The Enigma of Stephen Jay Gould


When I first entered graduate school four years ago with the intent of studying the evolution of tarsiers, I had a lot of ideas about evolution. During my first week, and even during first month of the program, I was certain about what I wanted to study. I let everyone know I was going to be the tarsier communication guy. I had all sorts of ideas about why these animals communicate in the way they do, and I was certain that out of my stack of four or five ideas, at least one must be correct.

During the next few months, I met a lot of people, including a rodent paleontologist (the fact that he is a paleontologist is important) named Tim, who was going to be my best friend for the next three years. The first day I met Tim, I told him about my dissertation topic. After a few seconds of thinking over a beer, he told me, “I have a paper you need to read.” Tim then introduced me to Gould’s 1979 paper, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm.” It remains one of the most important things I have read in my entire life. Over the next few months, I came to respect Gould’s thoughts about paleontology, natural history, and structural evolution, and I continue to read him until this day.

This piece was originally published in Skeptic Magazine, Issue 24.3. Steven Pinker, who also contributed a piece, is on the front cover!

During the summer of 2019, I saw a lot of commentary about the career of Stephen Jay Gould. These were comments from people who, upset with his (perhaps misguided) book, The Mismeasure of Man, claimed his contribution to evolutionary biology was rather insignificant. Along with the claim that he had nothing to say were some more inflammatory claims which included the charge that he was a charlatan, liar, and scientifically worthless. Based on my own experience in reading Gould and how much he contributed to my own evolutionary reasoning, I knew this wasn’t true. Continue reading “The Enigma of Stephen Jay Gould”

Structure, Agency, and..Energy?!

technology changes structures in ways completely unanticipated and unwanted

“Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms. The machine world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth.” – Marshall McLuhan, 1964

“The technology is the independent variable, the social system the dependent variable. Social systems are therefore determined by systems of technology; as the latter change, so do the former.” – Leslie White, 1949

The role between the structure of cultural systems and the agency of the actors within them has received a great deal of attention in the anthropological literature since the 1990s. Although we know that most people are constrained by the structure imposed upon them, it is true that from time to time people do manage to change the structure they are in Continue reading “Structure, Agency, and..Energy?!”