Stephen Jay Gould and the Politics of Evolution

When I was growing up, I had no introduction to evolutionary theory. Sure, I assumed it was true, and I went through the usual long phase of dinosaur fandom, but I was never taught anything at all about evolution throughout my grade school education, and what little I did know was largely stamp-collecting. That all changed, though, when I went off to college.

I can’t credit the schools I went to, unfortunately: most of my undergraduate education (with a few wonderful exceptions) was the usual mega-survey course, where the instructor stuck a funnel in our heads and poured in facts for a term — so more stamp-collecting. What happened to me, though, was that I was struck by two thunderbolts at almost the same time. The hot science book that was published during my freshman year was E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, and I bought it and devoured it and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was more buckets of facts, but in this case, these facts were deployed to illuminate an overarching idea about how the world works…and I found it wonderful.

The second thunderbolt was Stephen Jay Gould. He was doing the same thing, promoting ideas powerfully with evidence and rhetoric, and he was far easier to read than Wilson, and communicated even more clearly. It was also wonderful.

Of course, if you know anything about the intellectual landscape of the 1970s, you know that I had acquired as two scientific god-parents two warring camps who were hellbent against one another in a period of angry evolutionary ferment. I am the product of a broken home! It was especially tragic, because in my naiveté, I thought most of the conflict was a waste, that each side had an important perspective, and that the right answer was an appreciation of the power of selection and an understanding of the other modes of change operating over history.

I’ve long been interested in the battle royale that went on in that period — it’s like a child’s morbid dwelling on the scab of an ugly parental divorce — and in particular with that central figure, Steve Gould. Last week I was sent a copy of a book by David F. Prindle, Stephen Jay Gould and the Politics of Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), so of course I had to read it.

This is going to be a mixed review. Overall, it’s a good book and brings together some important insights, but at the same time, it’s a book about an author I’ve read obsessively for more than 30 years now, so I’m also going to pick on many of the details. Don’t let my personal investment in the subject deter you from reading Prindle’s book!

There are some key points that Prindle makes that are absolutely central to understanding Gould. He was most definitely a political man and he was strongly leftist (but not, as the book makes clear, a Marxist…a baseless claim that was often trundled out to slam him, ineffectively — since he also wouldn’t have regarded it as an insult). Gould was an advocate of human equality and social justice, and you can’t read him without seeing that ideological agenda dripping from every page. Prindle puts that front and center, and makes it the lens that we have to view Gould through, and I think that is entirely appropriate. It also clarifies those ugly battles: what stirred the vehemence was not just the scientific interpretation of the evidence, but an awareness of the political implications of those ideas. Gould was not at all averse to waving the banner of his political cause while charging into the fray with his scientific colleagues and critics.

Another powerful attribute that Gould had was that he made science passionate and personal — he was the popularizer of science who had a direct shunt from his heart to his pen. No science writer has equalled him in that, and it was central to his appeal. He made science human and important.

Now none of those properties — politics, passion, and personality — are necessarily regarded as virtues in the scientific community. We’re supposed to be dispassionate, aloof, objective, non-partisan, and there’s a prejudice that you’re a lesser man (yeah, it’s also a male bias) if you step away from the illusion of impartiality. Prindle treads the difficult line well, showing both how Gould used his political position as a strength, but also how it was a weakness, especially since it provoked such animosity in his critics. Of course, he also explains that the demeanor of objectivity by his intellectual opponents was also often a rhetorical pose, just as political as Gould’s overt position.

So I think it’s a good and accurate book that examines Gould from a political perspective, and especially in his case, that is a very useful viewing angle. It’s not a hagiography, either, but an honest assessment of Gould’s contributions to the history and politics of science, and there are a few places where it is uncomfortably critical of the man…and I can’t really argue against Prindle’s judgment in many of those cases.

The book also has some weaknesses, though. One is a contrast: Gould is an engagingly open writer who tells us not only what he thinks, but how he came to think that way, and that is tellingly illustrated at many points in the book. But who is David F. Prindle? The author does not show through at any point at all, and often the perspective is of an outsider looking in, making notes of the antics of those belligerently evocative scientists, and pretending to be completely uninvolved. We know you’re not, Dr Prindle! Take a lesson from your subject!

That isolation from the subject sometimes weakens his analysis. For instance, Prindle wonders at some length about the absence of critiques of J. Phillipe Rushton from the Gould corpus, and seems to think it odd that a such a scientist should be neglected. It didn’t seem unusual at all to me, but then I share Gould’s politics: he didn’t bother with Rushton because Rushton is a racist crank. Simple. Remember, this is a book about the importance of Gould’s politics, and those politics would have informed such a dismissal.

Prindle is also not a biologist, but a professor of government. Generally he does a good job of summarizing Gould’s views on contingency, and pluralism, and punctuated equilibrium, etc., but I think that’s because he has steeped himself deeply on Gould’s own writings on those subjects. When he walks into the broader domain of biology, though, there are some places where he missteps. For instance, he actually concedes some plausibility to the creationist arguments from the improbability of successive useful mutations. Prindle is most definitely not on the creationist side, but still — that has always been one of their weaker arguments, frequently refuted. In one place, he even cites a counter-claim by Ann Coulter, which was jarring — does anyone take Coulter seriously? It felt very much out of place.

As I said, this is not hagiography, so I was also surprised to see one criticism that should have been made that was not. Gould’s reputation rested on his strength as a writer, and when he was on, he was very, very good. Personally, I think that if we extracted the best of his essays, he was the best science writer of the 20th century. Unfortunately, he also had a weakness: an extravagant prolixity that at its worst, made him almost unreadable. If we compare him to Dawkins, for example, Dawkins’ strength as a writer has always been his clarity — with Dawkins, you are always on a bullet train straight to the heart of his point. Gould was more the slow but elegant train that took long detours through the scenery, occasionally stopping to give the passengers time to take in a museum or the opera. It was wonderful when it worked, but sometimes, especially in his later years as he tried to pack more and more stops on the itinerary, it got in the way of his message. His last book, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, is particularly afflicted with the excesses of his style, which means it is less well read than it deserves.

There is another, more serious omission from Prindle’s book, one that perhaps is a product of some of my biases. Where is development? Gould was not a developmental biologist by any means, but one of his frequent messages, noted in the book, is that evolution is driven by much more than natural selection. And one thread that came up frequently (and admittedly, I am perhaps sensitive to it) was the role of developmental processes in shaping evolution. It was a long-term interest of Gould’s, as well, and can be traced back to his first book, Ontogeny and Phylogeny. Prindle mentions it briefly in a discussion of Gould’s appreciation of formalism — the idea that form imposes constraints on and enables particular opportunities for evolution, steering lineages into general ranges of potential — but otherwise, it’s a large and neglected gap in the Gouldian weltanschauung. I missed it.

Furthermore, Prindle notes that it was an important part of his final synthesis. He even quotes from Structure:

These discoveries [of homologous processes in diverse forms] had caused a “general shift in viewpoint—from a preference for atomic adaptationism…to a recognition that homologous developmental pathways…strongly shape current possibilities ‘from the inside’.” Therefore, evolutionary biologists should now recognize that “these internal constraints can surely claim equal weight with natural selection in any full account of the causes of any particular evolutionary change.”

It’s right there. In other parts of the book, Prindle points out that Gould, despite his reputation for railing against panadaptationist explanation, often seems to be quite content to accept the principles of selection and even discusses the importance of selection. Prindle suggests that this is because he has no better explanation than selection, rather than the more pragmatic reason that as a scientist, he knew that selection was an irrefutable phenomenon, so of course he acknowledged it. It is important. However, at the same time, Gould wasn’t just conceding selection for lack of an alternative, he was a radical pluralist who had many other processes, including development and certainly including selection, to which he accorded considerable importance.