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Monday, August 04, 2008

Science and Philosophy Book Club: Wonderful Life

The Science and Philosophy Book Club is discussing Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life this Thursday at CFI [Stephen Jay Gould's "Wonderful Life"]. Come to the Center for Inquiry on Beverley St. at 7pm on Thursday August 7th. A $2 donation is required. Bring something to eat.

You can sign up on the website and let everyone know if you are coming.

Wonderful Life is one of my favorite books. Apparently the central messag is very difficult to understand since so many people get it wrong. I've seen very bitter attacks on the central theme from people like Daniel Dennett in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995). He says,
I mentioned in chapter 2 that the main conclusion of Gould's "Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History" (1989) is that if the tape of life were rewound and played again and again, chances are mightly slim that we would ever appear again. There are three things about this conclusion that have baffled reviewers. First, why does he think it is so important? ... Second, exactly what is his conclusion—in effect, who does he mean by "we"? And third, how does he think this conclusion (whichever one it is) follows from his fascinating discussion of the Burgess Shale, to which it seems almost entirely unrelated?
Dennet is often referred to as "Dawkins' lapdog", a sarcastic reference to the relationship between Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley.1 It should come as no surprise that Richard Dawkins didn't like Wonderful Life either, and for many of the same reasons that Dennet parroted in Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Here's what Dawkins said in a review published in 1990 and reprinted in A Devil's Chaplain.
How should Gould properly back up his claim that the Burgess fauna is super-diverse? He should—it would be the work of many years and might never be made convincing—take his ruler to the animals themselves, unprejudiced by modern preconceptions about "fundamental body plans" and classification. The true index of how unalike two animals are is how unalike they actually are. Gould prefers to ask whether they are members of known phyla. But known phyla are modern constructions. Relative resemblance to modern animals is not a sensible way of judging how far Cambrian animals resemble one another.

The five-eyed, nozzle-toting Opabinia cannot be assimilated to any textbook phylum. But, since textbooks are written with modern animals in mind, this does not mean that Opabinia was, in fact, as different from its contemporaries as the status "separate phylum" would suggest. Gould makes a token attempt to counter this criticism, but he is hamstrung by dyed-in-the-wool essentialism and Platonic ideal forms. He really seems unable to comprehend that animals are continuously variable functional machines. It is as though he sees the great phyla not diverging from early blood brothers but springing into existence fully differentiated.

Gould then, singularly fails to establish his super-diversity thesis. Even if he were right, what would this tell us about the 'nature of history'? Since, for Gould, the Cambrian was peopled with a greater cast of phyla than now exist, we must be wonderfully lucky survivors. It could have been our ancestors who went extinct; instead it was Conway Morris' 'weird wonders', Hallucigenia, Wiwaxia, and their friends. We came 'that close' to not being here.

Gould expects us to be surprised. Why? The view that he is attacking—that evolution marches inexorably towards a pinnacle such as man—has not been believed for years. But his quixotic strawmandering, his shamless windmill-tilting, seem almost designed to encourage misunderstanding (not for the first time: on a previous occasion he went so far as to write that the neo-Darwinian synthesis was 'effectively dead'). The following is typical of the publicity surrounding "Wonderful Life" (incidentally, I suspect that the lead sentence was added without the knowledge of the credited journalist): 'The human race did not result from the "survival of the fittest", according to the eminent American professor, Stephen Jay Gould. It was a happy accident that created Mankind.' Such twaddle, of course, is nowhere to be found in Gould, but whether or not he seeks that kind of publicity, he all too frequently attracts it. Readers regularly gain the impression that he is saying something far more radical and surprising than he actually is.

Survival of the fittest means individual survival, not survival of major lineages. Any orthodox Darwinian would be entirely happy with major extinctions being largely a matter of luck. Admittedly there is a minority of evolutionists who think that Darwinian selection chooses between higher-level groupings. They are the only Darwinians likely to be disconcerted by Gould's 'contingent extinction'. And who is the most prominent advocate of higher-level selection today? You've guessed it. Hoist again!
I'm amused that an ethologist is lecturing a paleontologist on how to interpret the fossil record.

1. First mentioned by Stephen Jay Gould in Darwinian Fundamentalism in the New York Review of Books, "If history, as often noted, replays grandeurs as farces, and if T.H. Huxley truly acted as 'Darwin's bulldog,' then it is hard to resist thinking of Dennett, in this book, as 'Dawkins's lapdog.'"


  1. "I'm amused that an ethologist is lecturing a paleontologist on how to interpret the fossil record."
    Richly hypocritical from a biochemist with no compunctions about lecturing ethologists (and others who actually study organisms) about adaptation. We're amused by your take on concepts like kin selection, too.
    Also, I'm curious--is every word ever penned by Gould above criticism?

  2. It's kind of like when Gould lectured the psychometricians in the Mismeasure of Man. And who can forget his "scolding" of the sociobiologists (I'm sure EO Wilson won't).

  3. The Burgess Shale is amazingly cool, but I must point out that completely extinct ancient organisms with no modern descendants cannot help advance evolutionary theory.

    No sequence data no talk. This is the 21st century for FSM's sake!

  4. Wonderful Life reignited my interest in science after a pretty dispiriting degree. It's indirectly why, I suppose, I'm trying to get a new HMS Beagle built (shakes fist at Gould for ruining life).

  5. Sven DiMilo says,

    Richly hypocritical from a biochemist with no compunctions about lecturing ethologists (and others who actually study organisms) about adaptation.

    There's a difference. Dawkins is criticizing Gould's ability to recognize and classify fossils. That's the amusing part. The interpretation is something else and Dawkins has every right to question Gould's ideas.

    Similarly, an ethologist has no special claim to understanding evolution. The fact that they see everything as an adaptation is not an intrinsic part of their discipline. Believe it or not, there are ethologists who are not adaptationists.

    We're amused by your take on concepts like kin selection, too.

    Glad to be of service. Are you one of those people who see kin selection as the solution to everything that can't be explained as simple natural selection?

    Also, I'm curious--is every word ever penned by Gould above criticism?

    No, not every word, but pretty close. Gould has an excellent track record of being right. In this particular case, for example, Gould is absolutely right about phyla and diversity and it's Dawkins who didn't read the book carefully.

    Dawkins is perfectly happy to accept the springing into existence of about 10 or 15 new animal phyla in the Cambrian but somehow the suggestion that there might have been a few more that went extinct seems unscientific. Isn't that strange?