"Darwinian Fundamentalism": An Exchange
by Daniel Dennett
Jay Gould complains that in Darwin's Dangerous Idea I attack his views via
"hint, innuendo, false attribution," and "caricature" [NYR, June 26]. That is false.
On the contrary, I went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that my account of his
views was fair and accurate. One does not lightly embark on the course of
demonstrating that a figure as famous and as honored as Stephen Jay
Gould"America's evolutionist laureate"has misled his huge public about
the theories in his field. I knew he was going to hate my book, and given the
effectiveness of his past public attacks on sociobiology, IQ testing, and other
targets of his disfavor, prudence alone would dictate that I should secure my
criticisms against easy rebuttal and condemnation.
So I did my usual homework, and checked it all out with experts in
the field, including experts sympathetic to Gould, urging them to correct any errors
they spotted. I sent drafts of my critical chapters to Gould himself more than a year
before I sent the final manuscript to the publisher, inviting him to meet with me at
his convenience, or to respond in whatever way he chose. I invited him to participate
in my seminar that was reviewing the penultimate draft. Gould kindly met with me in
the summer of 1994, and we spent several hours going over his objections to the
penultimate draft. He raised a variety of objections, and supported some of them
with texts, and wherever he convinced me I had misinterpreted him, I revised my
draft accordingly. On some points, however, he failed to persuade me, and one is
particularly instructive, since now he accuses me of deliberately misrepresenting
I claimed that for a while he had presented punctuated equilibrium
as a revolutionary "saltationist" alternative to standard neo-Darwinism, and he
implored me to check this claim by reviewing all his work that dealt with the issue.
It started well; he provided me with his complete curriculum vitae and photocopies of
every piece therein that I requested. When I reviewed them, however, I found
quotationsin addition to those that appear in my book on pp. 286-290that
clearly supported my claim. I wrote back to him citing these. (Instead of quoting
the quotations from my long letter to Gould, I refer readers to his notorious 1980
paper in Paleobiology, entitled "Is a new and general theory of evolution
emerging?") I ended my letter: "I want to be fair. When you begged me to see for
myself that your opponents were foisting a caricature on you, you struck a
But now I need some more help from you if I am going to say that your
critics are wrong in claiming that you tried on saltationism and then abandoned
it." He never responded to my letter, or made any further attempt to correct my
claims, and now he describes my interpretation of his views as "a farrago of false
charges." On the contrary, my interpretation is standard fare, widely accepted in
the field. For instance, two eminent evolutionary biologists, Jerry A. Coyne and
Brian Charlesworth of the Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of
Chicago, wrote recently in response to a similar complaint of Gould's in a letter
in Science (April 18, 1997, pp. 338-341): "In the past 25 years, Eldredge
and Gould have proposed so many different versions of their theory that it is
difficult to describe it with any accuracy.
originally attracted great attention because it invoked distinctly non-Darwinian
mechanisms for stasis and change
leading to Gould's pronouncement that 'if
Mayr's characterization of the synthetic theory [of evolution] is accurate, then
that theory, as a general proposition, is effectively dead, despite its
persistence as textbook orthodoxy.'" Neo-Darwinismthe synthetic theory of
evolution that Gould propagandistically elides into "Darwinian
fundamentalism"is alive and well, in the textbooks and the laboratories.
When Gould suggests otherwise, he is misleading the public.
Let me say a word about "Darwinian fundamentalism." Nonsense.
I do not espouse the preposterous views Gould attributes to this mythic creed.
Gould labors to create a caricature of the "strict" adaptationist, a type that
occurs nowhere in nature and is explicitly disavowed, at length, by me (Darwin's
Dangerous Idea, pp. 55, 238-261, 302-305, 326-328, and elsewhere). In fact, the
passage from my book which Gould uses to anchor his fantasy is misquoted by him.
It is adaptationist thinking, not "adaptation, natural selection's main
consequence," that I say plays a crucial and ubiquitous role in analysis, and so
it does, even though, as I stress again and again, there are plenty of other
factors (comets, and other catastrophes, for instance) that may well play the
predominant causal role in particular cases. What is amazing is that Gould
wrests this quotation from the very section (pp. 238-261) in which I attempt to
undo the travesty of Gould's previous efforts over the years to caricature
When Gould complains further of my "red-baiting" and
"gratuitous speculation" about his religious views, this hits a new low. As he
knows full well, his scientific critics have often attributed his curious biases
to his politics or his views on religion, and I was pointedly disassociating
myself from those claims. My criticisms are of his science and his logic, not
his political or religious views. But Gould wants to have it both ways; he
lards his own writing with political and religious motifs and then howls about
red-baiting when anybody takes him up on iteven to dismiss it as beside the
point, which is what I did. Besides, if his politics and religion are to be off
limits to criticism, then he should clean up his own act. It is he, not I, who
has repeatedly failed to live up to the fine principle that he himself has so
Scientists have power by virtue of the respect
commanded by the discipline. We may therefore be sorely tempted to misuse that
power in furthering a personal prejudice or social goalwhy not provide that
extra oomph by extending the umbrella of science over a personal preference in
ethics or politics? But we cannot, lest we lose the very respect that tempted
us in the first place. (Bully for Brontosaurus, 1991, pp. 429-430)
I am sorry it has come to this. In my discussions with Gould
over the years, I have tried hard to get him to stop misrepresenting the works
that he disapproved of, to clarify his position, and to disavow the misconstruals
of evolutionary theory that are so often expressed by non-biologists citing him
as their authority. In my book I carefully left open a graceful avenue for him
to take: if he wished, he could claim that his eager public had been misreading
him and then take responsibility for correcting their readings. He chose instead
to turn up the volume of his vituperation.
There are quite a few minor mistakes in my book, including three
he cites, but they do not substantially affect any of my criticisms of his views. I
have put a list of
these errors on the website of the Center for Cognitive Studies (http://www.tufts.edu/as/cogstud/ mainpg.htm).
I will not respond further to Gould's charges, trusting that readers will take
him up on his challenge: "If you think I am being simplistic or unfair to Dennett
in this characterization, read his book...." Do, please; see for yourself; that's
the scientific way. John Maynard Smith praises my book; Stephen Jay Gould attacks
it. They are both authorities, but they can't both be right, can they?
Daniel C. Dennett
Director, Center for Cognitive Studies
[ Daniel C. Dennett, "'Darwinian Fundamentalism': An Exchange,"
Letter to the Editors, The
New York Review of Books, August 14, 1997, pp. 64-65. ]