RE: virus: Gould

Deron Stewart (
Wed, 10 Feb 1999 22:03:25 -0800

Richard Brodie []
>>No, it was a serious question.

I apologize for being suspect of your motives in asking the 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,

We have a very different experience -- I've just read three of his books of essays so I don't have any "face to face" sense of the man.

(btw, I realize now that my two questions about disliking/reading Gould may have appeared directed at Richard -- in fact they were directed at the list in general because I suspect there is a lot of anti-Gould sentiment out there. I would have been surprised if Richard had never read any Gould.)

>>and of course read the
>>embarrassing diatribe he wrote in NYRB.

Yeah. That was a low point all right. (Dennett calling him a communist in _DDI_ was a bit of a low point as well...)

>He is clearly a superb writer and intelligent. I know several people who
>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?

Damn! What a tough question. Here's a feeble attempt at a reply...

Dawkins is an ethologist, and not surprisingly he's written about a theory that explains population genetics brilliantly in great detail -- and then claims to have solved everything else by simple extension of the idea to larger scales.

Gould is a paleontologist and at the geological time scale you can't even resolve population genetics. Maybe he feels like a psychologist trying to understand depression and a bunch of physicists keep telling him that it's just about how the atoms in the brain are behaving -- "see, look at the wave function of an electron, and by extension the brain is governed by the same equations."

It's true, but it isn't helpful. Selfish genes are great, but they can't explain directly why, say, one genus has hundreds of radically divergent species and another genus has only one. That question (which is a valid scientific question, no?) is at a different level and to explain it using selfish genes is "greedy reductionism". Maybe, the paleontologist deals with all sorts of questions of this nature and is frustrated by "reductionist" answers.

I suppose Gould's main contribution so far is to stir the pot, and point his finger in various directions, and craft some important metaphors and catchphrases (and above all the body of literature he's created).

I can't think of one big killer idea that Gould has had, but he has a tremendous number of good, interesting, and entertaining thoughts sprinkled through his almost 300 essays. I've always got my $20 worth...