The misrepresentation of S.J. Gould

A few months ago I was enjoying a pleasant evening with a few friends when the topic of evolution came up, more specifically the work of Stephen Jay Gould. One of the people in the room asked “Who’s he?” and before I could respond someone else did, commenting “Well, he showed that Darwin was wrong.” I can’t lie, I’m surprised I didn’t exclaim “WHAT?!” (although I did think as much). I quickly jumped in and explained how this was not so, explaining in words what Gould illustrated with a coral branch in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. While Gould is famous for his arguments with “ultra-Darwinians” about whether natural selection is all there is to evolution, he made it quite clear that natural selection still formed the central mechanism of evolutionary theory and that Darwin’s insights were of great value. Still, it seems that Gould is often misunderstood, recognized as a great spokesman for evolution but the actual content of his ideas often being misconstrued and forgotten. Such is the case, at least, with a recent Washington Post article about a research published in PLoS Biology in 2006.

Called “And the evolution beat goes on…,” the Washington Post piece is prefaced with a somewhat shoddy animation of a mouse lemur “morphing” into a Capuchin monkey and a gorilla before ending with Gould. The accompanying caption reads;

A morphing demonstration of human evolution shows the transformation from a small lemur, up the evolutionary ladder into a human: seen here as legendary evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.

Never mind that Gould wrote two books, Wonderful Life and Full House, about how evolutionary patterns buck the linear trend and that this was a recurring theme in his work; the Washington Post would rather ignore that to present a “cute” little graphic. This means that Gould’s shadow hangs over the article, not being especially relevant but requiring the author of the piece to somehow work him into it to make some sense of the morphing animation. The author of the actual article, Shankar Vedantam, makes an effort to put Gould in proper context at the end of the piece;

Come to think of it, the late Stephen Jay Gould might have been upset with the above illustration. Contrary to the popular imagination, evolution is not a linear process that culminates in the triumphal ascent of humans at the top of the genetic heap. The process is analogous to a bush, where twigs and leaves push out in every direction.

I know little of the process by which little widgets are created to be tacked onto articles, but the animation by Patterson Clark does little more than confuse the content of the article. It forces Vedantam to take extra time to explain how Gould would not be at all pleased with the animation featuring a straight line of grossly incorrect transmutations ending with his picture. What otherwise could have been a fair piece of science journalism becomes a tangled mess, yet another example of how the mass media is failing to accurately and effectively communicate science. Maybe Kevin Z and I should really try to make the jump to print; we definitely couldn’t make things worse.

The problem does not lie solely with the current state of science journalism, though. Many people recognize the names Einstein, Newton, and Darwin, but outside of repackaged textbook cardboard how many people can really say they know anything about what such scientists thought? This problem is centuries old and will continue to remain, but I find it frustrating that we are often so concerned with getting to “the point” that important details are steamrolled over. New, impoverished histories are created that end up being regurgitated to successive generations.

It is perhaps fitting that I should be moved to express such sentiments on the day after the anniversary of T.H. Huxley’s death, the anatomist often being known as little more than “Darwin’s Bulldog.” His other claim to fame is the supposed blow he struck for evolutionary thought when he demoralized the Bishop Samuel Wilberforce before a packed audience in 1860, but for many years it has been known that Huxley never actually debated Wilberforce. Their exchange was brief and of little consequence, but it is still heralded as one of the first “great debates” between a creationist and evolutionist and the false history was given life in the PBS Evolution series. Expedience and our desire for cherished stories to really be true often override the truth, and the struggle against whiggish history is constant.

[Hat-tip to Greg Laden]

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