Recycled Content: Gould Quote of Darwin Considered Harmful

The following is a post I made to the newsgroup back in 1997. In some email discussions, there has been renewed interest among some of my correspondents concerning possible instances where high-profile pro-science people have made statements that were, well, ripe for quote-mining. I nominated the following Stephen Jay Gould quote as an example. The post I made back in 1997 shows that not only was the quote in question ripe for quote-mining, it had already been picked and put on display by a trenchant antievolutionist.


The more I look into Gould’s handling of Darwin in the matter of distinguishing phyletic gradualism and punctuated equilibria, the less impressed I get. Gould is fond of saying that Darwin’s meaning cannot be gotten from isolated text-bytes, but rather from overall tone or some such.

Due to Laurie Appleton’s quote of Gould quoting Darwin, I was induced to have a look at the original. Well, the original Darwin quote, as well as Gould’s. Gould has a text-byte of Darwin, and I had always assumed before that Gould had gotten the gist of Darwin’s context more-or-less correct. I was a bit stunned to find that this was *not* the case. Given Gould’s rather abrupt treatment of others who have performed historical revisionism, I find this more than a little unsettling.

I have previously stated my opinion that Eldredge and Gould failed to properly credit Darwin with key concepts underlying PE. Scholars may read the same sources and come to different conclusions. However, there is a line to be drawn between a variance of interpretation and what can only stand as either shoddy scholarship or deliberate misrepresentation.

In a msg on aug 08 10:47, Laurie Appleton of 3:640/238@Fidonet writes:

[Laurie replying to George Rudzinski]


LA> However, your comment, once again shows that you don’t
LA> know much about what Darwin actually said anyway!

Apparently, neither does Gould.


LA> “The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the
LA> fossil record persist as the trade secret of paleontology.
LA> The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data
LA> only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest
LA> is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of
LA> fossils. Yet Darwin was so wedded to gradualism that he
LA> wagered his entire theory on a denial of this literal
LA> record:”

LA> “The geological record is extremely imperfect and this
LA> fact will to a large extent explain why we do not find
LA> interminable varieties, connecting together all the
LA> extinct and existing forms of life by the finest
LA> graduated steps. He who rejects these views on the
LA> nature of the geological record, will rightly reject my
LA> whole theory.

LA> “Darwin’s argument still persists as the favored escape of
LA> most paleontologists from the embarrassment of a record
LA> that seems to show so little of evolution [DIRECTLY]. In exposing
LA> its cultural and methodological roots, I wish in no way to
LA> impugn the potential validity of gradualism (for all
LA> general views have similar roots). I wish only to point
LA> out that it was never “seen” in the rocks.”

LA> “Paleontologists have paid an exorbitant price for Darwin’s
LA> argument. We fancy ourselves as the only true students of
LA> life’s history, yet to preserve our favored account of
LA> evolution by natural selection we view our data as so bad
LA> that we never see the very process we profess to study.”

LA> (Stephen Jay Gould (Professor of Geology and Paleontology,
LA> Harvard University), “Evolution’s erratic pace”.
LA> Natural History, vol.LXXXVI(5), May 1977, p.14.)

Naughty Laurie omitted one word from Gould, which I have restored in square brackets.

So what passage, precisely, did Gould identify as indicating Darwin’s intimate stance with gradualism? Here it is… [Please note that the part Gould quotes comes at the end of the passage; when Darwin says “these views, he is referring to the various items preceding that I provide here. — WRE]

Note particularly the bits I’ve highlighted by splitting out and marking with [!!!].

Summary of the preceding and present Chapters . I have attempted to show that the geological record is extremely imperfect;

[!!!] that only a small portion of the globe has been geologically explored with care;

that only certain classes of organic beings have been largely preserved in a fossil state; that the number both of specimens and of species, preserved in our museums, is absolutely as nothing compared with the incalculable number of generations which must have passed away even during a single formation; that, owing to subsidence being necessary for the accumulation of fossiliferous deposits thick enough to resist future degradation, enormous intervals of time have elapsed between the successive formations; that there has probably been more extinction during the periods of subsidence, and more variation during the periods of elevation, and during the latter the record will have been least perfectly kept; that each single formation has not been continuously deposited; that the duration of each formation is, perhaps, short compared with the average duration of specific forms;

[!!!] that migration has played an important part in the first appearance of new forms in any one area and formation;

that widely ranging species are those which have varied most, and have oftenest given rise to new species; and

[!!!] that varieties have at first often been local.

All these causes taken conjointly, must have tended to make the geological record extremely imperfect, and will to a large extent explain why we do not find interminable varieties, connecting together all the extinct and existing forms of life by the finest graduated steps.

He who rejects these views on the nature of the geological record, will rightly reject my whole theory. […]

[End quote — C.R. Darwin, Origin of Species, pp. 340-341]

Within the above quote are key components of *punctuated equilibria*. The notion that geographical distribution matters, and that species are at first localized, and then migrate out are all *critical* features of Eldredge and Gould’s PE. Gould’s assertion that the passage shows *only* consideration of the features of phyletic gradualism is just so much poppycock. Just so that everyone stays on the same page, here is Eldredge and Gould’s statement of the tenets of phyletic gradualism:

In this Darwinian perspective, paleontology formulated its picture for the origin of new taxa. This picture, though rarely articulated, is familiar to all of us. We refer to it here as “phyletic gradualism” and identify the following as its tenets:

(1) New species arise by the transformation of an ancestral population into its modified descendants.

(2) The transformation is even and slow.

(3) The transformation involves large numbers, usually the entire ancestral population.

(4) The transformation occurs over all or a large part of the ancestral species’ geographic range.

Note that the passage that Gould extracts his quote from explicitly violates (3) and (4). (1) and (2) are neither asserted nor denied by the passage from Darwin. Darwin’s “wedding” to phyletic gradualism appears to have been unconsummated. At least, the quote which Gould identifies as showing that relationship clearly instead shows glimpses of Darwin flirting around with PE. And that is even without interpreting Darwin’s remark about relative durations of formations and species as indicating an appreciation of the prevalence of stasis.

Rejection of Darwin’s argument amounts to rejection of both PE and PG. What Eldredge and Gould have done with PE is assert that certain aspects of Darwin’s argument are more important than other aspects of Darwin’s argument. Well, duh. What takes chutzpah is to then claim that the good bits weren’t part of Darwin’s argument all along.

I guess Laurie isn’t the only person who can quote out of context.

Oh, and Laurie should be able to tell us why, if phyletic gradualism was never seen in the rocks, Gould and Eldredge 1977 specifically validates Ozawa’s 1975 paper on forams as showing a clear example of phyletic gradualism?

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

5 thoughts on “Recycled Content: Gould Quote of Darwin Considered Harmful

  • 2007/09/19 at 11:30 am

    I was mildly surprised to read this. I must say my estimation of Gould has been going down rather than up in the last decade. I suppose its easy to confuse him as the authority in the field rather than just one voice of many not necessarily singing the same hymn, since he was so prolific at writing for the lay reader (although sometimes his literary or historical asides I find unreadable). It goes to show to always go back to the primary source, regardless of who the secondary source might be .

  • 2007/09/19 at 12:21 pm

    Stephen Jay Gould was a brilliant and gifted scientist and writer, but he wasn’t a saint. When it came to advancing his own viewpoint at the expense of those long dead, he did not always overcome temptation. Charles Darwin’s stature has made him a convenient target for people looking for a foil to demonstrate how thoroughly modern and innovative they are in contrast to Darwin’s old-fashioned stances. Unfortunately, this sometimes means that we get treated to assertions that Darwin held an old-fashioned stance that wasn’t actually Darwin’s, or at least that they have glossed over some indications that Darwin may not have been quite as much of a stick-in-the-mud as was represented.

    I read most of Gould’s anthologized essays, several of his books, and have read parts of his long final book, “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory”. It was precisely the mismatch between some of the popular essays and the content of the technical articles about “punctuated equilibria” that shifted my perception and evaluation of Gould from something near “absolute authority” to something more like “interesting and entertaining, but look into the background yourself before relying upon it”.

    One of the other of my favorites along these lines is the assertion from Ernst Mayr in work dating back to the 1940s that Darwin had expressed no coherent species concept. Later, long after his own reputation was made in spades, Mayr would write “One Long Argument”, in which he discussed the two somewhat different species concepts Darwin wrote of during his lifetime. IIRC, in that later work, Mayr even commended Darwin for having come so close in his first such effort at approaching some of the conceptual components of Mayr’s own “biological species concept”.

    It really does pay to take historical reflection where the writer has a personal stake with a large grain of salt.

  • 2007/09/22 at 9:48 am

    May I commend to your attention Eldredge’s Confessions of a Darwinist of 2006 where he finds that Darwin’s view hadn’t been what he’d assumed as a worker (and not a historian) – “Well! I had grown up believing that Darwin was the quintessential gradualist—so I was flabbergasted to read in his very first evolutionary thoughts he was a “saltationist.” Darwin let the patterns of abrupt replacement in time and space speak for themselves. Small wonder that when we resurrected stasis as a pattern for all to contemplate, Gould and I were tarnished with that same saltationist brush—this time hurled as an insult.”

  • 2007/09/22 at 7:43 pm

    Another instance of “so close” commentary, it looks like.

  • 2007/09/24 at 5:57 am

    ‘Laurie Appleton’! I remember arguing with him in 1994 on a BBS in Brisbane. I didn’t know he was so ‘famous’.

    What is it is Brisbane and creationists? Appleton, Ken Ham, Jonathon Sarfati. For a town that doesn’t produce too much, it sure does produce a lot of kooks.

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