colleagues were saying. Can anyone supply a reference showing that Maynard Smith understands the Spandrel’s paper, punctuated equilibria, the importance of random genetic drift, contingency, macroevolution, or species sorting?

  5. When I was at university in the UK, I somehow stumbled over his books in the library. For the first time in my life, really, I realized that there were people with a passion and an aptitude for the kind of serious thinking that is so characteristic of science whose company, if only intellectual, I had for years unconsciously been longing for. Reading Gould initiated my foray into serious study of science as well as the philosophy of science—especially his support for Popperian critical rationalism. His love of words very pleasingly resonated with my own. And among the many profound ideas he put into those words that have stayed with me, this one quite possibly has the most far-reaching consequences:

    Most “popular” writing in science simplifies concepts (usually trivializing them as well, if unintentionally) in the belief, often false, that understanding will thereby be enhanced. … I will, of course, clarify language, mainly to remove the jargon that does impede public access. But I will not make concepts either more simple or more unambiguous than nature’s own complexity dictates. I intend my essays for professionals and lay readers alike—an old tradition, by the way, in scientific writing from Galileo to Darwin, though effectively lost today. I would not write these essays any differently if I intended them for my immediate colleagues alone. Thus, while I hope that you will appreciate my respect, our bargain may require from you more than the usual item of American journalism demands.
    Dinosaur in a Haystack

    I deeply deplore the equation of popular writing with pap and distortion for two main reasons. First, such a designation imposes a crushing professional burden on scientists (particularly young scientists without tenure) who might like to try their hand at this expansive style. Second, it denigrates the intelligence of millions of Americans eager for intellectual stimulation without patronization. If we writers assume a crushing mean of mediocrity and incomprehension, then not only do we have contempt for our neighbors, but we also extinguish the light of excellence. The “perceptive and intelligent” layperson is no myth. … We must all pledge ourselves to recovering accessible science as an honorable intellectual tradition. The rules are simple: no compromises with conceptual richness; no bypassing of ambiguity or ignorance; removal of jargon, of course, but no dumbing down of ideas (any conceptual complexity can be conveyed in ordinary English).
    Bully for Brontosaurus

    1. Mine is a purely personal view; however, it seems to me that academics cum intellectuals, especially popular or public ones, do so at great risk. There are a number of obvious and a number of not so obvious examples.

  6. I’m reading Michael D. Coe’s Breaking the Maya Code* and Gould sounds remarkably like J. Eric S. Thompson right down to the deliberately obtuse and reference-laden style.

    Coe, incidentally, married Sophie Dobzhansky.

    Knorozov, who delivered the key to deciphering Maya (after many near misses through the centuries), was one of us, by the way.

    * Recommended by a commenter at Uncertain Principles.

  7. I think Gould had three major and lasting contributions to science: First, his popular writings that awakened an interest in biology for many future scientists (though I came by a different route). Second, the founding of the journal Paleobiology, which helped get paleontologists back into thinking of their fossils as organisms and their data as something that could contribute to biology. Third, along with Raup and Schopf, the introduction of null models into paleontology. Maybe four, if you think that stasis is an interesting and real phenomenon in need of explanation.

  8. A quick note: Gould died in 2002, not the early 80s as suggested in this post.

    Gould’s popular works profoundly influenced my own intellectual development and decision to pursue biology. I had the great fortune of meeting him and having lunch with him as an undergrad in Arizona. He signed my copy of Dinosaur in a Haystack, but refused many other requests for autographs onto anything other than his own works. He said something to the effect of “I’m not a baseball player! I’m happy to sign anything I wrote, but not bookmarks or random scraps of paper.”

    I subscribed to Natural History for years primarily to read Gould. I, too, grew weary of his increasingly long, digression filled essays–he really could have used a more forceful editor in those later years!

    In grad school, we were assigned to read Gould’s famous “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm” and I fondly recall all the rich, intellectually stimulating discussions that resulted.

    1. This comment may not be of import; however, having studied @ the MCZ in the early 1980s I do recall that he was very very ill then although unless I am incorrect subsequently in remission….

  9. Dr. Gould’s collected columns, “Reflections on Natural History” captured my fascination with evolution and finally convinced me that natural selection was sufficient to explain it.

    After that discovery, I changed my major from theater to biology, and I have never looked back.

  10. Hello,
    I think there is a typo in the sentence “But in 1981 he developed another cancer in his chest, …”: it should be 2001 instead of 1981.
    Always a pleasure to read you.
    Best regards,

  11. I always wondered if Gould’s love for music was the rationale behind the NOMA idea.

    Perhaps singing the sacred music of Bach (which I recall reading he really loved) made Gould wish for a slice of the world in which all the motivations and sentiments of that music made sense.

    I sang in a performance of the Bach St. Matthew passion long ago (actually the performance was in Cambridge in the mid-80’s so there is a good chance Gould was there) and a Jewish friend of mine said the music made her want to convert to Christianity. (At least until she thought about all the Resurrection/Easter stuff, then she came back to her senses.) It really is that powerful.

    Oh, and Jerry–about that snail monograph? A fellow Harvard undergrad of mine was a work-study student working for Gould measuring snails. Thousands of them, as I recall, with a micrometer. His recollection of Gould was pretty much “Christ, what an asshole”.

    1. I agree. There’s something immensely seductive about Christian sacred music. Monteverdi is my personal favourite.

    2. Yes, many of the great masses are seductive. I still shiver listening to the kyrie in Mozart’s C-minor mass. And I remember that like all memes it is designed to evoke exactly that sense of religious awe in me.

      1. I used to sing with Gould in the Baritone section of the Cecilia chorus. I was young and rather in awe of him so I hardly spoke to him. He was certainly an enthusiastic if not always subtle singer! The Cecilia rehearsed in a lovely old Episcopal church and many of the singers were lovely liberal-minded churchgoers. And yes, the often sacred music we sang could certainly move one to feelings of transcendence. I’ve often shared the thought mentioned above that these experiences influenced Gould’s NOMA idea.

        1. I hadn’t considered the potential influence of music on Gould’s suggestion of NOMA. For my own attempt to understand what is special about music, I was led to read some of the philosophy of Schopenhauer, although it’s a hard slog, and I’ve barely scraped the surface of his works.

          1. dear Llwddythlw
            gustav mahler’s third symphony is that composer’s exposition, in a programmatic symphony, of schopenhauer’s ‘world as will & idea’. there is a good essay examining this symphony in these terms, by william mcgrath. its called “the meta-musical universe of gustav mahler” and is to be found in his book, “dionysian art & politics in fin de siecle vienna”. your university library might have a copy. if you’re inclined to try coming at schopenhauer from another direction, i heartily recommend it, in conjunction with the symphony. it was a real “ear opener” for me – a lively & immensely cultivated introduction to the notion of music as a kind of aural philosophy, a notion not at all uncommon in schopenhauer & mahler’s time.
            yours sincerely
            alfred venison

      2. That Kyrie is phenomenal.

        I’m not sure Mozart would agree with your characterization of his compositional goal, however.

        For the great composers, quality craftsmanship was paramount. As Brahms said: “Whatever I commit to paper must be perfect. Whether it is also beautiful is another question. But perfect it must be!” Now, I might suggest that “beautiful” and “perfect” pretty much map right onto each other. But the idea is that, even when composing something explicitly programmatic, primacy is given to treating the pitches/rhythms in a skillful, logical manner. A great composer would never justify a particular musical “move” or “gesture” only by citing some vague, superficial imagery.

        Please also see my reply to M31 below.

    3. Of course, as you might’ve guessed from my nym, I’m very pleased to read of your admiration for Bach.

      But if you ask me, the effect great music should have on the listener is to evoke just that: admiration for the composer, not for the accident of the subject matter with which the text (if there is any) deals. The text in the opening chorus of the SMP could be the most banal, even vulgar rubbish; that would not make what Bach did musically any less a work of genius. In fact, consider that many composers (especially Bach) recycled previously written music by setting it to a different text, or by giving a text to a previously written instrumental work. The text and subject matter have precious little to do with the quality of the musical content.

      Great music is made great by virtue of the skill with which the composer establishes or highlights relationships between the pitches/rhythms/etc.

      Euterpe is not a respecter of ideology.

    4. “a Jewish friend of mine said the music made her want to convert to Christianity. (At least until she thought about all the Resurrection/Easter stuff, then she came back to her senses.)”

      I’d have thought the chorus “His blood be on us and on our children” would have brought her back to her senses.

      1. Yeah, that too.

        There was a very well-known Boston violinist would not play the piece because of that text.

        JS1685, I think that the text of the opening chorus of the St. Matthew _is_ pretty much banal vulgar rubbish. “Behold the bridegroom! Where?” etc. I’m in complete agreement with you that the wonder and awe should be directed at the human who created the music, and the humans who created the musical customs and culture that JS Bach made such brilliant use of.

        There is something about music that makes us feel we have access to deeper levels of meaning than language can provide. Which, of course, is why religion, the great parasite of the world, uses it so much.

        The musical connection to religious feeling can be hard to give up. I think that people who ‘should’ be atheists but aren’t might find the music the hardest to give up. Didn’t Martin Gardner remain at least nominally Anglican for the ritual and music?

        I’ve known Christians who converted to Judaism and more than one of them said that the Christmas carols were the hardest thing to say goodbye to.

        I of course, love Christmas carols and sing them loud and clear with my proud atheist voice.

        1. I’m another atheist choral singer. Love the Bach & Mozart, but Monteverdi’s and Rachmaninoff’s vespers are personal favourites. Most recently I sang the Beethoven Missa Solemnis – an amazing work.

          In my opinion, you’re better off not ignoring the words. “Word painting” is a part of the art: rising to heaven, descending to hell, falling silent and dying, shimmering angelic voices, the “tuba mirum” trumpet call… I consider it as story-telling, of a myth. I’d be just as happy to sing songs written to or about Bacchus, Brahma, Buddha or Beer.

          On the rare occasion when someone asks how I can sing Xmas carols when I’m not a Christian, I usually note that I also don’t have to be a Japanese teenager to sing Un Bel Di, so what is their point?

          1. Yes, word-painting is a part of the art. It’s undeniably of some interest and can often be very effective. The point is that it has nothing to do with whether or not the music works. The best composers fulfill the demands of a purely musical logic first, then layer on the more extra-musical elements. Or, perhaps to put it more accurately, the greats would only conceive of “leitmotivic” gestures that can also be justified in a purely musical sense.

            The even bigger point is that, in a sense, there is no “religious music.” There is only music. The things that make Brahms’ (an atheist) music great are the same things that make Bach’s music great. There is no need to worry about “giving up” any music simply because of the circumstances under which it was created.

            The Missa Solemnis is unbelievable. The end of the Gloria? Fuhgeddaboutit!

  12. Thanks for this Jerry, and especially for the picture of Gould next to the Paris Jardin des Plantes stegosaur (featured earlier this year on WEIT).

    As a young postgrad I was bowled over by Ever Since Darwin and read all his books assiduously, though I have never slogged my way through Structure.

    I was hugely impressed by Wonderful Life, which I read in MS form when he was still developing his ideas. Even though I disagreed with him on his key point, which ultimately underminded natural selection as the agent of adaptations – “rewind the tape of life [old analogy!] and you’ll get a very different result”. NO – rewind the tape *with the same environmental conditions* and you’ll get a very similar outcome. I was also very disappointed but strangely heartened when it turned out that much of the weird Cambrian stuff wasn’t weird, just upside down (or whatever).

    I also never really got the punctuated equilibrium bug, and thought this was just a problem of scale (most change is incremental, but there are sudden lurches due to massive environmental changes).

    However, I’m afraid I now find him unreadable – over-rich and over-blown, even in his shorter pieces. I think he needed to be more self-disciplined, and less self-important, to be a truly great writer and have a lasting influence into the 21st century. To my taste, Dawkins, Jones and Coyne all have the upper hand on him, by a substantial amount.

    1. I tried reading Structure but found that at times he seemed to be deliberately made it hard to understand what he was trying to say.

      I understand by then he was refusing to allow an editor to review his books, which no matter how good a writer you are is never going to produce the best possible result.

    2. “Rewinding the tape” never made much sense to me. If you want to talk about contingency, a fixed, linear tape recording on which everything is already laid out from start to finish is exactly the wrong metaphor.

      It also seemed to me that he ignored the role of statistical inevitability in evolution. Yes, the particular evolutionary trajectory of any given lineage may be highly contingent. But there are still Good Tricks (as Dennett calls them) that are virtually certain to turn up in some lineage eventually, and an ensemble of individually random trajectories can still add up to an overall trend.

      1. I think you’ve precisely missed Gould’s point.

        There are “Good Tricks” but consider one of the classic examples of a good trick: sharks, dolphins and ichthyosaurs. Independent lineages evolving the same “good trick” (a fusiform body). However, they are INCREDIBLY different in important, and contingent!, ways. Mammals have highly constrained backbones which limit side to side motion, and so dolphins swim up and down. Sharks lacked lungs and so never evolved swim bladders, and as such do not have bony skeletons. Etc. etc. for ichthyosaurs. But importantly: they’re all vertebrates! Fusiform body plans are a good trick…for vertebrates. But you know what else is convergent on them? Squid.

        Squid never get listed in that “classic” example of convergence because, even though they have the same hydrodynamic sort of body, they are so radically different (as a result of their unique evolution history with respect to the other three) that they don’t get recognized.

        So yes, there are “good tricks”. But even they are not immune to history. If you “rewound the tape of life” and vertebrates never took off, guess what? Nothing would have stumbled upon the “fusiform” body plan. This isn’t to say that the oceans wouldn’t contain hydrodynamic creatures, but that those hydrodynamic creatures could be COMPLETELY different.

        1. Gould’s point, as I understood it, was that advanced tool-using intelligence like ours is so unlikely and so contingent that it would not recur in any alternate history of life. Not just that the form of such intelligence would be wildly different (which I have no quarrel with), but that it would not happen at all. I think he’s overreaching there and that the mere demonstration of evolutionary contigency does not warrant that conclusion.

          1. In “Wonderful Life” he is concerned more with the general contingency of life than with human intelligence per se. That certainly is something he sees as contingent as well, but still.

            Consider the following: human-like intelligence has arisen exactly once in 3.5 billion years of life on Earth. We have one data point, but you know? That one data point suggests that human like intelligence is rather UNlikely. If you want to argue that human intelligence is “likely” you must explain why, in 3.5 billion years, it only arose once. Certainly, since metazoans arose 600 million years or so ago it has become more likely, but still, once in 600 million years is not exactly the greatest odds.

            Our nearest contenders, crows, dolphins and elephants, are all intelligent clades. Their disparate members of relatively even intellectual acuity. Think about that: there’s no way to optimize intelligence onto the phylogeny of any of those three groups without coming to the conclusion that their intelligence level “capped out” 10+ million years ago and has not significantly increased (as long-removed members of each clade are intellectually indistinguishable).

            Basically: all arguments that human intelligence is “inevitable” or “likely” fly in the face of all existing evidence. Perhaps not all reason, but all evidence.

            1. “That one data point suggests that human like intelligence is rather UNlikely.”

              I don’t think that inference is warranted either. The expected lifespan of the Earth is on the order of ten billion years. Metazoan life has existed for about half a billion years, has perhaps another five billion to go before the final extinction. So we’re maybe ten percent of the way through metazoan evolution, and already we have human-level intelligence.

              Basically we have intelligent life emerging within a few hundred million years of the time when the atmosphere became sufficiently oxygenated to support it, just as life itself emerged within a few hundred million years of the time when the oceans became cool enough to support it. I don’t see how, on that evidence, you can justify a conclusion that intelligence (given metazoan life) is any more unlikely than life itself (given hot rocks and water).

              1. Except that that way of breaking it down completely ignores evolutionary history, which is the entire point of Gould’s thought experiment. Consider that, across the entirety of life, only two clades have any real potential for the type of intelligence we’re talking about: vertebrates and cephalopods. Consider further that all of the phylogenetic evidence suggests that cephalopod intelligence has not really increased noticeably since the last common ancestor of octopus and cuttlefish several hundred million years back. Why, if human-like intelligence is so likely, did cephalopods simply “make-do” with their current level for so long? Why did dolphins, or elephants, or apes in general? Crows and parrots, too, have maintained a high, but not staggering, level of intelligence for tens of millions of years. None of these small clades broke the “glass ceiling”.

                Further, why did only two clades (amniotes and cephalopods) evolve anything even CLOSE to the type of intelligence we’re talking about. Two very small clades, I might add. If you want to try and argue that intelligence is likely, you have to explain to me not only why so many other clades seemed to have “stopped short”, but also why arthropods didn’t evolve it. Or plants. Or fungi. You make the argument that P(Intelligence|Complex Life) is roughly equal to P(Life|Ideal Conditions), but I’m not sure that’s true. We have no idea how many times life arose independently early on, we just “know” that all modern life is descended from a single, successful form. It could well be that life arose thousands of time, but that most of those independent derivations were outcompeted by a single form that lead to bacteria/virii. Whereas with (human-like) intelligence, we can be incredibly certain that, despite ample opportunity, it has not ever arose in any other lineage (elsewise we’d find ruins of previous civilizations in the rock record).

                If you really want to try and argue that human-like intelligence is NOT unlikely, and is NOT a weird, historical artifact, you really do have to contend with the stupefying lack of intelligence across the tree of life, along with the fact that, almost halfway from the Earth’s birth, intelligence has arisen just the one time, in one small group, that only came to prominence because an asteroid wiped out the previous occupiers of their niche space 65 million years before they evolved.

              2. Maybe we just have different definitions of “unlikely”. For me, something that happens on the order of once per biosphere(or even once in ten biospheres) makes it a likely thing that we should expect to find lots of in the universe. The evidence of our biosphere, and in particular the relatively short timescale from the oxygenation of the atmosphere to the appearance of intelligence, suggests to me that intelligence may be likely in this sense.

                If you want to argue, as Gould did, that intelligence is so unlikely that we shouldn’t expect to find it at all, anywhere, and the fact that we do find it on Earth is an anomaly, then you’ll need to establish a value of P(Intelligence|Life) many orders of magnitude less than one. I don’t see how you can do that by pointing out that it happened “only” once here.

            2. you must explain why, in 3.5 billion years, it only arose once.

              we actually don’t know that that is accurate.

              the fossil record does not indicate levels of intelligence.

              hell, we can’t even measure it for ourselves accurately.

              1. elsewise we’d find ruins of previous civilizations in the rock record

                again, this is not necessarily the case.

                intelligence does not necessarily equate with building cities, and it would be hit or miss anyway.

                who is to say intelligence much like our own hasn’t evolved dozens, or hundreds, of times, and just never populated enough to the point where cities were necessary.

              2. Even Bronze-Age city-states would be hard to detect 100 million years later, especially if sea levels were lower then and they’re all underwater now.

                I don’t consider this a likely scenario, but it’s not something that can be easily ruled out.

    3. However, I’m afraid I now find him unreadable – over-rich and over-blown, even in his shorter pieces. I think he needed to be more self-disciplined, and less self-important, to be a truly great writer and have a lasting influence into the 21st century. To my taste, Dawkins, Jones and Coyne all have the upper hand on him, by a substantial amount


  13. When I was a freshman at Berkeley, I was assigned a paper for Freshman English Composition on “What would be the difference between a man and an indistinguishable mechanical man?” I wrote that if there was no distinguishable difference, there was indeed no difference. At that time the Sociobiology Wars were at full chat and I got ripped a new one. I didn’t understand why for years, and the incident severely impacted my naive notion that the University is about the Marketplace of Ideas.

    The stupid, immoral, unscientific way the Wars were fought had more to do with Dick than Stephen, but whatever, it sure punched a big hole in my education.

    1. There is a very good book that chronicles the Sociobiology Wars entertainingly: ‘Defenders of Truth’ by Ullica Segerstråle.

      1. Seconded — it really captures what was going on at the time (and if you know any of the protagonists it is particularly revealing).

  14. I am still an undergraduate with an interest in evo-devo, so I can’t really say much about what Prof.Coyne said about Steven Gould. But for me Gould – after Darwin – drives my interest in Geology. I agree and like his idea of contingency, and I agree with his punctuated equilibrium theory. I just hope I can be as much of a workaholic as he is!

  15. I have wondered about how much Gould being very much into palaeontology influenced his ideas on punctuated equilibrium.

    When you are dealing with fossils you have far less evidence with which to determine species than you do when dealing with live, or recently deceased, specimens. There will be organisms that are recognised as being belonging to different species today that were they to be fossilised could not be differentiated.

    1. You have to divorce the notion of “species” from your reading, really. Coyne is absolutely spot-on with his critique of Gould’s notions of process with regards to punk eek.

      There were almost certainly extreme genetic changes going on within the morphological entities we see, but that doesn’t change the fact that the morphological entities persist for, sometimes, tens of millions of years. That’s what has to be explained. A lot of paleontologists often fall into the trap of over-reifying the morphological species concept, but the fact is that there is a demonstrable amount of phenotypic stasis in the fossil record. Gould’s contention was that this remarkable amount of phenotypic stasis flies in the face of the tradition view of natural selection as a constantly-acting machine that fine tunes every lineage to perfection. (Obviously physiology could be changing wantonly throughout, but it doesn’t change the curious regularity with which presumably functional skeletal morphology persists)

  16. I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with him when I was an undergraduate and he visited my school. I didn’t notice arrogance. He was friendly and encouraging. For what it’s worth I’m a paleontologist today in no small measure due to his influence.

  17. To answer your last question, Gould’s essays were second only to Dawkins books in developing my appreciation of the wonder of evolution. And the exchanges in the Gould-Dawkins “feud” were a good source of amusement.

  18. Gould’s writings were the first popularizations of evolutionary biology that I read in my teens. They were intellectually very stimulating and also enjoyable in the artistic sense. He did have way with words!
    I didn’t buy all his views (his Marxism, his stance in sociobiology) but I was happy that the world’s preeminent populariser of evolutionary thought was such a great humanist. At one point I even paid lip service to NOMA while being deep down uncomfortable with the intellectual honesty of the idea (that period was just a reflection of my conflict averse personality).

    During my University years studying biology Gould was clearly an important intellectual influence among the teacher generation – more so than Dawkins. I wonder if it was connected to the fact that the Marxist winds of the 70’s were by no means forgotten then.

    In the end of the day Dawkins has been more influencal on my intellectual development than Gould but Steve was the first.I’ll drink to him!

  19. We are marketers and contra, generally, the idea of pop science. Well, we are contra the notion of pop anything, actually.

    Our take on Gould was that he was more focused on selling books than improving knowledge. That’s not a bad thing, but, as we have discussed in other posts, celebrity is usually negatively correlated with usefulness of one’s utterances and ideas. That’s probably the way it should be.

  20. “I thought, called needed attention to the patterns of stasis in the fossil record, but was completely wrongheaded as a theory of process, depending as it did on assumptions about population genetics which were already known to be wrong.”

    Could you provide references or links as to why punctuated equilibrium as an explanation for the process of evolution is thought to be wrong?

  21. After reading a collection or two of his essays, I started telling people interesting facts and anecdotes about natural history and evolution, and suddenly I realized that I could become one of those people who knows a thing or two about natural history and evolution. I am eternally grateful to Dr. Gould for that. I don’t need him to have been perfect or even right all the time. There’s just as much to learn from failed or inaccurate theories, and from the scientists who make them. I don’t ever expect to be able to question a scientist myself. But I am now empowered to learn, listen, and find out, without letting my lack of formal education hinder me.

  22. As a non-blogging non-scientist, yet advocate of science in general, and as a fan of Gould, I feel it appropriate to say on the day after his 70th, it was his Ever Since Darwin that was the first book I ever read on evolution back in the late 70’s. My library is now chock full from Coyne to Wilson. Gould not only captured me as a fan of science but doubly so with his affection for baseball, especially the Yankees. He had to know what he was talking about if he loved the Yankees. So controversy aside, Stephen J. Gould remains the most influential evolutionary biologist in this amateur scientist’s life. Thanks Steve.

  23. I read Gould’s early essay collections when I was an undergrad. They inspired a lifelong interest in evolution and the history of biology. It wasn’t long before I came to find other authors more convincing on many topics, but I doubt that I would have read their works with the same attention if I had not been introduced to the discipline, its history and its controversies by Gould’s vivid, circumstantial — and yes, literate — essays.

    If there’s any alloy to Gould’s contribution to public understanding of evolution, it’s that, for a good while, for many general readers, evolutionary theory was simply what Gould said it was, whether his views on any given topic happened to be mainstream or divergent. Very few of the other popularizers could match Gould as a writer, and among those who could, not even Mayr or Dawkins or Pinker seemed able to reach as large an audience as Gould could.

    I’d say that one factor in Gould’s popularity on university campuses was that his emphasis on the role of accident in evolutionary history was a good fit for the left-wing politics that prevailed there, especially in humanities departments. Gould himself could draw political lessons from his views on evolution, so the enthusiasm of his admirers was not misplaced. (I’m something of a lefty myself, so I can feel the attraction.) On the other hand, many people mistakenly took Dawkins to be a Thatcherite Social Darwinist, solely on the evidence of one title, The Selfish Gene, which they assumed must advertise an attempt to justify selfishness as natural and to legitimate the privileges of the economically successful. Pinker was similarly tarred by his association with evolutionary psychology, which evoked deeply visceral hostility in some circles, as it was taken to be an attempt to naturalize and justify traditional gender roles, etc.

    I don’t have a summative thought, but I do have a question. What would a Gould for the 21st century look like? What would it take for a new popularizer of evolution to capture the imagination of as many general readers as Gould did?

  24. I am not a biologist nor do I play one on TV but I have been involved in a 4-year research program studying a cat. So fur, so good.

    I always enjoyed reading Gould’s column in Natural History because he left no stone unturned, no matter how many stones there were. Just as I got to the point where my brain was full there were always two more pages.

    However, Gould’s biggest impact on me came in two stages. In stage One I read “Wonderful Life” while laid up with the chicken pox in 1989. I didn’t know anything about the Cambrian Explosion (as the creationists call it) but the book was terrific and it too my mind off the incessant itching.

    The Second stage came in 2006 when I found myself in Banff and managed by the sheerest of luck to sign up for a hike to the Burgess Shale. Silly me, I had no idea there was a two-year waiting list. It was about 6 hours to the site, an hour at the Shale, then 3 or so hours down. Quite a day, but I wouldn’t have been inspired to go without Gould.

    Thanks, Steve!

  25. I owe SJG homage for “Panda’s Thumb”, which I read as a teen, and was my first exposure to evolutionary biology.

    I also owe him for the many debates generated by the Spandrels paper over the years.

  26. “What influence did Gould’s scientific work or popular writing have on you?”

    “Ever Since Darwin” was the first of his books I read and it solidified an interest in evolution that continues to this day. I’m not sure why my research interests went to ecology (maybe it was being young and wanting to be outdoors all the time) because I find myself constantly interested in reading evolution and staying on top of as much of it as I can…

  27. I was privileged to spend some time with Gould at the workshops hosted by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study in Colorado Springs. My neighbor and colleague Joe McInerney was the BSCS Director and was instrumental in arranging Gould’s visits to work with high school biology teachers and those of us contributing to the BSCS texts. This is yet another example of Gould’s commitment to science education at all levels.

  28. Not for a moment to take anything away from the seasoned and respected scientists who died prematurely…but there have been not a few young scientists, mostly post-docs, unless I am mistaken, who because of death lost opportunities to fully realize their potential. One of these of particular significance to me was Jasper Loftus-Hills (1946-1974), a Bob Capranica post-doc (Cornell) who died in TX after a field trip to collect frogs.

  29. JAC:

    What influence did Gould’s scientific work or popular writing have on you?

    I’ve always wanted to know why things are the way they are. But in my youth I was attracted to the pretty explanations at the expense of truth ~ I wanted the pretty stuff to be true. I think that Gould had the same blind spot. Feynman, Asimov, Gardner, Randi & Dawkins put me right. I learned a lot from Gould, in a backhanded way, through the punctuated equilibrium, spandrel & full house ‘debates’.

    IMO Gould’s best reads are his short stuff where he digresses less. He badly needed a ruthless editor. Here is one of the best things he ever wrote: The Median Isn’t the Message

    An impressive piece that has helped many people to live a full life with cancer [I haven’t expressed that as well as I would like, but time presses]

  30. I’m afraid I’d only seen his later stuff so I got the bloated “this doesn’t make sense” stuff. In fact my mind has even banished the titles from my memory. I remember “punctuated equilibrium” but only because I tend to remember and rant about irritating phrases or monikers (I loathe the ‘brights’). I’d never read “Rock of Ages” but numerous people have attempted to explain “NOMA” to me over the years and I’ve always said “that’s wrong” (the assumptions are extraordinary as they defy facts – it’s every bit as bad as the ontological argument).

  31. I especially like Gould’s essay “The Median Isn’t the Message,” where he recounts his reaction to learning that his mesothelioma had a median mortality of only eight months. Gould credits his scientific training with giving him the knowledge he needed in order to correctly interpret the statistics, understand his situation, and avoid despair: “From years of experience with the small-scale evolution of Bahamian land snails treated quantitatively, I have developed this technical knowledge — and I am convinced that it played a major role in saving my life. Knowledge is indeed power…”

    I’ve written more about this here.

  32. Have met three of his constructions – thoroughly confusing.

    First heard: punctuated equilibrium, with no time scales given to compare with gradualism. Coyne has set me right on that one, I think.

    Second: NOMA. Took me a while at the time (new at thinking about atheism et cetera), like in the case of agnosticism, to realize it is a thoroughly religious claim. (And one as thoroughly erroneous as the other.)

    Third: Biological spandrels. Still not read that original text.

    So, I’m not sure Gould has had any positive influence at all in my case, rather fuzzying clear empirical matters…

  33. I found Gould in a bookshop the year after I finished my geology degree and read everything I could find. He taught me more about paleontology and evolution than four years of a science degree had. I took a subscription to Natural History just to get his essays, not easy to do from Australia in those days. My favourite essay was the one about candy bars.

  34. In my opinion, Stephen Jay Gould has done a lot to revitalize evolutionary thinking in the eighties and nineties of last century – not only among nonscientists, but also among paleontologists. While his ideas on gradualism and punctuated equilibrium infuriated a lot of those paleontologists (and rightly so), they did provoke many exhilarating debates, especially among students. It still is a useful tool for teaching, I think.
    Gould’s Spandrel-metaphor is, in combination with Jacob’s earlier metaphor of ‘bricolage evolutionaire’ (evolutionary tinkering), a useful tool for descibing and understanding evolution.
    Gould did a lot to de-dogmatise paleontology and evolutionary science.
    Gould’s NOMA however, and the idea of leaving all competence regarding morals to religion, was a huge blunder. One wonders what (or who) might have induced him to publish such thoughtless nonsense.

  35. I’ve always found NOMA to be close to being a decent idea but with the fatal flaw of surrendering morality to religion. If he had left it with the two magesteria being the empirical natural world as one and the religious supernatural world as the other, it would be fine – since the fact that they do not overlap (as per definition) means that the supernatural realm has no influence or contact with the physical universe. It completely destroys any claim of religion to ‘know’ anything (even revelation is disallowed!)
    One can tell that there must be a germ of something useful in NOMA by the very fact that religious people hate it – it is only accomodationist atheists that promote it. Even then it is as a tool to attack gnus rather than defining a border between science and religion.

  36. I think Gould’s promulgation of heterochrony and his attempts to operationalize it are very worthwhile, at the very least for emphasizing the role of ontogeny in evolution. Even though he didn’t coin the phrase, “Evolution is the control of development by ecology” (another brilliant iconoclast did…a former colleague of Jerry’s), it nicely encapsulates his ideas.

    I also like his work on clade shapes and null models with Raup (as someone else pointed out).

    And frankly his work on allometry helped to pave the way for the modern study of morphometrics.

    Also his emphasis on developmental constraints, a topic that has since been tackled by many folks, e.g., G. Wagner/K. Schwenk come to mind.

  37. Everyone talks about Punctuated Equilibria with respect to Gould. But surely his single biggest contribution was to bring development back into the fold of evolutionary thought? Most of the big researchers in evo-devo (Shubin, Carroll, Jernvall) cite him as a founding father of sorts for the discipline. I must admit to being a bit shocked that this was completely (?) overlooked in the post by Dr. Coyne.

    Gould showed with his classic papers on cerion that natural selection alone does not determine patterns of evolution – ultimately ontogeny determines what is made available to selection. It seems to me atleast that in emphasising this he pissed off a lot of people (especially pop. geneticists) because he showed how biology had really hamstrung itself by not embracing interdisciplinary science.

  38. Speaking purely as a passionate amateur, I have to say that Gould was one of the first individuals ever to help me fall in love with science. I remember those amazing weekends when I would journey off to the mountains, just the two of us (me and Gould or Dawkins or whoever), camped by a stream, unable to put the book down until early dawn. If you want to reach the masses, to speak to their hearts in a way that can compete with their deeply ingrained religious upbringing, you need to speak to them at that level. It doesn’t matter to me one whit whether Gould was wrong about this or that point. From my point of view he accomplished his purpose.

    I know that he and Dawkins were often at odds, but that only makes it all the more interesting. I also remember one particular moment as I was reading “The Blind Watchmaker” when, hearing of living things described as a vector space, and evolution as a walk through that space, I came as close to hearing the theme of “2001, a Space Odyssey” as I have ever come.

    Bless these good folks!

  39. Gould is the reason I’m currently doing my PhD in History of Science (focusing on hist of bio and evolutionary theory). His book Mismeasure of Man and his essays had an enormous impact on my intellectual development and I regret never having the chance to tell him so. A great loss.

  40. If I had read Gould 5 years earlier I might have gone into biology or something like science journalism. As is was, a couple years out of design school, I picked up a copy of “Hen’s Teeeth and Horses Toes” on a whim, because I thought the title was cool. I don’t think I had ever read a popular science book before. It completely changed the way I looked at the world–at natural history and human history, and the nature of reality. I did eventually go back for a second undergraduate in biology, though never took the plunge into professional science. I still hope to come up with a children’s book about evolution. There are a lot more good ones today than there used to be, but still not nearly enough.

  41. I’m late to the discussion but thought I’d submit my impression of Gould. I only met him once, but I had read his early columns in Natural History and was envious of his ability to lucidly and entertainingly explain evolutionary concepts. I was teaching at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA, when Gould agreed to give a lecture at this small, liberal arts college for women. After the lecture he and I shared a pitcher of beer and I found him to be gracious and friendly, not at all conceited and certainly willing to clarify and defend his positions vis-a-vis his evolutionary ideas. Why had he come to lecture at an obscure, Southern educational institution? He told me that he felt an obligation to speak in places that would probably never have an opportunity to hear a contrarian viewpoint. I didn’t know it, but this must have been around the time that he was first diagnosed with cancer. I felt privileged to have had an opportunity to share some personal time with him (and embarrassed that none of my colleagues were interested to joining us).
    A few years later he appeared at Kennesaw College, on the north side of Atlanta and gave a rousing, anti-racist talk to a packed room.

  42. I don’t think you can overstate how important the concept of punctuated equilibrium was at the time of that paper. There was a sort of cognitive dissonance in the way paleontologists looked at the fossil record before that; describing fossils as if they were species in stasis at the same time they were intuitively “hidebound gradualists.” The take-away message was that your data are more important than your intuitions.

    The paper came out when I was just starting to study geology, and I would say that that, and his ideas about contingency, have had a lasting impact on me. It was an interesting time to be studying geology, I don’t think we ever used a textbook when I was an undergraduate because they were all wrong.

Leave a Reply