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Phil Gasper

Stephen Jay Gould: Dialectical Biologist

(July 2002)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 24, July–August 2002.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The untimely death of Stephen Jay Gould in May of this year deprived us of one of the world’s great scientific popularizers. Gould’s monthly column, “This view of life,” ran for 300 consecutive issues in Natural History magazine from January 1974 to January 2001. It used examples ranging from church architecture to baseball (Gould’s other passion along with biology), to explain the intricacies of the natural world. Gould’s ability to convey complex scientific ideas without oversimplifying them, his immense erudition, and his polished literary style won him a huge readership. Nine collections of his essays, and several other popular books by Gould, became bestsellers. I Have Landed, published just weeks before Gould’s death from cancer at the age of 60, is certain to do the same. By the 1990s, Gould was a household name. In 1997, he made an animated guest appearance on “The Simpsons,” and last year the Library of Congress named him one of America’s eighty-three “living legends.”

Gould was a rarity–a practicing scientist at the top of his field able to communicate with a general audience. He was a Harvard professor from 1967 until his death, the world’s leading expert on the evolution of Bahamian land snails, and one of the most influential evolutionary theorists of his generation. With fellow paleontologist Niles Eldredge, Gould proposed the theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” which claims that evolutionary development isn’t gradual, as Charles Darwin supposed, but takes place in concentrated bursts, followed by long periods of stasis.1 Against reductionists like the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, who argue that everything important takes place at the level of the gene, Gould argued that natural selection can operate on groups and species, as well as on genes and individual organisms. Gould and his Harvard colleague Richard Lewontin rejected the “ultra-Darwinian” idea that natural selection is the only important evolutionary mechanism. Many features of organisms, they argued, are the result of structural constraints, rather than adaptive advantage.2 In The Structure of Evolutionary Theory [3], a nearly 1,500-page tome published in March of this year and the culmination of his life’s work, Gould defended this evolutionary pluralism at length.

Every major newspaper carried an obituary of Gould after his death, praising his scientific accomplishments. But most said nothing about another important aspect of Gould’s life–his radical politics. Gould was a red diaper baby. His maternal grandparents were Jewish immigrants who worked in Manhattan’s garment sweatshops in the early years of the last century, just blocks from the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist fire that killed 146 workers in 1911. “I grew up in a family of Jewish immigrant garment workers,” Gould wrote, “and this holocaust (in the literal meaning of a thorough sacrifice by burning) ... set their views and helped to define their futures.”4 Gould’s 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.”5

Gould’s essays often revealed his interest in Marx and Marxism,6 even though he also made clear that his politics were “very different” from his father’s. Although he did not elaborate, Gould was most likely indicating by this comment his own rejection of Stalinism.7 Whatever precisely he meant, however, Gould remained politically active for left-wing causes during his whole life. While a visiting undergraduate at Leeds University in England in the early 1960s, for example, Gould organized weekly demonstrations outside a dance hall in nearby Bradford which refused to admit Blacks. The demonstrations continued until this racist policy was revoked, leaving a lasting impression on Gould’s fellow students.8

Back in the United States, Gould was an early opponent of the Vietnam War. He completed his PhD at Columbia University in 1967, but in order to avoid the draft he needed to remain a student. As he explained in a radio interview many years later, “at that time they were drafting the oldest first, which means I would have been drafted right away. I already had this job in Harvard and what that means, in short, was that I had to stay in school until I was 26. But I was finished with everything, so I finally said I’d take a Latin course, and so I learned Latin to avoid going to Vietnam.”9

Unlike many others, Gould did not jettison his radical politics after he became a faculty member. When Harvard students shut down their campus in 1969 to protest the university’s involvement in the war, Gould–still an assistant professor–supported them. “Lacking tenure, or a bankable reputation,” recalls the writer Michael Ryan, a Harvard undergraduate at the time, “he sided with students who opposed the Vietnam War, when junior faculty brown-nosers were looking the other way.”10

Gould was often seen on picket lines and at demonstrations. When residents of a racially mixed, working-class East Cambridge neighborhood rebelled against police brutality in 1971, Gould joined a Students for a Democratic Society march to support the uprising.11 At around the same time, Gould joined Science for the People, the most prominent of the radical science organizations that emerged from the antiwar movement.12

Gould’s political activity continued in the 1980s and 1990s. He was on the advisory boards of the academic journal Rethinking Marxism and the Manhattan-based Brecht Forum. The latter is the sponsor of the New York Marxist School–dedicated to using “Marx’s uniquely valuable contributions ... to study conditions today and possibilities for transcending capitalism and building an emancipatory society”13–where Gould sometimes spoke. Gould was also a speaker at the Socialist Scholars Conference and at a forum on The Future of the Left to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto in 1998.14 That same year, Gould joined the advisory board of the newly formed Committee to Free Lori Berenson, an American political activist imprisoned in Peru. Given this record, it is not surprising that the Encyclopedia of the American Left singled Gould out as one of the “few scientists [who] have emerged as major public allies of the left” and as “perhaps the most formidable example of a supportive presence at left events and for left causes.”15

Gould’s politics were clearly an important aspect of his life, but more than this they had an important influence on his scientific work. This was most obvious in Gould’s decision to devote a considerable amount of his time to combating scientific racism, biological determinism, and other attempts to misuse biology to justify social inequality and the status quo. The claim that existing social hierarchies are the inevitable outcome of biological facts goes back to the nineteenth century, reappearing in new guises whenever it is needed to support the idea that progressive social change is impossible.16 Thus it is no surprise that biological determinism resurfaced in the United States as a response to the social movements of the 1960s. In 1969, Arthur Jensen, a Stanford education professor, argued that IQ differences between whites and Blacks are genetically based and unalterable.17 Two years later, Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein claimed that socioeconomic status is a direct function of inherited intelligence and that the “tendency to be unemployed” would soon run in families just like the “tendency to have bad teeth.”18 Then in 1975, to great media fanfare, Gould’s prominent Harvard colleague Edward Wilson published his book Sociobiology,19 which argued that traits such as aggression and xenophobia are genetically based. In an article published at the same time in the New York Times Magazine, Wilson claimed that “the genetic bias is intense enough to cause a substantial division of labor even in the most free and egalitarian of future societies. Thus, even with identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to play a disproportionate role in political life, business, and science.” If we attempt to create a more egalitarian society, Wilson continued, we will “place some personal freedoms in jeopardy.”20

Soon sociobiology was all the rage. Time magazine ran a cover story headlined “Why you do what you do.” According to the article, “the theory can explain loyalty to church, corporation and nation.”21 Business Week offered “A genetic defense of the free market.” It claimed that “Self-interest is the driving force in the economy because it is ingrained in each individual’s genes ... Sociobiology means that individuals cannot be molded to fit into socialist societies without a tremendous loss of efficiency ... Bioeconomists say that government programs that force individuals to be less competitive and selfish than they are genetically programmed to be are preordained to fail.”22 Even Playboy got in on the act: “Do men need to cheat on their women? A new science says yes.”23

Gould and other members of Science for the People responded by rejecting these ideas as simply the latest version of a scientifically bankrupt biological determinism. “The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories,” they wrote in a letter to the New York Review of Books, “is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification for the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex.”24 Gould pointed out that there was no scientific evidence for any of these claims and that changes in human society are far too rapid to be explained in biological terms.

In opposition to determinism, Gould emphasized the enormous flexibility of human behavior:

The central feature of our biological uniqueness also provides the major reason for doubting that our behaviors are directly coded by specific genes. That feature is, of course, our large brain ... [M]arkedly increased brain size in human evolution ... added enough neural connections to convert an inflexible and rather rigidly programmed device into a labile organ, endowed with sufficient logic and memory to substitute non-programmed learning for direct specification as the ground of social behavior. Flexibility may well be the most important determinant of human consciousness ...

Violence, sexism, and general nastiness are biological since they represent one subset of a possible range of behaviors. But peacefulness, equality, and kindness are just as biological–and we may see their influence increase if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish.25

Gould continued the critique of biological determinism in his award-winning 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man [26], one of the best arguments against scientific racism and the idea that intelligence is genetically fixed. Fifteen years later, after Herrnstein and Charles Murray attempted to revive these ideas in The Bell Curve27 in order to provide pseudo-scientific support for slashing social spending and ending affirmative action, Gould took them on again. He issued a revised and expanded edition of his book with new material showing how Herrnstein and Murray omitted facts and misused statistical methods to reach their racist conclusions.28

In exposing the social roots of scientific ideas, Gould followed in the footsteps of one of his intellectual heroes, Karl Marx’s close collaborator Friedrich Engels. Gould praised Engels’ 1876 pamphlet The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man. In it, Engels correctly rejected the claim that “our evolution was propelled by an enlarging brain” (brain enlargement began only after upright posture first freed the hands for manual work) and offered a “perceptive analysis of the political role of science and of the social biases that must affect all thought.”29 In class societies, Engels argued, physical labor has low status while mind is seen as dominating and noble. This deep seated bias explains why, despite the lack of evidence, most biologists until the 1920s wrongly assumed brain development must have come first. But in placing science in its social context, Gould (also like Engels) was careful to reject the claim of relativists who abandon the idea of objective truth altogether. “I share the credo of my colleagues,” he wrote. “I believe that a factual reality exists and that science, though often in an obtuse and erratic manner, can learn about it.”30

Gould also shared Engels’ enthusiasm for understanding the natural world dialectically–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.31

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.”32

But while his political background made him open to an idea he might otherwise not have considered, Gould emphasized that he accepted the theory because of the evidence, not because it matched any political preconceptions. 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.33 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 the evidence for it appears to be mounting. According to David Jablonski, a University of Chicago biologist, there is now “an impressive array of examples in the fossil record, from snails to horses” that appear to support it. “Of all Gould’s contributions, in my mind nothing is more important than his establishment of stasis as a real phenomenon,” says paleontologist Carlton Brett. “This notion of stasis is something that people really didn’t think about prior to 1972.”34

Gould’s critics sometimes claimed that the biological debates that he provoked gave comfort to religious opponents of evolution. In the early 1980s, for example, creationists seized on disagreements about punctuated equilibrium to claim that evolution itself had been scientifically discredited, and to demand equal time in high-school biology classes for the idea that life is the result of supernatural design. But Gould was also one of the most prominent public critics of so-called “creation science.” He pointed out that evolution is a well-established fact–and that “[f]acts do no go away while scientists debate rival theories for explaining them.”35 Whatever the precise mechanism of evolutionary change, the evidence that all species which now exist have common ancestors and thus fit together into a single tree of life is overwhelming.36 What biologists debate is not whether, but how evolution has taken place.

In 1981, after Arkansas passed legislation requiring equal time for creationism in schools, Gould was one of the main expert witnesses in a highly-publicized federal trial that eventually declared the law unconstitutional for violating the separation of church and state. In his testimony, Gould outlined the fossil evidence for evolution.37 Elsewhere, however, Gould also made clear that creationism was not simply an intellectual error, but an ideology with deep social roots. “The rise of creationism,” he argued, “is politics, pure and simple; it represents one issue (and by no means the major concern) of the resurgent evangelical right.”38 Creationism is, in fact, “a mere stalking horse or subsidiary issue in a political program that would ban abortion, erase the political and social gains of women by reducing the vital concept of the family to an outmoded paternalism, and reinstitute all the jingoism and distrust of learning that prepares a nation for demagoguery.”39

Gould’s anti-reductionism and his pluralism about the mechanisms of evolution were also clearly influenced by his affinity for dialectics. “I have been trying to describe a hierarchical alternative to the Darwinian tradition that reduces all large-scale evolutionary phenomena to extrapolated results of natural selection working at the level of individual organisms within populations,” Gould once explained. “Hierarchical models by contrast, recognize genes, organisms, and species as legitimate entities in a sequence of levels with unique explanatory principles emerging at each more inclusive plateau.”40 Put another way, Gould was arguing that quantity could turn into quality and require appeal to new explanatory principles. Materialists believe that human beings are nothing more than complex physical systems, but it does not follow from this that we can explain human behavior using just the laws of physics. The same reductionist error is the fundamental mistake of sociobiology (and its more recent successor, evolutionary psychology), which wrongly assumes that since humans are biological creatures, then biology alone can explain our behavior. “How satisfying it is to fob off the responsibility for war and violence upon our presumably carnivorous ancestors,” Gould wrote. “How convenient to blame the poor and the hungry for their own condition–lest we be forced to blame our economic system or our government for an abject failure to secure a decent life for all people.”41

In an interview conducted shortly before his death, Gould expressed a desire to write two more big books “if I get enough time.”42 One was to be called “Life’s Direction” and would address patterns in evolutionary development. Gould was a frequent critic of the common misconception that evolution is an inherently progressive process, with more complex organisms as the inevitable outcome. He liked to point out that in terms of adaptive success bacteria and beetles have a much better track record than humans, and will surely outlive us. Nevertheless there are patterns in evolution, and Gould wanted to ask how we should characterize and measure them. The second book was to be a history of paleontology from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Gould, who could read Latin, French and German, would have been the ideal person to work on such a project. Sadly, these are books we will never see. But Gould has left us with a wonderful legacy of hundreds of articles and over twenty books. His contributions to evolutionary biology will live on. And his commitment to the view that science can be a tool for liberation, not oppression, should inspire everyone who wants not just to understand the world, but to change it for the better.

* * *


1 Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, “Punctuated equilibria: An alternative to Phyletic gradualism,” in Thomas J.M. Schopf, ed. Models in Paleobiology (San Francisco: Freeman, 1972). According to Kevin Padian, a paleontology professor at UC Berkeley, this article is “perhaps the most influential and frequently cited paper in paleontology in this [20th] century.” Also see “The episodic nature of evolutionary change” in The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (New York: Norton, 1980), “Ten thousand acts of kindness” in Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History (New York: Norton, 1993), and “Cordelia’s dilemma” and “Lucy on the earth in stasis” in Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History (New York: Harmony Books, 1995).

2 Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin, “The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A critique of the adaptationist programme,” Proceedings of the Royal Society, London B205 (1979), pp. 581–98.

3 Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). An excerpt is available on-line at

4 “A tale of two work sites,” in The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000), p. 253. This fine essay describes the fire in detail and explains how “Social Darwinist” ideology, which distorts evolutionary theory to justify social inequality, helped keep safety regulations weak, thus contributing to the disaster. When Gould became a visiting professor at New York University in 1996, he discovered that his office was located in the building that had been the site of the fire. The title essay of Gould’s final collection, I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History (New York: Harmony Books, 2002), is a biographical essay about his grandparents.

5 Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, “Punctuated equilibria: The tempo and mode of evolution reconsidered,” Paleobiology 3 (1977), p. 146.

6 See for instance “Darwin’s delay” in Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History (New York: Norton, 1977), “Darwin’s middle road” in The Panda’s Thumb, “Nurturing nature” in An Urchin in the Storm: Essays about Books and Ideas (New York: Norton, 1987), “The Horn of Triton” in Bully for Brontosaurus (New York: Norton, 1991), and “The Darwinian gentleman at Marx’s funeral: Resolving evolution’s oddest coupling” in I Have Landed.

7 See for instance, I Have Landed, pp. 127–8.

8 Letter from Alan Andrews, The Guardian (UK), May 25, 2002.

9 “Roots writ large,” in Lewis Wolpert and Alison Richards, eds. A Passion for Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 142. This is the edited transcript of an interview which originally aired on BBC Radio 3.

10 “A personal remembrance: Stephen Jay Gould,” available at Ryan continues: “Gould was one of several teachers who taught me to be a skeptic, to question, to wonder. Just to be exposed to someone who challenges authority–in science, in culture, in politics and government–is the greatest gift a young student can receive.”

11 I was told this story by the Cornell philosopher and Marx scholar Richard W. Miller, then a Harvard graduate student, who was introduced to Gould at the demonstration. According to Miller, “Gould’s activities were certainly farther left than the respectable anti-war movement.”

12 For background on the radical science movement see Rita Arditti et al., eds. Science and Liberation (Boston: South End Press, 1980), and Jon Beckwith, “The radical ccience movement in the United States,” Monthly Review, July–August 1986.

13 Available at

14 The other speakers were Maria Helena Moreira Alves, Barbara Fields, Richard Levins, Daniel Singer, Cornel West and Ellen Meiksins Wood. A transcript of the discussion is available online at

15 Paul Buhle, “Science,” in Mari Jo Buhle et al., eds. Encyclopedia of the American Left (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 723.

16 See Allan Chase, The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of Scientific Racism (New York: Knopf, 1977). For a much briefer account of the history, see Phil Gasper, “Good breeding,” Socialist Review 178, October 1994 available at

17 “How much can we boost IQ and scholastic achievement?” Harvard Educational Review 39, pp. 1–123. Jensen’s paper begins with the claim that “Compensatory education has been tried, and it apparently has failed.” See “Racist arguments and IQ” in Ever Since Darwin, for Gould’s elegant response.

18 “IQ,” Atlantic Monthly, September 1971, pp. 43–64.

19 Edward Wilson, Sociobiology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

20 The New York Times Magazine, October 12, 1975.

21 Time, August 1, 1977. The article also reported a claim by the biologist Robert Trivers that feminism was going to decline because feminists were not having children and, therefore, would not pass on their feminist genes!

22 Business Week, April 10, 1978.

23 Playboy, August 1978. The article says that “Males are ... driven by their genes to reproduce. They tend to be more promiscuous because in time past that was their best way to reproduce the most offspring. If you get caught fooling around, don’t say the devil made you do it. It’s the devil in your DNA ...” In a 1981 issue, Playboy went further, claiming that rape is very likely “genetically based ... a strategy genetically available to low-dominance males that increases their chances of reproducing by making more females available to them than they would otherwise acquire.”

24 Reprinted in Arthur L. Caplan, ed. The Sociobiology Debate (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 260.

25 “Biological potentiality vs. biological determinism,” in Ever Since Darwin, p. 257.

26 Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1981).

27 Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve (New York: The Free Press, 1994).

28 Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, Revised and Expanded (New York: Norton, 1996).

29 “Posture maketh the man,” in Ever Since Darwin, pp. 207–13. Also see “Genes on the brain,” in An Urchin in the Storm, pp. 111–12.

30 The Mismeasure of Man, p. 22 (Revised and Expanded edition, p. 54).

31 “Nurturing nature,” pp. 153–54.

32 “The episodic nature of evolutionary change,” pp. 184–185.

33 There are, however, numerous examples of transitional forms between larger groups, such as archaeopteryx, the first bird, which has strong reptilian features.

34 “Theory still rocks scientists’ equilibrium,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 27, 2002.

35 “Evolution as fact and theory,” in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History (New York: Norton, 1983), p. 254.

36 For an up-to-date summary of the evidence for evolution, see Chapter 2 of Robert T. Pennock, Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999).

37 For a description of the trial and the text of the Judge’s decision, see Michael Ruse, ed. But Is It Science? The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988).

38 “Evolution as fact and theory,” p. 253.

39 “A visit to Dayton,” in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, p. 275.

40 “Utopia, limited” in An Urchin in the Storm, pp. 217–18.

41 “The nonscience of human nature” in Ever Since Darwin, p. 239.

42 Quoted in the New York Times, June 2, 2002.

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