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Stephen Jay Gould was the most important paleontologist of his generation, the impact of his life best measured by the wide-spread sense of loss occasioned by his death.
Gould wrote widely on a variety of topics in evolutionary theory, and if he sometimes gave the impression of diluting his accomplishments by dividing his attention, the body of work that resulted seemed to have some of the quirkiness and originality of the subjects he chose to study.
The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, published by the Harvard University Press just months before his death, represents Gould’s attempt to organize his scattered thoughts into a systematic treatise. Despite its length at more than 1400 pages, it fails in this respect, but in the end, it does something more important. It shows a man of sensitive intelligence endeavoring to master his doubts by disclosing them honestly.
Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibria, which he advanced with Niles Eldredge in the mid-1970s, emphasized the extent to which Darwin’s theory of evolution fails adequately to account for the most obvious facts about the history of life. Darwin predicted that the fossil record would display a continuous distribution of animal forms. A great many species, by way of contrast, enter the fossil record without antecedents and depart without descendents. Before Gould’s work, these facts were widely known, but not widely adverted. Gould succeeded in bringing them to the attention of evolutionary biologists, and often with great rhetorical skill. Their response was often to cast doubt upon the facts when possible, and upon Gould when necessary.
Gould quite understood that a theory in conflict with the facts is a great unhappiness. He thus argued that if evolution proceeds discontinuously, as the natural history of the dead suggests, natural selection must in part act on the level of a species. This is not a doctrine notable for its clarity. If species are treated as biological individuals, critics asked with some asperity, what is the source of their collective variation? And if they are not treated as individuals, what is it that natural selection acts upon? In The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Gould came very close to expressing the obvious but forbidden thought that while variation and natural selection bulk large in evolutionary theology, they should weigh little in evolutionary theory. If this is so, what then remains of Darwinism as a doctrine? It was a question that Gould declined to ask, perhaps because criticism at the hands of his intellectual inferiors made him sensitive to the distinction between fearlessness and folly.
No notice of Gould’s death should omit the most important fact about his life. The man was widely loved. The other day in Paris, while waiting in line at a bookstore, I overheard a customer asking for one of Gould’s books entitled—he was quite sure—La vie est belle. The words in French mean that “life is beautiful.” The urgency of his request suggested that these were words he was badly in need of hearing. Gould’s book is, of course, entitled Wonderful Life, the title alluding to Frank Capra’s film, It’s a Wonderful Life; and the book itself deals with the discovery of the Burgess Shale. The French had mistranslated the title. It hardly mattered. The general impression current in the bookstore was that an American believed that life was beautiful and had written a book to say so.
The exchange did Gould great honor, for no matter what he had intended, this was, indeed, the impression that he had managed to convey.
David Berlinski is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute and author of The Advent of the Algorithm and Newton’s Gift.