Darwinism

Stephen Jay Gould: A tragedy of failed convictions?

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Here’s Michael Flannery on Stephen Jay Gould’s attempt to diss Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s co-discoverer of natural selection.

There was a lot of such dissing as far back as the 1860s, when it first became clear that Wallace was not a materialist atheist. As Flannery recounts, Gould joined in, in this case.

Gould was an interesting character because, while gifted, he never seems to have had the courage of his convictions. Apparently, he didn’t believe Darwinism was true; he made that clear early in his career. Trouble was, as Alvin Plantinga has pointed out, if you are a materialist atheist, that really is the only game in town. It is the only game even if it doesn’t make any sense and its failure is the “trade secret of paleontology.”

Gould also tried to diminish the reputation of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, claiming quirkily that he had co-operated in the Piltdown Man fraud. Now, Some of us think that there is lots wrong with Teilhard’s theology, but it seems unlikely to me – and to many – that he would have participated knowingly in such an obvious fraud.

The reality is that Darwinism has been a shambles for so long that a fraud that could have been detected by a high school student went undetected for decades – because Darwinists and other materialist atheists need to believe in it so badly.

Medieval hawkers of relics* – I am so glad you are at rest, wherever you are, for your own sake. You would otherwise be sick with envy at today’s gullibility. It’s quite true, as a European king once quipped, that there was enough wood from the True Cross floating around Europe at one time to float a navy – but no one saw all the wood together at one time. One can’t say the same for the Piltdown fake.

* For the record, there can be true relics. The key question is what authenticators call “provenance.” It’s the same principle as the title to your house, if you own one. You want to trace it back to when the house was built, and make sure the title was in every case transferred legally.

In the same way, we would not be surprised if a women’s religious order carefully kept the habit of a nun who was later declared a saint (and the order had in fact been lobbying the Vatican for that very outcome for decades, starting shortly after her death). But if the supposed habit just shows up all of a sudden – all by itself – on E-bay…

17 Replies to “Stephen Jay Gould: A tragedy of failed convictions?

  1. 1
    Voice Coil says:

    The notion that Gould “never seems to have had the courage of his convictions” flows not from an accurate appreciation of Gould’s views, but rather from the nasty habit of willful distortion of the content and implications of Gould’s advocacy of punctuationism so often displayed by ID creationists. This habit of misinterpreting PE as somehow contra Darwin’s central insights (e.g., as supporting “sudden appearance” and similar creationist notions), a reading that permits the wholly mistaken assertion that Gould “didn’t believe Darwinism was true,” has gotten the better of you. Having repeated this distortion so frequently, you’ve forgotten that it is untrue.

    Gould’s 1,400+ page masterwork “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory,” published posthumously in 2002, clearly and unequivocally restates at exasperating length Gould’s embrace of Darwin’s essential insights of natural selection and common descent, as well as his deep admiration of Darwin’s accomplishments. It also details (again at exasperating length) his argument that additional factors (historical contingency, developmental constraints, higher levels of selection, etc.) are also important. He pressed his rejection of “pan-adaptionism” throughout his career, engendering debates (sometimes bitter) with both Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.

    Also included in TSOET is an unequivocal rejection of the distorted rhetorical use to which PE has been put, such as that suggested in this post.

  2. 2
    bevets says:

    This is one of my Piltdown pages.

  3. 3
    O'Leary says:

    Voice Coil at 1,

    We all know that Gould finally caved because Darwinism is the only game in town if you are a materialist atheist. So his final work was almost unreadable, a fact you state.

    It’s too bad, because his earlier career was bright.

  4. 4
    Voice Coil says:

    Denyse:

    We all know that Gould finally caved because Darwinism is the only game in town if you are a materialist atheist. So his final work was almost unreadable, a fact you state.

    I stated no such thing.

    I detect that you haven’t read TSOET. This is clear because there is no “caving” (Gould’s interests were consistent throughout his career, and developed further in TSOET). It is also clear because the book is brilliant, extremely well organized, erudite, and literate, developing several of Gould’s lifelong themes at exhaustive, and sometimes indeed exasperating, length.

    “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory” is not intended as a popular work, and does demand stamina and an investment of intellectual effort. What significant work does not? To find it “unreadable” is a failure of the reader, not the author.

  5. 5
    Voice Coil says:

    BTW, I see that TSOET was published just months before Gould’s death, not posthumously.

  6. 6
    VMartin says:

    Voice Coil.

    Perhaps you misunderstood O’Leary.
    Obviously there was tendency in younger Gould’s thinking that he didn’t later elaborate on.

    I remembered that quotation from Panda’s thumb. Gould also wrote there that his thinking had common points with soviet scientists. He explicitly meant the marxistian law of change of quantity into quality. This law is actually clear saltationism which occurs in nature. According marxists old structures changes into new one by “revolution” and not gradually.
    No wonder that even marxism is better explanation of sudden appearance of new forms in geological columns than darwinism.

    Gould’s “genius” is also apparent from his tinkering with “evolutionary constraints”. In fact he inspired himself from Austrian biologist Rupert Riedl. Riedl proposed – I simplify very – that evolution nowadays is possible only by change of regulatory genes.

    Riedl’s last book “Die Verlust der Morphologie” had been published by his daughter posthumously in Vienna 2006. His reflections have very few common with competitive darwinism.

  7. 7
    Voice Coil says:

    Vmartin:

    Obviously there was tendency in younger Gould’s thinking that he didn’t later elaborate on.

    Which has no bearing whatsoever upon the entirely mistaken assertion that he reached the end of his career and “finally caved” upon penning his last work. He had elaborated the themes therein throughout his career. From a handful of reviews (with my emphases):

    Todd Grantham:
    Biology and Philosophy 19: 29–43, 2004. © 2004 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

    For 30 years, Steven Jay Gould’s eloquent prose has challenged evolutionary biologists, stimulated philosophers of biology, and enlightened the general public. Out of his early work on punctuated equilibrium grew a series of essays exploring the importance…The Structure of Evolutionary Theory weaves together many of the themes of his previous work to leave us with a final and magisterial statement of Gould’s perspective – an eloquent tribute to the “grandeur” of his view of life.

    Another:

    Tim Flannery:
    NYT review of books

    The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is the latest—and perhaps the grandest—of such attempts. In effect it is a summation of Stephen Jay Gould’s life work, building on Darwinism to provide a novel synthesis of how evolution has shaped the living world.

    Another:

    Daniel Mcshea
    A Revised Darwinism
    Biology and Philosophy 19: 45–53, 2004. © 2004 Kluwer Academic Publishers.

    The book reveals all of the many Goulds who have so much enlivened evolutionary discourse in the past forty years. We see Gould the virtuoso, polymath, and show-off… We also see Gould the novelist. His history is a narrative, told with feeling and drama. And like George Eliot, he empathizes to some degree with all of his characters, from Lamarck to de Vries to Simpson, Mayr, and Dawkins, showing generosity even to those obviously wanting in manners and breeding, and to those whose views are anathema to him. The understanding and warmth that comes from his having lived briefly inside the head of all of them – through their major works – radiates from every line. And finally, inevitably, we see Gould the Bronx street-fighter. At the end of a long chapter on punctuated equilibrium, he slashes back at detractors who have accused him of dishonesty, of stealing ideas, and of having ulterior motives, accusing some of them in turn of professional jealousy. Gould, as we’ve long known, can hold his own with the toughest and the meanest. It’s not pretty. But then street-fighting never is.

    And another:

    The Evolution Revolution
    Mark Ridley,
    New York Times

    …if the book contains too many words and some questionable philosophy, and does not take Gould’s critics seriously enough, it is still a magnificent summary of a quarter-century of influential thinking and a major publishing event in evolutionary biology.

    There are dozens. Everyone agrees that he was long-winded. I’m still looking for someone other than Denyse who has characterized him as “caving,” and failing to have the courage of his convictions.

  8. 8
    Retroman says:

    “while gifted, he never seems to have had the courage of his convictions.”

    I don’t know what is worse– being gifted but lacking the courage of one’s convictions, or having plenty of courage in one’s convictions but not being at all gifted.

    There is plenty of the latter abounding also.

  9. 9
    O'Leary says:

    Voice Coil 4, I am hardly the only person who got hold of and tried to read Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory but found it nearly unreadable. In the end, I had to write a book myself, By Design or by Chance?, as I was under contract, thus had to send Structure back to the North York sci tech library after perusing a few chapters.

    Apparently, Gould, despite his doubtless virtues, was not a fan of editors.

    I still don’t believe any of it, and think he sold out in the end.

  10. 10
    Voice Coil says:

    Denyse:

    I…think he sold out in the end.

    This remains an assertion bereft of evidence. Can you offer a cite or a link of an example of Gould “selling out?”

  11. 11
    efren ts says:

    VC @ 10:

    I think the evidence goes something like this:

    1. Gradualism = Darwinism

    2. Gould, via punctuated equilibrium, argued against gradualism.

    3. Thus, Gould argued against Darwinism.

    As I suspect you know, this shows a profound misunderstanding of Gould. Punk eek is not a refutation of evolution. It just talks to the changes in speed of evolution over time.

  12. 12
    Zachriel says:

    efren ts: As I suspect you know, this shows a profound misunderstanding of Gould. Punk eek is not a refutation of evolution. It just talks to the changes in speed of evolution over time.

    And Darwin made quite clear that evolution may not work at a constant rate, and that isolated populations may overcome their parent species abruptly.

    Darwin, Origin of Species: … that migration has played an important part in the first appearance of new forms in any one area and formation; that widely ranging species are those which have varied most frequently, and have oftenest given rise to new species; that varieties have at first been local; and lastly, although each species must have passed through numerous transitional stages, it is probable that the periods, during which each underwent modification, though many and long as measured by years, have been short in comparison with the periods during which each remained in an unchanged condition.

    Darwin was a Punk Eeker.

  13. 13
    mtreat says:

    Sounds like the evolutionists can’t lose. No matter how evolution happened, gradually, through some kind of puctuated equilibrium, or both, they are just so darn sure it happened through entirely random, undirected mechanisms. Sounds like they intuitively know there theory has gaps but can’t bring themselves to admit that nothing that we have actually observed warrants anything approaching confidence in random mutations and natural selection accomplishing *anything* interesting — either slowly or quickly. Slow changes fail to overcome the barriers of irreducible complexity while fast changes require a belief in the miraculous. Why not just admit that Darwinism has gaps it hasn’t explained in anything approaching an empirical, observable mannter? Wait, I know the answer. The alternatives (and the potential implications of those alternatives) are just too hard on their palate. Gould’s final works were a mess and an objective observer would notice that. He clearly had to play the game.

  14. 14
    Voice Coil says:

    mtreat:

    Gould’s final works were a mess and an objective observer would notice that. He clearly had to play the game.

    I infer that you have read “The Brick,” as we fondly think of TSOET, as the writing of that book is said to have spanned the last twenty years of Gould’s life. Otherwise your comment would be ludicrous.

    Given your familiarity with the book: Which themes therein had no precedent in his previous work, indicating that he at last began to “play the game?” Which portions do you regard as “a mess?”

    I’ve got my copy at hand; please feel free to cite specific passages.

  15. 15
    Collin says:

    Zachriel said:
    “Darwin was a Punk Eeker.”

    I think that a lot of scientists and historians would disagree with you including Richard Dawkins.

    Also, is this quote of Darwin consistent with being a punk eeker?

    “Natural selection acts only by taking advantage of slight successive variations; she can never take a great and sudden leap, but must advance by short and sure, though slow steps.”

    And this: “To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree.”

  16. 16
    Zachriel says:

    The previous comments should have been attributed to Collin.

  17. 17
    Collin says:

    Zachriel,

    Sorry if it was confusing. I was trying to attribute to you only the “Darwin was a Punk eeker” phrase.

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