The Structure of Evolutionary Theory blogging, chapter 1

By Razib Khan | January 28, 2008 10:21 pm

GOUSTR.jpgChapters read:1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.
So I’m reading Stephen Jay Gould’s magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. I figure if I read this I won’t have to read anything else by the guy; if he couldn’t squeeze it into 1,464 pages, it really wasn’t worth mentioning I’m assuming. Here are impressions from the 90 page first chapter, which is a general overview of his ideas and biography….
1) There is the fact of evolution (descent with modification), and the mechanism of evolution promoted by Charles Darwin (gradual phyletic change operating through natural selection at the level of the individual). Gould accepts the former wholeheartedly, but he has serious reservations about the details of the latter.
2) This book is an exposition of his ideas as to how the second must be modified and elaborated to more fully describe the process of evolution. His thousand-page rejoinder is squarely aimed at correcting the overly simple narrative promoted by the putative heirs of Charles Darwin, culminating in the work of ultra-Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins. His brief is pluralistic; Gould emphasizes multiple levels of selection operating above the level of the individual, as well as non-selective parameters which are also major determinants in the shaping of the tree of life.
3) Gould has evolved quite a bit in his own views, from a sparely dogmatic naive pan-selectionist to a pluralist of baroque latitudinarian sensibilities. He considers himself part-time historian of science, and believes his scientific training as a paleontologist gives him particular insights which a pure humanist might not have. Gould also seems to fancy that he is less touched by the philistinism which is part & parcel of the outlook of most empirical scientists.
4) This last part shows, Stephen Jay Gould is well versed in the Bible, Shakespeare, and many polysyllabic & obscure words (confute?). He is also an connoisseur of high art & architecture. He likes baseball too (but you knew that!).
5) Periods are less important than commas.
Update: I’m an inspiration yo!

  • Matt McIntosh

    LOL. Bored?

  • razib

    i need to see for myself if maynard smith was right. but who knows, perhaps i’ll see the light and the scales will fall from mine eyes???
    (gould uses the word exgesis A LOT in this chapter, put this is probably the most impressionistic from what i can tell)

  • Laelaps

    Maybe I should read along; I started in on this one about 2 years ago, but I gave up about 1/16th of the way in. I honestly prefer Wonderful Life and some of the essay collections like Bully for Brontosaurus, but (like you said) given that the book is his “magnum opus” it’ll at least serve as reflecting the last formulations of his ideas.
    Just as an update as to the other thread involving Speciation, I normally don’t make use of the Rutgers library and I prefer to buy books so I can take my time, add little note markers, etc. I was planning on purchasing Speciation anyway so it’s more a matter of time and money than anything else. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, The Ancestor’s Tale, and a few review copies I’ve promised to put up have to come first though, but I’ll definitely check out Coyne & Orr’s book soon afterwards. Any other recommendations? As for paleo books, I can’t really think of any off the top of my head that would allow you to “get” me any better. Most of what I write comes from the accumulation of various books, papers, conversations, thoughts, etc., and there’s nothing I can immediately think of. If I had to choose I would definitely recommend Valentine’s On the Origin of Phyla and Simpson’s Tempo and Mode in Evolution (even though it’s a bit dated), but even then I feel like they’re not quite ideal.
    Anyway, please continue to post your thoughts on Gould’s book. If nothing else it’ll probably inspire me to take another attempt at it.

  • John Lynch

    Yeah, I never finished it either. But Razib has inspired me to try again. Perhaps we need a SciBling reading group :)

  • Matt McIntosh

    I shouldn’t talk, I guess — I’ve got TMoM on my reading list (WAY down), though more for the sake of taking notes on how to wage outrageously successful polemical warfare.

  • John Lynch

    Valentine’s book is great. Coyne & Orr is sitting on my to-read pile along with Jablonka & Lamb and West-Erhardt and a few others. Life’s too short *sigh*

  • razib

    Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, The Ancestor’s Tale, and a few review copies I’ve promised to put up have to come first though, but I’ll definitely check out Coyne & Orr’s book soon afterwards.
    hm. i never got into dennett’s book, he crisply expresses a lot of things i already kind of vaguely had in mind…but to me, the scientific value add isn’t there, so i kind have it reserved mostly as airplane reading (i’ve gotten through a lot of it already, but i can never finish). i really enjoyed ‘ancestor’s tale,’ but i have to say brother, ‘speciation’ is a pretty good read for a more directly scientific audience. re: ‘tempo & mode,’ isn’t that out of date? i mean, a lot of the stuff is predicated on pre-continental drift parameters (i’m remembering this from prothero’s book). i’ll check out this valentine guy.
    for books that i think are ‘must reads,’ ‘the genetical theory of natural selection’ by fisher is up there of course. i think the first half is still very relevant (you can skip the second half if you are squeamish about eugenics ;-), and the math isn’t THAT tough (you don’t need to go through the derivations in detail anyway). i really have enjoyed alan templeton’s new book, ‘population genetics and microevolutionary theory.’ i think it’s more accessible than other pop genetics texts (i have 4th edition of hartl & clark and hedrick, as well as older ones by james crow and the simple one by gillespie). if you have a little molecular genetics under your belt i would also recommend mike lynch’s new book, ‘the origins of genome architecture,’ it’s not really that steep of a learning curve (his papers are way more heavy on mathematical modeling). also, w.d. hamilton’s collected papers series are interesting, ‘the narrow roads of gene land.’ as are robert triver’s ‘natural selection and social theory.’ but the last two are because of my particular interests in the intersection of ethology & behavior & evolutionary biology. i liked grauer & li’s ‘fundamentalists of molecular evolution,’ but it’s kind of dated now i think 😉

  • Suvrat

    I have not read the tome but one of the best reviews I have read about the book is by Mark Ridley for the NYTimes.
    Very economically written and picks out the heart of Gould’s thesis.

  • Monado in Savannah, GA

    The price puts me off as this book comes under recreation for me.

  • razib

    right, that’s why i got it out of the library.

  • Tex

    When the book first came out, I made it about halfway through before I had to give up. It is horribly written. Entire paragraphs are repeated just a few pages apart. Once, when I caught myself re-reading a sentence for the umpteenth time to make sense of it, I gave up and started counting the words in it. I forget the exact number, but there was somewhere near 150 words in that one sentence. Perhaps a verb anywhere in there would have helped the readibility.
    Even in the parts that do have subjects and verbs near each other, Gould’s arguments are not very convincing.
    The best review of the book I saw described it as ‘One long argument for a copy editor.’ Apparently, Gould decided he had to get his own unadultrated thoughts down before he died, and he did not want anyone moving commas around or breaking up run-on sentences.

  • BGC

    I agree with the conclusions of John Horgan in the End of Science: (from memory) that Gould was wrong when he was original, and when he was right he was not original.
    I simply don’t find Gould to be a deep thinker on evolution – I believe he was fundamentally confused, and a potent source of his confusion came from his inability to separate science from moralizing.
    I especially dislike Gould’s relentless, intrusive, egotistic attempt to portray himself as an intellectual hero. The idea of wading through 1400 pages of this stuff is close to a nightmare…

  • Dave Carlson

    Well, I managed to get all the way through it (though I did skip some of the abstract). Aside from the editing concerns–and they are not minor–I really liked the book and found the rather large investment of time and energy that I put into it to be worthwhile.

  • Jason Malloy

    Jezus Zeeb, I’m pretty sure you already read this several years ago!
    Too… much… wasted… reading.

  • razib

    naw, only a middle chapter.

  • Colugo

    Let me recommend Order in Living Organisms by Rupert Reidl (1978). It may be the best evolutionary biology book no longer in print. It’s similar to Gould but more insightful, to the point, and without all of the excess bloviation. Any decent university library should have it.

  • Ian

    I preferred Wonderful Life in the colorized edition…oh…wait a minute…wrong blog….

  • Rich Lawler

    Yeah, Gould’s book is a bit much, even the dedication, to Elizabeth Vrba and Niles Eldedge (and himself) is egomaniacal. That said, I like his work, but for this book, I couldn’t bring myself to sift through all the excelsior, in order to find the prize.
    It’s worth remembering that he was in a hurry to finish the book, knowing death was around the corner. I suspect if he had more time, even he would have trimmed the fat.
    As to Paleo books, I remember liking David Raup’s book on Extinction; also Mike Benton has a great history of Permian Extinction and paleontology in general, called “When Life Nearly Died.” In terms of paleo theory, Niles Eldredge’s “Macroevolutionary Dynamics” gives a good overview of theory before he lays out his own views on hierarchy.

  • rev_matt_y

    Wow, there *is* a whole book club worth of us who’ve had this sitting on our shelves for years but never made it past the first chapter. I’d like to say I’ll join in on reading mine, but I’ve got three kids under 4 so it would be a lie. Maybe I could read it to them as their bedtime story?

  • fusilier

    I got it for Christmas in 2001, and I am currently on p.366, in the middle of “The Fruitful Facets of Galton’s Polyhedron.”
    Gould’s editor at Natural History must be a SAINT!
    James 2:24

  • Colugo

    A thought: Nobody is going to call developmental constraints resulting in stasis and major morphological shifts Galtonism; nor is anyone going to call a perspective that emphasizes biological hierarchies of organism-like entities Haeckelism. And for good reason. Between them Galton and Haeckel tarnished evolutionary theory for decades and lay the groundwork for some of the worst atrocities and tragic policies of the twentieth century.

  • agnostic

    Has anyone live-blogged reading a book before? This would be a great opportunity to break that ground.

  • razib

    sure, google bill allison and sayyid qutb.

  • razib

    also, tyler cowens did a chapter by chapter blog of farewell to alms.

  • quidnunc

    Thanks for the recommendations razib et al. I too tried to read this book when it was first released but only managed to browse through it as the verbiage and asides made it difficult to keep the ideas in memory without my mind wandering.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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