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 Teeth and Horse's Toes, and a Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Wonderful Life (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 magazine. 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 Idea, 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 personal issues.

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 brief summary.
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 every feature.
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 in its 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 analogy.

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 college, so 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 community.

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. For me, 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 contingency.

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 generated.

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 we were 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 crazy model.

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 next.

Skeptic: I think part of the problem with contingency is a semantic one. We look for other ways of saying it--"quirky," "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 of events?
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 together.
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 populations.

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 be undone."
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 evolutionary theory?
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 different.

Skeptic: Dennett says he would love to ask you about this observation of his: "Gould's ultimate target is Darwin's dangerous 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 respond?
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 Catholicism--slaughters, 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 secular Jew?
Gould: Yes.

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 debate?
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 scientists 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 support them."
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.