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.

An old paleontological in joke proclaims that mammalian evolution is a tale told by teeth mating to produce slightly altered descendant teeth.

Biological determinism is, in its essence, a theory of limits. It takes the current status of groups as a measure of where they should and must be ... We inhabit a world of human differences and predilections, but the extrapolation of these facts to theories of rigid limits is ideology.

Darwinian evolution may be the most truthful and powerful idea ever generated by Western Science, but if we continue to illustrate our conviction with an indefensible, unsupported, entirely speculative, and basically rather silly story, then we are clothing a thing of beauty in rags - and we should be ashamed, for the apparel oft proclaims the man.

Evolutionists sometimes take as haughty an attitude toward the next level up the conventional ladder of disciplines: the human sciences. They decry the supposed atheoretical particularism of their anthropological colleagues and argue that all would be well if only the students of humanity regarded their subject as yet another animal and therefore yielded explanatory control to evolutionary biologists.

Good scholars struggle to understand the world in an integral way (pedants bite off tiny bits and worry them to death). These visions of reality […] demand our respect, for they are an intellectual's only birthright. They are often entirely wrong and always flawed in serious ways, but they must be understood honorably and not subjected to mayhem by the excision of patches.

I am not insensible to natural beauty, but my emotional joys center on the improbable yet sometimes wondrous works of that tiny and accidental evolutionary twig called Homo sapiens. And I find, among these works, nothing more noble than the history of our struggle to understand nature—a majestic entity of such vast spatial and temporal scope that she cannot care much for a little mammalian afterthought with a curious evolutionary invention, even if that invention has, for the first time in some four billion years of life on earth, produced recursion as a creature reflects back upon its own production and evolution. Thus, I love nature primarily for the puzzles and intellectual delights that she offers to the first organ capable of such curious contemplation.

I have a great respect for religion, and the subject has always fascinated me […]. Much of this fascination lies in the stunning historical paradox that organized religion has fostered, throughout Western history, both the most unspeakable horrors and the most heartrending examples of human goodness in the face of personal danger. (The evil, I believe, lies in an occasional confluence of religion with secular power. The Catholic Church has sponsored its share of horrors, from Inquisitions to liquidations—but only because this institution held great secular power during much of Western history. When my folks held such sway, more briefly and in Old Testament times, we committed similar atrocities with the same rationales.)

I would not choose to live in any age but my own; advances in medicine alone, and the consequent survival of children with access to these benefits, should preclude any temptation to trade for the past. But we cannot understand history if we saddle the past with pejorative categories based on our bad habits for dividing continua into compartments of increasing worth towards the present. These errors apply to the vast paleontological history of life, as much as to the temporally trivial chronicle of human beings. I cringe every time I read that this failed business, or that defeated team, has become a dinosaur is succumbing to progress. Dinosaur should be a term of praise, not opprobrium. Dinosaurs reigned for more than 100 million years and died through no fault of their own; Homo sapiens is nowhere near a million years old, and has limited prospects, entirely self-imposed, for extended geological longevity.

If we make this readjustment to view Homo sapiens as an ultimate in oddball rarity, and life at bacterial grade as the common expression of a universal phenomenon, then we could finally ask the truly fundamental question raised by the prospect of Martian fossils. If life originates as a general property of the material universe under certain conditions (probably often realized), then how much can the basic structure and constitution of life vary from place to independent place?

In what other world is myth so harmless? Great battles kill and maim; great homers and no-hitters are pure joy or deep tragedy without practical consequence… Life is inherently ambiguous; baseball games pit pure good against abject evil. Even Saddam Hussein must have committed one act of kindness in his life, but what iota of good could possibly be said for aluminum bats or the designated hitter rule?

Memory is a fascinating trickster. Words and images have enormous power and can easily displace actual experience over the years.

No rational order of divine intelligence unites species. The natural ties are genealogical along contingent pathways of history.

Our world is not an optimal place, fine-tuned by omnipotent forces of selection. It is a quirky mass of imperfections, working well enough (often admirably); a jury-rigged set of adaptations built of curious parts made available by past histories in different contexts… A world optimally adapted to current environments is a world without history, and a world without history might have been created as we find it. History matters; it confounds perfection and proves that current life transformed its own past.

Scientists have power by virtue of the respect commanded by the discipline... We live with poets and politicians, preachers and philosophers. All have their ways of knowing, and all are valid in their proper domain. The world is too complex and interesting for one way to hold all the answers.

The animals of the Burgess Shale are holy objects—in the unconventional sense that this word conveys in some cultures. We do not place them on pedestals and worship from afar. We climb mountains and dynamite hillsides to find them. We quarry them, split them, carve them, draw them, and dissect them, struggling to wrest their secrets. We vilify and curse them for their damnable intransigence. They are grubby little creatures of a sea floor 530 million years old, but we greet them with awe because they are the Old Ones, and they are trying to tell us something.

The history of most fossil species includes two features particularly inconsistent with gradualism: 1. Stasis. Most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking much the same as when they disappear; morphological change is usually limited and directionless. 2. Sudden appearance. In any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and fully formed.

The parasite has somehow evolved to turn off the host's defenses, presumably by disarming the crab's immune response with some chemical trickery that fools the host into accepting the parasite as part of itself. ...The adult parasite castrates the host, not by directly eating the gonadal tissue, but by some unknown mechanism probably involving penetration of the interna's roots around and into the crab's nervous system.

Theory and fact are equally strong and utterly interdependent; one has no meaning without the other. We need theory to organize and interpret facts, even to know what we can or might observe. And we need facts to validate theories and give them substance.

Very few people, including authors willing to commit to paper, ever really read primary sources—certainly not in necessary depth and comtemplation, and often not at all… When writers close themselves off to the documents of scholarship, and then rely only on seeing or asking, they become conduits and sieves rather than thinkers. When, on the other hand, you study the great works of predecessors engaged in the same struggle, you enter a dialogue with human history and the rich variety of our own intellectual traditions. You insert yourself, and your own organizing powers, into this history—and you become an acive agent, not merely a reporter.

We live in an essential and unresolvable tension between our unity with nature and our dangerous uniqueness. Systems that attempt to place and make sense of us by focusing exclusively either on the uniqueness or the unity are doomed to failure. But we must not stop asking and questing because the answers are complex and ambiguous.

When Bonner writes that natural selection for optimal feeding is then presumed to be the cause of non-motility in all forms, I can't help suspecting that some plants might do even better if they could walk from shade to sun—but the inherited constraints of design never permitted a trial of this intriguing option.

And yet I think that the Full House model does teach us to treasure variety for its own sake—for tough reasons of evolutionary theory and nature's ontology, and not from a lamentable failure of thought that accepts all beliefs on the absurd rationale that disagreement must imply disrespect. Excellence is a range of differences, not a spot. Each location on the range can be occupied by an excellent or an inadequate representative—and we must struggle for excellence at each of these varied locations. In a society driven, often unconsciously, to impose a uniform mediocrity upon a former richness of excellence—where McDonald's drives out the local diner, and the mega-Stop & Shop eliminates the corner Mom and Pop—an understanding and defense of full ranges as natural reality might help to stem the tide and preserve the rich raw material of any evolving system: variation itself.

Author Picture
First Name
Stephan Jay
Last Name
Birth Date
Death Date

American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science