College Quarterly
Winter 2005 - Volume 8 Number 1
Reviews The Structure of Evolutionary Theory
Stephen Jay Gould
Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

In size alone, this is not so much a book as a headstone. In 1982, Stephen Jay Gould was diagnosed with abdominal mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer with a median mortality of eight months. He was, in essence, told to put his affairs in order, for his time on the planet would be short. If he took his doctor's advice at all, he took his time about it. He worked on other things, including The Structure of Evolutionary Theory—for almost twenty years. During that time, he got noticed. He was elected President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; he appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine; he went to a bunch of father-and-son Little League banquets; he was a featured guest on "The Simpsons." The massive 1433-page volume under review might sensibly be called his monument. It certainly dominates the cemetery. For those few who do not know (or at least know of) him, Steven Jay Gould (1941-2002) was arguably the most popular and prolific of contemporary scientists and science writers. Two of his many books (Bully for Brontosaurus, 1991 and Eight Little Piggies, 1993) have been reviewed in this journal in the past. Others should have been. From a free-wheeling assault on the false science of human intelligence (The Mismeasure of Man, 1981) through his best selling book on the contingency of evolutionary development (Wonderful Life, 1989) to a posthumous collection of his exemplary essays on baseball (Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, 2003), Gould offered a comprehensive, interdisciplinary course in paleontology, zoology, and the history of science, and a humane ethics that was committed to the secular understanding of nature, while remaining deeply involved in moral thinking and respectful of religious faith (cf. Rocks of Ages, 1999).

To use a phrase that is employed elsewhere in this issue, Gould was a consummate "public intellectual." His academic stature was enormous—so much so, that he was often subjected to harsh, intensely personal attacks from all sides of almost every debate in which he took a side—and he was never fearful of taking sides.

He got in lots of trouble. His assault, for example, on the science and politics of IQ made real enemies. He not only helped to demonstrate the "appalling intellectual shoddiness" (Orr, 2002) and outright fraud that built the myth of a universal, uniform, quantifyable structure of intelligence but he also made clear links among this instrument, eugenics in general and numerous racist and other discriminatory policies in particular. He rankled Steven Pinker (2002, pp. 149-150), a brilliant, popular and phenomenally successful psychologist, who spent much of his professional life down the road from Harvard at MIT. Pinker, ironically a serious candidate for Gould's mantle of the most popular scientist in the United States today, twists Gould's position around to make it seem that his critique of the theory and practice of IQ testing is a denial of the existence of anything that can be called intelligence. To deny intelligence, Pinker then says, is "surreal." He is right, of course, but he bashes Gould for things he never said and positions he never took. Elsewhere, Gould's critics will insist that he is intellectually dishonest because his arguments consist largely of brutal attacks on "straw men." If the shoe fits …

In one of his earliest scientific papers, Gould and Niles Eldredge set off a riotous controversy that would have won him a place in the history of science, even if he had not added hundreds of articles, over two dozen books, and uncounted awards and honours to his exhaustive CV. In "Punctuated equilibria: an alternative to phyletic gradualism," (a mere chapter in Schopf, 1972), he and Eldredge proposed a modification of Darwinian theory. Darwinism, in their view, had been unnecessarily burdened with the idea that natural adaptations and speciation occur slowly and over enormous amounts of geological time. Among the reasons for this commitment was the felt need to separate science from Biblical accounts of the "six day creation" story, Noah's flood and other supernatural interventions in the material world. While at no time challenging the fundamentals of evolution or attempting to jettison core elements of its Darwinian explanation, Eldredge and Gould presented the view that change sometimes happens in "fits and starts." The theory of punctuated equilibrium, in Gould's words, "holds that the great majority of species, as evidenced by their anatomical and geographical histories in the fossil record, originate in geological moments (punctuations) and then persist in relative stasis throughout their long durations. The implications for Darwinian theory were significant and the consequent assaults on Eldredge and Gould were extraordinary. Science is not friendly to singularities and surprises; it prefers patterns, uniformities, repetitions and opportunities for independent verifications of reliable experimental results. (This is one reason that some cosmologists long resisted the "big bang" theory of the origin of the universe; they did not like to believe that it happened just once!) Accordingly, when the fossil evidence revealed what seemed to be rapid periods of volatile speciation, the gradualists replied that there must simply be gaps in the fossil record; Eldredge and Gould replied: No, rapid changes followed by long periods of stasis is the fossil record.

Iconically, the rapid extinction of dinosaurs as a result of Earth being slammed by an large chunk of interplanetary rubbish provided mammals with a unique opportunity, a kind of global "lebensraum" in which to expand. Given freedom from worry about being some Raptor's lunch, furry (and not so furry) little mammals diversified and sometimes grew to fill many an environmental niche previously denied them.

As well, Eldredge and Gould helped lay the foundation for exploding another traditional assumption. The "great chain of being," the "progressive ladder" of evolutionary success, the Whig theory of biological change turned out to be a good deal more complicated and contingent than previously imagined. The growth and transformation of Hyrocotherium (formerly eohippus, and familiar as a tiny horse) into the Clydesdales hauling beer wagons through the streets of St. Louis was not representative of a tall-standing "tree of life." The uniformly grand and graceful ascension from simplicity to complexity, inferiority to superiority (with Homo sapiens firmly planted atop the hierarchy) was revealed as illusory. Evolution was seldom a regal palm tree reaching for stellar perfection; it was a bush, sometimes a briar patch, but rarely a lofty redwood. Evolution is labyrinthine. The true champions of mammalian evolution are not horses or even humans, but bats, antelopes and rodents. We ignore them, however, because "we cannot linearize the bounteous success of these creatures into our favourite ladder. They present us with thousands of twigs on a vigorous bush (1989, p. 36).

Gould's version of evolution is messy, crowded, and so full of accidents that the "tape" of change could never be rewound and played back with the same results. The chance that one thing would lead to the very same other was just too small. The evidence for Gould's theoretical amendments is strong. Unexplained eruptions of biological innovation can be identified, located and timed. For about 2.4 billion years, life was manifested in prokaryotes, the simplest single-celled organisms (no organelles, no nuclei and no mitochondria). Then, about 1.4 billion years ago came more the complicated eukaryotes (Amoebae and Paramecia) but, again, there was little discernible change for a good long while. Next, about 600-million-years ago, in the 100-million-year snap of a geological finger came the great Cambrian "explosion" of multi-celled organisms and, in the 500 million years since, not one phylum has been added to the inventory of templates for life.

Catastrophism, in the alternative, is much favoured by religious fundamentalists who see in it the rudiments of a theoretical basis for Mosaic literalism. Gould's scientific heresies seemed to give solace to catastophists and were even bent into an alleged rebuttal of Darwin himself. Gould was furious about this attempt to highjack his ideas and put them in the service of an ideology he rejected. His constant rebuttals, however, only encouraged his scientific adversaries who continued to chide him for being "soft on Genesis." Catastrophes, however, do occur and so does gradual change. Gould's solution was to opt for explanatory pluralism. Nature works in mysterious and often eclectic ways, its wonders to perform. His scientific critics want none of it. They are bothered by more than the relationship between rapid change and statis. Other challenges exacerbate divisions within the Darwinian camp.

Put simply, classic Darwinism is based on three assumptions:

  1. natural selection works through organisms, not at the microlevel of genes nor at the macrolevel of species but at the middle level of species (an interpretation denied by those who currently claim proprietary interest in the dogma of "true" Darwinians, but who focus almost exclusively on the gene (cf. Dawkins, 1976);
  2. evolution operates almost exclusively through the mechanism of random mutation and natural selection (adaptation);
  3. evolutionary change is incremental and cumulative, not sudden.
Gould proposed that evolution occurs on multiple levels, that it proceeds through diverse means, and that catastrophic and other dramatic changes are part of a pluralistic pattern of organic modification. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is the summation of his life's work. The first half of the book presents a history of the dispute about these issues. The second half contains a stunning synthesis of what his publisher is pleased to call a "new structure of evolutionary thought."

Enough said; this is not the place to attempt even a superficial summary of the descriptions, analyses and arguments in this twelve kilogram masterwork. It is as good a spot as I can find, however, to pay homage to Stephen Jay Gould. He was an activist. He used his prominence in the profession of paleontology—he was the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard University, the Vincent Astor Visiting Professor of Biology at New York University, and the Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard as well. He became one of the most effective foes of "creation science."

On 9 December, 1981, he testified before Federal District Judge William R. Overton in Little Rock, Arkansas. He added a crucial element to the attempt the convince Judge William Overton "that all the geological strata on earth did not form as a result of a single Noachian deluge." He was "engaged in the first legal test upon the new wave of creationist bills that mandate equal time or 'balanced treatment' for evolution and a thinly disguised version of the Book of Genesis read literally, but masquerading under the nonsense phrase 'creation science'" (Gould, 1983, p. 280). Less than a month later, Judge Overton "declared the Arkansas law unconstitutional because it force[d] biology teachers to purvey religion in science classrooms" (Gould, 1983, p. 290). When I first read of this decision, I was exhilarated. Gould was moderately pleased. It was the first of a series of cases that, I naively thought, settled the matter. Gould was less sanguine. Just as US Chief Justice Rehnquist has ruled that established innocence is, by itself, insufficient to warrant release of the wrongly convicted, so truth is no guarantee of victory when sincere matters of faith are involved. Said Nietzsche: "Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens." So, the United States is again engaged in the same old show, only now the euphemism is "intelligent design" and teachers and scholars throughout the US are acquiescing in this assault on education, fearful in the current circumstances of offending the religious right and being deprived of employment. Gould would be sad but unsurprised.

Gould "went public" in other important ways. He was an extraordinary teacher of natural history to those who were not expert in the study of biology in any of its forms and who were sometimes ill-informed if not openly hostile to science. His writing was charming, sometimes enchanting. His narratives were beautifully written, sometimes quirky (one of his favourite adjectives), and often pointed. His style made his substance not only engrossing but comprehensible; but, unlike most mere "popularizers," he succeeded mainly by speaking plainly, directly and respectfully to people whom he expected to be intelligent and interested. He never talked down and so allowed the unschooled among his readers to rise up. He maintained a phenomenal pace by writing popular articles in magazines such as Natural History (one column a month for ten years, with no time off for cancer or the World Series) as well as upper-middle-brow periodicals like The New York Review. His mission was to enlighten the intelligent laity about scientific matters, he never failed to engage (me, at least). He has a permanent place in my pantheon of personal saints.

Such adulation was not rare. But devotion is often balanced by loathing. He was, I am sorry to say, less despised by his "natural enemies" among religious fundamentalists than by some of his scientific colleagues. "Creationists" lacked the wit, the perspicacity and the subtlety of mind to comprehend either the elegance of his opinions or the passion with which he held them. Some of his professional adversaries were not only very clever, but crafty as well. A number possess genuine communicative competence and a few are extremely talented writers and speakers. The best among them wanted to be rid of his civil tongue. They were sometimes effective. It is fair to say that their voices were being heard and, sometimes, the balance of opinion tipped in their direction. Still, Gould was not without influential and eloquent allies. The battle raged on until illness silenced him. Perhaps it is some kind of compliment to say that. even in death, his most bitter rivals seem unable to let go.

In a recent letter to the Sunday New York Times, a prominent philosopher and long-time Gould basher (Dennett, 2005) gratuitously accuses him of "intellectual dishonesty" (another unspecified allegation of cruelty to straw men) while criticizing another writer of a review of another book. Gould was not mentioned once in the book under review, nor in the review itself. It is therefore bizarre to witness these warriors as they figuratively dance upon his grave, less perhaps to express their joy at his demise—it being thought easier to prevail in argument when the opponent is unable to speak—than to tramp down the earth and ensure that he remains where he is. It is apparent that Stephen Jay Gould haunts his detractors still.

While alive, of course, Gould was also reviled. Even by the indelicate standards of science, the debate got ugly. Punctuated equilibrium was sophomorically branded "evolution by jerks" (Orr, 2002). Politics played a part as well. Steve Pinker accuses Gould of being a radical leftist, perhaps a closet Marxist (though not as doctrinaire as some other prominent scientists that he labels—principally Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose and Leon Kamin. This, though, is to be expected, for I have rarely encountered "quirky" Marxists. His evidence against Gould? It seems that Gould speaks out against sociobiology, opposes both "determinism" and "reductionism," and remarks that "Marx … understood the evolution of consciousness" and "vindicated the concept of free will." (Gould, 1992; Pinker, 2002, p. 127). There was a time, not long ago, when Marxists were being castigated for being determinists and reductionists. I suppose it all depends on what is doing the determining and who is being reduced. If pressed, I sometimes think that Gould could almost have believed that human beings possess a soul or, as his opponents would call it, a "ghost in the machine." We have come to a strange place when such a flirtation with spirituality qualifies as evidence of Marxism. If that is the case, what more is to be done with the fact that Gould, a Jew and a descendant of working class immigrants from Hungary, loved singing Handel's "Messiah" in a choir at Christmas?

What, to go from the sublime to the mundane, could be made of the fact that he loved baseball? Darwin was his hero, but Joe DiMaggio came a close second. In his high school French class, he let out a whoop of joy when he learned from the kid behind him (who had smuggled in a clandestine portable radio) that Don Larsen had just pitched a perfect game in the World Series for Gould's beloved Yankees. It was 1956. His ecstatic outburst, he says, "cost me 10 points on my final grade, maybe admission to Harvard as well. I never experienced a moment of regret" (Gould, 1985, p. 227). No matter. He went to Antioch College instead, and soon was teaching at Harvard.

Stephen Jay Gould spoke several languages. He translated scientific papers in French, German, Spanish and Italian. He worked on a history of paleontology in the sixteenth century. He translated books from Latin for his research. Want to hear how arrogant he was? In an interview the matter of his quoting foreign sources in his own translations. He responded: "Oh, yeah. I read all those languages. That's a point of pride at a time when so few Americans can deal in anything but English. [Laughs.] That's a true point of pride, I think" (Monastersky, 2002). The conceit! The conceit!

He had unquenchable curiosity. He loved history, whether the history of the planet, of life, or of humanity. He would dive in anywhere and report his findings with whimsical titles. He wrote about "The problem of perfection, or how can a clam mount a fish on its rear end" (Gould, 1977), "Crazy Old Randolph Fitzpatrick" (Gould, 1980), and "A Humongous Fungus Among Us" (Gould, 1995). He published a whole book of book reviews (Gould, 1987). His most popular article used widely in philosophy classes in ethics or epistemology concerns the final pitch in that perfect game that kept him out of Harvard. It concerns a strike thrown high and outside. "Context matters," he says. "Truth is a circumstance, not a spot" (Gould, 1985, p. 227). It may have been his willingness to build a sense of justice into his sense of truth or it may have been his exaltation in the face of the boundless human imagination. One way or another he gave Steve Pinker fits.

At a distance from the academic butchery and carnage, American constitutional lawyer, Martin Garbus steps in: "Steve," he says, "was an almost perfect amalgam of a great scientist and great humanist." So does the respected journalist, David Halberstam: "He was in all ways a valuable and pluralistic man, a liberal in the best a broadest sense of the word … [he had] an abiding openness to new ideas (Halberstam, 2003, p. 11). No fair, I hear the cavilers cry, those quotes were from the foreward to his posthumous book about baseball. What else were those people going to say?

In the end, it is a pity that the rancor has so far trumped the reverence. Here are some of the things people said about Stephen Jay Gould. He was "chilly," "haughty," "arrogant," "self-indulgent," "pompous." Here are some things people said about his work: "His ideas were so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with." "He had a clear ideological agenda." Here is what was said about his clothing: he was "frumpy"; he was "nattily attired." In each case, it seemed to matter; both descriptions were insulting in their own way. As apparent evidence for his alleged political radicalism, it was rumoured that "he delighted in the concept of cataclysmic extinctions." Of his desired place in history, Richard Monastersky (2002, 15 March) explained: "As all paleontologists know, only a lucky few animals get immortalized after death and petrify to form fossils … That won't stop Gould from trying." Very nasty stuff.

Here are some things that others said. He was "warm," "self-deprecating," "charming," and "generous." It was said that "he could connect dots where few of his colleagues could even see the dots"; "he was the most luminescent and valuable of citizens"; "rather than support graduate students by applying for grants, he saved time by giving them money he earned from speaking engagements."

He was at a ballgame once with his editor, Ed Barber. Roger Clemens was pitching well. Gould was, of course, keeping score, and turned at one point to give his companion a statistical update. Then, "Steve turned as if to the crowd itself, and said, talking about the game Clemens was pitching, but perhaps more important, the whole scene, and the pleasure of being part of it, his words as much as anything an epitaph for his own exceptional and occasionally magical life, "Isn't this wonderful" (Halberstam, 2004, p. 20). He said other things. Lots of them are in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. It doesn't matter what you teach. It doesn't matter what you already know or don't know about the theory of evolution. You will do yourself a service if you get the book and read it, cover to cover. You will learn a good deal about what life is and why it matters, and you will do so intimately, in the presence of greatness.


Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dennett, D. (2005, 20 February). Geography lessons. New York times book review.

Eldredge, N. and Gould, S. J. (1972). Punctuated equilibrium: An alternative to phyletic gradualism. In T. Schopf (Ed.), Models in paleobiology. San Francisco: Freeman, Cooper.

Gould, S. J. (1977). Ever since Darwin: Reflections in natural history. New York: Norton.

Gould, S. J. (1980) The panda's thumb: More reflections in natural history. New York: Norton.

Gould, S. J. (1981). The mismeasure of man. New York: Norton.

Gould, S. J. (1983). Hen's teeth and horse's toes: further reflections in natural history. New York: Norton.

Gould, S. J. (1985). The flamingo's smile: Reflections in natural history. New York: Norton.

Gould, S. J. (1989). Wonderful Life: The Burgess shale and the nature of history. New York: Norton.

Gould, S. J. (1991). Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in natural history. New York: Norton.

Gould, S. J. (1992). Life in a Punctuation. Natural History, 101.

Gould, S. J. (1993). Eight little piggies: Reflections in natural history. New York: Norton.

Gould, S. J. (1995). Dinosaur in a haystack: Reflections in natural history. New York: Harmony.

Gould, S. J. (1999). Rocks of ages: Science and religion in the fullness of life. New York: Harmony.

Gould, S. J. (2003). Triumph and tragedy in Mudville: A lifelong passion for baseball. New York: Norton.

Halberstam, D. Foreward. In Gould, S. J. Triumph and tragedy in Mudville: A lifelong passion for baseball. New York: Norton.

Monastersky, R. (2002, February 15). Revising the book of life. Higher education chronicle.

Orr, H. A. (2002, 30 September). The descent of Gould: How a paleontologist sought to revolutionize evolution. The New Yorker.

Pinker, S. (2002). Blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Viking.

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. He can be reached at or 416-491-5050, ext. 5195.


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
Copyright ©
2005 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology