Stephan Jay Gould

Stephan Jay

American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science

Author Quotes

The true beauty of nature is her amplitude; she exists neither for nor because of us, and possesses a staying power that all our nuclear arsenals cannot threaten (much as we can easily destroy our puny selves).

Time's arrow of just history marks each moment of time with a distinctive brand. But we cannot, in our quest to understand history, be satisfied only with a mark to recognize each moment and a guide to order events in temporal sequence. Uniqueness is the essence of history, but we also crave some underlying generality, some principles of order transcending the distinction of moments—lest we be driven mad by Borges's vision of a new picture every two thousand pages in a book without end. We also need, in short, the immanence of time's cycle.

We debase the richness of both nature and our own minds if we view the great pageant of our intellectual history as a compendium of new information leading from primal superstition to final exactitude. We know that the sun is hub of our little corner of the universe, and that ties of genealogy connect all living things on our planet, because these theories assemble and explain so much otherwise disparate and unrelated information—not because Galileo trained his telescope on the moons of Jupiter or because Darwin took a ride on a Galápagos tortoise.

Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.

Yes, Shakespeare foremost and forever (Darwin too). But also teach about the excellence of pygmy bushcraft and Fuegian survival in the world's harshest climate. Dignity and inspiration come in many guises. Would anyone choose the tinhorn patriotism of George Armstrong Custer over the eloquence of Chief Joseph in defeat?

Advocates for a single line of progress encounter their greatest stumbling block when they try to find a smooth link between the apparently disparate designs of the invertebrates and vertebrates.

As we discern a fine line between crank and genius, so also (and unfortunately) we must acknowledge an equally graded trajectory from crank to demagogue. When people learn no tools of judgment and merely follow their hopes, the seeds of political manipulation are sown.

Creationist critics often charge that evolution cannot be tested, and therefore cannot be viewed as a properly scientific subject at all. This claim is rhetorical nonsense.

Evolution has encountered no intellectual trouble; no new arguments have been offered. Creationism is a home-grown phenomenon of American sociocultural history-- a splinter movement . . . who believe that every word in the Bible must be literally true, whatever such a claim might mean.

Gaskell... had to keep his stately soldiers upright and uniformly oriented... by crafting the brain and spinal cord from an arthropod digestive tube, while forming a completely new gut below. ...Gaskell thought that his move would rescue the theory of linear progress, with its necessary transition of arthropod into vertebrate, from the absurdities of the old inversion theory.

Human consciousness arose but a minute before midnight on the geological clock. Yet we mayflies try to bend an ancient world to our purposes, ignorant perhaps of the messages buried in its long history. Let us hope that we are still in the early morning of our April day.

I did speak extensively — often quite critically — about the reviled work of Richard Goldschmidt, particularly about aspects of his thought that might merit a rehearing. This material has often been confused with punctuated equlibrium by people who miss the crucial issue of scaling, and therefore regard all statements about rapidity at any level as necessarily unitary, and necessarily flowing from punctuated equilibrium. In fact, as the long treatment in Chapter 5 of this book should make clear, my interest in Goldschmidt resides in issues bearing little relationship with punctuated equilibrium, but invested instead in developmental questions that prompted my first book, Ontogeny and Phylogeny. The two subjects, after all, are quite separate, and rooted in different scales of rapidity — hopeful monsters in genuine saltation, and punctuated equilibrium in macroevolutionary puntuation (produced by ordinary allopatric speciation).

I think that the fascination so many people feel for evolutionary theory resides in three of its properties. First, it is, in its current state of development, sufficiently firm to provide satisfaction and confidence, yet fruitfully undeveloped enough to provide a treasure trove of mysteries. Second, it stands in the middle in a continuum stretching from sciences that deal in timeless, quantitative generality to those that work directly with the singularities of history. Thus, it provides a home for all styles and propensities, from those who seek the purity of abstraction (the laws of population growth and the structure of DNA) to those who revel in the messiness of irreducible particularity (what, if anything, did Tyrannosaurus do with its puny front legs anyway?). Third, it touches all our lives; for how can we be indifferent to the great questions of genealogy: where did come from and what does it all mean? and then, of course, there are all those organisms: more than a million described species, from bacterium to blue whale, with one hell of a lot of beetles in between — each with its own beauty, and each with a story to tell.

If texts are unified by a central logic of argument, then their pictorial illustrations are integral to the ensemble, not pretty little trifles included only for aesthetic or commercial value. Primates are visual animals, and (particularly in science) illustration has a language and set of conventions all its own.

In science 'fact' can only mean 'confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent'. I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

Lernaeodiscus porcellanae turns control of the host into a fine art. After castration by the parasite, male crabs develop female characteristics in both anatomy and behavior, while females become even more feminized. The emerging externa then takes the same form and position as the crab's own egg mass... The crabs then treat the externa as their own brood. In other words, the parasite usurps all the complex care normally invested in the crab's own progeny.

Nearly anyone in this line of work would take a bullet for the last pregnant dodo. But should we not admire the person who, when faced with an overwhelmingly sad reality beyond and personal blame or control, strives valiantly to rescue whatever can be salvaged, rather than retreating to the nearest corner to weep or assign fault?

Orthodoxy can be as stubborn in science as in religion. I do not know how to shake it except by vigorous imagination that inspires unconventional work and contains within itself an elevated potential for inspired error. As the great Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto wrote: Give me a fruitful error any time, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections. You can keep your sterile truth for yourself. Not to mention a man named Thomas Henry Huxley who, when not in the throes of grief or the wars of parson hunting, argued that irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.

Science is not a heartless pursuit of objective information; it is a creative human activity.

South America had been an island continent, far bigger and far more diverse than Australia, for tens of millions of years before the Isthmus of Panama rose just a couple of million years ago. The resulting flood of North American mammals across the new land bridge corresponds in time with the decimation of the native South American fauna. In fact, most large mammals generally considered distinctly South American... are all recent migrants from North America.

The facts of nature are what they are, but we can only view them through the spectacles of our mind. Our mind works largely by metaphor and comparison, not always (or often) by relentless logic. When we are caught in conceptual traps, the best exit is often a change in metaphor — not because the new guideline will be truer to nature (for neither the old nor the new metaphor lies out there in the woods), but because we need a shift to more fruitful perspectives, and metaphor is often the best agent of conceptual transition.

The most important scientific revolutions all include, as their only common feature, the dethronement of human arrogance from one pedestal after another of previous convictions about our centrality in the cosmos.

The truly awesome intellectuals in our history have not merely made discoveries; they have woven variegated, but firm, tapestries of comprehensive coverage. The tapestries have various fates: Most burn or unravel in the footsteps of time and the fires of later discovery. But their glory lies in their integrity as unified structures of great complexity and broad implication.

Traditional explanations for stasis and abrupt appearance had paid an awful price in sacrificing the possibility of empirics for the satisfaction of harmony. Eventually we (primarily Niles) recognized that the standard theory of speciation—Ernst Mayr's allopatric or peripatric scheme—would not, in fact, yield insensibly graded fossil sequences when extrapolated into geological time, but would produce just what we see: geologically unresolvable appearance followed by stasis. For if species almost always arise in small populations isolated at the periphery of parental ranges, and in a period of time slow by the scale of our lives but effectively instantaneous in the geological world of millions, then the workings of speciation should be recorded in the fossil record as stasis and abrupt appearance. The literal record was not a hopelessly and imperfect fraction of truly insensible gradation within large populations but an accurate reflection of the actual process identified by evolutionists as the chief motor of biological change. The theory of punctuated equilibrium was, in its initial formulation, little more than this insight adumbrated.

We do live in a conceptual trough that encourages such yearning for unknown and romanticized greener pastures of other times. The future doesn't seem promising, if only because we can extrapolate some disquieting present trends into further deterioration: pollution, nationalism, environmental destruction, and aluminum bats. Therefore, we tend to take refuge in a rose-colored past […]. I do not doubt the salutary, even the essential, properties of this curiously adaptive human trait, but we must also record the down side. Legends of past golden ages become impediments when we try to negotiate our current dilemma.

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Stephan Jay
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American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science