Stephan Jay Gould

Stephan Jay

American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science

Author Quotes

Yet I also appreciate that we cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love (but only appreciate in some abstract sense). So let them all continue—the films, the books, the television programs, the zoos, the little half acre of ecological preserve in any community, the primary school lessons, the museum demonstrations, even […] the 6:00 A.M. bird walks. Let them continue and expand because we must have visceral contact in order to love. We really must make room for nature in our hearts.

Yet, just as individual selection emerged relatively unscarred after its battle with group selection from above, other evolutionists launched an attack from below. Genes, they argue, not individuals are the units of selection. They begin by recasting Butler's famous aphorism that a hen is merely the egg's way of making another egg. An animal, they argue, is only DNA's way of making more DNA. Richard Dawkins has put the case most forcefully in his recent book The Selfish Gene. ‘A body,’ he writes, ‘is the gene's way of preserving the gene unaltered.’ For Dawkins, evolution is a battle among genes, each seeking to make more copies of itself. Bodies are merely the places where genes aggregate for a time. Bodies are temporary receptacles, survival machines manipulated by genes and tossed away on the geological scrap heap once genes have replicated and slaked their insatiable thirst for more copies of themselves in bodies of the next generation. He writes:

Zoocentrism is the primary fallacy of human sociobiology, for this view of human behavior rests on the argument that if the actions of lower animals with simple nervous systems arise as genetic products of natural selection, then human behavior should have a similar basis.

Anton Chekhov wrote that one must not put a loaded rifle on stage if no one is thinking of firing it. Good drama requires spare and purposive action, sensible linking of potential causes with realized effects. Life is much messier; nothing happens most of the time. Millions of Americans (many hotheaded) own rifles (many loaded), but the great majority, thank God, do not go off most of the time. We spend most of real life waiting for Godot, not charging once more unto the breach.

But, as we consider the totality of similarly broad and fundamental aspects of life, we cannot defend division by two as a natural principle of objective order. Indeed, the stuff of the universe often strikes our senses as complex and shaded continua, admittedly with faster and slower moments, and bigger and smaller steps, along the way. Nature does not dictate dualities, trinities, quarterings, or any objective basis for human taxonomies; most of our chosen schemes, and our designated numbers of categories, record human choices from a cornucopia of possibilities offered by natural variation from place to place, and permitted by the flexibility of our mental capacities. How many seasons (if we wish to divide by seasons at all) does a year contain? How many stages shall we recognize in a human life?

Details are all that matters: God dwells there, and you never get to see Him if you don't struggle to get them right.

Few intellectual tyrannies can be more recalcitrant than the truths that everybody knows and nearly no one can defend with any decent data (for who needs proof of anything so obvious). And few intellectual activities can be more salutary than attempts to find out whether these rocks of ages might crumble at the slightest tap of an informational hammer.

Henry Fairfield Osborn, the dominant paleontologist of his era, and long time director of the American Museum of Natural History, gave the standard version in his popular book of 1918, The Origin and Evolution of Life... Lamarck attributed the lengthening of the [giraffe's] neck to the inheritance of bodily modifications caused by the neck-stretching habit. Darwin attributed the lengthening of the neck to the constant selection of individuals and races which were born with the longest necks. Darwin was probably right. ...The version has held ever since.

I am particularly fond of [Emmanuel Mendes da Costa's] Natural History of Fossils because this treatise, more than any other work written in English, records a short episode expressing one of the grand false starts in the history of natural science—and nothing can be quite so informative and instructive as a juicy mistake.

I love these tales because, in more reasonable attributions of motive, they so beautifully embody a fundamental theme of historical explanation - that consequences of substantial import often arise from triggers of entirely different intent. In other words, current utility bears no necessary relationship with historical origin.

If a man dies of cancer in fear and despair, then cry for his pain and celebrate his life. The other man, who fought like hell and laughed in the end, but also died, may have had an easier time in his final months, but took his leave with no more humanity.

In candid moments, leading creationists will admit that the miraculous character of origin and destruction precludes a scientific understanding. Morris writes (and Judge Overton quotes): 'God was there when it happened. We were not there . . . . Therefore, we are completely limited to what God has seen fit to tell us, and this information is in His written Word.'

It has become, in my view, a bit too trendy to regard the acceptance of death as something tantamount to intrinsic dignity. Of course I agree with the preacher of Ecclesiastes that there is a time to love and a time to die - and when my skein runs out I hope to face the end calmly and in my own way. For most situations, however, I prefer the more martial view that death is the ultimate enemy - and I find nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light.

My profession often gets bad press for a variety of sins, both actual and imagined: arrogance, venality, insensitivity to moral issues about the use of knowledge, pandering to sources of funding with insufficient worry about attendant degradation of values. As an advocate for science, I plead mildly guilty now and then to all these charges. Scientists are human beings subject to all the foibles and temptations of ordinary life. Some of us are moral rocks; others are reeds. I like to think (though I have no proof) that we are better, on average, than members of many other callings on a variety of issues central to the practice of good science: willingness to alter received opinion in the face of uncomfortable data, dedication to discovering and publicizing our best and most honest account of nature's factuality, judgment of colleagues on the might of their ideas rather than the power of their positions.

Nothing matches the holiness and fascination of accurate and intricate detail.

Phenomena unfold on their own appropriate scales of space and time and may be invisible in our myopic world of dimensions assessed by comparison with human height and times metered by human lifespans. So much of accumulating importance at earthly scales […] is invisible by the measuring rod of a human life. So much that matters to particles in the microscopic world of molecules […] either averages out to stability at our scale or simply stands below our limits of perception.

Siphonophores do not convey the message—a favorite theme of unthinking romanticism—that nature is but one gigantic whole, all its parts intimately connected and interacting in some higher, ineffable harmony. Nature revels in boundaries and distinctions; we inhabit a universe of structure. But since our universe of structure has evolved historically, it must present us with fuzzy boundaries, where one kind of thing grades into another.

The classical argument for why a supposedly decent and moral creature like Homo sapiens can mistreat and even extirpate other species rests upon an extreme position in a continuum. The Cartesian tradition, formulated explicitly in the seventeenth century, but developed in folk and other versions throughout human history no doubt, holds that other animals are little more than unfeeling machines, with only humans enjoying consciousness, however defined.

The invalid assumption that correlation implies cause is probably among the two or three most serious and common errors of human reasoning

The silliest and most tendentious of baseball writing tries to wrest profundity from the spectacle of grown men hitting a ball with at stick by suggesting linkages between the sport and deep issues of morality, parenthood, history, lost innocence, gentleness, and so on, seemingly ad infinitum. (The effort reeks of silliness because baseball is profound all by itself and needs no excuses; people who don't know this are not fans and are therefore unreachable anyway.)

They have this absurd notion that something that occurs in the past and that is not subject to direct observation is not provable. That's nonsense .... There is a mystery as to how evolution occurs, but there is not a whole lot of doubt as to whether it occurs.

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.

We must [it has been argued] go beyond reductionism to a holistic recognition that biology and culture interpenetrate in an inextricable manner.

When we look to presumed sources of origin for competing evolutionary explanations of the giraffe's long neck, we find either nothing at all, or only the shortest of speculative conjectures. Length, of course, need not correspond with importance. Garrulous old Polonius, in a rare moment of clarity, reminded us that brevity is the soul of wit (and then immediately vitiated his wise observation with a flood of woolly words about Hamlet's Madness.)

Arthropods and vertebrates share some broad features of general organization - elongated, bilaterally symmetrical bodies, with sensory organs up front, excretory structures in the back, and some form of segmentation along the major axis. But the geometry of major internal organs could hardly be more different... Arthropods concentrate their nervous system on their ventral (belly) side as two major cords running along the bottom surface of the animal. The mouth also opens on the ventral side, with the esophagus passing between the two nerve cords, and the stomach and remainder of the digestive tube running along the body above the nerve cords. In vertebrates, and with maximal contrast, the central nervous system runs along the dorsal (top) surface as a single tube culminating in a bulbous brain at the front end. The entire digestive system then runs along the body axis below the nerve cord.

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Stephan Jay
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American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science