A tribute to a great scientist
Stephen Jay Gould
Who died on May 20, 2002
Sadly, on Monday, May 20, Stephen Jay Gould the famous American
palaeontologist died of cancer. He was 60 and died at his home in New York.
Gould made a major contribution to development of modern science with his
theories on evolution. Prior to his studies scientists had accepted
Darwin's view of a very slow and gradual process of evolution. Together
with Eldredge in the early 1970s, beginning with a study of land snail
shells, he discovered that there was another pattern to the evolutionary
process. They saw that what the fossil records showed was not one
continuous gradual process, but a series of sudden bursts of change
followed by relatively long periods of very slow development. Gould and
Eldredge coined the term "punctuated equilibria" to describe this process.
Gould and Eldredge then had to face quite widespread opposition from the
scientific community. By patiently explaining their ideas they managed to
convince many, but some to this day still reject their theory.
Alan Woods and Ted Grant wrote their book, Reason in Revolt, Marxist
Philosophy and Modern Science in 1995. The book was published 100 years
after the death of Frederick Engels and the purpose was to update Engels'
Dialectics of Nature. The last 100 years of scientific study have provided
ample proof that the method of Engels and Marx, i.e. that of dialectical
materialism, actually reflects the real processes of nature.
Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge demonstrated quite conclusively that
these processes are sometimes slow and protracted and at other times
extremely rapid. They show how a gradual accumulation of small changes at a
certain point provokes a qualitative change.
In this they finally resolved the problem Darwin had in understanding what
was known as the "Cambrian explosion". Prior to the Cambrian explosion very
few fossil records have been found. Then "suddenly" life forms seem to
develop very rapidly. In fact fossil records do not fit in to a gradualist
interpretation of evolution. There are periods where life forms change
rapidly, and then there are other long periods where nothing seems to
change. Darwin believed that it was just a question of time before new
discoveries in the fossil records would show the gradual change that had
taken place. But these records have never materialised. Gould and Eldredge
understood what had actually happened.
This discovery was yet another confirmation of one of the fundamental laws
of dialectics, the transformation of quantity into quality. Individual,
almost imperceptible, small changes pile up one upon another. At a certain
point the quantity provokes a sudden leap, a qualitative change. This has
been confirmed over and over again in the natural world. It can also be
applied to the development of society itself. Small changes over long
periods of time suddenly lead to abrupt leaps.
However, the scientific-academic world is dominated by bourgeois ideology,
that is, the way of thinking of the capitalist class. The capitalists
cannot accept the idea that the natural world and society change through
sudden leaps, i.e. revolutions. They want us to believe that everything is
gradual. Thus they are imposing upon the real objective processes of
nature, and of society, their own subjective viewpoint which is determined
by their privileged position. Unfortunately for them the most advanced
scientific research repeatedly contradicts this viewpoint. That explains
why Gould and Eldredge faced such vehement opposition to the conclusions
they drew from their studies.
Gould himself was actually aware of Marxist philosophical thought. In his
book Ever Since Darwin, he refers to Engels' essay The Part Played by
labour in the Transition from Ape to Man and he says the following:
"Indeed, the nineteenth century produced a brilliant exposé from a source
that will no doubt surprise most readers - Frederick Engels. (A bit of
reflection should diminish surprise. Engels had a keen interest in the
natural sciences and sought to base his general philosophy of dialectical
materialism upon a 'positive' foundation. He did not live to complete his
'dialectics of nature', but he included long commentaries on science in
such treatises as the Anti-Dühring.) In 1876, Engels wrote an essay
entitled, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. It
was published posthumously in 1896 and, unfortunately, had no visible
impact upon Western science.
"Engels considers three essential features of human evolution: speech, a
large brain, and upright posture. He argues that the first step must have
been a descent from the trees with subsequent evolution to upright posture
by our ground-dwelling ancestors. 'These apes when moving on level ground
began to drop the habit of using their hands and to adopt a more and more
erect gait. This was the decisive step in the transition from ape to man.'
Upright posture freed the hand for using tools (labour, in Engels'
terminology); increased intelligence and speech came later."
Gould understood the limitations of Western thought when he wrote that a
"deeply rooted bias of Western thought predisposes us to look for
continuity and gradual change."
Although the Soviet Union was a terribly deformed caricature of what
genuine socialism should be, among Soviet scientists there was a greater
understanding of dialectics. And in The Panda's Thumb he points out that:
"In the Soviet Union, for example, scientists are trained with a very
different philosophy of change - the so-called dialectical laws,
reformulated by Engels from Hegel's philosophy. The dialectical laws are
explicitly punctuational. They speak, for example, of the 'transformation
of quantity into quality.' This may sound like mumbo jumbo, but it suggests
that change occurs in large leaps following a slow accumulation of stresses
that a system resists until it reaches the breaking point. Heat water and
it eventually boils. Oppress the workers more and more and bring on the
revolution. Eldredge and I were fascinated to learn that many Russian
palaeontologists support a model similar to our punctuated equilibria."
Gould was not prepared to go all the way and accept that dialectics can be
applied not only to science, and palaeontology in particular, but to
society itself. Like many scientists he used the dialectical method in his
own sphere of studies without grasping the overall outlook of Marxism.
However, through his studies he made a major contribution to the
development of human thought and of our understanding of the world we live
in. Above all he provided more scientific evidence that strengthens the
position of Marxism, for it proves that dialectical materialism is not a
fantastic notion thought up by Marx himself, but it is simply the
reflection of the real material world as it is.
Through his works Gould became one of the most well-known American
scientists. He wrote volumes and openly expressed his views in opposition
to many gradualist evolutionary theorists. He also popularised his ideas
and made them easily accessible to millions of readers. He wrote a long
series of essays in Natural History magazine. He won the National Book
Critics Award in 1982 and came 24th in the Modern Library's list of the one
hundred non-fictional English language works of the 20th century. His works
were always permeated with a progressive outlook. He totally rejected
reactionary scientific theories. For example he refuted all attempts to use
pseudo-scientific theories to justify racism and discrimination.
His presence will be greatly missed by all thinking people. We recommend
that all our readers take the time to read at least his main works. This is
the best tribute we can make to one of the great scientists of the 20th
May 22, 2002
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