Stephen Jay Gould

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Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941May 20, 2002) was an American geologist, paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and popular-science author, who spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He was one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation.


  • I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.
  • We should therefore, with grace and optimism, embrace NOMA's tough-minded demand: Acknowledge the personal character of these human struggles about morals and meanings, and stop looking for definite answers in nature's construction. But many people cannot bear to surrender nature as a “transitional object”—a baby's warm blanket for our adult comfort. But when we do (for we must), nature can finally emerge in her true form: not as a distorted mirror of our needs, but as our most fascinating companion. Only then can we unite the patches built by our separate magisteria into a beautiful and coherent quilt called wisdom.
    • Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (Ballantine, 1999), p. 178
  • God bless all the precious little examples and all their cascading implications; without these gems, these tiny acorns bearing the blueprints of oak trees, essayists would be out of business.
    • Questioning the Millennium (second edition, Harmony, 1999), p. 42
  • But, as we consider the totality of similarly broad and fundamental aspects of life, we cannot defend division by two as a natural principle of objective order. Indeed, the “stuff” of the universe often strikes our senses as complex and shaded continua, admittedly with faster and slower moments, and bigger and smaller steps, along the way. Nature does not dictate dualities, trinities, quarterings, or any “objective” basis for human taxonomies; most of our chosen schemes, and our designated numbers of categories, record human choices from a cornucopia of possibilities offered by natural variation from place to place, and permitted by the flexibility of our mental capacities. How many seasons (if we wish to divide by seasons at all) does a year contain? How many stages shall we recognize in a human life?
    • The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap between Science and the Humanities (Harmony, 2003), p. 82
  • Debate is an art form. It is about the winning of arguments. It is not about the discovery of truth. There are certain rules and procedures to debate that really have nothing to do with establishing fact—which creationists have mastered. Some of those rules are: never say anything positive about your own position because it can be attacked, but chip away at what appear to be the weaknesses in your opponent's position. They are good at that. I don't think I could beat the creationists at debate. I can tie them. But in courtrooms they are terrible, because in courtrooms you cannot give speeches. In a courtroom you have to answer direct questions about the positive status of your belief. We destroyed them in Arkansas. On the second day of the two-week trial we had our victory party!
  • I’m a profound anti-romantic. Romanticism is dangerous. Romanticism untrammeled by intellect gives rise to fascism after all.
    • in "Stephen Jay Gould: The Unanswerable", the episode from the documentary series, A Glorious Accident.
  • It's his last book. He wrote in in 1881, the year before he died, and usually we expect that in old age, just before death, that a great scientist will write a pontificating philosophical treatise on the nature of reality. And Darwin... wrote a book on worms. ...He was interested in worms because they were... a metaphor for his larger world-view. The worms that slowly churn the topsoil of England... that work literally beneath our feet, that we never notice, that we think are insignificant because they're so small and lowly, are in fact producing the very soil that is the basis of agriculture. And therefore Darwin uses it as a metaphor for the importance of apparently tiny things when you extend them over long periods of time. And that's what evolution is, the extension of small change (to Darwin) over vast periods of time. So the worms become a metaphor for evolution and for the whole process of temporal change, a very fascinating book.
    • "Stephen Jay Gould: The Unanswerable" (Aug 30, 2016) VPRO, A Glorious Accident (6 of 7) 22:01.

Ever Since Darwin (1977)

Citations are from the W.W. Norton hardcover edition.
  • I am not unmindful of the journalist's quip that yesterday's paper wraps today's garbage. I am also not unmindful of the outrages visited upon our forests to publish redundant and incoherent collections of essays; for, like Dr. Seuss' Lorax, I like to think that I speak for the trees. Beyond vanity, my only excuses for a collection of these essays lie in the observation that many people like (and as many people despise) them, and that they seem to cohere about a common theme—Darwin's evolutionary perspective as an antidote to our cosmic arrogance.
    • Prologue, p. 14
  • I want to argue that the “sudden” appearance of species in the fossil record and our failure to note subsequent evolutionary change within them is the proper prediction of evolutionary theory as we understand it. […] Evolutionary “sequences” are not rungs on a ladder, but our retrospective reconstruction of a circuitous path running like a labyrinth, branch to branch, from the base of the bush to a lineage now surviving at its top.
    • "Bushes and Ladders in Human Evolution", p. 61
  • If there is any consistent enemy of science, it is not religion, but irrationalism.
    • "The Reverent Thomas' Dirty Little Planet", p. 141
  • Each of the major sciences has contributed an essential ingredient in our long retreat from an initial belief in our own cosmic importance. Astronomy defined our home as a small planet tucked away in one corner of an average galaxy among millions; biology took away our status as paragons created in the image of God; geology gave us the immensity of time and taught us how little of it our own species has occupied.
    • "Uniformity and Catastrophe", p. 147
  • [A]s a graduate student at Columbia University, I remember the a priori derision of my distinguished stratigraphy professor toward a visiting Australian drifter [a supporter of the theory of continental drift]. […] Today […] my own students would dismiss with even more derision anyone who denied the evident truth of continental drift—a prophetic madman is at least amusing; a superannuated fuddy-duddy is merely pitiful.
    • "The Validation of Continental Drift", pp. 160–61
  • I contend that the continued racial classification of Homo sapiens represents an outmoded approach to the general problem of differentiation within a species. In other words, I reject a racial classification of humans for the same reasons that I prefer not to divide into subspecies the prodigiously variable West Indian land snails that form the subject of my own research.
    • "Why We Should Not Name Human Races—A Biological View", p. 231
  • I do not claim that intelligence, however defined, has no genetic basis—I regard it as trivially true, uninteresting, and unimportant that it does. The expression of any trait represents a complex interaction of heredity and environment. [… A] specific claim purporting to demonstrate a mean genetic deficiency in the intelligence of American blacks rests upon no new facts whatever and can cite no valid data in its support. It is just as likely that blacks have a genetic advantage over whites. And, either way, it doesn't matter a damn. An individual can't be judged by his group mean.
    • "Racist Arguments and IQ", pp. 246–47
  • For Linnaeus, Homo sapiens was both special and not special. […] Special and not special have come to mean nonbiological and biological, or nurture and nature. These later polarizations are nonsensical. Humans are animals and everything we do lies within our biological potential. […] [T]he statement that humans are animals does not imply that our specific patterns of behavior and social arrangements are in any way directly determined by our genes. Potentiality and determination are different concepts.
    • "Biological Potentiality vs. Biological Determinism", p. 251
  • But here I stop—short of any deterministic speculation that attributes specific behaviors to the possession of specific altruist or opportunist genes. Our genetic makeup permits a wide range of behaviors—from Ebenezer Scrooge before to Ebenezer Scrooge after. I do not believe that the miser hoards through opportunist genes or that the philanthropist gives because nature endowed him with more than the normal complement of altruist genes. Upbringing, culture, class, status, and all the intangibles that we call “free will,” determine how we restrict our behaviors from the wide spectrum—extreme altruism to extreme selfishness—that our genes permit.
    • "So Cleverly Kind an Animal", p. 266
  • If you defend a behavior by arguing that people are programmed directly for it, then how do you continue to defend it if your speculation is wrong, for the behavior then becomes unnatural and worthy of condemnation. Better to stick resolutely to a philosophical position on human liberty: what free adults do with each other in their own private lives is their business alone. It need not be vindicated — and must not be condemned—by genetic speculation.
    • "So Cleverly Kind an Animal", p. 267

The Panda's Thumb (1980)

Page references from the W.W. Norton hardcover.
  • Organisms are not billiard balls, propelled by simple and measurable external forces to predictable new positions on life's pool table. Sufficiently complex systems have greater richness. Organisms have a history that constrains their future in myriad, subtle ways.
    • Prologue, p. 16
  • Results rarely specify their causes unambiguously. If we have no direct evidence of fossils or human chronicles, if we are forced to infer a process only from its modern results, then we are usually stymied or reduced to speculation about probabilities. For many roads lead to almost any Rome.
    • "Senseless Signs of History", p. 34
  • Throughout his last half-dozen books, for example, Arthur Koestler has been conducting a campaign against his own misunderstanding of Darwinism. He hopes to find some ordering force, constraining evolution to certain directions and overriding the influence of natural selection. […] Darwinism is not the theory of capricious change that Koestler imagines. Random variation may be the raw material of change, but natural selection builds good design by rejecting most variants while accepting and accumulating the few that improve adaptation to local environments.
    • "Double Trouble", pp. 38–40
  • Wallace's error on human intellect arose from the inadequacy of his rigid selectionism, not from a failure to apply it. And his argument repays our study today, since its flaw persists as the weak link in many of the most “modern” evolutionary speculations of our current literature. For Wallace's rigid selectionism is much closer than Darwin's pluralism to the attitude embodied in our favored theory today, which, ironically in this context, goes by the name of “Neo-Darwinism.”
    • "Natural Selection and the Human Brain: Darwin vs. Wallace", p. 54
  • Hyper-selectionism has been with us for a long time in various guises; for it represents the late nineteenth century's scientific version of the myth of natural harmony—all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds (all structures well designed for a definite purpose in this case). It is, indeed, the vision of foolish Dr. Pangloss, so vividly satirized by Voltaire in Candide—the world is not necessarily good, but it is the best we could possibly have.
    • "Natural Selection and the Human Brain: Darwin vs. Wallace", p. 57
  • If genius has any common denominator, I would propose breadth of interest and the ability to construct fruitful analogies between fields.
    • "Darwin's Middle Road", p. 66
  • The world, unfortunately, rarely matches our hopes and consistently refuses to behave in a reasonable manner.
  • There is no gene “for” such unambiguous bits of morphology as your left kneecap or your fingernail. […] Hundreds of genes contribute to the building of most body parts and their action is channeled through a kaleidoscopic series of environmental influences: embryonic and postnatal, internal and external. Parts are not translated genes, and selection doesn't even work directly on parts.
    • "Caring Groups and Selfish Genes", p. 91
  • The history of most fossil species includes two features particularly inconsistent with gradualism: 1. Stasis. Most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking much the same as when they disappear; morphological change is usually limited and directionless. 2. Sudden appearance. In any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and “fully formed.”
    • "The Episodic Nature of Evolutionary Change", p. 182
  • Evolution is a theory of organic change, but it does not imply, as many people assume, that ceaseless flux is the irreducible state of nature and that structure is but a temporary incarnation of the moment. Change is more often a rapid transition between stable states than a continuous transformation at slow and steady rates. We live in a world of structure and legitimate distinction. Species are the units of nature's morphology.
    • "A Quahog is a Quahog", p. 213
  • I respect Kirkpatrick both for his sponges and for his numinous nummulosphere. It is easy to dismiss a crazy theory with laughter that debars any attempt to understand a man's motivation—and the nummulosphere is a crazy theory. I find that few men of imagination are not worth my attention. Their ideas may be wrong, even foolish, but their methods often repay a close study. […] The different drummer often beats a fruitful tempo.
    • "Crazy Old Randolph Kirkpatrick", p. 235
  • Orthodoxy can be as stubborn in science as in religion. I do not know how to shake it except by vigorous imagination that inspires unconventional work and contains within itself an elevated potential for inspired error. As the great Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto wrote: “Give me a fruitful error any time, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections. You can keep your sterile truth for yourself.” Not to mention a man named Thomas Henry Huxley who, when not in the throes of grief or the wars of parson hunting, argued that “irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.”
    • "Bathybius and Eozoon", pp. 243–244
  • The world is full of signals that we don't perceive. Tiny creatures live in a different world of unfamiliar forces. Many animals of our scale greatly exceed our range of perception for sensations familiar to us. […] What an imperceptive lot we are. Surrounded by so much, so fascinating and so real, that we do not see (hear, smell, touch, taste) in nature, yet so gullible and so seduced by claims for novel power that we mistake the tricks of mediocre magicians for glimpses of a psychic world beyond our ken. The paranormal may be a fantasy; it is certainly a haven for charlatans. But “parahuman” powers of perception lie all about us in birds, bees, and bacteria.
    • "Natural Attraction: Bacteria, the Birds, and the Bees", p. 313

Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes (1983)

Quotations from the W.W. Norton hardcover edition.
  • All versions written for nonscientists speak of fused males as the curious tale of the anglerfish—just as we so often hear about the monkey swinging through the trees, or the worm burrowing through soil. But if nature teaches us any lesson, it loudly proclaims life's diversity. There ain't no such abstraction as the clam, the fly, or the anglerfish. Ceratioid anglerfishes come in nearly 100 species, and each has its own peculiarity.
    • "Big Fish, Little Fish", p. 29
  • Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians, students of the humanities, indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science. The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner.
    • "Nonmoral Nature", pp. 42–43
  • Organisms [...] are directed and limited by their past. They must remain imperfect in their form and function, and to that extent unpredictable since they are not optimal machines. We cannot know their future with certainty, if only because a myriad of quirky functional shifts lie within the capacity of any feature, however well adapted to a present role.
    • "Quick Lives and Quirky Changes", p. 65
  • Thus, we have three principles for increasing adequacy of data: if you must work with a single object, look for imperfections that record historical descent; if several objects are available, try to render them as stages of a single historical process; if processes can be directly observed, sum up their effects through time. One may discuss these principles directly or recognize the “little problems” that Darwin used to exemplify them: orchids, coral reefs, and worms—the middle book, the first, and the last.
    • "Worm for a Century, and All Seasons", p. 132
  • A complete theory of evolution must acknowledge a balance between “external” forces of environment imposing selection for local adaptation and “internal” forces representing constraints of inheritance and development. Vavilov placed too much emphasis on internal constraints and downgraded the power of selection. But Western Darwinians have erred equally in practically ignoring (while acknowledging in theory) the limits placed on selection by structure and development—what Vavilov and the older biologists would have called “laws of form.”
    • "A Hearing for Vavilov", p. 144
  • We do not inhabit a perfected world where natural selection ruthlessly scrutinizes all organic structures and then molds them for optimal utility. Organisms inherit a body form and a style of embryonic development; these impose constraints upon future change and adaptation. In many cases, evolutionary pathways reflect inherited patterns more than current environmental demands. These inheritances constrain, but they also provide opportunity. A potentially minor genetic change […] entails a host of complex, nonadaptive consequences. […] What “play” would evolution have if each structure were built for a restricted purpose and could be used for nothing else? How could humans learn to write if our brain had not evolved for hunting, social cohesion, or whatever, and could not transcend the adaptive boundaries of its original purpose?
    • "Hyena Myths and Realities", p. 156
  • Sociobiology is not just any statement that biology, genetics, and evolutionary theory have something to do with human behavior. Sociobiology is a specific theory about the nature of genetic and evolutionary input into human behavior. It rests upon the view that natural selection is a virtually omnipotent architect, constructing organisms part by part as best solutions to problems of life in local environments. It fragments organisms into “traits,” explains their existence as a set of best solutions, and argues that each trait is a product of natural selection operating “for” the form or behavior in question. Applied to humans, it must view specific behaviors (not just general potentials) as adaptations built by natural selection and rooted in genetic determinants, for natural selection is a theory of genetic change. Thus, we are presented with unproved and unprovable speculations about the adaptive and genetic basis of specific human behaviors: why some (or all) people are aggressive, xenophobic, religious, acquisitive, or homosexual.
    • "Our Natural Place", p. 243
  • Zoocentrism is the primary fallacy of human sociobiology, for this view of human behavior rests on the argument that if the actions of "lower" animals with simple nervous systems arise as genetic products of natural selection, then human behavior should have a similar basis.
    • "Our Natural Place", p. 243
  • We live in an essential and unresolvable tension between our unity with nature and our dangerous uniqueness. Systems that attempt to place and make sense of us by focusing exclusively either on the uniqueness or the unity are doomed to failure. But we must not stop asking and questing because the answers are complex and ambiguous.
    • "Our Natural Place", p. 250
  • Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away while scientists debate rival theories for explaining them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air pending the outcome. And human beings evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin's proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered. [...] Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science, “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.
    • "Evolution as Fact and Theory", pp. 254–55 (originally appeared in Discover Magazine, May 1981)
  • Since we proposed punctuated equilibria to explain trends, it is infuriating to be quoted again and again by creationists—whether through design or stupidity, I do not know—as admitting that the fossil record includes no transitional forms. Transitional forms are generally lacking at the species level, but they are abundant between larger groups.
    • "Evolution as Fact and Theory", p. 260
  • The enemy is not fundamentalism; it is intolerance. In this case, the intolerance is perverse since it masquerades under the “liberal” rhetoric of “equal time.” But mistake it not.
  • Perhaps randomness is not merely an adequate description for complex causes that we cannot specify. Perhaps the world really works this way, and many events are uncaused in any conventional sense of the word. Perhaps our gut feeling that it cannot be so reflects only our hopes and prejudices, our desperate striving to make sense of a complex and confusing world, and not the ways of nature.
    • "Chance Riches", p. 342

The Median Isn't the Message (1985)

Published in Discover 6 (June): 40-42. Reproduced with permission on
  • This is a personal story of statistics, properly interpreted, as profoundly nurturant and life-giving.
  • [T]rying to keep an intellectual away from literature works about as well as recommending chastity to Homo sapiens, the sexiest primate of all.
  • The problem may be briefly stated: What does "median mortality of eight months" signify in our vernacular? I suspect that most people, without training in statistics, would read such a statement as "I will probably be dead in eight months" - the very conclusion that must be avoided, since it isn't so, and since attitude matters so much.
  • But all evolutionary biologists know that variation itself is nature's only irreducible essence. Variation is the hard reality, not a set of imperfect measures for a central tendency. Means and medians are the abstractions.
  • It has become, in my view, a bit too trendy to regard the acceptance of death as something tantamount to intrinsic dignity. Of course I agree with the preacher of Ecclesiastes that there is a time to love and a time to die - and when my skein runs out I hope to face the end calmly and in my own way. For most situations, however, I prefer the more martial view that death is the ultimate enemy - and I find nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light.

The Flamingo's Smile (1985)

Citations are from the Harmony Books hardcover edition.
  • Our world is not an optimal place, fine tuned by omnipotent forces of selection. It is a quirky mass of imperfections, working well enough (often admirably); a jury-rigged set of adaptations built of curious parts made available by past histories in different contexts. […] A world optimally adapted to current environments is a world without history, and a world without history might have been created as we find it. History matters; it confounds perfection and proves that current life transformed its own past.
    • "Only His Wings Remained", p. 54
  • We inhabit a complex world. Some boundaries are sharp and permit clean and definite distinctions. But nature also includes continua that cannot be neatly parceled into two piles of unambiguous yeses and noes. Biologists have rejected, as fatally flawed in principle, all attempts by anti-abortionists to define an unambiguous “beginning of life,” because we know so well that the sequence from ovulation or spermatogenesis to birth is an unbreakable continuum—and surely no one will define masturbation as murder.
    • "Living with Connections", p. 76
  • Siphonophores do not convey the message—a favorite theme of unthinking romanticism—that nature is but one gigantic whole, all its parts intimately connected and interacting in some higher, ineffable harmony. Nature revels in boundaries and distinctions; we inhabit a universe of structure. But since our universe of structure has evolved historically, it must present us with fuzzy boundaries, where one kind of thing grades into another.
    • "A Most Ingenious Paradox", p. 95
  • The progress of science requires more than new data; it needs novel frameworks and contexts. And where do these fundamentally new views of the world arise? They are not simply discovered by pure observation; they require new modes of thought. And where can we find them, if old modes do not even include the right metaphors? The nature of true genius must lie in the elusive capacity to construct these new modes from apparent darkness. The basic chanciness and unpredictability of science must also reside in the inherent difficulty of such a task.
    • "False Premise, Good Science", p. 138
  • We often think, naïvely, that missing data are the primary impediments to intellectual progress—just find the right facts and all problems will dissipate. But barriers are often deeper and more abstract in thought. We must have access to the right metaphor, not only to the requisite information. Revolutionary thinkers are not, primarily, gatherers of facts, but weavers of new intellectual structures.
    • "For Want of a Metaphor", p. 151
  • [A]lthough species may be discrete, they have no immutable essence. Variation is the raw material of evolutionary change. It represents the fundamental reality of nature, not an accident about a created norm. Variation is primary; essences are illusory. Species must be defined as ranges of irreducible variation.
    • "Of Wasps and WASPs", p. 160
  • Antiessentialist thinking forces us to view the world differently. We must accept shadings and continua as fundamental. We lose criteria for judgment by comparison to some ideal: short people, retarded people, people of other beliefs, colors, and religions are people of full status.
    • "Of Wasps and WASPs", p. 161
  • My visceral perception of brotherhood harmonizes with our best modern biological knowledge. […] Many people think (or fear) that equality of human races represents a hope of liberal sentimentality probably squashed by the hard realities of history. They are wrong. This essay can be summarized in a single phrase, a motto if you will: Human equality is a contingent fact of history. Equality is not true by definition; it is neither an ethical principle (though equal treatment may be) nor a statement about norms of social action. It just worked out that way. A hundred different and plausible scenarios for human history would have yielded other results (and moral dilemmas of enormous magnitude). They didn't happen.
    • "Human Equality Is a Contingent Fact of History", p. 186
  • The human mind delights in finding pattern—so much so that we often mistake coincidence or forced analogy for profound meaning. No other habit of thought lies so deeply within the soul of a small creature trying to make sense of a complex world not constructed for it.
    • "The Rule of Five", p. 199
  • We may need simple and heroic legends for that peculiar genre of literature known as the textbook. But historians must also labor to rescue human beings from their legends in science—if only so that we may understand the process of scientific thought aright.
    • "Darwin at Sea—and the Virtues of Port", p. 348
  • I have often been amused by our vulgar tendency to take complex issues, with solutions at neither extreme of a continuum of possibilities, and break them into dichotomies, assigning one group to one pole and the other to an opposite end, with no acknowledgment of subtleties and intermediate positions—and nearly always with moral opprobrium attached to opponents.
    • "Just in the Middle", p. 378

Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (1987)

Citations from this monograph refer to the original hardcover edition from Harvard University Press.
  • The theory of punctuated equilibrium, proposed by Niles Eldredge and myself, is not, as so often misunderstood, a radical claim for truly sudden change, but a recognition that ordinary processes of speciation, properly conceived as glacially slow by the standard of our own life-span, do not resolve into geological time as long sequences of insensibly graded intermediates (the traditional, or gradualistic, view), but as geologically “sudden” origins at single bedding planes.
    • pp. 2–3
  • [S]cientists are not robotic inducing machines that infer structures of explanation only from regularities observed in natural phenomena (assuming, as I doubt, that such a style of reasoning could ever achieve success in principle). Scientists are human beings, immersed in culture, and struggling with all the curious tools of inference that mind permits […]. Culture can potentiate as well as constrain—as Darwin's translation of Adam Smith's laissez-faire economic models into biology as the theory of natural selection. In any case, objective minds do not exist outside culture, so we must make the best of our ineluctable embedding.
    • pp. 6–7
  • I despair of persuading people to drop the familiar and comforting tactic of dichotomy. Perhaps, instead, we might expand the framework of debates by seeking other dichotomies more appropriate than, or simply different from, the conventional divisions. All dichotomies are simplifications, but the rendition of a conflict along differing axes of several orthogonal dichotomies might provide an amplitude of proper intellectual space without forcing us to forgo our most comforting tool of thought.
    • p. 8
  • [I]f texts are unified by a central logic of argument, then their pictorial illustrations are integral to the ensemble, not pretty little trifles included only for aesthetic or commercial value. Primates are visual animals, and (particularly in science) illustration has a language and set of conventions all its own.
    • p. 18
  • Evolution is the conviction that organisms developed their current forms by an extended history of continual transformation, and that ties of genealogy bind all living things into one nexus. Panselectionism is a denial of history, for perfection covers the tracks of time. A perfect wing may have evolved to its current state, but it may have been created just as we find it. We simply cannot tell if perfection be our only evidence. As Darwin himself understood so well, the primary proofs of evolution are oddities and imperfections that must record pathways of historical descent—the panda's thumb and the flamingo's smile of my book titles (chosen to illustrate this paramount principle of history).
    • p. 84
  • Time's arrow of “just history” marks each moment of time with a distinctive brand. But we cannot, in our quest to understand history, be satisfied only with a mark to recognize each moment and a guide to order events in temporal sequence. Uniqueness is the essence of history, but we also crave some underlying generality, some principles of order transcending the distinction of moments—lest we be driven mad by Borges's vision of a new picture every two thousand pages in a book without end. We also need, in short, the immanence of time's cycle.
    • p. 196

An Urchin in the Storm (1987)

Quotations from the W.W. Norton hardcover edition. Essays in this collection originally appeared in The New York Review of Books.
  • I picture several reviewers of my own books as passing a long future lodged between Brutus and Judas in the jaws of Satan.
    • Preface, p. 9
  • Most books, after all, are ephemeral; their specifics, several years later, inspire about as much interest as daily battle reports from the Hundred Years' War.
    • Preface, p. 10
  • I am glad that the life of pandas is so dull by human standards, for our efforts at conservation have little moral value if we preserve creatures only as human ornaments; I shall be impressed when we show solicitude for warty toads and slithering worms.
    • "How Does a Panda Fit?", p. 21
  • Progress in science, paradoxically by the layman’s criterion, often demands that we back away from cosmic questions of greatest scope (anyone with half a brain can formulate “big” questions in his armchair, so why heap kudos on such a pleasant and pedestrian activity). Great scientists have an instinct for the fruitful and doable, particularly for smaller that lead on and eventually transform the grand issues from speculation to action. While Lamarck (though a great empiricist on other questions) selected and armchair as the source for his evolutionary treatise, Darwin chose pigeons, and revolutionized human thinking. Great theories must sink a huge anchor in details.
    • "Cardboard Darwinism", pp. 26-27
  • Before Kuhn, most scientists followed the place-a-stone-in-the-bright-temple-of-knowledge tradition, and would have told you that they hoped, above all, to lay many of the bricks, perhaps even set the keystone, of truth's temple—the additive or meliorist model of scientific progress. Now most scientists of vision hope to foment revolution.
    We are, therefore, awash in revolutions, most self-proclaimed.
    • "Cardboard Darwinism", p. 27
  • The human brain became large by natural selection (who knows why, but presumably for good cause). Yet surely most “things” now done by our brains, and essential both to our cultures and to our very survival, are epiphenomena of the computing power of this machine, not genetically grounded Darwinian entities created specifically by natural selection for their current function.
    • "Cardboard Darwinism", pp. 48–49
  • [E]volutionists sometimes take as haughty an attitude toward the next level up the conventional ladder of disciplines: the human sciences. They decry the supposed atheoretical particularism of their anthropological colleagues and argue that all would be well if only the students of humanity regarded their subject as yet another animal and therefore yielded explanatory control to evolutionary biologists.
  • The study of social setting does not imply either the irrelevance or nonexistence of a factual world out there.
    • "The Power of Narrative", p. 84
  • Bowing to the reality of harried lives, Rudwick recognizes that not everyone will read every word of the meaty second section; he even explicitly gives us permission to skip if we get “bogged down in the narrative.” Readers absolutely must not do such a thing; it should be illegal. The publisher should lock up the last 60 pages, and deny access to anyone who doesn't pass a multiple-choice exam inserted into the book between parts two and three.
    • "The Power of Narrative", p. 88
  • Creative work, in geology and anywhere else, is interaction and synthesis: half-baked ideas from a barroom, rocks in the field, chains of thought from lonely walks, numbers squeezed from rocks in a laboratory, numbers from a calculator riveted to a desk, fancy equipment usually malfunctioning on expensive ships, cheap equipment in the human cranium, arguments before a roadcut.
    • "Deep Time and Ceaseless Motion", p. 98
  • I am supposed to be a “nurturist” in the great “nature-nurture” debate, but I find nothing upsetting in this notion of biological influence upon human behavior. I suppose I must also emphasize once again, and for the umpteenth time as we all do, that the categories are absurd and that there is no “nature-nurture” debate as such, the pleasant alliteration of the phrase notwithstanding. Every scientist, indeed every intelligent person, knows that human social behavior is a complex and indivisible mix of biological and social influences. The issue is not whether nature or nurture determines human behavior, for these factors are truly inextricable, but the degree, intensity, and nature of the constraint exerted by biology upon the possible forms of social organization.
    • "Genes on the Brain", pp. 112-113
  • No one doubts that biological universals exist. We must sleep, eat, and grow older, and we are not about to give up procreation; almost all our social institutions are influenced by these imperatives.
    • "Genes on the Brain", p. 113
  • A proper understanding of biology and culture both affirms the great important of biology in human behavior and also explains why biology makes us free. The old equation of biology with restriction, with the inherent (as opposed to the malleable) side of the false dichotomy between nature and nurture, rests upon errors of thinking as old as Western culture itself. The critics of biological determinism do not uphold the equally fallacious (and equally cruel and restrictive) view that human culture cancels biology. Biological determinism has limited the lives of millions by misidentifying their socioeconomic disadvantages as inborn deficiencies, but cultural determinism can be just as cruel in attributing severe congenital diseases, autism for example, to psychobabble about too much parental love, or too little.
    • "Nurturing Nature", p. 148
  • An overtly expressed political commitment does not debar a scientist from viewing nature accurately—if only because no honest scientist or effective political activist would be foolish enough to advance a program in evident discord with the world as we find it.
    • "Nurturing Nature", p. 150
  • Leftist scientists are more likely to combat biological determinism just as rightists tend to favor this quintessential justification of the status quo as intractable biology; the correlations are not accidental. But let us not be so disrespectful of thought that we dismiss the logic of arguments as nothing but an inevitable reflection of biases—confusion of context of discovery with context of justification.
    • "Nurturing Nature", p. 151
  • No serious student of human behavior denies the potent influence of evolved biology upon our cultural lives. Our struggle is to figure out how biology affects us, not whether it does.
    • "Nurturing Nature", p. 152
  • Just as no one is quite so stupid as to nullify biology completely, so too does no one deny some flexibility in the translation of genes into complex behaviors.
    • "Nurturing Nature", p. 152
  • As a word, ecology has been so debased by recent political usage that many people employ it to identify anything good that happens far from cities and without human interference.
    • "Exultation and Explanation", p. 183
  • Useful quantification is so often the key to fruitful science.
    • "Exultation and Explanation", p. 184
  • Scientists ignorant of history are not so much condemned to repeat it, as to be confused and unenterprising.
    • "Exultation and Explanation", p. 187
  • The universe was here for whatever reason (if any) and we fit in much later. It seems the height of antiquated hubris to claim that the universe carried on as it did for billions of years in order to form a comfortable abode for us…Sure we fit. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t. But the world wasn’t made for us and it will endure without us.
    • "Pleasant Dreams", p. 206 (ellipsis represents elision of three sentences)
  • Ever since paleontology established the basic outlines of the fossil record more than a century ago, we have known how poorly the old chain of being matches the history of life. Its persistence as a metaphor and even, in Jastrow’s case, as an imposed “reality” merely reflects our unwillingness to abandon comfort in the face of evidence.
    • "The Perils of Hope", p. 210
  • Biological evolution is a theory about ties of physical genealogy based on reproduction with error and natural selection. Computers do not breed. Any direction imparted to biology by its Darwinian mechanism does not translate to pathways of industrial change; a biological past is no sure guide to a technological future.
    • "The Perils of Hope", p. 211
  • Life is a ramifying bush with millions of branches, not a ladder. Darwinism is a theory of local adaptation to changing environments, not a tale of inevitable progress. “After long reflection,” Darwin wrote, “I cannot avoid the conviction that no innate tendency to progressive development exists.”
    Jastrow might argue that he is only considering the single pathway through the immense labyrinth of life’s bush that happened to lead to us. Even here I might reply that while we have a personal motive for special interest in (and affection for) this particular pathway, we have no right to regard it (or any other) as the essential direction of life. The pathways leading to aardvarks, anchovies, or artichokes are just as long, intricate, and biologically informative.
    • "The Perils of Hope", p. 211
  • Jastrow and a few other astronomers have tried to find God in the universe by reading the big bang as the cosmological equivalent of Genesis. I confess that I have found it hard to take this argument seriously.
    • "The Perils of Hope", p. 212
  • The world is a complex place. In our struggles to simplify and understand, we often identify some bugbear and then make it responsible for all evils.
    • "Utopia, Limited", p. 218
  • Nature has no automatically transferable wisdom to serve as the basis of human morality. Passive observation and unquestioned reverence for nature are no substitute for ethical philosophy.
    • "Utopia, Limited", p. 225
  • I do not see why we should reject all genetic engineering because its technology might, one day, permit such a perversion of decency in the hands of some latter-day Hitler—you may as well outlaw printing because the same machine that composes Shakespeare can also set Mein Kampf. The domino theory does not apply to all human achievements. If we could, by transplanting a bacterial gene, confer disease or cold resistance upon an important crop plant, should we not do so in a world were people suffer so terribly from malnutrition? Must such a benefit imply that, tomorrow, corn and wheat, sea horses and orchids will be thrown into a gigantic vat, torn apart into genetic units, and reassembled into rows of identical human servants? Eternal vigilance, to recombine some phrases, is the price of technological achievement.
    • "Integrity and Mr. Rifkin", p. 238
  • Few campaigns are more dangerous than emotional calls for proscription rather than thought.
    • "Integrity and Mr. Rifkin", p. 238
  • Yesterday’s seer is today’s bore.
    • "The Quack Detector", p. 244
  • [A]s we discern a fine line between crank and genius, so also (and unfortunately) we must acknowledge an equally graded trajectory from crank to demagogue. When people learn no tools of judgment and merely follow their hopes, the seeds of political manipulation are sown.
    • "The Quack Detector", p. 245

Wonderful Life (1989)

This book, intended for a popular audience, described the discovery of soft-bodied fossils in the Burgess Shale and their reinterpretation seventy years later. Citations are from the W.W. Norton hardcover edition.
  • The beauty of nature lies in detail; the message, in generality.
    • Preface.
  • I believe […] that we can still have a genre of scientific books suitable for and accessible alike to professionals and interested laypeople. The concepts of science, in all their richness and ambiguity, can be presented without any compromise, without any simplification counting as distortion, in language accessible to all intelligent people. […] I hope that this book can be read with profit both in seminars for graduate students and—if the movie stinks and you forgot your sleeping pills—on the businessman's special to Tokyo.
    • Preface, p. 16
  • I strongly reject any conceptual scheme that places our options on a line, and holds that the only alternative to a pair of extreme positions lies somewhere between them. More fruitful perspectives often require that we step off the line to a site outside the dichotomy.
    • p. 51
  • [C]ontingency is a thing unto itself, not the titration of determinism by randomness.
    • p. 51
  • The animals of the Burgess Shale are holy objects—in the unconventional sense that this word conveys in some cultures. We do not place them on pedestals and worship from afar. We climb mountains and dynamite hillsides to find them. We quarry them, split them, carve them, draw them, and dissect them, struggling to wrest their secrets. We vilify and curse them for their damnable intransigence. They are grubby little creatures of a sea floor 530 million years old, but we greet them with awe because they are the Old Ones, and they are trying to tell us something.
    • p. 52
  • An old paleontological in joke proclaims that mammalian evolution is a tale told by teeth mating to produce slightly altered descendant teeth.
    • p. 60
  • The legends of fieldwork locate all important sites deep in inaccessible jungles inhabited by fierce beasts and restless natives, and surrounded by miasmas of putrefaction and swarms of tsetse flies. (Alternative models include the hundredth dune after the death of all camels, or the thousandth crevasse following the demise of all sled dogs.)
    • p. 65
  • All interesting issues in natural history are questions of relative frequency, not single examples. Everything happens once amidst the richness of nature. But when an unanticipated phenomenon occurs again and again—finally turning into an expectation—then theories are overturned.
    • p. 136
  • [H]istorical science is not worse, more restricted, or less capable of achieving firm conclusions because experiment, prediction, and subsumption under invariant laws of nature do not represent its usual working methods. The sciences of history use a different mode of explanation, rooted in the comparative and observational richness in our data. We cannot see a past event directly, but science is usually based on inference, not unvarnished observation (you don't see electrons, gravity, or black holes either).
    • p. 279
  • The divine tape player holds a million scenarios, each perfectly sensible. Little quirks at the outset, occurring for no particular reason, unleash cascades of consequences that make a particular future seem inevitable in retrospect. But the slightest early nudge contacts a different groove, and history veers into another plausible channel, diverging continually from its original pathway. The end results are so different, the initial perturbation so apparently trivial.
    • pp. 320–321

Bully for Brontosaurus (1991)

Citations from the W.W. Norton first edition.
  • I am not insensible to natural beauty, but my emotional joys center on the improbable yet sometimes wondrous works of that tiny and accidental evolutionary twig called Homo sapiens. And I find, among these works, nothing more noble than the history of our struggle to understand nature—a majestic entity of such vast spatial and temporal scope that she cannot care much for a little mammalian afterthought with a curious evolutionary invention, even if that invention has, for the first time in some four billion years of life on earth, produced recursion as a creature reflects back upon its own production and evolution. Thus, I love nature primarily for the puzzles and intellectual delights that she offers to the first organ capable of such curious contemplation.
    • Prologue, p. 13
  • The true beauty of nature is her amplitude; she exists neither for nor because of us, and possesses a staying power that all our nuclear arsenals cannot threaten (much as we can easily destroy our puny selves).
    • Prologue, pp. 16–17
  • The silliest and most tendentious of baseball writing tries to wrest profundity from the spectacle of grown men hitting a ball with a stick by suggesting linkages between the sport and deep issues of morality, parenthood, history, lost innocence, gentleness, and so on, seemingly ad infinitum. (The effort reeks of silliness because baseball is profound all by itself and needs no excuses; people who don't know this are not fans and are therefore unreachable anyway.)
  • Biological evolution is a system of constant divergence without subsequent joining of branches. Lineages, once distinct, are separate forever. In human history, transmission across lineages is, perhaps, the major source of cultural change. Europeans learned about corn and potatoes from Native Americans and gave them smallpox in return.
    • "The Panda's Thumb of Technology", p. 65
  • We live in a capitalist economy, and I have no particular objection to honorable self-interest. We cannot hope to make the needed, drastic improvement in primary and secondary education without a dramatic restructuring of salaries. In my opinion, you cannot pay a good teacher enough money to recompense the value of talent applied to the education of young children. I teach an hour or two a day to tolerably well-behaved near-adults—and I come home exhausted. By what possible argument are my services worth more in salary than those of a secondary-school teacher with six classes a day, little prestige, less support, massive problems of discipline, and a fundamental role in shaping minds. (In comparison, I only tinker with intellects already largely formed.)
    • "The Dinosaur Rip-off", pp. 101–102
  • Memory is a fascinating trickster. Words and images have enormous power and can easily displace actual experience over the years.
    • "Literary bias on the slippery slope", p. 249
  • Included in this “almost nothing,” as a kind of geological afterthought of the last few million years, is the first development of self-conscious intelligence on this planet—an odd and unpredictable invention of a little twig on the mammalian evolutionary bush. Any definition of this uniqueness, embedded as it is in our possession of language, must involve our ability to frame the world as stories and to transmit these tales to others. If our propensity to grasp nature as story has distorted our perceptions, I shall accept this limit of mentality upon knowledge, for we receive in trade both the joys of literature and the core of our being.
    • "Literary bias on the slippery slope", p. 252
  • Most impediments to scientific understanding are conceptual locks, not factual lacks. Most difficult to dislodge are those biases that escape our scrutiny because they seem so obviously, even ineluctably, just. We know ourselves best and tend to view other creatures as mirrors of our own constitution and social arrangements. (Aristotle, and nearly two millennia of successors, designated the large bee that leads the swarm as a king.)
    • "Glow, Big Glowworm", p. 256
  • The facts of nature are what they are, but we can only view them through the spectacles of our mind. Our mind works largely by metaphor and comparison, not always (or often) by relentless logic. When we are caught in conceptual traps, the best exit is often a change in metaphor—not because the new guideline will be truer to nature (for neither the old nor the new metaphor lies “out there” in the woods), but because we need a shift to more fruitful perspectives, and metaphor is often the best agent of conceptual transition.
    • "Glow, Big Glowworm", p. 264
  • There are no shortcuts to moral insight. Nature is not intrinsically anything that can offer comfort or solace in human terms—if only because our species is such an insignificant latecomer in a world not constructed for us. So much the better. The answers to moral dilemmas are not lying out there, waiting to be discovered. They reside, like the kingdom of God, within us—the most difficult and inaccessible spot for any discovery or consensus.
    • "Kropotkin was no Crackpot", p. 339
  • The argument of the “long view” may be correct in some meaninglessly abstract sense, but it represents a fundamental mistake in categories and time scales. Our only legitimate long view extends to our children and our children's children's children—hundreds or a few thousands of years down the road. If we let the slaughter continue, they will share a bleak world with rats, dogs, cockroaches, pigeons, and mosquitoes. A potential recovery millions of years later has no meaning at our appropriate scale.
  • Lavoisier was right in the deepest, almost holy, way. His passion harnessed feeling to the service of reason; another kind of passion was the price. Reason cannot save us and can even persecute us in the wrong hands; but we have no hope of salvation without reason. The world is too complex, too intransigent; we cannot bend it to our simple will.
    • "The Passion of Antoine Lavoisier", p. 366
  • Guessing right for the wrong reason does not merit scientific immortality.
    • "The Godfather of Disaster", p. 379
  • Science is a method for testing claims about the natural world, not an immutable compendium of absolute truths. The fundamentalists, by "knowing" the answers before they start, and then forcing nature into the straitjacket of their discredited preconceptions, lie outside the domain of science—or of any honest intellectual inquiry.
    • "An Essay on a Pig Roast," p. 437
  • When we seek a textbook case for the proper operation of science, the correction of certain error offers far more promise than the establishment of probable truth. Confirmed hunches, of course, are more upbeat than discredited hypotheses. Since the worst traditions of “popular” writing falsely equate instruction with sweetness and light, our promotional literature abounds with insipid tales in the heroic mode, although tough stories of disappointment and loss give deeper insight into a methodology that the celebrated philosopher Karl Popper once labeled as “conjecture and refutation.”
    • "An Essay on a Pig Roast", p. 437
  • The story of a theory's failure often strikes readers as sad and unsatisfying. Since science thrives on self-correction, we who practice this most challenging of human arts do not share such a feeling. We may be unhappy if a favored hypothesis loses or chagrined if theories that we proposed prove inadequate. But refutation almost always contains positive lessons that overwhelm disappointment, even when […] no new and comprehensive theory has yet filled the void.
    • "The Face of Miranda", p. 496
  • Knowledge and wonder are the dyad of our worthy lives as intellectual beings. Voyager did wonders for our knowledge, but performed just as mightily in the service of wonder—and the two elements are complementary, not independent or opposed. The thought fills me with awe—a mechanical contraption that could fit in the back of a pickup truck, traveling through space for twelve years, dodging around four giant bodies and their associated moons, and finally sending exquisite photos across more than four light-hours of space from the farthest planet in our solar system.
    • "The Horn of Triton", pp. 508–509

Eight Little Piggies (1993)

Citations are from the W.W. Norton hardcover edition.
  • Details are all that matters: God dwells there, and you never get to see Him if you don't struggle to get them right.
    • "A Reflective Prologue", p. 14
  • The contingency of history (both for life in general and for the cultures of Homo sapiens) and human free will (in the factual rather than theological sense) are conjoined concepts, and no better evidence can be produced than the “experimental” production of markedly different solutions in identical environments.
    • "Unenchanted Evening", p. 29
  • It is so hard for an evolutionary biologist to write about extinction caused by human stupidity. […] Let me then float an unconventional plea, the inverse of the usual argument. […] The extinction of Partula is unfair to Partula. That is the conventional argument, and I do not challenge its primacy. But we need a humanistic ecology as well, both for the practical reason that people will always touch people more than snails do or can, and for the moral reason that humans are legitimately the measure of all ethical questions—for these are our issues, not nature's.
    • "Unenchanted Evening", p. 39
  • Yet I also appreciate that we cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love (but only appreciate in some abstract sense). So let them all continue—the films, the books, the television programs, the zoos, the little half acre of ecological preserve in any community, the primary school lessons, the museum demonstrations, even […] the 6:00 A.M. bird walks. Let them continue and expand because we must have visceral contact in order to love. We really must make room for nature in our hearts.
    • "Unenchanted Evening", p. 40
  • Phenomena unfold on their own appropriate scales of space and time and may be invisible in our myopic world of dimensions assessed by comparison with human height and times metered by human lifespans. So much of accumulating importance at earthly scales […] is invisible by the measuring rod of a human life. So much that matters to particles in the microscopic world of molecules […] either averages out to stability at our scale or simply stands below our limits of perception.
    • "The Golden Rule: A Proper Scale for Our Environmental Crisis", pp. 41–42
  • I do not think that, practically or morally, we can defend a policy of saving every distinctive local population of organisms. I can cite a good rationale for the preservation of species, for each species is a unique and separate natural object that, once lost, can never be reconstituted. But subspecies are distinctive local populations of species with broader geographic range. Subspecies are dynamic, interbreedable, and constantly changing: what then are we saving by declaring them all inviolate?
    • "The Golden Rule: A Proper Scale for Our Environmental Crisis", p. 43
  • Contingency is rich and fascinating; it embodies an exquisite tension between the power of individuals to modify history and the intelligible limits set by laws of nature. The details of individual and species's lives are not mere frills, without power to shape the large-scale course of events, but particulars that can alter entire futures, profoundly and forever.
    • "Eight Little Piggies", p. 77
  • Bacteria represent the world's greatest success story. They are today and have always been the modal organisms on earth; they cannot be nuked to oblivion and will outlive us all. This time is their time, not the “age of mammals” as our textbooks chauvinistically proclaim. But their price for such success is permanent relegation to a microworld, and they cannot know the joy and pain of consciousness. We live in a universe of trade-offs; complexity and persistence do not work well as partners.
    • "An Earful of Jaw", p. 98
  • The truly awesome intellectuals in our history have not merely made discoveries; they have woven variegated, but firm, tapestries of comprehensive coverage. The tapestries have various fates: Most burn or unravel in the footsteps of time and the fires of later discovery. But their glory lies in their integrity as unified structures of great complexity and broad implication.
    • "Men of the Thirty-Third Division: An Essay on Integrity", p. 125
  • Eugene Dubois is no hero in my book, if only because I share the spirit of his unorthodoxies, but disagree so strongly with his version, and regard his supporting arguments as so weakly construed and so willfully blind to opposing evidence (the dogmatist within is always worse than the enemy without).
    • "Men of the Thirty-Third Division: An Essay on Integrity", p. 136
  • Good scholars struggle to understand the world in an integral way (pedants bite off tiny bits and worry them to death). These visions of reality […] demand our respect, for they are an intellectual's only birthright. They are often entirely wrong and always flawed in serious ways, but they must be understood honorably and not subjected to mayhem by the excision of patches.
    • "Men of the Thirty-Third Division: An Essay on Integrity", p. 136
  • Great theories are expansive; failures mire us in dogmatism and tunnel vision.
    • "More Light on Leaves", p. 165
  • [W]hat intellectual phenomenon can be older, or more oft repeated, than the story of a large research program that impaled itself upon a false central assumption accepted by all practitioners? Do we regard all people who worked within such traditions as dishonorable fools? What of the scientists who assumed that the continents were stable, that the hereditary material was protein, or that all other galaxies lay within the Milky Way? These false and abandoned efforts were pursued with passion by brilliant and honorable scientists. How many current efforts, now commanding millions of research dollars and the full attention of many of our best scientists, will later be exposed as full failures based on false premises?
    • "Fall in the House of Ussher", p. 187
  • [S]cience is often regarded as the most objective and truth-directed of human enterprises, and since direct observation is supposed to be the favored route to factuality, many people equate respectable science with visual scrutiny—just the facts ma'am, and palpably before my eyes. But science is a battery of observational and inferential methods, all directed to the testing of propositions that can, in principle, be definitely proven false. […] At all scales, from smallest to largest, quickest to slowest, many well-documented conclusions of science lie beyond the strictly limited domain of direct observation. No one has ever seen an electron or a black hole, the events of a picosecond or a geological eon.
    • "Muller Bros. Moving & Storage", pp. 200–201
  • [W]e do live in a conceptual trough that encourages such yearning for unknown and romanticized greener pastures of other times. The future doesn't seem promising, if only because we can extrapolate some disquieting present trends into further deterioration: pollution, nationalism, environmental destruction, and aluminum bats. Therefore, we tend to take refuge in a rose-colored past […]. I do not doubt the salutary, even the essential, properties of this curiously adaptive human trait, but we must also record the down side. Legends of past golden ages become impediments when we try to negotiate our current dilemma.
    • "Shoemaker and Morning Star", pp. 206–207
  • If I choose to impose individual blame for all past social ills, there will be no one left to like in some of the most fascinating periods of our history. For example […] if I place every Victorian anti-Semite beyond the pale of my attention, my compass of available music and literature will be pitifully small. Though I hold no shred of sympathy for active persecution, I cannot excoriate individuals who acquiesced passively in a standard societal judgment. Rail instead against the judgment, and try to understand what motivates men of decent will.
    • "The Moral State of Tahiti—and of Darwin", p. 269
  • Yes, Shakespeare foremost and forever (Darwin too). But also teach about the excellence of pygmy bushcraft and Fuegian survival in the world's harshest climate. Dignity and inspiration come in many guises. Would anyone choose the tinhorn patriotism of George Armstrong Custer over the eloquence of Chief Joseph in defeat?
    • "The Moral State of Tahiti—and of Darwin", p. 274
  • The real tragedy of human existence is not that we are nasty by nature, but that a cruel structural asymmetry grants to rare events of meanness such power to shape our history.
    • "Ten Thousand Acts of Kindness", p. 282
  • I am not […] asserting that humans are either genial or aggressive by inborn biological necessity. Obviously, both kindness and violence lie within the bounds of our nature because we perpetrate both, in spades. I only advance a structural claim that social stability rules nearly all the time and must be based on an overwhelmingly predominant (but tragically ignored) frequency of genial acts, and that geniality is therefore our usual and preferred response nearly all the time. […] [T]he center of human nature is rooted in ten thousand ordinary acts of kindness that define our days.
    • "Ten Thousand Acts of Kindness", p. 282
  • If the resident zoologist of Galaxy X had visited the earth 5 million years ago while making his inventory of inhabited planets in the universe, he would surely have corrected his earlier report that apes showed more promise than Old World monkeys and noted that monkeys had overcome an original disadvantage to gain domination among primates. (He will confirm this statement after his visit next year—but also add a footnote that one species from the ape bush has enjoyed an unusual and unexpected flowering, thus demanding closer monitoring.)
    • "The Declining Empire of Apes", p. 288
  • Evolution is an obstacle course not a freeway; the correct analogue for long-term success is a distant punt receiver evading legions of would-be tacklers in an oddly zigzagged path toward a goal, not a horse thundering down the flat.
    • "Tires to Sandals", p. 318
  • Perhaps I am just a hopeless rationalist, but isn't fascination as comforting as solace? Isn't nature immeasurably more interesting for its complexities and its lack of conformity to our hopes? Isn't curiosity as wondrously and fundamentally human as compassion?
    • "Tires to Sandals", p. 324
  • Each worldview was a cultural product, but evolution is true and separate creation is not. […] Worldviews are social constructions, and they channel the search for facts. But facts are found and knowledge progresses, however fitfully. Fact and theory are intertwined, and all great scientists understand the interaction.
    • "Shields of Expectation—and Actuality", p. 425
  • Iconography becomes even more revealing when processes or concepts, rather than objects, must be depicted—for the constraint of a definite “thing” cedes directly to the imagination. How can we draw “evolution” or “social organization,” not to mention the more mundane “digestion” or “self-interest,” without portraying more of a mental structure than a physical reality? If we wish to trace the history of ideas, iconography becomes a candid camera trained upon the scholar's mind.
    • "A Tale of Three Pictures", p. 428
  • Great thinkers build their edifices with subtle consistency. We do our intellectual forebears an enormous disservice when we dismember their visions and scan their systems in order to extract a few disembodied “gems”—thoughts or claims still accepted as true. These disarticulated pieces then become the entire legacy of our ancestors, and we lose the beauty and coherence of older systems that might enlighten us by their unfamiliarity—and their consequent challenge—in our fallible (and complacent) modern world.
    • "A Tale of Three Pictures", p. 437–438
  • We debase the richness of both nature and our own minds if we view the great pageant of our intellectual history as a compendium of new information leading from primal superstition to final exactitude. We know that the sun is hub of our little corner of the universe, and that ties of genealogy connect all living things on our planet, because these theories assemble and explain so much otherwise disparate and unrelated information—not because Galileo trained his telescope on the moons of Jupiter or because Darwin took a ride on a Galápagos tortoise.
    • "A Foot Soldier for Evolution", p. 441

Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995)

Citations from the Harmony Books hardcover edition.
  • [M]isunderstanding of probability may be the greatest of all general impediments to scientific literacy.
    • "Happy Thoughts on a Sunny Day in New York City", p. 9
  • The solution, as all thoughtful people recognize, must lie in properly melding the themes of inborn predisposition and shaping through life's experiences. This fruitful joining cannot take the false form of percentages adding to 100—as in “intelligence is 80 percent nature and 20 percent nurture,” or “homosexuality is 50 percent inborn and 50 percent learned,” and a hundred other harmful statements in this foolish format. When two ends of such a spectrum are commingled, the result is not a separable amalgam (like shuffling two decks of cards with different backs), but an entirely new and higher entity that cannot be decomposed (just as adults cannot be separated into maternal and paternal contributions to their totality).
    • "The Monster's Human Nature", p. 60
  • I have long recognized the theory and aesthetic of such comprehensive display: show everything and incite wonder by sheer variety. But I had never realized how powerfully the decor of a cabinet museum can promote this goal until I saw the Dublin [Natural History Museum] fixtures redone right. […] The exuberance is all of one piece—organic and architectural. I write this essay to offer my warmest congratulations to the Dublin Museum for choosing preservation—a decision not only scientifically right, but also ethically sound and decidedly courageous. The avant-garde is not an exclusive locus of courage; a principled stand within a reconstituted rear unit may call down just as much ridicule and demand equal fortitude. Crowds do not always rush off in admirable or defendable directions.
    • "Cabinet Museums: Alive, Alive, O!", p. 244
  • True majorities, in a TV-dominated and anti-intellectual age, may need sound bites and flashing lights—and I am not against supplying such lures if they draw children into even a transient concern with science. But every classroom has one [Oliver] Sacks, one [Eric] Korn, or one [Jonathan] Miller, usually a lonely child with a passionate curiosity about nature, and a zeal that overcomes pressures for conformity. Do not the one in fifty deserve their institutions as well—magic places, like cabinet museums, that can spark the rare flames of genius?
    • "Cabinet Museums: Alive, Alive, O!", p. 246
  • Elitism is repulsive when based upon external and artificial limitations like race, gender, or social class. Repulsive and utterly false—for that spark of genius is randomly distributed across all cruel barriers of our social prejudice. We therefore must grant access—and encouragement—to everyone; and must be increasingly vigilant, and tirelessly attentive, in providing such opportunities to all children. We will have no justice until this kind of equality can be attained. But if only a small minority respond, and these are our best and brightest of all races, classes, and genders, shall we deny them the pinnacle of their soul's striving because all their colleagues prefer passivity and flashing lights? Let them lift their eyes to hills of books, and at least a few museums that display the full magic of nature's variety. What is wrong with this truly democratic form of elitism?
    • "Cabinet Museums: Alive, Alive, O!", p. 246.
  • I... praise the newly opened halls of fossil mammals at the American Museum of Natural History. ...teaching us about evolutionary trees by organizing the entire hall as a central trunk and set of branches... placing our brains in our feet and letting us learn by walking. ...the chosen geometry of evolutionary organization... violates the traditional picture of life's history, thus illustrating... an important principle in the history of science: the central role of pictures, graphs, and other forms of visual representation in channeling and constraining our thought. ...Words are an evolutionary afterthought. ...My colleagues have actually done it. ...They have ordered all the fossils into an unconventional iconographic tree that fractures the bias of progress. that we can preambulate along the tree of life and absorb the new scheme viscerally by walking... They have taken Colbert's radical idea and arranged all the fossils by their branching order, not their later "success" or "advancement." Groups that branch early appear early in the hall... Sea cows and elephants are at the end of the hall, horses in the middle, and primates near the beginning.
    • "Evolution by Walking", pp. 249-254.
  • I love to read the dedications of old books written in monarchies—for they invariably honor some (usually insignificant) knight or duke with fulsome words of sycophantic insincerity, praising him as the light of the universe (in hopes, no doubt, for a few ducats to support future work); this old practice makes me feel like such an honest and upright man, by comparison, when I put a positive spin, perhaps ever so slightly exaggerated, on a grant proposal.
    • "The Razumovsky Duet", p. 263
  • My profession often gets bad press for a variety of sins, both actual and imagined: arrogance, venality, insensitivity to moral issues about the use of knowledge, pandering to sources of funding with insufficient worry about attendant degradation of values. As an advocate for science, I plead “mildly guilty now and then” to all these charges. Scientists are human beings subject to all the foibles and temptations of ordinary life. Some of us are moral rocks; others are reeds. I like to think (though I have no proof) that we are better, on average, than members of many other callings on a variety of issues central to the practice of good science: willingness to alter received opinion in the face of uncomfortable data, dedication to discovering and publicizing our best and most honest account of nature's factuality, judgment of colleagues on the might of their ideas rather than the power of their positions.
    • "The Razumovsky Duet", p. 270
  • I like to summarize what I regard as the pedestal-smashing messages of Darwin's revolution in the following statement, which might be chanted several times a day, like a Hare Krishna mantra, to encourage penetration into the soul: Humans are not the end result of predictable evolutionary progress, but rather a fortuitous cosmic afterthought, a tiny little twig on the enormously arborescent bush of life, which, if replanted from seed, would almost surely not grow this twig again, or perhaps any twig with any property that we would care to call consciousness.
    • "Can We Complete Darwin's Revolution?", p. 327
  • Anton Chekhov wrote that “one must not put a loaded rifle on stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Good drama requires spare and purposive action, sensible linking of potential causes with realized effects. Life is much messier; nothing happens most of the time. Millions of Americans (many hotheaded) own rifles (many loaded), but the great majority, thank God, do not go off most of the time. We spend most of real life waiting for Godot, not charging once more unto the breach.
    • "Speaking of Snails and Scales", p. 345
  • We should take comfort in two conjoined features of nature: first, that our world is incredibly strange and therefore supremely fascinating … second, that however bizarre and arcane our world might be, nature remains potentially comprehensible to the human mind.
    • "A Special Fondness for Beetles", pp. 386-387
  • Western field-work conjures up images of struggle on horseback […]—toughing it out on one canteen a day as you labor up and down mountains. The value of a site is supposedly correlated with the difficulty of getting there. This, of course, is romantic drivel. Ease of access is no measure of importance. The famous La Brea tar pits are right in downtown Los Angeles. To reach the Clarkia lake beds, you turn off the main road at Buzzard's Roost Trophy Company and drive the remaining fifty yards right up to the site.
    • "Magnolias from Moscow", p. 403
Citations from the Harmony Books hardcover edition (pagination is the same in the paperback edition)
  • Nature is objective, and nature is knowable, but we can only view her through a glass darkly—and many clouds upon our vision are of our own making: social and cultural biases, psychological preferences, and mental limitations (in universal modes of thought, not just individualized stupidity).
    • Chapter 1, “Huxley’s Chessboard” (p. 8)
  • Thus, when we tackle the greatest of all evolutionary questions about human existence—how, when, and why did we emerge on the tree of life; and were we meant to arise, or are we only lucky to be here—our prejudices often overwhelm our limited information. Some of these biased descriptions are so venerable, so reflexive, so much a part of our second nature, that we never stop to recognize their status as social decisions with radical alternatives—and we view them instead as given and obvious truths.
    • Chapter 1, “Huxley’s Chessboard” (p. 8)
  • We grasp at the straw of progress (a desiccated ideological twig) because we are still not ready for the Darwinian revolution. We crave progress as our best hope for retaining human arrogance in an evolutionary world. Only in these terms can I understand why such a poorly formulated and improbable argument maintains such a powerful hold over us today.
    • Chapter 2, “Darwin Amidst the Spin Doctors” (p. 29)
  • The more important the subject in the closer it gets to the bone of our hopes and needs, the more we are likely to err in establishing a framework for analysis. We are story-telling creatures, products of history ourselves. We are fascinated by trends, in part because they tell stories by the basic device of importing directionality to time, in part because they so often supply a moral dimension to a sequence of events.
    • Chapter 3, “Different Parsings, Different Images of Trends” (p. 30)
  • But our strong desire to identify trends often leads us to detect a directionality that doesn’t exist, or to infer causes that cannot be sustained. The subject of trends has inspired and illustrated some of the classic fallacies in human reasoning. Most prominently, since people seem to be so bad at thinking about probability and so prone to read pattern into sequence of events, we often commit the fallacy of spotting a “sure” trend in speculating about causes, when we observe no more than a random string of happenings.
    • Chapter 3, “Different Parsings, Different Images of Trends” (pp. 30-31)
  • The common error lies in failing to recognize that apparent trends can be generated as by-products, or side consequences, of expansions and contractions in the amount of variation within a system, and not by anything directly moving anywhere.
    • Chapter 3, “Different Parsings, Different Images of Trends” (p. 33)
  • We cannot overcome obstacles with ignorance.
    • Chapter 4, “Case One: A Personal Story” (p. 46)
  • A hot topic of late, expressed most notably in Bernie Siegel's best-selling books, has emphasized the role of positive attitude in combating such serious diseases as cancer. From the depths of my skeptical and rationalist soul, I ask the Lord to protect me from California touchie-feeliedom.
    • Chapter 4, “Case One: A Personal Story” (p. 47)
  • We build our personalities laboriously and through many years, and we cannot order fundamental changes just because we might value their utility; no button reading “positive attitude” protrudes from our hearts, and no finger can coerce positivity into immediate action by a single and painless pressing.
    • Chapter 4, “Case One: A Personal Story” (p. 47)
  • If a man dies of cancer in fear and despair, then cry for his pain and celebrate his life. The other man, who fought like hell and laughed in the end, but also died, may have had an easier time in his final months, but took his leave with no more humanity.
    • Chapter 4, “Case One: A Personal Story” (p. 47)
  • In other words, the theme of this book—“full house,” or they need to focus upon variation within entire systems, and not always upon abstract measures of average or central tendency—provided substantial solace in my time of greatest need. Let no one ever say that knowledge and learning are frivolous baubles of academic stability, and that only feelings can serve us in times of personal stress.
    • Chapter 4, “Case One: A Personal Story” (p. 48)
  • As a final footnote to life’s little joke, I remind readers that one other prominent (or at least parochially beloved) mammalian lineage has an equally long and extensive history of conventional depiction as a ladder of progress—yet also lives today as the single surviving species of a formerly more copious bush. Look in the mirror, and don’t be tempted to equate transient domination with either intrinsic superiority or prospects for extended survival.
    • Chapter 5, “Case Two: Life’s Little Joke” (p. 73)
  • These arguments led Darwin to his denial of progress as a consequence of the “bare bones mechanics” of natural selection—for this process yields only local adaptation, often exquisite to be sure, but not universally advancing. The mammoth is every bit as good as an elephant—and vice versa. Do you prefer a marlin for its excellent spike; a flounder for its superb camouflage; an anglerfish for its peculiar “lure” evolved at the end of its own dorsal fin ray; a seahorse for its wondrous shape, so well adapted for bobbing around its habitat? Could any of these fishes be judged “better” or “more progressive” than any other? The question makes no sense. Natural selection can forge only local adaptation—wondrously intricate in some cases, but always local and not a step in a series of general progress or complexification.
    • Chapter 12, “The Bare Bones of Natural Selection” (p. 140)
  • Our shenanigans, nuclear and otherwise, might easily lead to our own destruction in the foreseeable future. We might take most of the large terrestrial vertebrates with us—a few thousand species at most. We surely cannot extirpate 500,000 species of beetles, though we might make a significant dent. I doubt we could ever substantially touch bacterial diversity. The model organisms cannot be nuked into oblivion, or very much affected by any of our considerable conceivable malfeasances.
    • Chapter 14, “The Power of the Modal Bacter” (p. 178)
  • A proper theory of morality depends upon the separation of intentions from results.
    • Chapter 14, “The Power of the Modal Bacter” (p. 195)
  • Few intellectual tyrannies can be more recalcitrant than the truths that everybody knows and nearly no one can defend with any decent data (for who needs proof of anything so obvious). And few intellectual activities can be more salutary than attempts to find out whether these rocks of ages might crumble at the slightest tap of an informational hammer.
    • Chapter 14, “The Power of the Modal Bacter” (pp. 212-213)
  • People under assault, and hopelessly overmatched, often do the opposite of what propriety might suggest: they dig in when they ought to accommodate. We call this behavior “siege mentality.”
    • Chapter 14, “The Power of the Modal Bacter” (p. 213)
  • I like to think of myself as a tough-minded intellectual, a foe of all fuzziness from alien abductions to past-life regressions. I hate to think that an intellectual position, hopefully well worked out in the pages of this book, might end up as a shill for one of the great fuzzinesses of our age—so-called “political correctness” as a doctrine that celebrates all indigenous practice, and therefore permits no distinctions, judgments, or analyses.
    • Chapter 15, “An Epilog on Human Culture” (p. 229)
  • And yet I think that the Full House model does teach us to treasure variety for its own sake—for tough reasons of evolutionary theory and nature's ontology, and not from a lamentable failure of thought that accepts all beliefs on the absurd rationale that disagreement must imply disrespect. Excellence is a range of differences, not a spot. Each location on the range can be occupied by an excellent or an inadequate representative—and we must struggle for excellence at each of these varied locations. In a society driven, often unconsciously, to impose a uniform mediocrity upon a former richness of excellence—where McDonald's drives out the local diner, and the mega-Stop & Shop eliminates the corner Mom and Pop—an understanding and defense of full ranges as natural reality might help to stem the tide and preserve the rich raw material of any evolving system: variation itself.
    • Chapter 15, “An Epilog on Human Culture” (p. 230)

The Mismeasure of Man (1996)

Quotation from the Revised and Expanded edition from W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Phony psychics like Uri Geller have had particular success in bamboozling scientists with ordinary stage magic, because only scientists are arrogant enough to think that they always observe with rigorous and objective scrutiny, and therefore could never be so fooled—while ordinary mortals know perfectly well that good performers can always find a way to trick people.
    • p. 36
  • I would rather label the whole enterprise of setting a biological value upon groups for what it is: irrelevant, intellectually unsound, and highly injurious.
    • p. 139
  • The invalid assumption that correlation implies cause is probably among the two or three most serious and common errors of human reasoning.
    • p. 272

Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (1998)

Quotations from the Harmony Books hardcover edition.
  • Very few people, including authors willing to commit to paper, ever really read primary sources—certainly not in necessary depth and comtemplation, and often not at all. […] When writers close themselves off to the documents of scholarship, and then rely only on seeing or asking, they become conduits and sieves rather than thinkers. When, on the other hand, you study the great works of predecessors engaged in the same struggle, you enter a dialogue with human history and the rich variety of our own intellectual traditions. You insert yourself, and your own organizing powers, into this history—and you become an acive agent, not merely a “reporter.”
    • Introduction, p. 6
  • Very little comes easily to our poor, benighted species (the first creature, after all, to experiment with the novel evolutionary inventions of self-conscious philosophy and art). Even the most “obvious,” “accurate,” and “natural” style of thinking or drawing must be regulated by history and won by struggle. Solutions must therefore arise within a social context and record the complex interactions of mind and environment that define the possibility of human improvement.
    • "Seeing Eye to Eye, Through a Glass Clearly", p. 72
  • I am particularly fond of [Emmanuel Mendes da Costa's] Natural History of Fossils because this treatise, more than any other work written in English, records a short episode expressing one of the grand false starts in the history of natural science—and nothing can be quite so informative and instructive as a juicy mistake.
    • "The Clam Stripped Bare by Her Naturalists, Even", p. 93
  • [T]ruly grand and powerful theories […] do not and cannot rest upon single observations. Evolution is an inference from thousands of independent sources, the only conceptual structure that can make unified sense of all this disparate information. The failure of a particular claim usually records a local error, not the bankruptcy of a central theory. […] If I mistakenly identify your father's brother as your own dad, you don't become genealogically rootless and created de novo. You still have a father; we just haven't located him properly.
    • "Mr. Sophia's Pony", p. 155
  • Theories rarely arise as patient inferences forced by accumulated facts. Theories are mental constructs potentiated by complex external prods (including, in idealized cases, a commanding push from empirical reality). But the prods often include dreams, quirks, and errors—just as we may obtain crucial bursts of energy from foodstuffs or pharmaceuticals of no objective or enduring value. Great truth can emerge from small error. Evolution is thrilling, liberating, and correct. And Macrauchenia is a litoptern.
    • "Mr. Sophia's Pony", pp. 157 - 158
  • Each and every loss becomes an instance of ultimate tragedy—something that once was, but shall never be known to us. The hump of the giant deer—as a nonfossilizable item of soft anatomy—should have fallen into the maw of erased history. But our ancestors provided a wondrous rescue, and we should rejoice mightily. Every new item can instruct us; every unexpected object possesses beauty for its own sake; every rescue from history's great shredding machine is—and I don't know how else to say this—a holy act of salvation for a bit of totality.
    • "A Lesson from the Old Masters", p. 195
  • I went to the movies to see Independence Day, the outer-space summer blockbuster of 1996. (Even the most committed intellectual can't survive on an unalloyed diet of Jane Austen remakes.)
    • "The Dodo in the Caucus Race", p. 232
  • Nearly anyone in this line of work would take a bullet for the last pregnant dodo. But should we not admire the person who, when faced with an overwhelmingly sad reality beyond personal blame or control, strives valiantly to rescue whatever can be salvaged, rather than retreating to the nearest corner to weep or assign fault?
    • "The Dodo in the Caucus Race", p. 234
  • A very sincere and serious freshman student came to my office with a question that had clearly been troubling him deeply. He said to me, “I am a devout Christian and have never had any reason to doubt evolution, an idea that seems both exciting and well documented. But my roommate, a proselytizing evangelical, has been insisting with enormous vigor that I cannot be both a real Christian and an evolutionist. So tell me, can a person believe both in God and in evolution?” Again, I gulped hard, did my intellectual duty, and reassured him that evolution was both true and entirely compatible with Christian belief—a position that I hold sincerely, but still an odd situation for a Jewish agnostic.
    • "Non-Overlapping Magisteria", p. 270
  • When puzzled, it never hurts to read the primary documents—a rather simple and self-evident principle that has, nonetheless, completely disappeared from large sectors of the American experience.
    • "Non-Overlapping Magisteria", p. 273
  • I have a great respect for religion, and the subject has always fascinated me […]. Much of this fascination lies in the stunning historical paradox that organized religion has fostered, throughout Western history, both the most unspeakable horrors and the most heartrending examples of human goodness in the face of personal danger. (The evil, I believe, lies in an occasional confluence of religion with secular power. The Catholic Church has sponsored its share of horrors, from Inquisitions to liquidations—but only because this institution held great secular power during much of Western history. When my folks held such sway, more briefly and in Old Testament times, we committed similar atrocities with the same rationales.)
    • "Non-Overlapping Magisteria", p. 281
  • I love these tales because, in more reasonable attributions of motive, they so beautifully embody a fundamental theme of historical explanation - that consequences of substantial import often arise from triggers of entirely different intent. In other words, current utility bears no necessary relationship with historical origin.
    • "The Tallest Tale", p. 302
  • When we look to presumed sources of origin for competing evolutionary explanations of the giraffe's long neck, we find either nothing at all, or only the shortest of speculative conjectures. Length, of course, need not correspond with importance. Garrulous old Polonius, in a rare moment of clarity, reminded us that "brevity is the soul of wit" (and then immediately vitiated his wise observation with a flood of woolly words about Hamlet's Madness.)
    • "The Tallest Tale", p. 304
  • If the neck of the giraffe elongates an inch at a time, then the full panoply of supporting structures need not arise at every step. The coordinated adaptation can be built piecemeal. Some animals may slightly elongate the neck, others the legs; still others may develop stronger neck muscles. By sexual reproduction, the favorable features of different organisms may be combined in offspring.
    • "The Tallest Tale", p. 310
  • When scientists need to explain difficult points of theory, illustration by hypothetical example - rather than by total abstraction - works well (perhaps indispensably) as a rhetorical device. Such cases do not function as speculations in the pejorative sense - as silly stories that provide insight into complex mechanisms - but rather as idealized illustrations to exemplify a difficult point of theory. (Other fields, like philosophy and the law, use such conjectural cases as a standard device.)
    • "The Tallest Tale", p. 310
  • The giraffe's neck supposedly supplies a crucial example for preferring natural selection over Lamarckism as a cause of evolution. But Darwin himself (however wrongly by later judgement) did not deny the Lamarckian principle of inheritance for characters acquired by use or lost by disuse. He regarded the Lamarckian mechanism as weak, infrequent, and entirely subsidiary to natural selection, but he accepted the validity of evolution by use and disuse. Darwin does speculate about the adaptive advantage of giraffe's necks, but he cites both natural selection and Lamarckism as probable causes of elongation.
    • "The Tallest Tale", p. 312
  • We may summarize the main line of this complexly meandering tale as a list of ironies - invoking the technical definition of irony as a statement where, for humorous or sarcastic effect, the intended meaning of a word becomes directly opposite to the usual sense...
    • "The Tallest Tale", p. 313
  • Henry Fairfield Osborn, the dominant paleontologist of his era, and long time director of the American Museum of Natural History, gave the "standard version in his popular book of 1918, The Origin and Evolution of Life... "Lamarck attributed the lengthening of the [giraffe's] neck to the inheritance of bodily modifications caused by the neck-stretching habit. Darwin attributed the lengthening of the neck to the constant selection of individuals and races which were born with the longest necks. Darwin was probably right." …The version has held ever since.
    • "The Tallest Tale", p. 314
  • If we choose a weak and foolish speculation as a primary textbook illustration (falsely assuming that the tale possesses a weight of history and a sanction of evidence), then we are in for trouble - as critics properly nail the particular weakness, and then assume that the whole theory must be in danger if supporters choose such a fatuous case as a primary illustration.
    • "The Tallest Tale", p. 314
  • In his anti-Darwinian book... (and eponymously named The Neck of the Giraffe), Francis Hitching tells the story... "The need to survive by reaching ever higher for food is, like so many Darwinian explanations of its kind, little more than a post hoc speculation." Hitching is quite correct, but he rebuts a fairy story that Darwin was far too smart to tell - even though the tale later entered our high school texts as a "classic case" nonetheless.
    • "The Tallest Tale", p. 314
  • Eternal vigilance, as they say, is the price of freedom. Add intellectual integrity to the cost basis.
    • "The Tallest Tale", p. 315
  • Giraffes do use their long necks to browse leaves, at the tops of acacia trees - but such current function, no matter how vital, does not prove that the neck originally evolved for this purpose. The neck may have first lengthened in context of a different use, and then been coopted for better dining when giraffes moved into the open plains. Or the neck may have evolved to perform several functions at once. We cannot learn the reasons for historical origin simply by listing current uses.
    • "The Tallest Tale", p. 317
  • Why, then, have we been bamboozled into accepting the usual tale without questioning? I suspect two primary reasons: we love a sensible and satisfying story, and we are disinclined to challenge apparent authority (like textbooks!). But do remember that most satisfying tales are false.
    • "The Tallest Tale", p. 318
  • Darwinian evolution may be the most truthful and powerful idea ever generated by Western Science, but if we continue to illustrate our conviction with an indefensible, unsupported, entirely speculative, and basically rather silly story, then we are clothing a thing of beauty in rags - and we should be ashamed, "for the apparel oft proclaims the man."
    • "The Tallest Tale", p. 318
  • Advocates for a single line of progress encounter their greatest stumbling block when they try to find a smooth link between the apparently disparate designs of the invertebrates and vertebrates.
    • "Brotherhood by Inversion", p. 320
  • Arthropods and vertebrates share some broad features of general organization - elongated, bilaterally symmetrical bodies, with sensory organs up front, excretory structures in the back, and some form of segmentation along the major axis. But the geometry of major internal organs could hardly be more different... Arthropods concentrate their nervous system on their ventral (belly) side as two major cords running along the bottom surface of the animal. The mouth also opens on the ventral side, with the esophagus passing between the two nerve cords, and the stomach and remainder of the digestive tube running along the body above the nerve cords. In vertebrates, and with maximal contrast, the central nervous system runs along the dorsal (top) surface as a single tube culminating in a bulbous brain at the front end. The entire digestive system then runs along the body axis below the nerve cord.
    • "Brotherhood by Inversion", p. 321
  • The inversion theory has a long and fascinating history in the discussion of vertebrate origins. The founding version dates to the early nineteenth century and became the centerpiece of a movement often called "transcendental biology," and centered on the attempt to reduce organic diversity to one or a very few archetypal building blocks that could generate all actual anatomies as products of rational laws of transformation. Some of Europe's greatest thinkers participated in this grand, if flawed enterprise. Goethe, Germany's preeminent poet-scientist, tried to explain the varied parts of plants as different manifestations of an archetypal leaf.
    • "Brotherhood by Inversion", p. 325
  • In France, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire attempted to portray the skeleton of vertebrates as a set of modifications upon an archetypal vertebra. In the 1820's, Geoffroy extended his ambitious plan to include annelids and arthropods under that same rubric. ...Vertebrates support their soft parts with an internal skeleton, but insects must live within their vertebrae (a reality, not a metaphor, for Geoffroy). This comparison led to... the claim that a vertebrate rib must represent the same organ as an arthropod leg - and that insects must therefore walk on their own ribs!
    • "Brotherhood by Inversion", p. 326
  • Geoffrey also recognized that the opposite orientations of gut and nervous system posed a problem for his claim that insects and vertebrates represent different versions of the same archetypal animal - and he proposed the first account of the inversion theory to resolve this threat to unification. ...Geoffroy pursued the... aim of establishing a "unity of type" that could generate both arthropods and vertebrates from the same basic blueprint. ...The single grand design includes a gut in the middle and the main nerve cords somewhere on the periphery.
    • "Brotherhood by Inversion", p. 326
  • Later evolutionary theorists of linear progress had to advance the overtly physical and historical claim that an ancestral lineage of arthropods actually turned over to become the first vertebrates (for the classical statement of the inversion theory, see William Patten, The Grand Strategy of Evolution, 1920).
    • "Brotherhood by Inversion", p. 327
  • Gaskell could not abide this indecorous version of his beloved linear progress theory. He could not bear to imagine that the grand procession from jellyfish to man, orchestrated by an ever-increasing mass of nervous tissue, once paused in its stately and orderly march toward human consciousness in order to execute a fancy little flip, a clever jig of inversion, just at the sublime and definitive moment of entrance into the vertebral home stretch.
    • "Brotherhood by Inversion", p. 327
  • Gaskell... had to keep his stately soldiers upright and uniformly oriented... by crafting the brain and spinal cord from an arthropod digestive tube, while forming a completely new gut below. ...Gaskell thought that his move would rescue the theory of linear progress, with its necessary transition of arthropod into vertebrate, from the absurdities of the old inversion theory.
    • "Brotherhood by Inversion", p. 327
  • How ironic. In order to avoid the "nutty" theory of inversion, Gaskell invented the even odder notion of stomachs turning into brains with new guts forming below. No wonder then, that later biologists cast a plague on both speculative houses and opted instead for the obvious alternative: arthropods and vertebrates do not share the same anatomical plan at all, but rather represent two separate evolutionary developments of similar complexity from a much simpler common ancestor that grew neither a discrete gut nor a central nerve cord.
    • "Brotherhood by Inversion", p. 327
  • Independent derivation meshed beautifully with the triumph, from the 1930's on, of a strict version of Darwinism based on the near ubiquity of adaptive design built by natural selection... Arthropods and vertebrates do share several features of functional design. But those similarities only reflect the power of natural selection to craft optimal structures independently in a world of limited biomechanical solutions to common functional problems - an evolutionary phenomenon called convergence.
    • "Brotherhood by Inversion", p. 328
  • This new consensus seemed so compelling that Ernst Mayr, the dean of modern Darwinians, opened the ashcan of history for a deposit of Geoffrey's ideas about anatomical unity.
    • "Brotherhood by Inversion", p. 329
  • Darwin himself told us in his last book (The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms) that we should never underestimate the power of worms on the move. ...The inversion of a humble worm, especially when disturbed, may bring down empires. Shakespeare told us that "the smallest worm will turn being trodden on." And Cervantes wrote in his author's preface to Don Quixote that "even a worm when trod upon, will turn again." …Geoffrey, it seems, was correct after all - not in every detail, of course, but at least in basic vision and theoretical meaning. And the triumph of surprise, the inversion of nuttiness to apparent truth, stands as a premier example of the most exciting general development in evolutionary theory during our times.
    • "Brotherhood by Inversion", p. 329-330
  • We can now determine, easily and relatively cheaply, the detailed chemical architecture of genes; and we can trace the products of these genes (enzymes and proteins) as they influence the course of embryology. In so doing we have made the astounding discovery that all complex animal phyla - arthropods and vertebrates in particular - have retained, despite their half-billion years of evolutionary independence, an extensive set of common genetic blueprints for building bodies.
    • "Brotherhood by Inversion", p. 330
  • Many similarities of basic design among animal phyla, once so confidently attributed to convergence, and viewed as testimony to the power of natural selection to craft exquisite adaptation, demand the opposite interpretation that Mayr labeled as inconceivable: the similar features are homologies, or products of the same genes, inherited from a common ancestor and never altered enough by subsequent evolution to erase their comparable structure and function. The similarities record the constraining power of conserved history, not the architectural skills of natural selection independently pursuing an optimal design in separate lineages. Vertebrates are, in a certain sense, true brothers (or homologs) - not mere analogs - of worms and insects.
    • "Brotherhood by Inversion", p. 330-31
  • Evolving life must experience a vast range of possibilities, based on environmental histories so unpredictable that no realized route - the pathway to consciousness in the form of Homo sapiens or Little Green Men, for example - can be construed as a highway to heaven, but must be viewed as a tortuous track rutted with uncountable obstacles and festooned with innumerable alternative branches. Any reasonably precise repetition of our earthly route on another planet therefore becomes wildly improbable even in a trillion cases.
    • "War of the Worldviews", p. 351
  • Since the universe must contain millions of appropriate planets, consciousness in some form - but not with the paired eyes and limbs, and the brain built of neurons in the only example we know - may evolve frequently. But if only one origin of life in a million ever leads to consciousness, then Martian bacteria most emphatically do not imply Little Green Men.)
    • "War of the Worldviews", p. 351
  • We now live, as Earth always has (see my 1996 book Full House), in an Age of Bacteria. These simplest organisms will dominate our planet (if conditions remain hospitable for life at all) until the sun explodes. During our current, and undoubtedly brief, geological moment, they watch with appropriate amusement as we strut and fret our hour upon the stage. For we are, to them, only transient and delectable islands ripe for potential exploitation.
    • "War of the Worldviews", p. 352
  • If we make this readjustment to view Homo sapiens as an ultimate in oddball rarity, and life at bacterial grade as the common expression of a universal phenomenon, then we could finally ask the truly fundamental question raised by the prospect of Martian fossils. If life originates as a general property of the material universe under certain conditions (probably often realized), then how much can the basic structure and constitution of life vary from place to independent place?
    • "War of the Worldviews", p. 352
  • All life on earth - everything from bacteria to mushrooms to hippos - shares an astonishing range of detailed biochemical similarities, including the structure of heredity in DNA and RNA, and the universal use of ATP as an energy-storing compound. Two possible scenarios, with markedly different implications for the nature of life, might explain these regularities: either all earthly life shares these features because no other chemistry can work, or these similarities only record the common descent of all organisms on earth from a single origin that happened to feature this chemistry as one possibility among many.
    • "War of the Worldviews", p. 352
  • Unfortunately, all life on earth - the only life we know - represents, for all its current variety, the results of a single experiment, for every earthly species evolved from the common ancestry of a single origin. We desperately need a repetition of the experiment (several would be better, but let's not be greedy!) in order to make a judgement. Mars represents our first real hope for a second experiment - the sine qua non - for any proper answer for the question of questions.
    • "War of the Worldviews", p. 353
  • Darwinian natural selection only yields adaptation to changing local environments, and better function in an immediate habitat might just as well be achieved by greater simplicity in form and behavior as by ever-increasing complexity.
    • Triumph of the Root-Heads, p. 355
  • Consider one of the standard "laments" or "stories of wonder" in conventional tales of natural history: the mayfly that lives but a single day (a sadness even recorded in the technical name for this biological group - Ephemoptera). Yes, the adult fly may enjoy only a moment in the sun, but we should honor the entire life cycle and recognize that the larvae, or juvenile stages, live and develop for months. Larvae are not mere preparations for a brief adulthood. We might better read the entire life cycle as a division of labor, with larvae as feeding and growing stages, and the adult as a short-lived reproductive machine. In this sense, we could well view the adult fly's day as the larva's clever and transient device for making a new generation of truly fundamental feeders.
    • Triumph of the Root-Heads, p. 356
  • This essay treats the most celebrated story in the extreme simplification in an adult parasite - in the interests of illuminating, reconciling, and, perhaps, even resolving two major biases that have so hindered our understanding of natural history: the misequation of evolution with progress, and the undervaluing of an organism by considering only its adult form and not the entire life cycle.
    • Triumph of the Root-Heads, p. 356
  • What constitutes the primordium of the adult parasite [ Rhizocephala ]? What can be injected through the narrow opening of the dart's hypodermic device? ...Imagine going through such complexity as nauplius, cyprid, and kentrogon - and then paring yourself down to just a few cells for a quick and hazardous transition to the adult stage. What a minimal bridge at such a crucial transition! ...But other species have achieved the ultimate reduction to a single cell! The dart injects just one cell into the host's interior, and the two parts of the life cyle maintain their indispensable continuity by an absolutely minimal connection - as though, within the rhizocephalan life cycle, nature has inserted a stage analogous to the fertilized egg that establishes minimal connection between generations in ordinary sexual organisms.
    • Triumph of the Root-Heads, p. 363
  • The parasite has somehow evolved to turn off the host's defenses, presumably by disarming the crab's immune response with some chemical trickery that fools the host into accepting the parasite as part of itself. ...The adult parasite castrates the host, not by directly eating the gonadal tissue, but by some unknown mechanism probably involving penetration of the interna's roots around and into the crab's nervous system.
    • Triumph of the Root-Heads, p. 367
  • Lernaeodiscus porcellanae turns control of the host into a fine art. After castration by the parasite, male crabs develop female characteristics in both anatomy and behavior, while females become even more feminized. The emerging externa then takes the same form and position as the crab's own egg mass... The crabs then treat the externa as their own brood. In other words, the parasite usurps all the complex care normally invested in the crab's own progeny.
    • Triumph of the Root-Heads, p. 368
  • In short, the root-head turns the crab into a Darwinian cipher, a feeding machine working entirely in the parasite's service. The castrated crab can make no contribution to its own evolutionary history; its "Darwinian fitness" has become flat zero. ...But ever so carefully, for the parasite must maintain the crab in constant and perfect servitude - not draining the host enough to kill this golden goose, but not letting the crab do anything for its own Darwinian benefit.
    • Triumph of the Root-Heads, p. 369
  • The intricate and different life cycles of both male and female root-heads, and the great behavioral sophistication shown by the female in reconfiguring a host crab as a support system, all underscore the myopia of our conventional wisdom in regarding rhizocephalans as degenerate parasites because the adult anatomy of internal roots and external sac seem so simple.
    • Triumph of the Root-Heads, p. 371
  • Our indirect methods have taught us a mountain of things about horses, but if you wished to learn even more, would you rather be Whirlaway in the stretch, than interview Eddie Arcaro afterwards?
    • "Can We Truly Know Sloth and Rapacity?"
  • I can only look from the outside (or cut into the inside, but flesh and genes do not reveal organic totality). I am stuck with a panoply of ineluctably indirect methods - some very sophisticated to be sure. I can atomize, experiment, and infer. I can record reams of data about behaviors and responses. But if I could be a beetle or a bacillus for that one precious minute - and live to tell the tale in perfect memory - then I might truly fulfill Darwin's dictum penned into an early notebook containing the first full flowering of his evolutionary ideas during the late 1830's: "He who understands the baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke."
    • "Can We Truly Know Sloth and Rapacity?" pp. 376
  • The classical argument for why a supposedly decent and moral creature like Homo sapiens can mistreat and even extirpate other species rests upon an extreme position in a continuum. The Cartesian tradition, formulated explicitly in the seventeenth century, but developed in "folk" and other versions throughout human history no doubt, holds that other animals are little more than unfeeling machines, with only humans enjoying "consciousness," however defined.
    • "Can We Truly Know Sloth and Rapacity?" pp. 389
  • I am willing to believe that my unobtainable sixty seconds within a sponge or a flatworm might not reveal any mental acuity that I would care to call consciousness. But I am also confident […] that vultures and sloths, as close evolutionary relatives with the same basic set of organs, lie on our side of any meaningful (and necessarily fuzzy) border—and that we are therefore not mistaken when we look them in the eye and see a glimmer of emotional and conceptual affinity.
    • "Can We Truly Know Sloth and Rapacity?" pp. 389–390
  • South America had been an island continent, far bigger and far more diverse than Australia, for tens of millions of years before the Isthmus of Panama rose just a couple of million years ago. The resulting flood of North American mammals across the new land bridge corresponds in time with the decimation of the native South American fauna. In fact, most large mammals generally considered distinctly South American... are all recent migrants from North America.
    • "Can We Truly Know Sloth and Rapacity?" pp. 390
  • If I could have those sixty seconds within Bradypus... would I not receive a plea for humans to pause, reassess - and above all, slow down?
    • "Can We Truly Know Sloth and Rapacity?" pp. 391
  • Natural historians tend to avoid tendentious preaching in this philosophical mode (although I often fall victim to such temptations in these essays). Our favored style of doubting is empirical: if I wish to question your proposed generality, I will search for a counterexample in flesh and blood. Such counterexamples exist in abundance, for they form a staple in a standard genre of writing in natural history — the “wonderment of oddity” or “strange ways of the beaver” tradition.
    • "Reversing Established Orders", p. 394
  • Flies can eat toads! (Although astonishment may be lessened in noting that the tiny toads are much smaller than enormous fly larvae.) Unusually large insects and maximally small vertebrates have also been featured in the few other recorded cases of such reversals - frogs, small birds, even a mouse, consumed by praying mantids, for example.
    • "Reversing Established Orders", p. 396
  • No one supposed that dinoflagellates might actively kill fish as an evolved response for their own specific advantage, including a potential nutritional benefit for the algal cells. And yet the dinoflagellates do seem to be killing and eating fishes in a manner suggesting active evolution for this most peculiar reversal.
    • "Reversing Established Orders", p. 400
  • In our struggle to understand the history of life, we must learn where to place the boundary between contingent and unpredictable events that occur but once and the more repeatable, lawlike phenomenon that may pervade life's history as generalities.
    • "Reversing Established Orders", p. 402

The Lying Stones of Marrakech (2001)

Page references are to the original Harmony Books hardcover edition.
  • Will we ever again be able to view a public object with civic dignity, unencumbered by commercial messages? Must city buses be fully painted as movable ads, lampposts smothered, taxis festooned, even seats in concert halls sold one by one to donors and embellished in perpetuity with their names on silver plaques?
    • "The Lying Stones of Marrakech", p. 25
  • The skein of human continuity must often become this tenuous across the centuries (hanging by a thread, in the old cliché), but the circle remains unbroken if I can touch the ink of Lavoisier's own name, written by his own hand. A candle of light, nurtured by the oxygen of his greatest discovery, never burns out if we cherish the intellectual heritage of such unfractured filiation across the ages. We may also wish to contemplate the genuine physical thread of nucleic acid that ties each of us to the common bacterial ancestor of all living creatures, born on Lavoisier's ancienne terre more than 3.5 billion years ago—and never since disrupted, not for one moment, not for one generation. Such a legacy must be worth preserving from all the guillotines of our folly.
    • "The Proof of Lavoisier's Plates", p. 114
  • Christopher Wren, the leading architect of London's reconstruction after the great fire of 1666, lies buried beneath the floor of his most famous building, St. Paul's cathedral. No elaborate sarcophagus adorns the site. Instead, we find only the famous epitaph written by his son and now inscribed into the floor: “si monumentum requiris, circumspice”—if you are searching for his monument, look around. A tad grandiose, perhaps, but I have never read a finer testimony to the central importance—one might even say sacredness — of actual places, rather than replicas, symbols, or other forms of vicarious resemblance.
    • "A Tale of Two Work Sites", p. 251
  • No one should feel at all offended or threatened by the obvious fact that we are not all born entirely blank, or entirely the same, in our mixture of the broad behavioral propensities defining what we call “temperament.”
    • "The Internal Brand of the Scarlet W", p. 281
  • [G]enes make enzymes, and enzymes control the rates of chemical processes. Genes do not make “novelty seeking” or any other complex and overt behavior. Predisposition via a long chain of complex chemical reactions, mediated through a more complex series of life's circumstances, does not equal identification or even causation.
    • "The Internal Brand of the Scarlet W", p. 282
  • [In natural history,] great discovery often requires a map to a hidden mine filled with gems then easily gathered by conventional tools, not a shiny new space-age machine for penetrating previously inaccessible worlds.
    • "Of Embryos and Ancestors", p. 318
  • [T]his theme of mutually invisible life at widely differing scales bears an important implication for the “culture wars” that supposedly now envelop our universities and our intellectual discourse in general […]. One side of this false dichotomy features the postmodern relativists who argue that all culturally bound modes of perception must be equally valid, and that no factual truth therefore exists. The other side includes the benighted, old-fashioned realists who insist that flies truly have two wings, and that Shakespeare really did mean what he thought he was saying. The principle of scaling provides a resolution for the false parts of this silly dichotomy. Facts are facts and cannot be denied by any rational being. (Often, facts are also not at all easy to determine or specify—but this question raises different issues for another time.) Facts, however, may also be highly scale dependent—and the perceptions of one world may have no validity or expression in the domain of another. The one-page map of Maine cannot recognize the separate boulders of Acadia, but both provide equally valid representations of a factual coastline.
    • "Room of One's Own", p. 355

I Have Landed (2002)

Page references are to the original Harmony Books hardcover edition.
  • In return for this great gift that I could not repay in a thousand lifetimes, at least I can promise that, although I have frequently advanced wrong, or even stupid, arguments (in the light of later discoveries), at least I have never been lazy, and have never betrayed your trust by cutting corners or relying on superficial secondary sources. I have always based these essays upon original works in their original languages (with only two exceptions, when Fracastoro's elegant Latin verse and Beringer's foppish Latin pseudocomplexities eluded my imperfect knowledge of this previously universal scientific tongue).
    • Preface, p. 6
  • No more harmful nonsense exists than [the] common supposition that deepest insight into great questions about the meaning of life or the structure of reality emerges most readily when a free, undisciplined, and uncluttered (read, rather, ignorant and uneducated) mind soars above mere earthly knowledge and concern.
    • "No Science Without Fancy, No Art Without Facts", p. 48
  • Darwin grasped the philosophical bleakness with his characteristic courage. He argued that hope and morality cannot, and should not, be passively read in the construction of nature. Aesthetic and moral truths, as human concepts, must be shaped in human terms, not “discovered” in nature. We must formulate these answers for ourselves and then approach nature as a partner who can answer other kinds of questions for us—questions about the factual state of the universe, not about the meaning of human life. If we grant nature the independence of her own domain—her answers unframed in human terms—then we can grasp her exquisite beauty in a free and humble way. For then we become liberated to approach nature without the burden of an inappropriate and impossible quest for moral messages to assuage our hopes and fears. We can pay our proper respect to nature's independence and read her own ways as beauty or inspiration in our different terms.
    • "Art Meets Science in The Heart of the Andes", p. 109
  • Complex organisms cannot be construed as the sum of their genes, nor do genes alone build particular items of anatomy or behavior by themselves. Most genes influence several aspects of anatomy and behavior—as they operate through complex interactions with other genes and their products, and with environmental factors both within and outside the developing organism. We fall into a deep error, not just a harmful oversimplification, when we speak of genes “for” particular items of anatomy or behavior.
    • "The Without and Within of Smart Mice", p. 234 (originally appeared in Time, 1999-09-13)
  • The vigorous branching of life's tree, and not the accumulating valor of mythical marches to progress, lies behind the persistence and expansion of organic diversity in our tough and constantly stressful world. And if we do not grasp the fundamental nature of branching as the key to life's passage across the geological stage, we will never understand evolution aright.
    • "Tales of a Feathered Tail", p. 331
  • The oppressive weight of disaster and tragedy in our lives does not arise from a high percentage of evil among the summed total of all acts, but from the extraordinary power of exceedingly rare incidents of depravity to inflict catastrophic damage, especially in our technological age when airplanes can become powerful bombs. (An even more evil man, armed only with a longbow, could not have wreaked such havoc at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.)
    • "The Good People of Halifax", p. 390 (originally appeared in The Globe and Mail, 2001-09-20)
Page references are to the original Harvard Belknap edition.
  • Substantial changes, introduced during the last half of the 20th century, have built a structure so expanded beyond the original Darwinian core, and so enlarged by new principles of macroevolutionary explanation, that the full exposition, while remaining within the domain of Darwinian logic, must be construed as basically different from the canonical theory of natural selection, rather than simply extended.
    • p. 3
  • In this crucial sense, the theory of punctuated equilibrium adopts a very conservative position. The theory asserts no novel claim about modes or mechanisms of speciation; punctuated equilibrium merely takes a standard microevolutionary model and elucidates its expected expression when properly scaled into geological time.
    • p. 778
  • Ordinary speciation remains fully adequate to explain the causes and phenomenology of punctuation.
    • p. 1001
  • I did speak extensively — often quite critically — about the reviled work of Richard Goldschmidt, particularly about aspects of his thought that might merit a rehearing. This material has often been confused with punctuated equlibrium by people who miss the crucial issue of scaling, and therefore regard all statements about rapidity at any level as necessarily unitary, and necessarily flowing from punctuated equilibrium. In fact, as the long treatment in Chapter 5 of this book should make clear, my interest in Goldschmidt resides in issues bearing little relationship with punctuated equilibrium, but invested instead in developmental questions that prompted my first book, Ontogeny and Phylogeny. The two subjects, after all, are quite separate, and rooted in different scales of rapidity — hopeful monsters in genuine saltation, and punctuated equilibrium in macroevolutionary punctuation (produced by ordinary allopatric speciation).
    • p. 1005
  • Finally, the claim that we equated punctuated equilibrium with saltation makes no sense within the logical structure of our theory — so, unless we are fools, how could we ever have asserted such a proposition? Our theory holds, as a defining statement, that ordinary allopatric speciation, unfolding gradually at microevolutionary scales, translates to punctuation in geological time.
    • p. 1009
  • Words change their meanings, just as organisms evolve. We would impose an enormous burden on our economy if we insisted on payment in cattle every time we identified a bonus as a pecuniary advantage (from the Latin pecus, or cattle, a verbal fossil from a former commercial reality).
    • p. 1070
  • And, in this case, science could learn an important lesson from the literati — who love contingency for the same basic reason that scientists tend to regard the theme with suspicion. Because, in contingency lies the power of each person, to make a difference in an unconstrained world bristling with possibilities, and nudgeable by the smallest of unpredictable inputs into markedly different channels spelling either vast improvement or potential disaster.
    • p. 1341
  • So why fret and care that the actual version of the destined deed was done by an upper class English gentleman who had circumnavigated the globe as a vigorous youth, lost his dearest daughter and his waning faith at the same time, wrote the greatest treatise ever composed on the taxonomy of barnacles, and eventually grew a white beard, lived as a country squire just south of London, and never again traveled far enough even to cross the English Channel? We care for the same reason that we love okapis, delight in the fossil evidence of trilobites, and mourn the passage of the dodo. We care because the broad events that had to happen, happened to happen in a certain particular way. And something unspeakably holy—I don't know how else to say this—underlies our discovery and confirmation of the actual details that made our world and also, in realms of contingency, assured the minutiae of its construction in the manner we know, and not in any one of a trillion other ways, nearly all of which would not have included the evolution of a scribe to record the beauty, the cruelty, the fascination, and the mystery.
    • p. 1342

Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville (2021)

Page references are to My little PP.
  • I view the major features of my own odyssey as a set of mostly fortunate contingencies. I was not destined by inherited mentality or family tradition to become a paleontologist. I can locate no tradition for scientific or intellectual careers anywhere on either side of my eastern European Jewish background. […] I view my serious and lifelong commitment to baseball in entirely the same manner: purely as a contingent circumstance of numerous, albeit not entirely capricious, accidents.
    • "Seventh Inning Stretch: Baseball, Father, and Me", p. 29
  • Our discombobulated lives need to sink some anchors in numerical stability. (I still have not recovered from the rise of a pound of hamburger at the supermarket to more than a buck.)
    • "A Time to Laugh", p. 82; originally published as "A Happy Mystery to Ponder: Why So Many Homers?" in The Wall Street Journal (2001-10-10)
  • The history of a species, or any natural phenomenon that requires unbroken continuity in a world of trouble, works like a batting streak. All are games of a gambler playing with a limited stake against a house with infinite resources. The gambler must eventually go bust. His aim can only be to stick around as long as possible, to have some fun while he's at it, and, if he happens to be a moral agent as well, to worry about staying the course with honor.
    • "The Streak of Streaks", pp. 186–187; originally published in The New York Review of Books (1988-08-18)
  • As a nation, we are too young to have true mythic heroes, and we must press real human beings into service. Honest Abe Lincoln the legend is quite a different character from Abraham Lincoln the man. And so should they be. And so should both be treasured, as long as they are distinguished. In a complex and confusing world, the perfect clarity of sports provides a focus for legitimate, utterly unambiguous support [or] disdain. The Dodgers are evil, the Yankees good. They really are, and have been for as long as anyone in my family can remember.
    • "Diamonds are a Fan's Best Friend", pp. 246–247; originally published in Washington Post Book World (1981-06-21)
  • Mythology is wondrous, a balm for the soul. But its problems cannot be ignored. At worst, it buys inspiration at the price of physical impossibility […]. At best, it purveys the same myopic view of history that made this most fascinating subject so boring and misleading in grade school as a sequential take of monarchs and battles.
    • "Baseball and the Two Faces of Janus", p. 259; originally published as "The Virtues of Nakedness" in The New York Review of Books (1990-10-11)
  • In what other world is myth so harmless? Great battles kill and maim; great homers and no-hitters are pure joy or deep tragedy without practical consequence […]. Life is inherently ambiguous; baseball games pit pure good against abject evil. Even Saddam Hussein must have committed one act of kindness in his life, but what iota of good could possibly be said for aluminum bats or the designated hitter rule?
    • "Baseball and the Two Faces of Janus", p. 272; originally published as "The Virtues of Nakedness" in The New York Review of Books (1990-10-11)
  • I relish the fact that we New Yorkers talk funny, and that art deco skyscrapers symbolize our city. […] But we must set boundaries to this love of variety. I accept the need, even the blessings, of standardization in practical matters: we require a worldwide telephone dialing system and a network of national highways […]. We need domains of standardization, and realms of regionalism, each in its appropriate place, and linked in mutual respect and recognition. I accept and even want McDonalds at the highway interchange—but not in my little neighborhood of ethnic restaurants, and not next to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.
    • "Baseball : Joys and Lamentations", p. 309; originally published in The New York Review of Books (1993-11-04)
  • Former arbiters of taste must have felt (as so many apostles of “traditional values” and other high-minded tags for restriction and conformity do today) that maintaining the social order required a concept of unalloyed heroism. Human beings so designated as role models had to embody all virtues of the paragon—which meant, of course, that they could not be described in their truly human and ineluctably faulted form.
    • "Good Sports & Bad", p. 325; originally published in The New York Review of Books (1995-03-02)
  • [T]he effects of general change [in literature] are most tellingly recorded not in alteration of the best products, but in the transformation of the most ordinary workaday books; for when potboilers adopt the new style, then the revolution is complete.
    • "Good Sports & Bad", p. 335; originally published in The New York Review of Books (1995-03-02)

Quotations about Gould

  • I kept reading things like, "The purpose of such-and-such a behavior is so-and-so"-in other words, the assumption that every behavior has a purpose important to survival. Let's face it, some behaviors don't; if they're genetic at all, they only have to stay out of the way of survival to continue. Then, just a year or so ago, I read one of Stephen Jay Gould's books in which he says much the same thing. I was relieved to see a biologist write that some things-physical characteristics or behaviors-don't kill you or save you; they may be riding along with some important genetic characteristic, though they don't have to be.
  • In all my years of teaching with Steve, I have never seen him flustered or at a loss for words—except once. In our course entitled "Thinking About Thinking," he had been presenting a lecture on the randomness of nature and referred to Einstein's famous dictum "I shall never believe that God plays dice with the world." I responded by walking up to the blackboard and writing, "Gould or God?" I then argued that if God does not play dice with the universe, as Einstein said, and if the universe is as random as the throws of honest dice, as Gould says, then there could not be a God. Hence, Gould or God? (Or at the very least, Gould or Einstein?) Then I sat down, leaving it to Steve to answer the challenge. He stood up and looked at the words on the blackboard. He hesitated, gathered his thoughts, and then launched into a defense of God so brilliant that even William Jennings Bryan would have been proud. It was then that I realized what a great lawyer Gould would make. As for God... ?
  • Steve was one of seven or eight second-year students in Columbia University's graduate program in paleontology. I was a senior at the college, eager to hang out—and glad to be included in the mix. We had a ball, eating Southern food at an extravaganza of a church cookout and collecting some of the most gorgeous fossils on Earth. But Steve, at least in my eyes, totally stole the show: of the thousands of specimens of the snail Turritella plebeia lying around, he found the only aberrant specimen—one that was to figure in one of his earliest papers. The guy had eyes. My usual rap on Steve is that I have never met a smarter person who works as hard as he does. That's as true now as it was back in the late 1960s, when my wife and I went up to Cambridge to visit the Goulds and the fabulous collection of trilobites that Steve's predecessor, Harry Whittington, had left in Steve's Harvard office. Dinner over, the evening getting late, we went to bed, but as I was dropping off, I heard the sound of Steve's by-now-famous manual typewriter as he wrote a review (I think it was of a new publication of the letters of Charles Lyell). Man, that guy could put the time in.
  • Steve is extremely bright, inventive. He thoroughly understands paleontology; he thoroughly understands evolutionary biology. He has performed an enormous service in getting people to think about punctuated equilibrium, because you see the process of stasis/sudden change, which is a puzzle. It's the cessation of change for long periods of time. Since you always have mutations, why don't things continue changing? You either have to say that the particular form is highly adapted, optimal, and exists in a stable environment, or you have to be very puzzled. Steve has been enormously important in that sense. Talking with Steve, or listening to him give a talk, is a bit like playing tennis with someone who's better than you are. It makes you play a better game than you can play. For years, Steve has wanted to find, in effect, what accounts for the order in biology, without having to appeal to selection to explain everything—that is, to the evolutionary "just-so stories." You can come up with some cockamamie account about why anything you look at was formed in evolution because it was useful for something. There is no way of checking such things. We're natural allies, because I'm trying to find sources of that natural order without appealing to selection, and yet we all know that selection is important.
  • many evolutionary biologists consider Gould’s writings a serious impediment to popular understanding of Darwinian thought.
  • Now it is not very hard to find out, if you spend a little while reading in evolution, that Gould is the John Kenneth Galbraith of his subject. That is, he is a wonderful writer who is beloved by literary intellectuals and lionized by the media because he does not use algebra or difficult jargon. Unfortunately, it appears that he avoids these sins not because he has transcended his colleagues but because he does not seem to understand what they have to say; and his own descriptions of what the field is about—not just the answers, but even the questions—are consistently misleading.
  • Most of the subjects Steve dealt with were meant to be illustrative precisely of the complexity and diversity of the processes and products of evolution. Despite the immense diversity of matters on which he wrote there was, underneath, a unifying theme: that the complexity of the living world cannot be treated as a manifestation of some grand general principle, but that each case must be understood by examining it from the ground up and as the realization of one out of many material paths of causation.
  • What is particularly delightful about Steve's writing is the virtuosity with which he connects seemingly unrelated subjects to illuminate and strengthen his arguments. Whether right or wrong, Steve is always stimulating, and this is perhaps where he has made his greatest contribution—in awakening in thousands, if not millions, of his readers an enthusiasm for the secrets of this wonderful world of ours.
  • I first met Stephen Jay Gould in the sixth grade in Queens, New York, when we were the only two geeks in the school interested in natural history and particularly in dinosaurs—decades before the advent of worldwide dinomania. In junior high school, our schoolmates nicknamed me "Dino" and Gould "Fossilface." We spent many afternoons at the American Museum of Natural History, where such curators as Edwin Colbert and Norman Newell fanned the flames of our hobby. We lost touch for twenty-five years, and I was delighted one day to discover Steve's columns in Natural History. At the time, both my life and my career had wandered far away from natural history, and I was working as an editor of what used to be called pulp magazines. I wrote to him, "You have inherited Thomas Huxley's mantle in explaining evolution to a new generation," and I asked if he remembered me. He wrote back, "Blood may be thicker than water, but junior high school friendships are thicker than anything." Steve encouraged me to return to the fold and take up my boyhood interests once again. But where to begin, with no credentials and no umbrella institution? He urged me to pursue the history of science as an independent scholar, to make a pilgrimage to Darwin's home in England, and to buy antiquarian natural history books in the shops around the British Museum. He gave me letters of introduction to top scholars. Eventually he encouraged me to write my Encyclopedia of Evolution, to which he generously contributed a foreword. Soon after it was published, in 1990, I was hired by Natural History, and among my duties is seeing "This View of Life" through to press each month (one does not really edit Stephen Jay Gould). My reconnection with the man, and with the passions and ideas that we both enjoy, has transformed my life immeasurably for the better. Thanks, Fossilface!
  • Eldredge and Gould and their many colleagues tend to codify an incredible ignorance of where the real action is in evolution, as they limit the domain of interest to animals... very tardy on the evolutionary scene, and they give us little real insight into the major sources of evolution's creativity.
    • Lynn_Margulis The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution ed. John Brockman (1995)
  • I can't say much about Gould’s strengths as a scientist, but for a long time I've regarded him as the second most influential historian of science (next to Thomas Kuhn).
  • My introduction to Stephen Jay Gould's work came in the 1970s, when I avidly read all his articles in Natural History (as I still do today). In 1990, when I was asked by a London newspaper to name my favorite book, I selected Wonderful Life; this led to my receiving a letter from Stephen and to the beginning of a frequent and voluminous correspondence between us. Many subjects close to both our hearts have been discussed in letters: from the place of contingency (in evolution but also in the often unpredictable reactions of patients to illnesses and drugs) to our shared love for museums (especially the old "cabinet" type—we both spoke out for the preservation of the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia). In 1993 I wrote of ways of joining particulars with generalities—in my own case, clinical narratives with neuroscience—and he replied: "I have long experienced exactly the same tension, trying to assuage my delight in individual things through my essays and my interest in generality through my more technical writing. I loved the Burgess Shale work so much because it allowed me to integrate the two." I often wrote excited letters to Stephen the moment I had read his columns: in 1995, about his article on Sacculina, a meditation on whether such a life-form could be called degenerate; and in 1996, about some just-published research of his on microevolutionary processes and hybridization effects. I was especially fascinated by his 1998 article on Buffon's trajectory from his early Platonic thinking to a historical viewpoint—partly because of a similar evolution in my own thinking. Stephen is now a good friend as well as a colleague—we dine together, walk the streets together (only someone as intensely sensitive to architecture as he is would introduce spandrels as an evolutionary metaphor), celebrate birthdays together (when Stephen often exercises his talent for composing verses on the spot), go to museums and botanical gardens together. He is an enchanting companion as well as a major intellectual force, and both aspects of him come together in his unique essays.
  • Although Haldane accepted the earlier and incorrect paleontological interpretation of the fossil record of Gryphaea, in his overall belief that the pace of evolution was rapid and seemingly discontinuous, rather than slow and continuous, he anticipated, at least in part and by three decades, the model of punctuated equilibria, which was proposed by... Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould.
  • Gould occupies a rather curious position, particularly on this 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 publicly criticized 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 theory.
  • According to Gould and Eldredge, the reason why so many links are missing is that they simply do not exist. They take the view that biological evolution proceeds in successive stages of "punctuated equilibrium." Living species would remain unchanged for extremely long stretches of time, and then undergo profound changes in relatively short periods. To borrow a term from the quantum theory of atoms, evolution would occur in "quantum jumps." It is very likely that the spark of life appeared during the first such "jump."

The Mismeasure of Man



  • How can one trust a person so prejudiced as to neglect overwhelming evidence?
  • S. J. Gould’s Mismeasure of Man is a paleontologist's distorted view of what psychologists think, untutored in even the most elementary facts of the science. Gould is one of a number of politically motivated scientists who have consistently misled the public about what psychologists are doing in the field of intelligence, what they have discovered and what conclusions they have come to. Gould simply refuses to mention unquestionable facts that do not fit into his politically correct version; he shamelessly attacks the reputations of eminent scientists of whom he disapproves, on completely nonfactual grounds, and he misrepresents the views of scientists.
  • Gould's argument on reification purports to get at the philosophical foundation of the field. He claims that general intelligence, defined as the factor common to different cognitive abilities, is merely a mathematical abstraction; hence if we consider it a measurable attribute we are reifying it, falsely converting an abstraction into an “entity” or a “thing”—variously referred to as “a hard, quantifiable thing,” “a quantifiable fundamental particle,” “a thing in the most direct, material sense.” Here he has dug himself a deep hole.… Indeed, this whole argument is fantastic. The scientist does not measure “material things”: He measures properties (such as length or mass), sometimes of a single “thing” (however defined), and sometimes of an organized collection of things, such as a machine, a biological organ, or an organism. In a particularly complex collection, the brain, some properties (i.e., specific functions) have been traced to narrowly-localized regions (such as the sensory or motor nuclei connected to particular parts of the body).
    • Bernard Davis, in "Neo-Lysenkoism, IQ, and the Press" in The Public Interest (Fall 1983), p. 73
  • [Gould's] historical account is highly selective; he asserts the non-objectivity of science so that he can test for scientific truth, flagrantly, by the standards of his own social and political convictions; and by linking his critique to the quest for fairness and justice, he exploits the generous instincts of his readers.… In effect, we see here Lysenkoism risen again: an effort to outlaw a field of science because it conflicts with a political dogma.
    • Bernard Davis, in "Neo-Lysenkoism, IQ, and the Press" in The Public Interest (Fall 1983), p. 73
  • In his references to my own work, Gould includes at least nine citations that involve more than just an expression of Gould's opinion; in these citations Gould purportedly paraphrases my views. Yet in eight of the nine cases, Gould's representation of these views is false, misleading, or grossly caricatured. Nonspecialists could have no way of knowing any of this without reading the cited sources. While an author can occasionally make an inadvertent mistake in paraphrasing another, it appears Gould's paraphrases are consistently slanted to serve his own message.
  • Of all the book's references, a full 27 percent precede 1900. Another 44 percent fall between 1900 and 1950 (60 percent of those are before 1925); and only 29 percent are more recent than 1950. From the total literature spanning more than a century, the few "bad apples" have been hand-picked most aptly to serve Gould's purpose.
  • I just didn't trust Gould... I had the feeling that his ideological stance was supreme. When the 1996 version of 'The Mismeasure of Man' came and he never even bothered to mention Michael's [John S. Michael] study, I just felt he was a charlatan.
    • Ralph L. Holloway, 2011


  • When published in 1981, The Mismeasure of Man was immediately hailed as a masterwork, the ringing answer to those who would classify people, rank them according to their supposed genetic gifts and limits. And yet the idea of innate limits—of biology as destiny—dies hard, as witness the attention devoted to The Bell Curve, whose arguments are here so effectively anticipated and thoroughly undermined by Stephen Jay Gould. In this [second] edition Dr. Gould traces the subsequent history of the controversy on innateness right through The Bell Curve. Further, he has added five essays, in a separate section at the end, on questions of The Bell Curve in particular and on race, racism, and biological determinism in general. These additions strengthen the claim of this book to be “a major contribution toward deflating pseudobiological ‘explanations’ of our present social woes.”
    • Editorial matter on the back cover of the 1996 paperback edition, quoting Leon J. Kamin's blurb on the back cover of the 1981 edition
  • He confronts a basic tool of the measurers—the statistical technique called factor analysis, developed by the influential English psychologist Charles Spearman—and demonstrates persuasively how factor analysis led to the cardinal error in reasoning of confusing correlation with cause, or, to put it another way, of attributing false concreteness to the abstract. It is this sort of performance that makes the book's eventual refutation of Arthur Jensen seem incidental, for it is far more absorbing to have our powers of reason challenged than it is to have our social consciences shaken.
  • A rare book—at once of great importance and wonderful to read.… Gould presents a fascinating historical study of scientific racism, tracing it through monogeny and polygeny, phrenology, recapitulation, and hereditarian IQ theory. He stops at each point to illustrate both the logical inconsistencies of the theories and the prejudicially motivated, albeit unintentional, misuse of data in each case.… A major addition to the scientific literature.
    • Attributed to Saturday Review, London
  • The great merit of Stephen Gould's account of the disastrous history of phychometrics is that he shifts the argument from a sterile contest between environmentalists and hereditarians and turns it into an argument between those who are impressed with what our biology stops us doing and those who are impressed with what it allows us to do.
    • Attributed to Sunday Times, London
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