A question of central importance in the interpretation of patterns of evolution is whether history had to turn out the way it did. From before Charles Darwin’s time up to the present it has been commonly assumed that history, both human history and the history of life in general, unfolded in a somewhat deterministic manner, that the present was inevitable, either ordained in Heaven or, in the scientific view, mechanically produced by deterministic natural laws. This view contrasts with that of the historian: that the quirks, chance events, and particularities of each moment make history, and that the world could have been other than it is.… The renowned paleontologist and evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould.…developed a sophisticated and nuanced position that recognized both the importance of general laws and the role of contingency.… If contingency played little part in how history turned out, if the present was inevitable, then it makes little sense to challenge the status quo. However, if contingency dominates history, the future is open, and the world can be another way, as radicals of all varieties have long believed.
The curse of energy efficiency, better known as the Jevons Paradox—the idea that increased energy (and material-resource) efficiency leads not to conservation but increased use—was first raised by William Stanley Jevons in the nineteenth century. Although forgotten for most of the twentieth century, the Jevons Paradox has been rediscovered in recent decades and stands squarely at the center of today’s environmental dispute
Stephen Jay Gould, best known to the general public for his nearly three decades of regular essays published in the popular magazine Natural History, was prolific and, although he always emphasized that he was a tradesman, specializing in paleontology and evolutionary theory, he was nonetheless a polymath, demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of art, literature, philosophy, history, and a variety of sciences, both social and natural. The vast body of work he has bequeathed to the literate public — the Republic of Letters, as he affectionately called us — is filled with gems of insight, fascinating observations, and no shortage of controversy. No one who has read Gould with care can avoid noticing his abiding love for learning and teaching, his unbridled enthusiasm for grappling with nature’s mysteries, and his fascination with humanity in all of its many forms. In many ways, Gould’s writing was deeply personal, demonstrating one man’s struggle to understand the natural world and our place in it. However, in other ways, Gould, the man, remained elusive and inaccessible to those who only knew him through his writing.
In a recent essay, “Economics Needs a Scientific Revolution,” in one of the leading scientific journals, Nature, physicist Jean-Philippe Bouchaud, a researcher for an investment management company, asked rhetorically, “What is the flagship achievement of economics?” Bouchaud’s answer: “Only its recurrent inability to predict and avert crises.” Although his discussion is focused on the current worldwide financial crisis, his comment applies equally well to mainstream economic approaches to the environment—where, for example, ancient forests are seen as non-performing assets to be liquidated, and clean air and water are luxury goods for the affluent to purchase at their discretion. The field of economics in the United States has long been dominated by thinkers who unquestioningly accept the capitalist status quo and, accordingly, value the natural world only in terms of how much short-term profit can be generated by its exploitation. As a result, the inability of received economics to cope with or even perceive the global ecological crisis is alarming in its scope and implications.
Humans depend on functioning ecosystems to sustain themselves, and their actions affect those same ecosystems. As a result, there is a necessary “metabolic interaction” between humans and the earth, which influences both natural and social history. Increasingly, the state of nature is being defined by the operations of the capitalist system, as anthropogenic forces are altering the global environment on a scale that is unprecedented. The global climate is rapidly changing due to the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. No area of the world’s ocean is unaffected by human influence, as the accumulation of carbon, fertilizer runoff, and overfishing undermine biodiversity and the natural services that it provides. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment documents how over two-thirds of the world’s ecosystems are overexploited and polluted. Environmental problems are increasingly interrelated. James Hansen, the leading climatologist in the United States, warns that we are dangerously close to pushing the planet past its tipping point, setting off cascading environmental problems that will radically alter the conditions of nature
In recent years the intelligent design movement, or creationism in a more subtle guise, has expanded the attack on the teaching of evolution in U.S. public schools, while promoting an ambitious “Wedge strategy” aimed at transforming both science and culture throughout society. As explained in our book Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism from Antiquity to the Present (Monthly Review Press, 2008), this has reignited a 2,500-year debate between materialism and creationism, science and design. The argument from design (the attempt to discern evidence of design in nature, thereby the existence of a Designer) can be dated back to Socrates in the fifth century BCE. While the opposing materialist view (that the world is explained in terms of itself, by reference to material conditions, natural laws, and contingent, emergent phenomena, and not by the invocation of the supernatural) to which Socrates was responding also dates back to the fifth century BCE in the writings of the atomists Leucippus and Democritus. The latter perspective was developed philosophically into a full-fledged critique of design by Epicurus in the third century BCE, which later influenced the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century
It is impossible to exaggerate the environmental problem facing humanity in the twenty-first century. Nearly fifteen years ago one of us observed: “We have only four decades left in which to gain control over our major environmental problems if we are to avoid irreversible ecological decline.” Today, with a quarter-century still remaining in this projected time line, it appears to have been too optimistic. Available evidence now strongly suggests that under a regime of business as usual we could be facing an irrevocable “tipping point” with respect to climate change within a mere decade. Other crises such as species extinction (percentages of bird, mammal, and fish species “vulnerable or in immediate danger of extinction” are “now measured in double digits”);3 the rapid depletion of the oceans’ bounty; desertification; deforestation; air pollution; water shortages/pollution; soil degradation; the imminent peaking of world oil production (creating new geopolitical tensions); and a chronic world food crisis—all point to the fact that the planet as we know it and its ecosystems are stretched to the breaking point. The moment of truth for the earth and human civilization has arrived
The glaring increase in economic inequality evident in the United States over the past thirty years has finally made it into the pages of the major media. In the past three years, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times have each published a series of articles on the subject of class. The growing economic divide has also caught the attention of a few prominent economists, like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. Even Treasury secretary Henry Paulson has admitted that inequality is on the rise
Humanity in the twenty-first century is facing what might be described as its ultimate environmental catastrophe: the destruction of the climate that has nurtured human civilization and with it the basis of life on earth as we know it. All ecosystems on the planet are now in decline. Enormous rifts have been driven through the delicate fabric of the biosphere. The economy and the earth are headed for a fateful collision—if we don't alter course.
Stephen Jay Gould was not only a leading paleontologist and evolutionary theorist, he was also a humanist with an enduring interest in the history and philosophy of science. The extraordinary range of Gould’s work was underpinned by a richly nuanced and deeply insightful worldview. Richard York and Brett Clark engage Gould’s science and humanism to illustrate and develop the intellectual power of Gould’s worldview, particularly with regard to the philosophy of science. They demonstrate how the Gouldian perspective sheds light on many of the key debates occurring not only in the natural sciences, but in the social sciences as well. They engage the themes that unified Gould’s work and drove his inquires throughout his intellectual career, such as the nature of history, both natural and social, particularly the profound importance of contingency and the uneven tempo of change. They also assess Gould’s views on structuralism, highlighting the importance of the dialectical interaction of structural forces with everyday demands for function, and his views on the hierarchical ordering of causal forces, with some forces operating at large scales and/or over long spans of time, while others are operating on small scales and/or occur frequently or rapidly.