George Gaylord Simpson

George Gaylord

American Zoologist, Evolutionist and Paleontologist known for Modern Synthesis, Quantum Evolution and anticipating Punctuated Equilibrium

Author Quotes

I do not think evolution is supremely important because it is my specialty. On the contrary, it is my specialty because I think it is supremely important.

The attempted synthesis of paleontology and genetics, an essential part of the present study, may be particularly surprising and possibly hazardous. Not long ago, paleontologists felt that a geneticist was a person who shut himself in a room, pulled down the shades, watched small flies disporting themselves in milk bottles, and thought that he was studying nature. A pursuit so removed from the realities of life, they said, had no significance for the true biologist. On the other hand, the geneticists said that paleontology had no further contributions to make to biology, that its only point had been the completed demonstration of the truth of evolution, and that it was a subject too purely descriptive to merit the name 'science'. The paleontologist, they believed, is like a man who undertakes to study the principles of the internal combustion engine by standing on a street corner and watching the motor cars whiz by.

I don't know where to put whales. I'm sticking them here, but I don't have any reason for it.

The book before you is one of the most important ever written. No other modern work has done so much to change man’s concept of himself and of the universe in which he lives. Before Darwin the physical sciences were already well established. They had abandoned the magical and the supernatural in seeking to understand the operations of the physical universe. They had developed the basic principles of all truly scientific investigation: that natural causes should be sought for natural phenomena, and that scientific theories must be testable and tested, in terms of objective, repeatable observations. However, the most important of all phenomena, those of life, were not yet generally approached in that fully scientific wary. The usual attempts to explain the nature of life, the diversity of living things, their marvelous adaptations, and other fundamental aspects of the living world were still metaphysical, at best, and often frankly supernatural.

I have a debt, a loyalty to the museum; the best place for me to do what I wanted to do.

The fact - not theory - that evolution has occurred and the Darwinian theory as to how it occurred have become so confused in popular opinion that the distinction must be stressed.

In spite of these examples, it remains true, as every paleontologist knows, that most new species, genera, and families and that nearly all new categories above the level of families appear in the record suddenly and are not led up to by known, gradual, completely continuous transitional sequences.

The meaning of human life and the destiny of man cannot be separable from the meaning and destiny of life in general. 'What is man?' is a special case of 'What is life?' Probably the human species is not intelligent enough to answer either question fully, but even such glimmerings as are within our powers must be precious to us. The extent to which we can hope to understand ourselves and to plan our future depends in some measure on our ability to read the riddles of the past. The present, for all its awesome importance to us who chance to dwell in it, is only a random point in the long flow of time. Terrestrial life is one and continuous in space and time. Any true comprehension of it requires the attempt to view it whole and not in the artificial limits of any one place or epoch. The processes of life can be adequately displayed only in the course of life throughout the long ages of its existence.

In summary, very large populations may differentiate rapidly, but their sustained evolution will be at moderate or slow rates and will be mainly adaptive. Populations of intermediate size provide the best conditions for sustained progressive and branching evolution, adaptive in its main lines, but accompanied by in-adaptive fluctuations, especially in characters of little selective importance. Small populations will be virtually incapable of differentiation or branching and will often be dominated by random in-adaptive trends and peculiarly liable to extinction, but will be capable of the most rapid evolution as long as this is not cut short by extinction.

The meaning that we are seeking in evolution is its meaning to us, to man. The ethics of evolution must be human ethics. It is one of the many unique qualities of man, the new sort of animal, that he is the only ethical animal. The ethical need and its fulfillment are also products of evolution, but they have been produced in man alone.

It is still false to conclude that man is nothing but the highest animal, or the most progressive product of organic evolution. He is also a fundamentally new sort of animal and one in which, although organic evolution continues on its way, a fundamentally new sort of evolution has also appeared. The basis of this new sort of evolution is a new sort of heredity, the inheritance of learning. This sort of heredity appears modestly in other mammals and even lower in the animal kingdom, but in man it has incomparably fuller development and it combines with man's other characteristics unique in degree with a result that cannot be considered unique only in degree but must also be considered unique in kind. The Meaning of Evolution: A Study of the History of Life and of its Significance for Man (1949), 286.

The origin of life was necessarily the beginning of organic evolution and it is among the greatest of all evolutionary problems.

Life arose as a living molecule or protogene, the progression from this stage to that of the ameba is at least as great as from ameba to man. All the essential problems of living organisms are already solved in the one-celled (or, as many now prefer to say, noncellular) protozoan and these are only elaborated in man or the other multicellular animals. The step from nonlife to life may not have been so complex, after all, and that from cell to multicellular organism is readily comprehensible. The change from protogene to protozoan was probably the most complex that has occurred in evolution, and it may well have taken as long as the change from protozoan to man.

The passion for naming things is an odd human trait. It is strange that men always feel so much more at ease when they have put appellations on the things around them and that a wild, new region almost seems familiar and subdued once enough names have been used on it, even though in fact it is not changed in the slightest. Or, on second thought, it is perhaps not really strange. The urge to name must be as old as the human race, as old as speech which is one of the really fundamental characteristics by which we rise above the brutes, and thus a basic and essential part of the human spirit or soul. The naming fallacy is common enough even in science. Many a scientist claims to have explained some phenomenon when in truth all he has done is to give it a name.

Life is the most important thing about the world, the most important thing about life is evolution. Thus, by consciously seeking what is most meaningful, I moved from poetry to mineralogy to paleontology to evolution.

The science of systematics has long been affected by profound philosophical preconceptions, which have been all the more influential for being usually covert, even subconscious.

Man has risen, not fallen. He can choose to develop his capacities as the highest animal and to try to rise still farther, or he can choose otherwise. The choice is his responsibility, and his alone. There is no automatism that will carry him upward without choice or effort and there is no trend solely in the right direction. Evolution has no purpose; man must supply this for himself. The means to gaining right ends involve both organic evolution and human evolution, but human choice as to what are the right ends must be based on human evolution.

The search for historical laws is, I maintain, mistaken in principle.

Nothing I learned [in high school] had any bearing at all on the big and real questions. Who am I? What am I doing here? What is the world? What is my relationship to it?

The theory here developed is that mega-evolution normally occurs among small populations that become pre-adaptive and evolve continuously (without saltation, but at exceptionally rapid rates) to radically different ecological positions. The typical pattern involved is probably this: A large population is fragmented into numerous small isolated lines of descent. Within these, in-adaptive differentiation and random fixation of mutations occur. Among many such in-adaptive lines one or a few are pre-adaptive, i.e., some of their characters tend to fit them for available ecological stations quite different from those occupied by their immediate ancestors. Such groups are subjected to strong selection pressure and evolve rapidly in the further direction of adaptation to the new status. The very few lines that successfully achieve this perfected adaptation then become abundant and expand widely, at the same time becoming differentiated and specialized on lower levels within the broad new ecological zone.

Now we do have many examples of transitional sequences.

This regular absence of transitional forms is not confined to mammals, but is an almost universal phenomenon, as has long been noted by paleontologists. It is true of almost all orders of all classes of animals, both vertebrate and invertebrate. A fortiori, it is also true of the classes, and of the major animal phyla, and it is apparently also true of analogous categories of plants.

Certainly paleontologists have found samples of an extremely small fraction, only, of the earth's extinct species, and even for groups that are most readily preserved and found as fossils they can never expect to find more than a fraction.

Of course the orders all converge backward in time, to different degrees.

To put it crudely but graphically, the monkey who did not have a realistic perception of the tree branch he jumped for was soon a dead monkey—and therefore did not become one of our ancestors.

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George Gaylord
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American Zoologist, Evolutionist and Paleontologist known for Modern Synthesis, Quantum Evolution and anticipating Punctuated Equilibrium