Stephan Jay Gould

Stephan Jay

American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science

Author Quotes

In this crucial sense, the theory of punctuated equilibrium adopts a very conservative position. The theory asserts no novel claim about modes or mechanisms of speciation; punctuated equilibrium merely takes a standard microevolutionary model and elucidates its expected expression when properly scaled into geological time.

Many similarities of basic design among animal phyla, once so confidently attributed to convergence, and viewed as testimony to the power of natural selection to craft exquisite adaptation, demand the opposite interpretation that Mayr labeled as inconceivable: the similar features arehomologies, or products of the same genes, inherited from a common ancestor and never altered enough by subsequent evolution to erase their comparable structure and function. The similarities record the constraining power of conserved history, not the architectural skills of natural selection independently pursuing an optimal design in separate lineages. Vertebrates are, in a certain sense, true brothers (or homologs) - not mere analogs - of worms and insects.

No one supposed that dinoflagellates might actively kill fish as an evolved response for their own specific advantage, including a potential nutritional benefit for the algal cells. And yet the dinoflagellates do seem to be killing and eating fishes in a manner suggesting active evolution for this most peculiar reversal.

Our indirect methods have taught us a mountain of things about horses, but if you wished to learn even more, would you rather be Whirlaway in the stretch, than interview Eddie Arcaro afterwards?

Scientists are not robotic inducing machines that infer structures of explanation only from regularities observed in natural phenomena (assuming, as I doubt, that such a style of reasoning could ever achieve success in principle). Scientists are human beings, immersed in culture, and struggling with all the curious tools of inference that mind permits… Culture can potentiate as well as constrain—as Darwin's translation of Adam Smith's laissez-faire economic models into biology as the theory of natural selection. In any case, objective minds do not exist outside culture, so we must make the best of our ineluctable embedding.

The anatomical transition from reptiles to mammals is particularly well documented in the key anatomical change of jaw articulation to hearing bones. Only one bone, called the dentary, builds the mammalian jaw, while reptiles retain several small bones in the rear portion of the jaw. We can trace, through a lovely sequence of intermediates, the reduction of these small reptilian bones, and their eventual disappearance or exclusion from the jaw, including the remarkable passage of the reptilian articulation bones into the mammalian middle ear (where they became our malleus and incus, or hammer and anvil). We have even found the transitional form that creationists often proclaim inconceivable in theory — for how can jawbones become ear bones if intermediaries must live with an unhinged jaw before the new joint forms? The transitional species maintains a double jaw joint, with both the old articulation of reptiles (quadrate to articular bones) and the new connection of mammals (squamosal to dentary) already in place! Thus, one joint could be lost, with passage of its bones into the ear, while the other articulation continued to guarantee a properly hinged jaw. Still, our creationist incubi, who would never let facts spoil a favorite argument, refuse to yield, and continue to assert the absence of all transitional forms by ignoring those that have been found, and continuing to taunt us with admittedly frequent examples of absence.

The history of life is more adequately represented by a picture of 'punctuated equilibria' than by the notion of phyletic gradualism. The history of evolution is not one of stately unfolding, but a story of homeostatic equilibria, disturbed only 'rarely' (i.e. rather often in the fullness of time) by rapid and episodic events of speciation.

The oppressive weight of disaster and tragedy in our lives does not arise from a high percentage of evil among the summed total of all acts, but from the extraordinary power of exceedingly rare incidents of depravity to inflict catastrophic damage, especially in our technological age when airplanes can become powerful bombs. (An even more evil man, armed only with a longbow, could not have wreaked such havoc at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.)

Theories rarely arise as patient inferences forced by accumulated facts. Theories are mental constructs potentiated by complex external prods (including, in idealized cases, a commanding push from empirical reality). But the prods often include dreams, quirks, and errors—just as we may obtain crucial bursts of energy from foodstuffs or pharmaceuticals of no objective or enduring value. Great truth can emerge from small error. Evolution is thrilling, liberating, and correct. And Macrauchenia is a litoptern.

Unfortunately, all life on earth - the only life we know - represents, for all its current variety, the results of a single experiment, for every earthly species evolved from the common ancestry of a single origin. We desperately need a repetition of the experiment (several would be better, but let's not be greedy!) in order to make a judgement. Mars represents our first real hope for a second experiment - the sine qua non - for any proper answer for the question of questions.

We live in a capitalist economy, and I have no particular objection to honorable self-interest. We cannot hope to make the needed, drastic improvement in primary and secondary education without a dramatic restructuring of salaries. In my opinion, you cannot pay a good teacher enough money to recompense the value of talent applied to the education of young children. I teach an hour or two a day to tolerably well-behaved near-adults—and I come home exhausted. By what possible argument are my services worth more in salary than those of a secondary-school teacher with six classes a day, little prestige, less support, massive problems of discipline, and a fundamental role in shaping minds. (In comparison, I only tinker with intellects already largely formed.)

What should the fossil record include if most evolution occurs by speciation in peripheral isolates? Species should be static through their range because our fossils are the remains of large central populations. In any local area inhabited by ancestors, a descendant species should appear suddenly by migration from the peripheral region in which it evolved. In the peripheral region itself, we might find direct evidence of speciation, but such good fortune would be rare indeed because the event occurs so rapidly in such a small population. Thus, the fossil record is a faithful rendering of what evolutionary theory predicts, not a pitiful vestige of a once bountiful tale.

An old paleontological in joke proclaims that mammalian evolution is a tale told by teeth mating to produce slightly altered descendant teeth.

Biological determinism is, in its essence, a theory of limits. It takes the current status of groups as a measure of where they should and must be ... We inhabit a world of human differences and predilections, but the extrapolation of these facts to theories of rigid limits is ideology.

Darwinian evolution may be the most truthful and powerful idea ever generated by Western Science, but if we continue to illustrate our conviction with an indefensible, unsupported, entirely speculative, and basically rather silly story, then we are clothing a thing of beauty in rags - and we should be ashamed, for the apparel oft proclaims the man.

Evolutionists sometimes take as haughty an attitude toward the next level up the conventional ladder of disciplines: the human sciences. They decry the supposed atheoretical particularism of their anthropological colleagues and argue that all would be well if only the students of humanity regarded their subject as yet another animal and therefore yielded explanatory control to evolutionary biologists.

Good scholars struggle to understand the world in an integral way (pedants bite off tiny bits and worry them to death). These visions of reality […] demand our respect, for they are an intellectual's only birthright. They are often entirely wrong and always flawed in serious ways, but they must be understood honorably and not subjected to mayhem by the excision of patches.

I am not insensible to natural beauty, but my emotional joys center on the improbable yet sometimes wondrous works of that tiny and accidental evolutionary twig called Homo sapiens. And I find, among these works, nothing more noble than the history of our struggle to understand nature—a majestic entity of such vast spatial and temporal scope that she cannot care much for a little mammalian afterthought with a curious evolutionary invention, even if that invention has, for the first time in some four billion years of life on earth, produced recursion as a creature reflects back upon its own production and evolution. Thus, I love nature primarily for the puzzles and intellectual delights that she offers to the first organ capable of such curious contemplation.

I have a great respect for religion, and the subject has always fascinated me […]. Much of this fascination lies in the stunning historical paradox that organized religion has fostered, throughout Western history, both the most unspeakable horrors and the most heartrending examples of human goodness in the face of personal danger. (The evil, I believe, lies in an occasional confluence of religion with secular power. The Catholic Church has sponsored its share of horrors, from Inquisitions to liquidations—but only because this institution held great secular power during much of Western history. When my folks held such sway, more briefly and in Old Testament times, we committed similar atrocities with the same rationales.)

I would not choose to live in any age but my own; advances in medicine alone, and the consequent survival of children with access to these benefits, should preclude any temptation to trade for the past. But we cannot understand history if we saddle the past with pejorative categories based on our bad habits for dividing continua into compartments of increasing worth towards the present. These errors apply to the vast paleontological history of life, as much as to the temporally trivial chronicle of human beings. I cringe every time I read that this failed business, or that defeated team, has become a dinosaur is succumbing to progress. Dinosaur should be a term of praise, not opprobrium. Dinosaurs reigned for more than 100 million years and died through no fault of their own; Homo sapiens is nowhere near a million years old, and has limited prospects, entirely self-imposed, for extended geological longevity.

If we make this readjustment to view Homo sapiens as an ultimate in oddball rarity, and life at bacterial grade as the common expression of a universal phenomenon, then we could finally ask the truly fundamental question raised by the prospect of Martian fossils. If life originates as a general property of the material universe under certain conditions (probably often realized), then how much can the basic structure and constitution of life vary from place to independent place?

In what other world is myth so harmless? Great battles kill and maim; great homers and no-hitters are pure joy or deep tragedy without practical consequence… Life is inherently ambiguous; baseball games pit pure good against abject evil. Even Saddam Hussein must have committed one act of kindness in his life, but what iota of good could possibly be said for aluminum bats or the designated hitter rule?

Memory is a fascinating trickster. Words and images have enormous power and can easily displace actual experience over the years.

No rational order of divine intelligence unites species. The natural ties are genealogical along contingent pathways of history.

Our world is not an optimal place, fine-tuned by omnipotent forces of selection. It is a quirky mass of imperfections, working well enough (often admirably); a jury-rigged set of adaptations built of curious parts made available by past histories in different contexts… A world optimally adapted to current environments is a world without history, and a world without history might have been created as we find it. History matters; it confounds perfection and proves that current life transformed its own past.

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American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science