Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Stephan Jay Gould

American Paleontologist, Evolutionary Biologist and Historian of Science

"The center of human nature is rooted in ten thousand ordinary acts of kindness that define our days."

"We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves - from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way."

"‘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?"

"A complete theory of evolution must acknowledge a balance between external forces of environment imposing selection for local adaptation and internal forces representing constraints of inheritance and development. Vavilov placed too much emphasis on internal constraints and downgraded the power of selection. But Western Darwinians have erred equally in practically ignoring (while acknowledging in theory) the limits placed on selection by structure and development—what Vavilov and the older biologists would have called laws of form."

"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."

"A man does not attain the status of Galileo merely because he is persecuted; he must also be right."

"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."

"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."

"All interesting issues in natural history are questions of relative frequency, not single examples. Everything happens once amidst the richness of nature. But when an unanticipated phenomenon occurs again and again—finally turning into an expectation—then theories are overturned."

"All life on earth - everything from bacteria to mushrooms to hippos - shares an astonishing range of detailed biochemical similarities, including the structure of heredity in DNA and RNA, and the universal use of ATP as an energy-storing compound. Two possible scenarios, with markedly different implications for the nature of life, might explain these regularities: either all earthly life shares these features because no other chemistry can work, or these similarities only record the common descent of all organisms on earth from a single origin that happened to feature this chemistry as one possibility among many."

"All versions written for nonscientists speak of fused males as the curious tale of the anglerfish—just as we so often hear about the monkey swinging through the trees, or the worm burrowing through soil. But if nature teaches us any lesson, it loudly proclaims life's diversity. There ain't no such abstraction as the clam, the fly, or the anglerfish. Ceratioid anglerfishes come in nearly 100 species, and each has its own peculiarity."

"Although species may be discrete, they have no immutable essence. Variation is the raw material of evolutionary change. It represents the fundamental reality of nature, not an accident about a created norm. Variation is primary; essences are illusory. Species must be defined as ranges of irreducible variation."

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

"And yet I think that the Full House model does teach us to treasure variety for its own sake—for tough reasons of evolutionary theory and nature's ontology, and not from a lamentable failure of thought that accepts all beliefs on the absurd rationale that disagreement must imply disrespect. Excellence is a range of differences, not a spot. Each location on the range can be occupied by an excellent or an inadequate representative—and we must struggle for excellence at each of these varied locations. In a society driven, often unconsciously, to impose a uniform mediocrity upon a former richness of excellence—where McDonald's drives out the local diner, and the mega-Stop & Shop eliminates the corner Mom and Pop—an understanding and defense of full ranges as natural reality might help to stem the tide and preserve the rich raw material of any evolving system: variation itself."

"And, in this case, science could learn an important lesson from the literati — who love contingency for the same basic reason that scientists tend to regard the theme with suspicion. Because, in contingency lies the power of each person, to make a difference in an unconstrained world bristling with possibilities, and nudgeable by the smallest of unpredictable inputs into markedly different channels spelling either vast improvement or potential disaster."

"Anti-essentialist thinking forces us to view the world differently. We must accept shadings and continua as fundamental. We lose criteria for judgment by comparison to some ideal: short people, retarded people, people of other beliefs, colors, and religions are people of full status."

"Anton Chekhov wrote that one must not put a loaded rifle on stage if no one is thinking of firing it. Good drama requires spare and purposive action, sensible linking of potential causes with realized effects. Life is much messier; nothing happens most of the time. Millions of Americans (many hotheaded) own rifles (many loaded), but the great majority, thank God, do not go off most of the time. We spend most of real life waiting for Godot, not charging once more unto the breach."

"Arthropods and vertebrates share some broad features of general organization - elongated, bilaterally symmetrical bodies, with sensory organs up front, excretory structures in the back, and some form of segmentation along the major axis. But the geometry of major internal organs could hardly be more different... Arthropods concentrate their nervous system on their ventral (belly) side as two major cords running along the bottom surface of the animal. The mouth also opens on the ventral side, with the esophagus passing between the two nerve cords, and the stomach and remainder of the digestive tube running along the body above the nerve cords. In vertebrates, and with maximal contrast, the central nervous system runs along the dorsal (top) surface as a single tube culminating in a bulbous brain at the front end. The entire digestive system then runs along the body axis below the nerve cord."

"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."

"As a methodology for research, science adopts as its cardinal postulate (proved fruitful by its enormous success since the time of Galileo, Newton and Descartes) the commitment to explain empirical phenomena by reference to invariant laws of nature and to avoid appeals to the miraculous, defined as a suspension of those laws for particular events. The notion of ‘abrupt appearance,’ the origin of complex somethings from previous nothings, resides in this domain of miracle and is not part of science."

"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."

"As a word, ecology has been so debased by recent political usage that many people employ it to identify anything good that happens far from cities and without human interference."

"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'."

"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."

"Asian Homo erectus died without issue and does not enter our immediate ancestry (for we evolved from African populations); Neanderthal people were collateral cousins, perhaps already living in Europe while we emerged in Africa... In other words, we are an improbable and fragile entity, fortunately successful after precarious beginnings as a small population in Africa, not the predictable end result of a global tendency. We are a thing, an item of history, not an embodiment of general principles."

"Bacteria have occupied life’s mode from the very beginning, and I cannot imagine a change of status, even under any conceivable new regime that human ingenuity might someday impose upon our planet. Bacteria exist in such overwhelming number and such unparalleled variety; they live in such a wide range of environments and work in so many unmatched modes of metabolism. Our shenanigans, nuclear and otherwise, might easily lead to our own destruction in the foreseeable future. We might take most of the large terrestrial vertebrates with us—a few thousand species at most. I doubt that we could ever substantially touch bacterial diversity. The modal organisms cannot be nuked into oblivion or very much affected by any of our considerable conceivable malfeasances"

"Bacteria represent the world's greatest success story. They are today and have always been the modal organisms on earth; they cannot be nuked to oblivion and will outlive us all. This time is their time, not the age of mammals as our textbooks chauvinistically proclaim. But their price for such success is permanent relegation to a microworld, and they cannot know the joy and pain of consciousness. We live in a universe of trade-offs; complexity and persistence do not work well as partners."

"Before Kuhn, most scientists followed the place-a-stone-in-the-bright-temple-of-knowledge tradition, and would have told you that they hoped, above all, to lay many of the bricks, perhaps even the keystone, of truth's temple. Now most scientists of vision hope to foment revolution. We are, therefore, awash in revolutions, most self-proclaimed."

"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."

"Biological evolution is a system of constant divergence without subsequent joining of branches. Lineages, once distinct, are separate forever. In human history, transmission across lineages is, perhaps, the major source of cultural change. Europeans learned about corn and potatoes from Native Americans and gave them smallpox in return."

"Bowing to the reality of harried lives, Rudwick recognizes that not everyone will read every word of the meaty second section; he even explicitly gives us permission to skip if we get bogged down in the narrative. Readers absolutely must not do such a thing; it should be illegal. The publisher should lock up the last 60 pages, and deny access to anyone who doesn't pass a multiple-choice exam inserted into the book between parts two and three."

"But here I stop—short of any deterministic speculation that attributes specific behaviors to the possession of specific altruist or opportunist genes. Our genetic makeup permits a wide range of behaviors—from Ebenezer Scrooge before to Ebenezer Scrooge after. I do not believe that the miser hoards through opportunist genes or that the philanthropist gives because nature endowed him with more than the normal complement of altruist genes. Upbringing, culture, class, status, and all the intangibles that we call free will, determine how we restrict our behaviors from the wide spectrum—extreme altruism to extreme selfishness—that our genes permit."

"But, as we consider the totality of similarly broad and fundamental aspects of life, we cannot defend division by two as a natural principle of objective order. Indeed, the stuff of the universe often strikes our senses as complex and shaded continua, admittedly with faster and slower moments, and bigger and smaller steps, along the way. Nature does not dictate dualities, trinities, quarterings, or any objective basis for human taxonomies; most of our chosen schemes, and our designated numbers of categories, record human choices from a cornucopia of possibilities offered by natural variation from place to place, and permitted by the flexibility of our mental capacities. How many seasons (if we wish to divide by seasons at all) does a year contain? How many stages shall we recognize in a human life?"

"Christopher Wren, the leading architect of London's reconstruction after the great fire of 1666, lies buried beneath the floor of his most famous building, St. Paul's cathedral. No elaborate sarcophagus adorns the site. Instead, we find only the famous epitaph written by his son and now inscribed into the floor: si monumentum requiris, circumspice—if you are searching for his monument, look around. A tad grandiose, perhaps, but I have never read a finer testimony to the central importance—one might even say sacredness — of actual places, rather than replicas, symbols, or other forms of vicarious resemblance."

"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."

"Consider one of the standard laments or stories of wonder in conventional tales of natural history: the mayfly that lives but a single day (a sadness even recorded in the technical name for this biological group - Ephemoptera). Yes, the adult fly may enjoy only a moment in the sun, but we should honor the entire life cycle and recognize that the larvae, or juvenile stages, live and develop for months. Larvae are not mere preparations for a brief adulthood. We might better read the entire life cycle as a division of labor, with larvae as feeding and growing stages, and the adult as a short-lived reproductive machine. In this sense, we could well view the adult fly's day as the larva's clever and transient device for making a new generation of truly fundamental feeders."

"Contingency is a thing unto itself, not the titration of determinism by randomness."

"Contingency is rich and fascinating; it embodies an exquisite tension between the power of individuals to modify history and the intelligible limits set by laws of nature. The details of individual and species's lives are not mere frills, without power to shape the large-scale course of events, but particulars that can alter entire futures, profoundly and forever."

"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?."

"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."

"Creative work, in geology and anywhere else, is interaction and synthesis: half-baked ideas from a barroom, rocks in the field, chains of thought from lonely walks, numbers squeezed from rocks in a laboratory, numbers from a calculator riveted to a desk, fancy equipment usually malfunctioning on expensive ships, cheap equipment in the human cranium, arguments before a roadcut."

"Current utility and historical origin are different subjects."

"Darwin grasped the philosophical bleakness with his characteristic courage. He argued that hope and morality cannot, and should not, be passively read in the construction of nature. Aesthetic and moral truths, as human concepts, must be shaped in human terms, not discovered in nature. We must formulate these answers for ourselves and then approach nature as a partner who can answer other kinds of questions for us—questions about the factual state of the universe, not about the meaning of human life. If we grant nature the independence of her own domain—her answers unframed in human terms—then we can grasp her exquisite beauty in a free and humble way. For then we become liberated to approach nature without the burden of an inappropriate and impossible quest for moral messages to assuage our hopes and fears. We can pay our proper respect to nature's independence and read her own ways as beauty or inspiration in our different terms."

"Darwin himself told us in his last book (The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms) that we should never underestimate the power of worms on the move. ...The inversion of a humble worm, especially when disturbed, may bring down empires. Shakespeare told us that the smallest worm will turn being trodden on. And Cervantes wrote in his author's preface to Don Quixote that even a worm when trod upon, will turn again. ...Geoffrey, it seems, was correct after all - not in every detail, of course, but at least in basic vision and theoretical meaning. And the triumph of surprise, the inversion of nuttiness to apparent truth, stands as a premier example of the most exciting general development in evolutionary theory during our times."

"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."

"Darwinian natural selection only yields adaptation to changing local environments, and better function in an immediate habitat might just as well be achieved by greater simplicity in form and behavior as by ever-increasing complexity."

"Dawkins explicitly abandons the Darwinian concept of individuals as the units of selection: ‘I shall argue that the fundamental unit of selection, and therefore of self-interest, is not the species, nor the group, nor even, strictly, the individual. It is the gene, the unit of heredity,’ Thus, we should not talk about kin selection and apparent altruism. Bodies are not the appropriate units. Genes merely try to recognize copies of themselves wherever they occur. They act only to preserve copies and make more of them. They couldn't care less which body happens to be their temporary home… Still, I find a fatal flaw in Dawkins' attack from below. No matter how much power Dawkins wishes to assign to genes, there is one thing he cannot give them — discrete visibility to natural selection. Selection simply cannot see genes and pick among them directly. It must use bodies as an intermediary. A gene is a bit of DNA hidden within a cell. Selection views bodies. It favors some bodies because they are stronger, better insulated, earlier in their sexual maturation, fiercer in combat, or more beautiful to behold."

"Debate is an art form. It is about the winning of arguments. It is not about the discovery of truth. There are certain rules and procedures to debate that really have nothing to do with establishing fact—which creationists have mastered. Some of those rules are: never say anything positive about your own position because it can be attacked, but chip away at what appear to be the weaknesses in your opponent's position. They are good at that. I don't think I could beat the creationists at debate. I can tie them. But in courtrooms they are terrible, because in courtrooms you cannot give speeches. In a courtroom you have to answer direct questions about the positive status of your belief. We destroyed them in Arkansas. On the second day of the two-week trial we had our victory party!"

"Details are all that matters: God dwells there, and you never get to see Him if you don't struggle to get them right."

"Each and every loss becomes an instance of ultimate tragedy—something that once was, but shall never be known to us. The hump of the giant deer—as a nonfossilizable item of soft anatomy—should have fallen into the maw of erased history. But our ancestors provided a wondrous rescue, and we should rejoice mightily. Every new item can instruct us; every unexpected object possesses beauty for its own sake; every rescue from history's great shredding machine is—and I don't know how else to say this—a holy act of salvation for a bit of totality."