17% of the way through The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, can I get a w00t, w00t!?!?! Chapter 3 was a change. I am wondering if the verbal excesses on garish display in the first two chapters was just an extended fart that Stephen Jay Gould had to get out of his system so that he could be a bit more comfortable. Barely a mention of Shakespeare, medieval architecture or the Bible. An occasional gratuitous toss of Latin here and there, but a most definite improvement in that most nebulous character, readability. Though Gould won’t be accused of Hemingway-like prose economy, he’s definitely not in stylistic stasis anymore, and the substance on offer was more appetizing. Take Peter J. Bowler, mix with logorrhea and top it off with an ax-to-grind1, and you get chapter 3. Unfortunately, not a lot of up-to-date science or a detailed elucidation of Stephen Jay Gould’s majestic system of the world. Rather, he focuses on thinkers and controversies within the field of evolution which span the period between the French Revolution and the pre-Mendelian era (i.e., about 1900). But the survey of the history of the science during this period is not simply for the sake of understanding the precursors of modern theories; rather, Gould makes the argument that the structure of scientific revolutions, or lack of, can give us a sense of of the plausibility of various theories. As someone who has repeatedly made the case that science is a culture much more than a specific formal method I am not without total sympathy for this idea; that being said, I do think that science is temporally discriminatory so that ideas and intellectual dynamics of centuries past are discounted and not generally relevant to the issues at hand. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory obviously takes a different tack, and it is certainly consistent with Gould’s insistence on the importance of historical perspective in any evaluation of dynamics. I would though make the case that if Gould is right, that the minute details of intellectual history of the 19th century is extremely relevant to our understanding of the theoretical debates in the field today (the 21st century), then in many ways evolutionary biology is a very piss-poor excuse for a natural science. Perhaps we should resurrect the term natural philosophy and subsume it within that.
1) Jean-Baptiste Lamarck is an important figure of some influence whose intellectual journey and conflicts prefigured trajectory of his heirs. Specifically, he conceived of evolutionary process as occurring on two dimensions, the vertical and the horizontal. The latter consists of local enviornmental adaptation, that is, the generation of ecotypes. The former was the quasi-vitalistic assertion that organisms tend to ascend the chain of complexity through an endogenous drive. Selection on the level of the individuals (through acquired characteristics) was important in the former case, but not the latter.
2) Charles Darwin unfairly discounted Lamarck, and was uncharitable in disavowing any positive influence.
3) August Weismann, a panselectionist and one of the most preeminent classical Darwinians of the late 19th century, eventually had to abandon a focus on the organism as the locus of selection due to his debates with neo-Lamarckians such as Herbert Spencer.
4) Ernst Haeckel and another obscure German biologist were also multi-levelists in their understanding of the theory of evolution.
5) To solve the riddle of species diversity Charles Darwin also had to ultimately appeal to species level selection despite his resistance.
6) The scientific biographies extant in this chapter show strongly that 19th century scientists who wished on a priori grounds reject higher level selection than the individual had to ultimately concede its reality because of the weight of facts and its value as an explanatory principle. Gould makes the argument that these data should tells us both the importance and trend of the biases of the present, and the possibility that species level (and higher) selection is still the best possible answer to some perplexing problems.
7) Lots of obscure historical minutiae. Lots, these few ideas were embedded in reams of marbled factual fat. 80 pages worth. But fatty meat is better than fart.
1 – Though Gould admits his ax as it’s the whole point of the book!