Explicating Gould

From American Scientist:

Gould Stephen Jay Gould was an immensely charismatic, insightful and influential, but ultimately ambiguous, figure in American academic life. To Americans outside the life sciences proper, he was evolutionary biology. His wonderful essay collections articulated a vision of that discipline — its history, its importance and also its limits. One of the traits that made Gould so appealing to many in the humanities and social sciences is that he claimed neither too much nor too little for his discipline. In his books, evolutionary biology speaks to great issues concerning the universe and our place in it, but not so loudly as to drown out other voices. He had none of the apparently imperialist ambitions of that talented and equally passionate spokesman of biology Edward O. Wilson. It is no coincidence that the humanist intelligentsia have given a much friendlier reception to Gould than to Wilson. Gould's work is appealing to philosophers like me because it trades in big, but difficult and theoretically contested, ideas: the role of accident and the contingency of history; the relation between large-scale pattern and local process in the history of life; the role of social forces in the life of science.

Within the life sciences, Gould is regarded with more ambivalence. He gets credit (with others) for having made paleobiology again central to evolutionary biology. He did so by challenging theorists with patterns in the historical record that were at first appearance puzzling; if received views of evolutionary mechanism were correct, Gould argued, those patterns should not be there. The first and most famous such challenge grew from his work with Niles Eldredge on punctuated equilibrium, but there were more to come. Despite this important legacy, Gould's own place in the history of evolutionary biology is not secure. In late 2009, I attended an important celebration of Darwin's legacy at the University of Chicago, in which participants reviewed the current state of evolutionary biology and anticipated its future. Gould and his agenda were almost invisible.

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