tephen 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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