Stephen Gould’s Evolution: Iconoclast Popularizer to Pop Icon

Stephen Jay Gould

“Science is like a blabber mouth who ruins a movie by telling you how it ends.”
— Ned Flanders (fictional character from The Simpsons)

The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who died of in the spring of 2002 at age 60, became a fixture in pop culture when he made a guest appearance on The Simpsons in 1997. My reaction to his debut as a cartoon character was complicated. I was surprised because I thought of him as a relatively obscure figure, and guest appearances were usually reserved for household names. Furthermore, I didn’t want Gould to be a household name. I hated the thought of a favorite author, especially this favorite author, being exposed to the unwashed masses — for fear they would trample, cheapen, and spoil him just as they would a cherished nature trail.

This sort of trampling is not entirely an illusion. Publicity had cheapened Gould’s work before. Ironically, despite all the cool objectivity and patience Gould needed for his scientific treatises — his magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, came out last April — he could be as biased and sly as a politician when his ideas were under attack.

In fact, just a few months prior to his appearance on The Simpsons, Gould was embroiled in a somewhat childish debate in The New York Times with other giants of evolutionary theory. From June to August, three scientists and two academics ganged up on him with letters and articles in the Times, while a sixth renowned scientist, Richard Dawkins, took shots at him from even higher ground — the journal Evolution. Gould had sparred constructively with Dawkins for many years, more about the fine points of evolution than its larger implications. At some point, however, the tone became more personal than professional.

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory
by Stephen Jay Gould

Harvard University Press
April 2002, 1464 pages, $39.95 / £27.50 / E39.95

The rhetorical muggings began in 1995 when one member of the Dawkins gang, Daniel Dennett, published a book called Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Dennett spent an entire chapter contradicting, discrediting, and ridiculing Gould’s ideas. In a review of Dennett’s book in the Times that same year, another Dawkins gang member, John Maynard Smith, tried to finish Gould off with this sucker punch:

“Because of the excellence of his essays, [Gould] has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists.”

Two years later in Evolution, Dawkins called Smith’s comment “wicked,” but in a manner more gleeful than disapproving. By now Gould had evidently had enough. Shortly after the Dawkins article appeared, Gould published the first of a two part article in the Times called “Darwinian Fundamentalism,” which is a term he coined to describe the way Dawkins and his gang oversimplified Darwinian evolution. The term’s slyly religious overtone — indicating fundamentalist behavior such as hostility and persecution, rather than actual religious beliefs — yanked the rug out from under his opponents. On a strictly factual basis, the debate is still inconclusive, but nobody could set off the rhetorical fireworks like Gould could. He could turn an opponent’s argument on its head, then spin it around with an endless stream of metaphors, cultural references, and other literary devises. For example, Gould obviously delighted in linking his colleagues by association to their worst enemies: religious fundamentalists.

What did the fundamentalist link consist of? The gang believed wrongly that evolution progressed by “one true way,” Gould said, which was adaptation by natural selection. Referring to the recent attacks against him, Gould said Darwinian fundamentalists would “stigmatize their opponents by depicting them as apostates from the one true way.”

Gould pointed out that one doesn’t have to be a radical to recognize that other forces influenced evolution too — obvious ones, such as meteors and other “contingencies.” There were also budding discoveries like Gould’s own “punctuated equilibrium” theory, and he hinted at other unknown evolutionary forces. God? No, Gould made it clear that religion didn’t color his thinking when he said in “Darwinian Fundamentalism” that the non-Darwinian forces are “as directionless, non-teleological, and materialistic as natural selection itself.” Finally, Gould showed that Darwin himself was on his side by quoting Darwin from The Origin of Species saying that natural selection is “not the exclusive means” of producing our planet’s wide panoply of life.

The most fascinating issue on which Gould took his colleagues to task was adaptation, and whether evolution is progressive. Does natural selection work to improve living things? The Dawkins gang said yes; Gould said no. I couldn’t present the whole issue here any better than I could show you an image by providing four or five pixels, but I’ll try to bring a crucial part into focus. In “Darwinian Fundamentalism,” Gould exposed the alleged fallacy that “natural selection regulates everything of any importance in evolution, and that adaptation emerges as a universal result and ultimate test of selection’s ubiquity.” To refute his opponents on this point, Gould usually preferred to use extended analogies rather than simple examples, but I’ll choose the latter in the interest of space.

Consider nipples on men. Adaptation can’t be a “universal result” of natural selection because nipples on men are nonadaptive, unless you’re willing to believe that cavemen nursed their young. Gould called these nonadaptive features “spandrels” and said that such useless side effects are so common in nature that you can’t call evolution progressive. Because the term “evolution” is synonymous with “progress,” Gould’s theory rendered the term a misnomer, and elicited howls from the scientific community. Gould believed that natural selection causes some organisms to devolve or stay the same. In one of his greatest popular works, Full House, Gould uses bacteria as an example:

“Life therefore began with a bacterial mode. Life still maintains a bacterial mode in the same position. So it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be-at least until the sun explodes and dooms the planet. How, then, using the proper criterion of variation in life’s full house, can we possibly argue that progress provides a central defining thrust to evolution if complexity’s mode has never changed?”

Just look at the bug that’s shaped exactly like a leaf to disguise itself from predators to see how evolution can be progressive, but Gould’s point is that no progressive trend exists in nature. And for many scientists and non-scientists alike, that just sucks. The idea of a Godless universe sucks, but the notion of nature working in our best interest softens the blow-you can wonder whether some kind of deity is behind the benign force. By dispelling that notion too, Gould really let the hammer down, and he made plenty of enemies in doing so.

After Gould’s second Times article came out, the number of his adversaries had grown, and the debate turned ugly. Gould’s prosaic view of evolution was the least of their complaints. The Dawkins gang was furious, perhaps rightly so, for what they considered a distortion of their views. Of course they knew that contingencies like meteors influenced evolution, and that their nipples served no purpose. Two directors from the University of California’s Center for Evolutionary Psychology (Gould took the entire field of evolutionary psychology to task in his second article) spent several paragraphs describing Gould’s “anti-Gricean science,” by which they meant his tendency to manipulate the truth. They said Gould would claim falsely that his opponents believed something erroneous — such as that evolution progressed in “one true way” — and then easily refute the theory to establish his superiority. An obvious example would be a senator who screams “Take away that filthy bribe!” to instantly discredit someone, without even having to provide evidence of the crime.

At least Gould provided plenty of evidence to show that his main target, Dennett, was a Darwinian fundamentalist. The gist of Dennett’s book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, is that natural selection is a “universal acid,” which can be applied to every biological event (which sounds a lot like “one true way” of evolutionary progress). Gould rattled off several instances where this is not true. Anticipating contrary evidence, Dennett wrote in his book that if you claim a biological event arose through anything other than natural selection, your evidence is really a “skyhook”-a “top-down” process that only seems to explain how nature works.

The belief that you can inherit acquired characteristics, for example, such as big muscles or a tan, is a skyhook. So is believing that God created humans. Many scientists have spent their careers working on sophisticated theories of evolution, only to discover they are skyhooks. On the other hand, Dennett says that Darwin’s idea of evolution through natural selection is a “crane”-a “bottom-up” mechanism that encompasses nature “in one magnificent vision.” Darwin’s crane pumps out everything in nature, in other words, like something from a Dr. Seuss book.

Gould countered:

“Can’t Dennett see that a third (and correct) option exists to his oddly dichotomous Hobson’s choice: either accept the idea of one basic crane with auxiliaries, or believe in skyhooks. May I suggest that the platform of evolutionary explanation houses an assortment of basic cranes, all helping to build the edifice of life’s history in its full grandeur (not only the architecture of well-engineered organisms). Natural selection may be the biggest crane with the largest set of auxiliaries, but Kimura’s theory of neutralism is also a crane; so is punctuated equilibrium; so is the channeling of evolutionary change by developmental constraints.”

One down, three scientists to go. But Gould lumped the whole Dawkins gang with Dennett, as well as the entire field of evolutionary psychology, instead of acknowledging their differences. Rather than simply pointing out this oversight, however, the gang attacked Gould mercilessly and unfairly. They guessed at his motives for pretending to be so stupid. Dennett first implied that Gould’s theories were influenced by a Communist agenda. Then, amazingly, he accused Gould of religious motivations:

“Gould often quotes the Bible in his monthly columns, and sometimes the rhetorical effect is striking. Surely, one thinks, an article with this opening sentence has to have been written by a religious man: ‘Just as the Lord holds the whole world in his hands, how we long to enfold an entire subject into a witty epigram.'”

Gould denied that quoting from the Bible or any other literature meant that he was religious, and added that the passage Dennett cited was a famous African-American folk song, not the Bible. Whoops, there went Dennett’s footing again. Gould’s adversaries spent most of their time sprawled on the ground.

His detractors, however, also had some salient points. In addition to saying he misrepresented their ideas, they said he often bolstered his own theories with hyperbolic statements. Gould flatly denied this, but it’s hard to see how he could. Apparently suffering from delusions of grandeur over the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which he and his colleague Niles Eldredge developed, Gould ecstatically pronounced the modern theory of Darwinism “effectively dead” in a 1980 paper in Paleobilogy. To the scientific community, such brash behavior was the equivalent of climbing to the nearest roof and screaming “I’m a golden god!” His theory of punctuated equilibrium — which showed that evolution progressed erratically, rather than gradually — became known derisively as “evolution by jerks.”

That comment was the funniest thing to come out of the scientific community until Gould appeared on The Simpsons, which occurred only three months after Dennett’s letter in the Times. Maybe the scuffle, beginning back in 1995, attracted the attention of The Simpsons creators, and that’s why Gould was plucked from relative obscurity. Watching the show, I almost expected Gould to look beaten up and trampled, even though the beatings were rhetorical and Gould was a cartoon.

I also felt triumphant for Gould — for not shrinking from the public eye, but strolling lightheartedly through the pandemonium of prime time TV. Because I hadn’t fully processed the debate, my loyalties were wholly with Gould at the time, and I dreaded the thought of him being further mistreated and misunderstood. The show’s writers, who I imagine would find a pack of bickering scientists hilarious, played gently with the arrogant persona the Dawkins gang had created for Gould.

The scene opened with Lisa Simpson having just given Gould a fossil specimen to analyze. Looking into a microscope, presumably at Lisa’s specimen, Gould was oohing and aahing about its high merit and significance (Gould actually did the voiceover). Then Gould turned to Lisa and said: “Enough about my work. What did you want to see me about?”

I was going to end on that observation, of The Simpsons playing off of Gould’s arrogant persona. But when you read Gould regularly, you often hear his skeptical voice in your head, especially after making a sloppy observation. I imagined Gould, contrary as usual, arguing that the joke had nothing to do with his persona. The formulaic humor just happened to fit the situation, he would theorize, and then somehow he’d summon proof that basically the same joke had been used on other characters in previous episodes. To test his imaginary theory, I researched The Simpsons Archive and, sure enough, found the same formula applied to the character Troy McClure:

Troy: [laughing] That’s too funny! I can’t remember when I’ve heard a funnier anecdote. [laughing] All right, now you tell one. (From A Fish Called Selma)

That the joke fit with Gould’s persona was just a side effect-a spandrel, as Gould would say. The moral is that chance, hope, and other personal biases influence our observations more than we think. Now that the scientific community no longer has Gould around to keep them honest, they would do science a great favor by reading his books, and always listening for his skeptical voice in their heads.