Stephan Jay Gould

Stephan Jay

American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science

Author Quotes

History employs evolution to structure biological events in time.

I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.

I picture several reviewers of my own books as passing a long future lodged between Brutus and Judas in the jaws of Satan.

If genius has any common denominator, I would propose breadth of interest and the ability to construct fruitful analogies between fields.

In his anti-Darwinian book... (and eponymously named The Neck of the Giraffe), Francis Hitching tells the story... The need to survive by reaching ever higher for food is, like so many Darwinian explanations of its kind, little more than a post hoc speculation. Hitching is quite correct, but he rebuts a fairy story that Darwin was far too smart to tell - even though the tale later entered our high school texts as a classic case nonetheless.

It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and invisibly working…We see nothing of theses slow changes in progress until the hand of time has marked the long lapse of ages.

Mythology is wondrous, a balm for the soul. But its problems cannot be ignored. At worst, it buys inspiration at the price of physical impossibility […]. At best, it purveys the same myopic view of history that made this most fascinating subject so boring and misleading in grade school as a sequential take of monarchs and battles.

Obsolescence is a fate devoutly to be wished, lest science stagnate and die.

Punctuated equilibrium, catastrophic theories of mass extinction, hopeful monsters, and a variety of hypotheses about rapid rates of change in continuous sequences, not about unintelligible abrupt appearances, are part of scientific debate and bear no relationship to the nonscientific notion of abrupt appearance, despite pernicious and willful attempts by many creationists to distort such claims by misquote and half-quote to their alien purposes. Punctuated equilibrium, in particular, is a claim that evolutionary trends have a geometry that resembles a climb up a staircase rather than a slide up an inclined plane. It is, in other words, an alternate theory about the nature of intermediate stages in evolutionary trends not, as creationists have claimed, a denial of these stages. As a term, ‘creation science’ is an oxymoron, a self-contradictory and meaningless phrase, a whitewash for a specific, particular, and minority religious view in America—Biblical literalism.

Skepticism or debunking often receives the bad rap reserved for activities — like garbage disposal — that absolutely must be done for a safe and sane life, but seem either unglamorous or unworthy of overt celebration. Yet the activity has a noble tradition, from the Greek coinage of ‘skeptic’ (a word meaning ‘thoughtful’) to Carl Sagan's last book, The Demon-Haunted World.… Skepticism is the agent of reason against organized irrationalism — and is therefore one of the keys to human social and civic decency… Skepticism's bad rap arises from the impression that, however necessary the activity, it can only be regarded as a negative removal of false claims. Not so […]. Proper debunking is done in the interest of an alternate model of explanation, not as a nihilistic exercise. The alternate model is rationality itself, tied to moral decency—the most powerful joint instrument for good that our planet has ever known.

The divine tape recorder holds a million scenarios, each perfectly sensible. Little quirks at the outset, occurring for no particular reason, unleash cascades of consequences that make a particular feature seem inevitable in retrospect. But the slightest early nudge contacts a different groove, and history veers into another plausible channel, diverging continually from its original pathway. The end results are so different, the initial perturbation so apparently trivial.

The legends of fieldwork locate all important sites deep in inaccessible jungles inhabited by fierce beasts and restless natives, and surrounded by miasmas of putrefaction and swarms of tsetse flies. (Alternative models include the hundredth dune after the death of all camels, or the thousandth crevasse following the demise of all sled dogs.)

The solution, as all thoughtful people recognize, must lie in properly melding the themes of inborn predisposition and shaping through life's experiences. This fruitful joining cannot take the false form of percentages adding to 100—as in intelligence is 80 percent nature and 20 percent nurture, or homosexuality is 50 percent inborn and 50 percent learned, and a hundred other harmful statements in this foolish format. When two ends of such a spectrum are commingled, the result is not a separable amalgam (like shuffling two decks of cards with different backs), but an entirely new and higher entity that cannot be decomposed (just as adults cannot be separated into maternal and paternal contributions to their totality).

This new consensus seemed so compelling that Ernst Mayr, the dean of modern Darwinians, opened the ashcan of history for a deposit of Geoffrey's ideas about anatomical unity.

We are the accidental result of an unplanned process … the fragile result of an enormous concatenation of improbabilities, not the predictable product of any definite process.

We often think, naïvely, that missing data are the primary impediments to intellectual progress—just find the right facts and all problems will dissipate. But barriers are often deeper and more abstract in thought. We must have access to the right metaphor, not only to the requisite information. Revolutionary thinkers are not, primarily, gatherers of facts, but weavers of new intellectual structures.

Why, then, have we been bamboozled into accepting the usual tale without questioning? I suspect two primary reasons: we love a sensible and satisfying story, and we are disinclined to challenge apparent authority (like textbooks!). But do remember that most satisfying tales are false.

A complete theory of evolution must acknowledge a balance between external forces of environment imposing selection for local adaptation and internal forces representing constraints of inheritance and development. Vavilov placed too much emphasis on internal constraints and downgraded the power of selection. But Western Darwinians have erred equally in practically ignoring (while acknowledging in theory) the limits placed on selection by structure and development—what Vavilov and the older biologists would have called laws of form.

As a methodology for research, science adopts as its cardinal postulate (proved fruitful by its enormous success since the time of Galileo, Newton and Descartes) the commitment to explain empirical phenomena by reference to invariant laws of nature and to avoid appeals to the miraculous, defined as a suspension of those laws for particular events. The notion of ‘abrupt appearance,’ the origin of complex somethings from previous nothings, resides in this domain of miracle and is not part of science.

Consider one of the standard laments or stories of wonder in conventional tales of natural history: the mayfly that lives but a single day (a sadness even recorded in the technical name for this biological group - Ephemoptera). Yes, the adult fly may enjoy only a moment in the sun, but we should honor the entire life cycle and recognize that the larvae, or juvenile stages, live and develop for months. Larvae are not mere preparations for a brief adulthood. We might better read the entire life cycle as a division of labor, with larvae as feeding and growing stages, and the adult as a short-lived reproductive machine. In this sense, we could well view the adult fly's day as the larva's clever and transient device for making a new generation of truly fundamental feeders.

Each worldview was a cultural product, but evolution is true and separate creation is not. […] Worldviews are social constructions, and they channel the search for facts. But facts are found and knowledge progresses, however fitfully. Fact and theory are intertwined, and all great scientists understand the interaction.

Flies can eat toads! (Although astonishment may be lessened in noting that the tiny toads are much smaller than enormous fly larvae.) Unusually large insects and maximally small vertebrates have also been featured in the few other recorded cases of such reversals - frogs, small birds, even a mouse, consumed by praying mantids, for example.

History includes too much chaos, or extremely sensitive dependence on minute and unmeasurable differences in initial conditions, leading to massively divergent outcomes based on tiny and unknowable disparities in starting points. And history includes too much contingency, or shaping of present results by long chains of unpredictable antecedent states, rather than immediate determination by timeless laws of nature. Homo sapiens did not appear on the earth, just a geologic second ago, because evolutionary theory predicts such an outcome based on themes of progress and increasing neural complexity. Humans arose, rather, as a fortuitous and contingent outcome of thousands of linked events, any one of which could have occurred differently and sent history on an alternative pathway that would not have led to consciousness.

I believe… that we can still have a genre of scientific books suitable for and accessible alike to professionals and interested laypeople. The concepts of science, in all their richness and ambiguity, can be presented without any compromise, without any simplification counting as distortion, in language accessible to all intelligent people… I hope that this book can be read with profit both in seminars for graduate students and—if the movie stinks and you forgot your sleeping pills—on the businessman's special to Tokyo.

I relish the fact that we New Yorkers talk funny, and that art deco skyscrapers symbolize our city… But we must set boundaries to this love of variety. I accept the need, even the blessings, of standardization in practical matters: we require a worldwide telephone dialing system and a network of national highways…. We need domains of standardization, and realms of regionalism, each in its appropriate place, and linked in mutual respect and recognition. I accept and even want McDonalds at the highway interchange—but not in my little neighborhood of ethnic restaurants, and not next to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.

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American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science