Confessions of a Darwinist

Niles Eldredge in the Virginia Quarterly Review:

5644_eldredge_nilesI came to evolution in a roundabout way. Sure, as a kid I had seen the dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History—and had heard a bit about evolution in high school. But I was intent on studying Latin and maybe going to law school.

But evolution got in the way. I was dating my now wife, and through her getting to know members of the Columbia anthropology faculty. At the time (early 1960s), anthropology to me meant Louis Leakey and his adventures collecting human fossils at Olduvai Gorge—rather than, say, Margaret Mead and her adventures studying cultures of the South Pacific. A summer spent asking embarrassing personal questions in my halting Portuguese in a small village in northeastern Brazil ended my quest to study evolution through anthropology. I was far more taken with the Pleistocene fossils embedded in the sandstone that formed the protective cove for the fishing boats. By summer’s end I was determined to become a paleontologist.

Little did I know that paleontologists (with a few exceptions) had had virtually nothing to do with the development of evolutionary biology since Darwin’s day. Vertebrate paleontologists, to be sure, tended to be trained in zoology departments and to have at least a passing interest in evolution. But the undergraduate courses in paleontology at Columbia were in the Geology Department. I took my undergraduate degree in geology at Columbia, staying on for a PhD and writing my dissertation on the evolutionary career of the Devonian trilobite Phacops rana.

More here.