On the beach with Stephen Jay

By Andrea Bottaro

Posted October 27, 2005

It doesn't take much to get some attention from the upper echelons of the Intelligent Design movement. All you need is two things:

1. an argument against mainstream evolutionary theory, no matter how old and stale (e.g.: "mutations are not really random", "we can tell design when we see it", "natural selection is a tautology", "common descent is an illusion" etc)


2. some sort of claim of authority to prop up that argument ("I have a PhD in a science-related field"; "I design/engineer things for a living, so I know how design works"; "I have written a pioneering/forthcoming/acclaimed book on the topic"; etc).

Of all the latter kind of claims, the most bizarre I have heard is probably the one underlying the latest post at Denyse O'Leary's blog: she believes a guy's take on evolution and on Stephen J. Gould's ideas, because Gould used to spend time at his beach house. Seriously.

(Please note - an update now follows the main entry)

O'Leary's source is a fellow named Stuart Pivar who, according to O'Leary, is "a chemical engineer as well as an art collector". He apparently was a good friend of Gould's:

"steve and ronda would spend weekends at my beach house. we were close friends for years. i officiated at his funeral service." (S. Pivar, as quoted in O'Leary's blog entry)

He also dabbles in evolutionary theorizing (but who doesn't these days? It almost seems that posing as an evolution theorist has become the equivalent of posing as a beat poet in the early '60s, or a punk rocker in the late '70s). In fact, Pivar has written a book, titled Lifecode, in which he apparently proposes a structuralist view of evolution. I can't comment on the book, since I have not read it, but the illustrations look cool. Mr. Pivar has also set up a web site,, in which he claims to take over the mantle of the late Dr. Gould against - who else? - the evil Darwinist orthodoxy.

OK, so Mr. Pivar is an eclectic spirit, a bit of an eccentric, perhaps with a tendency to self-aggrandizement, but nothing wrong there. Alas, judging from his site, his knowledge of evolutionary biology, and of Gould's own ideas, can be charitably called rudimentary, or perhaps just confused.

Based on Pivar's word (because, you know, they spent time together at the beach), O'Leary claims that Gould would have never signed the statement of the National Center for Science Education's list of Steves:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to "intelligent design," to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation's public schools.

In particular, Pivar notes:

steve lifes work was to understand evolution. His message was that natural selection was merely an eliminative force with no creative role, capable of choosing for survival among preexisting forms which are produced by other natural structural processes.
(S. Pivar, as quoted in O'Leary's blog entry)

O'Leary, not new to premature triumphalisms, concludes:

If so, this is a major upset in the current intelligent design wars that will surely damage NCSE's case for teaching Darwinism only in American schools. [emphasis O'Leary's]

Now, Gould was certainly a strong critic of adaptationism and reflexive selectionist approaches, but neither applies to the Steve's statement, which clearly recognizes the role of other forces besides selection in evolution.

Never one to shy away from polemics, Gould was often criticized by other scientists for his penchant for staking debates in rather extreme terms, and sometimes caricaturing his opponents' positions. This trait, together with his vast popularity with the general public, made Gould a favorite source of misquotation by Creationists and assorted opponents of evolutionary theory (to Gould's great annoyance).

Nevertheless, in his professional work, Gould was generally quite careful and clear on the central and creative role of selection in evolution. In his final book, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, which pretty much summarizes (eh) and organizes Gould's entire theoretical view of evolution, he compares evolutionary theory to a branch of coral, in which fundamental theoretical concepts are organized along the axis: a main basal trunk representing agency (the theory of natural selection at the organismal level as the "causal locus" of evolution), is followed by the two upper branches efficacy ("selection acts as the primary creative force in building evolutionary novelties") and scope ("microevolutionary modes and processes can, by extrapolation through the vastness of geological time, explain the full panoply of life's changes in form and diversity"). These are in turn followed by higher branches representing, in Gould's view, secondary aspects of the theory. Gould extends the metaphor comparing criticisms of the theory to cuts at different levels on the coral (lower for more destructive criticisms, higher for less consequential ones). He says:

The cut labeled K1 on Figure 1-4 [at the base of the coral - AB] would have severed the entire coral by disproving natural selection as an evolutionary force at all. The cut labeled K2 would have fully severed the second branch, leaving natural selection as a legitimate cause, but denying it any creative power, and thereby dethroning Darwinism as a major principle in explaining life's history. (We shall see, in chapters 3-6, that such a denial of creativity underlay the most common anti-Darwinian argument in the first generation of debates.) The cut labeled K3 would have fully severed the third branch, allowing that natural selection might craft some minor changes legitimately called "creative" in a local sense, but denying that Darwin's mechanism could be extended to explain the panoply of macroevolutionary processes, or the actual pageant of life's history. The success of any one of these K-cuts would have destroyed Darwinian theory, plain and simple. None of them succeeded, and the foundation of Darwinian logic remains intact and strong. [emphasis mine]
(S.J. Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Harvard University Press, 2002, p.20)

Gould then proceeds to describe other higher-level cuts that have modified secondary branches of the theory, or "coral", while leaving its central tenets, the trunk and main branches, intact. There too he says something else relevant to the topic:

On the second branch of efficacy, the cut labeled R2 accepts the validity of Darwin's argument for creativity (by leaving the base of the branch intact), but introduces a sufficient weight of formalist thinking - via renewed appreciation of the enormous importance of structural, historical and developmental constraint in channeling the pathway of evolution, often in very positive ways - that the pure functionalism of a strictly Darwinian (and externalist) approach to adaptation no longer suffices in explaining the channeling of phyletic directions, and the clumping and inhomogeneous population of organic morphospace.
(S.J. Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Harvard University Press, 2002, p.21)

In other words, Gould saw structuralist principles, together with the role of contingency and developmental contraints, as applying on top of a solid Darwinian theoretical foundation, not to supplant natural selection as a major creative force in evolution, but to influence its outcome. This is a view consistent with the Steves' statement, and most certainly shared, with accommodations for varying emphasis on this or that aspect, by the vast majority of modern biologists.

For those who have read Gould's primary scientific works this is really nothing new, since - misunderstandings and histrionisms aside - his views on the matter did not change very much over time (see for instance ref. 1, or the text of his Cambridge University Tanner Lecture in 1984). Perhaps he talked differently after a few pina coladas, who knows. However, his legacy as a scientist should be found in his own articles and books, not on the web site of some beach buddy, no matter how close.


1. Gould, SJ. 1982. Darwinism and the expansion of evolutionary theory. Science 216: 380-7.

UPDATE - 10/25/05 2:30 pm

O'Leary, who doesn't know when to stop digging herself a hole, has returned to the topic this morning in a new post attacking Genie Scott and visibly vibrating at uttering the word "scandal".

Mr. Pivar has apparently contacted her again, reiterating his point:

Steve Goulds life work featured the debunking of natural selection as the cause of anything more important than the differences in the beaks of finches, in his investigation of the causes of evolution. The Steve List is the appropriation of his name in the propagation of a theory which he opposed his entire life long. Every statement SJG ever made rejects natural selection, and none can be found in its support. Is this colossal misunderstanding innocent incompetence, or a soviet style paradigm takeover? [emphasis mine]

Perhaps "eccentric" was too mild a term for Mr. Pivar. His claim that all of Gould's published statements reject natural selection, and none can be found to support it, is belied by the quotes and references I mentioned above, and by that provided by Glen Davidson in a comment to this entry. Glen's quote is actually particularly nice, in that by identifying natural selection as "a major cause of evolution", is almost identical to the wording in the Steves' statement.

So far, it seems that the only scandal is Denyse O'Leary's continuing reliance, in her commentaries about evolution, on information of dubious credibility, rather than on widely available primary sources.

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