May 20, 2002

THE GRAY EAGLE GETS SOME COMPANY:

Stephen Jay Gould, Biologist and Theorist on Evolution, Dies at 60 (CAROL KAESUK YOON, 5/20/02, NY Times)
Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary theorist at Harvard University whose lectures, research and prolific output of essays helped to reinvigorate the field of paleontology, died today at his home in Manhattan. He was 60 years old. The cause was adenocarcinoma, his wife, Rhonda Roland Schearer, said. [...]

In 1967 he received a doctorate in paleontology from Columbia University and went on to teach at Harvard where he would spend the rest of his career. But it was in graduate school that Dr. Gould and a fellow graduate student, Dr. Niles Eldredge, now a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, began sowing the seeds for the most famous of the still-roiling debates that he is credited with helping to start.

When studying the fossil record, the two students could not find the gradual, continuous change in fossil forms they were taught was the stuff of evolution. Instead, they found sudden appearances of new fossil forms (sudden, that is, on the achingly slow geological time scale) followed by long periods in which these organisms changed little.

Evolutionary biologists had always ascribed such difficulties to the famous incompleteness of the fossil record. Then in 1972, the two proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which suggested that both the sudden appearances and lack of change were, in fact, real. According to the theory, there are long periods of time, sometimes millions of years, during which species change little, if at all. Intermittently, new species arise and there is rapid evolutionary change on a geological time scale (still interminably slow on human time scales) resulting in the sudden appearance of new forms in the fossil record. (This creates punctuations of rapid change against a backdrop of steady equilibrium, hence the name.) [...]

Dr. Gould was also dogged by vociferous, often high-profile critics. Some of these scientists charged that his theories, like punctuated equilibrium, were so malleable and difficult to pin down that they were essentially untestable.


I realize it's bad form to speak ill of someone so recently dead, but I always found Mr. Gould rather despicable, at least in intellectual terms. His theory of punctuated equilibrium strikes me as anti-science--an absurd denial that the absence of evidence matters to the ultimate viability of a theory. This, his great contribution to evolutionary theory, seems little more than an attempt to prop up a feeble theory by further removing it to the realm of pure untestable faith.

That his science was really a form of politics was confirmed by his book, The Mismeasure of Man (1981)(Stephen Jay Gould), which argues that there are absolutely no biological bases for intellectual differences among the races. Had he seriously addressed the measurable differences in intelligence test scores and sought to explain them, the book might have some scientific value. Instead, he cravenly attacked thoroughly discredited quackery like phrenology and then declared that since these specious theories were obviously wrong, he must be right. This method, a cheap trick of sophists and lawyers since time immemorial, is beneath contempt in a man of supposed science.

In a delightful final twist to the saga though, Mr. Gould took a passionate dislike to evolutionary psychology, the inevitable reductio ad absurdum of evolutionary theory, which argues that every human action, indeed every human thought and feeling, has been predetermined by the pressures of natural selection just as surely as has the shape of our coccyx. Appalled by its political implications, he and his allies even resorted to the arguments of us creationists in his feud with the psychological evolutionists, seemingly oblivious to the manner in which he was undermining his own theories. This made him anathema to the rising generation of evolutionists, who viewed him as a reactionary, little better than William Jennings Bryan.

A final word in his favor : he was a Red Sox fan. So, though he may not have believed in the Creator, surely tonight he sits by his side, and enjoys an unobstructed seat view of Fenway.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 20, 2002 5:09 PM
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