RE: virus: Gould

Richard Brodie (
Wed, 10 Feb 1999 19:42:11 -0800

No, it was a serious question. I went to a lecture of his when I was at Harvard, have seen him interviewed a couple times, skimmed through a couple of his books looking for something I liked, and of course read the embarrassing diatribe he wrote in NYRB.

He is clearly a superb writer and intelligent. I know several people who are good friends with him and his wife. But I was really wondering if he had anything to add to our understanding of evolution, or is his entire contribution in the way of stirring the pot?

Richard Brodie Author, "Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme" Free newsletter! Visit Meme Central at

-----Original Message-----
From: []On Behalf Of Deron Stewart
Sent: Wednesday, February 10, 1999 4:05 PM To: ''
Subject: virus: Gould

Richard Brodie
But what is the "best of" Gould?

I suspect this was meant as a shot and not a genuine question, but I'll attempt to answer it anyway because I think it's a good question. If you are reading this and 1) you dislike Gould, and 2) you've never read any of his books...take a minute and ask yourself how you've formed that opinion. Chances are it's from reading quotations selected by his critics. Think about that.

First off, I want to concede Gould's faults because I know anyone who has read only the Dawkins/Dennett diatribes will have a a visceral dislike for Gould. What Dawkins and Dennett say about Gould fairly represents the worst of Gould so I won't reiterate it -- for the most part I agree with it.

Second, I want to note that I am not for Gould and against Dawkins et al. I would accept _The Selfish Gene_, _Extended Phenotype_, and _Darwin's Dangerous Idea_ pretty much whole. Each is a brilliant book. The "Ultra-Darwinist" charges against them are bogus...

However, contrary to what Richard may be implying there is a "best of" Gould...but what can I really say in a short post that would really convey this? One must pick up a book and judge for oneself...

Here's one tack of many that I could take:

Evolution is based primarily on three things primarily: Variation, Selection, and Inheritance.

For my money, Darwin, Trivers, Williams, Maynard-Smith, Dawkins et al have more or less solved the Selection problem (with footnotes remaining to be written).

Mendel and his ilk (the molecular biologists and geneticists) have more or less solved the Inheritance problem (again with footnotes unwritten).

But the interesting question that remains is about Variation. Where does it come from? How is it constrained? This is the part that's least understood and therefore the thinking about it is less refined than about the other two problems.

This is the part of the puzzle that interests Gould, Kauffman, Goodwin, et al...and they sometimes say some great things about it (somewhat better perhaps than Dawkins' "Kaleidoscopic Embryos" concept for example). The Darwin-Mendel synthesis is a stool with only two legs. The person who cracks the "Variation" nut will get to add their name to the list.

But yes, they say some pretty dumb things about I take what's of worth and leave the rest.



...having said all that, Gould's real strength is as an historian of evolution and as a story teller. That may not be hard science but it can be interesting. (Like a physicist reading _Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman_)

(He is also a coiner of words -- pretty soon Dawkins will be the only biologist on the planet still saying "pre-adaptation"...would it kill him to say "exaptation"? In this light maybe we can understand Gould's reluctance to advance the "meme" cause...)