Review: Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 30
Year: 2010
Issue: 1–2
Date: January–April
Page(s): 30, 35
Reviewer: Kevin Padian
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Work under Review
Title: Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on His View of Life
Author(s): Edited by Warren D Allmon, Patricia H Kelley, and Robert M Ross
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 416 pages.

At scientific meetings, Steve Gould was usually as mobbed as he was at his public lectures. Everyone had something to discuss with him — a point, a quibble, an idea, a request for help. Whenever we spoke, usually after the throng had dispersed, we would talk about Darwin, dinosaurs, Owen, punctuation, homology, species, and adaptation. But first, we would talk about baseball. As diehard American League fans, we had the endless vicissitudes of pitching, hitting, strategies, and injuries to rehash. Steve was a very public person, and his observers have often been puzzled by his fascination with baseball — as with cathedrals, choral music, and antiquarian books. But the answer is obvious, really, encapsulated in the T-shirt motto: "Baseball is Life." The players have different ecological roles, for which they are selected, but few players are good at everything. There are constraints of the rules of the game, contingencies of the consequences of a fielding error or an unintentional fat pitch hit for a homer. The dynamics change with every hesitation before the next ball is thrown; and just when you think nothing is happening, that's often when the most is happening.

Structure, contingency, and history were three major evolutionary themes that also resonated in Steve's non-scientific preoccupations. None of the authors in this tremendously informative and accessible volume talks much about baseball or Steve's other passions, though. That's interesting, because he saw much of evolution — although in strictly analogical terms — through the lenses of his favorite pursuits. But the essays in this indispensable book are less about style than substance, and they comprise a collection of lasting value for any evolutionist.

Do the authors, many of whom are Gould's former students, come to praise him or to appraise him? The latter, although it is difficult not to celebrate the man who was not only the most publicly visible and influential paleontologist of the last half of the 20th century, but also the most publicly visible and influential evolutionary biologist. The only scientist who even came close was Henry Fairfield Osborn, who died in 1936 but used the American Museum of Natural History and a slew of books and articles to keep interest focused on the history of life (Rainger 1991, Regal 2002). Osborn's notions about evolutionary progress, vitalism, and teleology are long dustbinned. Will Gould's ideas about punctuated equilibria, species selection, exaptation, and the hierarchy of evolutionary levels meet the same fate?

The authors of this collection don't think so, on balance, although they are clear-eyed about the reception of Gould's ideas in various corners of the field of evolution. The perspectives of a cadre of leaders in paleobiology, all of whom grew up hearing Gould's ideas straight from the source, trying to test and elaborate upon them, are invaluable as an historical record of one of the most original evolutionary theorists of the century. Yes, Gould had his quirks, his inadequacies, and his blind spots, like any scientist. But how many scientists would merit this kind of theoretical analysis?

At the heart of most assessments of Gould's work is punctuated equilibria, which he originated with Niles Eldredge. Several authors (Allmon, Geary, Kitcher, Lieberman) discuss it with great insight. In particular, they note that the critical issues of PE are whether stasis in evolutionary lineages is predominant, and what causes morphological stasis. These are not only central to PE but to all of evolutionary biology. If stasis really is predominant in evolutionary lineages, then most of what we have been taught about population genetic models of tempo and mode, and the tracking of small-scale environmental change by selection, might just be wrong — or at least due for a revision, as Gould suggested in 1980 and explored at length in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002).

The authors in this compilation seem to accept Gould (and Eldredge's) contention that PE is a hypothesis about the deployment of speciation through time. But is it? All that the fossil record shows is morphology; speciation has to be inferred. That would be easy if one lineage clearly divided into two through time, but does it usually? In the classic formulations of PE, including coordinated stasis (Brett and Baird 1995) of many lineages simultaneously, no clear splitting is found. Rather, in classic PE form, one rather stable, vacillating lineage swiftly gives way to another. Is this speciation (cladogenesis) or simply rapid anagenesis? If the former, then competitive replacement of one lineage by another must be geologically instantaneous. In either case, how will diversity increase, as it clearly has through the Phanerozoic Era?

There are many perceptive and useful essays in this collection, and anyone interested in the development of 20th-century evolutionary thought will be fascinated by their insights. They explore the implications of Gould's theories for mass extinction (Kendrick), systematics (Yacobucci), creationism and evolution (Kelley), and ecology (Allmon and others, with the conclusion that Gould never cared about it anyway), among other subjects. Dick Bambach contributes a very useful historical chronology of Gould's ideas, which has the effect of limning clearly the various phases in his intellectual development. Philip Kitcher provides a fascinating and well argued essay on the logic of Gould's major ideas. Lewontin and Levins explore Gould's status as a "radical," by which they mean one who returns to the roots of the field (missing only his "radical" emphasis on original historical literature to dispel the myths of evolutionary history). And Warren Allmon contributes both a sweeping perspective of Gould's contributions to the field and an exhaustive (can it be complete?) bibliography of Gould's work (it runs to 44 pages). The elegant final essay by Robert Dorit, on how the promise of evolutionary developmental genetics has (and hasn't) borne out Gould's perennial theme of the importance of ontogeny to evolution, is a masterpiece not only of content but of writing.

The only thing really missing from this book, apart from assessments by Niles Eldredge, Elisabeth Vrba, David Raup, and other close co-authors of Gould, is an appraisal of his debates with the principal critics of his later years, such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and John Maynard Smith. There will be other essays, tribute volumes, and biographies that assess Gould's work historiographically and scientifically, but as a survey of Gould's contributions to the field, this volume is an instructive and indispensable beginning.


Brett CE, Baird GC. 1995. Coordinated stasis and evolutionary ecology of Silurian to Middle Devonian faunas in the Appalachian Basin. In: Erwin EH, Anstey RL, editors. New Approaches to Speciation in the Fossil Record. New York: Columbia University Press, New York. p 285–315.

Gould SJ. 2002. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Cambridge (MA): Belknap Press.

Rainger R. 1991. An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890–1935. Tuscaloosa (AL): University of Alabama Press.

Regal B. 2002. Henry Fairfield Osborn: Race and the Search for the Origins of Man. Aldershot (UK):Ashgate.

About the Author(s): 

Kevin Padian
Department of Integrative Biology
Museum of Paleontology
University of California
Berkeley CA 94720-3140

Kevin Padian is Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley; Curator of Paleontology at the University of California Museum of Paleontology; and president of NCSE's board of directors.

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