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Darwinian Fundamentalism’: An Exchange

In response to:

Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism from the June 26, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

Stephen Jay Gould complains that in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea I attack his views via “hint, innuendo, false attribution,” and “caricature” [NYR, June 26]. That is false. On the contrary, I went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that my account of his views was fair and accurate. One does not lightly embark on the course of demonstrating that a figure as famous and as honored as Stephen Jay Gould—“America’s evolutionist laureate”—has misled his huge public about the theories in his field. I knew he was going to hate my book, and given the effectiveness of his past public attacks on sociobiology, IQ testing, and other targets of his disfavor, prudence alone would dictate that I should secure my criticisms against easy rebuttal and condemnation.

So I did my usual homework, and checked it all out with experts in the field, including experts sympathetic to Gould, urging them to correct any errors they spotted. I sent drafts of my critical chapters to Gould himself more than a year before I sent the final manuscript to the publisher, inviting him to meet with me at his convenience, or to respond in whatever way he chose. I invited him to participate in my seminar that was reviewing the penultimate draft. Gould kindly met with me in the summer of 1994, and we spent several hours going over his objections to the penultimate draft. He raised a variety of objections, and supported some of them with texts, and wherever he convinced me I had misinterpreted him, I revised my draft accordingly. On some points, however, he failed to persuade me, and one is particularly instructive, since now he accuses me of deliberately misrepresenting him.

I claimed that for a while he had presented punctuated equilibrium as a revolutionary “saltationist” alternative to standard neo-Darwinism, and he implored me to check this claim by reviewing all his work that dealt with the issue. It started well; he provided me with his complete curriculum vitae and photocopies of every piece therein that I requested. When I reviewed them, however, I found quotations—in addition to those that appear in my book on pp. 286-290—that clearly supported my claim. I wrote back to him citing these. (Instead of quoting the quotations from my long letter to Gould, I refer readers to his notorious 1980 paper in Paleobiology, entitled “Is a new and general theory of evolution emerging?”) I ended my letter: “I want to be fair. When you begged me to see for myself that your opponents were foisting a caricature on you, you struck a nerve…. But now I need some more help from you if I am going to say that your critics are wrong in claiming that you tried on saltationism and then abandoned it.” He never responded to my letter, or made any further attempt to correct my claims, and now he describes my interpretation of his views as “a farrago of false charges.” On the contrary, my interpretation is standard fare, widely accepted in the field. For instance, two eminent evolutionary biologists, Jerry A. Coyne and Brian Charlesworth of the Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, wrote recently in response to a similar complaint of Gould’s in a letter in Science (April 18, 1997, pp. 338-341): “In the past 25 years, Eldredge and Gould have proposed so many different versions of their theory that it is difficult to describe it with any accuracy…. Punctuated equilibrium originally attracted great attention because it invoked distinctly non-Darwinian mechanisms for stasis and change…leading to Gould’s pronouncement that ‘if Mayr’s characterization of the synthetic theory [of evolution] is accurate, then that theory, as a general proposition, is effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy.”’ Neo-Darwinism—the synthetic theory of evolution that Gould propagandistically elides into “Darwinian fundamentalism”—is alive and well, in the textbooks and the laboratories. When Gould suggests otherwise, he is misleading the public.

Let me say a word about “Darwinian fundamentalism.” Nonsense. I do not espouse the preposterous views Gould attributes to this mythic creed. Gould labors to create a caricature of the “strict” adaptationist, a type that occurs nowhere in nature and is explicitly disavowed, at length, by me (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, pp. 55, 238-261, 302-305, 326-328, and elsewhere). In fact, the passage from my book which Gould uses to anchor his fantasy is misquoted by him. It is adaptationist thinking, not “adaptation, natural selection’s main consequence,” that I say plays a crucial and ubiquitous role in analysis, and so it does, even though, as I stress again and again, there are plenty of other factors (comets, and other catastrophes, for instance) that may well play the predominant causal role in particular cases. What is amazing is that Gould wrests this quotation from the very section (pp. 238-261) in which I attempt to undo the travesty of Gould’s previous efforts over the years to caricature adaptationist thinking.

When Gould complains further of my “red-baiting” and “gratuitous speculation” about his religious views, this hits a new low. As he knows full well, his scientific critics have often attributed his curious biases to his politics or his views on religion, and I was pointedly disassociating myself from those claims. My criticisms are of his science and his logic, not his political or religious views. But Gould wants to have it both ways; he lards his own writing with political and religious motifs and then howls about red-baiting when anybody takes him up on it—even to dismiss it as beside the point, which is what I did. Besides, if his politics and religion are to be off limits to criticism, then he should clean up his own act. It is he, not I, who has repeatedly failed to live up to the fine principle that he himself has so eloquently expressed:

Scientists have power by virtue of the respect commanded by the discipline. We may therefore be sorely tempted to misuse that power in furthering a personal prejudice or social goal—why not provide that extra oomph by extending the umbrella of science over a personal preference in ethics or politics? But we cannot, lest we lose the very respect that tempted us in the first place. (Bully for Brontosaurus, 1991, pp. 429-430)

I am sorry it has come to this. In my discussions with Gould over the years, I have tried hard to get him to stop misrepresenting the works that he disapproved of, to clarify his position, and to disavow the misconstruals of evolutionary theory that are so often expressed by non-biologists citing him as their authority. In my book I carefully left open a graceful avenue for him to take: if he wished, he could claim that his eager public had been misreading him and then take responsibility for correcting their readings. He chose instead to turn up the volume of his vituperation.

There are quite a few minor mistakes in my book, including three he cites, but they do not substantially affect any of my criticisms of his views. I have put a list of these errors on the website of the Center for Cognitive Studies (http://www.tufts.edu/as/cogstud/mainpg.htm). I will not respond further to Gould’s charges, trusting that readers will take him up on his challenge: “If you think I am being simplistic or unfair to Dennett in this characterization, read his book….” Do, please; see for yourself; that’s the scientific way. John Maynard Smith praises my book; Stephen Jay Gould attacks it. They are both authorities, but they can’t both be right, can they?

Daniel C. Dennett
Director, Center for Cognitive Studies
Tufts University
Medford, Massachusetts

To the Editors:

Maybe Stephen Jay Gould’s harsh words about my book The Moral Animal in your June 26 issue should have been accompanied by a full disclosure statement. In the January 29, 1990, issue of The New Republic I wrote an extremely negative review of Gould’s book Wonderful Life. I noted that many evolutionary biologists consider Gould’s writings a serious impediment to popular understanding of Darwinian thought. Daniel Dennett amplified this theme in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, quoting from my review and meticulously dissecting various confusions that Gould has inflicted on the reading public. Now Gould writes a long essay ostensibly devoted to debunking “ultra-Darwinian fundamentalism” and criticizes two people by name: Dennett and me. Gould’s criticisms of me are cast as part of a broader rumination on evolutionary psychology, of which I just happen to be an “egregiously simplistic” proponent. Well, if you’re going to do a serious critique of an intellectual endeavor, shouldn’t you focus on its least simplistic thinkers?

Last year, in an essay in Natural History, Gould called my book “absurd”—again in the course of a broader critique of evolutionary psychology. I replied with an essay in Slate, arguing that Gould had failed to grasp basic principles of evolutionary psychology (and, apparently, hadn’t actually read my book). I won’t here repeat that exercise, but interested readers can find my essay at www.slate.com/Earthling/96-11-27/Earthling.asp. The original New Republic review is available at www.clark.net/pub/wright/gould.htm.

Robert Wright
Washington, D.C.

Stephen Jay Gould replies:

Right after King Henry’s stirring Saint Crispin’s Day speech on the battlefield of Agincourt, Shakespeare supplies some humorous relief, as Falstaff’s former servant Pistol extracts a ransom from a cowardly French soldier by loud bluff and posturing. Pistol’s own servant then makes a famous observation: “The saying is true—the empty vessel makes the greatest sound.” Dennett’s singularly contentless commentary reminded me of this motto and its corollary, “When you have nothing to say, say it louder”—a tactic that got 450 prophets of Baal into terminal trouble with Elijah. Dennett devoted the longest chapter of his recent book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, to what I described as “an excoriating caricature of my ideas, all in order to bolster his defense of Darwinian fundamentalism.” In two recent articles in this journal, I presented a response that, although strongly worded in my own defense, presented a series of general intellectual arguments and specific documentations. In Part 1, I critiqued the three metaphors (and metaphor-making as a scientific tactic in general) that underpin the logic of Dennett’s entire case: Darwinism as a “universal acid”; the image of cranes vs. skyhooks as explanatory principles; and the claim that evolution is algorithmic. In my own defense in Part 2, I then explained the potential importance to evolutionary theory of three arguments associated with my work, and falsely branded as trivial by an uncomprehending Dennett: punctuated equilibrium, spandrels, and contingency of evolutionary patterns. Finally, I quoted specific examples of his unfair rhetorical tactics in four categories: false assimilation to statements made by others, false characterizations, high density of factual error, and gratuitous speculation about motives.

I knew that Dennett would reply, but I expected some attempt at refutation. Instead, he offers absolutely no intellectual response to any of my critiques. (Dare I conclude that he cannot answer them?) He only avers that he can support a false claim he has made about punctuated equilibrium with a bevy of quotations that he didn’t bother to use. But I would assume that he cited the “best” quotes in his book, and I did show conclusively that he misread the key item in a totally backwards manner.

The rest of his letter does little more than grouse about my supposed lack of attention to his work in manuscript. But he states that, upon request, I sent him a complete list of publications and photocopies of all papers he wanted. He then allows that “Gould kindly met with me in the summer of 1994, and we spent several hours going over his objections to the penultimate draft.” He’s only sore that I didn’t choose to continue the dialogue. But did I not fulfill my obligations as a scholar? I gave him every document he wanted, and I tried my very best in person—but ultimately decided that I could not possibly penetrate his protective wall of unbreakable a priori conclusions.

Then we learn that I hit “a new low” in moaning about Dennett’s attempt to link my intellectual positions with my political and religious views, especially when I have often made such a link in critiquing others. I am truly befuddled at how he could misread my clearly stated argument so badly. I never complained about the general principle of such linkages; on the contrary, I think that any scholar’s views should be read in the context of cultural and personal beliefs—and I regard self-scrutiny and disclosure as the greatest of intellectual virtues. I merely pointed out that Dennett’s particular linkages were gratuitous, speculative, and downright silly in my case—climaxed, as they were, by claims about my supposedly hidden religious beliefs based on what he identified as a biblical citation, when I had only quoted (and not for any religious reason) the words of a well-known African-American folk song.

Finally, however, I am simply amazed that Dennett had no more to say in his defense than, “Let me say a word about ‘Darwinian fundamentalism.’ Nonsense.”

Dennett may bluster, but Wright is more pathetic. He also offers no intellectual response, and merely conjectures that I am treating him harshly because I was so deeply offended by his negative review of my 1989 book Wonderful Life in The New Republic. Well, I’m sorry, Mr. Wright, and no offense intended, but I don’t even remember reading your review. Furthermore, although you may have intended to sound ironic, you seem to accept my judgment in saying of yourself: “If you’re going to do a serious critique of an intellectual endeavor, shouldn’t you focus on its least simplistic thinkers?”

Wright’s essay in Slate is little more than cyber rhetoric in the same insecure mode—but yes, Mr. Wright, I will defend your First Amendment rights to the death; and, yes again, people should certainly log on and check it out for themselves. This electronic “flame” begins: “At the risk of sounding grandiose, I hereby declare myself to be involved in a bitter feud with no less a personage than Stephen Jay Gould. It all started in 1990, when I reviewed his book Wonderful Life…. Gould, alas, has paid me no mind…. Savvy alpha male that he is, he refrained from getting into a gutter brawl with a scrawny marginal primate such as myself.”

Go in peace, Mr. Wright. You may declare all you want, but fighting is like the tango, and I decline. You too, Dan Dennett. I wish you no ill, and I’m sorry if I offended you both by not paying enough attention to your work—the only common theme, in the absence of any intellectual response, in their replies printed above. But as T.H. Huxley said of Richard Owen, in a parody of Dryden’s line about Alexander the Great refighting all his battles during a drunken monologue—“And thrice he routed all his foes, and thrice he slew the slain”—life is just too short for occupying oneself with the slaying of the slain more than twice.

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