Many nonspecialists believe that Stephen Jay Gould was the preeminent evolutionary theorist of the 20th century. His The Mismeasure of Man might be the most widely read book on biology/evolution among scholars in the humanities. But people specializing in the fields in which Gould pontificated generally had a poor opinion of his scholarship.
It is…not surprising that Gould’s history of the efforts to measure human intelligence, The Mismeasure of Man, received many glowing reviews in the popular and literary press, and even a National Book Critics Circle award. Yet the reviews that have appeared in scientific journals, focusing on content rather than on style or on political appeal, have been highly critical of both the book’s version of history and its scientific arguments. The paradox is striking. If a scholar wrote a tendentious history of medicine that began with phlebotomy and purges, moved on to the Tuskegee experiment on syphilitic Negroes, and ended with the thalidomide disaster, he would convince few people that medicine is all bad, and he would ruin his reputation. So we must ask: Why did Gould write a book that fits this model all too closely? Why were most reviewers so uncritical? And how can non-scientific journals improve their reviews of books on scientific aspects of controversial political issues?
Gould occupies a rather curious position, particularly on his side of the Atlantic. Because of the excellence of his essays, he has come to be seen by non-biologists as the preeminent evolutionary theorist. In contrast, the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publically criticised because he is at least on our side against the creationists. All this would not matter, were it not that he is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary biology.
Skeptic: You developed your theory of allopatric speciation in the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1970s Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould applied that to the fossil record and called it punctuated equilibrium. Was this just a spin-off from what you had already done? What was new in punctuated equilibrium?
Mayr: I published that theory in a 1954 paper (“Change of Genetic Environment and Evolution,” in Huxley, J., A.C. Hardy, and E.B. Ford, Eds., Evolution as a Process, London: Allen and Unwin), and I clearly related it to paleontology. Darwin argued that the fossil record is very incomplete because some species fossilize better than others. But what I derived from my research in the South Sea Islands is that in these isolated little populations it is much easier to make a genetic restructuring because when the numbers are small it takes rather few steps to become a new species. A small local population that changes very rapidly. I noted that you are never going to find evidence of a small local population that changed very rapidly in the fossil record. My essential point was that gradual populational shifts in founder populations appear in the fossil record as gaps.
Skeptic: Isn’t that what Eldredge and Gould argued in their 1972 paper, citing your 1963 book Animal Species and Evolution several times?
Mayr: Gould was my course assistant at Harvard where I presented this theory again and again for three years. So he knew it thoroughly. So did Eldredge. In fact, in his 1971 paper Eldredge credited me with it. But that was lost over time.
I believe Gould was a charlatan….I believe that he was…seeking reputation and credibility as a scientist and writer, and he did it consistently by distorting what other scientists were saying and devising arguments based upon that distortion.
Steve and I taught evolution together for years and in a sense we struggled in class constantly because Steve, in my view, was preoccupied with the desire to be considered a very original and great evolutionary theorist. So he would exaggerate and even caricature certain features, which are true but not the way you want to present them. For example, punctuated equilibrium, one of his favorites. He would go to the blackboard and show a trait rising gradually and then becoming completely flat for a while with no change at all, and then rising quickly and then completely flat, etc. which is a kind of caricature of the fact that there is variability in the evolution of traits, sometimes faster and sometimes slower, but which he made into punctuated equilibrium literally. Then I would have to get up in class and say “Don’t take this caricature too seriously. It really looks like this…” and I would make some more gradual variable rates. Steve and I had that kind of struggle constantly. He would fasten on a particular interesting aspect of the evolutionary process and then make it into a kind of rigid, almost vacuous rule, because—now I have to say that this is my view—I have no demonstration of it—that Steve was really preoccupied by becoming a famous evolutionist.
Many of us theoretical biologists who knew Stephen personally thought he was something of an intellectual fraud precisely because he had a talent for coining terms that promised more than they could deliver, while claiming exactly the opposite. One example was the notion of “punctuated equilibria”—which simply asserted that rates of (morphological) evolution were not constant, but varied over time, often with periods of long stasis interspersed with periods of rapid change. All of this was well known from the time of Darwin. The classic example were bats. They apparently evolved very quickly from small non-flying mammals (in perhaps less than 20 million years) but then stayed relatively unchanged once they reached the bat phenotype we are all familiar with today (about 50 million years ago). Nothing very surprising here, intermediate forms were apt to be neither very good classic mammals, nor good flying ones either, so natural selection pushed them rapidly through the relevant evolutionary space.
But Steve wanted to turn this into something grander, a justification for replacing natural selection (favoring individual reproductive success) with something called species selection. Since one could easily imagine that there was rapid turnover of species during periods of intense selection and morphological change, one might expect species selection to be more intense, while during the rest of the equilibrium stabilizing selection would rule throughout. But rate of species turnover has nothing to do with the traits within species—only with the relative frequency of species showing these traits. As would prove usual, Steve missed the larger interesting science by embracing a self-serving fantasy. Species selection today is a small but interesting topic in evolutionary theory, not some grand principle emerging from paleontological patterns….
Hard to imagine—but at the end the organism appears to be in full self-deception mode—a blow-hard fraudulently imputing fraud, with righteous indignation, coupled with magnanimous forgiveness for the frailties of self-deception in others….
Much less so, it was said was Stephen Gould, who was into self-promotion, self-inflation and self-deception full time. Not only was his science hopeless but so was much of his behavior in other contexts as well.