American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science
Stephan Jay Gould
American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science
If I choose to impose individual blame for all past social ills, there will be no one left to like in some of the most fascinating periods of our history. For example […] if I place every Victorian anti-Semite beyond the pale of my attention, my compass of available music and literature will be pitifully small. Though I hold no shred of sympathy for active persecution, I cannot excoriate individuals who acquiesced passively in a standard societal judgment. Rail instead against the judgment, and try to understand what motivates men of decent will.
In my field of evolutionary biology, the most prominent urban legend —another ‘truth’ known by ‘everyone’—holds that evolution may well be the way of the world, but one has to accept the idea with a dose of faith because the process occurs far too slowly to yield any observable result in a human life-time. Thus, we can document evolution from the fossil record and infer the process from the taxonomic relationships of living species, but we cannot see evolution on human timescales ‘in the wild.’ In fairness, we professionals must shoulder some of the blame for this utterly false impression about evolution's invisibility in the here and now of everyday human life. Darwin himself — thought he knew and emphasized many cases of substantial changes in human time (including the development of breeds in his beloved pigeons — tended to wax eloquent about the inexorable and stately slowness of natural evolution. In a famous passage from The Origin of Species, he even devised a striking metaphor about clocks to underscore the usual invisibility:
It seems the height of antiquated hubris to claim that the universe carried on as it did for billions of years in order to form a comfortable abode for us. Chance and historical contingency give the world of life most of its glory and fascination. I sit here happy to be alive and sure that some reason must exist for ‘why me?’ Or the earth might have been totally covered with water, and an octopus might now be telling its children why the eight-legged God of all things had made such a perfect world for cephalopods. Sure we fit. We wouldn't be here if we didn't. But the world wasn't made for us and it will endure without us.
Natural historians tend to avoid tendentious preaching in this philosophical mode (although I often fall victim to such temptations in these essays). Our favored style of doubting is empirical: if I wish to question your proposed generality, I will search for a counterexample in flesh and blood. Such counterexamples exist in abundance, for they form a staple in a standard genre of writing in natural history — the wonderment of oddity or strange ways of the beaver tradition.
Orchids manufacture their intricate devices from the common components of ordinary flowers, parts usually fitted for very different functions. If God had designed a beautiful machine to reflect his wisdom and power, surely he would not have used a collection of parts generally fashioned for other purposes. Orchids were not made by an ideal engineer; they are jury-rigged from a limited set of available components. Thus, they must have evolved from ordinary flowers.
Results rarely specify their causes unambiguously. If we have no direct evidence of fossils or human chronicles, if we are forced to infer a process only from its modern results, then we are usually stymied or reduced to speculation about probabilities. For many roads lead to almost any Rome.
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 dogmatist within is always worse than the enemy without.
The median isn't the message.
The story of a theory's failure often strikes readers as sad and unsatisfying. Since science thrives on self-correction, we who practice this most challenging of human arts do not share such a feeling. We may be unhappy if a favored hypothesis loses or chagrined if theories that we proposed prove inadequate. But refutation almost always contains positive lessons that overwhelm disappointment, even when […] no new and comprehensive theory has yet filled the void.
This theme of mutually invisible life at widely differing scales bears an important implication for the culture wars that supposedly now envelop our universities and our intellectual discourse in general […]. One side of this false dichotomy features the postmodern relativists who argue that all culturally bound modes of perception must be equally valid, and that no factual truth therefore exists. The other side includes the benighted, old-fashioned realists who insist that flies truly have two wings, and that Shakespeare really did mean what he thought he was saying. The principle of scaling provides a resolution for the false parts of this silly dichotomy. Facts are facts and cannot be denied by any rational being. (Often, facts are also not at all easy to determine or specify—but this question raises different issues for another time.) Facts, however, may also be highly scale dependent—and the perceptions of one world may have no validity or expression in the domain of another. The one-page map of Maine cannot recognize the separate boulders of Acadia, but both provide equally valid representations of a factual coastline.
We are the offspring of history, and must establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes—one indifferent to our suffering, and therefore offering us maximum freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our own chosen way.
We pass through this world but once. 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.
Will we ever again be able to view a public object with civic dignity, unencumbered by commercial messages? Must city buses be fully painted as movable ads, lampposts smothered, taxis festooned, even seats in concert halls sold one by one to donors and embellished in perpetuity with their names on silver plaques?
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.