Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Stephen Jay Gould talks about the fossil record and creationists

I was alerted to this video by a post on Facebook. I had never seen it before. The occasion is the celebration of the 20th anniversary of McLean v. Arkansas— one of the legal victories of Americans who are fighting to keep creationism out of the classroom.

It's a 30 minute presentation by Stephen J. Gould on the fossil record. The event took place in February 2001, just a year before he died. You should watch it for many reasons—too many to mention them all here but here are some of the most important ones.

Genie Scott says in the introduction ...
[Francisco] Ayala and Gould were nice complements for the first is an ardent Darwinian and the second has led the attack on conventional Darwinism. By putting the two together, the ACLU neatly diffused a major Creationist misrepresentation; namely, the differences between evolutionists over mechanisms imply that evolution itself is in doubt. Both men stood strongly for one of the strongest, greatest, of all ideas.
This is remarkable because the current crop of creationists—Intelligent Design Creationism—has adopted pretty much the same stance as the Young Earth Creationists did back in 1980.1 They still think that by highlighting disagreement among evolutionary biologists they can discredit evolution.2

Many of you don't like Gould and this video will confirm all of your prejudices. He's all over the map with references to history, books, philosophy, evolutionary theory, American society etc. etc. (His very first sentences refer to "fiat lux." Do you get it?) That's what "polymaths" do and it's frustrating for a lot of people who don't like to think in that way. I understand.

Gould's intended audience is smart people. He has a low tolerance for fools. ID proponents shouldn't bother to watch the video. It's not for you.

Gould is also very fond of anecdotes and he uses them effectively to support his main point. However, this often makes it difficult to follow his argument unless you pay close attention. It's true that the anecdotes often get in the way of clarity.

And if you think that Gould is arrogant, you are correct. He is. Some people are justified in being a little bit arrogant.

Gould explains the three meanings of "transitional" when talking about the fossil record. This is another one of his strengths. In contrast with other evolutionary biologists (e.g. Richard Dawkins) Gould emphasizes how complex and difficult it is to understand evolution. He then tries to explain this complexity to a general (intelligent) audience and I think he does a pretty good job. However, many evolution supporters don't want to admit that the subject is hard because they, themselves, prefer the simple Dawkins' version that doesn't make your brain hurt. ID proponents, on the other hand, are often incapable of understanding complexity.3

Gould points out that Judge Overton really had no choice. He had to decide against the Arkansas Board of Education because the legal issue was so clear. Nevertheless, the trial was important, according to Gould. But he cautions his audience that the real issue is not keeping religion out of the schools by winning court cases. The real issue is keeping evolution in the schools and America isn't winning that fight. Listen to the last two minutes of his presentation.

I don't think things have changed very much.

Gould is one of my heros.4 I still miss him.



1. (sarcasm) This is, of course, just an amazing coincidence since Intelligent Design Creationism is a "scientific theory" that has nothing to do with the religious foundations of Young Earth Creationism. (/sarcasm)

2. If this were a viable strategy then Intelligent Design Creationism could not exist because there are barely two ID proponents who agree completely on what their movement stands for.

3. Double entendre intended.

4. Note to creationists: this does not mean I agree with everything he said. Don't bother trying to tie me to every Gould quotation you can dredge up.

26 comments :

  1. In 1974 I attended the Eighth International Conference on Numerical Taxonomy, which was in Oeiras, Portugal. I had to run one of the sessions, and both Steve Gould and I presented in it. Afterward, it was my task to transcribe from a tape recording the discussion, so that it would appear in the conference volume.

    All the speakers, myself included, spoke in sentence fragments and started most of their sentences with "And, ...". After I sent them the transcriptions, they cleaned up their utterances and made them sound coherent.

    Except for Stephen Jay Gould, who actually spoke in perfectly formed literary English. You could just write it down and it was ready to go. He was one of two people I have known who wrote and spoke in the same voice. (The other was James F, Crow, who had a plainer and less formal style). Both of them were enormously prolific -- I suppose they just spoke to the bathroom mirror and then wrote that down.

    You can see that in Gould's talk here.

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    1. I know that this is off topic, but you have mentioned Jim Crow. Dan Hartl did an interview with him in 2000 and it was recently posted on YouTube. Crow talks about his career in genetics, his work on genetic load, maintenance of variation in natural populations and all sorts of different topics.
      He talks about his time with Wright, his relationship with Kimura and he also tells a funny story of how he got to meet RA Fisher. You also get mentioned as an example of his prolific students.
      Anyway, I really enjoyed the interview and I wanted to share it with other people on this blog that might be interested in history of population genetics. It's a shame it has only 140 views. Here's the link:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IN1xheqTwhk

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    2. Thanks. I put an obituary post at Panda's Thumb after his death, and have collected links to obituaries in the comments there. I will add a link to that video.

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  2. I have little formal study of biology or evolutionary theory, just 2 courses separated distantly in time, but before either I read many of Gould's books of essays, and Wonderful Life. His writing was tremendous, clear. He was one of the great explainers.

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  3. I read Gould mostly in Natural History magazine, starting around 1974. I still have the Mickey Mouse cover issue.

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    1. One of the frustrating things about Gould's promotion of punctuated equilibrium was that a lot of it took place in the pages of Natural History. You couldn't very well write a rebuttal and expect it to be published there.

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    2. On the plus side, he got paid for blogging.

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    3. Can you point to some of the articles he did that in? I've read quite a few of Goulds essays, but I don't think I ever read one where he lays out PE.

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    4. The best summary written by Gould and Eldredge is their Nature paper from 1993.

      Gould, S.J., and Eldredge, N. (1993) Punctuated equilibrium comes of age. Nature, 366:223-227. [PDF]

      The best overall description of punctuated equilibria can be found in Gould book The Structure of Evolutionary Theory but that's a tough read for most people.

      The important point is that (in many cases) the average appearance of individuals within a species doesn't change very much in visible phenotype over short periods of time in the fossil record (millions of years). This is stasis.

      Change is associated with speciation events. Following a speciation event, one of the daughter species—the one with the smallest initial population—often has a distinctive morphology. That's why it is recognized in the fossil record as a new species.

      The explanation is that evolutionary change is slow in species with large population sizes. Variation exists in such populations but it takes a long time to be become fixed. When a new species forms from a small subpopulation it locks in some of the changes allowing them to be rapidly fixed. That's why morphological change is associated with speciation. (This theoretical extension of PE is attributed to Douglas Futuyma.)

      The speciation event is rapid compared to the period of stasis. That's why was you see long periods of equilibria punctuated by rapid change during speciation.

      It's important to keep in mind that the changes are small. So small, in fact, that most of us wouldn't recognize that a new species had formed. It takes expert paleontologists who look closely at the fossils to see that a speciation event has occurred. Punctuated equilibria are observations and a theory concerned with the lowest level of macroevolution; namely, speciation.

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    5. Change is associated with speciation events.

      In their opinion. As you state, fossil species are recognized by changes in morphology, so the theory boils down to the observation that changes in morphology are associated with changes in morphology.

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    6. @Larry. You misunderstood my question. I'm aware of the Publications by Gould and Eldredge in the technical literature (and quite a bit beyond those). But I'm not aware of Gould publishing a lot on PE in his Natural History column, thereby evading peer-review and possible comments. Nature does publish comments on papers. So does Systematic Zoology.

      Goulds structure is - IMHO - a book with a target audience of grad students in paleobiology. Whatever your topic you get a decent starting point for placing it within a wider context. I read this thing at least once a year.

      As far as your sumamry of PE goes, it's worth breaking up PE into 3 parts:
      a) morphological rates of change show a bimodal distribution in deep time - this is at odds with Fishers geometric argument which would lead to a unimodal distribution across all timescales.
      b) the faster mode is associated with speciation
      c) this is due to small populations having higher molecular rates of change, because more novel mutations fall into the near neutral range.

      a) is very well established for a wide range of taxa.
      b) seems reasonable given that taxa for which a) does not hold tend to be clonal and don't have speciation in the same way that sexually reproducing organisms do.
      c) to me is highly questionable, because the idea that higher morphological rates of change are indicative of higher molecular rates of change and vice versa seems wrong. It's also worth noting that population sizes in extant species span several OOMs, yet we don't find a clear pattern where low population sizes lead to high rates of morphological change. And finally there is no reason to assume that population sizes show a bimodal distribution in the first place.

      My preferred alternative to c is to note that sister species tend to be ecologically similar and in particular their population sizes tend to be limited by the same resource. After speciation it is possible that ranges overlap. If they do the system becomes unstable, because now the combined population size is limited by the resource and this leads to the extinction of at least one of the sister species. That is unless at least one of them changes in such a way that it is constraint by another resource. Since the geometric argument allows for high rates (albeit at lower frequencies than low rates), you end up with a situation where the species that survive for a substantial timespan are biased towards larger rates of change.
      It is a macroevolutionary explanation for the PE pattern (though it is not concerned with the processes of speciation anymore - the pattern is the result of the interaction of sibling species after speciation has occurred), where G&E posit a strictly microevolutioanry explanation. Let's bear in mind that in their original publication they still held that paleontology could not have a substantial theoretical branch - a view Gould certainly abandoned afterwards.

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    7. so the theory boils down to the observation that changes in morphology are associated with changes in morphology

      But you have not thereby shown it's trivial. Any true statement can be logically reduced to a tautology, so showing this one can has no particular probative effect.

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    8. But you have not thereby shown it's trivial.

      I disagree. That part, at least, is trivial. It tells us nothing at all about evolution. Nor is it true that any true statement can be reduced to a tautology, as far as I can tell. The problem is that they are using two different species definitions and assuming they're concordant. When they talk about recognizing species, it's the morphological species concept; when they talk about mechanism (to the extent they do) it's the biological species concept. You can't use those interchangeably. Punctuation and stasis can be studied, but you can't tell punctuated speciation from punctuated anagenesis.

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  4. Its hard to believe creationists lost this case to this crowd!! Yankees fighting over evolution/creation truth in courts is not only dumb but very green.
    Its insulting and dumb to say organized creationism is not based on exactly what they say and present to audiences. its not based on religious methodology even if conclusions are drawn confirming 'religious" conclusions.
    Then they said it about iD. oh brother..

    This is not hard to litigate.
    WHEN a state censors anything in subjects of education whose mANDATE is to teach accuracy in conclusions on same subjects THEN the state is saying the censored option is nOT TRUE.
    Therefore, think harder Yanks, the state is saying the option is illegal because its religious and so they aRE saying same religious option is not true.
    SO breaking the separation concept THEY INVOKE for the censorship!!
    How can they beat this equation??

    The founders of these American constitutional etc things never meant for education to be state controlled in its essence of truth teaching. Especially about God and Genesis in a very protestant civilization. Their wigs would rotate thrice.

    Another great point is that the state never meant everything the state paid for. THe federal gov't didn't pat for education back in the day. The state is a real thing. not kindergarten class. Does't the state pay for the roads, parks, the army? No religious talk there either??

    I was surprised how much he relied on the depositional claims of geologists to make biological claims of process. The fossils only show a moment in time and not processes. without the geology it all fails but thats the POINT of why fossils are not biological evidence for evolutionary claims.
    YEC/ID can easily make the fossils work for us. They are just data points,

    Many other wrong points.
    yet it all comes down to using the mutual state to attack and prohibit Christian beliefs especially from those denominations that created the country.
    Attack away but rebuttal must be allowed in gov't institutions in a free and fair nation.
    its illegal to censor creationism and creationism applys scientific methods to most of its work. All of its attacks. Just a wee bit of witness presumptions.
    Allowing evolution is already being the nice guy but surely equal time will come.
    As the singers sing"You have to kick at the darkness until you see sunlight".
    Bring on moye serious and well watched court casess until freedom and truth is once more the peoples natural fright in america and everywhere.
    I would be embarrassed to rejoice at courts fighting the great ideas of mankind and censoring one side.
    Creationists are the good guys in this intellectual/moral/legal dustup.
    Since this video was made it seems to me iD/YEC has grown stronger and louder and more famous and each year is a embarrassment of riches and next year too.

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    1. The founders of these American constitutional etc things never meant for education to be state controlled in its essence of truth teaching. Especially about God and Genesis in a very protestant civilization. Their wigs would rotate thrice.

      Leaving aside your likely notion that the founders were awash in jesus, its important that what is taught in public schools represents the evidence-based consensus of those who actually study and best understand the topics. To borrow from the Gould's talk, you might have it that we teach students in class that humans only use 10% of their brain since most everyone in the common public believes this. Well, this is one way to perpetuate ignorance across generations.

      Another great point is that the state never meant everything the state paid for. THe federal gov't didn't pat for education back in the day. The state is a real thing. not kindergarten class. Does't the state pay for the roads, parks, the army? No religious talk there either??

      That's right. In the U.S. it would be a constitutional violation for a County Transportation Department (for example) to install a jesus billboard on the I-90, or a sign saying that God recommends a speed limit of 65 mph. On the other hand, any employee putting up a sign on the highway is quite free to privately pray to themselves all they want that they don't get hit by a car while doing so.

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    2. Does't the state pay for the roads, parks, the army? No religious talk there either??

      That's correct. Learn something new every day, eh, Robert? (Though the Supreme Court has made an exception for such stuff as municipal Christmas displays, saying they do not have a predominantly religious intent. But that was William Rehnquist, who also said discriminating on the basis of pregnancy was not gender discrimination, in spite of the fact only women get pregnant. Rehnquist reminds me a lot of the White Queen from Alice in Wonderland: "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

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    3. I should have mentioned that I did especially like the "Their wigs would rotate thrice." line though :-)

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    4. SRM
      This is about legal stuff. Its another subject of whats to be taught. The point here is using the courts to censor. First things first.
      Its up to the people to decide what is true or not and what is censored or nothing. Otherwise its a few bosses.
      They brought it to court and so its in court and law.

      On the road thing. I mean saying a prayer while driving or walking or religious stickers on cars or any spoken word and song would be illegal if the roads are the state because the state pays for them. Its absurd to say the state meant all it paid for. Remember also the statre didn't pay for schools but the 13 states did if they did.
      NEVER and NEVER did anyone in the nation consider censorship was to be imposed on origin subjects because of a great idea of separation of church and state. HOW WAS that read into it they would cry!!

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    5. judmare
      The great idea of separating the state from interfering with the church and opposite is today broken by the STATE?COURTS mandating censorship on origin subjects/conclusions if they are or are seen as coming from religious sources.
      IN subjects dedicated not just to truth but to methodology dedicated to accuracy in truth(science) but stressing its about truth.
      Therefore since creationism(s) are not censored then as a option(s) for truth in subjects about truth it means the state is officially saying they are not true.
      SO breaking the concept/law it invokes for the censorship.
      Where am I wrong here? Its not simple math but not calculus either.

      They can't claim the founders in any way intended or would allow any censorship of God or gEnesis in subjects about origins .Its not in the constitution in any way. in fact they would be hostile to contrary ideas but still presume freedom of thought and speech is the law especially in educational institutions which is not a focus of the constitution. Education is always by the people and in a new free nation all the more.
      Its aBsUrD what is said to justify banning creationism in science class dealing with origins.
      It moves through obscure circles still and simply morte attention with more people will bring needed court cases to end this judicial embarrassment.

      by the way pregnancy would be about the pregnancy and irrelevant to gender. Its the pregnant state being assessed and not the gender who is pregnant. Watch the math.

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    6. Robert, you wrote:
      "The great idea of separating the state from interfering with the church and opposite is today broken by the STATE?COURTS mandating censorship on origin subjects/conclusions if they are or are seen as coming from religious sources."

      I think it's safe to say we all know you mean source not sources, and the source being the christian bible. Your own personal bible.

      But, if we must teach the christian bible on origins, it's not only fair but actually required, to also present the muslim, jewish, WBC, KKK, protestant, catholic, lutherian, aboriginal, polynesian, mayan, incan, norse versions of origins too. Also we'd require schools to also present the versions of writers like Pratchett, because their version of origins might just as well be the Truth.

      That's one of the major and also fascinating issues creationists do seem not to understand, their world view isn't the only one, it's in fact a very small minority view when compared to every and all religions on this globe. Considering there are more than 32.000 christian denominations in the world already today, you're version of origins Robert, is a mere 1/32.000 th of all christian origins stories. What would be the cut off value requiring schools to teach your version of origins?

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    7. But, if we must teach the christian bible on origins, it's not only fair but actually required, to also present the muslim, jewish, WBC, KKK, protestant, catholic, lutherian, aboriginal, polynesian, mayan, incan, norse versions of origins too.

      Well, no, not really. You don't get around the Constitutional ban on state establishment of religion by providing "equal time" to a variety of religious views. If you're talking about presenting scientific critiques of such views, that really isn't teaching the origin myth(s) as Robert would want, is it?

      Robert does raise the point that the establishment clause isn't the only First Amendment clause dealing with religion. There's also the "free exercise" clause, which true state censorship might run afoul of. But non-inclusion of creationism in science class isn't censorship of religion, it's a decision about how to teach science (i.e., a decision not to devote classroom time to either what Robert would like, the presentation of creationist ideas as truth, or to what Dr. Moran might like, presentation of creationist ideas in order to encourage thoughtful criticism and debunking).

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    8. On the road thing. I mean saying a prayer while driving or walking or religious stickers on cars or any spoken word and song would be illegal if the roads are the state because the state pays for them.

      No, this would not be the case. The government or agents of the government cannot promote religion but they cannot prevent its exercise by citizens either. In school for example the adminstration cannot promote religion, but any student can pray out loud and sing songs of faith or read a bible all they want in school (so long as they are not disruptive to others of course). Religious people like to claim god was kicked out of school. But the only thing different is that schools are no longer allowed to be instruments of indoctrination. That is what churches are for.

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    9. Ed
      your wrong. the point is that there is no law on teaching origins. Its up to the people like everything else taught.
      Even if you were right it still wouild not change the illegality of the censorship.
      The people are free on this subject. Nobody in the old days mandated anything on truth in origins.
      The people can decide and simply the only important creationism would be given equal time where it would be.
      First things first however.

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    10. judmare. you are very wrong.
      The decisions line of reasoning is not about how science is taught or is the only thing taught in science class/origins but its about saying creationism(s) are not science AND THEN they are religion. its only the last point, thats what Gould said too, that is used for the censorship.
      my point is tHAT IT IS censorship of religion and so a state opinion those religious doctrines are wrong since what the subject is and is about what is truth would demand those religious doctines as a option. further the express point of censoring creationism in subjects on truth is LOUD state opinion they are not true.
      WHO in a subject dedicated to truth would censor one option, original and famous and popular, and still make a pretence that there is freedom of speech etc?
      Anyways its illegal by the law invoked for the censorship. Like evolutionism the line of reasoning fails upon closer analysis.

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    11. SRM. lets think about what you said. you said the gov't/agents can't promote religion but students can. Hmm. So students articulating creationism COYLD?! So they could be taught it to understand it?! Why are the teachers not got the same rights ass the students? why is their free exercise prohibited? how could it be?
      If the student nis denied the option for creationismm then they are being denied the free exercise of religious conclusions in subjects dedicated to accuracy in the conclusions.
      Wiggle all they might ONE can't beat ther equation in jurisprudence and reason. Censorship by the state in subjects about accuracy/truth means the state is saying the censored stuff is not true or LOUDLY say truth is not the object especially in science despite the science methodology exists to better establish tritth.
      Freedom and censorship don't mix in such important matters that its claimed the censorship was created because it was so important.
      Creationists got this and just need more attention and court cases and careful lawyers.

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  5. That video is the first time I have seen him speak - what a captivating speaker. I wonder how he might have responded over time to his much discussed and criticized two magesteria concept. (My ignorance: was it much discussed during his life rather than just after?).

    For myself, I don't believe there are two magesteria and believe that any claims from religion or faith or the supernatural are as subject to rational scrutiny as the next. I can't imagine that he quite meant (or would continue to defend were he present) his two magesteria concept as it is commonly construed at least.

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