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Biology Is No Excuse for Darwinism (March 17, 1999)

[Book Review of "Leonardo’s Mountain Of Clams And The Diet Of Worms" (1998) by Stephen Jay Gould.]

Stephen Jay Gould is more than just America’s premier paleontologist. He’s a humanizer of science, champion of the maligned, exploder of myths, and seeker of irony!

For Gould, science is art. As such, it dies without the inspirations and whimsies of its practitioners. He confronts the popular conception of science as “a machine endowed with its own momentum, and therefore striding forward almost independently of any human driver.” Science is a story of people — their passions, their rivalries, and best of all, their funny ideas!

Carolus Linnaeus, originator of the current scheme for classifying organisms, had the funny idea of labeling the parts of a clam with the terminology of female sexual anatomy. He was taken to task by Emmanuel Mendes da Costa, not just for his “obscenity,” but for confusing people by implying a meaningful connection where none existed. But Mendes da Costa was not merely a critic. He had his own grand vision, for he’d embarked upon the most ambitious scientific project of the 18th century — the systematic classification of the species and genera of rocks!

A lot of scientific work involves intuition or just plain luck. Vladimir Kovalevsky stumbled upon the basics of equine descent despite the fact that the bones he studied, rather than charting the evolution of horses, merely reflected their occasional chance appearance in Europe. On the other hand, James Dwight Dana’s “numerological” theory of evolution was elegant, in accord with the evidence, and entirely wrong. Then there’s the odd case of Leonardo da Vinci, who discovered most of the major principles of geology while trying to prove that the earth is nothing more than a macrocosm of the human body.

Science is never the only thing Gould writes about, and it’s often of secondary importance. He starts his essay on Columbus by raising the intractable question of which island the befuddled admiral actually landed on in 1492. Apparently, if Columbus had simply saved a seashell from the beach, Gould himself could provide the definitive answer. But the irony he’s after here is a bit more profound than that: How is it that the same society that created modern science (not to mention baseball) also enslaved and exterminated peoples across the face of the earth? And why do we feel compelled to revile the victims of our omnivorous civilization? Georges Buffon’s cruel dismissal of the dodo is echoed by W.K. Brooks’ description of the Tainos, the original inhabitants of the Bahamas: “They had protuberant jaws and the powerful neck and jaw muscles of true savages, and the outlines of the skulls have none of the softness and delicacy which characterizes those of more civilized and gentle races of men.” Brooks was evidently alluding here to caucasians, who enslaved the Tainos and drove them to extinction within a mere 20 years.

Gould always roots for the little guy, the one who gets the shaft (and then posthumously insulted). As a child he’d heard the story of the diet of worms, that unspeakable punishment inflicted upon Luther for having disobeyed the Church. Later on he discovered what really happened. In 1521 the government body of the Holy Roman Empire, known as the Diet, met at the German city of Worms to demand that Luther recant his heresy. He refused, and as a result his books were banned. Luther thus became a symbol for those who stand up against authority and refuse to renounce their beliefs. But in 1525, following a peasant revolt, he wrote a tract, “Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants,” in which he declared his hatred for anyone who dared to revolt against secular authority. “Let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel.”

Excuse me? Didn’t he learn anything from his own persecution? Luther hated Jews so much, he thought they should be deported to Palestine, their synagogues destroyed, and their books burned, including the Bible.

Is it simply a function of our evolutionary heritage that we attack the weak? Perhaps the will to genocide is encoded in our genes. Not so, says Gould. “This superficially attractive balm to our collective conscience is nothing but a cop-out based on deep fallacies of reasoning.” Just because our genes give us the capacity for violence and persecution doesn’t mean they determine these behaviors. We like to think that biology proves our superiority. We are, after all, the most evolved civilization of the most evolved species on the planet. But when we look back, on occasion, to our history of pathological brutality, we pin the blame on our biology!

Biology neither excuses our misbehavior nor proves our superiority. Evolution, rather than being a sign of progress, is merely adaptation to changing environmental conditions. Adaptation might lead to greater complexity and refinement, or then again it might not. Gould demonstrates the latter possibility with a creature known as the “root-head.” Descended from crabs, root-heads have evolved into parasites that feed on crabs. The female root-head has developed an “injection stylus” which is uses to penetrate the host’s body. It injects a few cells into the crab and then seems to die. But it doesn’t really die, because those few cells grow into the adult form of the root-head deep within the crab. The adult root-head neuters the crab and then lays eggs that are identical to the crab’s own eggs, fooling it into taking care of the root-head’s offspring as though they were its own.

The male of the species goes one step further. As a juvenile its only function is to find a female root-head so as to inject a cellmass into it. This cellmass comprises the adult form of the male. The adult male thus lives out its days deep within the female, producing sperm in sync with the female’s production of eggs. That’s it — that’s the entire life of one of the most evolved organisms on the planet. Given a few million years, perhaps the American couch potato will arrive at a similar state of perfection.

Gould explodes myths in nearly every essay. He’s like a demolitions expert, extracting misconceptions so as to harmlessly detonate them. Perhaps his most spectacular effort involves the story — told in every high school textbook he checked — that the giraffe developed its long neck so as to feed from the tops of trees, and that this adaptation occurred, not from Lamarckian acquired characteristics, but from Darwinian natural selection. Aside from the fact that Darwin actually concurred with Lamark on the significance of acquired characteristics, giraffes probably got their long necks for other reasons, such as male dominance struggles.

But when he tries to defuse the biggest bomb of them all — the conflict between science and religion — it goes off in his face. He’s right to assert that the two fields, in dealing with different kinds of questions, aren’t really at odds with each other. But his discussion, which centers on the debate between Darwinism and Creationism, merely confuses the issue.

Though religion is often associated with superstitions, such as angels or the afterlife, science has its superstitions, too. In fact, Darwinian biology and creationist folklore share precisely the same mythic foundation: the belief that organisms are machines. Robert Boyle, pioneer of physics and chemistry, claimed that nature is a machine, with God as its chief mechanic. Darwinism is simply the machine without the mechanic. Instead of God designing the blueprint of an organism, the blueprint accidentally designs itself. Either way, we’re looking at a colossal leap of faith. Gould’s alleged conflict between science and religion is really a battle between two schools of mechanistic superstition.

There’s plenty of evidence for mechanical functions within bodies. Natural selection is clearly a mechanical component of evolution. But does it follow from this that life is ultimately the blind workings of a machine? As with religious dogma, no one even attempts to prove this conclusion. Why prove it when you already “know” it’s true?

Not so long ago, Stephen Jay Gould punctuated the equilibrium of evolutionary philosophy. Today he seems content to dig up the funny-looking fossils of failed science. He delights in the weirdness of yesterday’s theories but fails to notice the way current orthodoxy is infused with exactly the same sublime absurdity.

This book uncovers many ironies, but none bigger than that.

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