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KRONOS Vol VII, No. 4
"EVER SINCE DARWIN": A REVIEW
PETER J. JAMES
Stephen Jay Gould, Professor of palaeontology and evolutionary biology at Harvard University, has already established himself as a popular science writer through a regular column in Natural History, and is now reaching a much wider audience in Britain in the pages of the New Scientist. The present volume brings together a number of his best pieces, and confirms him as the most accessible writer on Darwinism since Loren Eiseley.
The short pithy essays, 33 in all, cover a fascinating range of topics from "The Misnamed, Mistreated and Misunderstood Irish Elk" to the "History of the Vertebrate Brain". Misconceptions about Darwin's life and work are cleared up, the Darwinist view of human evolution is explored, the principle of natural selection applied to explain some curiosities of the animal world, "patterns and punctuations in the history of life", and several (ancient and modern) theories of the Earth examined, concluding with various themes of "sociobiology" from crime to racism.
Gould does not shun controversy, but throughout he remains the spokesman and champion of Darwinism in all aspects of biology, palaeontology, and geology. His essays provide a valuable insight for the non-specialist into the workings of the modern Darwinist mind and are generally lucid and instructive and always valuable - whether one agrees with Gould's philosophy or not. Many readers will no doubt disagree with his views if they subscribe to a creationist or some other teleological belief, or prefer a more strongly catastrophist view of evolution. But they will be pleased to see that Gould does try to make some effort not to shy away from the major problems of Darwinian evolution.
In essay 4, "Darwin's Untimely Burial", Gould answers the bold claim made by Tom Bethell in "Darwin's Mistake" (Harper's, February 1976) that Darwinism has already been laid to rest by biologists, and in particular the suggestion that Darwin's concept of natural selection by "survival of the fittest" is not an explanatory principle but merely a tautology (or, as put more laconically by Charles Fort, "Evolution: survivors survive"). Gould insists that there is an objective criterion of "fitness" other than survival itself, though he does admit that "Bethell's criticism applies to much of the technical literature in evolutionary theory, especially in the abstract mathematical treatments that consider evolution only as an alteration in numbers, not as a change in quality". However, his defence rests on the idea that "certain morphological, physiological, and behavioral traits should be superior a priori as designs for living in new environments. These traits confer fitness by an engineer's criterion of good design, not by the empirical fact of their survival and spread. It got colder before the woolly mammoth evolved its shaggy coat." Gould hence redefines "fitness" as "the ability . . . to survive in new environments", and has not really got to the heart of this Darwinian paradox. The choice as an illustration of the mammoth, a very "fit" creature conspicuous for its non-survival, is a bad mistake. Gould puts on a brave face for his defence of natural selection as the mechanism that shaped life in all its diversity, but he does not really convince. He blunders again when he insists that Darwin's theory has nothing to do with popular associations of progression: "Natural selection can produce a trend that tempts us to think of more general progress - increase in brain size does characterize the evolution of group after group of mammals. But big brains have their use in local environments; they do not mark intrinsic trends to higher states." What, one might ask, would mark "intrinsic trends to higher states", if increased brain size does not?
Two sections will be of especial interest to readers of this journal. "Uniformity and Catastrophe" (No. 18) attempts to clear up some misunderstandings about 19th-century geology, particularly the idea that before Lyell shone the light of uniformitarianism into that science, it was dominated by the catastrophists who were "theological apologists who sought to compress the geologic record into the strictures of biblical chronology". Gould reminds us of the scientific catastrophists, precursors of Velikovsky, such as Cuvier, Agassiz, Sedgwick and Murchison, none of whom resembled the caricatured fundamentalist "straw man" that Lyell set up to demolish and replace with "scientific" uniformitarianism. According to Gould, "the catastrophists were much more empirically minded than Lyell".
It is unfortunate, then, that Gould begins his essay on the greatest modern catastrophist - "Velikovsky in Collision" (No. 19) - with a jokey thumbnail sketch of Velikovsky's cosmological history: "Not long ago, Venus emerged from Jupiter, like Athena from the brow of Zeus - literally!" However, he does continue, quite surprisingly after setting up such a flimsy "straw man", by saying that this "represents the serious theory of Immanuel Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision. And Velikovsky is neither crank nor charlatan - although to state my opinion and to quote from one of my colleagues, he is at least gloriously wrong."
Gould evidently deplores the fact that "Velikovsky was surely ill treated by certain academics who sought to suppress the publication of his work", and has at least read Worlds in Collision and Earth in Upheaval once, which is more than can be said for some of Velikovsky's "critics". Gould turns, quite naturally, to the geological evidence for catastrophes in the latter volume, but he feels that Velikovsky has handled it "rather badly and carelessly". But I doubt if Gould's criticisms will cut much ice with Velikovsky's supporters: Velikovsky's discussion of the sudden death of the fishes in Devonian Old Red Sandstone is wrong, he says, because "these fishes are distributed through hundreds of feet of sediments that record several million years of deposition"; the formation of the Moon's craters "spans billions of years"; and glaciers "are not built overnight" but over a "few thousand years". Since it is exactly the rate of these processes that Velikovsky is questioning, citation of the conventional wisdom is hardly an adequate refutation.
He then objects that "most of Velikovsky's 'examples' [of catastrophes] are just . . . local events combined with an unwarranted extrapolation to global impact". Perhaps some examples may be, but Earth in Upheaval does contain a wealth of evidence on catastrophes of a global extent; and it was written without the benefit of the enormous amount of research carried out during the last two decades, showing almost incontrovertible correlations of such phenomena as faunal extinctions, tektite falls, volcanic maxima, climatic changes, glacial retreats and advances, sea-level changes and geomagnetic reversals. Gould, like every good geologist, should be well acquainted with the scores of papers on these correlations in Nature and other journals.
Gould's next criticism, "the exclusive use of outdated sources", is pure nonsense. Velikovsky's use of 19th-century authorities on a number of topics would be dubious only if later works had contradicted or disproved the specific statements cited from the original works; but Gould declines the opportunity of giving us an example. As for the word "exclusive", one does not have to be a geologist to consult the footnotes of Earth in Upheaval and see that this is a straightforward lie, unless Gould has suffered a catastrophic lapse of memory and has forgotten that the book was written some 28 years ago. The very first reference is to a 1940 paper from American Antiquity giving a description of the Alaskan "muck" beds that is as true now as the day it was written. Velikovsky's effort to include the latest evidence, mainly from the early '50's, in the Supplement ("Worlds in Collision in the Light of Recent Finds in Archaeology, Geology and Astronomy") was completely wasted on Gould.
Gould also raises the question of "minor errors and halftruths" found in the pages of Earth in Upheaval, such as the certainly incorrect claim that "Today no fossils are formed". No scientist's works are free from error, and I hope that Gould, in a more generous mood, would be willing to admit that Velikovsky's achievement in assembling his data, when he is not a geologist, palaeontologist or archaeologist, is quite remarkable.
Gould's final comment is his most extraordinary: "But all these criticisms pale to insignificance before the most conclusive refutation of Velikovsky's examples - their explanation as consequences of continental drift and plate tectonics." Roughly translated this means: "But the real reason I believe he is wrong is because I happen to subscribe to a different theory." Strangely enough, the theory of continental drift was a heresy when Earth in Upheaval was written, and Velikovsky rejected it, a "victim", Gould thinks, "to this great revolution in scientific thought". In reply, one could warn against Gould's heavy-handed and reductionist use of continental drift and plate tectonics - certainly very popular theories at present, and widely used as "catch-all" explanations for a wide range of geological and palaeontological problems - by pointing out that there is still much dissent from the consensus, both on the reality of continental drift(1) and the description of the mechanism behind it in terms of plate tectonics and sea-floor spreading.(2) But Gould sounds the warning himself. A mere eight pages after his "most conclusive refutation of Velikovsky's example", Gould discusses a classic case illustrating how things are distorted by the wearing of continental drift glasses and admits: "The new orthodoxy colors our vision of all data; there are no 'pure facts' in our complex world. . . . Many readers may be disturbed by my argument for the primacy of theory. Does it not lead to dogmatism and disrespect for fact? It can of course, but it need not. The lesson of history holds that theories are overthrown by rival theories, not that orthodoxies are unshakeable. In the meantime I am not distressed by the crusading zeal of plate tectonics, for two reasons. My intuition, culturally bound to be sure, tells me that it is basically true. My guts tell me that it is damned exciting - more than enough to show that conventional science can be twice as interesting as anything invented by all the von Danikens and all the Bermuda triangles of this and previous ages of gullibility."
At this point I had better allay the reader's disbelief by assuring him that these words are directly quoted from Gould's book. Let us follow the train of thought again - catastrophism is completely disproved by the fact that the evidence supporting it can also be interpreted by theories of continental drift; Gould appreciates that these theories - the currently popular paradigm - could be misinterpreting data; but he knows intuitively that the theories are true, while they are more exciting than theories of extraterrestrial visitations. i.e., interpreting everything in terms of continental drift is right because it feels so, and is more exciting than von Däniken; ergo Velikovsky is conclusively refuted.
Here it would be tempting to argue that poltergeists are more thrilling than plate tectonics, ergo Gould is utterly confounded. More to the point, I would like to ask how Gould's catch-all explanation of continental drift holds the "key to understanding mass extinctions in general" (p. 135). In "The Great Dying" (No. 16) he argues that the extinctions at the end of the Permian were the result of the disappearance of the shallow seas when the continents joined to form Pangaea. Then continents began to part, and their subsequent meanderings "at rates of only a few centimetres a year" (p. 158) thereafter periodically decimated the planet. Apart from the fact that there must have been a "catastrophic event", in the words of two geophysicists in the forefront of drift theory,(3) to initiate Pangaea's break-up, would Gould like to provide convincing explanations in terms of continental drift, without invoking catastrophes (and on one side of the paper only), of: (a) The disappearance of the dinosaurs (who inhabited every continent except for Antarctica, and had already thrived on land and in air for some 120 million years of continental drift) at the end of the Cretaceous, accompanied by the marine ichthyosaurs, mososaurs, ammonites, some species of flowering plants and a wide variety of other creatures; (b) the disappearance of a number of species of large mammals (mammoths included) around the end of the Pleistocene, when the continents, to all intents and purposes, were already arranged in their present positions? Then, when he has satisfactorily explained these "examples" of catastrophism, he could show how continental drift explains falls of tektites, and extensive cratering and scarring of the Earth's surface (and the Moon's), anomalous amounts of radioactivity associated with fossil remains, geomagnetic reversals, etc., etc., etc.
The final irony to cap Gould's arrogant display of extreme uniformitarianism in this volume is the almost complete absence of the "neo-catastrophist" slant that has characterised much writing over the last few years. In his series of articles in Natural History, Gould described how early evolutionists were faced with the problem that "the fossil record offered no support for gradual change: whole faunas had been wiped out during disarmingly short intervals" (October 1974). His article on "Evolution's Erratic Pace" (May 1977) ended with the words of the neo-catastrophist Derek Ager: (4) "The history of any one part of the earth, like the life of a soldier, consists of long periods of boredom and short periods of terror." On this occasion Gould bemoaned the fact that Darwin had ignored Huxley's advice not to set too much store by the Linnaean axiom: Natura non facit saltum, "Nature does not make jumps". With Niles Eldredge of the American Museum of Natural History, Gould believes that: "The modern theory of evolution - little more than a contemporary restatement of basic Darwinism - does not require gradual change." Instead, they prefer a theory of "punctuated equilibria" in which long periods of stasis, when "morphological change was usually limited and directionless", were interrupted by periods of rapid speciation. In his article of June-July 1977, Gould went even further, resurrecting the "hopeful monster" hypothesis of Richard Goldschmidt,(5) who, while agreeing to the "standard accounts of micro-evolution . . . broke sharply with the synthetic theory, however, in arguing that new species arose abruptly by discontinuous variation, or macromutation". In this article Gould examined the biological evidence for assuming, within an evolutionary scheme, that new species must have arisen suddenly. This would account for the embarrassing absence of key intermediary forms in the geological record.
It is a great pity that Gould largely forgets these aspects of his work in Ever Since Darwin. Goldschmidt, "hopeful monster", "punctuated equilibria" and the name of his colleague Eldredge are all missing from the Index, as if to protect the wider reading public from the unorthodox theories divulged in Natural History. The book is, after all, a modern defence of Darwinism per se, and perhaps Gould wished to keep his "crusading zeal" untainted with concepts that smack of catastrophism. If Gould had discussed his own stated views on "punctuated equilibria" in "Velikovsky in Collision", he would have had to admit that they are identical in many respects to tenets of Velikovsky's theory of cataclysmic evolution: "The geological records truly reflect the changes in the animal and plant worlds from one period of geology to the next. . . . The fact that in many cases the intermediary links between present-day species are missing, as well as those between various species of the geological record, a vexing problem, is understandable in the light of sudden and multiple variations that gave rise to new species."(6)
REFERENCES1. For some discussion and references, see C. J. Ransom: The Age of Velikovsky (KRONOS Press, 1976), pp. 196-201. [Cf. SISR V: 1 (1980/81), pp. 28-32. - LMG]
2. P. J. Smith: "Evidence for earth expansion", Nature 268 (1977), p. 200, and Nature 271 (1978), p. 316; R. W. Wood: "Is the Earth getting bigger?", New Scientist, 8 February 1979, p. 387. [Cf. R. E. Juergens, "Geogullibility and Geomagnetic Reversals", KRONOS 111:4 (May 1978), pp. 52-64. - LMG]
3. R. S. Deitz and John C. Holden: "The breakup of Pangaea", Scientific American, October 1970, pp. 102-113.
4. D. V. Ager: The Nature of the Stratigraphical Record (Macmillan, 1973); reviewed by Professor Jan Terasmae, SISR I:4, pp. 15-16.
5. R. Goldschmidt: The Material Basis of Evolution (Yale University Press, 1940).
6. Earth in Upheaval, Chapter xv: "Cataclysmic Evolution", p. 225. [Also see L. M. Greenberg, "Cataclysmic Evolution", KRONOS I:4 (April 1976), pp. 98-110. - LMG]
RECOMMENDED SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY (LMG)