- Evolution and Contingency
We often complain about long books, and, at nearly 1500 pages, Stephen Jay Gould’s magnum opus is about as long as one could find in the sciences. But then, the actual genre of the book, which is a mixture of science, history of science, and biography, sets it apart from most science books as well, although the approach has its companions and precursors from Galileo’s dialogues (which add literature to the mix) on. We do not, however, always do long books justice either; and I’d urge the readers of this review to give Gould the benefit of the doubt and read the whole book, which, it may be added, is not forbidding in its technical aspects. One could of course benefit considerably even from readings parts of it. Gould must have known that some would, and he offers a summary of the chapters’ content at the outset, which can be used to plot various itineraries through the book. Chapter 1, “Defining and Revising the Structure of Evolutionary Theory,” is almost a book in itself, especially by current publishing standards (The Structure of Evolutionary Theory [hereafter SET] 1–89). Chapter 2, “The Essence of Darwinism and the Basis of Modern Orthodoxy,” offers an introduction to Darwin in general and in a twentieth-century context, and is reasonably self-contained, as well. Gould, however, pleads with his readers to “read the book,” the whole book (SET 89). No doubt the book could be trimmed, but, in this reader’s assessment, not by much (maybe by 150 pages or so), and, in some respects, it may not be long enough. But then perhaps no book, no matter how long, could be in a case like this.
The Tolstoyan, War-and-Peace scale and ambition of the project are not out of place. The book may even be seen as the “War and Peace” of evolution itself (the relative “peace” or more gradual processes of adaptational natural selection punctuated by war-like catastrophes wiping out entire species) and of the history of evolutionary theory, or even of Gould’s own life as a scientist. Evolutionary peace is of course relative at best, a fact reflected in Darwin’s extraordinary (full) title, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. But then so is Tolstoy’s peace, as familial and societal “wars” are waged in the continuous struggle for social survival and success. Possibly influenced by Darwin’s work, Tolstoy’s concept of history in War and Peace (which contains, as one its two epilogues, a philosophical essay on the nature of history) is itself relevant to Gould’s argument and is invoked by him (SET 1340).
Gould, rightly, sees Darwin’s historicizing of evolution and his conception of history as among his most important contributions, perhaps, combined, the most important one. He also, again, rightly, sees Darwin as a philosophical (rather than only scientific) revolutionary, an aspect of Darwin’s work he addresses at some length (99–103, 117–63). (That Gould himself shares this ambition is evident in the book as well.) That history and, hence, at least some philosophy of history are significant is inevitable, given evolution as the subject of their scientific pursuits, inevitable, that is, once Darwin gives life evolution and thus history. In this case, however, at stake is also the introduction of a new philosophical concept of history, as part of a scientific theory, which is not inevitable, since one can also borrow such a concept from elsewhere. Revolutionary as Darwin is, along with so many others, on this score, he is not without his debts. In particular, Darwin’s concepts of history may be seen as extending Hegel’s. Hegel is, to be sure, only one among Darwin’s precursors, but a more significant one than we might surmise from Gould’s discussion of Darwin’s historical thinking, where Hegel is strangely absent. (Gould does invoke Hegel’s notion of dialectical synthesis .) Nietzsche, in singling out Hegel’s unique contribution...