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Wonderful Life

There was nothing inevitable about Homo sapiens in the evolutionary process says Stephen Jay Gould. Pete Smith celebrates the man who took science to the people.

Stephen Jay Gould, biologist, palaeontologist, geologist and theorist on the processes of evolution, died in May at the tragically early age of sixty after a 20 year battle with cancer. First diagnosed as having eight months to live, he fought the crab down to the very end.

Gould managed to be two rather different things - a Harvard intellectual who never wavered in his commitment to academic standards, but also an essayist in Natural History magazine and elsewhere, where he sought to bring to a wider public ideas about evolution and natural science.

In his many essays aimed at an audience beyond the inner circle of academic biologists, he never compromise his intellectual rigour, even when he avoided overuse of technical terminology.

He made a number of very important contributions to our understanding of the processes of evolution. One of these was the notion of "punctuated equilibrium". This is the simple idea that far from evolution being a process of painfully slow pigeon steps of change over immense periods of time, the way that most Darwinists conceived of it. Instead most of the time nothing much happens and species are more or less stable and fixed; then dramatic changes in the environment lead to mass extinction and open up the pathways to speciation and relatively rapid (in geological terms) evolutionary change.

This of course explains why, as creationists point out, there is no clear picture in the fossil record of one species evolving into another over eons of time. The fossil record is itself incomplete, the product of the happenstances of history, but the notion of fairly rapid changes at particular points in deep time helps to explain one of the reasons why we do not get the smooth picture of slow slow change that some versions of Darwinism would expect.

Anyway speciation almost certainly happens in small populations cut off from their closest relatives. That is the easiest explanation for how we broke away from our chimpanzee cousins and how they then divided into the "common chimpanzee" and the bonobo.

It is now more or less accepted that the extinction of dinosaurs and related species at the end of the Cretaceous (65 million years ago) by some sort of collision between Earth and a comet or meteor cleared the planet for the further evolution of mammals and ultimately for our (Homo sapiens) brief day in the sunshine.

A point that Gould was never tired of making is that if you rewind the tape of evolution and run it again, the chances that you will end up with the same outcome are pretty thin. Evolution is a contingent process, not the product of an inherent process which has an inevitable logic of its own. This is one of the reasons why Darwin never used the word in his Origin of Species and instead referred to "descent with modification".

In terms of its original meaning evolution meant an unfolding of a process which was innate and predetermined at the origin. This was not the view that Gould took or could be taken by many modern Darwinists.

Unlike some Marxists, for example Engels in the Dialectics of Nature, who saw evolution as having an almost purposeful direction - simple to more complex, lower to higher, primitive to advanced - serious Darwinists like Gould do not see things that way.

As Gould points out on a number of occasions, sometimes evolution works in the opposite direction: parasites usually go from independent organisms to ones completely dependent on their host. In the process, they tend to become less complex not more complex, shedding organs and becoming a simple bag of consuming and reproductive tissue.

In Gould's excellent work on the Burgess Shale (a Canadian fossil record of the so-called "Cambrian explosion", the development of complex multi-cellular creatures), Wonderful Life, now superseded, as all good science should be, by later research, he points out that of all the massive variety in the deposit, many with no similarity or apparent connection to existing creatures, only one is a Chordata - the assumed ancestor of all backboned animals, including us. It turns out that we are not some inevitable product of evolutionary logic: the kind of consciousness we enjoy has not arisen because it had to.

Intelligence, in the sense of self consciousness, seems to have arisen just once (who knows what was happening before the comet hit 65 million years ago) and therefore is a contingent product of evolution and not a necessary one. Gould deliberately titled his book on the Burgess Shale in homage to Frank Capra's movie It's a Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey getting his wish to see how the world would be if he had never been born. The point is obvious: the existence of Homo sapiens is contingent, not necessary. The planet would still exist, teeming with life, if we were not here. If fact it might be teeming with more and a greater variety of life.

An interesting point, which Gould makes, is that it is perfectly possible to imagine a world where no complex multicellular organisms arose and mats of algae stretched to the horizons, except of course we would not be here to look at them. It is never the earth that needs friends, but only Homo sapiens.

Unlike biologists who think you can read lessons from nature into how society should function, Gould is clear that you cannot get ought from is. Nature red in tooth and claw as it might be can tell us nothing worth knowing about how we should behave towards other people: morality and natural science do not match.

Generally speaking, evolution has been a difficult road for some people to go down. It is so easy to believe that processes have a kind on inevitable logic to them. Simple minded versions of the concept have had dire consequences for us in all sorts of perverted versions of Darwin's original concept. Marxism was distorted by the notion that stages in the development of society mirrored stages in the development of organisms with no apparent understanding that, for example, frogs evolved after the evolution of reptiles and that most modern fish evolved after their distant cousins had waddled on to the land.

National socialism took things a stage further and treated Darwin as a warrant for genocide which a calm and sober country gentleman could never have thought possible as a consequence of his researches.

Gould was more than anything else a person who took science to the people. Probably the greatest populariser and propagandist for science since Huxley, "Darwin's bulldog", in the nineteenth century. In 1987 he was an expert witness in the Supreme Court case which overturned a Louisiana statute which mandated equal time for "creation science" in public schools alongside evolution. Of course, Gould helped to show that "creation science" was not any sort of science at all, but instead a particularly narrow reading of the Bible, masquerading as science and therefore in breach of the First Amendment separation of church and state.

Gould was not though an opponent of religion. Coming from a secular Jewish background, he had nothing but the deepest respect for believers. Having read Stephen's work for more than two decades, I always had a feeling that he might 'go Catholic' in the end and put us both in the same camp. His argument, put forward in Rocks of Ages and elsewhere, is a simple one. He quotes an unnamed Catholic cardinal as saying that science tells you the way the heavens go, religion tells you the way to go to heaven.

Unlike English biologist Richard Dawkins (the two men did not get on), Gould did not believe that religion and science were in conflict. For him, science had nothing to say about ultimate ends, values or ethics; that is, what we should strive for rather than what is. That is the world of philosophy or theology. The way that Gould sums it up is the concept of non overlapping magesteria (NOMA for short) - the idea that science and religion do not need to get involved in a turf war because they are about different things.

The problems arise when religious people start reading theological works not as sacred stories but as statements of fact (Protestant fundamentalists in America being the classic example) or when scientists (Richard Dawkins being one of the most extreme examples) say that after Darwin who needs God?

It is perhaps as an essayist and a man who tried to bring science to if not the man and woman in the street at least to those in the bookshop that he will be best remembered.

You do not get many scientists featured in The Simpsons - Stephen Jay Gould was one. So you see Steve, wherever you are, it really was a wonderful life.

The latest and final compilation of essays by Stephen Jay Gould is I Have Landed, published by Jonathan Cape at 17.99.

September 2002