evolgen

Confessions of a Darwinist

The Virginia Quarterly Review has published an essay by Niles Eldredge on its website, entitled “Confessions of Darwinist”. I have no problem with Eldredge referring to himself as a Darwinist, as he is not misusing the term. Eldredge’s essay explains how punctuated equilibrium (the theory that earned him fame) does not conflict with Darwinian evolution (ie, his model is not anti-natural selection). He also gives us some good history on Darwin to read on this Darwin day. I have reproduced a short passage below the fold.

This passage contains a quote from George Gaylord Simpson that I find amusing. Eldredge also points out that he came up with punctuated equilibrium and Stephen Gould merely tagged his name onto the theory.

Indeed, had I read the introduction to my distinguished predecessor George Gaylord Simpson’s famous 1944 book Tempo and Mode in Evolution, I might have seen that paleontology was a decidedly rocky road for walking the evolutionary walk. Simpson had wryly encapsulated the tension between geneticists and paleontologists when he wrote:

Not long ago paleontologists felt that a geneticist was a person who shut himself in a room, pulled down the shades, watched small flies disporting themselves in bottles, and thought that he was studying nature. A pursuit so removed from the realities of life, they said, had no significance for the true biologist. On the other hand, the geneticists said that paleontology had no further contributions to make to biology, that its only point had been the completed demonstration of the truth of evolution, and that it was a subject too purely descriptive to merit the name “science.” The paleontologist, they believed, is like a man who undertakes to study the principles of the internal combustion engine by standing on a street corner and watching the motor cars whiz by.

And yet it was the evolutionary process — and not just the simple facts of evolutionary history — that I longed to study. It seemed very much that paleontology, like anthropology, was the wrong choice if evolution were to be the focus of all my work.

I had been shocked to find very little change in the 5 million years or so of history recorded by the main lineage of my Devonian trilobite. I had been led to believe — along with the rest of the evolutionary-minded world — that such periods of time would engender almost as a matter of course some degree of palpable and lasting evolutionary change. I had pulled the fat out of the fire (one needs results, after all, to claim a PhD from a dissertation study) by saying that not only my little group of trilobites but most species in the history of life showed great stability for most of their histories; I then said that the idea of geographic speciation — as championed by the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky and the systematist Ernst Mayr (writing after Dobzhansky but somehow receiving most of the credit) — could account for the fact that evolution seems to occur relatively rapidly as new species split off from their long-stable ancestors.

Published in 1971 with a turgid title in the main journal devoted to evolutionary biology, my results sank pretty much without a trace. Repackaged a year later, with additions, in a jointly authored paper with a former fellow student with a knack for catchy phrases, the theory of “punctuated equilibria” was born. That colleague, of course, was Stephen Jay Gould — who would never tolerate the subversion of paleontology to the interests of any other field. At last, a good choice!

[Citations omitted.]

(Via De Rerum Natura.)

Comments

  1. #1 IndianCowboy
    February 12, 2006

    I’m something of a fan of Eldridge’s writing in general (not necessarily punctuated equilibrium…I think it’s an artificial distinction), but not one of Gould.

    And that Simpson passage is one of my alltime faves.

  2. #2 Ricardo Azevedo
    February 17, 2006

    I enjoyed his description of the genesis of punctuated equilibrium:

    Published in 1971 with a turgid title in the main journal devoted to evolutionary biology, my results sank pretty much without a trace. Repackaged a year later, with additions, in a jointly authored paper with a former fellow student with a knack for catchy phrases, the theory of “punctuated equilibria” was born. That colleague, of course, was Stephen Jay Gould [...]

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