Stephan Jay Gould

Stephan Jay

American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science

Author Quotes

Christopher Wren, the leading architect of London's reconstruction after the great fire of 1666, lies buried beneath the floor of his most famous building, St. Paul's cathedral. No elaborate sarcophagus adorns the site. Instead, we find only the famous epitaph written by his son and now inscribed into the floor: si monumentum requiris, circumspice—if you are searching for his monument, look around. A tad grandiose, perhaps, but I have never read a finer testimony to the central importance—one might even say sacredness — of actual places, rather than replicas, symbols, or other forms of vicarious resemblance.

Each and every loss becomes an instance of ultimate tragedy—something that once was, but shall never be known to us. The hump of the giant deer—as a nonfossilizable item of soft anatomy—should have fallen into the maw of erased history. But our ancestors provided a wondrous rescue, and we should rejoice mightily. Every new item can instruct us; every unexpected object possesses beauty for its own sake; every rescue from history's great shredding machine is—and I don't know how else to say this—a holy act of salvation for a bit of totality.

Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.

Historical science is not worse, more restricted, or less capable of achieving firm conclusions because experiment, prediction, and subsumption under invariant laws of nature do not represent its usual working methods. The sciences of history use a different mode of explanation, rooted in the comparative and observational richness in our data. We cannot see a past event directly, but science is usually based on inference, not unvarnished observation (you don't see electrons, gravity, or black holes either).

I am willing to believe that my unobtainable sixty seconds within a sponge or a flatworm might not reveal any mental acuity that I would care to call consciousness. But I am also confident […] that vultures and sloths, as close evolutionary relatives with the same basic set of organs, lie on our side of any meaningful (and necessarily fuzzy) border—and that we are therefore not mistaken when we look them in the eye and see a glimmer of emotional and conceptual affinity.

I love to read the dedications of old books written in monarchies—for they invariably honor some (usually insignificant) knight or duke with fulsome words of sycophantic insincerity, praising him as the light of the universe (in hopes, no doubt, for a few ducats to support future work); this old practice makes me feel like such an honest and upright man, by comparison, when I put a positive spin, perhaps ever so slightly exaggerated, on a grant proposal.

If evolution almost always occurs by rapid speciation in small, peripheral isolates—rather than by slow change in large central populations—then what should the fossil record look like? We are not likely to detect the event of speciation itself. It happens too fast, in too small a group, isolated too far from the ancestral range. We will first meet the new species as a fossil when it reinvades the ancestral range and becomes a large central population in its own right. During its recorded history in the fossil record, we should expect no major change; for we know it only as a successful, central population. It will participate in the process of organic change only when some of its peripheral isolates species to become new branches on the evolutionary bush. But it, itself, will appear ‘suddenly’ in the fossil record and become extinct later with equal speed and little perceptible change in form.

In France, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire attempted to portray the skeleton of vertebrates as a set of modifications upon an archetypal vertebra. In the 1820's, Geoffroy extended his ambitious plan to include annelids and arthropods under that same rubric. ...Vertebrates support their soft parts with an internal skeleton, but insects must live within their vertebrae (a reality, not a metaphor, for Geoffroy). This comparison led to... the claim that a vertebrate rib must represent the same organ as an arthropod leg - and that insects must therefore walk on their own ribs!

It is so hard for an evolutionary biologist to write about extinction caused by human stupidity. […] Let me then float an unconventional plea, the inverse of the usual argument. […] The extinction of Partula is unfair to Partula. That is the conventional argument, and I do not challenge its primacy. But we need a humanistic ecology as well, both for the practical reason that people will always touch people more than snails do or can, and for the moral reason that humans are legitimately the measure of all ethical questions—for these are our issues, not nature's.

My visceral perception of brotherhood harmonizes with our best modern biological knowledge. […] Many people think (or fear) that equality of human races represents a hope of liberal sentimentality probably squashed by the hard realities of history. They are wrong. This essay can be summarized in a single phrase, a motto if you will: Human equality is a contingent fact of history. Equality is not true by definition; it is neither an ethical principle (though equal treatment may be) nor a statement about norms of social action. It just worked out that way. A hundred different and plausible scenarios for human history would have yielded other results (and moral dilemmas of enormous magnitude). They didn't happen.

Objectivity cannot be equated with mental blankness; rather, objectivity resides in recognizing your preferences and then subjecting them to especially harsh scrutiny — and also in a willingness to revise or abandon your theories when the tests fail (as they usually do).

Phony psychics like Uri Geller have had particular success in bamboozling scientists with ordinary stage magic, because only scientists are arrogant enough to think that they always observe with rigorous and objective scrutiny, and therefore could never be so fooled—while ordinary mortals know perfectly well that good performers can always find a way to trick people.

Skepticism is the agent of reason against organized irrationalism--and is therefore one of the keys to human social and civic decency.

The contingency of history (both for life in general and for the cultures of Homo sapiens) and human free will (in the factual rather than theological sense) are conjoined concepts, and no better evidence can be produced than the experimental production of markedly different solutions in identical environments.

The inversion theory has a long and fascinating history in the discussion of vertebrate origins. The founding version dates to the early nineteenth century and became the centerpiece of a movement often called transcendental biology, and centered on the attempt to reduce organic diversity to one or a very few archetypal building blocks that could generate all actual anatomies as products of rational laws of transformation. Some of Europe's greatest thinkers participated in this grand, if flawed enterprise. Goethe, Germany's preeminent poet-scientist, tried to explain the varied parts of plants as different manifestations of an archetypal leaf.

The skein of human continuity must often become this tenuous across the centuries (hanging by a thread, in the old cliché), but the circle remains unbroken if I can touch the ink of Lavoisier's own name, written by his own hand. A candle of light, nurtured by the oxygen of his greatest discovery, never burns out if we cherish the intellectual heritage of such unfractured filiation across the ages. We may also wish to contemplate the genuine physical thread of nucleic acid that ties each of us to the common bacterial ancestor of all living creatures, born on Lavoisier'sancienne terre more than 3.5 billion years ago—and never since disrupted, not for one moment, not for one generation. Such a legacy must be worth preserving from all the guillotines of our folly.

This essay treats the most celebrated story in the extreme simplification in an adult parasite - in the interests of illuminating, reconciling, and, perhaps, even resolving two major biases that have so hindered our understanding of natural history: the misequation of evolution with progress, and the undervaluing of an organism by considering only its adult form and not the entire life cycle.

We are survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes… They swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots . . . they are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.

We now live, as Earth always has, in an Age of Bacteria. These simplest organisms will dominate our planet (if conditions remain hospitable for life at all) until the sun explodes. During our current, and undoubtedly brief, geological moment, they watch with appropriate amusement as we strut and fret our hour upon the stage. For we are, to them, only transient and delectable islands ripe for potential exploitation.

When we seek a textbook case for the proper operation of science, the correction of certain error offers far more promise than the establishment of probable truth. Confirmed hunches, of course, are more upbeat than discredited hypotheses. Since the worst traditions of popular writing falsely equate instruction with sweetness and light, our promotional literature abounds with insipid tales in the heroic mode, although tough stories of disappointment and loss give deeper insight into a methodology that the celebrated philosopher Karl Popper once labeled as conjecture and refutation.

‘Creation science’ has not entered the curriculum for a reason so simple and so basic that we often forget to mention it: because it is false, and because good teachers understand exactly why it is false. What could be more destructive of that most fragile yet most precious commodity in our entire intellectual heritage — good teaching — than a bill forcing honorable teachers to sully their sacred trust by granting equal treatment to a doctrine not only known to be false, but calculated to undermine any general understanding of science as an enterprise?

As a graduate student at Columbia University, I remember the a priori derision of my distinguished stratigraphy professor toward a visiting Australian drifter [a supporter of the theory of continental drift… Today… my own students would dismiss with even more derision anyone who denied the evident truth of continental drift—a prophetic madman is at least amusing; a superannuated fuddy-duddy is merely pitiful.

Complex organisms cannot be construed as the sum of their genes, nor do genes alone build particular items of anatomy or behavior by themselves. Most genes influence several aspects of anatomy and behavior—as they operate through complex interactions with other genes and their products, and with environmental factors both within and outside the developing organism. We fall into a deep error, not just a harmful oversimplification, when we speak of genes for particular items of anatomy or behavior.

Each of the major sciences has contributed an essential ingredient in our long retreat from an initial belief in our own cosmic importance. Astronomy defined our home as a small planet tucked away in one corner of an average galaxy among millions; biology took away our status as paragons created in the image of God; geology gave us the immensity of time and taught us how little of it our own species has occupied.

Finally, the claim that we equated punctuated equilibrium with saltation makes no sense within the logical structure of our theory — so, unless we are fools, how could we ever have asserted such a proposition? Our theory holds, as a defining statement, that ordinary allopatric speciation, unfolding gradually at microevolutionary scales, translates to punctuation in geological time.

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American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science