Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Gould on the Beach...

Now, there's an opera I wouldn't mind seeing! It could be written entirely with passages from his "Natural History" essays. It would have leitmotivs for "contingency" and "constraint", "Bauplan" and "Baseball"...

Andrea Bottaro, over at The Panda's Thumb, brings us a particularly bizarre example of second-hand Gould exegesis, bordering on channeling. A certain Stuart Pivar, ominously described as "a chemical engineer as well as an art collector", thinks of himself as something of an authority on Gould "because Gould used to spend time at his beach house"! Apparently Pivar believes that Gould would never have "signed the statement of the National Center for Science Education’s list of Steves" because:
His message was that natural selection was merely an eliminative force with no creative role, capable of choosing for survival among preexisting forms which are produced by other natural structural processes.
This is, of course, utter nonsense, as Andrea demonstrates in his post. He concludes that:
In other words, Gould saw structuralist principles, together with the role of contingency and developmental contraints, as applying on top of a solid Darwinian theoretical foundation, not to supplant natural selection as a major creative force in evolution, but to influence its outcome. This is a view consistent with the Steves' statement, and most certainly shared, with accommodations for varying emphasis on this or that aspect, by the vast majority of modern biologists.

For those who have read Gould's primary scientific works this is really nothing new, since - misunderstandings and histrionisms aside - his views on the matter did not change very much over time [...] his legacy as a scientist should be found in his own articles and books, not on the web site of some beach buddy, no matter how close.
Although I agree with the main points of Andrea's post, I would be more guarded in my evalutation of Gould's thinking. On this subject, Gould was often insightful and provocative, but was certainly not a model of clarity, as even a cursory inspection of his massive "Structure" will reveal. Although his "message" was emphatically not "that natural selection was merely an eliminative force with no creative role", he did show a longstanding ambivalence towards natural selection, and ostensibly attempted to demote it (subjugate it, even) relative to other forces, such as, contingency, constraints, or species selection.

Not only did Gould have a "penchant for staking debates in rather extreme terms, and sometimes caricaturing his opponents’ positions", as Andrea puts it, but he was often hard to pin-down on his positions. For example, in his writings on punctuated equilibrium he repeatedly equivocated on the time scale he had in mind when contrasting punctuationism and gradualism, to the frustration of his critics. As he well knew, "fast" does not mean the same thing in terms of generation or geological time. Gould would echo Goldschmidt's attacks on the modern synthesis, and would then be extremely vague on the nature of the putative novel genetic / evolutionary mechanisms that needed to be incorporated into evolutionary theory to account for punctuated equilibrium. Similar objections can be (and have been) raised to his writings on adaptationism and the Cambrian explosion. Critics of evolution have been quick to exploit these inconsistencies in Gould's thinking. For example, much of the nonsense spouted by creationists of all stripes on the distinction between micro and macroevolution can be traced directly to "misunderestimations" of Gould's primary articles.

Even if Gould did not usher in the emergence of "a new and general theory of evolution", as he would have liked (time will tell), I still think there's an opera in there somewhere. Maybe PhaWRONGula will take up the challenge...