Review: Stephen Jay Gould and the Politics of Evolution


As a student of StephenPrindle: Stephen Gould and the Politics of Evolution Jay Gould in the 1970s, I thought it was standard procedure to analyze the social context of scientific thought to determine what possible bias your predecessors, contemporaries, and rivals brought to their work. A historian and philosopher of science, as well as a practicing paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, he delighted in placing the works of others in their social/political context. I think he would be pleased that David F Prindle, Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin, has subjected his work to the same scrutiny in Stephen Jay Gould and the Politics of Evolution.

You might wonder, as I did, what a professor of government is doing writing about evolution. How could he possibly know enough about concepts such as punctuated equilibria and macroevolution to critique Gould’s work? Prindle has done his homework. He has read all of Gould’s books and seminal articles and many additional publications, as well as audited a course on speciation. Except for occasional slips (for example, an inadequate description of species selection, errors in his comments on the Cambrian explosion, underestimation of the acceptance of punctuated equilibria among paleontologists) he gets the science right. But more importantly, I think he gets the politics right.

What’s politics got to do with it? A lot, Prindle argues effectively. His thesis is that “Gould’s mind worked along two tracks simultaneously, the scientific and the political. ... Gould never penned a line that did not address, if only implicitly, both areas of human thought” (p 11). Prindle argues that Gould was involved in both the internal politics of science and the politics of evolution in society as a whole, that is, in his opposition to creationists.

In the first chapter, Prindle evaluates Gould’s political orientation, dispelling the notion that he was a Marxist, arguing instead that he was a “leftist” or “modern liberal” for whom equality of opportunity was key. He also analyzes why Gould’s writing had such charm for his readers, taking them on a voyage of discover; it was personal, informal, and placed ideas in their cultural context.

The next chapter deals with issues in the philosophy of science — Gould’s interest in Kuhn and Popper; the nature of historical science; Gould’s opposition to reductionism; his views that evolution is nondirectional and that humans are not “special”.

The remainder of the book addresses Gould’s involvement in “internal politics”. Chapter 3 discusses the controversies in which Gould was involved relating to evolution and life history (gradualism versus punctuated equilibria, macroevolution, species selection, contingency). The next two chapters focus on the “politics of human nature,” including sociobiology, and on human inequality (Gould’s campaign against intelligence testing). Prindle makes a convincing case that Gould’s scientific stance was inextricable from his political stance. He also recognizes a number of contradictions and inconsistencies in Gould’s writings and relates them to his political aims.

In chapter 6, Prindle discusses Gould’s forays into “external politics” — the evolution/creationism struggle. This chapter will be of particular interest to readers of RNCSE. He summarizes briefly the anti-evolution movement from Scopes through the 1960s to Reagan and the Arkansas court case, focusing on the testimony that Gould presented as a scientific witness at that trial. Prindle also critiques several creationist arguments (such as lack of transitional forms in the fossil record), dismissing all except the question of “origin of mutations,” which he feels (I think unjustifiably) evolutionary biologists have not addressed sufficiently. He examines the way creationists have treated Gould’s work, including punctuated equilibrium, the contingency argument of Wonderful Life, and the argument about design related to the panda’s “thumb”. He states that Gould understood that creationism was a political issue; he sees Gould’s NOMA approach (“Non- Overlapping Magisteria” presented in Rocks of Ages) as politically motivated, because “[i]f there was one American scientist in the 20th century who mixed the magisteria of fact, morality, and ultimate meaning in his work, it was Gould. For him to turn around and recommend the separation of the two spheres begs for some sort of explanation” (p 196). For Prindle, the explanation is that NOMA was a political strategy — an effective one — for building a “coalition of the ambiguous” joining scientists with religious Americans wanting to avoid conflict with science.

Prindle’s final chapter assesses Gould’s long-term contributions, especially as seen in his Structure of Evolutionary Theory. He sees Gould’s final book as a call for a new theory, rather a “series of good starts, shrewd critiques, memorable phrases, and half-baked ideas…. His political legacy, then, must be much like his scientific legacy, a set of ideas that cohere more in tone than in conceptual completeness” (p 212). Should a “Gouldian” theory emerge, he predicts it will be anti-reductionist and focus on emergence, macroevolutionary hierarchies, and constraints. But for now Prindle sees Gould’s main scientific contributions as “two good ideas” (p 213), spandrels and exaptation, which he admits partly solve the “origin of mutations” problem. He concludes that, though Gould’s scientific contributions may not last, his writing will, because “by recontextualizing biological discourse he demonstrated, to scientists, to nonscientists, and even to antiscientists, why it was relevant” (p 217).

This book should interest evolutionary biologists; I can see it being used in seminars on evolution or the philosophy of science, and it would be valuable reading for graduate students who may consider science an objective pursuit. It will appeal to the still strong cohort of Gould’s fans, and should be understandable by the educated lay person (for instance, Prindle does a good job of explaining arcane subjects like factor analysis). Even though I thought I knew Steve well, I learned a lot from this book, and much of it rang true to the lessons Steve tried to teach his students.


About the Author(s): 

Patricia H Kelley is Professor of Geology at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and a Supporter of NCSE.

Patricia H Kelley
Department of Geography and Geology
University of North Carolina Wilmington
Wilmington NC 28403-5944


Stephen Jay Gould and the Politics of Evolution


Patricia H Kelley

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
David F Prindle

Amherst (NY): Prometheus Books, 2009. 249 pages