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Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History (1977)

by Stephen Jay Gould

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Reflections in Natural History (1)

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Ever Since Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould's first book, has sold more than a quarter of a million copies. Like all succeeding collections by this unique writer, it brings the art of the scientific essay to unparalleled heights.

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Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
  laplantelibrary | Jul 9, 2022 |
Essays, some quite short. Individual reviews below.

Prologue: Some discussion of the nuances of Darwin's theory. Also a quotation from Sigmund Freud about the great blow to human ego of finding out that the universe is big and that humans are animals. I guess I can imagine that at the time the first discovery came as a bit of a shock, but it's easy to get over it. There's nothing undistinguished about this galaxy and this planet; it has me on it. The humans are animals discovery ought to have a more permanent effect on that self-love; it has real significance.

I. Darwiniana
1. Darwin's Delay
Why did Darwin take so long to publish? Gould's hypothesis: it wasn't hostility toward evolution that he feared, evolution was very much in the air, it was hostility to the mechanism, natural selection, and it's consequence, materialism. Could be.
2. Darwin's Sea Change
Five years as the dinner companion of Captain Fitzroy. Did co-existing with this volatile and devout naval officer drive Darwin away from his religious leanings. (The ship's official naturalist quit at some point during the voyage.)
3. Darwin's Dilemma: The Odyssey of Evolution
This is about the word "evolution". Darwin avoided it; because both its then technical and its then popular meaning didn't match his understanding of natural selection. In particular, Darwin did not see natural selection as progress. But "evolution" caught on because of Herbert Spencer, so here we are.
4. Darwin's Untimely Burial
Somebody called Tom Bethell argued in Harper's magazine that there was a great logical flaw in Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Apparently, this person had lost track of the meaning of "natural selection", selection by nature (as opposed to artificial means). Gould puts him right, a little long-windedly. One suspects that this Tom Bethell was a philosopher, not a scientist. The most interesting bit about the essay is that Gould mentions computers and their paper tape. Apparently even then persons were running computer simulations of evolution, very simplified. It seems like Gould didn't understand that if you could model change in genes, you could also model selection in the environment.

II. Human Evolution
5. A Matter of Degree
Humans and chimps are very similar in their genes, more similar than many other species although they do appear very different. Some of the genes that are different must have a very significant effect to make humans and chimps seem so different. Most likely the offspring of a human and chimp would be sterile; there are enough differences. The purpose of the essay is just to emphasize that humans are animals, I guess.
6. Bushes and Ladders in Human Evolution
Discusses the discovery of new humanoids and the rearrangement of the understanding of human origins. Mostly wants humans to realize that they're the more or less accidental survivors. What is most interesting to me about this essay is the amazing number of important fossils discovered by the Leakeys.
7. The Child as Man's Real Father
Dumb title. An argument for neoteny being what makes humans so different from chimps. I think that neoteny is pretty well established now. Some annoying philosophizing about how extended childhood of humans builds bonds between couples. Whatever.
8. Human Babies as Embryos
More of (7) really. Maybe this is commonly accepted now.
III. Odd Organisms and Evolutionary Exemplars
9. The Misnamed, Mistreated, and Misunderstood Irish Elk
Refutes first an orthogenetic theory of the enormous antlers and then points out that the allometric one is uninteresting. The focus is on explaining why the antlers grew too big; Gould says that there is no reason to think that they did. I think when I was a kid I must have read a book that speculated, orthogenetically, that the sabre-tooth tiger became extinct because its teeth became impossibly long. In his review of the book, Richard Dawkins disagrees with the conclusions of the essay; he feel that Gould should allow for the fact that sexual selection was at odds w/ natural selection.
10. Organic Wisdom, or Why should a fly eat its mother from inside
This is the extreme of a reproductive strategy in an unstable environment. When a bonanza of food has suddenly appeared, reproduction goes into overdrive. Once the food is depleted, the whole new population must leave in search of some food somewhere else. For this reproductive strategy, offspring may vary: flightless offspring are produced when there is an abundance, but mobile offspring are produced when the bonanza has been depleted. Of course, one good way to look at humans is as if they're in the first stage, and have a fantastical belief that they'll find another bonanza in the second stage.
11. Of Bamboos, Cicadas, and the Economy of Adam Smith
About the strategy of "predator satiation"; animals and plants have regular but long reproductive cycles and their larvae or seeds or whatever appear all at once. Most are eaten, but some escape, because there are just not enough predators to consume them all. In "Earthflight", we found that in some cases, bird migration cycles have synced up with insect reproductive cycles, so the birds arrive just as the eggs are hatching. How do the organisms of each species count down? Has anybody figured that out yet?
12. The Problem of Perfection: Or how can a clam mount a fish on its rear end?
Intricately adapted organs are a conceptual problem for evolutionists; it seems that such organs must have evolved in an instant to serve their purpose. The argument evolutionists use is that intermediate forms must have served a somewhat different purpose. It's the best argument there is, and presumably most biologists believe it. Gould uses the example of a clam with a very fish-like lure, and speculates, using examples from other related species, about what the growth was good for before it looked quite so much like a fish. (In the clam's case, the fish is not for hunting purposes but for reproduction, the clam's larvae need to mature in a fish's gills, and the fish needs to be lured close so that the larvae can be shot at it.)
IV. Patterns and Punctuations in the History of Life
13. The Pentagon of Life
A vote for what was then a newly introduced classification: Prokaryotes, Eukaryotes, Fungi, Plantae, Animalia. I believe this is now pretty well accepted. Make an allusion to "the Cambrian Explosion", which became an obsession later, as I have heard. Considers the two most significant evolutionary events at the evolution of the eukaryotic cell and of sexual reproduction.
14. An Unsung Single-Celled Hero
Gould argues that the cause of "the Cambrian Explosion" was a single celled predator. This "cropper" loosened things up a bit, allowing new species to flourish. As far as I know, "the Cambrian Explosion" no longer needs an explanation, because it is now felt that it just wasn't that explosive.
15. The Cambrian Explosion
More about this explosion. Argues that it is part of a sigmoid growth in diversity of species, the part where the exponential phase first began. Makes an argument about diversity within clades which is not all that interesting.
16. The Great Dying
An hypothesis about the causes of the Permian extinction which occurred 225 million years ago and killed off all the trilobites. Argues that the single super-continent Pangaea came into existence and previous shallow seas habitats were much diminished reducing the number of species that inhabited them.
V. Theories of the Earth
Chapters 17 and 19 are about two persons who accepted the Old Testament more or less literally, and tried to reconcile it with the science of the day. Chapter 17 features Thomas Burnett, author of "The Sacred Theory of the Earth" and a member of the court of the English king William III. He eventually ran afoul of others who preferred a more literal interpretation of the Old Testament. Good quotation: "'tis a dangerous thing to ingage the authority of Scripture in disputes about the Natural World, in opposition to Reason; lest Time, which brings all things to light, should discover that to be evidently false which we had made Scripture to assert." Chapter 19 features Immanuel Velikovsky, much more modern but otherwise the same. He, with so many more advantages, seems that much more of a crank. Gould points out that, in the end, Burnett was canceled by the people who considered him not religious enough; he had proposed an allegorical interpretation of Genesis and the fall of man. There is a good joke about the title "Clerk of the Closet", no, he didn't manage the king's toilet, he heard the king's confessions.

Chapter 18 is a discussion of the contemporary belief that Charles Lyell's gradualism won out over the catastrophism of his less successful contemporaries. Gould argues that the catastrophism Lyell debunked was a strawman which no serious geologist actually believed by the time of Lyell's book, although it might have been held by laymen and religious types. So the catastrophist applauded Lyell's work as explaining the true facts about geology to the educated laymen. There is a reference to J. S. Mill, who apparently dabbled in philosophy of science a little.

Chapter 19 (Velikovsky in Collision) About Immanuel Velikovsky's theories and many books. I've decided to avoid ever reading any of Velikovsky's books, they just seem too crackpot.

Chapter 20 (The Validation of Continental Drift) is about how it took roughly ten years for the theory of continental drift to go from heresy to orthodoxy. Gould asks why. Was there overwhelming new evidence? Gould says no, not really, geologists and paleontologists had been explaining away geological and fossil evidence for continental drift for many decades, introducing theories to save the appearances. However, when the theory of plate tectonics arrived, it offered a mechanism for continental drift that had hitherto been missing. So, suddenly, this crucial bit of evidence caused the theory of continental drift to be accepted and it is in children's books in all the libraries today. Gould is carried away by his eloquence here to make a point about theories governing how facts are interpreted. I don't think it's so simple. Until the evidence for plate tectonics came along, the facts were not convincing enough, after that, they were more than enough.

VI: Size and Shape from Churches to Brains and Planets
21. Size and Shape
Basic discussion of how size effects the expression of physical forces; why bugs can climb up walls but humans need special equipment. Discussion about how bulky animals need to play tricks to get more surface area: lungs and digestive organs are just surface area bodies to allow oxygen or nutrition to pass across a complicated surface. Somewhat analogously, in architecture, and before fancy modern building materials, large buildings required spiky floor plans to allow light and air to get into the interior. Movies with enormous bugs that behave just like tiny bugs are funny. One interesting bit is about kinetic energy; if a 3 foot tall child slips on the ice and falls flat on their back their head will hit less than a quarter as hard as a six foot adult's.
22. Sizing up Human Intelligence
Human's have big bodies; this is the reason they can manage large brains. There is a remark about the foolishness of using brain size to decide the relative intelligence of humans, but the example is very stupid: apparently Anatole France's brain volume was about half Oliver Cromwell's. Who is to say that Cromwell wasn't twice as smart as Anatole France though? Gould, foolishly, seems to think he must have been a witless thug, but he was a successful general who never lost a battle and ended up ruling England for 10 years. The great size of human bodies is why it is possible for us to impart so much kinetic energy to tools with which we smite for example, trees or large animals. But, be it known, humans do indeed have disproportionately large brain size.
23. History of the Vertebrate Brain
There are trends in brain size...increase over evolutionary time, larger in predator animals, larger in mammals than reptiles. Primate seem to have always had brains that were disproportionately large compared to other similarly sized mammals. How come?
24. Planetary Sizes and Surfaces
Lightweight discussion of the relative sizes of the inner planets, and especially why the earth seems to have so much fairly gradual geologic change, rather than being virtually unchanging, like the moon, or showing some signs of erosion, like Mars.

VII: Science in Society: A Historical View
25. On Heroes and Fools in Science
A defense of preformationist thought as quite reasonable and scientific within its period. Seems reasonable.
26. Posture Maketh the Man
About how cultural prejudices influence science, at least scientific predictions. In particular, Darwin and many others assumed that the brain enlarged and that the upright posture came later; Engels got behind the upright posture first. Intellectuals like to think that the brain is super-important; Engels, a Marxist intellectual, opposed himself to them.
27. Racism and Recapitulation
About how recapitulationism was used to support biological racist classifications. When the theory of humans as neotenized apes took hold, then the racist classification scheme had to be entirely readjusted in order to reach the same conclusions. Ernst Haeckel seems to have been a racist egalitarian, he seemed to believe that the theory of evolution would erase class differences but reinforce racist classifications. There is one very dubious paragraph in this essay: the non-refutation of some research discussed in a book "The IQ Question" by H. Eysenck. This research purported to show that motor abilities developed more rapidly in some racially classified set of humans than another as did lower IQ (intelligence quotient). Gould points out that correlation is not causation, well and good. But that almost certainly was not what Eysenck was arguing; instead he was arguing that the members of his unpreferred racist classification had two characteristics that made it a bit more animalistic then his other, preferred, racist classification. That would be a reasonable argument if the two measures could be trusted or the racist classification were useful in some way.
28. The Criminal as Nature's Mistake
Pretty much the same as (27), but here the idea of evolution is tied to criminality with many but not all criminals being somehow closer to their primitive forebears.
VIII: The Science and Politics of Human Nature
Part A: Race, Sex, and Violence
29. Why We Should not Name Human Races -- A Biological View
Gould points out that species vary a lot over a geographical range. Dividing the species into lots and lots of subspecies and giving them fancy Latin names was probably fun for Victorian naturalist. But nowadays we have computers and can enjoy ourselves doing multivariate analysis. Classifying species into sub-species isn't much for the study of snails; likely it has no purpose for humans, either. One thing is different w/ humans compared to wild animals, which is that they move around so much that their geographical variability is seriously muddled. But classifying humans into subspecies is still generally going to be utterly pointless, even though humans study themselves more than they study other animals, because they are more concerned with their own health care, for example, than with that of any other animal on earth.
30. The non-science of Human Nature
In this essay, Gould inveighs against those people that develop theories about our pre-human ancestors and use those to justify current societal norms. He points out that the data is difficult to interpret; if we strongly believe one interpretation over another, it is because of our bias toward that interpretation. Moreover, I will point out that herbivores may be anything but gentle, think of the lethally dangerous hippopotamus. Stephen Pinker would probably make an opposite argument.
31. Racist Arguments and IQ
I am not convinced that IQ tests have much meaning. Even the word, intelligence quotient is kind of wierd. There's supposed to be a ratio there, of the persons intellectual age / the person's actual age. If 1, they're exactly right, if greater, precocious, if less retarded. Does this keep working when you're 71, or is it just for kids? Gould points out that regardless, we should judge people as individuals and not assign them to buckets of some classification. He's right, but that's not fashionable these days. Closes w/ a quote from John Stuart Mill: Of all the vulgar modes... but no reference. Another problem w/ this essay is that it uses some kind of ratio measure for heritability, but gives no explanation of the meaning of the ratio, or whether it might relate to how inheritance actually works. Goofy, that.
Part B: Sociobiology
32. Biologic Potentiality vs. Biological Determinism
Here Gould makes a general argument that I mostly agree with. In his book "Sociobiology", E.O. Wilson wrote mostly about the social behavior of animals from an evolutionary point of view. This is probably interesting, but I've never read the book. Then he concludes the book w/ a last chapter on humans and, certainly, a lot of speculation. Gould points out that we can't do sociobiological experiments on humans like we can on fruit flies, so what Wilson is serving up here is speculation. _If_ we could truly prove a biological basis for certain human social behaviors then we would have to deal w/ it. But Gould argues that our societies and our brains are so flexible that it is just as reasonable to assume that our social behaviors are not genetically determined, i.e., are cultural and culturally transmitted. Who can say? Probably I should re-read Stephen Pinker and see if I've come to disagree w/ him. He seemed so convincing the first time I read him, I wonder why?
33. So Cleverly Kind an Animal
Discussions of kin selection as a basis for altruism. More about reproduction in the Hymenoptera than I have the basic biological knowledge to follow. Discusses E.O. Wilson argument for the adaptive benefit of homosexuality. Then points out that the moral defense, i.e., the J. S. Mill one, if people are not harming others, than you can just leave them alone to do there thing, ought to be a more durable argument. It should be; but I remember hearing biological arguments like Wilson's reiterated pretty regularly, at least into the '90s.

Epilogue: In this few pages, Gould mostly argues for not being too doctrinaire, but rather too strongly. He tries to refute one of the early "Selfish Gene" crowd, but not effectively, mostly by setting up a strawman. I think of the "Selfish Gene" perspective as being useful, if you can understand genetics well enough to follow the arguments. He comes out as an opponent of gradualism in evolution; that was a bit rare in the '70s, I think. I don't know where he went w/ that.

Summary: I do not think I'll be reading any more of Gould's collected essays for a long time. I don't like the short form, especially when it is written to a schedule, and I understand that not all his books are collected essays. I will try one of them next. ( )
  themulhern | Sep 26, 2020 |
Collection of columns. ( )
  hcubic | Aug 2, 2015 |
Gould is best known as an advocate for atheism, but those leanings are not readily apparent here. The book is a series of short essays on various aspects of evolutionary theory as seen from a 1977 perspective and as such is of historical interest. Additionally, most of what Gould says is still mainstream opinion and hasn't changed in nearly 40 years. His approach to evolution is best summed up by the last sentence in the book: "I will rejoice in the multifariousness of nature and leave the chimera of certainty to politicians and preachers." ( )
  mldavis2 | Feb 17, 2015 |
This collection, Gould's first, has gotten a bit dated over the years, but his style comes through even here. While I don't agree with all of his conclusions, his essays are just about always worth the read, and some of them (as on Darwin's role aboard the Beagle and about the Irish elk) are simply delightful. ( )
1 vote JBD1 | Nov 18, 2014 |
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