Unofficial SJG Archive

The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive

Unofficial SJG Archive

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’.

Stephen Jay Gould: The Panda's Thumb

he 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 information processors’.

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 much—or as little—scientific 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 deeply involved 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 punctuated equilibrium, 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 necessary.

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 Yorkers—the second generation immigrants—who 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 years—I was five years old—and 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 earth—I 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 English.

‘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 modest—I’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 snails—I spend more time on that than anything else—and 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 Island—the snail I work with—which 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 evolution—evolution's a common enough heresy—but 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 accepted?’

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 define—not like the business world where the currency is currency and it's perfectly clear who's on top and who isn't—you 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 a pleasure.

‘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 outstandingly different.

‘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't—an 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 did—where 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 it—in 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 it.

‘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 fact—which our large brains allowed us to learn for nonnadaptive reasons—namely 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 modest—I'm not a modest person—and 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 then—and I say this somewhat metaphorically, although I truly do believe it—I'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 absurd—I'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 music—I'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 everything—it'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 York—that'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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