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.

A hot topic of late, expressed most notably in Bernie Siegel's best-selling books, has emphasized the role of positive attitude in combating such serious diseases as cancer. From the depths of my skeptical and rationalist soul, I ask the Lord to protect me from California touchie-feeliedom.

As a nation, we are too young to have true mythic heroes, and we must press real human beings into service. Honest Abe Lincoln the legend is quite a different character from Abraham Lincoln the man. And so should they be. And so should both be treasured, as long as they are distinguished. In a complex and confusing world, the perfect clarity of sports provides a focus for legitimate, utterly unambiguous support [or] disdain. The Dodgers are evil, the Yankees good. They really are, and have been for as long as anyone in my family can remember.

Contingency is a thing unto itself, not the titration of determinism by randomness.

Eternal vigilance, as they say, is the price of freedom. Add intellectual integrity to the cost basis.

For Linnaeus, Homo sapiens was both special and not special. […] Special and not special have come to mean nonbiological and biological, or nurture and nature. These later polarizations are nonsensical. Humans are animals and everything we do lies within our biological potential. […] [T]he statement that humans are animals does not imply that our specific patterns of behavior and social arrangements are in any way directly determined by our genes. Potentiality and determination are different concepts.

Homo sapiens [are] a tiny twig on an improbable branch of a contingent limb on a fortunate tree.

I can only look from the outside (or cut into the inside, but flesh and genes do not reveal organic totality). I am stuck with a panoply of ineluctably indirect methods - some very sophisticated to be sure. I can atomize, experiment, and infer. I can record reams of data about behaviors and responses. But if I could be a beetle or a bacillus for that one precious minute - and live to tell the tale in perfect memory - then I might truly fulfill Darwin's dictum penned into an early notebook containing the first full flowering of his evolutionary ideas during the late 1830's: He who understands the baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.

I remember when we found the first population of living Cerion agassizi in central Eleuthera. Our hypothesis of Cerion's general pattern required that two predictions be affirmed (or else we were in trouble): this population must disappear by hybridization with mottled shells toward bank-interior coasts and with ribby snails toward the bank-edge. We hiked west toward the bank-interior and easily found hybrids right on the verge of the airport road. We then moved east toward the bank-edge along a disused road with vegetation rising to five feet in the center between the tire paths. We should have found our hybrids but we did not. The Cerion agassizi simply stopped about two hundred yards north of our first ribby Cerion. Then we realized that a pond lay just to our east and that ribby forms, with their coastal preferences, might not favor the western side of the pond. We forded the pond and found a classic hybrid zone between Cerion agassizi and ribby Cerions. (Ribby Cerion had just managed to round the south end of the pond, but had not moved sufficiently north along the west side to establish contact with C. agassizi populations.) I wanted to shout for joy. Then I thought, But who can I tell; who cares? And I answered myself, I don't have to tell anyone. We have just seen and understood something that no one has ever seen and understood before. What more does a man need?

If I could have those sixty seconds within Bradypus... would I not receive a plea for humans to pause, reassess - and above all, slow down?

In natural history, great discovery often requires a map to a hidden mine filled with gems then easily gathered by conventional tools, not a shiny new space-age machine for penetrating previously inaccessible worlds.

Knowledge and wonder are the dyad of our worthy lives as intellectual beings. Voyager did wonders for our knowledge, but performed just as mightily in the service of wonder—and the two elements are complementary, not independent or opposed. The thought fills me with awe—a mechanical contraption that could fit in the back of a pickup truck, traveling through space for twelve years, dodging around four giant bodies and their associated moons, and finally sending exquisite photos across more than four light-hours of space from the farthest planet in our solar system.

Natural selection can only produce adaptation to immediately surrounding (and changing) environments. No feature of such local adaptation should yield any expectation of general progress (however such a vague term be defined). Local adaptation may as well lead to anatomical simplification as to greater complexity. As an adult, the famous parasite Sacculina, a barnacle by ancestry, looks like a formless bag of reproductive tissue attached to the underbelly of its crab host (with ‘roots’ of equally formless tissue anchored within the body of the crab itself)—a devilish device to be sure (at least by our aesthetic standards), but surely less anatomically complex than a barnacle on the bottom of your boat, waving its legs through the water in search of food.

Ordinary speciation remains fully adequate to explain the causes and phenomenology of punctuation.

Run the tape again, and let the tiny twig of Homo sapiens expire in Africa. Other hominids may have stood on the threshold of what we know as human possibilities, but many sensible scenarios would never generate our level of mentality. Run the tape again, and this time Neanderthal perishes in Europe and Homo erectus in Asia (as they did in our world). The sole surviving human stock, Homo erectus in Africa, stumbles along for a while, even prospers, but does not speciate and therefore remains stable. A mutated virus then wipes Homo erectus out, or a change in climate reconverts Africa into inhospitable forest. One little twig on the mammalian branch, a lineage with interesting possibilities that were never realized, joins the vast majority of species in extinction. So what? Most possibilities are never realized, and who will ever know the difference? Arguments of this form lead me to the conclusion that biology's most profound insight into human nature, status, and potential lies in the simple phrase, the embodiment of contingency: Homo sapiens is an entity, not a tendency.

So why fret and care that the actual version of the destined deed was done by an upper class English gentleman who had circumnavigated the globe as a vigorous youth, lost his dearest daughter and his waning faith at the same time, wrote the greatest treatise ever composed on the taxonomy of barnacles, and eventually grew a white beard, lived as a country squire just south of London, and never again traveled far enough even to cross the English Channel? We care for the same reason that we love okapis, delight in the fossil evidence of trilobites, and mourn the passage of the dodo. We care because the broad events that had to happen, happened to happen in a certain particular way. And something unspeakably holy—I don't know how else to say this—underlies our discovery and confirmation of the actual details that made our world and also, in realms of contingency, assured the minutiae of its construction in the manner we know, and not in any one of a trillion other ways, nearly all of which would not have included the evolution of a scribe to record the beauty, the cruelty, the fascination, and the mystery.

The effects of general change [in literature] are most tellingly recorded not in alteration of the best products, but in the transformation of the most ordinary workaday books; for when potboilers adopt the new style, then the revolution is complete.

The modern theory of evolution does not require gradual change. It in fact, the operation of Darwinian processes should yield exactly what we see in the fossil record. It is gradualism that we must reject, not Darwinism… Eldredge and I believe that speciation is responsible for almost all evolutionary change. Moreover, the way in which it occurs virtually guarantees that sudden appearance and stasis shall dominate the fossil record. All major theories of speciation maintain that splitting takes place rapidly in very small populations. The theory of geographic, or allopatric, speciation is preferred by most evolutionists for most situations (allopatric means ‘in another place’). A new species can arise when a small segment of the ancestral population is isolated at the periphery of the ancestral range. Large, stable central populations exert a strong homogenizing influence. New and favorable mutations are diluted by the sheer bulk of the population through which they must spread. They may build slowly in frequency, but changing environments usually cancel their selective value long before they reach fixation. Thus, phyletic transformation in large populations should be very rare — as the fossil record proclaims. But small, peripherally isolated groups are cut off from their parental stock. They live as tiny populations in geographic corners of the ancestral range. Selective pressures are usually intense because peripheries mark the edge of ecological tolerance for ancestral forms. Favorable variations spread quickly. Small peripheral isolates are a laboratory of evolutionary change.

The telephone is the greatest single enemy of scholarship; for what our intellectual forebears used to inscribe in ink now goes once over a wire into permanent oblivion.

Throughout his last half-dozen books, for example, Arthur Koestler has been conducting a campaign against his own misunderstanding of Darwinism. He hopes to find some ordering force, constraining evolution to certain directions and overriding the influence of natural selection. […] Darwinism is not the theory of capricious change that Koestler imagines. Random variation may be the raw material of change, but natural selection builds good design by rejecting most variants while accepting and accumulating the few that improve adaptation to local environments.

We build our personalities laboriously and through many years, and we cannot order fundamental changes just because we might value their utility; no button reading positive attitude protrudes from our hearts, and no finger can coerce positivity into immediate action by a single and painless pressing.

We should therefore, with grace and optimism, embrace NOMA's tough-minded demand: Acknowledge the personal character of these human struggles about morals and meanings, and stop looking for definite answers in nature's construction. But many people cannot bear to surrender nature as a transitional object—a baby's warm blanket for our adult comfort. But when we do (for we must), nature can finally emerge in her true form: not as a distorted mirror of our needs, but as our most fascinating companion. Only then can we unite the patches built by our separate magisteria into a beautiful and coherent quilt called wisdom.

Without a commitment to science and rationality in its proper domain, there can be no solution to the problems that engulf us. Still, the Yahoos never rest.

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American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science