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Stephen Jay Gould

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Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) was a Harvard paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, best known for his popular scientific books and his regular monthly column in Natural History magazine. He is widely seen as one of the best communicators of evolutionary ideas to the public.[1]

Gould is also well known for his advocacy of the Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) principle. This view argues that science and religion occupy such radically different territories that they have no relevance to one another. Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion took great exception to the idea of NOMA, and Sam Harris wrote an entire book against the idea (The Moral Landscape).

Extended evolutionary synthesis[edit]

Gould was an early scientist to call for an extended evolutionary synthesis in publications such as Is a New and General Theory of Evolution Emerging? (1980) and Darwinism and the Expansion of Evolutionary Theory (1982).[2] Gould's final book The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002) in Part II, Towards a Revised and Expanded Evolutionary Theory argued for an “interactor” conception of natural selection, according to which it can act simultaneously at several hierarchical levels—cell lineages, genes, organisms, demes, species, and clades. He also extended and revised phyletic gradualism into a model of punctuated equilibrium.[3]

Punctuated equilibrium[edit]

Gould developed with Niles Eldredge a model of evolution called punctuated equilibrium. This theory proposes that evolutionary change is best characterized by long periods of evolutionary stability, which is later punctuated by rare periods of rapid change in the fossil record. Punctuated equilibrium is in contrast to the model of phyletic gradualism, which proposes that evolution is generally smooth and continuous.

He was careful to reject at least one deliberately outlandish suggestion of an example of punctuated equilibrium:

Fifteen species of sparrow were listed when I started my sparrow studies in 1948; this has now grown to twenty-six species. Some years ago I wrote to Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2000 [sic]), the renowned palaeontologist[4], evolutionary biologist and popular science essayist, suggesting that this rapid evolution of new sparrow species lent support to his hypothesis of "punctuated equilibrium", the idea that the evolution of new species occurs in periodic bursts separated by long periods of stasis. He dismissed my proposal with contempt, attributing the increase to no more than "twitcher-driven speciation", a cynical attitude taken by the authors and publishers of new checklists of the birds of the world to stimulate their sales by giving birdwatchers more opportunities to increase their "life lists".[5]

Spandrels and exaptations[edit]

In an oft-cited 1979 paper, Gould and Richard C. Lewontin coined the term "spandrel" in an evolutionary context. A spandrel is an architectural space created by the design of an archway that appears to be designed but is in fact a by-product of the archway's design. Gould and Lewontin make an analogy to biological traits that appear to be adaptations but are actually by-products of other adaptations.[6] (This is similar to, but distinct from, Richard Dawkins' notion of "designoid" features.) Gould and Elisabeth Vrba coined the term "exaptation" as a contrast to adaptation. An exaptation is a trait that was not selected for but later co-opted by an organism in a manner that increases fitness.[7]


Because of his support for the theory of episodic evolution rather than gradual evolution Gould is a popular target for creationist quote-miners. For example, creationists often quote Gould as saying that "the fossil record with its abrupt transitions offers no support for gradual change", but forget to take note of the rather essential second part of the quoted sentence: "and the principle of natural selection does not require it — selection can operate rapidly."

The depiction of Gould as sympathetic to creationists via quote mining crosses over the line from laughable to flagrant dishonesty. Gould was known as an outspoken opponent of creationism. Of it, he said "The rise of creationism is politics, pure and simple; it represents one issue (and by no means the major concern) of the resurgent evangelical right. Arguments that seemed kooky just a decade ago have reentered the mainstream."[8]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Shermer, Michael (2002), "This View of Science" Social Studies of Science 32 (4): 489–525.
  2. Is a New and General Theory of Evolution Emerging? Stephen Jay Gould Paleobiology , Vol. 6, No. 1 (Winter, 1980), pp. 119-130 Online also see Darwinism and the Expansion of Evolutionary Theory Stephen Jay Gould Science , New Series, Vol. 216, No. 4544 (Apr. 23, 1982), pp. 380-387 Online
  3. Stephen Jay Gould’s Final View of Evolution The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Stephen Jay Gould Review by: William F Zimmerman The Quarterly Review of Biology , Vol. 78, No. 4 (December 2003), pp. 454-459 Online
  4. British author, British spelling. OK?
  5. Summers-Smith, J. Denis (2005). On Sparrows and Man. The Thersby Group, Stockton-on-Tees. pp. 17-18. ISBN 978-0-9525383-2-5. 
  6. Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin. The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme. Proceedings Of The Royal Society of London, Series B, Vol. 205, No. 1161 (1979), pp. 581-598.
  7. Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth S. Vrba. Exaptation -- A Missing Term in the Science of Form. Paleobiology, 8(1), 1982, pp. 4-15
  8. Evolution as Fact and Theory, Stephen Jay Gould
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