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The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive

Unofficial SJG Archive

Punctuated Equilibrium's Threefold History

by Stephen Jay Gould

he "Urban Legend" of Punctuated Equilibrium's Threefold History: The opponents of punctuated equilibrium have constructed a fictional history of the theory, primarily (I suppose) as a largely unconscious expression of their hope for its minor importance […] This supposed threefold history of punctuated equilibrium also ranks about as close to pure fiction as any recent commentary by scientists has ever generated. In stage one, the story goes, we were properly modest, obedient to the theoretical hegemony of the Modern Synthesis, and merely trying to bring paleontology into the fold. But the prospect of worldly fame beguiled us, so we broke our ties of fealty and tried, in stage two, to usurp power by painting punctuated equilibrium as a revolutionary doctrine that would dethrone the Synthesis, resurrect the memory of the exiled martyr (Richard Goldschmidt), and reign over a reconstructed realm of theory. But we were too big for our breeches, and the old guard still retained some life. They fought back mightily and effectively, exposing our bombast and emptiness. We began to hedge, retreat, and apologize, and have been doing so ever since in an effort to regain grace and, chastened in stage three, to sit again, in heaven or Valhalla, with the evolutionary elite.

Such farfetched fiction suffers most of all from an internal construction that precludes exposure and falsification among true believers, whatever the evidence. Purveyors of this myth even name the three stages, thus solidifying the false taxonomy. Dawkins (1986), for example, speaks of the "grandiloquent era…of middle-period punctuationism [which] gave abundant aid and comfort to creationists and other enemies of scientific truth." In the other major strategy of insulation from refutation, supporters of this "urban legend" about the modest origin, bombastic rise, and spectacular fall of punctuated equilibrium forge a tale that allows them to read any potential disconfirmation as an event within the fiction itself. […]

In particular, and most offensive to me, the urban legend rests on the false belief that radical, "middle-period" punctuated equilibrium became a saltational theory wedded to Goldschmidt's hopeful monsters as a mechanism. I have labored to refute this nonsensical charge from the day I first heard it. But my efforts are doomed within the self-affirming structure of the urban legend. We all know, for so the legend proclaims, that I once took the Goldschmidtian plunge. So if I ever deny the link, I can only be retreating from an embarrassing error. And if I, continue to deny the link with force and gusto, well, then I am only backtracking even harder (into stage 3) and apologizing (or obfuscating) all the more. How about the obvious (and accurate) alternative: that we never made the Goldschmidtian link; that this common error embodies a false construction; and that our efforts at correction have always represented an honorable attempt to relieve the confusion of others.

But the urban legend remains too simplistically neat, and too resonant with a favorite theme of Western sagas, to permit refutation by mere evidence. So Dennett (1995, pp. 283-284) writes: "There was no mention in the first paper of any radical theory of speciation or mutation. But later, about 1980, Gould decided that punctuated equilibrium was a revolutionary idea after all [But] it was too revolutionary, and it was hooted down with the same sort of ferocity the establishment reserves for heretics like Elaine Morgan. Gould backpedaled hard, offering repeated denials that he has ever meant anything so outrageous." And Halstead (1985, p. 318) wrote of me (with equal poverty in both logic and grammar): "He seems to be setting up a face-saving formula to enable him to retreat from his earlier aggressive saltationism, having had a bit of a thrashing, his current tack is to suggest that perhaps we should keep the door open in case he can find some evidence to support his pet theories so let us be 'pluralist.'"

I do not, of course, claim that our views about punctuated equilibrium have never changed through the years of debate (only a dull and uninteresting theory could remain so static in the face of such wide discussion). Nor do I maintain a position that would be even sillier—namely, that we made no important errors requiring corrections to the theory. Of course we made mistakes, and of course we have tried to amend them. But I look upon the history of punctuated equilibrium (from my partisan vantage point of course) as a fairly standard development for successful theories in science. We did, indeed, begin modestly and expand outward thereafter. (In this sense, punctuated equilibrium has grown in theoretical scope, primarily as macroevolutionary theory developed and became better integrated with the rest of evolutionary thought—and largely through articulation of the hierarchical model, as discussed in the previous chapter).

We started small as a consequence of our ignorance and lack of perspective, not from modesty of basic temperament. As stated before, we simply didn't recognize, at first, the interesting implications of punctuated equilibrium for macroevolutionary theory—primarily gained in treating species as Darwinian individuals for the explanation of trends, and in exploring the extent and causes of stasis. With the help of S. M. Stanley, E. S. Vrba and other colleagues, we developed these implications over the years, and the theory grew accordingly. But we never proposed a radical theory for punctuations (ordinary speciation scaled into geological time), and we never linked punctuations to microevolutionary saltationism.

Of course we made mistakes—serious ones in at least two cases—and the theory has changed and improved by correcting these errors. In particular, and as documented extensively in Chapter 8, we were terribly muddled for several years about the proper way to treat, and even to define, selection at the level of species—the most important of all theoretical spinoffs from punctuated equilibrium. We confused sorting with selection (see Vrba and Gould, 1986, for a resolution). We also did not properly formulate the concept of emergence at first; and we remained confused for a long time about emergence of characters vs. emergence of fitness as criteria for species selection (Lloyd and Gould, 1993; Gould and Lloyd, 1999). In retrospect, I am chagrined by the long duration of our confusion, and its expression in many of our papers. But I think that we have now resolved these difficult issues. […]

The saltationist canard has persisted as our incubus. The charge could never be supported by proper documentation, for we never made the link or claim. All attempts collapse upon close examination. Dennett, for example, who insists (1997, p. 64) that "for a while he [Gould] had presented punctuated equilibrium as a revolutionary 'saitationist' alternative to standard neo-Darwinism," documents his supposed best case by assuring readers (1995, p. 285) that "for a while, Gould was proposing that the first step in the establishment of any new species was a doozy—a non-Darwinian saltation." Dennett directly follows this claim with his putative proof, yet another quotation from my 1980 paper, which he renders As follows: "Speciation is not always an extension of gradual, adaptive allelic substitution to greater effect, but may represent, as Goldschmidt argued, a different style of genetic change—rapid reorganization of the genome, perhaps non-adaptive" (Gould, 1980b, p. 119).

I regard Dennett's case as pitiful, but the urban legend can offer no better. First of all, this quotation doesn't even refer to punctuated equilibrium, but comes from a section of my 1980 paper on the microevolutionary mechanics of speciation. Secondly, Dennett obviously misreads my statement in a backwards manner. I am trying to carve out a small theoretical space for a style of microevolutionary rapidity at low relative frequency—as clearly stated in my phrase "not always an extension of gradual…" But Dennett states that I am proposing this mechanism as a general replacement for gradual microevolutionary change in all cases of speciation—"the first step in the establishment of any new species" in his words. But my chosen phrase—"not always"—clearly means "most of the time," and cannot be read as "never." In short, I made a plea for pluralism, and Dennett charges me with usurpation. Then, when I try to explain, I am accused of beating a retreat to save face. When placed in such a double bind, one can only smile and remember Schiller's famous dictum: Mit Dummheit kimpfen die Gdtter selbst vergebens.

Finally, the claim that we equated punctuated equilibrium with saltation makes no sense within the logical structure of our theory—so, unless we are fools, how could we ever have asserted such a proposition? Our theory holds, as a defining statement, that ordinary allopatric speciation, unfolding gradually at microevolutionary scales, translates to punctuation in geological time. Microevolutionary saltation also scales as a punctuation—so the distinction between saltation and standard allopatry becomes irrelevant for punctuated equilibrium, since both yield the same favored result!

Moreover, the chronology of debate proves that we did not issue disclaimers on this subject only to cover our asses as we retreated from exaggerations of our supposed second phase, because we have been asserting this clarification from the very beginning—that is, from the first paper we ever wrote to comment upon published reactions to punctuated equilibrium. Our first response appeared in 1977, long before we issued the supposed clarion call of our false revolution in 1980. We wrote (Gould and Eldredge, 1977, p. 121), under the heading "Invalid claims of gradualism made at the wrong scale": "The model of punctuated equilibria does not maintain that nothing occurs gradually at any level of evolution. It is a theory about speciation and its deployment in the fossil record. It claims that an important pattern, continuous at higher levels—the 'classic' macroevolutionary trend—is a consequence of punctuation in the evolution of species. It does not deny that allopatric speciation occurs gradually in ecological time (though it might not—see Carson, 1975), but only asserts that this scale is a geological microsecond."

We have never changed this conviction, and we have always tried to correct any confusion of scaling between saltation and punctuation, even in papers written during the supposed apogee of our revolutionary ardor, during illusory stage 2 of the urban legend. For example, under the heading of "The relationship of punctuated equilibrium to macromutation," I wrote in 1982c (p. 88): "Punctuated equilibrium is not a theory of macromutation…it is not a theory of any genetic process…It is a theory about larger-scale patterns-the geometry of speciation in geological time. As with ecologically rapid modes of speciation, punctuated equilibrium welcomes macromutation as a source for the initiation of species: the faster the better. But punctuated equilibrium clearly does not require or imply macromutation, since it was formulated as the expected geological consequence of Mayrian allopatry." […]

The Charge of Ulterior Motivation

When charges of dishonesty or lack of originality fail, a committed detractor can still label his opponents as unconcerned with scientific truth, but motivated by some ulterior (and nefarious) goal. Speculations about our "real" reasons have varied widely in content, but little in their shared mean spirit (see, for example, Turner, 1984; Konner, 1986; and Dennett, 1995). I will discuss only one of these peculiar speculations—the charge that punctuated equilibrium originated from my political commitments rather than from any honorable feeling about the empirical world—because, once again, the claim rests upon a canonical misquotation and exposes the apparent unwillingness or inability of our unscientific critics to read a clear text with care.

I have already discussed Halstead's version of the political charge in the great and farcical British-Museum-cum-cladism-cum-Marxism debate (see pages 984-985). The supposed justification for this construction lies in another quotation from my writing, second in false invocation only to the "death of the Synthesis" statement discussed earlier (p. 1003).

I do not see how any careful reader could have missed the narrowly focused intent of the last section in our 1977 paper, a discussion of the central and unexceptionable principle, embraced by all professional historians of science, that theories must reflect a surrounding social and cultural context. We began the section by trying to identify the cultural roots of gradualism in larger beliefs of Victorian society. We wrote (Gould and Eldredge, 1977, p. 145): "The general preference that so many of us hold for gradualism is a metaphysical stance embedded in the modern history of Western cultures: it is not a high-order empirical observation, induced from the objective study of nature . . . We mention this not to discredit Darwin in any way, but merely to point out that even the greatest scientific achievements are rooted in their cultural contexts—and to argue that gradualism was part of the cultural context, not of nature."

We couldn't then assert, with any pretense to fairness or openness to self-scrutiny, that gradualism represents cultural context, while our punctuational preferences only record unvarnished empirical truth. If all general theories embody a complex mixture of contingent context with factual adequacy, then we had to consider the cultural embeddedness of preferences for punctuational change as well. We therefore began by writing (p. 145) that "alternative conceptions of change have respectable pedigrees in philosophy." We then discussed the most obvious candidate in the history of Western thought: the Hegelian dialectic and its redefinition by Marx and Engels as a theory of revolutionary social change in human history. We cited a silly, propagandistic defense of punctuational change from the official Soviet handbook of Marxism-Leninism, in order to stress our point about the potential political employment of all general theories of change. We concluded (p. 146): "It is easy to see the explicit ideology lurking behind this general statement about the nature of change. May we not also discern the implicit ideology in our Western preference for gradualism?"

But the argument required one further step for full disclosure. We needed to say something about why we, rather than other paleontologists at other times, had developed the concept of punctuated equilibrium. We raised this point as sociological commentary about the origin of ideas, not as a scientific argument for the validity of the same ideas. An identification of cultural or ontogenetic sources says nothing about truth value, an issue that can only be settled by standard scientific procedures of observation, experiment and empirical test. So I mentioned a personal factor that probably predisposed me to openness towards, or at least an explicit awareness of, a punctuational alternative to conventional gradualistic models of change: "It may also not be irrelevant to our personal preferences that one of us learned his Marxism, literally at his daddy's knee."

I have often seen this statement quoted, always completely out of context, as supposed proof that I advanced punctuated equilibrium in order to foster a personal political agenda. I resent this absurd misreading. I spoke only about a fact of my intellectual ontogeny; I said nothing about my political beliefs (very different from my father's, by the way, and a private matter that I do not choose to discuss in this forum). I included this line within a discussion of personal and cultural reasons that might predispose certain scientists towards consideration of punctuational models—just as I had identified similar contexts behind more conventional preferences for gradualism. In the next paragraph, I stated my own personal conclusions about the general validity of punctuational change-but critics never quote these words, and only cite my father's postcranial anatomy out of context instead.

We emphatically do not assert the "truth" of this alternate metaphysic of punctuational change. Any attempt to support the exclusive validity of such a monistic, a priori, grandiose notion would verge on the nonsensical. We believe that gradual change characterizes some hierarchical levels, even though we may attribute it to punctuation at a lower level—the macroevolutionary trend produced by species selection, for example. We make a simple plea for pluralism in guiding philosophies—and for the basic recognition that such philosophies, however hidden and inarticulated, do constrain all our thought. Nonetheless, we do believe that the punctuational metaphysic may prove to map tempos of change in our world better and more often than any of its competitors—if only because systems in steady state are not only common but also so highly resistant to change.

The Most Unkindest Cut of All

If none of the foregoing charges can bear scrutiny, strategists of personal denigration still hold an old and conventional tactic in reserve: they can proclaim a despised theory both trivial and devoid of content. This charge is so distasteful to any intellectual that one might wonder why detractors don't try such a tactic more often, and right up front at the outset. But I think we can identify a solution—the "triviality caper" tends to backfire and to hoist a critic with his own petard—for if the idea you hate is so trivial, then why bother to refute it with such intensity? Leave the idea strictly alone and it will surely go away all by itself. Why fulminate against tongue piercing, goldfish swallowing, skateboarding, or any other transient fad with no possible staying power?

Nonetheless, perhaps from, desperation, or from severe frustration that something regarded as personally odious doesn't seem to be fading away, this charge of triviality has been advanced against punctuated equilibrium, apparently to small effect. To cite a classic example of backfiring, Gingerich (1984a, 1984b) tried to dismiss punctuated equilibrium as meaningless and untestable by definition—and to validate gradualism a priori as "commitment to empiricism and dedication to the principal [sic] of testability in science" (1984a, p. 338), with stasis redefined, oxymoronically in my judgment, as "gradualism at zero rate" (1984a, p. 338). Gingerich then concludes (1984b, p. 116): "Punctuated equilibrium is unscaled, and by nature untestable. It hardly deserves recognition as a conjecture of 'major importance for paleontological theory and practice.' . . . Hypotheses that cannot be tested are of little value in science."

But how can Gingerich square this attempted dismissal with his own dedication of a decade in his career to testing punctuated equilibrium by fine-scale quantitative analysis of Tertiary mammals from the western United States (Gingerich, 1974, 1976)? These studies, which advanced a strong claim for gradualism, represent the most important empirical research published in the early phase of the punctuated equilibrium debate. Gingerich then recognized punctuated equilibrium as an interesting and testable hypothesis, for he spent enormous time and effort testing and rejecting our ideas for particular mammalian phylogenies. He then argued explicitly (1978, p. 454): "Their [Eldredge and Gould's] view of speciation differs considerably from the traditional paleontological view of dynamic species with gradual evolutionary transitions, but it can be tested by study of the fossil record."

Among Darwinian fundamentalists (see my terminology in Gould, 1997d), charges of triviality have been advanced most prominently and insistently by Dawkins (1986, p. 251) who evaluates punctuated equilibrium metaphorically as "an interesting but minor wrinkle on the surface of neo-Darwinian theory"; and by Dennett (1995, p. 290) who calls punctuated equilibrium "a false-alarm revolution that was largely if not entirely in the eyes of the beholders."

But a close analysis of Dawkins's and Dennett's arguments exposes the parochiality of their judgment. They regard punctuated equilibrium as trivial because our theory doesn't speak to the restricted subset of evolutionary questions that, for them, defines an exclusive domain of interest for the entire subject. These men virtually equate evolution with the origin of intricately adaptive organic design—"organized adaptive complexity," or O.A.C. in Dawkins's terminology. They then dismiss punctuated equilibrium on the narrow criterion: "if it doesn't explain the focus of my interests, then it must be trivial." Dawkins (1984, p. 684), for example, properly notes the implications of punctuated equilibrium for validation of higher-level selection, but then writes: "Species-level selection can't explain the evolution of adaptations: eyes, ears, knee joints, spider webs, behavior patterns, everything, in short, that many of us want a theory of evolution to explain. Species selection may happen, but it doesn't seem to do anything much." "Everything"? Does nothing else but adaptive organismal design excite Dawkins's fancy in the entire and maximally various realm of evolutionary biology and the history of life—the "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful" of Darwin's closing words (1859, p. 490).

But the truly curious aspect of both Dawkins's and Dennett's charge lies in their subsequent recognition, and fair discussion, of the important theoretical implication of punctuated equilibrium—the establishment of species as Darwinian individuals, and the consequent validation of species sorting and selection as a prominent process in a hierarchical theory of Darwinian evolution. In 1984, Dawkins acknowledged that this aspect of punctuated equilibrium "does, in a sense, move outside the neo-Darwinian synthesis, narrowly interpreted. This is about whether a form of natural selection operates at the level of entire lineages, as well as at the level of individual reproduction stressed by Darwin and neo-Darwinism."

In his 1986 book, Dawkins then devotes a substantial part of the chapter following his rejection of punctuated equilibrium to an evaluation of species selection. But he finishes his exploration by reimmersion in the same parochial trap of denying importance because the phenomenon doesn't explain his exclusive interest in adaptive organismal design: "To conclude the discussion of species selection, it could account for the pattern of species existing in the world at any particular time. It follows that it could also account for changing patterns of species as geological ages give way to later ages, that is, for changing patterns in the fossil record. But it is not a significant force in the evolution of the complex machinery of life . . . As I have put it before, species selection may occur but it doesn't seem to do anything much!" (Dawkins, 1986, pp. 268-269). But doesn't "the pattern of species existing in the world at any particular time" and "changing patterns in the fossil record" represent something of evolutionary importance?

At the end of his long riff against punctuated equilibrium, Dennett also pauses for breath and catches a glimmer of the concept that seems important and theoretically intriguing to many students of macroevolution (Dennett, 1995, pp. 297-298):

The right level at which to look for evolutionary trends, he [Gould] could then claim [indeed I do], is not the level of the gene, or the organism, but the whole species or clade. Instead of looking at the loss of particular genes from gene pools, or the differential death of particular genotypes within a population, look at the differential extinction rate of whole species and the differential "birth" rate of species—the rate at which a lineage can speciate into daughter species. This is an interesting idea . . . It may be true that the best way of seeing the long-term macro-evolutionary pattern is to look for differences in "lineage fecundity" instead of looking at the transformations in the individual lineages. This is a powerful proposal worth taking seriously.

I am puzzled by the discordance and inconsistency, but gratified by the outcome. Dawkins and Dennett, smart men both, seem unable to look past the parochial boundaries of their personal interest in evolution, or their feelings of jealousy towards whatever effectiveness my public questioning of their sacred cow of Darwinian fundamentalism may have enjoyed (see Gould, 1997d)—so they must brand punctuated equilibrium as trivial. But they cannot deny the logic of Darwinian argument, and they do manage to work their way to the genuine theoretical interest of punctuated equilibrium's major implication, the source of our primary excitement about the idea from the start.

[ Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002, pp. 1006-1021. ]

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