Stephan Jay Gould

Stephan Jay

American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science

Author Quotes

Debate is an art form. It is about the winning of arguments. It is not about the discovery of truth. There are certain rules and procedures to debate that really have nothing to do with establishing fact—which creationists have mastered. Some of those rules are: never say anything positive about your own position because it can be attacked, but chip away at what appear to be the weaknesses in your opponent's position. They are good at that. I don't think I could beat the creationists at debate. I can tie them. But in courtrooms they are terrible, because in courtrooms you cannot give speeches. In a courtroom you have to answer direct questions about the positive status of your belief. We destroyed them in Arkansas. On the second day of the two-week trial we had our victory party!

Facts do not 'speak for themselves', they are read in the light of theory

Guessing right for the wrong reason does not merit scientific immortality.

I am not… asserting that humans are either genial or aggressive by inborn biological necessity. Obviously, both kindness and violence lie within the bounds of our nature because we perpetrate both, in spades. I only advance a structural claim that social stability rules nearly all the time and must be based on an overwhelmingly predominant (but tragically ignored) frequency of genial acts, and that geniality is therefore our usual and preferred response nearly all the time… The center of human nature is rooted in ten thousand ordinary acts of kindness that define our days.

I like to summarize what I regard as the pedestal-smashing messages of Darwin's revolution in the following statement, which might be chanted several times a day, like a Hare Krishna mantra, to encourage penetration into the soul: Humans are not the end result of predictable evolutionary progress, but rather a fortuitous cosmic afterthought, a tiny little twig on the enormously arborescent bush of life, which, if replanted from seed, would almost surely not grow this twig again, or perhaps any twig with any property that we would care to call consciousness.

Iconography becomes even more revealing when processes or concepts, rather than objects, must be depicted—for the constraint of a definite thing cedes directly to the imagination. How can we draw evolution or social organization, not to mention the more mundane digestion or self-interest, without portraying more of a mental structure than a physical reality? If we wish to trace the history of ideas, iconography becomes a candid camera trained upon the scholar's mind.

If you defend a behavior by arguing that people are programmed directly for it, then how do you continue to defend it if your speculation is wrong, for the behavior then becomes unnatural and worthy of condemnation. Better to stick resolutely to a philosophical position on human liberty: what free adults do with each other in their own private lives is their business alone. It need not be vindicated — and must not be condemned—by genetic speculation.

Is uniformitarianism necessary?

My potential salvation... must remain an unswerving commitment to treat generality only as it emerges from little things that arrest us and open our eyes with aha -- while direct, abstract, learned assaults upon generalities usually glaze them over.

Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview - nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty.

Perhaps randomness is not merely an adequate description for complex causes that we cannot specify. Perhaps the world really works this way, and many events are uncaused in any conventional sense of the word. Perhaps our gut feeling that it cannot be so reflects only our hopes and prejudices, our desperate striving to make sense of a complex and confusing world, and not the ways of nature.

Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists -- whether through design or stupidity, I do not know -- as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. The punctuations occur at the level of species; directional trends (on the staircase model) are rife at the higher level of transitions within major groups… Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups.

The causes of life's history [cannot] resolve the riddle of life's meaning.

The intricate and different life cycles of both male and female root-heads, and the great behavioral sophistication shown by the female in reconfiguring a host crab as a support system, all underscore the myopia of our conventional wisdom in regarding rhizocephalans as degenerate parasites because the adult anatomy of internal roots and external sac seem so simple.

The real tragedy of human existence is not that we are nasty by nature, but that a cruel structural asymmetry grants to rare events of meanness such power to shape our history.

There is no progress in evolution. The fact of evolutionary change through time doesn't represent progress as we know it. Progress is not inevitable. Much of evolution is downward in terms of morphological complexity, rather than upward. We're not marching toward some greater thing. The actual history of life is awfully damn curious in the light of our usual expectation that there's some predictable drive toward a generally increasing complexity in time. If that's so, life certainly took its time about it: five-sixths of the history of life is the story of single-celled creatures only.

We are glorious accidents of an unpredictable process with no drive to complexity, not the expected results of evolutionary principles that yearn to produce a creature capable of understanding the mode of its own necessary construction.

We may summarize the main line of this complexly meandering tale as a list of ironies - invoking the technical definition of irony as a statement where, for humorous or sarcastic effect, the intended meaning of a word becomes directly opposite to the usual sense...

When scientists need to explain difficult points of theory, illustration by hypothetical example - rather than by total abstraction - works well (perhaps indispensably) as a rhetorical device. Such cases do not function as speculations in the pejorative sense - as silly stories that provide insight into complex mechanisms - but rather as idealized illustrations to exemplify a difficult point of theory. (Other fields, like philosophy and the law, use such conjectural cases as a standard device.)

The center of human nature is rooted in ten thousand ordinary acts of kindness that define our days.

We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves - from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way.

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American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science