Stephan Jay Gould

Stephan Jay

American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science

Author Quotes

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.

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.

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American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science