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No. 1513:
The Accidental Creationist

Today, the problem of telling about science. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Robert Wright entitles his New Yorker article on Stephen Jay Gould The Accidental Creationist. Gould, of course, was the Harvard paleontologist who wrote so powerfully and engagingly on matters of Darwin, natural selection, and evolution. He was a strong critic of so-called creation science. And now Wright calls him an accidental creationist. What is going on here?

Wright feels that Gould represented the facts in a way that demanded creationist resistance. As he reviews Gould's treatment of evolution, he doesn't fault him on his facts. Rather, he criticizes Gould's emphasis. Gould pounded home the idea that we humans aren't special, that we have no reason to think we're evolution's pinnacle. I rather like the way that undercuts human hubris. But he goes on to treat evolution as a random-walk process, lurching here and there and going nowhere.

The subtext in Gould's writing, Wright says, is Gould's egalitarian combat against social Darwinism. Early Darwinians extended "survival of the fittest" beyond simple biological evolution to social evolution. It made a self-fulfilling doctrine of white-male supremacy, for example. Social Darwinism suggested that whoever was on top deserved to be there.

Gould constantly stressed the folly of that idea. Evolution has not bred any species that can claim supremacy, he says. Wright doesn't disagree, but he thinks social Darwinism died long ago. Gould kicked a dead horse. Well, maybe. But I'm not so sure that that horse is entirely dead. People are constantly trying to bring it back in new clothing.

Still, when Gould stressed the randomness of evolution, many people felt that he removed hope for finding God's design within it. Wright points out that evolution is a feedback process that certainly does lead to improvements. Deny that, and Darwinism is spiritually bankrupt. Most of us would require an alternative. That's how Wright thinks Gould unconsciously supports Creationism.

Well, I'm not going to quit reading Gould. For that matter, Gould himself did not stay in one place. He continued to temper his positions over the years.

Meanwhile, evidence in favor of evolution is overwhelming. It goes on all around us. For example, the tuberculosis bacterium evolved by natural selection as we misused the first antibiotics. Evolution is why TB, which was almost extinct, may now re-emerge as the next great scourge of the human species.

The implicit message in all this is that science changes color as we tell of it. That problem certainly hangs over my head. So many meanings ride within the facts that science can never be completely objective. That comes home with appalling clarity when we find Gould and Wright forging such profound philosophical differences -- around a set of facts they both agree upon.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Wright, R., The Accidental Creationist. The New Yorker, December 13, 1999, pp. 56-65.

I am grateful to geologist Art Pollett for suggesting the topic and providing the source.

Use the SEARCH function on the home page to find other episodes based on material by Stephen Jay Gould. Of particular relevance might be Episode 1196.

Those who hear this broadcast in reruns after May 21, 2002, should be aware that Stephen Jay Gould lost his long bout with cancer on that date. I have updated the text above to reflect that fact. I for one wish that I could've traced the continuing evolution of his thinking for many more years, but it was not to be. I was privileged to meet and talk with Gould the year before he died, and he was every bit as delightful in person as he was on the printed page.

Drawing of evolution