The Gorbachev of Darwinism
Phillip E. Johnson
Copyright (c) 1998 First
Things 79 (January 1998): 14-16.
Stephen Jay Gould is mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it any
more. Readers of the New York Review of Books learned that much
in June 1997, when they read a lengthy, two-part tirade in which Gould
attempted to settle scores with some of his more prominent enemies within
the guild of Darwinists. The targets were Daniel Dennett, John Maynard
Smith, Robert Wright, and especially, although largely in the background,
Richard Dawkins. One cannot understand the controversy without sampling
the level of vitriol, which may be judged by this salvo from Gould:
[Dennett’s] limited and superficial book reads like a caricature of
a caricature—for if Richard Dawkins has trivialized Darwin’s richness by
adhering to the strictest form of adaptationist argument in a maximally
reductionist mode, then Dennett, as Dawkins’ publicist, manages to convert
an already vitiated and improbable account into an even more simplistic
and uncompromising doctrine. If history, as often noted, replays grandeurs
as farces, and if T. H. Huxley truly acted as "Darwin’s bulldog,"
then it is hard to resist thinking of Dennett, in this book, as "Dawkins’
After going on in that vein for some pages, Gould responded with hurt
feelings to Maynard Smith’s published comment that "the evolutionary
biologists with whom I have discussed [Gould’s] 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." To this Gould lamented that
Maynard Smith used to say much nicer things about him and warned that "We
will not win this most important of all battles [against the creationists]
if we descend to the same tactics of backbiting and anathematization that
characterize our true opponents." Tell that to Dawkins’ lapdog.
Gould’s decision to publish an all-out blast at the writers whom he
calls "Darwinian Fundamentalists" escalated what his colleague
Niles Eldredge has called the "high-table debate" among evolutionists.
This is basically a struggle between the classical neo-Darwinists (represented
most prominently by Dawkins) and the revisionists (headed by Gould himself),
who follow the tradition of T. H. Huxley by advocating "evolution"
while remaining cool towards Darwin’s distinctive mechanism. It’s a debate
that has long been muted because of the mutual desire of the adversaries
to avoid giving ammunition to the despised creationists, and even now the
arguments are conducted in an obscure jargon worthy of Pravda in
its heyday. But here’s what it’s all about.
In the early 1980s the British geneticist J. R. G. Turner remarked,
with specific reference to the controversies swirling around Gould, that
"Evolutionary biologists are all Darwinists, as all Christians follow
Christ and all Communists, Karl Marx. The schisms are over which parts
of the Master’s teaching shall be seen as central." The canonical
text for fans of natural selection is Darwin’s eloquent statement in The
Origin of Species that "natural selection is daily and hourly
scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest;
rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good;
silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers,
at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and
inorganic conditions of life." Note the key elements: natural selection
everywhere and at all times accepts or rejects all variations, however
slight, and continually promotes the "improvement" of all organisms.
Evolution of that kind, in the jargon of the trade, is called pan-selectionism.
The revisionist Gould calls that picture of ubiquitous selection "ultra-Darwinism"
or "Darwinian fundamentalism," and he attributes it not to Darwin
himself but to contemporary Darwinists like Dawkins and Dennett. Gould
ignores Darwin’s own pan-selectionist affirmations and quotes instead a
passage from the sixth and final (1872) edition of the Origin. There
Darwin remarked with some bitterness that critics had, by "steady
misrepresentation," overlooked his qualification that "natural
selection has been the main but not the exclusive means of modification"
(emphasis added). Whether the qualification amounts to much is hard to
say, since a few exceptions to an otherwise pervasive pattern of selectionism
would be consistent with the modest disclaimer that natural selection is
not literally "exclusive."
In any event, Gould accuses the ultra-Darwinists of preaching 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." Against this fundamentalism Gould asserts his own "pluralism,"
which includes at least four non-adaptationist claims about evolution:
(1) neutral genetic changes are a major aspect of evolution; (2) basic
developmental pathways are highly conserved across otherwise disparate
groups and hence impose constraints on adaptive change; (3) species remain
unchanged for long periods and then branch apart in "geological moments"
(a process Gould calls "punctuated equilibrium"); and (4) many
or most extinctions have been due to catastrophic events rather than (as
Darwin insisted) the gradual operation of ordinary selective pressures.
That’s where the name-calling starts, because the classical Darwinists
consider Gould’s description of their position to be a preposterous caricature.
Gould has a well-earned reputation for distorting the views of his rivals
and adversaries, and it is not surprising to find that the complaints are
justified. To my knowledge none of his targets disputes that neutral variations
occur in plenty, that developmental pathways are conserved, that significant
evolutionary change may occur in brief periods of time (geologically speaking)
after longer periods of stasis, or that the dinosaurs were probably wiped
out by a planetary catastrophe. Gould does deserve credit for advocating
these sub-theories before they became popular, but nowadays everybody claims
to be a pluralist.
For his own part, Gould does not deny the central tenet of the classicists—that
adaptive complexity is due to the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection.
In his own words, "Yes, eyes are for seeing and feet are for moving.
And, yes again, I know of no scientific mechanism other than natural selection
with the proven power to build structures of such eminently workable design."
The creative power of natural selection is actually inferred from materialist
philosophy, rather than proved by scientific evidence, but let that pass.
If both sides agree that natural selection is responsible for adaptation,
and also that natural selection isn’t the whole story of evolution, then
where is their disagreement? It is little wonder that many observers have
concluded that there is no substance behind this food fight at the high
table, but only a clash of overgrown egos.
In fact, however, the disagreement is substantive. The key to understanding
it is to recognize that being a true Darwinist requires more than just
giving lip service to natural selection before going on to something else,
which is what Gould typically does. If natural selection actually made
all those marvels of biological complexity, certain conclusions about the
pace and manner of evolution necessarily follow, and Gould frequently seems
to be denying those necessary conclusions. The dinosaurs can be killed
off as rapidly as you like, but all the dinosaurs that died and all the
new mammals that replaced them had to have been built up in the first place
through the gradual accumulation of random mutations by natural selection.
Likewise, the problem with neutral gene substitutions is not that anyone
doubts they occur, but that neutral changes by definition do not help with
the overwhelming task of building up the complex adaptations. Natural selection
had to do that whole job, if God didn’t do it, and that means natural selection
had to be continuously active across vast stretches of geological time
regardless of what the fossil record shows. That implies, among other things,
that an enormous amount of evidence of the process has to be missing from
the fossil record, but Gould frequently gives the impression that he thinks
the evidence was never there.
One of the most notorious examples occurs in Gould’s discussion of the
Cambrian Explosion in his 1989 book Wonderful Life. The "Cambrian
Explosion" is the sudden appearance of the major animal groups (phyla)
in the rocks of the Cambrian era, without apparent ancestors. As Dawkins
himself has put it, "It is as though they were just planted there,
without any evolutionary history." Of course, Dawkins and all other
Darwinists believe that this appearance is an illusion caused by the incompleteness
of the record, and that a complete fossil record would show a universe
of transitional forms and side branches, all having evolved by tiny steps
from a single common ancestor. Gould raises a radically different possibility.
He explains that there are two possible explanations for the absence of
Precambrian ancestors: "the artifact theory (they did exist, but the
fossil record hasn’t preserved them), and the fast-transition theory (they
really didn’t exist, at least as complex invertebrates easily linked to
That final qualifying clause is a typical example of Gould’s penchant
for equivocation: of course the missing ancestors didn’t exist in
a form "easily linked to their descendants." That is why there
is a problem, and why the artifact theory has to be true if Darwinism is
true. Hence when Gould went on to proclaim that new discoveries had sounded
"the death knell of the artifact theory," some readers understandably
took him to be saying that the phyla really were just planted there without
any evolutionary history, which amounts to saying that they were specially
created. Gould assuredly could not have meant that, but then what exactly
did he mean? Remember that saving Darwinism in the teeth of the Cambrian
evidence requires not just assuming a few missing ancestors, easily linked
to their descendants or not, but assuming a vast quantity of vanished transitional
forms between the hypothetical single-celled ancestors and the vastly different
multicellular invertebrates. If you are a Darwinist you know the necessary
ancestors and transitionals had to exist, regardless of the lack of fossil
evidence. If you doubt that their absence is an artifact of the fossil
record, you are not a Darwinist.
The difficulty of saying whether Gould really is a Darwinist or not
stems from his habit of combining radically anti-Darwinian statements with
qualifications that preserve a line of retreat. When Gould loudly proclaimed
"the return of the hopeful monster," for example, he seemed to
be endorsing the geneticist Richard Goldschmidt’s view that large mutations
create new kinds of organisms in single-generation jumps—a heresy which
Darwinists consider to be only a little better than outright creationism.
If you read the fine print carefully, however, you’ll find that Gould surrounded
his claims with qualifications that allow him to insist that he is at least
somewhere in the neighborhood of orthodoxy. Even when Gould bluntly announced
that neo-Darwinism is "effectively dead," it turns out that he
only meant . . . well, nobody seems to know what he meant, but certainly
not that neo-Darwinism is effectively dead.
For years Darwinists like Maynard Smith gave Gould the benefit of the
doubt, appreciating his genuine flair and his willingness to fight the
common enemy. At last they have become thoroughly exasperated with his
"now you see it, now you don’t" practice of vaguely affirming
Darwinism while specifically denying its necessary implications. Gould
will only have exacerbated their disgust with his latest outburst.
Gould’s uncomfortable situation reminds me of the self-created predicament
of Mikhail Gorbachev in the last years of the Soviet Empire. Gorbachev
recognized that something had gone wrong with the Communist system, but
thought that the system itself could be preserved if it was reformed. His
democratic friends warned him that the Marxist fundamentalists would inevitably
turn against him, but he was unwilling to endanger his position in the
ruling elite by following his own logic to its necessary conclusion. Gould,
like Gorbachev, deserves immense credit for bringing glasnost to a closed
society of dogmatists. And, like Gorbachev, he lives on as a sad reminder
of what happens to those who lack the nerve to make a clean break with
a dying theory.
Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law at the University of California
at Berkeley. His books include Darwin on Trial, Reason in the
Balance, and Defeating Darwinism.
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