In 1981, Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould argued, “Some now wish to mute the healthy debate about theory that has brought new life to evolutionary biology. It provides grist for creationist mills.” The resurgence of creationism in the 1980s changed the way that biologists debated the tenants of evolutionary theory. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, Gould debated with other well-known evolutionists over the potentially subversive nature of his unorthodox views. Although it was not the only point of contention, Gould and Niles Eldredge’s theory of punctuated equilibria was central to what came to be called the “Darwin wars.” Punctuated equilibria explained the gaps in the fossil record as positive evidence rather than as missing information. But these revisions also closely resembled creationist criticism that paleontological data could not definitively prove evolution. In the 1985 edition of Scientific Creationism, Henry Morris claimed that the “leading evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould” had proposed a new theory which supported what creationists had “long argued”—that there were “no true transitional forms in the fossil record.” These creationist critiques alarmed other evolutionists. By 1995 geneticist John Maynard-Smith worried that Gould was giving “non-biologists a largely false picture of evolutionary theory whereas journalist Robert Wright plainly asserted Gould was “bad for evolution Gould’s fellow evolutionists believed he had opened their theory to general attack.

The fervency of the Darwin wars had its roots in the resurgence of the American creationist movement in the early 1980s. When Ronald Reagan publicly disavowed evolution during his successful bid for presidency in 1980, many were visibly concerned about the future of evolution in American culture. Gould complained in letters to colleagues that they now “had a creationist in the White House.”[2] He wrote several editorials in the New York Times and elsewhere, arguing the rise of creation-science was nothing more than one of a number of machinations of the politically ascendant New Right. And in 1981, Gould did his part to defend the place of evolution in public science classrooms by testifying in the highly publicized Arkansas Supreme Court case McLean v. Arkansas. Though McLean v. Arkansas ended in defeat for creationists clamoring for “equal time,” it spurred political action against creationism in the professional evolutionary biology community. The Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE) spent its annual meetings in the early 1980s strategizing against creationism. A grassroots movement of biologists across the country formed into the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), an organization dedicated to combating creationism in public schools. And popular books with such titles as Scientists Confront Creationism (1984), Science and Creationism (1984) and Fallacies of Creationism (1985) hit shelves hoping to explain to public audiences that there was a firm scientific consensus against creationism.

It was into this political tumult that Gould published his revisions to Darwinian evolution for both professional and public audiences. Fearing the incursion of creationism, other evolutionists insisted that Gould’s promotion of punctuated equilibrium was merely rhetorical (or worse, just hot air). But the very existence of the conflict between Gould and his evolutionary opponents destabilized the authority of biology. If biologists could not agree on evolution, how could the rest of the country be certain that it was true? The controversy with creationists garnered publicity precisely because it highlighted the difficulty professional evolutionists had in establishing scientific consensus. Gould’s quarrels with other evolutionists appeared in national newspapers, in news magazines, and on television. The link between punctuated equilibria and creationism even appeared in a biographical spread on Gould in People magazine in the summer of 1986. The controversy with creationism fueled Gould’s increasing celebrity to audiences across America.


In this early description of punctuated equilibria, Gould implied to his readers that it only modified the rate of Darwin’s theory. This appeared to be a low stakes matter.


The cultural power of creation-science in the early 1980s shocked many evolutionary biologists. But their own disagreements made it more difficult to close ranks against creationism. Both Gould and his evolutionary opponents publicly laid claim to being the rightful heirs to Charles Darwin’s theory. In doing so, they created different images of Darwin. Gould wanted Darwin to be a historical figure that could be revised and reconsidered in order to accommodate Gould’s own understanding of evolutionary theory, particularly punctuated equilibrium. His critics, including Richard Dawkins, desired that Darwin stand as the beacon for intellectually defensible atheism. For these evolutionists, claiming Darwin was an assertion of their authority to be public spokesmen for evolution, and it was done in the face of the new political threat from American creationists in the early 1980s.

Punctuated equilibria did not begin as the most well known revision of Darwin’s theory. Gould and Eldredge first advanced the theory in an essay in Thomas Schopf’s Models in Paleobiology in 1972. This volume generated momentum for a new research agenda in paleontology and introduced punctuated equilibria to other young paleontologists interested in macroevolution.[3] The theory challenged the traditional picture of Darwinian evolution in which natural selection creates slight modifications to successive generations. In their new theory, Gould and Eldredge put a far greater emphasis on the splits between lineages. They argued that most forms remained the same through their evolutionary history and changed rapidly only on occasion. But in downplaying the engineering capabilities of natural selection, Gould would come into direct conflict with other evolutionists who saw it as the primary defense against creationism.

The first public incarnation of punctuated equilibria came from Gould’s own hand. He dedicated his Natural History column from May of 1977 to a description of the theory.[4] Gould introduced audiences to punctuated equilibria by taking them back to the origin of natural selection itself. He began his story on October 23, 1859 when, “a day before his revolutionary book hit the stands,” Darwin received “an extraordinary letter” from his friend and fellow evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley.[5] Huxley, as Gould went on to explain, hailed Darwin for his theoretical achievement but bemoaned the fact that Darwin had “so unreservedly” adopted “Natura non facit saltum” (nature makes no leaps).[6] Huxley was concerned, and Gould concurred, that Darwin had unnecessarily loaded his new theory down with the assumption that evolution happened gradually. “Natural selection,” Gould declared to his readers, “required no postulate about rates; it could operate just as well if evolution proceeded at a rapid pace.”[7]

In this early description of punctuated equilibria, Gould implied to his readers that it only modified the rate of Darwin’s theory. This appeared to be a low stakes matter. After all, why would it matter if evolution happened slowly or quickly? But there was more to Huxley and Darwin’s discussion than the pace of evolution. In a part of Huxley’s letter that Gould did not quote, Huxley informed Darwin that he believed that nature did in fact “make small jumps.”[8] In other words, Huxley and Darwin were discussing the character of evolutionary change and a crucial aspect of the persuasiveness of Darwin’s overall theory. Darwin’s argument against divine agency as the explanation for the origin of species depended on convincing his readers that large-scale speciation in life’s history was the result the accumulation of smaller, observable changes within organisms. From his correspondence with Huxley, it appears that Darwin wished to avoid any suggestion that his theory required leaps from one form to the next. Gould’s new theory could be interpreted as reintroducing these jumps into the picture of evolutionary change.

In “Evolution’s erratic pace,” Gould tried to persuade his readers that gradualism had been an unnecessary addition to evolutionary theory from the beginning. By casting this point in the words of the renowned evolutionist T.H. Huxley, Gould created the impression that other evolutionists had in good conscience objected to Darwin’s gradualism. In the rest of the article Gould argued that Darwin’s adherence to gradualism was the result of Western cultural preference and not an empirical conclusion. This view had negatively affected generations of paleontologists, who had “paid an exorbitant price for Darwin’s argument.”[9] In order to “preserve our favored account by natural selection” paleontologists must “view our data as so bad that we almost never see the very process we profess to study.”[10] According to Gould, there was a solution on the horizon as “Niles Eldredge… and I have been advocating a resolution of this uncomfortable paradox…the modern theory of evolution does not require gradual change… it is gradualism that we must reject, not Darwinism.”[11] In this column Gould made an argument that he would reiterate for the next two decades—Darwin had been a true visionary, but punctuated equilibria was a necessary correction to Darwin’s original theory.


But it was not merely the happenstance in timing that Gould argued was responsible for the association between creationism and punctuated equilibrium; writing in 2002, he blamed journalists for distorting the state of affairs.


It was in 1980 that punctuated equilibria dramatically transformed from a professional conversation into a cultural controversy over the scientific consensus on evolution. Looking back on the 1980s, Gould later argued that it had been the “coincidental” occurrence of an influential meeting of evolutionary biologists at a conference on macroevolution and the “renewed political influence of creationists” that wedded punctuated equilibrium and creationism together in journalists’ minds.[12] The macroevolution conference, held in October of 1980 at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, came to be seen by many evolutionary biologists as the introduction of punctuated equilibria to a much wider sphere beyond paleontology.[13] Gould argued that the news coverage of this meeting so close to the events leading up to the McLean v. Arkansas trial meant that punctuated equilibria and creationism were inappropriately linked together in the journalistic imagination. But it was not merely the happenstance in timing that Gould argued was responsible for the association between creationism and punctuated equilibrium; writing in 2002, he blamed journalists for distorting the state of affairs. He claimed that “the general press caught on and grossly misread… the meeting as a sign of deep trouble in the evolutionary science.”[14] Reviewing the press that covered the Chicago meeting (including articles in Newsweek, The New York Times, and Science), Gould blamed journalists for kindling “the understandable wrath of orthodox Darwinians and champions of the Modern Synthesis.”[15] Due to the nature of “absurdly hyped popular accounts” Gould lamented that punctuated equilibria not only became associated with “the death of Darwinism,” it became “the public symbol and stalking horse for all debate within evolutionary theory.”[16] And since “popular impressions now falsely linked the supposed ‘trouble’ within evolutionary theory to the rise of creationism, some intemperate colleagues began to blame Eldredge and me for the growing strength of creationism!”[17] According to Gould, journalists had maligned him and Eldredge as “the primary assassins” of Darwinian evolution.[18]

Though he did not entirely blame any one source for what he felt was a gross misinterpretation of the state of scientific debate in evolutionary biology, he did single out “an unfortunate article” which “appeared in the popular magazine Discover just a month before the [Chicago] meeting.”[19] The article, titled “The Tortoise and the Hare,” had suggested that “among paleontologists, scientists who study the fossil record, there is growing dissent from the prevailing view of Darwinism.” Even more alarmingly, the piece suggested that it was the “disagreement among scientists” that was the reason that “fundamentalists are successfully reintroducing creationism into textbooks and schools rooms across the U.S.”[20] Outraged at this implication, Gould and Eldredge wrote an indignant letter to the editor of Discover, protesting their portrayal along with creationists “as [the] twin antagonists of Darwinian orthodoxy.”[21]

Both in 1980 and in 2002, Gould represented himself as the offended party. He argued that he and Eldredge had been concerned with a strictly professional matter and it was only the journalists who had conflated the technical debate within the synthetic theory of evolution with outside criticisms by creationists. But as punctuated equilibria received more publicity (partly through Gould’s own popular writing), he was no longer able to control the terms of the debate. And Gould was far more involved with the popular science coverage of punctuated equilibrium than he later acknowledged. In fact, Gould was involved in the writing of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” the very article he blamed for much of the trouble.

Gould’s involvement with the piece came through the close ties he developed with the editorial staff at Discover, which was a brand new subsidiary of Time magazine. The editor-in-chief, Leon Jaroff, envisioned Discover as a “science news” magazine, a concept he developed after noticing that the newsstand sales of Time shot up when the cover featured science or medicine.

Gould did write several articles in the first few years of the magazine. He was proclaimed the first Discover scientist of the year in 1981 (a fact he kept on his curriculum vitae until the end of his career). And most significantly, Gould knew and worked with James Gorman, the author of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” and the subject of Gould’s repudiation in Structure. Gorman was a staff writer for Discover and a freelance writer who had made his journalistic break with a review of Gould’s first two books (Ontogeny and Phylogeny and Ever Since Darwin) for the New York Times.[22] In that review and in “The Tortoise and the Hare,” Gorman was committed to an accurate representation of Gould’s work, and he consulted with Gould during the writing of the latter. Later, Gorman came to regret how strongly he had made the connection between creationism and punctuated equilibrium, but he still believed Gould had been fully consulted on the article’s assessment of the scientific situation.[23] Gorman and Gould even spent a day together in 1981 putting together Gould’s feature as the first Discover scientist of the year. None of these connections made it into Gould’s assessment of the press coverage of punctuated equilibria.

It is possible, of course, that after two decades, Gould forgot the details of his association with Discover, his work with the NCSE, and his own popular writing. More likely, this selective account reflects Gould’s desire to depict the world of professional biology and journalism as two completely separate worlds. Ironically, Gould’s own involvement in this world of popular science and scientific journalism implicated him these conversations. He wanted to revolutionize evolutionary biology in a moment when his subject’s scientific credentials were under increased public scrutiny. It is perhaps unsurprising that his efforts to debate various technical evolutionary arguments in public were perceived as a threat to other evolutionists who wished to “close ranks” in the face of the political threat of creation-science. Gould did not secretly hope that social controversy with creationists would increase his newsworthy profile. He actively argued that evolutionary biologists disagreed over some particulars, but the terms of evolution were safe from creationist critique. But in these crucial years, his attempts to promote his vision of evolution inextricably linked his debates with other Darwinists with creationism in the American cultural imagination.

The growing publicity surrounding Gould’s version of Darwinism and its connection to creationism altered the landscape of popular accounts of evolution during the 1980s and 1990s. Other evolutionists had the twin task of defending evolution against creationism, while reassuring the public that Gould’s theoretical revisions did not undermine the central core of Darwinism. This was evident in Richard Dawkins’ 1986 bestseller The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins had already made a name for himself as a captivating and energetic science writer for a wide audience—his first book The Selfish Gene (1976) argued that the gene was the primary unit of evolutionary change. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins claimed that organisms, including humans, were driven by the blind evolutionary needs of their genes. This strongly implied a materialistic view of the universe and human nature. But it was in the Blind Watchmaker that Dawkins told his readers that he was convinced that “our own existence once presented the greatest of all mysteries.” But our existence was no longer a mystery because “Darwin and Wallace solved it.”[24] Dawkins claimed the solution to this problem was now evident, “I want to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence.”[25]

According to Dawkins the most puzzling aspect of the natural world was adaptive complexity. How could it be the case that living things would work so well, or suit their environments so perfectly? Dawkins used the natural theology of William Paley to typify the pre-Darwinian answer to this question. He began by recounting the well-known passage in Paley’s 1802 treatise Natural Theology in which Paley recalls happening upon a watch in a field, and infers from its complex working design that it must have had a designer. Darwin’s natural selection, according to Dawkins, replaced Paley’s designer. In other words, if Paley’s understanding of the natural world necessitated a designer-God, Darwin’s theory proved that it was possible to explain the complexity of life without reference to divine agency. According to Dawkins, Darwin’s revolutionary idea was the most powerful argument against theism. As he expressed in the beginning of his book, “I can’t help feeling…that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”[26]


The debate was steeped in the trappings of evolutionary history—Dawkins and Gould were introduced as “the Huxleys of our age” and as the “two foremost representatives of evolutionary biology today.”


In his defense of evolution by natural selection, Dawkins devoted an entire chapter of The Blind Watchmaker to criticizing punctuated equilibria. By putting such high stakes on natural selection Dawkins had to argue that either punctuated equilibrium was incorrect, or that it was just a difference in rhetorical emphasis. He chose the latter in order to assure his readers that despite Gould’s revisions, evolutionary theory rested on firm foundations. Dawkins had two aims in the chapter he titled “Puncturing Punctuationism.” The first was to say “loud and clear… the truth: that the theory of punctuated equilibrium lies firmly within the neo-Darwinian synthesis.” Dawkins argued that those who embraced punctuated equilibria were actually as gradualistic as any other Darwinians, they merely “insert long periods of stasis between spurts of gradual evolution.”[27] According to Dawkins, Gould and Eldredge did not really intend to suggest a saltationist view of evolution with their theory; he believed they had been seduced by the “poetic rhetoric” of suggesting their theory was more revolutionary than Dawkins believed it actually was. Saltationism, in Dawkins’ view, was the theory that evolution could proceed by leaping from one form to the next. Dawkins argued that Darwin had been a “passionate anti-saltationist” because saltation was a “sudden calling into existence, like Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus”—in other words, miraculous creation. Dawkins could not put the point strongly enough, “this is no petty matter. In Darwin’s view, the whole point of the theory of evolution by natural selection was that it provided a non-miraculous account of the existence of complex adaptation. For Darwin, any evolution that had to be helped over the jumps by God was not evolution at all.”[28]

Dawkins believed firmly that Gould and Eldredge knew this, and that they had merely been persuaded by journalistic interest to associate the superficial resemblance of their theory with saltationism. Dawkins argued that the theory could have been “modestly presented as a helpful rescuing of Darwin… Indeed that is, at least in part how it was presented—initially.”[29] Dawkins asserted that punctuated equilibria was merely a “minor gloss on Darwinism” and did not merit such “large measure[s] of publicity.” [30] The only reason for public interest was that there were “people in the world who desperately want not to have to believe in Darwinism” and thus “if a reputable scholar [gives] so much as a hint of criticism of some detail of current Darwinian theory, the fact is eagerly seized on and blown up out of all proportion.”[31] According to Dawkins, since they were reputable Darwinians, Gould and Eldredge were responsible for encouraging the journalistic distortions of their theories even if they were “doughty champions in the fight against redneck creationism.”[32]

Gould’s opportunity to respond to Dawkins’ emphasis on the importance of adaptive complexity came a few years later in a staged and (as Gould put it) much “ballyhooed” public debate at Oxford in 1987. The debate was steeped in the trappings of evolutionary history—Dawkins and Gould were introduced as “the Huxleys of our age” and as the “two foremost representatives of evolutionary biology today.” Dawkins opened the show by suggesting that he and Gould could be understood as two different types of Darwinians (he a “monist” and Gould a “pluralist”) but both Darwinians nonetheless. Dawkins assured the audience that “Steven Gould and I are like ships that pass in the night. Where we appear to disagree it’s usually because we are interested in different things.”[33] From that point the debate ranged over a variety of topics—human equality, discourses on their various books, watersheds in the history of life—but settled on one important difference in emphasis. For Dawkins, Darwin’s most significant contribution to science was natural selection because it overturned religious explanations for the origin of complex life:

The apparently designed nature of adaptive complexity has always been a powerful reason for invoking a supernatural creator. If religious belief, in this context, is a disease of the mind, then Darwin and Wallace discovered the cure.

Dawkins spent most of the debate arguing why natural selection was the essential point of Darwin’s theory—this was the beauty, the importance, and the truth of Darwinism.

Gould disagreed. And he did so by framing Charles Darwin as a historical figure who had been influenced by his time and place. According to Gould, Darwin’s theory did come down to explaining natural order without recourse to God, but largely because of Darwin’s own historical context—“all the higher order harmony that used to be seen as the source of evidence for God’s benevolence is epiphenomenal upon the struggle of something lower for personal gain. That’s all.” If this framing sounded a great deal like “Adam Smith’s economics translated into nature,” it was “no accident” according to Gould. Gould went on to inform the audience that “one of the most interesting conclusions of recent historical research has shown the tie of Darwin’s development of the theory of natural selection in 1838 to his interest…in the thought of Adam Smith.” In other words, the formulation of Darwin’s theory was due to Darwin’s “cultural embeddedness” and the influence on him by the famous eighteenth-century economist. This did not make the theory less valid, important, or true, but Gould did believe it meant that the theory could be reflected upon, revised, and updated. He agreed with Dawkins that “organized adaptive complexity” was crucially important, but did not agree that it was the only truth to be gained from Darwin. That view was what Gould liked “to call Dawkins’ myopia.”[34]

The debates between Gould and Dawkins continued after their meeting at Oxford and ended only after Gould passed away in 2002. Their debates were highly public, but shadowed Gould’s continuing conflicts with other members of the evolutionary community. What is most striking about these discussions is that both sides continued to advocate that Darwin’s work must be upheld beyond all else. Dawkins tended to argue that the way to adhere to Darwin’s work was to recognize the centrality of natural selection to Darwin’s theory. Gould argued that true Darwinians would recognize their founder’s delightful pluralism, which allowed for the contemporary generation of scientists to revise and extend Darwin’s work in new directions. After the resurgence of creation-science, however, all sides in the evolutionary camp could agree on one thing: Darwin must be defended against creationism in American public culture.

Myrna Perez Sheldon is co-editor-in-chief of Cosmologics. This piece is an excerpt from an article published in Studies in the History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 45, Myrna Perez Sheldon, “Claiming Darwin: Stephen Jay Gould in contests over evolutionary orthodoxy and public perception, 1977-2002,” 139-147, Copyright Elsevier, 2014.

[1] Gould, S.J. (1981) Evolution as fact and theory. Discover 2: 34-37.

[2] Gould, S.J. to Boyce Resenberger (Nov. 14, 1980) in Box 10, Folder 12 in Stephen Jay Gould Papers, M1437. Dept. of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, Calif.

[3] Sepkoski, D. (2012) Rereading the Fossil Record: the Growth of Paleobiology as an Evolutionary Discipline. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[4] Gould, S. J. (1977) Evolution’s erratic pace. Natural History 86 (5): 12-16. (Reprinted as The episodic nature of evolutionary change in The panda’s thumb. New York: W.W. Norton [1980] 179-85).

[5] Ibid, 179.

[6] Huxley to Darwin (23 November 1859) cited in (Gould 1977), 12.

[7] Gould (1977), 179.

[8] Huxley to Darwin (23 November 1859) emphasis original.

[9] Gould (1977), 182.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Gould, S.J. (2002) The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Cambridge: Harvard Belknap Press.

[13] Sepkoski (2012) 367-432.

[14] Gould (2002), 981.

[15] Ibid, 983.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Gould (2002), 983.

[20] Gorman, James (1980) “The Tortoise or the Hare.” Discover 1 (1).

[21] Elredge, N. and S. J. Gould to Leon Jarof (7 October 1980) in Box 108, Folder 11 in Stephen Jay Gould Papers, M1437. Dept. of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, Calif. Printed in Discover Magazine November 1980.

[22] Gorman, J. interview with M. P. Sheldon (12 Dec 2012) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Dawkins (1986), xiii.

[25] Dawkins, R. (1986) The Blind Watchmaker: Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design. New York: Norton, xiv.

[26] Ibid, 6.

[27] Ibid, 354.

[28] Ibid, 355 [emphasis original].

[29] Ibid, 342.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid, 358.

[32] Ibid, 359.

[33] Dawkins, R. and Gould, S. J. (1987) Debate at Oxford University in Box 897, Folder 17 in Stephen Jay Gould Papers, Stanford University.

[34] Ibid.

Image from Flickr via cobalt123


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