Roots Writ Large
by Lewis Wolpert and Alison Richards
'The male emerges within his mother's shell, copulates with
all his sisters, and dies before birth. It may not sound much of a life,
but the male Acarophenax [a mite] does as much for its evolutionary
continuity as Abraham did in fathering children into his tenth decade'.
prejudice that scientists are neither literate nor willing to explain their
work to a wider public is deep seated. The American biologist Stephen Jay
Gould is a notable counter-example. His collections of essays, such as
Ever Since Darwin and The Panda's Thumb, combine an enviable
style with an ability to make telling connections between widely disparate
areas of art and science, and his favourite source of quotation, after the
Bible, is Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man. Yet he has written of himself
'I am a tradesman, not a polymath. What I know of planets and politics lies
at their intersection with biological evolution'. But what intersections!
His essays range from a consideration of time's vastness, to women's brains
and the Piltdown forgery. Not surprisingly, he does not believe that
science is somehow different from other kinds of intellectual endeavour.
'Science is not the heartless pursuit of objective information. It is a
creative human activity, its geniuses acting more as artists than as
Gould is also noted for his strong sense of social
responsibility and, more particularly, for his public opposition to
creationism. In the early nineteen eighties, the unacceptable notion that
the biblical account of creation is supported by as muchor as
littlescientific evidence as the theory of evolution began to gain
considerable public credence in certain American states, and the Governor
of Arkansas was persuaded to sign a law compelling schools to provide
courses in 'creation science' alongside those in 'evolution science'.
Inevitably, the legislation was challenged, and Gould was
in the celebrated
trial which followed.
His concern with the relationship between science and
politics is a longstanding one. In his book The
Mismeasure of Man, for example, he presents an extended analysis
of the way in which scientific measurement of brain size has in certain
instances been unconsciously distorted by the racial and sexual
prejudices of the investigator. He once wrote 'I am, somehow, less
interested in the weight and convolution of Einstein's brain than in the
near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton
fields and sweatshops'.
A measure of Gould is that he teaches geology, biology,
and history of science at Harvard. His main field research is concerned
with the evolution of Cerion, a group of land snails, but his major
theoretical contribution has been the concept of
which he put forward with another palaeontologist, Niles Eldredge, in 1972.
They pointed out that on the evidence of the fossil record many species
show little change over long periods of time and then disappear, to be
replaced quite suddenly by new species. The conventional view is that such
discontinuities are merely gaps in the fossil record, and that the
evolution of a new species proceeds gradually by the selection of small
adaptive changes in form. Gould and Eldredge believe that the
discontinuities are real, and that the evolutionary process involves long
periods of stasis punctuated by periods of very rapid change. The theory
has provoked a great deal of controversy, but has also been influential
in determining the kinds of questions paleontologists and evolutionary
biologists now ask. The continuous reappraisal of received wisdom is one
of the hallmarks of Gould's style. He also questions, for example, how far
all the changes in evolution are adaptive, taking many of the cultural
aspects of human behaviour as a case in point. These, he argues, arose
quite fortuitously as the brain, while evolving to fulfil one set of
functions, incidentally acquired a much greater computing capacity than
The courtroom, and the pages of popular journals are
not places where one would necessarily expect to find a distinguished
biologist. I wanted to try and learn from Gould something of how and why
he manages to occupy such a diverse range of habitats. His book Ever
Since Darwin has the dedication 'For my father who took me to see the
Tyrannosaurus when I was five'. Was this really the event which shaped
the rest of his life?
My father was one of that marvellous generation of New
Yorkersthe second generation immigrantswho themselves didn't
have any opportunity for education, but were very concerned about learning,
and wanted their sons to achieve what they couldn't. He went off to war
during the Second World War, and when he came back I hadn't seen him for a
couple of yearsI was five years oldand to make up for it he
started taking me places. We went to the Yankee games, that's baseball
for anyone who's English, and also to all the museums and other sights of
New York. So when I was about five he took me to the Museum of Natural
History, and I remember standing in front of that Tyrannosaurus being so
utterly scared. A man sneezed while I was there and I was sure the beast
was about to devour me. But I ended up at the end of the day deciding to
be a palaeontologist. I wanted to be a garbage collector before that
because I loved those trucks and the way they whirred around, and the way
the garbage got compressed. But I thought it would be great to be a
palaeontologist, and I never changed my mind. I'm one of the dinosaur nuts
who actually stuck with it. It's not rare to be a dinosaur nut, millions
of American kids and, I presume, British kids are, but it's rare to stick
with it, and I did.
'But what idea had you, at that age, of a palaeontologist
or someone who studied dinosaurs?'
Oh, I had no concept of what it was. I thought you spent
all your life out in the field collecting bones. I remember at age ten or
eleven saying, 'Gee, well, I also want a family and I like cities. Is this
profession really going to work for me?', because I thought you had to
spend your whole life out in the desert, collecting bones. But at that
time my parents were members of a book club and I think because they
forgot to send back the card saying we don't want any this month, they got
a copy of George Gaylord
Simpson's The Meaning of Evolution, the cover of which had tiny
little pictures of dinosaurs on it. I thought that was great and I tried
to read it. I was much too young and I did not understand particularly the
last philosophical part of the book, but I was able to grasp for the first
time that there was this exciting body of ideas called Evolutionary Theory.
Before that it was just the dinosaur bones that intrigued me, just the
empirics, these big, fierce, extinct creatures. But I did realize dimly at
about age eleven that there was a very fascinating body of ideas behind it
all called evolutionary theory and I think that sustained me. If it had just
been the bones I would have lost the fascination.
'What was there about evolutionary theory which
intrigued you at that age?'
It's hard to say. We all seem to have this fascination
with genealogy and roots, and evolution is about roots writ large. It's
about, insofar as science can answer those questions, where we came from,
what we are, how life evolved, the history of life on earthI just
found it fascinating right from the first.
'Were you a gifted student?'
I don't really know what that means particularly. I did
well enough. I wasn't an outstanding student.
'You weren't a prodigy?'
No, no ...
'I do remember you once telling me a story though, about
how you learnt Latin in a few weeks before you went up to university.'
No, I did it by myself in graduate school. It had to do
with the Vietnam War. I finished my Ph.D. a few months before my
twenty-sixth birthday, and at that time they were drafting oldest first,
which means I would have been drafted right away. I already had this job in
Harvard and what that means, in short, was that I had to stay in school
until I was 26. But I was finished with everything, so I finally said I'd
take a Latin course, and so I learned Latin to avoid going to Vietnam.
'But you have learnt other languages too?'
Yes, I like languages a lot. It's history too;
linguistics is also genealogical. The humanities have the most interesting
analogues with evolutionary theory. It's quite different, because languages
anastomose, and join together through cultural contact, which evolutionary
branches don't. I don't think there's a good analogue for natural selection
in language. But I've found that learning languages has been extremely
useful to me. Most Americans don't realize that everything is not written
in English and that there are different traditions of thought. For
instance, German palaeontology operated under different assumptions than
Anglo-Saxon palaeontology, and I've very much benefited, my whole outlook
has been altered, by reading material that simply isn't available in
'Languages have clearly helped you. But what other skills
do you think that you have brought to the study of evolution?'
I have only one strong intellectual skill. I'm not trying
to be modestI'm one of the world's great egotists! I'm not a good
deductive thinker at all. I'm not a great observer. I do adequate empirical
science. I love working on my land snailsI spend more time on that
than anything elseand I think my work is acceptable. But I'm not
mathematically inclined. I don't work my way well through deductive
arguments, I can never figure out Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes stories
which are the prototypes of that stereotype. But one thing I'm good at is
lateral and tangential thinking. I can see connections among things. That's
why the essays I write work. I can see connections that most people think
are odd, or peculiar, but are apposite once they're pointed out. And so my
work has been integrative; that's what I'm best at doing. I do figure out
Dorothy Sayers' mysteries because Peter Wimsey is constructed as that kind of
thinker. If you read Whose Body?, her first novel, I'm sure that
Dorothy Sayers had a theory of thought and that she wrote those novels to
counter the Sherlock Holmes tradition that thought was simply deductive and
logical. Wimsey just sits down and puts the pieces together at some point,
and those mysteries I figure out, because I think the same way.
'I get the impression from reading what you write that you
have an enormous store of knowledge with which to do this lateral thinking.'
I think people do have that impression. I'm not badly
educated, but people assume, because they see all my literary references
for instance, that I must have this immense storehouse of literary
knowledge, and it's not true. I think my literary knowledge is adequate.
The point is I use everything I know. I do not have a hundred times the
information in the depth of my brain. It's just that what little I know I
remember, and I see the connections; everything I've ever read I can use.
Now that's all. My education is probably quite average in terms of the
depth of my knowledge of other fields.
'You say it's quite average, but you also said you
remember everything you read.'
I have very good short term memory. When I write an
essay I can, for about two weeks, remember everything I've had to read,
including page locations, and therefore I don't need to take notes. But I
forget everything after two weeks.
'Now, you have said that you think fieldwork is
important, and you said earlier that you like to work on your snails. Why
do you think it is so important?'
Because you lose touch with the material of natural
history otherwise. I think Kant was right in that famous old statement that
concepts without percepts are empty, and percepts without concepts are
blind. If you just ended up working on concepts, you would be indulging in
some form of circling around in an ever decreasing radius and eventually
would close in on yourself and probably disappear. I think any natural
historian has to maintain contact with the empirical world. I would not
deny the wisdom of history in that respect. Aristotle dissected squids
and Darwin collected barnacles. There's some reason why the great conceptual
naturalists have also maintained empirical programmes. Also the snails are
beautiful, and when I work on them it's new, it's truly new, even though
it may be that only eight or nine people care. For instance, it's been a
large mystery for the half dozen people who care about Cerion on
Cat Islandthe snail I work withwhich has to do with the fact
that there's a peculiar species on the south-east corner. I looked at it,
and I said I don't think it's a real species, it looks to me like a hybrid
between two forms. The problem is that one of those forms had never been
discovered on Cat Island and therefore that hypothesis hadn't come up
before. But I'd had enough experience to realize that this was the
probable solution. I was able to predict exactly where I'd find this other
form that had never been discovered. I went down and it was right there,
and it was such a thrill! As I said, not too many people care, it's not
going to give rise to any new concepts, but it's clean, it's beautiful,
it's right. I've actually found out something about the natural world that
nobody had ever seen before. And there's a kind of thrill about new
discovery, however small the import of it, that is, at least personally,
so satisfying. It may just be indulgence . . . but then there's the other
reason of course, that by keeping direct contact with the empirical world
your horizons do remain relatively broad. So I would never abandon my
empirical research programme.
'But it's curious, because, as you say, you're working
in an empirical field where very few people care.'
Few people care about this particular snail. I am
working on broader problems. You see, the genus Cerion is the land
snail of maximal diversity in form throughout the entire world. There's
600 described species of this single genus. In fact, they're not real
species, they all interbreed, but the names exist to express a real
phenomenon which is this incredible morphological diversity. Some are
shaped like golf balls, some are shaped like pencils . . . there's a
greater range of form than in any other land snail. Now my main subject
is the evolution of form, and the problem of how it is that you can get
this diversity amid so little genetic difference, so far as we can tell,
is a very interesting one. And if we could solve this we'd learn
something general about the evolution of form.
'Just to come back to the idea that the great
synthesizers like Darwin need this empirical base to work from. I've
always been puzzled why Darwin spent such a long time on barnacles, when
it seemed he was involved in so much more important issues'.'
It's hard to say; that's a mystery in Darwinian
studies. He spent about eight or ten years working on barnacles in
between 1838, when he developed the theory of natural selection, and
1859 when he published it. I think it was largely displacement activity.
In his own autobiography he has
this wonderful statement about what he learned about the barnacles, and
then he has a line at the end, 'Nevertheless I doubt whether the work
was worth the consumption of so much time'. There's a lot of reasons why
he did it. One is that he had the taxonomist's passion that once you get
started on something you really can't stop until you finish it. But the
other is that he was afraid of exposing his radical beliefs; not in
evolutionevolution's a common enough heresybut Darwin's own
views of evolution were extremely radical and there were a lot of
reasons why he was quite leery about publishing. He was not, personally,
after all a radical man, though his ideas were extremely radical. He
had great qualms about publishing something that he knew would be so
upsetting and contentious, and I think he largely worked on the
barnacles to postpone that day when he would have to face the
publication of his views.
'Darwin had a lot of difficulty having his ideas
accepted. Have you had difficulty having some of your ideas
Oh, I don't think the analogy's really fair.
'I'm not trying to say it's in the same class, but
nevertheless you have put forward a controversial theory.'
Yes, and one wouldn't expect that everybody would
fall over backwards loving it right away. But I think punctuated
equilibrium has done well, especially in setting up controversy, and
getting people to redefine the questions they ask.
'Do you enjoy the controversy?'
When it's genuinely and legitimately intellectual,
yes. When it descends to pettiness, name-calling, no. Scientists are
not immune to that. Science is a funny field, because on the one hand
it traffics in ideas, and is commendable in that respect. On the other
hand, because the currency of reputation is ideas, which are fluid and
hard to definenot like the business world where the currency is
currency and it's perfectly clear who's on top and who isn'tyou
end up in a lot of petty wrangling. There's been more than enough of
that about my material and that's most distressing. But good
intellectual arguments, of which there have also been many, are always
'What is your image of science, then? How do you
perceive the scientific process ?'
I don't think it's much different from intellectual
exercise in general. Science is distinctive in that its subject
matter is the empirical world; scientists must believe there really
is an empirical world out there and we can learn about it. So many
other professions are not so much working with new knowledge as with
interpretation. But beyond that I don't think the methods are
'But you've argued that Western thought very much
influences the nature of Western science. Does that not make the whole
thing somewhat relativistic?'
No. I have a very conventional view among historians
of science. Radicals in the history of science will actually claim
something close to relativism. They may not deny there's an empirical
truth out there somewhere, but it's in the fog, so distantly behind
cultural presuppositions that you can never find it, so you might as
well not talk about it. Therefore, for them, the history of the field
really is the history of changing social context and psychological
predisposition. I don't take that position at all. I can'tan
empirical scientist cannot. If I didn't believe that in working with
these snails I was really finding out something about nature, I couldn't
keep going. I'd like to be honest enough to admit that everything I'm
doing is filtered through my psychological presuppositions, my cultural
vices, and I think that honesty is very important because you have to
subject yourself to continuous scrutiny. If you really believe that
you're just seeing the facts of nature in the raw you'll never be
aware of the biasing factors in your own psyche and in your prevailing
culture. But that's quite a separate issue from whether something is
true or not. The truth value of a statement has to do with the nature
of the world, and there I do take the notion that you can test and you
can refute, and so I have a fairly conventional view about that.
'But you have argued that there is quite a lot of
finagling in science?'
There has to be. Science is done by human beings
who are after status, wealth and power, like everybody else. That's
why I advocate self scrutiny. I say, if you don't scrutinize yourself
carefully, and you really think that you are just objectively
depicting the world, then you're self-deluding. The capacity for
self-delusion is amazing. To me, conscious fraud is not very
interesting. Oh, it's human interest, it's fascinating, but the point
is, Cyril Burt knew what he was doing. His psychological make-up may
have been skewed in a fascinating way, but he knew what he was doing
when he invented those twins, and therefore, to me, it's not
conceptually very interesting. What's fascinating to me are the
people do not realize what they're doing, and that's where you see
the biases of Western thought so clearly portrayed.
'Can you give me an example of that?'
Yes, my favourite example was Samuel
George Morton, who's not well known now, but he was, in the
mid-nineteenth century, the major measurer of skulls. It was he who first
established, in a supposedly rigorous way, the notion that blacks
have the smallest crania, Indians were somewhere in between, and
whites had the largest. When you reanalyse this data, there's no
difference. The skulls he measured still survive in Philadelphia,
and everybody had about the same size skull when you correct for
body size differences. Now, when you actually go through the data
you can reconstruct what he didwhere he undermeasured, where he
made certain assumptions, where he conveniently forgot about body
size when blacks had smaller bodies, but remembered it when whites
had smaller bodies. I don't think he was aware of what he was
doing. He couldn't have been, because it's all in print. If you're
fraudulent, you cover up what you're doing. He publishes it all and
I assume he was simply not aware of it.
'You think then in some ways science is political:
do you think it can be free of these cultural influences?'
No, I don't think it should try to be. As I've
said, I think scientists should subject themselves to rigorous self
scrutiny. Please remember that cultural biasing factors don't always
hold you down, they can be useful. Darwin constructed a theory of
natural selection as a conscious analogue to Adam Smith's economics.
The principle of individual struggle is the principle of laissez-faire,
that if you want an ordered economy you let individuals struggle for
profit. Likewise, if you want order in nature you let individuals
struggle for reproductive success. Now there's a beautiful example of
how cultural context was facilitating rather than constraining. The
irony is that Adam Smith's economics doesn't work in economics, but
it may be the pathway of nature.
'What about the distinction between science and
non-science? You've been very involved in the battle with the
creationists. Why do you care so much about that?'
Well, one has to in the American context. You do
have to understand that creationism simply isn't an intellectual
issue. There is no debate among serious theologians and religious
scholars about evolution; everybody accepts it. The Pope accepts it,
the leading theologians of America accept itin fact in the
Arkansas Trial which threw out the Arkansas creation law, nine of
the fourteen plaintiffs on our side were professional theologians.
So it's not an intellectual issue. The reason why we have to fight
it is very clear. It's a direct attack upon my profession. If these
guys win, evolution, which is the most exciting concept in biology,
and is the integrative concept of all the biological sciences, will
not be taught. What's more, creationism is an attack upon all
science, not just my narrow little field. These guys believe in the
literal word of Genesis, and if that's true, everything goes. If the
Earth really is 10 000 years old then all astronomy is wrong, and
all of cosmology is wrong, because the astronomers tell us that most
of the stars are so far away that their light takes longer than 10
000 years to reach us, therefore there's something wrong if the
universe is only 10 000 years old. All of physics and atomic theory
goes, because if radioactive dating consistently gives these
ancient ages for old rocks then, as it's based on the fundamental
behaviour of atoms, there's something wrong with that knowledge of
atomic structure, if it's all a delusion and the Earth is only 10
000 years old. So it's an attack on all of science; it's an attack
on all of knowledge, because these guys would substitute an
authoritarian source, namely the Bible, for any self enquiry and
investigation. That's a very broad attack on anything intellectual.
It's not just debate about one part of biology. So we have to fight
'What do you feel about other fringe science, like
extra-sensory perception and so on?'
My general feeling is that it's a source of
endless frustration to me. I'm absolutely convinced that 98 per cent
of it is the work of cranks and kooks, and people who just aren't
very rigorous. They may be nice folks and even have good ideas. The
problem is that it is not inconceivable that there's a couple of
percent of that stuff that's good and could be exciting and could
really be fundamental, but life's short and I'm not a magician. The
only people who can really test these claims are magicians who know
what all the tricks are. I cannot get into that field. It's
something utterly beyond me. There's nobody who can be more easily
tricked than a pompous scientist who thinks he can spot anything.
That's why Uri Geller couldn't fool a carnival magician, but he
fooled a lot of scientists.
'But I sometimes get the impression that people want
to believe in these ideas.'
Sure they do
'Why do you think that is?'
Oh, I think it has to do fundamentally with immortality
doesn't it? Freud was right. So much of human life is our attempts to deal
with this most terrible factwhich our large brains allowed us to
learn for nonnadaptive reasonsnamely that we must some day die and
disappear and not be here any more. There's such a great desire to believe
that mind is transcendent of the universe in the hope that, although we
know our bodies disappear, there's something about us that will be
immortal. If there is ESP, if mind can be transferred, if mind can live,
if there is reincarnation, then we might have continuity. That's what it's
all about fundamentally.
'You are known as a writer and a teacher. Does it matter
very much to you, the teaching and the writing? Why do you do it?'
I don't mean this to be mis-taken . . . I really do not
have a burning passion to educate the public, although I think that's very
important. I mean, insofar as the public is educated through the lectures
and essays I write, I think that's a marvellous side consequence and I'm
certainly a great believer in it. And when I write, I try and write in a
way that will be accessible to everybody. But basically I write those
essays for myself. That's the only reason why they can have any freshness,
and decency. I write them because the world is so endlessly fascinating.
There's so much to learn, and every time I write an essay, I learn
something. That's why I do it. I do it for me.
'Do you really mean to say that you write them for
yourself? Do you do your thinking through writing?'
To some extent. The point is that, given the norms of
the scholarly enterprise, I cannot write papers on all the subjects I
treat in my popular essays. For instance, last month I wrote an essay on
Philip Henry Gosse, the author of Omphalos, that wonderful 1857
work claiming that God created the earth with all the strata having the
appearance of preexistence. Gosse was a fascinating man, but I'm not a
Victorian scholar. Where would I come off as a palaeontologist writing a
serious essay with 150 footnotes; who would publish it? Therefore, if I
didn't have this format of the popular essays, where would I ever do it? I
wouldn't have the impetus.
'So the impetus is really self-education?
Sure. Sure. I'm perfectly selfish about those essays. I
write them' for myself.
'Now, how do you actually write them, because I've seen
it said that you write one draft only.'
Oh yes, it has to be done that way. If I couldn't do
them that way I'd have to stop, because I have this whole other career
with my snails and with evolutionary theory. Fortunately I can write quite
quickly. As I said, I do have only one intellectual skill, but I don't
mean to degrade it in any way, or be falsely modestI'm not a modest
personand that is I do see connections. But through that ability to
see connections, I can be very clear about outline. I can, as I said
before, remember everything for two weeks and then I forget it all. I'll
do the reading I need to do and thenand I say this somewhat
metaphorically, although I truly do believe itI'm a Platonist with
respect to outline. I think I do believe there is a correct outline for
every piece, one proper outline. It's up there in heaven and it's just a
question of finding it. And so I do all the reading, and then I sit down
and I wait for the outline to come to me. It always does, and when it
comes I write down the outline quite extensively. Now, once I have the
right outline, that's the way the essay should be written, and then I can
just write it you see. So I can write it fairly quickly; I'll do it in an
evening. I don't want to be absurdI'm not like Mozart, I don't
simply sit down and write out the essay, with no mistakes. No, as I write,
there's a lot of crossing out, every sentence I write has crossings out
and rewrites. But once the sentence is down, it's finished. I don't switch
paragraphs around, I don't write a second draft. Once it's done it's
finished and it's ready to go out.
'Now what is the relationship between art and science
in your life? You like the arts?'
Yes. I'm hopeless at the visual arts. I'm an
appreciator, a visual appreciator. I'm one of those people that really
can't draw a straight line on a piece of paper. My own personal
involvement is in musicI'm a singer. I play some instruments, but
not well. My immediate activity is singing and, indeed, had I had a better
voice that would have been my dream. As I keep saying, my two unfulfilled
dreams are to play centre field for the Yankees, and to sing Wotan at the
Met. But not being endowed with skills in either of those directions, I've
had to do other things!
'How do you perceive opera in relation to your other interests?'
I suppose what I like about it is it combines
everythingit's singing, it's music, it's drama, it's vision, it's
dance. I guess I'm an integrationist at heart.
'I can see that, but what about baseball?'
I grew up in New Yorkthat's personal history! My
grandfather assimilated to America on baseball. I'm a third generation
Yankee fan. I grew up in New York City at a time when there were three
great baseball teams, two of whom would win the pennant and play in the
World Series almost every year. My childhood hero was Joe Di Maggio, the
most graceful man ever to play baseball. He's still a beautiful man to
this day doing advertisements for Mr. Coffee and Bowery Savings Bank. He
still has that elegance and grace that was so evident on the ball field.
No, I was just a New York City street kid and we're all baseball fans.
That's personal history.
[ Lewis Wolpert and Alison Richards "Roots Writ Large,"
Reprinted here from A
Passion For Science, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 139-152. ]
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