Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Would Gould Have Signed the Steves List?

For several years now The National Center for Science Education has maintained Project Steve. This is a list of scientists who signed their name in support of a statement defending evolution and opposing creationism and ID. The catch is that only scientists named Steve are eligbile to sign it.

The list was intended as a parody of the standard creationist tactic of producing lists of scientists said to oppose evolution. You see, NCSE's list has, at last count, 649 signatories. That is far higher than any pathetic list the creos could produce. And, obviously, scientists named Steve represent a tiny fraction of the scientific community generally.

Here is the statement the signatories endorse:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation's public schools.

The list was named after the late Stephen Jay Gould. Gould was an ardent supporter of the NCSE during his life and an equally ardent foe of creationism in all its forms.

Now here comes someone named Stuart Pivar, who describes himself as a friend of Gould's, claiming that Gould would not have signed that list. Pivar maintains this website, which coopts Gould's name in an attempt to promote a theory of non-Darwinian evolution.

Now, there's no question about Gould's anti-creationist credentials. And there is also no question that Gould was a big fan of evolutionary theory. So why wouldn't he have signed the list?

At her pro-ID blog, Denyse O'Leary reports on a conversation she had with Pivar. She quotes Pivar saying the following:

steve and ronda would spend weekends at my beach house. we were close friends for years. i officiated at his funeral service.

steve lifes work was to understand evolution. His message was that natural selection was merely an eliminative force with no creative role, capable of choosing for survival among preexisting forms which are produced by other natural structural processes.

(Note: I have reproduced this quote precisely as it appears at O'Leary's blog. The capitalization and punctuation errors are from the original.)

And later:

Steve Gould (the Ursteve of the famous Steve list of the NCSE) clearly did not believe in natural selection as the primary cause of evolutionary change.

The 600 listed scientists named Steve claim the belief that evolution happened, and that natural selection is the mechanical process which causes it. Stephen Jay Gould would not have signed this list.

In this post O'Leary presents a further quote from Pivar:

Steve Goulds life work featured the debunking of natural selection as the cause of anything more important than the differences in the beaks of finches, in his investigation of the causes of evolution. The Steve List is the appropriation of his name in the propagation of a theory which he opposed his entire life long. Every statement SJG ever made rejects natural selection, and none can be found in its support. Is this colossal misunderstanding innocent incompetence, or a soviet style paradigm takeover?

The excessively strong lnaguage, the gratuitous reference to the old Soviet Union, and the reduction of Gould's complex views of evolution to a few simple sentences are all standard crank devices. Anyone who knows anything about Gould's work is laughing at this point. Every statement SJG ever made rejects natural selection? We'll see.

We might begin our analysis of these statements by pointing out the obvious: No signatory of the Steves list said that natural selection is the mechanical process which causes evolution. They agreed simply that natural selection is a major mechanism of evolutionary change. That's an important difference. (Incidentally, O'Leary herself points this out. But she gets it wrong as well. She writes: “...the list says that natural selection is a major mechanical process, not the mechanical process.” Actually, the statement makes no reference at all to mechanical processes. Get the details right.)

So is Pivar right? Of course not. Consider this statement from Gould's famous essay “Darwinian Fundamentalism”:

Darwin clearly loved his distinctive theory of natural selection—the powerful idea that he often identified in letters as his dear “child.” But, like any good parent, he understood limits and imposed discipline. He knew that the complex and comprehensive phenomena of evolution could not be fully rendered by any single cause, even one so ubiquitous and powerful as his own brainchild.

Ubiquitous and powerful. Case closed, right? Well, let's keep going anyway.

Charles Darwin often remarked that his revolutionary work had two distinct aims: first, to demonstrate the fact of evolution (the genealogical connection of all organisms and a history of life regulated by “descent with modification”); second, to advance the theory of natural selection as the most important mechanism of evolution. Darwin triumphed in his first aim (American creationism of the Christian far right notwithstanding). Virtually all thinking people accept the factuality of evolution, and no conclusion in science enjoys better documentation. Darwin also succeeded substantially in his second aim. Natural selection, an immensely powerful idea with radical philosophical implications, is surely a major cause of evolution, as validated in theory and demonstrated by countless experiments. But is natural selection as ubiquitous and effectively exclusive as the ultras propose? (Emphasis Added)

So there's Gould endorsing natural selection as a major mechanism of evolution. Exactly as the NCSE statement says.

Gould believed that natural selection did nothing more than regulate the size of finch beaks? Hardly. Consider this:

Modern evolutionists cite the same plays and players; only the rules have changed. We are now told, with equal wonder and admiration, that natural selection is the agent of exquisite design. As an intellectual descendant of Darwin, I do not doubt this attribution. (Ever Since Darwin, Essay 12.)

Or this:

In fact, each of Darwin's books played its part in the grand and coherent scheme of his life's work - demonstrating the fact of evolution and defending natural selection as its primary mechanism. ...Thus, the paradox, and the common theme of this trilogy of essays: Our textbooks like to illustrate evolution with examples of optimal design - nearly perfect mimicry of a dead leaf by a butterfly or of a poisonous species by a palatable relative. But ideal design is a lousy argument for evolution, for it mimics the postulated action of an omnipotent creator. Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution - paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce. (The Pandas Thumb, Essay 1)

Please note that the ellipsis in the middle represents several paragraphs in which Gould describes Darwin's work on orchids as a specific example of the general principle he describes at the end of the quote above.

In the domain of organisms and their good designs, we have litle reason to doubt the strong, probably dominant influence of deterministic forces like natural selection. The intricate, highly adapted forms of organisms - the wing of a bird or the mimicry of a dead twig by an insect - are too complex to arise as long sequences of sheer good fortune under the simplest random models. (Eight Little Piggies, Essay 28)

Finally, after a brief discussion of Darwin's logic in defending the importance of natural selection, Gould writes:

The impeccable logic of this formulation can help critics by clarifying how any potential argument against this hegemony of natural selection must proceed. At the functional vertex, one would have to identify other important mecahnisms in addition to natural selection - and none have been proposed, at least to the satisfaction of this author (although the argument for “a little bit of bacterial Lamrackism” - as I like to characterize the controversial claims of Cairns et al. - may have some merit in a limited domain. (The Structure of Evoluitionary Theory, pp. 1053)

These are just a few quotes that I found by the ingenious device of pulling random Gould volumes off my bookshelf and looking up “natural selection” in their indices. It has taken me longer to transcribe them then it did to find them. The fact is the creative power of natural selection was a major theme of Gould's essays. In Ever Since Darwin he describes the role of natural selection in crafting the complex “decoy fish” of a certain fresh water mussel (Essay 12). In The Panda's Thumb he discusses selection's role in crafting - surprise! - the panda's thumb (Essay 1). In Eight Little Piggies he describes selection's role in the evolution of the mammalian inner ear from jaw bones found in reptiles. And let's not forget that in PBS's recent Evolution documentary, Gould is shown discussing the intermediate stages in the evolution of the vertebrate eye. On and on it goes.

So it is clear that Gould had no trouble at all with the idea that complex adaptations evolve gradually under the aegis of natural selection. He certainly had no trouble describing natural selection as a major mechanism of evolution, which is what is at issue here.

There were many issues where Gould's view of evolution differed from the mainstream.

Gould believed that adaptation, while important, was less pervasive in evolution than many biologists believed. He thought that functional constraints and accidents of history played a greater role in evolution than they were given credit for. He believed that natural selection acted hierarchically (at the level of the gene, the organism, the local population, the species and so forth) and that the long term result of all this action were the evolutionary trends described in the theory of punctuated equilibrium. He believed that macroevolution was more than just accumulated microevolution, and that certain evolutionary mechanisms made themselves felt over the course of geologic time in ways that were not noticeable over shorter time spans. And all of these make for interesting discussions, and all of them represent small alterations in standard evolutionary thinking.

But none of them have to do with rejecting natural selection. Gould would have happily signed the NCSE list, a fact that becomes obvious by opening virtually any of his books to a random page.

Actually, there's one more aspect of this to comment on. After breathlessly reproducing Pivar's statements about how Gould did not believe that natural selection was a creative force, O'Leary writes the following:

If so, this is a major upset in the current intelligent design wars that will surely damage NCSE's case for teaching Darwinism only in American schools. (Emphasis in Original)

If so? She acts like Gould's theories about evolution are a great mystery, something we can only learn about via the testimony of those who knew him well.

But the fact is that Gould was one of the most prolific writers in the history of science. If you want to know what Gould thought, the solution is to go to the library, retrieve one of his books, and read it.

O'Leary did not do that because she does not care one way or the other what Gould actually thought about anything. She only cares about having a regular supply of chum to present to the ID sharks who read her blog. Pivar was singing the song she wanted to hear, so she mindlessly repeated it at her blog. I suspect it never occurred to her to check out for herself what Gould believed.

As for Pivar himself, it seems that in this case Gould did not pick his friends wisely (I'll assume that Pivar is not inventing the story about officiating at Gould's funeral). If Pivar was as friendly with Gould as he suggests, he would surely have been aware of Gould's support for the NCSE. Consequently, if he sincerely thought the NCSE was using Gould's name in ways he would not have approved, he would simply have contacted the NCSE privately. But he did not do that.

Instead he spoke to a prominent ID hack and made blatantly false and exaggerated statements, stated in incendiary language. He was clearly motivated in part by a desire to promote his website. A site, incidentally, at which he coopts Gould's name for unsavory purposes of his own. What a lovely fellow.

Let me close with this. As I mentioned, I found these quotes after just a little bit of searching. I have no doubt there are many other quotes I might have used in this essay. If anyone reading this would like to leave further quotes, either in the comments or in personal e-mails to me, I would certainly appreciate it. Just make sure to leave enough bibliographic information so I can check out the quotes myself. Thanks!


At 7:10 PM, Anonymous Stephen Stralka said...

Fascinating. Rather than looking for more Gould quotes, I got on Google to see what I could find out about this Pivar fellow. Turns out he's the author of a book called Lifecode, which purports to explain "the origin of species without Darwin or God." There are two related sites that detail his findings, lifecodebook.com and structuralselforganization.org.

He claims to be presenting "a new paradigm of evolution and the origination of complex design based on mechanical causation." Apparently it all comes down to topology.

Dare I suggest the man's a bit of a crank? I haven't looked at his stuff carefully enough to say anything definitive, but you don't have to spend much time at his site before you start seeing examples of the standard crankish grandiosity, such as the declaration that his work has "no published precedent," or this statement: "The reader is invited to rejoice in the solution of the ancient riddle of morphogenesis, or else is challenged to attempt a refutation."

I suspect Pivar would score rather high on the crackpot index. (See especially number 29: "30 points for suggesting that a famous figure secretly disbelieved in a theory which he or she publicly supported.")

At 9:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The reader is invited to rejoice in the solution of the ancient riddle of morphogenesis, or else is challenged to attempt a refutation."

This reminds me of a statement by the narrator at the end of "Plan 9 From Outer Space", roughly, 'Can you prove it didn't happen?'

At 10:34 PM, Blogger Alane said...

He may have been Gould's friend, but it sure doesn't sound like he's read anything Gould ever wrote.

At 8:32 AM, Blogger gravitybear said...

So to deflect attention from the shameless way Pivar is co-opting Gould's name, he accuses the NCSE of doing it. Lovely.

At 10:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wesley R. Elsberry:

One thing that I haven't seen noted elsewhere is that Gould, while living, took an extremely proprietary stance towards his prose. He didn't let mere editors sully his words. Why we should simply accept that Gould, dead, would contemplate having Stuart Pivar do his own hack edit job is beyond me. I'm sure that Gould raised more than a couple of drinks with Richard Milner, editor at Natural History magazine for many years during Gould's tenure as columnist there. Yet Gould didn't privilege Milner by letting him re-arrange or, heaven forbid, change his words around. But "The Unbalanced Centrifuge"'s case depends upon trusting Pivar's unsubstantiated retelling of Gould's stances over Gould's own unmeddled-with words. This also makes hash of the tale that Gould was somehow intimidated by "the establishment" into modifying what he would say in print. That's hogwash, pure and simple. Gould was one of the least conformist commentators around.

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