Field of Science

Krugman on Stephen Jay Gould

Paul Krugman, professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton, gave a talk in 1996 to the European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy by the title What Economists Can Learn From Evolutionary Theorists. I know next to nothing about economics (read the horror story of my personal finances), but the relationship between economics and evolution is intriguing.

I mention this here because he gives a acidic outside view of one of the most famous American evolutionary biologists (okay, the most famous), Stephen Jay Gould:
I am not sure how well this is known. I have tried, in preparation for this talk, to read some evolutionary economics, and was particularly curious about what biologists people reference. What I encountered were quite a few references to Stephen Jay Gould, hardly any to other evolutionary theorists. Now it is not very hard to find out, if you spend a little while reading in evolution, that Gould is the John Kenneth Galbraith of his subject. That is, he is a wonderful writer who is bevolved [sic] by literary intellectuals and lionized by the media because he does not use algebra or difficult jargon. Unfortunately, it appears that he avoids these sins not because he has transcended his colleagues but because he does does not seem to understand what they have to say; and his own descriptions of what the field is about - not just the answers, but even the questions - are consistently misleading. His impressive literary and historical erudition makes his work seem profound to most readers, but informed readers eventually conclude that there's no there there.

Gould died in 2002, so he must surely have been aware of Krugman's talk and criticism. Personally I love reading Gould, but it is true that the more one reads him, the clearer it becomes that he was consistently ignoring genetics and molecular biology, and that since these are hugely important for understanding evolution, he was sorely missing out on a lot of the fun stuff in his own field.

Gould and Eldredge's theory of punctuated equilibrium, however, does continue to have appeal. In my own work (which I will blog about only once I have something published), as well as other recent discoveries (experiments with Croatian lizards, E. coli, and green algae), it is becoming clear that very rapid evolution is indeed reality, and that stasis (which is what is the equilibrium that's punctuated) really is what needs an explanation.

While he may not have been right about everything he touched upon, we still owe Gould a lot of credit first and foremost for popularizing evolution for the masses - something which is sorely missing at the moment - but also for introducing terms such as terminal addition, spandrels, and exaptation into the evolutionary vocabulary, in addition to the theory of punctuated equilibrium.


  1. This is all fine and good (that punctuated equilibrium is an important observation), however the theory advanced by G&E is nonsense from beginning to end. If you read further from the quote of Krugman's you give, you find that this theory is often referred to as "evolution by jerks". If you get the drift :-)

  2. Three years late to join the discussion, but...

    >the more one reads him, the clearer it becomes that he was consistently >ignoring genetics and molecular biology, and that since these are hugely >important for understanding evolution, he was sorely missing out on a lot >of the fun stuff in his own field.

    Isn't this comment a bit unfair? Gould chose to be a paleontologist, not a geneticist. You can't blame him for that, any more than you can blame Darwin for having chosen to be a naturalist, rather than an astronomer. And The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (for example, the lovely discussion of Hox genes in Chapter 10) certainly suggests that he was very familiar with genetics and evo-devo...

  3. Four years late in my case ... .

    I reached a conclusion similar to Krugman's quite a long time ago. So far as I could tell, Gould was taking advantage of the fact that he was much more widely read than other people in the field to misrepresent positions he attacked, knowing that most of the people who read his attack would never see the response. For one example, see:

    I had an opportunity to hear a talk by Gould on the Burgess Shale. His central claim was that some of the fossils represented evolutionary lines that had succeeded, some ones that had vanished, and the former were not superior to the latter--evidence for a largely random element in evolution.

    I was puzzled as to how it was possible to make such a claim, given that all we had were casts of the organisms--no biochemistry, no internal structure, no ecology. In one case, by Gould's account, it wasn't clear which end of the organism was the head. With that little information, how could we possibly tell which were "superior designs" and which were not? I put the question to Gould and he evaded it with some version of "we biologists can tell things you laymen can't."

    Which confirmed my low opinion of him.

  4. David, that's fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Almost six years!

    I remember Richard Dawkins, in one of his books, being quite critical of Gould. He said that Gould made a big deal of "inventing" punctuated equilibrium, but Dawkins said that evolutionary biologists already believed in that version of evolution -- they just didn't call it that because that was the obvious interpretation. (I don't know if this is true.)

    1. Dawkins, __The Blind Watchmaker__.
      Gould would announce a major revision of Darwinian theory which would, upon examination and qualification, turn out to amount to an addition of a punctuation mark in a footnote to a comment on Darwin.


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