Stephan Jay Gould

Stephan Jay

American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science

Author Quotes

Sociobiology is not just any statement that biology, genetics, and evolutionary theory have something to do with human behavior. Sociobiology is a specific theory about the nature of genetic and evolutionary input into human behavior. It rests upon the view that natural selection is a virtually omnipotent architect, constructing organisms part by part as best solutions to problems of life in local environments. It fragments organisms into traits, explains their existence as a set of best solutions, and argues that each trait is a product of natural selection operating for the form or behavior in question. Applied to humans, it must view specific behaviors (not just general potentials) as adaptations built by natural selection and rooted in genetic determinants, for natural selection is a theory of genetic change. Thus, we are presented with unproved and unprovable speculations about the adaptive and genetic basis of specific human behaviors: why some (or all) people are aggressive, xenophobic, religious, acquisitive, or homosexual.

The enemy is not fundamentalism; it is intolerance. In this case, the intolerance is perverse since it masquerades under the liberal rhetoric of equal time. But mistake it not.

The more important the subject and the closer it cuts to the bone of our hopes and needs, the more we are likely to err in establishing a framework for analysis.

The theory of punctuated equilibrium, proposed by Niles Eldredge and myself, is not, as so often misunderstood, a radical claim for truly sudden change, but a recognition that ordinary processes of speciation, properly conceived as glacially slow by the standard of our own life-span, do not resolve into geological time as long sequences of insensibly graded intermediates (the traditional, or gradualistic, view), but as geologically sudden origins at single bedding planes.

Thus, we have three principles for increasing adequacy of data: if you must work with a single object, look for imperfections that record historical descent; if several objects are available, try to render them as stages of a single historical process; if processes can be directly observed, sum up their effects through time. One may discuss these principles directly or recognize the little problems that Darwin used to exemplify them: orchids, coral reefs, and worms—the middle book, the first, and the last.

We can now determine, easily and relatively cheaply, the detailed chemical architecture of genes; and we can trace the products of these genes (enzymes and proteins) as they influence the course of embryology. In so doing we have made the astounding discovery that all complex animal phyla - arthropods and vertebrates in particular - have retained, despite their half-billion years of evolutionary independence, an extensive set of common genetic blueprints for building bodies.

We talk about the ‘march from monad to man’ (old-style language again) as though evolution followed continuous pathways to progress along unbroken lineages. Nothing could be further from reality. I do not deny that, through time, the most ‘advanced’ organism has tended to increase in complexity. But the sequence [allocated in most texts] from jellyfish to trilobite to nautiloid to armored fish to dinosaur to monkey to human is no lineage at all, but a chronological set of termini on unrelated evolutionary trunks. Moreover life shows no trend to complexity in the usual sense — only an asymmetrical expansion of diversity around a starting point constrained to be simple.

Words change their meanings, just as organisms evolve. We would impose an enormous burden on our economy if we insisted on payment in cattle every time we identified a bonus as a pecuniary advantage (from the Latin pecus, or cattle, a verbal fossil from a former commercial reality).

A very sincere and serious freshman student came to my office with a question that had clearly been troubling him deeply. He said to me, I am a devout Christian and have never had any reason to doubt evolution, an idea that seems both exciting and well documented. But my roommate, a proselytizing evangelical, has been insisting with enormous vigor that I cannot be both a real Christian and an evolutionist. So tell me, can a person believe both in God and in evolution? Again, I gulped hard, did my intellectual duty, and reassured him that evolution was both true and entirely compatible with Christian belief—a position that I hold sincerely, but still an odd situation for a Jewish agnostic.

As in 1925, creationists are not battling for religion. They have been disowned by leading church men of all persuasions, for they debase religion even more than they misconstrue science. They are a motley collection to be sure, but their core of practical support lies with the evangelical right, and creationism is a mere stalking horse or subsidiary issue in a political program...The enemy is not fundamentalism; it is intolerance. In this case, the intolerance is perverse since it masquerades under the 'liberal' rhetoric of 'equal time'.

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 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 our 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?.

Even the standard example of ancient nonsense - the debate about angels on pinheads - makes sense once you realize that theologians were not discussing whether five or eighteen would fit, but whether a pin could house a finite or an infinite number

Gaskell could not abide this indecorous version of his beloved linear progress theory. He could not bear to imagine that the grand procession from jellyfish to man, orchestrated by an ever-increasing mass of nervous tissue, once paused in its stately and orderly march toward human consciousness in order to execute a fancy little flip, a clever jig of inversion, just at the sublime and definitive moment of entrance into the vertebral home stretch.

How ironic. In order to avoid the nutty theory of inversion, Gaskell invented the even odder notion of stomachs turning into brains with new guts forming below. No wonder then, that later biologists cast a plague on both speculative houses and opted instead for the obvious alternative: arthropods and vertebrates do not share the same anatomical plan at all, but rather represent two separate evolutionary developments of similar complexity from a much simpler common ancestor that grew neither a discrete gut nor a central nerve cord.

I despair of persuading people to drop the familiar and comforting tactic of dichotomy. Perhaps, instead, we might expand the framework of debates by seeking other dichotomies more appropriate than, or simply different from, the conventional divisions. All dichotomies are simplifications, but the rendition of a conflict along differing axes of several orthogonal dichotomies might provide an amplitude of proper intellectual space without forcing us to forgo our most comforting tool of thought.

I strongly reject any conceptual scheme that places our options on a line, and holds that the only alternative to a pair of extreme positions lies somewhere between them. More fruitful perspectives often require that we step off the line to a site outside the dichotomy.

If one small and odd lineage of fishes had not evolved fins capable of bearing weight on land (though evolved for different reasons in lakes and seas,) terrestrial vertebrates would never have arisen. If a large extraterrestrial object—the ultimate random bolt from the blue—had not triggered the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, mammals would still be small creatures, confined to the nooks and crannies of a dinosaur's world, and incapable of evolving the larger size that brains big enough for self-consciousness require. If a small and tenuous population of protohumans had not survived a hundred slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (and potential extinction) on the savannas of Africa, then Homo sapiens would never have emerged to spread throughout the globe. 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.

In return for this great gift that I could not repay in a thousand lifetimes, at least I can promise that, although I have frequently advanced wrong, or even stupid, arguments (in the light of later discoveries), at least I have never been lazy, and have never betrayed your trust by cutting corners or relying on superficial secondary sources. I have always based these essays upon original works in their original languages (with only two exceptions, when Fracastoro's elegant Latin verse and Beringer's foppish Latin pseudocomplexities eluded my imperfect knowledge of this previously universal scientific tongue).

Lavoisier was right in the deepest, almost holy, way. His passion harnessed feeling to the service of reason; another kind of passion was the price. Reason cannot save us and can even persecute us in the wrong hands; but we have no hope of salvation without reason. The world is too complex, too intransigent; we cannot bend it to our simple will.

Nature is objective, and nature is knowable, but we can only view her through a glass darkly—and many clouds upon our vision are of our own making: social and cultural biases, psychological preferences, and mental limitations (in universal modes of thought, not just individualized stupidity).

Organisms are not billiard balls, propelled by simple and measurable external forces to predictable new positions on life's pool table. Sufficiently complex systems have greater richness. Organisms have a history that constrains their future in myriad, subtle ways.

Science is an integral part of culture. It's not this foreign thing, done by an arcane priesthood. It's one of the glories of the human intellectual tradition.

Some beliefs may be subject to such instant, brutal and unambiguous rejection. For example: no left-coiling periwinkle has ever been found among millions of snails examined. If I happen to find one during my walk on Nobska beach tomorrow morning, a century of well nurtured negative evidence will collapse in an instant.

The equation of evolution with progress represents our strongest cultural impediment to a proper understanding of this greatest biological revolution in the history of human thought.

The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best - and therefore never scrutinize or question.

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American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science