Stephen Jay Gould – The Political Side of Science

“This truth involves both a menace and a promise. It shows that the evils arising from the unjust and unequal distribution of wealth, which are becoming more and more apparent as modern civilization goes on, are not incidents of progress, but tendencies which must bring progress to a halt; that they will not cure themselves, but, on the contrary, must, unless their cause is removed, grow greater and greater, until they sweep us back into barbarism by the road every previous civilization has trod.”

– Henry George, Progress and Poverty

 Stephen Jay Gould used to love touting that there was no progress in evolution. As he once said: “The fact of evolutionary change through time doesn’t represent progress as we know it. Progress isn’t inevitable. Much of evolution is downward in terms of morphological complexity, rather than upward. We’re not marching toward some greater thing.”

Even though he was an anti-progressivist, Gould, was an avid advicate of leftist politics, founding Science for the People, which is a “magazine for Working Scientists active in the Anti Capitalist Movement”. Gould was born and raised in the Queensborough of New York City, New York. His father Leonard was a court stenographer, and his mother Eleanor was an artist. Raised in a secular Jewish home, Gould did not formally practice organized religion and preferred to be called an agnostic. Politically, though he “had been brought up by a Marxist father,” he has stated that his father’s politics were “very different” from his own. According to Gould, the most influential political book he read was C. Wright Mills’The Power Elite, as well as the political writings of Noam Chomsky. Gould continued to be exposed to progressive viewpoints on the politicized campus of Antioch College in the early 1960s. In the 1970s Gould joined a left-wing academic organization called “Science for the People.” Throughout his career and writings he spoke out against cultural oppression in all its forms, especially what he saw as pseudoscience in the service of racism and sexism.

In an essay Towards a Science for the People, Bill Zimmerman, Len Radinsky, Mel Rothenberg and Bart Meyers argue for a Socialist perspective for a new politicization of science saying that “science is inevitably political, and in the context of contemporary American corporate capitalism, that it contributes greatly to the exploitation and oppression of most of the people both in this country and abroad”. They understand that the difficulties for a scientist resides in the economic funding of the sciences: “Some scientists have recognized this situation and are now participating in nationally coordinated attempts to solve pressing social problems within the existing political-economic system. However, because their work is usually funded and ultimately controlled by the same forces that control basic research, it is questionable what they can accomplish. For example, sociologists hoping to alleviate some of the oppression of ghetto life have worked with urban renewal programs only to find the ultimate priorities of such programs are controlled by the city political machines and local real estate and business interests rather than by the needs of the people directly affected by such programs.”

These radical scientists see little hope in changing the system through effective reform: “Traditional attempts to reform scientific activity, to disentangle it from its more malevolent and vicious applications, have failed. Actions designed to preserve the moral integrity of individuals without addressing themselves to the political and economic system which is at the root of the problem have been ineffective. The ruling class can always replace a Leo Szilard with an Edward Teller. What is needed now is not liberal reform or withdrawal, but a radical attack, a strategy of opposition. Scientific workers must develop ways to put their skills at the service of the people and against the oppressors.”

Gould was a tireless worker against the troubling view of creationism: see McLean vs. Arkansas. Although, as one critic, Rober Wright, maintains that Gould plays unwittingly into the hands of the Creationists beacuse of his “thinking on the fundamental issue of “directionality,” or “progressivism”—that is, how inclined evolution is (if at all) to build more complex and intelligent animals over time”. In his article The Accidental Creationist, Wright tells us “Gould is not helping the evolutionists against the creationists, and the sooner the evolutionists realize that the better. For, as Maynard Smith has noted, Gould “is giving nonbiologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory.” Gould was a long time promoter of “punctuated-equilibria” as the main engine of evolution rather than the orthodox Darwinists stance on “natural selection”. Most Darwinits see Gould as a popularizer who seems to have a lot of authority in the eyes of the reading public, but is considered out of touch with the mainstream views within his own scientific community. As Daniel C. Dennett, a defender of the orthodox Darwinian stance states it:

“What Darwin discovered, I claim, is that evolution is ultimately an algorithmic process — a blind but amazingly effective sorting process that gradually produces all the wonders of nature. This view is reductionist only in the sense that it says there are no miracles. No skyhooks. All the lifting done by evolution over the eons has been done by nonmiraculous, local lifting devices — cranes. Steve (Gould) still hankers after skyhooks. He’s always on the lookout for a skyhook — a phenomenon that’s inexplicable from the standpoint of what he calls ultra-Darwinism or hyper-Darwinism. Over the years, the two themes he has most often mentioned are “gradualism” and “pervasive adaptation.” He sees these as tied to the idea of progress — the idea that evolution is a process that inexorably makes the world of nature globally and locally better, by some uniform measure.” 

But Gould argued against those like Daniel Dennett who suggest that evolutionary development is driven by a purpose – that there is a guiding hand, as it were, in evolutionary development – an inevitable progress up a ‘ladder’ from lower to higher life forms and, finally, to homo sapiens. Natural selection itself does not imply a progression from lower to higher life forms, argues Gould: “Life is a ramifying bush with millions of branches, not a ladder. Darwinism is a theory of local adaptation to changing environments, not a tale of inevitable progress. ‘After long reflection’, Darwin wrote, ‘I cannot avoid the conviction that no innate tendency to progressive development exists’.” (An Urchin in the Storm, p211)

One of Gould’s recurrent themes was life’s ‘contingency’. He does not deny that natural selection leads to a greater complexity of life forms. But the developing complexity of life, Gould maintains, is only a by-product ‘incidental’ to evolution and not necessary or inevitable. And complex creatures represent only a tiny proportion of the whole.

Whether we agree with Gould’s science or not we can all agree that he tried to fight the good fight, give people hope, to create a body of work that would defend us against ourselves. As one pundit, David Prindle, Ph.D., argues, “Stephen Jay Gould may teach us that the best political theory is not political theory per se but, rather, science expanded to its philosophical potential. A grand theory of life may be a better starting point for addressing legitimacy, justice, and equality than is any set of explicitly political assumptions.” (Stephen J. Gould as political theorist)