Stephen Jay Gould/Talk

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Commentary on Gould:

Biologist John Maynard Smith has claimed that "Gould occupies a rather curious position, particularly on his side of the Atlantic. Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by nonbiologists 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." He also claimed Gould "is giving nonbiologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory." (Both quotes appear in Robert Wright's essay The Accidental Creationist).

Summary of some points made (click "View Other Revisions" to see details of this discussion):

  • John Maynard Smith is is a biologist and not a popular science writer.
  • Gould's work may not be solidly in the biological mainstream, but it's still generally within the purview of legitimate science.
  • Robert Wright may be likelier to be the fringe figure here, not Stephen Jay Gould. A quick assay of Mr. Wright's work on the Web shows his positions lie on fairly shakey ground. For instance, he criticizes Gould for neglecting to notice that there is a general trend from simplicity to complexity in evolution, but this is a trend that is not there and not taken as a mainstream position.
  • The power of historical contingency is a major theme in Gould's popular writing, and his most famous professional work (punctuated equilibrium) too. He's the last person I'd have suspected of being tied to historical determinism.
  • Richard Lewontin was the chairman of Gould's department at Harvard, and made the claim, "There is nothing in Marx, Lenin, or Mao that is or can be in contradiction with a particular set of phenomena in the objective world." This may mean that Lewontin views science and ideology as separate domains, or perhaps mean that science that seems to contradict Marx, Lenin, or Mao is necessarily wrong.
  • Gould once used Lewontin's comment in a metaphorical talk on punctuated equilibrium many years ago, which made some view him as sharing Lewontin's political beliefs. However, Gould has commented that punctuated equilibrium was more Niles' idea than his. Niles has a different political background than Gould, so with regards to punctuated equilibrium, Gould's politics may in fact be completely irrelevant anyway.
  • Gould has been heavily involved in heated debates regarding sociobiology, and has a firm stance in the "anti" camp. Some have bashed Gould, claiming this "jihad" to be wrong and suggesting that Gould must be tainted by communist beliefs for taking the positions he has.

It seems to me that some of this would be good to place in the main article--how about that, some actual useful content coming out of mere dialectical wrangling...  :-) --LMS


The second to last point is inaccurate. Suspicions that Gould's scienctific opinions are influenced by his politics arise in regards to his views on sociobiology, not punctuated equilibrium.