The Origin of Specious

Stephen Jay Gould, who died of cancer at the age of 60 this past May, defined a place in American culture likely to remain vacant now that he is gone. He was, of course, the country's foremost opponent of creationism and champion of Darwinism, with a unique ability to bring the HMS Beagle and baseball batting averages together in a perfect paragraph or two. But what we may come to value most about him is the lonely stance he took in the Darwin wars.

In the heated, often venomous battle over Charles Darwin's legacy, Gould faced a redoubtable crew from the fields of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, genetics and philosophy. What's more, many of these individuals, including E.O. Wilson, Stephen Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Robert Wright, have literary and polemical talents rivaling his own. Science will decide the relative merits of their arguments over topics such as punctuated equilibrium, speciation and the nature of complexity. But the cultural stakes of the dispute are obvious already. Gould's opponents advocate one form or another of a digital Darwinism. Their grand syntheses are unimaginable without the computer revolution. Their reductionist emphasis -- and their hopes for a single, internally coherent theory of everything from mitochondria to the human mind -- draws heavily on the tools, methods and examples of digitalization. Gould's views, on the other hand, owed next to nothing to computers. His Darwinism would have sounded much the same without computer code, artificial intelligence (AI) or the Internet.

Gould was by no means oblivious or opposed to digitalization. He records, for example, that browsing a window display festooned with the "beeping, flashing, almost living and pulsating" offshoots of computer technology forced his "reluctant paleontologist's soul to a recognition that the revolution is already upon us -- the most profound change in human life since everything from trains to television brought us all together." And he did not laugh at the great geek dream that a silicon brain might one day be built that would far surpass the organic model. Gould saw that real AI would signify a break with nature as we thought we knew it, but that didn't bother him. He was a fan of breaks, ruptures and discontinuities; his insistence on their importance to evolution was a chief bone of contention with his opponents. But when it came to digital discontinuity, he lacked any compelling personal need to make it to the other side. The typewriter was his keyboard of choice, when pencil and paper didn't suffice. And he preferred face-to-face encounters to e-mails and the Internet.

Compare this modus operandi with that of, say, Dawkins. His book The Blind Watchmaker was delayed, he confesses with the sly grin of the confirmed hacker, because he felt compelled to first write "Scrivener," his very own word processor. He was "addicted," as he put it, to machine code, the most unevolved (not to say barbaric) and certainly the most demanding of all computer languages, the use of which requires familiarity with the hardware foibles of one's particular machine. It's not a great stretch to see how the author of Scrivener might also be the leading proponent of the notion that the gene -- as opposed to the organism or the species -- is the basic unit and driving force of evolutionary change. Dawkins waxes rhapsodic about the fact that organisms and computers are, beneath it all, code-driven things. "The machine code of the genes," he writes, "is uncannily computer-like. Apart from differences in jargon, the pages of a molecular-biology journal might be interchanged with those of a computer-engineering journal."

Of course, in science, what inspires an idea has no bearing on its validity. Coding Scrivener might well have helped Dawkins understand the mechanics of the selfish gene. And about the inescapability of cultural influence on scientific work, all sides in the Darwin wars agree. As Gould put it, "The social embeddedness of science is not always a negative. Sometimes it helps you along to an insight you didn't have before." Dennett's complementary formulation is that progress "made in science is greatly abetted by the temporary hampering of the imagination [enforced by culture]." It would seem that on this issue, at least, a sort of Christmas truce prevailed among combatants. The problem, though, is that cultural influences as distinct as Gould's and Dennett's reinforce very different views of science. And when computers are the source of influence, as in Dennett's case, it's never clear where culture ends and science begins.

Dennett draws on the discipline of artificial intelligence not just for metaphors but for literal models of the human mind. AI, in his view, gives philosophers, at long last, a lab. If you want to try out a particular theory of mind, he admonishes them, don't sit around and theorize. Get out the manual, write the code, run the damn thing and see what happens. The philosophers, he might have written, have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to code it. Like Dawkins, Dennett believes that code is the great unifier. If Dawkins can write Scrivener, then over the eons -- during which time its products are launched, tested and debugged by natural selection -- nature can, and in fact has, coded up such things as monkeys. Darwin challenged his contemporaries to accept that their ancestors were apes; Dennett takes it a step further when he challenges us to accept that those apes are, in fact, natural- born robots. Or, as he puts it, your "grandmother was a robot!"

Dennett and Dawkins allow no room for ghosts in the machine of evolution. Dawkins, for example, has famously observed that "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist," and Dennett scours evolutionary theory in order to purge it of any vestiges of "sky hooks," or interventions from above. The irrelevance of religion to evolution would seem to be another point of unity in the Darwin wars. Gould, for instance, praised Dawkins' description of evolution as a "blind watchmaker" because it so well conveyed how "a process without intentionality, and working only by a 'selfish' principle of reproductive success, can yield organisms of such intricate, adaptive design." But some in Dawkins' camp want to give the watchmaker back his sight. For them, evolution is a bully pulpit for resurgent, digitally inflected mysticism.

Wright is the leading neotheologian among the neo-Darwinians. In books such as NonZero: The Logic of Human Destiny, he probes evolution for signs that it has been seeded with higher purposes that today's wired world may be destined to realize. The Internet, in Wright's view, selects for global unity and lends plausibility to Catholic paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin's notion of "humankind [as] a giant brain." Wright excoriated Gould for denying transcendent purpose to evolutionary processes, thereby swelling the ranks of creationism with people hungry for a more spiritually consoling view of the world. Not surprisingly, Wright is the Darwinian that proponents of intelligent design, as many of today's creationists prefer to be known, most like to quote.

Gould characterized sensibilities such as Wright's as hyperselectionist, by which he meant that, for some Darwinians, it wasn't enough that natural selection be acknowledged as the sole architect of adaptive change. Its logic also had to marginalize chance and unpredictability to the point where evolution would seem as smooth, as masterfully scripted (and, for Wright, as transcendently purposeful) as computer code. "Hyper-selectionism," wrote Gould, "has been with us for a long time in various guises; for it represents the late nineteenth-century's scientific version of the myth of natural harmony."

Gould himself was wary of grand syntheses. In the heat of the Darwin wars, he was sometimes accused of Marxism, but his distaste for all-consuming narratives and his appreciation for glitches in evolutionary logic mark him as more of a postmodernist. The theory of punctuated equilibrium he and Niles Eldredge proposed in the early 1970s, for example, warns against rejecting breaks in the fossil record before mulling over what they imply. If a seemingly spotty fossil record indicates that species arise not gradually, as had been supposed, but in paleontological blinks of an eye, that may be a hint as to how evolution works. Gould was delighted to discover that the art critic Arthur Danto saw punctuated equilibrium as a scientific expression of the motifs of fragmentation and discontinuity so common in contemporary aesthetics.

Gould's science and literary style owed more to art and artists than to algorithms. His opponents' approach to art, on the other hand, is, as a rule, so doggedly reductionist as to sow doubts about their whole enterprise. It is painful, for example, to read Wilson, so often a superb writer himself, as he attempts to squeeze every artistic motif known to man into a few universals consistent with a genetic approach to human culture. Gould was concerned that human culture and history not be boiled down to code. There were times one felt that what offended him most about his foes was not the particulars of their argument but the relentless monism driving it. He called Pinker, Dennett, Dawkins, et al. hyperselectionists, pan-adaptionists and, when truly annoyed, out and out Darwinian fundamentalists. But sometimes he simply called them hedgehogs. The hedgehog, according to one of his favorite parables, knows only one thing and is determined to explain everything with it. Gould identified with the fox, which is a pluralist; Darwin was a fox, he said, and nature is, too.

With Gould gone, the hedgehogs control the Darwinian heights. It would be nice to have at least one fox around to right the intellectual balance. But there seems no one now prepared to brave, and perhaps dull, their needles.