Customer Reviews: The Structure of Evolutionary Theory
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on August 26, 2002
Steven Jay Gould, was one of our deepest, most creative and most careful evolutionary thinkers, here delivered his magnum opus, and it inevitably rates five stars for importance. And, yes, those essays from Natural History have given you a lot of pleasure over the years. But, good Lord, look at the heft of the thing! Would you perhaps be better advised to give it a pass?
The answer is no, not if you really care about where evolutionary theory is going during the next forty years. It's true that it's longer than it had to be, and many of its luxuriating sentences are more like a bush than a tree. A good editor could have helped Gould bring it down to 1000 pages or so, and improved it thereby. But the main reason it's such a doorstop is because it's busy opening so many doors. There's far too much to respond to and critique in a review of Amazon length. So what I'm going to do is provide cheats and spoilers: I'll say what you can skip or skim without missing gist or cream, and then give a *very* brief precis of that gist.
Chapter One.
Chiefly a summary of what's to come, a summary so dense and abstract that it's likely to convince many readers, falsely, that the book is going to be unreadable. (In the paperback edition, please add a brief glossary!) Scoop up the material on Scilla's coral (pp. 12-24) and save the rest for later.
Part I.
The next 6 chapters survey the history of evolutionary thought, with a focus on old controversies Gould believes need re-opening, albeit at a higher level. As influential as Gould's been as a scientist, his real genius is for history of ideas, and these chapters are a richly rewarding read, very reminiscent of his Natural History essays in tone. But all that's needed to follow the main thread of the book's arguments are chapter 2 (an illuminating tour of Darwin's "Origin"), some talk about how Darwin dealt with the generation of diversity (pp. 224-229), the metaphor of Galton's polyhedron (pp. 342-351), and, to show what Gould is contrasting himself with, the exposition of how the "Modern Synthesis" of the 40s and 50s froze Darwinism into a rigid form (all of chapter 7).
Part II
Little is skippable. The last 50 pages of chapter seven, the punk eek centerpiece, discuss the abuses poured on punk eek by nefarious parties like Dawkins and creationists. It's juicy, but peripheral. The passages on D'Arcy Thompson (pp. 1182-1208) and on mass extinctions (all of chapter 12) are necessary to the organizational scheme, but not necessary to the logic or substance of Gould's "one long argument."
Darwin gave us a slam-dunk proof of the fact of common descent, which no scientist but the aging Aggasiz has seriously disputed since. But initially his causal theory of how it happened drew a great deal of fire. For the first 60 years after the Origin, the woods were crawling with evolutionists, some of them naturalists at the top of their game, who wanted to replace natural selection with some other mechanism. Darwin triumphed, Gould tells us, because his basic idea was right. But now the time has come for major upheaval and revision, because several of his major secondary commitments were mistaken.
What Gould says Darwin got right: Selection acting on ordinary variation, which is in some sense random, is what produces almost all evolutionary change.
Mistaken secondary commitment 1: Selection acts only on individual organisms. Gould argues that selection acts up and down the hierarchy - on genes, cells, organisms, demes, species, and clades, but (other than organisms) especially on species, because species have the sort of cohesion that makes for good selective "individuals."
Mistaken secondary commitment 2: The environment shapes almost all change, by selective pressures which mold adaptations. Gould points out that Darwin's argument for this thesis rests on the assumption that variation is "isotopic" - equally likely in all directions - and "imperceptible." He argues that recent genetic discoveries prove the contrary: deep homologies across phyla make certain major inventions such as optical lenses more likely than others, and small genetic changes in homeobox and other regulatory genes can lead to very perceptible variations, in preferred directions. And consequently, the direction of change is shaped as much by internal availabilities - creating "exaptations" - as by external selective pressures creating adaptations.
Mistaken secondary commitment 3: Selective pressure is always producing small changes, and these are always accumulating in the direction of greater fitness; simple extrapolation from them can account for the whole panoply of living things. Gould argues that (1) selective pressures fail to produce change most of the time, the phenomenon of stasis first highlighted as part of punctuated equilibrium, and (2) the changes don't accumulate. Rather, among organisms within a species, they mostly fluctuate back and forth, unless a change gets locked in by being isolated in a new species. And any trends across species are the result of selection at the species or clade levels, a kind of selection with its own emergent mechanisms not extrapolatable from Darwinian natural selection among organisms.
Is all this really all that revolutionary? Gould clearly documents how vehemently each item in the programme he outlines was denied and resisted by the old guard of the Modern Synthesis; if he seems to be making a mountain out of a molehill, it's mostly because we've grown so used to offenses against pure Darwinism in the last twenty-five years. Certainly the positions he takes open myriad fruitful lines of future inquiry. And that's really what he's after. In his "segue" between parts one and two, he notes that the time is not now ripe for still another New Synthesis; we don't know enough yet. He says that he intends this book as an antithesis to the Modern Synthesis, undoubtedly overstated and overreaching, but likely to spur the birth of the next synthesis in its own good Hegelian time. Despite (and perhaps even because) of the numerous criticisms and counter-arguments that I found myself penciling into the margins of Gould's "Structure", I think his tome will admirably serve that prodding purpose.
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on September 18, 2002
Perhpas I've read too much of Dawkins and Dennett, however, I've always thought that Gould over-hyped his own views (punctuated equilibrium, contingency, anti-reductionism, etc.). On that note, there's a lot in this book that I don't fully see eye to eye on with Gould, however, given its depth and breadth (and of course excellent writing style) this book is extremely important in that it gives an origin of species-like advocation for evolutionary theory and its many subtelies and nuances. I would consider this recommended reading for anyone interested or directly involved in any of the biological sciences, regardless of what camp you're in (i.e. Dawkins v. Gould) and that even incldes creationists, because I think if anyone opposed to evolution actually read this book cover to cover, they would have to seriously reconsider their objections. For that reason alone, even if you don't fully agree with Gould (like me) you can still appreciate this book.
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on March 15, 2002
This book has some really great content for anyone interested in evolution and life sciences.
This is such a sweeping intellectual view of the theories that even those people who think Darwin was wrong will find some fascinating things here.
Gould does uphold the scientific view that natural selection was an important factor in the history of life, but he doesn't rely on it as the sole final solution to the challenge of finding the patterns of form and function in nature.
Gould is characteristically detailed, patient, careful, and insightful in his discussions, and there are a number of very memorable moments throughout this book. This seems to me to be one of the most, if not the most comprehensive treatment of the concepts of evolution ever written up to this point.
The downside of this comprehensive treatment is this book may be encyclopedic in places where it really doesn't need to be. Gould provides historical and intellectual background to issues in many places that don't neccessarily bolster his central theme on the structure of evolution.
This is very well-written of course, Gould seldom fails to accomplish that. But it also rambles into digressions and sidelines that distract from the structure Gould is trying to elucidate. There are long sections of punctuated gradualism and its treatment by the media that are interesting but don't seem important to the structure of evolution.
An abridged version of this book or a summary actually focusing on the structure of evolution would be extremely helpful. The encyclopedic nature of the book makes it all too easy to miss the important points in my opinion, and I do think his main points are very important.
In spite of its relatively minor flaws, I think this book is important because it may be the first book to bring together in one place the core concepts behind the many various disjoint scientific criticisms of orthodox neo-Darwinism ("ultraDarwinism") in a coherent way. Yet Gould does not throw the baby out with the bathwater. He does understand and explain well how theories of evolution lead to a spectacular vision of the majesty of life.
Gould's view of evolution is the very antithesis of the sterile view of Darwin held by evolution's opponents in terms of the meaningless acumulation of fortuitous accidents. In Gould's structure of evolution, accident and contingency play important role, but so do the underlying discernable natural laws and the constant shaping influence by the environment in myriad ways. Gould's evolutionary vision is not a mechanical algorithm for constructing lumbering robots but a process of constant artistry over the canvas of time.
I think this book is of great value both for Gould's detractors and his fans, because it makes clear virtually all of the important conceptual sticking points between the various theories of evolution.
Perhaps there has to be a Darwinist ideology lying behind evolutionary science. It seems to be the ideology that most people argue about rather than the merits of specific scientfic theories. If so, I find that Gould's expansive view of selection, adaptation, and contingency avoids a great many of the ideological pitfalls that so often seem to befall fans of the "ultraDarwinist" view of nature as a battle of selfish genes.
One of the casualties of Gould's pluralistic evolutionary structure seems to be the abomination of: "survival of the fittest" implies "might makes right". If so, there is reason for even the cultural opponents of evolution to find value in this broad and comprehensive treatment of evolutionary themes.
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on August 23, 2002
Let me say first, his final academic effort is pure Gould. If you are serious about understanding the history of evolutionary theory, it is a must read. Of course, this book is not a light read, and no one should expect it, given its his last and final academic effort. Although very verbose, his survey of evolutionary theory is very informative, and as always, detailed. If you are familar with Gould you know he writes with enough arrogant humility to make it entertaining.
But first, I must register amazement that he does not mention Lynn Margulis. To write a definitive analysis of evolution, but not include Margulis seems incredible! Why? He knows of Margulis; he even wrote a forward to one of her books. But not one reference, naja. He references practically everybody else, even Dawkins. Something is rotten in Denmark.
But, other than that flaw, Gould as usual, provides a cogent analysis of the good and bad points of evolutionary thinkers, such as D'arcy Thompson, Lamarck, Weismann giving them the benefit of the doubt and their due. I agree with Gould in trying to understand the reasoning behind each scientist's ideas and the social context behind the ideas at the time, because it helps you see when and how much the facts support the current thinking, and how, maybe one's own time biases the metaphors and perspectives.
Of course, Gould does push his own ideas, and luckily he admits that he has been wrong several times and that there will be developments in the area of molecular genetics that will undoubtly invalidate some of his facts (there aren't many authors do admit their mistakes). He finally admits to liking levels of selection and does a creditable job explaining some of the basic ideas, including credit to at least one researcher, Leo Buss. Not bad for a paleontologist, as Gould is.
His understanding of the mainstream biological evolutionary thinking will serve as a good reference point. This will serve as a reasonable textbook for the standard zoological evolutionary perspective. He carefully examines all issues from that perspective. It is quite an accomplishment. Punctuated Equilibrium, Exaptation, Drift, etc. he explains it all and well, and as always in detail (yes +1400 pages).
But unfortunately his perspective and work is limited by what he knew best, so despite it being a momentual and valuable work, its important to pick up some other books that show that the Structure of Evolutionary Theory is not done by a long shot. For Lynn Margulis' Acquiring Genomes, coming out just month later makes neo-darwinian thinking (including Gould, despite his conversion to levels of selection) look rather zoological and eucaryotic centric, and somewhat parochical in its perspective.
As long as you realize that Gould presents only part of the puzzle of evolution, I think you will realize its a magnificent piece, nevertheless.
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on June 6, 2002
After scanning some of the reviews, I find it very difficult to believe that most of the negative reviewers actually *read* the book (the alternative being Creationists simply wanted to slander a book laden with the history and present state of evolutionary theory). True, it is a long and sometimes tedious review of evolutionary theory and thought. But it should be required reading for anybody in the field of biology or paleontology. Dr. Gould (may he rest in peace) worked for 20 years on this book, and it shows through his fine prose and extensive literature review.
For younger students, it might be wise to read this with a couple grains of salt handy; Gould's opinions often overshadow other theories, particularly adaptationists (see Chap. 11).
Gould might have hoped this to be the--dare I say it--"Bible" of modern evolution. It comes close, but I found myself questioning the exclusion of some noteworthy players in the field of biology (Wallace?!) in favor of other, seemingly less important theorists.
Gould's book reads well, and the reader should not be intimidated by the length. He honors Darwinian thought like no other modern biologist could while gently re-structuring some key struts in the edifice of evolutionary theory.
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on August 5, 2002
This is a really fantastic book, that essentially sets out to revise and update the theoretical basis of evolution beyond the strict Darwinian model. But it isn't just a matter of nitpicking exceptions, instead, Gould shows how the expanded view of evolutionary theory could solve the oldest question of them all: how does macroevolution occur. Gould ties together a number of different themes, including (of course) punctuated equilibrium and the roles of structural constraints in shaping evolution. He manages to integrate classical paleontological approaches with recent advances in evo-devo, one of the only books that does this as far as I can tell. Definately necessary reading for anyone interested in evolution.
However, the book is extremely long, and it didn't have to be. For one thing, the first introductory chapter is really rambling and kind of pointless, with lots of incredibly abstract ideas about the nature of theories in general, etc. I almost stopped reading it early on, thinking "this is a just bunch of philosophy B.S., not real science" but I kept going and I'm glad I did. Once you get past the introduction, and get to the meat of the book, its much much better. Although I have to say, the whole book could have benefited from a little selective cutting. I'm sure we're all very impressed that Gould knows how to use phrases like "ceteris paribus" and "sensu latu" but for those of us who don't go around speaking dead languages, this is just a silly distraction. But on the other hand Gould's style of writing is interesting to read and a little bit different, so even if it is extra verbose and confusing, the effect is artistic, like a Pynchon novel, and once one gets used to it, it's quite enjoyable. Another reason the book is so long is a huge section on history of evolutionary theory, similar to the historical part of "ontogeny and phylogeny", but in both cases there is a point to the history, it isn't just for the sake of history, but for the sake of understanding the modern debate, that these old debates are discussed. Do not skip this part!
I absolutely recommend this book to anyone with a basic background in biology. It would help to read it in conjunction with one or more books on evo-devo. Ontogeny and Phylogeny is also required reading before you start this book. Also, one needs a big block of time. It is dense enough that it has to be read fairly continuously, if one were to read a little, then put it down for a while, it would be easy to lose the thread of the discussion.
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on April 3, 2002
Most of the prior reviewers both critical and otherwise work hard to read into Gould their preconceptions of both Evolution and Gould, and ignore what Gould actually says. Folks outside the debate should be forwarned that: 1 - some Creationists and Intelligent Designers (same thing; whatever happened to thou shalt not lie) have tried to claim Gould for their own... misquoting and quoting him out of context, etc. 2 - At the opposite end, some strict selection only folks (Dawkins & Dennett) have never accepted that some stochastic processes are stochastic or that Puctuated Equilibrium is a better description for what the fossil record tells us. The third issue was Gould's opposition to sociobiology and strict reductionism, and the Nature vs. Nurture debazte... which has gotten jumbled up with early socialist leanings coming out of the 1960s civil rights and anti-war movement, and put him into conflict with both strict everything is genetics folks and political conservatives. There is also some personality and jealosy issues in these latter critiques of Gould, insofar as a generation of young Biologist grew up reading Gould and he has done well as a relative media star, made some money, and come to represent "evolution" in the mind of the public and press. My take, for what is is worth... Punc. Eq. as stated by current proonents is correct, he was 1/2 wrong in the Burgess Shale debate, Nature/Nurture is turning out to be more complicated then either the tabla rosa folks (Kamin, Rose, Lewontin) or strict geneticist/sociobiologists ever imagined (and since it is driven by pharceutical companies is poorly researched)... etc. Bottomline, read the actual book, and be aware of the background debates to which it is a reply.
Finally, of course this is a big big book and is obviously a different sort of read than the collections of Natural History essays. To complain about that is to miss the point.
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on March 25, 2003
With "The Structure of Evolutionary Theory" (SoET), The late Stephen J. Gould offers readers a comprehensive revision of Darwinian thought. His revision disagrees with the current orthodoxy, known as the Modern Synthesis, though adherents of each view call themselves Darwinists.
In SoET, Gould identifies three defining features of Natural Selection: agency, efficiency, and scope. To survive the revision, Darwinism's tripod (Gould's image) must keep all of its three legs; amputation of any one would topple the whole structure.
By agency, orthodox Darwinism argues for evolution happening exclusively at the organismic level. Ultimately it is individuals who survive and breed, or die. It is this or that particular being who will outlive its siblings long enough to have children. Groups, species, and populations, for Darwinism, don't do anything.
By efficiency, Darwinism argues that from many random variations, only those variations that help the organism do something better (see more clearly, run faster, etc.) will be transmitted. Features appear because they are useful to the organism, because they have a function that contributes to the living being's survival and progeny.
By scope, Darwinism argues that Natural Selection operating on individual organisms can explain the entire history of life on earth, and that no further process needs to be introduced into the theory. Natural Selection would be a complete theory.
Having presented the image of the tripod, Gould continues with an exegesis of Darwin's Origin of Species. The first part of the book develops a history of evolutionary thought, presenting and rehabilitating many discredited formalist thinkers, such Geoffroy St-Hilaire and Hugo DeVries. The first part ends with a description of the Modern Synthesis (current orthodoxy).
Then, in the second part, we are given a revised evolutionary theory, much of which was in fact developed by Gould and his colleagues Niles Eldredge and Elisabeth Vrba (to both of whom the book is dedicated). The book describes Gould's and Eldredge's own theory of Punctuated Equilibrium (PE): that often and in most cases (though not all) in between long stretches of nothing-happening (equilibrium, or stasis) evolution happens quickly (punctuation).
Gould also presents the concept of constraints as positive forces, and shows them as channels of direction aiding flow. He contrasts this positive interpretation with the usual negative one of constraints restricting movement. Gould uses this with his earlier rehabilitation of formalist thinkers, to present historical and structural constraints as creative forces of evolution that operate independently from Natural Selection (i.e. orthogonally or sideways rather than with or against).
Throughout the second part, Gould revises each leg of the tripod. Following Gould, Natural Selection does not explain all of history (the scope leg) e.g. it fails to explain lineages that don't change. Immediate usefulness (the functional leg) is only one of the forces at work; constraints in particular work independently to, the functional drive; 3) evolution occurs at many levels (the agency leg): at the gene, cell, organisms, species, and clade levels.
Throughout the book Gould also emphasizes two concepts. The first is Relative Frequency and the second is the distinction between Historical Cause and Current Use. Neither of these concepts belongs to Gould, nor does he claim them, and Darwin himself was intimately familiar with them. Gould champions these ideas because he feels even experts aren't paying them enough attention.
First, by relative frequency Gould means determining how often different processes occur throughout the history of life. For instance, Gould accepts that species often evolve gradually (classical Natural Selection) but he does insist that much of the time speciation happens quickly following long periods of no change (Punctuated Equilibrium) and even suspects that this is true in the vast majority of cases.
For the second concept, Gould emphasizes that what something does today might be completely unrelated to why that something appeared in the first place. Darwin added a whole chapter to later editions of the Origin of Species to answer this problem, which critics called Natural Selection's failure to explain the incipient stages of useful features. The classic example is the wing.
Five percent of a wing is useless and has no aerodynamic effect whatsoever, so how could wings evolve at all if evolution proceeds gradually? Recent work, in the lab and in the field, has conclusively shown that incipient wings help organisms regulate heat by giving them the ability to modify their total exposed surface area. As these heat regulators got bigger, they were more useful, but only up to a point. As luck would have it, that point turns out to be precisely where heat regulars have an aerodynamic effect. So, if the heat regulators get bigger from this point on, they help the organism to flutter, glide, or fly even though they don't dissipate much more heat. Heat regulators thus also become flying wings.
The book ends by returning to Darwin and his work. Gould shows that evolutionary theory, as he sees it, is still fundamentally Darwinian despite all three legs of the Natural Selection tripod having been substantially revised to the point Darwin would not recognize them. Nevertheless, for Gould, Natural Selection is still one of the chief motors of evolution, and remains the foundation of current theory (another of many architectural metaphors in the book). Natural Selection still operates on individual organisms, and it is still needed to explain much of life's history. Gould's final words glorify Darwin's importance, not only in having "done the work" of developing evolutionary theory, but also, and for Gould more importantly, for having conveyed his view of life: beautiful and full of grandeur.
Vincent Poirier...
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on April 30, 2002
A lifetime of clear and concise thinking comes to full fruition in Stephen Gould's "Structure Of Evolutionary Theory", a work which masters the intricacy and vast scale of biological evolution with a prose that would be the envy of the harshest english composition teacher. Indeed, in an age of literarily skilled scientific giants such as Edward Wilson and Richard Dawkins, to name but two, Gould has succeeded in giving his readers a book which will go down in the history of scholarship as one of the truly clarifying perspectives on a theory that has consistently proven itself to be the only unifying principle of life on earth.
While some readers might be intimidated by the sheer massiveness of this book, as well as by Gould's extensive use of technically oriented terminology, they will ultimately be rewarded in their struggle by coming away with a sure-footed understanding of why Darwin's essential theory has stood the test of time and survived to reap the status that all theories aspire to: the ability to consistently explain and predict phenomena, which is the defining trait of any theory's true power. While it may be that many will still dispute Gould's "puncuated equilibria" explanation of speciation, as compared to the school of gradualism, that should not be taken as a sign of any real chink in the armor of basic Darwinism, but rather a sign that the study of evolution is still healthy and vibrant with respect to the intellectually arguable nuance and tempo by which genetic mutation and natural selection produced past and present life.
Gould's book highlights this debate and succeeds in throwing into high relief the cutting edge of both contemporary arguments and the burgeoning empirical research used to bolster or temper them. Whether you buy into his specific interpretations of it or not, the fullness of your understanding of the body of evolutionary knowledge will benefit greatly by a cover to cover reading of his book.
In conclusion I would say that both the scientific community and the reading public owe a debt of gratitude to a figure such as Gould who, after having played a significant role in reviving the essay as a form of written communication, has done an equally excellent job with respect to tackling its polar opposite with an enormous 1400 page treatise that is sure to entice, entertain, and help educate the next generation of critical thinkers.
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on July 25, 2002
Cleary the capstone to Stephen Jay Gould's life and career. While his hundreds of articles in NATURE put him at the same cocktail party with Carl Sagan, this tome puts him at the same party with Charles Darwin. Another reviewer hit it on the head. This book is not as accessible as his other writings. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is intended for the experts in the field of Evolution. It presumes a lot of the reader, background that frankly even with a BS in Zoology, I don't have. At 30 bucks, it's a great value for the money, one of those books you'll keep around and read a chapter or section at a time. I don't think Gould intended to be pedantic, but he was clearly thinking at a level above most of us. A quick excerpt to demonstrate my point. From the bottom of page 152: "The challenge of punctuated equillibrium to natural selection rests upon two entirely different issues of support provided by punctuational geometry for the explanation of cladal trends by differential species success and not by extrapolated anagenesis, and for the high relative frequency of species selection, as opposed to the exclusivity of Darwinian selection on organisms." If you can figure this out, even in context, you can have my Mensa card.
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