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Stephen Jay Gould and the Politics of Evolution

Stephen Jay Gould and the Politics of Evolution

by David F. Prindle

Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould was, until his death in 2002, America's best-known natural scientist. His monthly essays in Natural History magazine were widely read by both scientists and ordinary citizens with an interest in science. One of his books won the National Book Award, and another was a bestseller in three countries. Philosopher Daniel Dennett


Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould was, until his death in 2002, America's best-known natural scientist. His monthly essays in Natural History magazine were widely read by both scientists and ordinary citizens with an interest in science. One of his books won the National Book Award, and another was a bestseller in three countries. Philosopher Daniel Dennett proclaimed him "America's evolutionist laureate."

While many people have written about Gould's science, pro and con, and a few have written about his politics, this is the first book to explore his science and politics as a consistent whole. Political scientist David F. Prindle argues that Gould's mind worked along two tracks simultaneously—the scientific and the political. All of his concepts and arguments were bona fide contributions to science, but all of them also contained specifically political implications.

As one example among many, Prindle cites Gould’s controversial argument that if the "tape of evolution" could be rewound and then allowed to unspool again, nothing resembling human beings would likely evolve. This was part of his larger thesis that people are not the result of a natural tendency toward perfection in evolution, but the result of chance, or as Gould put it, "contingency." As Prindle notes, Gould’s scientific ideas often sought to attack human hubris, and thus prepare the ground for the political argument that people should treat nature with more restraint.

Prindle evaluates Gould’s concepts of punctuated equilibrium (developed with Niles Eldredge), "spandrels," and "exaptation"; his stance on sociobiology, on human inequality and intelligence testing; his pivotal role in the culture wars between science and fundamentalist Christianity; and claims that he was a closet Marxist, which Prindle disputes. He continually emphasizes that in all these debates Gould’s science cannot be understood without an understanding of his politics. He concludes by considering whether Gould offered a new theory of evolution.

Anyone with an interest in one of America’s great scientists, or in paleontology, evolutionary theory, or intellectual history will find Stephen Jay Gould and the Politics of Evolution to be a fascinating exploration of the man and his ideas.

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Prometheus Books
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Read an Excerpt

STEPHEN JAY GOULD and the politics of evolution

By david f. prindle

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2009 David F. Prindle
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-718-8

Chapter One

a charming style

I never met Stephen Jay Gould, but I wish I had. We could have had a pleasant conversation about dinosaurs. Like most boys with an intellectual bent, I grew up imagining the terrible lizards as pets, or as role-players in stories of my own invention. And as with many such boys, I eventually transferred my interests elsewhere, in my case from archaic monsters to contemporary ones, and went on to study human politics rather than natural history. Dinosaurs, however, remained for me part of the fascinating ephemera of science, one of those subjects that retained a magnetic glamour in the world outside my own profession.

In a similar manner, Gould made extinct reptiles a focus of his youthful enthusiasm. But unlike so many of the rest of us, he managed to achieve the status of an intellectual Peter Pan by contriving a way to make a living by never growing up. He went into a scientific discipline, paleontology, that specializes in the study of long-dead organisms. By thus turning his boyhood obsession into his adult profession, he succeeded in living out a myth of personal fulfillment. And by communicating his boyish enthusiasm to an audience of millions, he drew them into his private myth. In theprocess, he became perhaps America's best-known scientist.

The myth he lived and communicated, however, was not without self-consciousness and artifice. The famous Stephen Jay Gould, the "evolutionist laureate," the best-selling author, the media performer, the national treasure, did not simply stumble, boyishly, into the status of public intellectual. As an adult, he used the myth of the enthusiastic boy now grown up to further his personal and intellectual goals. And the manner of his creation of this charming myth bears examination. As with many other public personae, there was more to Stephen Jay Gould than met the eye.

Gould began to build the myth of the boyhood ambition fulfilled in The Panda's Thumb, his second collection of monthly essays from Natural History magazine, published in 1980. "When I was four I wanted to be a garbageman," he begins one of the essays, and goes on to describe his career epiphany:

Then, when I was five, my father took me to see the Tyrannosaurus at the American Museum of Natural History. As we stood in front of the beast, a man sneezed; I gulped ... but the great animal stood immobile in all its bony grandeur, and as we left, I announced that I would be a paleontologist when I grew up.

Gould does not want us to forget this story, for he repeats it in two of his other books. Further, his essays are full of efforts to communicate his own still-youthful passion for solving the puzzles of life's history. "The boy dinosaur enthusiast still dwells within me," he tells us in another of his collections. Sustaining the mood, he assures his readers that "science ... is the greatest of human adventures," and that "the best scientists live a life of keen amusement." For his part, he tells us that the "main motivation" for the composition strategy he adopted in another book was "simple joy." Unlike many scientists, who like to portray their profession as consisting mainly of careful plodding, Gould does not hesitate to proclaim that science is fun!

But the key to understanding Gould's appeal, of course, is to realize that doing paleontology was not just fun for him; he made it fun for us. Gould was more than a scientist. He was also an eloquent, inspiring writer. He did not just educate his readers; he charmed them.

Although in his final book he made the self-deprecating comment that he had "literary pretensions," in fact his standing as a superb writer was ratified by the clutch of awards his books won over the years. The Panda's Thumb (1980) garnered the National Book Award; The Mismeasure of Man (1981) won a National Book Critics Circle Award; Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes (1983) captured the Phi Beta Kappa Book Award; and Wonderful Life (1989) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Beyond the level of literary prizes, his standing as a scientist who wrote books that were accessible and entertaining to nonscientists made him far more than a Harvard scholar. He became a fixture in American culture. He wrote the preface to one of Gary Larson's Far Side cartoon collections. He voiced his own character in an episode of the television series The Simpsons. He was interviewed for stories in Harper's, Newsweek, Time, and The New York Times Magazine, and was the subject of a profile in People. He was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His 1989 book Wonderful Life became a best-seller in three countries. In 2001 the Library of Congress named Gould one of the country's "Living Legends," a group of people who each embody the "quintessentially American ideal of individual creativity, conviction, dedication, and exuberance." When the National Center for Science Education created a project to advance the teaching of evolution in classrooms, they named it "Project Steve," after Gould. Until his death at the early age of sixty in 2002, he truly was, as philosopher Daniel Dennett proclaimed him, "America's evolutionist laureate."

But not all were charmed. While Gould was building a reputation as the evolutionary essayist among the public, he was creating an often intense opposition to his person and his ideas within the academic industry of evolutionary biology. Dennett himself, after acknowledging Gould's great fame, devoted four chapters in his own book on evolutionary theory to savaging the laureate's ideas. Biologist John Alcock wrote an article in a professional journal in which he complained of "the little tricks and standard misrepresentations embedded in Gould's critiques." Psychologist J. Philippe Rushton asserted in a review of the second edition of The Mismeasure of Man that it was "a political polemic, whose author engages in character assassination of long deceased scientists whose work he misrepresents despite published refutations, while studiously withholding from his readers 15 years of new research that contradicts every major scientific argument he puts forth." It would be possible, in fact, to fill a chapter with denunciations and critiques of Gould's work by other scholars. There is a contradiction here that needs to be explored.

Part of Gould's interest as a scientist, and much of the opposition his publications generated, can be attributed to the fact that he was not just a scholar. He was also a concerned and participating citizen with strongly held political ideas. Moreover-and here I come to the reason why a political scientist would write a book about Gould-his scientific ideas were seamlessly wedded to his political positions, so that his methodological and philosophical stance always buttressed his political values and vice-versa. In the record of human thought there are many examples of philosophers who tried to use alleged biological facts-that is, "human nature"-to underscore their political arguments. But there are very few, if any, examples of working biologists who used their expertise to elaborate a large, complicated, and partisan vision of politics. In this respect Gould is very unusual, and so his system of thought is unusually interesting.

This book is not a biography of Stephen Jay Gould. It is an exploration in the history of ideas. I intend to analyze, explicate, and evaluate Gould's scientific and political ideas the way he tried to present them: as a coherent whole. Because many of his positions in both realms were unorthodox, I will have to elaborate some esoteric concepts that normally are not discussed in the same forum. The discussion may therefore become abstruse, but it is going to be fun.

By "politics" in the title of this book, I mean two things. First, I mean the internal politics of science, which, while they are fought out at an elevated level of discourse, present most of the characteristics of politics elsewhere, including personal attack, demagoguery, misrepresentation, and interests masquerading as principles. Second, I mean the politics of evolution in the wider society, which, in the United States, inevitably includes the attacks of modern creationists on the theory of natural selection. Until his death, Gould was deeply involved in both kinds of politics. This book is about his participation in the politics of both realms.

The M Word

I was auditing Professor Dan Bolnick's graduate course in "Speciation" at the University of Texas in early 2006. During the first class session, Professor Bolnick had introduced me as a Department of Government professor to the six graduate students in the course, and he had explained that I was writing a book on Gould. I happened to arrive ten minutes early to the second class session, and as I entered the room I found a single male student in his twenties, sitting at the central table and reading one of the professional papers that had been assigned for that day. As I walked in, he looked up and greeted me. I said good morning and sat down. In a friendly manner, he asked, "So, you're writing a book about Stephen Jay Gould?" When I acknowledged that I was, his eyes narrowed slightly, and he exclaimed, with a hint of amused irony in his voice, "Communist biology!"

That single expostulation encapsulates much of the hostility that surrounded Gould's writings within his own and related professions. Was Gould a Marxist? And were his theories disguised attempts to transform evolutionary biology into a propaganda vehicle for Marxist theories of contemporary society?

On the face of it, the theory of natural selection does not lend itself to Marxist interpretations. As originated most importantly by Charles Darwin, and secondarily by Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858, the theory rests on three primary postulates, which together force an inference. First, because every organism's environment is ruthlessly dangerous, all organisms produce more offspring than can possibly survive-hedging their genetic bets, as it were. Second, individual organisms vary in structure, function, and (in the case of animals) behavior. Third, the variabilities are inheritable, so that, as an inference, the environment will winnow those that conform less well to the demands of life, thus leaving the better-conforming (the "fit") to pass on their characteristics to the next generation. As environments change over deep time, the constant culling and inheriting combine to make species slowly evolve into other species. All species, therefore, are descended from previous species, and the history of life is a gigantic genealogy. Beginning in 1900, evolutionary biologists began to marry this theory to the findings of Mendelian genetics, producing by the 1940s a "modern synthesis" that retained the original Darwin-Wallace outlines while specifying the methods by which heritable qualities were originated and passed on.

In contrast, Marxism is a theory that, although its details have been interpreted in differing ways by different adherents, rests on the assumption that the history of human societies is at bottom the history of economic class conflict. Since, of the millions of species of plants, animals, fungus, algae, and bacteria that have inhabited the Earth over more than three billion years, only one has ever generated economic classes, and since Darwinism (I follow the universal practice of referring to the theory as "Darwinism" rather than "Darwin-Wallaceism") deals with all of those species, it would seem to be a poor candidate for Marxist influence. Yet, as the expression of my graduate student acquaintance illustrates, the suspicion that Gould's work is somehow Marxism with a biological gloss has colored the reception of his work since the mid-1970s. It is a disciplinary folklore that needs to be evaluated.

In 1972, as ambitious young paleontologists, Gould and Niles Eldredge wrote a paper that rocked paleontology, and eventually had repercussions far beyond natural science. In "Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism" they argued that the traditional Darwinian model (also the model of the modern synthesis) of the transition from one species to another as a relatively slow, steady progression through infinitely small intermediate steps was not supported by the fossil record. Instead, they asserted, the history of life preserved in the rocks showed that species tended to appear rather suddenly (in geological time, which is still extremely slow by human time standards) and then persist with some oscillation of form, but no major morphological changes, until they went extinct. Rather than "phyletic gradualism" in the history of species, the fossil record showed long periods of "stasis" punctuated by geologically brief spurts of speciation.

I will discuss in detail the theory contained in this article, and the reaction it engendered within evolutionary biology, in chapter 3. Here, the subject is Gould's supposed political allegiances and the way they allegedly contaminated his work. In 1977, he wrote an article for the journal Paleobiology in which he reviewed the evidence published since 1972 for and against the model of punctuated equilibrium, and attempted to clarify some of the conceptual issues it had left unresolved. In a concluding section, he also tried to explain how he and Eldredge had come to interpret the fossil record differently than most other people in their profession. In this section, Gould introduced one of his favorite themes-"that even the greatest scientific achievements are rooted in their cultural contexts."

Darwin's phyletic gradualism, Gould argued, was situated in his personal position as an upper-class Englishman of the early nineteenth century. Preferring slow economic and political change in his society to revolutionary upheaval, he saw that sort of change in the history of life. Further, "the general preference that so many of us hold for gradualism is a metaphysical stance embedded in the modern history of Western cultures; it is not a high-order empirical observation, induced from the study of nature." How, then, were Eldredge and Gould able to perceive the story in the rocks from a different metaphysical stance? Gould could not speak for Eldredge, but he suggested that his own mind was open to a new interpretation because he grew up in a distinct cultural milieu, a milieu that lived in opposition to the dominant intellectual trends of his society: "It may ... not be irrelevant to our personal preferences that one of us learned his Marxism, literally at his daddy's knee."

This statement is plainly an attempt to explain why one mind might be more receptive to the theory of punctuated equilibrium than another. It acknowledges the structural similarities between the Marxist theory of social stasis followed by revolution and the Eldredge-Gould theory of morphological stasis followed by speciation, and suggests that a mind familiar with the first might be prepared to recognize the second within the empirical record. It is in no sense an admission that punctuated equilibrium is Marxist biology. Furthermore, although Gould actually coined the famous phrase, the original concept underlying the first article was Eldredge's. Eldredge had not learned any Marxism at his daddy's knee; his personal background was Baptist and Republican. Although he considered himself a political liberal, he was not close to being a Marxist. He had come to reinterpret the history of life not through any political discussion, but by working on the pattern of trilobite evolution during his PhD dissertation. He had, in other words, as a good scientist been persuaded by the empirical evidence that a new model of evolution was needed. Marxism was irrelevant.

But no matter. The legend that "punctuated equilibria" was merely one conceptual brick in Stephen Jay Gould's edifice of Marxist biology became a professional truism that dogged Gould until the end of his career. No matter how he tried to explain himself, the legend spread, becoming one of those collective assumptions that need not be written down because it is part of the folklore of the discipline. In summarizing Gould's thought as Communist biology, Dan Bolnick's graduate student was repeating one of the myths of the tribe.

Since this book is an effort to explicate Gould's thought, however, I must address the issue head on. Was Gould a Marxist, and was his system of thought one version of Marxist biology? The answer to both questions is somewhat ambiguous, because Gould never actually sat down and wrote an essay of the "This I Believe" variety. He preferred to write on specific topics. I have put his topical writing together to see a large system, but that system is nowhere described in its entirety by Gould himself.


Excerpted from STEPHEN JAY GOULD and the politics of evolution by david f. prindle Copyright © 2009 by David F. Prindle. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David F. Prindle (Austin, TX) is the author of The Paradox of Democratic Capitalism: Politics and Economics in American Thought, among other books and articles. He is professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin.

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