Saturday, July 13, 2013

Stephen Jay Gould - A perspective on Darwinism

It is a cloudy and windy evening here in Salt Lake City. I returned from work at 5.30, took a swim, ordered in a Pizza from a local Pizzeria called the "Big Daddy", pulled up a couple of pillows behind me and continued my reading of a wonderful book of essays by Stephen Jay Gould - an evolutionary biologist. Dr Gould is arguably the best known and widely read scientist of our generation. A Paleontologist by profession, but is widely recognized for his path breaking views on Darwinian theory of evolution and the articulate essays that he regularly wrote for the "The Natural History" magazine for a period of thirty odd years till his death in 2002. All his known essays have been collected in individual volumes edited by and prefaced by Gould himself.

Since the time Darwin published his seminal work “Origin of species" in 1850, scientific thinking, buttressed by religious authority has been vociferously advocating, establishing and pontificating on an anthropocentric view of evolution. That Man is the pinnacle of creation, born to rule the word; and the entire march and purpose of evolution has been an unremitting journey to produce an organism called man ; has become the refrain of the scientific community in every sphere of Human life, and taught in every biology class throughout the world. It is curious though that Darwin himself never mentions any such need for human supremacy in the pages of his epochal book. Nonetheless, his theory of Natural selection suited our vain human needs. To break the stronghold of this theory, the world needed a brain of the finest quality and it produces a Stephen Jay Gould.

Dr Gould repudiated the theory that evolution has any purpose at all. His study of Microorganisms in the Burgess shale , where unicellular organism still thrive alongside genetically complex organisms, led him to postulate a radically different view of evolution. He called it the state of "punctuated equilibrium". In simple terms, it means that it wrong to think of evolution as ladder that needs to be climbed, but rather as a chance necessity. The traditional diagram on textbooks that depict the transformation of Man from ape is a biased view not tenable with facts.
In Gould's words, in his wonderfully readable account of his findings on the Burgess shale, he writes :
"if we could somehow "rewind the tape" of evolution and let it play again, chance would favor a different selection of that original multitude, and the world would be a very different place from the one we see around us. There is nothing "preordained" about the appearance of humanity or the human level of awareness"
, or in his wonderful collection of essays called "the eight little piggies”, he passionately advocates:
“we talk about the march from monad to man’ (old-style language again) as though evolution followed continuous pathways to progress along unbroken lineages. Nothing could be further from reality. I do not deny that, through time, the most ‘advanced’ organism has tended to increase in complexity. But the sequence [allocated in most texts] from jellyfish to trilobite to nautiloid to armored fish to dinosaur to monkey to human is no lineage at all, but a chronological set of termini on unrelated evolutionary trunks. Moreover life shows no trend to complexity in the usual sense — only an asymmetrical expansion of diversity around a starting point constrained to be simple.”

Increased complexity need not mean growth. This is the point of divergence from the Darwinian Theory. It is not my intention in this essay to get into more detail, but only to point out the findings of Dr Gould has led scientists to think differently about Man's place in this universe.

I have read most essays of Stephen Jay Gould not only for his incisive thinking, but also for the beauty of his language. Not many in the scientific world can write with such aplomb and grace. I can only think of the renowned Astrophysicist Carl Sagan and writer Isaac Asimov, who could bring intricate scientific knowledge within the realms of non-specialist, as well Dr Gould did.

I am currently reading his book "Rock of ages", perhaps, one of his last collection of essays, where he writes about religion and science. Nothing gives more pleasure than to spend time with these great minds, in their hallowed company, where they lead me into exciting news labyrinths of thought.

God bless..........


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