The Dialectical Biologist
Winter 2012, Vol:XIII-4, Whole #: 52
By: Richard York and Brett Clark
New York, Monthly Review Press, 2011, 223 pp. $16.95
Reviewed by Phil Gaspar
It has been almost 10 years since the death of the Harvard paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould at the relatively early age of 60. Gould was not only a major figure in the life sciences, he was also one of the great popularizers of science. He wrote a monthly column for Natural History magazine from 1974 to 2001, generating exactly 300 essays that explained complex scientific ideas without oversimplifying them. Ten collections of Gould’s popular articles, together with several other books aimed at a general audience, were best sellers, making him one of the best-known scientists of his generation. A year before his death, he was named a “living legend” by the U.S. Library of Congress.
What makes Gould of particular interest to readers of this journal is that his scientific views were informed in interesting ways by his radical politics. His parents were New York leftists, probably in or around the Communist Party in the 1930s, and he once boasted that he had learned his Marxism “literally at [my] daddy’s knee.” Gould’s essays often revealed his interest in Marx and Marxism, even though he also made clear that his politics were “very different” from his father’s, most likely referring to his own rejection of Stalinism. But Gould remained politically active for left-wing causes during his whole life, including as a member in the 1970s of Science for the People, the most prominent of the radical science organizations that emerged from the antiwar movement.
Richard York and Brett Clark have written an accessible introduction to Gould’s work. They divide their book into two parts. In the first four chapters they discuss Gould’s contributions to evolutionary theory and his distinctive views about the history of life. In chapters 5 through 8 they look at Gould’s views about the human condition, including his critiques of biological determinism and his defense of human equality. However, as the authors point out, there is a lot of overlap between the chapters, because “Gould’s ideas … are complexly integrated into a larger worldview, so that it is not easy to examine an idea or theme in isolation… [A]lthough we separate out certain themes into distinct chapters, our discussions inevitably engage the whole of Gould’s worldview making the themes bleed together.” (20)
As a working scientist, Gould was both the leading expert on the evolution of Bahamian land snails and one of the leading evolutionary theorists in the second half of the twentieth century. Gould made at least four distinctive contributions to evolutionary theory, all of which remain controversial. First is the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which he originally formulated with fellow paleontologist Niles Eldredge in 1972, and which proposes a non-gradual model of evolutionary change. Second was Gould’s view that natural selection was importantly limited by structural constraints, with the corollary that the physical and behavioral features of organisms are not necessarily all adaptations that can be explained in terms of the functions they serve. Third is the idea that evolution is a contingent and directionless process that is not moving to any preordained end. Fourth is the view that selection can take place not only at the level of the individual organism or the level of the gene, but can also take place at the level of groups or even entire species.
Taken together, these four themes illustrate Gould’s enthusiasm for thinking about the natural world in dialectical terms — in other words, seeing it as made up of complex and dynamic interactive processes. “Dialectical thinking should be taken more seriously by Western scholars, not discarded because some nations of the second world [the former Soviet Bloc] have constructed a cardboard version as an official political doctrine,” Gould wrote. “The issues that it raises are, in another form, the crucial questions of reductionism versus holism, now so much under discussion throughout biology (where reductionist accounts have reached their limits and further progress demands new approaches to process existing data, not only an accumulation of more information).”
When presented as guidelines for a philosophy of change, not as dogmatic precepts true by fiat, the three classical laws of dialectics [formulated by Engels] embody a holistic vision that views change as interaction among components of complete systems, and sees the components themselves…as both products of and inputs to the system. Thus the law of “interpenetrating opposites” records the inextricable interdependence of components: the “transformation of quantity to quality” defends a systems-based view of change that translates incremental inputs into alterations of state; and the “negation of negation” describes the direction given to history because complex systems cannot revert exactly to previous states.
Gould and Eldredge’s theory of punctuated equilibrium claims that evolutionary development isn’t gradual, as Charles Darwin supposed, but takes place in concentrated bursts, followed by long periods of stasis. Gould freely admitted that he was attracted to the idea of punctuated equilibrium because of his knowledge of the dialectical theories of Hegel and Marx. “The dialectical laws are explicitly punctuational. They speak, for example, of the ‘transformation of quantity into quality.’ This … suggests that change occurs in large leaps following a slow accumulation of stresses that a system resists until it reaches breaking point. Heat water and it eventually boils. Oppress the workers more and more and bring on the revolution.”
At the same time Gould and Eldredge suggested that the traditional, gradualist view of evolution was “the translation into biology of the order, harmony, and continuity that European rulers [in the nineteenth century] hoped to maintain in a society already assaulted by calls for fundamental social change.” They added, “We mention this not to discredit Darwin in any way, but merely to point out that even the greatest scientific achievements are rooted in their cultural contexts—and to argue that gradualism was part of the cultural context, not of nature.” But if Gould and Eldredge are correct, then on this point at least, Darwin has been discredited, for their argument is that he allowed his judgment to be shaped by his cultural context rather than by the available evidence.
But wasn’t Gould’s view also a result of cultural context and political preconceptions? Gould denied this. While his political background made him open to an idea he might otherwise have overlooked, he emphasized that he accepted the theory because of the data, not because it matched his political views. He and Eldredge first proposed the idea to explain the fact that there is little direct evidence in the fossil record for the gradual transformation of one species into another. Most species appear to remain the same for millions of years, then abruptly disappear to be replaced by new ones. If evolutionary change takes place in relatively short bursts compared to the average lifetime of a species (thousands of years compared to millions), this is exactly what we would expect, since the chances of intermediate forms being preserved as fossils would be quite small. Punctuated Equilibrium remains a controversial idea, but in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory published shortly before his death, Gould made a strong case that the punctuational view of evolution provides a better overall account of the evidence than gradualism. Others have suggested that Gould’s demonstration that many species remain relatively unchanged for long periods of time was his single most important scientific contribution—something that other biologists had ignored until Gould and Eldredge published their 1972 paper on the subject….
Read the entire review in New Politics