Being Mean to Stephen Jay Gould

Being Mean to Stephen Jay Gould

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Stephen Jay Gould is the best-known evolutionist in Americaand his fame goes well beyond his country’s borders.  My father, who died a year or two back, prided himself on his knowledge of things intellectual, religion, literature, science, and so forth, and took much pleasure in catching me out on matters pertaining to my own subject.  I have spent more than one long tedious weekend reading up on esoteric philosophers so I would not find myself at a loss on some detailed issue of German transcendentalism.  The worst was wading through the collected works of Rudolf Steiner: for many years my father was a bursar at a Waldorf school and an enthusiast for anthroposophy.  But my Oedipal complex leads me to digress, for what I wanted to say was that the one time when my father truly stood in awe of me was when I let slip that I knew Steve Gould personally.  In fact, so impressed was my father that he barely believed it until I produced a tape where I had been interviewing Gould for a book I was then writing.  Needless to say, my father thought that Gould was right and I was wrong.

Gould is respected, he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (something Carl Sagan never achieved), and he is much loved.  Gould writes a monthly column (“This view of life”) for Natural History.  Two months ago he celebrated his twenty-five-year, unbroken authorship.  Tributes flowed in from Oliver Sacks, Richard Lewontin, Dan Kevles, and (among others) Gary Larson, cartoonist of the “Far Side.”  I weighed in with a little story of when Gould and I were both witnesses for the American Civil Liberties Union in Arkansas in 1981, when we appeared in a successful attack on a law mandating the teaching, in the schools, of Creationism alongside evolution.

Yet in recent years, Gould has been the subject of much critical comment, some in private but also some in public.  In fact, criticism in his direction is not entirely new.  Gould has never hesitated to wade into controversies.  In the 1970s, he was one of the leaders of the Science for the People movement in their attack on sociobiology, specifically on Gould’s colleague in the Department of Organismic Biology at Harvard, Edward O. Wilson.  I remember that the late Bernie Davies, Harvard-based epidemiologist and good, old-fashioned rationalist, taking much umbrage at Gould’s stand, and attacking him somewhat ferociously in print.  But I also remember that Davies was careful to separate the polemicist Gould from the evolutionist Gould, and even as he criticized the former he praised the latter.

Now however Gould’s credentials as an evolutionist have come under attack.  John Maynard Smith, student of J. B. S. Haldane, former Marxist (like Gould himself), and doyen of British evolutionists, took time out from a mild review of another person’s book, to lash into Gould quite savagely.

Gould occupies a rather curious position, particularly on his side of the Atlantic.  Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by non-biologists 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 biology.

Expectedly, Gould struck back, referring to Maynard Smith and others of his ilk as “Darwinian fundamentalists,” but obviously the accusations hurt.  Nor have they ceased.  Just recently, the well-known science writer Robert Wright, in the New Yorker no less, accused Gould of offering comfort to the evangelicals, the Biblical literalists, suggesting that even when Gould gets away from his science he is doing more harm than good.  It would seem that for all the support Gould gets from his friends, his critics are no less charged up and ready to testify against him.

Criticism is the lot of any public figure.  As a politician will tell you, it comes with the territory and if (as Harry Truman) memorably said, if you cannot stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen.  The other, really well-known evolutionist is the Englishman Richard Dawkins, and he certainly gets his share of the licks.  I remember about twenty years ago the philosopher Mary Midgley wrote such an intemperate piece on Dawkins (“Gene juggling” she called it), one almost winced with embarrassment for one’s profession.  Yet today at least, I detect a difference in the tone of the criticisms of Gould and the criticisms of others like Dawkins.  People go after Dawkins with vigour, but it does not now have quite the personal edge that one finds of the criticisms of Gould.  Somehow, for Gould there is a sense that critics are trying to get at the man as well as at the argument.

At least part of this nastiness is the result of Gould’s own style, for he himself is very much given to attacking the man as much as the message.  The most egregious example of this was when he accused poor old Teilhard de Chardin of the Piltdown Hoax, as part of a campaign to discredit progressivist views of organic history: Teilhard was a crook or at minimum a trickster, so do not take him seriously when he talks of other things.  I did not care for this line of argument then and I do not like it now.  I am as ready as the next person to knock down Teilhard, but really!  A recent example of Gould’s attacking style came in the journal Evolution, when Gould and Dawkins were invited to review each other’s books.  Gould had virtually nothing to say about the ideas of Dawkins (who in turn manfully struggled on and through his assignment), but he managed to convey near contempt for his opponent.  If you combine this kind of sneering belittling with the fact that Gould finds it nigh impossible to admit that he has changed his mind, nary a hint, for instance, of the twisting and turning that has gone on through the “evolution” of Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibria, there is little wonder that folk sometimes get quite unpleasant and personal when they in turn go on the attack.

But, let us try to separate the man from the style.  Is the criticism of Gould justified?  I will say nothing here about the science per se.  I am not a fan of punctuated equilibria or of the overall attack on pure Darwinism that Gould often mounts.  In Darwinism Defended, I went after the science and in Mystery of Mysteries, on the basis of a citation analysis, I suggested that Maynard Smith may be right in general professional attitudes to the Gouldian theorizing.  Yet I am not as bothered as is Maynard Smith, even though I expect that he and I differ very little on what we do think is the true nature of the evolutionary process.  It seems to me that scientific differences are there to be argued out, and if people differ then so be it.  Of course, unlike Maynard Smith I am not an empirical scientist so at least in one sense it is of no great moment to me about how the science goes.  But what about the science/religion discussions, which are the topics which have just raised Wright’s ire so much?  Again there are reasons for a personal edge to comments on what Gould has written.  In an earlier column, I remarked on Gould’s unkindness in his recent Rocks of Ages, when he referred to the theological developmentalism of Arthur Peacocke as dressing up old-fashioned ideas in the “spiffy” language of modern science.  The adjective was gratuitous and unworthy.  Leave this sort of issue however, and ask about the ideas themselves.  Is Gould wrong on the essentials?

There are two points which I think are pertinent.  First, there is the question of the overall relationship between science and religion.  Again in the earlier column I said a few things which are pertinent, so let me recap.  Gould argues that science and religion are by their very natures necessarily things apart, in the language of the philosophers, they are incommensurable.  He speaks of them as non-overlapping Magisteria.  Now this, it seems to me, is far too problematic a proposition simply to state and to leave at that, which is what Gould does.  There is indeed a school of thought which would keep science and religion apart, notably the neo-orthodox, going back to Kierkegaard and forward to Barth and now today represented by such thinkers as Langdon Gilkey.  These people think of God and of His domain as in some sense beyond the reach of reason and as things attainable (by us humans) only through faith.  But this is not Gould’s position.  Anything but.  For the neo-orthodox, the God-world is just as real (more so, I expect) as our world.  It is a world of being, a world of which it is appropriate that one make an ontological commitment.  It is rather a question of how one comes to understand and appreciate it.  (In other words, the neo-orthodox argues that epistemologically science cannot get us up to God and His world.)  Gould however would simply deny all of this.  At this level, he is no different from the atheist like Dawkins.  As far as he is concerned, if God and His domain is not approachable through and only through science, it is not ontologically respectable.  Which means that — as the logical positivists argued earlier in this century, religion must be demoted to feeling and ethics and the like.  There is no other place or role for it.

The point I am making is that Gould certainly does think that science and religion clash.  Claims, for instance, about walking on water or loaves into fishes or rising on the third day are simply false.  Which means, according to Gould’s agenda, that they must be eliminated from religion, so that the clashes are removed.  It is like someone insisting that a size ten shoe does in fact fit all sizes, and by ensuring that it does by putting in packing for small feet and cutting off the ends for large feet.  In this sense, frankly, Gould is being a bit of a phoney and it is no wonder that people are irritated.  Note that I am not saying that the neo-orthodox position is or is not acceptable.  That is another matter.  I am not saying that Dawkins-like criticisms of Christianity are legitimate.  That too is another matter.  What I am saying is that Gould should not pretend to one and really opt for the other.  He is hunting with the atheists and running with the believers.  That is bad faith, in the language of the existentialists.  You may not care much for Dawkins and his arguments, but at least he is open and honest, and that is no small thing.

But now I come to the second matter, for it is this on which Wright seizes.  Gould argues that there is no evolutionary progress and that the history of life is one of random contingency.  In particular, the arrival of human kind is purely a matter of chance.  “Since dinosaurs were not moving toward markedly larger brains, and since such a prospect may lie outside the capabilities of reptilian design…, we must assume that consciousness would not have evolved on our planet if a cosmic catastrophe had not claimed the dinosaurs as victims.  In an entirely literal sense, we owe our existence, as large and reasoning mammals, to our lucky stars.”

Now like it or not, this claim shows the complete falsity of Gould’s position on the science and religion front.  It could not be more opposed to Christian theology if it tried.  The whole point about Christianity is that we humans are made in God’s image , intelligence, moral awareness, free will, and so forth,  and we are a central part of the purpose for the whole universe.  (Not necessarily the only part but a central part.)  We simply cannot be a contingent occurrence.  We had to occur and if the occurrence was by evolutionary laws, and Gould and Dawkins and I all agree that it was, then the evolutionary laws had to be such that humankind would occur.  There had to be a necessity about our arrival at least equal to the necessity that, under normal circumstances, when you drop a stone from a tower it falls to the ground.  Humankind does not necessarily have to have five digits or hairless bodies, perhaps not even two sexes, and it did not have to occur here on earth (and perhaps could have occurred many times in the universe), but it had to occur.  If not now, then some time in the past or future of this universe or some other.  If that is not so, Christianity is false.

Many Darwinians think that their theory of evolution through natural selection does guarantee a kind of progressive evolution, water, earth, air, culture,  and that through a kind of comparative process brains and minds and everything else would have to appear.  Today’s most ardent proponent of such selection-driven directionalism is Richard Dawkins: an interesting irony, given the views he holds about the Christian religion.  He is an enthusiast for biological “arms races,” believing that evolving lines of organisms compete against each other, improving adaptations: as the prey gets faster, so also the predator gets faster; as the shell gets thicker, so also the teeth and jaws get stronger.  Overall, it is thought that this kind of comparative progress leads to a kind of absolute progress, which is to be expressed in terms of brains and intelligence.  Dawkins especially draws attention to the way in which military arms races have evolved, from focusing on such things as more efficient armour and weapons of destruction, to the use of computers and like electronic hardware.  So likewise, in the animal world, we have the evolution of organisms with ever greater and more powerful on-board computers.

I have to confess that I myself am not at all sure about this line of argument.  I do not know if it is strong enough to guarantee the appearance of humans or humanlike beings, which is what Christianity demands.  There are certainly empirical critics, for instance, the fossil record does not show any clear pattern that predators and prey have become faster over time.  And even if it did, I am not sure that arms races guarantee the appearance of intelligence.  Can we properly assume that there is a clear progression from sea, through land and air, to intelligence?  Humans after all did not conquer air unaided.  Perhaps there is some fifth dimension which we have not yet broken into, perhaps the fifth dimension is an alternative to consciousness.  Do not ask me what it is, for I cannot tell you, but can we rule it out?  Haldane certainly thought not.

Our only hope of understanding the universe is to look at it from as many different points of view as is possible.  This is one of the reasons why the data of the mystical consciousness can usefully supplement those of the mind in its normal state.  Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.  I have read and heard many attempts at a systematic account of it, from materialism and theosophy to the Christian system or that of Kant, and I have always felt that they were much too simple.  I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy.  That is the reason why I have no philosophy myself, and must be my excuse for dreaming.

Gould certainly agrees that there is a kind of progress in evolution, an increase in complexity, but he argues (surely truly) that this is an artifact of the situation.  You increase complexity, by chance as it were, and you have increased complexity.  You decrease some of this complexity and (because not all is gone) you still have the complexity left.  In respects, complexity-building is a one-way process.  Of course, you might lose all of your complexity for a while but it will come back.  Darwin, incidentally, had this or a closely related insight right at the beginning of becoming an evolutionist.  “The enormous number of animals in the world depends on their varied structure and complexity; hence as the forms became complicated, they opened fresh means of adding to their complexity; but yet there is no necessary tendency in the simple animals to become complicated although all perhaps will have done so from the new relations caused by the advancing complexity of others.”  And of course, as we see, Darwin also had the insight that there is no necessity to anything really happening on the complexity front.  It will probably happen but there are no guarantees.

I could go on with this, and in fact in one of my books, Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology, I do go on for over six hundred pages!  My point is that Gould has put his finger on a problem.  You may be able to solve it through science.  Perhaps arms races can indeed do the job.  You may be able to solve it through theology.  Catholic priest and philosopher of science Ernan McMullin takes a neo-Augustinian position, arguing that God can do what he will do with any laws, so it really does not matter how the laws of nature work, human beings not only did evolve but were destined to evolve.  I am not myself sure about this, I suspect that there are some lurking problems about why God’s powers led to humans (a good thing) but could not prevent the occurrence of physical evil (a bad thing).  But no matter here.  What is important is that there is a problem about reconciling the Christian belief in the status of humankind and the Darwinian’s belief in the apparent contingency of the evolutionary process.  And Gould was sensitive to it.

So what I want to say in conclusion is that I am not at all surprised that, for all his many virtues, people find Stephen Jay Gould intensely irritating.  His general stand on the science/religion question is quick, slick, and shallow.  But do not let that blind you to the fact that he makes some really important arguments.  In the end, you may or may not think that these are well-taken.  Those of us interested in the science/religion relationship ignore them at our peril.