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
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
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
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 priveleged 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
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.