From Skeptic vol. 4, no. 1, 1996, pp. 86-90.
The following article is copyright © 1996 by the Skeptics Society,
P.O. Box 338, Altadena, CA 91001, (626) 794-3119. Permission
has been granted for noncommercial electronic circulation of this
article in its entirety, including this notice.
Stephen Jay Gould
An Urchin In A Haystack
An Interview by Michael Shermer
How does one briefly summarize the life of an intellectual like
Stephen Jay Gould in a short introduction? He has been praised to the
hilt by skeptics and humanists for his tireless efforts in battling the
creationists, admired by writers and reviewers for his brilliant
literary style, and read by virtually everyone with any interest in
science, from layman to professional. After an A.B. from Antioch
College and a Ph.D. from Columbia, Gould began teaching at Harvard
at the young age of 26, and immediately set to work to reform his
profession. In 1972, he and Niles Eldredge published their theory of
punctuated equilibrium, a new interpretation of the fossil record, and
Gould won the prestigious Schuchert Award for excellence in
paleontological research by a scientist under age 40. Like his baseball
hero, Joe DiMaggio, whose 56-game hitting streak is considered one
of the most remarkable achievements in the history of sports, Gould
began a streak of his own of monthly essays in Natural History
magazine. At the time of this writing it is up to 256, and he intends
to continue it to the end of the millennium. For his literary
achievements Gould has won countless awards, including a National
Magazine Award for his essays, a National Book Award for The
Panda's Thumb, a National Book Critics Circle Award for The
Mismeasure of Man, the Phi Beta Kappa Book Award for Hen's
and Horse's Toes, and a Pulitzer Prize Finalist for
(about which he characteristically commented, "close but, as they
say, no cigar.") For his scientific achievements Gould was made a
Fellow of AAAS, received a MacArthur Foundation "Genius"
Fellowship, and won "Scientist of the Year" from Discover
He was voted Humanist Laureate by the Academy of Humanism,
received the Silver Medal from the Zoological Society of London, the
Edinburgh Medal from the City of Edinburgh, and the Britannica
Award and Gold Medal for dissemination of public knowledge. He has
fought the two "Big Cs"--creationism and cancer--and beaten both:
the creationists all the way through the Supreme Court, and
abdominal mesothelioma cancer, now in remission.
Yet being on top of the scientific and literary world has a price--
one becomes a tempting target for critics, and lately Gould has
accumulated more than a few, and no slouches are some. In Vol. 3,
#4 Richard Dawkins told Skeptic: "I think that punctuated
equilibrium is a minor wrinkle on Darwinism, of no great theoretical
significance. It has been vastly oversold." In the November 30, 1995
issue of The New York Review of Books, John Maynard Smith
concluded: "Gould occupies a rather curious position, particularly on
this side of the Atlantic. Because of the excellence of his essays, he
has come to be seen by nonbiologists as the preeminent evolutionary
theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have
discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so
confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who
should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side
against the creationists. All this would not matter, were it not that he
is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of
evolutionary theory." Daniel Dennett, in Darwin's Dangerous
devotes an entire chapter to critiquing Gould, sarcastically referring
to him as "America's evolutionist laureate," and suggesting that
Gould's politics have significantly influenced his science. In light of
these recent criticisms, Skeptic asked Gould to clarify
the record on a number of scientific, religious, political, and
Steve Gould turned 54 last September, and has recently gone half-
time at Harvard, dividing his energies between Boston and New York
(and between the Red Sox and Yankees, with an ultimate devotion to
the latter). But don't think this means Gould will be slowing down.
The urchin--Gould's own metaphor of a though exterior that prickles
the enemy--is buried in the haystack, always searching for
generalities among life's particulars. The essay streak continues, his
travel and lecture schedule is relentless, and his scientific work is
now being channeled into his "big book" on evolution that will
synthesize past and present theory. So with that, America's
evolutionist laureate synthesizes his own past and present.
Skeptic: I'll begin easy and move
toward more controversial questions. What essay are you up to now in
the streak, and when do you plan to end it?
Gould: It's about 256 essays, and
I'll end it January, 2001. When you've got a millennial transition,
why not take advantage of it? That will be about 330 essays.
Skeptic: In the long history of
baseball there has been quite a colorful variety of commissioners,
including a Yale professor of
literature. How about a Harvard paleontologist?
Gould: I have no administrative
skills. Being a successful commissioner of baseball requires
prodigious people skills, which I
absolutely do not have. I've never administered anything. I've
never even chaired a committee.
Skeptic: Despite the fact that you
obviously care little for publicity, fame, or public adoration, you
have become one of the two
or three most famous scientists in the world, in constant demand
for your time. How do you deal with that?
Gould: By maintaining a very rigid
private life. It's funny. Different people have different attitudes
towards it. That's what I
like about being in New York--it is such a sophisticated city. If
people recognize you in New York they are as likely to make some
wise crack, like "Hey Gould, you punctuated my equilibrium today
showing up here." That's fine and I just laugh back. What I can't
stand is people who come up to me and say, "Oh, are you
Stephen Gould?" Fortunately that doesn't happen much in New York.
Skeptic: In talking to publishers
about the marketability of science books to the general public, they
seem to feel there is only room for a few names to be commercially
successful, such as yourself, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and a few
more. Why is it so limited?
Gould: I think there is actually more
room than that. It really is just a commercial question of how many
people want to read about science. I think John Brockman is
basically right in his Third Culture book--though I think
he takes it a bit far since he is the agent of most of these
guys--but there is a hunger among intellectual people for scientific
knowledge, in the sense that literary culture's old hold upon
arbitration of taste and interest has faded and that, in fact, many
science books have done well and that indicates that the public does
want to read them.
Skeptic: We've heard rumors of your
"big book" on evolution. What's the status of it? And give us a
Gould: I've got a thousand pages
written--it's about two-thirds done, and I hope to complete it in
about two years, but definitely before the millennium. It will be
structured like my first book,
Ontogeny and Phylogeny. The first half will be history of
science. The second will be modern views. I start off discussing the
belief that some hold, that theories cannot have essences. I then
show that this is almost nihilistic--it doesn't make sense because
under that criteria the intellectual line of Darwin is Darwinism,
but suppose it turns into its opposite? If an animal turns into its
opposite you can still trace its history, but if those who are the
intellectual descendants of a theory come to agree the opposite,
then it is no longer the original theory. In other words, I think
theories do have essences, but the problem of claiming that
something like Darwinism has an essence is that people argue over
My solution is to try to find a middle position between nihilism
and the position of Hull of overspecifying something to the point
where you will argue about it forever. To me, the essence of
Darwinism is a three-legged stool: gradualism, extrapolationism, and
causal efficacy of natural selection (and therefore variation is only
raw material and does not contribute through its structure to
causality). You really need all three of those. If natural selection is
efficacious but works at higher levels, that's not Darwin's
formulation. If natural selection is efficacious but it cannot be
extrapolated through time to understand the pattern of life's history,
that's not Darwinism either. Those to me are the minimal conditions
of the essence of Darwinism.
The interesting thing to me about modern evolutionary theory is
that each one of these three elements needs to be expanded or
enlarged. It's not that they are wrong--natural selection is a creative
force, it does work on individuals, and it can sometimes be
extrapolated. But none of the three levels is sufficient by itself
narrow definition. In the case of natural selection working on
individuals, the hierarchical theory of natural selection is an
important revision. On the question of natural selection as a creative
force, some studies, particularly from developmental biology, have
illustrated important constraints on the nature of variation. And
everything from punctuated equilibrium to mass extinction theory
provides important revisions to gradualistic extrapolationism.
So, the first half of my book argues that all three of these
reforms--the hierarchical theory of selection, the notion of important
constraints coming from the internal structure of organisms, and the
catastrophist alternative--really have ancient pedigrees. These are
not new conditions. These are parts of the grand argument.
Skeptic: So there is an essence to
Darwinism, which you identify. What does your revision of that
essence do to it? Does it change the essence?
Gould: No. It shows that you need an
expanded and enriched theory that is based on a hierarchical model
of natural selection, a
recognition of the power of internal factors, and catastrophism...
Skeptic: So you see yourself adding to
the essence of it, not revising it completely?
Gould: No, its a revision. It's a
different theory that doesn't negate the importance of Darwinism,
but it is quite different from the ultra-Darwinism of Dawkins and
Maynard Smith. They want just the straight and narrow. There's
nothing wrong with the straight and
narrow, it's just not nearly enough to render all of evolution...
Skeptic: So, just as Einstein adds to
Newton without changing the essence of Newtonianism...
Gould: I wouldn't be so grand to make
that analogy, but in a sense, structurally, that's not a bad
Skeptic: When I first entered the
history of science profession I found that you were one of the few
scientists writing about the history of science that historians
read. They really respect you. The
history of science profession is a bit of an old boys' club and
they don't think scientists have much of interest to say about how
science is done. But you have broken through because you are
sensitive to social influences and the cultural context of science,
so I wanted to ask you how you came to that, since most scientists
are not sensitive to the biases of the culture and themselves, and
what are some of the influences in your own life?
Gould: I always had a strong interest
in the humanities and in history. If I hadn't had an overriding
interest in paleontology I probably would have become a historian
because there is no field
more fascinating than history. I don't think I would have gone into
the history of kings and conquerors, but cultural history and the
history of science. I went to Antioch College, a liberal arts
I didn't have the standard science background.
As for my own cultural influences, mine is the typical story of
New York Jewry. I'm a third generation in this sense. All my
grandparents were Eastern European immigrants who started in the
garment sweatshops like everybody else--no big heroic tale. All my
older relatives were Yiddish speakers when I was a kid. Then, my
parents made it into the middle class--my father was a court
stenographer who didn't go to college. And then I was the generation
that was going to make it. That's a very common pattern in that
Skeptic: Maynard Smith makes this
remark about you in Roger Lewin's book, Complexity (p. 43):
"By and large, those who held that selection played a major role in
evolution were English country
gentlemen, but...those who were not have largely been urban Jews....I
mean urban intellectuals, people like Stu Kauffman and Steve Gould.
It's the search for universal truths. They seem to say, if there are not
universal truths, how can you do science? Natural selection appears
to be too ad hoc for them, just opportunistic adaptation.
that's the way nature is."
Gould: I've heard Maynard Smith say
that and I know what his position is, but that doesn't make sense
because he's the guy--it is the older Darwinians--who want natural
selection to be the one
exclusive principle. It is we who are seeking a more pluralistic
explanation. Stu Kauffman and I have very different views on things.
Stu may be looking for an overarching set of universal, timeless,
structural principles. I'm basically looking for the operation of
Skeptic: I'm not sure that chaos and
complexity scientists really understand what you mean by
contingency. Contingency is just an unplanned conjuncture of events.
It's not an underlying principle.
Gould: Well, that in a sense is a
principle, but that's a matter of linguistics. Stu really deeply
believes there are structural principles which function like laws of
nature that will generate all this stuff. But there are a lot of
contingencies in the particulars of what is
Skeptic: Some people criticize you as
going way too far with contingency, and that you are a radical
contingency theorist who
negates laws of nature and large-scale forces.
Gould: No, and, in fact, that's not
my argument. I hope it is more subtle than that. I'm afraid very few
people get it, but not because I haven't said it clearly enough. It
is the great frustration of my life because I think I write very
carefully and clearly. There's nothing
you can do with people who won't read or ponder. My argument in
Wonderful Life is that there is a domain of law and a domain of
contingency, and our struggle is to find the line between them. The
reason why the domain of contingency is so vast, and much vaster
than most people have thought, is not because there isn't a lawlike
domain. It is because we are primarily interested in ourselves and
we have posited various universal laws of nature. It is a
psychological issue. It is because we want to understand ourselves
and we want to see ourselves as results of lawlike predictability and
sensible products of the universe in that sense. Contingency is
important in that psychological sense. Many of the deep questions we
ask turn out to be questions about contingency because they are
questions about an evolutionary detail--Homo sapiens. If
more interested in the structural laws of ecological pyramids there is
probably a fair amount of predictability there. But if you are asking
why Homo sapiens rules the world, and you are trying to express
that in terms of timeless laws of increasing complexity in evolution,
you've made a mistake. You are looking at a contingent detail, which
is that humans exist, and you're trying to interpret it by these laws.
Skeptic: I always had the feeling that
you were saying, "Hey look, in addition to these laws of nature,
which exist, let's not overlook the contingencies of life."
Gould: Yes, and that's why I keep
using this Gettysburg example. Had the Civil War gone the other way,
which it might have, a lot of American and even world history would
have been different.
Lincoln's point about the need to maintain union in this grand
experiment is the key. If the United States had balkanized into North
and South (and who's not to say more), we might have ended up like
Europe. That would have been a big difference, and an opposite
result at Gettysburg could have made it happen. And that's not a
Skeptic: I define contingency as an
unplanned conjuncture of events, not chance, since the events are
caused and determined, but their conjuncture is not planned.
Gould: No, definitely not chance.
There is chance involved, but contingency is the principle that each
step can go in variety of ways and that tiny little differences
(and here is where chaos theory
comes in), which don't seem very important at the time, can cascade
into big differences. There is some randomness involved--one of the
reasons we have little differences is randomness--but a lot of it is
the particularism of a set of sequences in which one generates the
Skeptic: I think part of the problem
with contingency is a semantic one. We look for other ways of saying
"chancy," "accidental"--but we really mean a conjuncture of events
that comes together in a particular way, and no other way, and can
never come together again in that way.
Gould: Right, and that particular way
makes sense. But it would have played out differently if you ran it
again only with just a slight change.
Skeptic: Daniel Dennett accuses you of
looking for skyhooks--that you are unhappy with the algorithmic
crane of natural selection. But what could be more unskyhook than
these unplanned conjunctures
Gould: Right, contingency is not a skyhook.
Skeptic: This interview will be
appearing in a special issue of Skeptic with the general
theme of evolution and the specific examination of evolutionary
psychology. Evolutionary psychologists
look for adaptive significance in our behaviors, and many of them
seem to think that you are not supportive of this paradigm when it is
applied to humans. Are you anti-adaptationist in the narrow sense of
Darwinian natural selection?
Gould: No. But adaptationism is not a
general principle for the interpretation of all structures
and behaviors. A lot of people are calling them ultra-Darwinians,
and I think that is right. Wallace was an ultra-Darwinian in that
sense (except what he said about
humans), whereas Darwin was much more pluralistic. There are a lot
of manifestations of it in Dawkins and Maynard Smith, in British
theory, in Dennett, and there is some in evolutionary psychology.
Skeptic: When Dawkins spoke at the
Skeptics Society lecture at Caltech he used the example of the
computer model of increasing an organism from the size of a mouse to
the size of an elephant, in such small increments that the increase
would be unnoticible to a field
observer from one generation to the next. He then shows that in the
course of a mere 60,000 years you would get this incredible increase,
and all with good old gradualism. This was an attempt on Dawkins'
part to show that punctuated equilibrium is not needed.
Gould: Doesn't he understand the
basic principle of punctuated equilibrium--that ecological
gradualism scales to geological
punctuation? Besides that, such linear selectional sequences like the
mouse to elephant are so rare as to be almost never found in the
fossil record. So, one of the reasons you don't find that type of
sequence is rarity; the second reason is that thousands of years are
compressed on a single bedding plane so changes that take place in a
couple of thousand years--which would seem slow to us living only
70 to 80 years--would still appear on a single bedding plane pressed
The radical content of punctuated equilibrium is not the bedding
plane concentration of the events of a couple thousand years, it is the
necessity to explain trends by the sorting of species rather than by
the extrapolation and selective advantages within unbranching
Skeptic: Dawkins says, "What needs to
be said now, loud and clear, is the truth: that the theory of
punctuated equilibrium lies firmly within the neo-Darwinian
synthesis. It always did. It will take time
to undo the damage wrought by the overblown rhetoric, but it will
Gould: I think he just doesn't
understand the importance of hierarchical selection theory. To
require that evolutionary trends be understood as a sorting of
selection of stable species, and not as the extrapolation of
adaptational trends within lineages, is a very
different view. You just don't have that without punctuated
equilibrium because under the conventional model a large scale
evolutionary trend is just selection scaled up. You may have
branches, but the branches are not producing the trend. The
branches are just iterating the adaptation to simple lines so that it is
more stable. It doesn't get wiped out by the extinction event.
Under punctuated equilibrium there is nothing about the history
of species that is producing a trend because they are stable. A trend
has to be produced by a higher-order sorting or selection upon
speciation events. A trend is a result because some species speciate
more frequently or because there is a preferred direction in
speciation, because some species live longer than others. There is a
whole different set of reasons for trends than you get in the old
Darwinian paradigm. We've never argued that the single event of
punctuation, which is just the scaling up of Mayr's parapatric
speciation model, constitutes the radical content of the theory. The
radical content of punctuated equilibrium is its explanation of trends.
The theory has made contributions to both evolutionary theory and
to paleontological practice. It was originally written as an article
about paleontological practice. Its radical content there was merely
to claim that the pattern is an expression of a biological reality. The
radical content for evolutionary theory is its contribution to
hierarchical selection models and the insertion of the species level of
selection and the explantion of trends.
Skeptic: On the matter of theories and
essences, does punctuated equilibrium count as a paradigm and a
paradigm shift in
Gould: No, but we are forcing
selection to be considered at the
level of the species and the explanation of trends, which is very
different from Darwin's insistence that the individual is the proper
level of evolutionary causation, and that therefore large scale events
are extrapolations of this individual level of selection. So it is
Skeptic: Dennett says he would love to
ask you about this observation of his: "Gould's ultimate target is
idea itself; he is opposed to the very idea that evolution is, in the
end, just an algorithmic process." Is natural selection your target?
Are you opposed to evolution as an algorithmic process? How do you
Gould: I'd be pretty amazed if
Dennett really thinks evolution is nothing but an algorithmic
process. There is an algorithm, which is how selection works through
time, but it's never going to give you
the details of what happens, which is where you need contingency.
Darwin understood this perfectly well. The algorithm--the crane--
doesn't give you the details, if that is what he is talking about, and
there are repeated patterns in the details which you need to know
about, which are not coming out of selection theory per se. In fact,
Darwin smuggles his argument for progress through a separate back
door of ecological argument--the biotic competition of a crowded
world. When Darwin wants to explain a pattern he thinks exists, like
progress in the fossil record (a pattern that, by the way, I don't think
exists), he doesn't do it through the algorithmic route of natural
selection. He does it through an ecological argument. That might be a
different algorithm. You might even want to call that a skyhook for
all I know. In fact, he probably would.
Skeptic: Dennett also brings up this
other notion that seems to be floating around, that punctuated
equilibrium is like dialectical materialism and that somehow your
Marxist background has led you
into this dialectical theory of nature.
Gould: Tell him to talk to Eldredge.
It's true, my father was a Marxist so I had that background. But, in
fact, the idea of punctuated equilibrium is more Niles' than mine,
and he never had that
background at all, so....
Skeptic: What are your politics?
Gould: Well, I don't like Newt
Gingrich any more than most intellectuals do, and I'd certainly vote
for Clinton over Dole.
Skeptic: You claim that "unless at
least half my colleagues are dunces, there can be no conflict
between science and religion." Yet you have led the charge against
creationism in our generation, so you
are obviously making a distinction between types of religious belief,
or, at least, what is done with those religious beliefs. And, I am not
infrequently challenged by atheists that a true skeptic must be an
atheist and that there is no other rational position. Atheists also
construct lists of all the harm religion has caused in human history,
and argue that religious thinking is magical thinking, and thus
skeptics must also be against religion as a way of thought. What do
you see as the role of religion and religious thinking in culture?
Gould: I don't feel that way at all
because religion as a cultural phenomenon fascinates me too much.
Horrible sins have been committed in the name of religion and
genocides--there is no sense in denying that. But these were usually
done in the name of religion as a tool of state power. But think of all
the wonderful, saintly, intellectual people that were also part of
Catholic history. They are both there. The church has been such a
powerful institution. How can you, in your anger, just cast that aside?
You cannot understand the human condition without understanding
religion or religious arguments. Besides, among intellectual Jews it is
such a common position to respect the culture and the religion of that
culture without being theistic. I think that is a more comfortable
position for Jews.
Skeptic: You would call yourself a
Skeptic: Are you an agnostic?
Gould: If you absolutely forced me to
bet on the existence of a conventional anthropomorphic deity, of
course I'd bet no. But,
basically, Huxley was right when he said that agnosticism is the only
honorable position because we really cannot know. And that's right.
I'd be real surprised if there turned out to be a conventional God.
I remember a story about Clarence Darrow, who was quite
atheistic. Somebody asked him: "Suppose you die and your soul goes
up there and it turns out the conventional story is true afterall?"
Darrow's answer was beautiful, and I love the way he pictured it
with the 12 apostles in the jury box and with his reputation for
giving long speeches (he spoke two straight days to save Leopold and
Loeb). He said that for once in his life he wasn't going to make a long
speech. He was just going to walk up to them, bow low to the judge's
bench, and say, "Gentlemen, I was wrong."
Skeptic: There is a tension in your
writings between seeing science as a progressive positivist
philosophy, and the strong relativist position that science is no
different from other cultural traditions. How do you resolve this
Gould: Strong relativism is nonsense.
What you want to do is recognize the cultural embeddedness of
science without negating
what to me is pretty evident--the history of science differs from the
history of other cultural institutions in that it produces a
progressively more adequate understanding of the natural world
(very fitfully to be sure, but progressive nonetheless). I must
interpret that to mean we are achieving a more adequate
understanding of nature. Some historians of science are close to the
strong relativistist position, but no working scientist can be a
relativist. Most people think that the reason for this is that
are so imbued with this grand goal of finding an ultimate truth.
That's not why. It's exactly the opposite. It is because day-to-day
scientific work is so tedious that unless you felt that the cleaning of
the cages and petri dishes every day was actually leading to true,
natural knowledge, why would you do it? If the history of science is
nothing more than a changing set of views corresponding to altering
social conventions, why do the hard work?
Skeptic: How true. I worked for two
years in an experimental psychology laboratory with rats and
pigeons, and I had to do
everything from setting up the experiments and recording the data,
to feeding the animals and cleaning the cages. And that was exactly
our attitude--every experiment we ran we believed was contributing
to the overall edifice of science.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
Gould: Oh, I want to go back to that
political question. I don't want to seem that wishy-washy. I just
tend to resist labeling by words that end in "ism" or "ian." I'm not
afraid of the "L" word. I take pride in having conventional liberal
political attitudes. I think that the
main reason why liberalism is under attack is that is has been so
successful. That's the point Galbraith makes and I think he is right.
Social Security worked. All these things worked. A sufficiently large
number of people are reasonably comfortable now, and many have
become enemies of this comfort being extended to the smaller
number of people who remain poor.
Skeptic: And to your critics who say
your politics influences your views on IQ and other social issues,
you say what?
Gould: Everyone's politics influences
their views. Nobody comes to social issues without politics. And if
they think they do, it is even more dangerous because they are not
recognizing the biases they do have. The main reason why it is good
to be aware of one's biases is
that you can then struggle against them.
Skeptic: So you are saying, "Yes I
have a liberal bias on the issue of race and IQ, but I have sound
arguments and I have data to
Gould: Yes. If I thought the argument
about marked inequality
were true, it would probably lead me to a conservative political
position, that it wouldn't be efficacious to engage in all these social
programs. In part, I take the liberal position because I believe it is
the best way to produce a just and decent society given the biological
information we have about people.
Skeptic: Thank you for your thoughts.