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Would Stephen Jay Gould Have Signed the “Steves” List?

Jason Rosenhouse

November 8, 2005

For several years now the National Center for Science Education has maintained Project Steve. This is a list of scientists who signed their name in support of a statement defending evolution and opposing creationism and ID. The catch is that only scientists named Steve are eligible to sign it.

The list was intended as a parody of the standard creationist tactic of producing lists of scientists said to oppose evolution. You see, the NCSE’s list has, as of this writing, 649 signatories. That is far higher than any pathetic list the creationists could produce. And, obviously, scientists named Steve represent a tiny fraction of the scientific community generally.

Here is the statement the signatories endorse:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation’s public schools.

The list was named in honor of the late Stephen Jay Gould. Gould was an ardent supporter of the NCSE during his life and an equally ardent foe of creationism in all its forms.

Despite this, a self-described friend of Gould’s named Stuart Pivar has recently suggested that Gould would not have agreed to the statement above. In particular, Pivar alleges, Gould would have objected to the idea that natural selection was a major mechanism of evolution. Pivar made his views known by speaking to ID proponent Denyse O’Leary, who subsequently posted his comments at her website.

O’Leary quotes Pivar as follows:

Steve and Ronda would spend weekends at my beach house. We were close friends for years. I officiated at his funeral service.

Steve’s life work was to understand evolution. His message was that natural selection was merely an eliminative force with no creative role, capable of choosing for survival among preexisting forms which are produced by other natural structural processes.

And later:

Steve Gould (the Ursteve of the famous Steve list of the NCSE) clearly did not believe in natural selection as the primary cause of evolutionary change.

The 600 listed scientists named Steve claim the belief that evolution happened, and that natural selection is the mechanical process which causes it. Stephen Jay Gould would not have signed this list.

In a follow-up post at her website, O’Leary presented the following further quote from Pivar:

Steve Gould’s life work featured the debunking of natural selection as the cause of anything more important than the differences in the beaks of finches, in his investigation of the causes of evolution. The Steve List is the appropriation of his name in the propagation of a theory which he opposed his entire life long. Every statement SJG ever made rejects natural selection, and none can be found in its support. Is this colossal misunderstanding innocent incompetence, or a soviet style paradigm takeover? (Emphasis Added)

Is Pivar right? The question is important for two reasons. If the NCSE were genuinely trying to use Gould’s name to promote ideas he would have opposed, that would reflect very badly indeed on their integrity. Furthermore, if a scientist of Gould’s caliber were as hostile to natural selection as Pivar suggests, that would certainly be a challenge to orthodox theory worth taking seriously.

Now, we should note that no signer of the Steves list agreed to the idea that natural selection is the “mechanical process which causes evolution.” Nor does the statement say that natural selection is the primary agent of evolutionary change. They agreed only that natural selection is a major mechanism of evolution.

But is Pivar right about Gould’s views? Well, Stephen Jay Gould was one of the most prolific scientists of the twentieth century, and he expressed his views very clearly in a succession of books and essays. It is certainly true that Gould’s views of evolution differed from the mainstream in several regards, and one of those differences will be discussed later in this essay. Indeed, many of the debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, referred to in the statement, were inspired by Gould himself. But on the central point of natural selection’s importance as a mechanism of evolution Gould could not have been clearer. Not one statement in support of natural selection can be found in Gould’s writing? Let’s take a look.

In a 1997 essay for The New York Review of Books Gould wrote:

Darwin clearly loved his distinctive theory of natural selection — the powerful idea that he often identified in letters as his dear “child.” But, like any good parent. He understood limits and imposed discipline. He knew that the complex and comprehensive phenomena of evolution could not be fully rendered by any single cause, even one so ubiquitous and powerful as his own brainchild.

Ubiquitous and powerful. Case closed, right? Well, let’s keep going anyway:

Charles Darwin often remarked that his revolutionary work had two distinct aims: first, to demonstrate the fact of evolution (the genealogical connection of all organisms and a history of life regulated by “descent with modification”); second, to advance the theory of evolution. Darwin triumphed in his first aim (American creationism and the Christian far right notwithstanding). Virtually all thinking people accept the factuality of evolution, and no conclusion in science enjoys better documentation. Darwin also succeeded substantially in his second aim. Natural selection, an immensely powerful idea with radical philosophical implications, is surely a major cause of evolution, as validated in theory and demonstrated by countless experiments. (Emphasis Added)

Here we have Gould explicitly endorsing natural selection as a major mechanism of evolution, exactly as the NCSE statement says.

Gould believed that natural selection did nothing more than regulate the size and shape of finch beaks? Hardly. Consider this statement, from Essay 12 of his 1977 anthology Ever Since Darwin:

Modern evolutionists cite the same plays and players; only the rules have changed. We are now told, with equal wonder and admiration, that natural selection is the agent of exquisite design. As an intellectual descendant of Darwin, I do not doubt this attribution.

Or this one, from Essay 28 in his 1993 anthology Eight Little Piggies:

In the domain of organisms and their good designs, we have little reason to doubt the strong, probably dominant influence of deterministic forces like natural selection. The intricate, highly adapted forms of organisms — the wing of a bird or the mimicry of a dead twig by an insect — are too complex to arise as long sequences of sheer good fortune under the simplest random models.

And lest you think these are things Gould said early in his career but recanted later, consider this statement, from page 1053 of his magnum opus The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, published in 2002:

The impeccable logic of this formulation can help critics by clarifying how any potential argument against this hegemony of natural selection must proceed. At the functional vertex, one would have to identify other important mechanisms in addition to natural selection — and none have been proposed, at least to the satisfaction of this author (although the argument for “a little bit of bacterial Lamarckism” — as I like to characterize the controversial claims of Cairns et al — may have some merit in a limited domain).

These are just a few quotes that I found by the ingenious device of pulling random Gould volumes off my bookshelf and looking up “natural selection” in their indices. It has taken me longer to transcribe them than it did to find them. The fact is the creative power of natural selection was a major theme of Gould’s essays. In Ever Since Darwin he describes the role of natural selection in crafting the complex “decoy fish” of a certain freshwater mussel (Essay 12). In The Panda’s Thumb he discusses selection’s role in crafting — surprise! — the panda’s thumb (Essay 1). In Eight Little Piggies he describes selection’s role in the evolution of the mammalian inner ear from jaw bones found in reptiles. And let’s not forget that in PBS’s recent documentary on evolution, Gould is shown making the following statement, as part of a segment on eye evolution:

And what Darwin was able to do is to point out that you might think in logic that it’s difficult to imagine a set of intermediary stages between the simplest little spot of nerve cells that can perceive light to a lens forming eye that makes complex images but in fact these intermediary forms do exist in nature.

So the basic facts of the situation are perfectly clear. Stuart Pivar claims that Gould never made a single statement endorsing natural selection as a major mechanism of evolution. These charges were published at a pro-ID blog run by Denyse O’Leary. A cursory examination of Gould’s writing reveals that, actually, Gould made numerous statements supporting natural selection throughout his career. Therefore, Pivar was wrong, and O’Leary allowed her blog to be used to disseminate false information.

How would other pro-ID bloggers react when confronted with this simple situation? Would they forthrightly admit that Pivar was wrong? Not exactly.

William Dembski weighed in at his blog on October 26, 2005. Under the headline “Stephen Jay Gould - Master of Equivocation,” Dembski provided a brief summary of Pivar’s statements as reported at O’Leary’s blog. Then he produced the following quote from Gould, taken from his 1999 book Rocks of Ages (pp. 56-57):

My colleagues in evolutionary theory are presently engaged in a healthy debate about whether a limited amount of Lamarkian evolution may be occurring for restricted phenomena in bacteria. Yet the fascination and intensity of this question does not change the well-documented conclusion that Darwinian processes dominate in the general run of evolutionary matters.

Very nice, and another quote I might have used in my litany above. If Dembski had managed to produce a second quote from Gould seeming to stake out a position contrary to the one expressed above, then he might fairly have accused Gould of equivocating. As it is, however, we merely have Pivar making statements about Gould that are contradicted by everything Gould ever wrote. That’s not evidence of equivocation on Gould’s part. That’s evidence that Pivar was wrong. It’s also evidence that Dembski cares more about smearing evolutionists than he does in the basic facts of a situation.

The equivocation meme turned up again at the pro-ID blog IdtheFuture. This time it was Paul Nelson parroting it. After the obligatory summary of Pivar’s remarks, Nelson writes, “Unfortunately, near the end of his life Gould had a practice of arguing all sides of a question.” You will be shocked to learn that Nelson offered no example of this practice from any of Gould’s published writings. He does, however, provide yet another unambiguous statement from Gould endorsing natural selection, this time from The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, p 886:

Thus, we do not challenge either the efficacy or the cardinal importance of organismal selection. As previously discussed, I fully agree with Dawkins and others that one cannot invoke a higher-level force like species selection to explain “things that organisms do” — in particular, the stunning panoply of organismic adaptations that has always motivated our sense of wonder about the natural world, and that Darwin described, in one of his most famous lines as that perfection of structure and coadaptation which most justly excites our admiration.”

Nelson later took another stab at the equivocation question. In a comment left in response to a post of mine at The Panda’s Thumb blog, Nelson offered the following quote, from The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, page 886, as evidence of equivocation:

But I must confess that a stronger and more focused form of this argument has long evoked my deep distress, and has served, in substantial measure, as the impetus for personal career choices in research, and for my eventual decision to write this book. I refer to the claim, repeated almost as a catechism, and obviously copied from textbook to textbook, that macroevolution poses no problem not resolvable by a further understanding of allelic substitutions directed by natural selection in contemporary populations. We may move smoothly from one gene to an entire Bauplan, and extrapolate upwards from a few generations to a geological era. No additional problems arise in temporal vastness. Macroevolution becomes little more than industrial melanism writ large.Can the smallest scales really provide an entirely sufficient model for the largest? Can a uniformitarianism this rigid truly be sustained?Most standard textbooks make this confident assertion based on little beyond hope and tradition — thus making macroevolution a nonsubject.

Gould’s point here could hardly be clearer, but it nonetheless seems to have defeated Nelson. There is no equivocation in saying on the one hand that natural selection is a major mechanism of evolution and the primary shaper of complex adaptations, and saying on the other hand that more is involved in macroevolution than accumulated microevolution. Indeed, one of the major themes of Gould’s writing, especially in the latter stages of his career, was that natural selection should be viewed as operating on many levels simultaneously. In other words, selection not only acted on genes (as Richard Dawkins tends to emphasize) or among individual organisms (as Darwin envisioned things) but also among local populations, entire species, and clades (a collection of species all descended from the same common ancestor.) The broader issue here is whether paleontology, which studies trends over vast time scales, has any contribution to make to an understanding of evolutionary mechanisms. (The fossil collections that adorn our natural history museums do a fine job of supporting the fact of common descent, but many would argue the fossil record is too sparse to permit sound conclusions about mechanisms of change). That is a fascinating question, but it is not the one before us today.

So how would O’Leary herself deal with the facts I’ve presented here? Well, in a follow-up to her original post on this subject she wrote:

I find the whole thing both revealing and, in its own way hilarious. In his lifetime, Gould was often suspected as an indifferent Darwinist, tugging the forelock now and then to help ward off the creationists and ID people. Now friend Pivar comes along and says, yeah that’s right - and a whole herd of independent Darwinist minds rushes off a cliff - some landing in the briars of obscenity and abuse.

Revealing indeed. Apparently it does not bother her in the slightest that Pivar fed her a demonstrably false statement (that Gould never made a single statement supportive of natural selection as a major mechanism of evolution). She was perfectly happy to parrot the charge at her blog without making any effort to verify for herself whether it was true. And when numerous other bloggers provided incontrovertible evidence that she had been used to promote misinformation, she merely laughed and attacked the messenger.

Why do scientists get so angry when dealing with ID proponents? Because the truth means absolutely nothing to them. Because they would rather promote convenient propaganda than take a moment to try to get their facts straight. Because they believe they have scored a victory when their blatant falsehoods and distortions provoke an angry response from people who actually know the facts of the matter.

Frustrating, but typical.

We may as well give the last word here to Gould, who directly addressed the equivocation charge in an essay written for the anthology The Dynamics of Evolution. In the course of discussing the role of punctuated equilibrium (the theory developed by Gould and Niles Eldredge as an explanation for certain trends found in the fossil record) in revising orthodox neo-Darwinism, Gould wrote:

Nevertheless, the potentially high relative frequency of punctuated equilibrium as a geometry of macroevolution does have broader implications for a more fundamental revision of evolutionary theory. Some critics have charged that we waffle on this issue, claiming either conformity with orthodoxy in order to ingratiate or novelty in order to inspire attention — but our position is as simple and consistent as the charge is anti-intellectual in that primal sense of substituting remarks ad hominem for analysis. The geometry of punctuated equilibrium may fall within conventional theory; the high relative frequency of the geometry in its implications for the hierarchical perspective, may require revisions of the theory.

Jason Rosenhouse

Jason Rosenhouse is the author of EvolutionBlog, providing commentary on developments in the endless dispute between evolution and creationism.