Steven Gould was a great evolutionary biologist, perhaps best known for the 'punctuated equilibrium' idea (coined with Niles Eldredge in 1972), which has been one of the most influential refinements to our understanding of Darwinian evolution.
In 2000, two years before he died, he was named a 'living legend' by the United States Library of Congress in recognition of his contribution to science and his extensive and brilliant writings, which found a mass popular audience. Much of this writing is about the history of his subject, palaeontology, but, as this new collection emphasises, he could range widely, from the land snail to baseball, from religion to the nature of history, though always with an evolutionary slant and a plug for Darwin wherever possible. He thought Darwin's great achievement was not only in evolutionary theory but in suggesting how history can be approached in a scientific manner.
He was, naturally, against creationism. But he regarded religion and science as much less hostile to each other than is commonly assumed. As opposed to incompatible versions of history and meaning Gould referred to them as non-overlapping 'magisteria', each inhabiting a major mansion of human life. Creationism for him was merely a particular theological doctrine. It was dogmatism and intolerance which he regarded as the enemy. No scientific theory, he claimed, can pose any real threat to religion.
Gould did not want to try and explain everything about the evolution of organisms in terms of natural selection, and was critical of what he sees as Daniel Dennett's 'evolutionary fundamentalism'. He also viewed evolutionary psychology with a critical eye for example the purported evolutionary basis for different behaviours of males and females. Nevertheless he did suggest that the traits that lead to modern genocide, like tribalism and xenophobia, arose in evolution because they enhanced survival in tiny non-technological societies based on kinship.
The origin of life itself cells remains an unsolved problem, and a (minor) problem with the book. Bacteria probably evolved some four billion years ago and Gould regarded all life from the beginning as 'the age of bacteria'. Bacteria evolved into the more complex cells that make up our bodies a billion or so years ago. One of the few disagreements I have with Gould is the lack of sufficient attention he gave to cells and genes and how plants and animals can develop from a single cell, the egg. Evolution of form is due to genes changing how cells behave during the development of the embryo. We are nothing more than a society of cells. Gould, however, disagreed with Richard Dawkins, who has argued that genes are the only true causal agents in evolution. Gould, by contrast, believed that causality operates only at the level of organisms. Maybe so, though I'm not convinced. But, from the perspective of an evolutionary scientist if not of a lay reader, genes and cells still have too limited a role in Gould's thinking, and the pieces collected here.
In relation to human evolution he rightly put great emphasis on the evolution of an upright posture, which freed the hands for manipulation. This facilitated tool use, which, I would argue, drove human evolution once causal beliefs evolved. Other primates do not have causal concepts about the physical world.
But it is the supposed differences between human groups that is so important to Gould, particularly his principled and honourable hostility to the 'bell curve' thesis, the idea that blacks have lower intelligence compared to whites, and that this might have some sort of scientific or evolutionary basis. He also disputes the idea that brain size is related to intelligence. He properly links such ideas to Nazi views of race and eugenics, and this book includes his brief but frightening account of the Wannsee Conference in 1942, which planned the elimination of Jews and which tried to invoke genetic justifications. The dangers of those who would use science to justify inhumanity is made crystal clear, as is Gould's essential humanity and good sense.
It is important, as Gould makes so clear, not to confuse natural selection determining human form and behaviour with the causes of cultural evolution. Biological evolution involves the division of species into independent lineages, whereas cultural evolution involves borrowing and amalgamation. There is nothing equivalent to genes in cultural evolution, he was critical of Dawkins' theory of 'memes' for Gould, culture was essentially Lamarckian not Darwinian, with the inheritance of acquired characteristics.
The pieces making up this book, extracted from Gould's many books and frequent journalism, are important. Packed with information, they also contain vital insights from someone who spent a lot of time thinking through the relation between how we got here (evolution) and what we do now (the messy world of human affairs). They are also a pleasure to read.
Gould's real passion, after Darwin, was the land snail Cerion. In this odd species, which vary greatly in size and shape, challenge the stability of the understanding of 'species' in that they interbreed and may even have evolved several times independently, he found a concrete subject where he could worry away at the fascinating problems of form and the endless implications of Darwin's great idea.