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Drew became a director of the Erie in and used his position to manipulate the value of Erie stock to his own advantage.

In Vanderbilt tried to gain control of the line by cornering its stock. Membership steadily declined. Powderly became absorbed in internal disputes and finally resigned in History at your fingertips. Sign up here to see what happened On This Day , every day in your inbox! By signing up, you agree to our Privacy Notice. Be on the lookout for your Britannica newsletter to get trusted stories delivered right to your inbox.

More About. Topics: Ecology , Marxist Ecology. A question of central importance in the interpretation of patterns of evolution is whether history had to turn out the way it did. This view contrasts with that of the historian: that the quirks, chance events, and particularities of each moment make history, and that the world could have been other than it is. The renowned paleontologist and evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould struggled throughout his career to come to terms with the nature of history and to understand the interplay of general laws and historical particulars, the respective importance of necessity and contingency.

Thus the world could not have been just any way, but many worlds are possible, of which we live in just one.

Stephen Jay Gould, "Tanner Lectures" I and II, 1989 [Audio]

The consideration of history opens up important philosophical as well as political questions, as Gould clearly recognized. It raises questions that have been central to modernist thinking: Is history directional? Is there a continual march to a future that will be better than the past? In short, is there progress in human and natural history? The answers to these questions hold implications not only for understanding the nature of evolution but for our political world as well. If contingency played little part in how history turned out, if the present was inevitable, then it makes little sense to challenge the status quo.

However, if contingency dominates history, the future is open, and the world can be another way, as radicals of all varieties have long believed. Of course, as Gould well recognized, our personal or political preferences should not be imposed on nature—the laws of nature and the patterns of evolution are independent of what we make of them.

However, our biases influence how we interpret what we observe in nature. Therefore, it is important to be aware of our biases, both our personal ones and the ones prevalent in society at large.

Questions about the nature of history go to the heart of assumptions buried in Western culture, and Gould was a major critic of the biases that assume a progressive nature to history and the inevitability of the present. These biases can be seen in the common view in evolutionary theory that more recently emerging species are superior to their predecessors since surviving species have won out in the struggle for existence.

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Given human arrogance and the prevalence of progressivist ideology, it is commonly presumed that the emergence of Homo sapiens is the inevitable apex of evolutionary processes. Gould was clearly interested in the invariant natural laws, such as those in physics and chemistry, which underlie biological phenomena and constrain all relationships within the world, including human society.

As a result, biology as well as other historical sciences, such as geology attempts not only to understand the general forces that shape natural phenomena, but also to explain how and why history developed as it did. The social sciences share a similar orientation in their own specified context, seeking to comprehend forces that influence social phenomena. Gould saw the importance of assessing the available pathways to a specific end in order to develop a proper explanation. Here, the particularities of biological systems and their history need to be understood in their own terms.

No question troubled [Darwin] more than the common assumption, so crucial to Victorian Britain at the height of industrial and imperial success, that progress must mark the pathways of evolutionary change. Darwin clearly understood that the basic mechanics of natural selection implied no statement about progress, for the theory only speaks of local adaptation to changing environments…. Nature may be compared to a surface covered with ten thousand sharp wedges, many of the same shape, and many of different shapes representing different species, all packed closely together and all driven in by incessant blows: the blows being far severer at one time than at another; sometimes a wedge of one form and sometimes another being struck; the one driven deeply in forcing out others; with the jar and shock often transmitted very far to other wedges in many lines of direction.

The more recent forms must, on my theory, be higher than the more ancient; for each new species is formed by having had some advantage in the struggle for life over other and preceding forms…. I do not doubt that this process of improvement has affected in a marked and sensible manner the organization of the more recent and victorious forms of life, in comparison with the ancient and beaten forms. In considering the extent to which a progressive trend could emerge in the history of life, Gould recognized that different processes occur at different temporal scales.

He argued that it is useful to think of evolutionary processes unfolding across three tiers of time. This is the tier of time in which natural selection in the traditional Darwinian sense operates, and this is the tier of time that has been the focus of the modern synthesis in biology—the neo-Darwinian theory based on the merger of Darwinian natural selection and Mendelian genetics that began to take shape in the early s and solidified by the s. Supporters of the modern synthesis have typically assumed that all long-term changes in organic evolution can be extrapolated from processes happening in this first tier.

Gould, however, argues that processes also occur on two other tiers of time, which disrupt any trajectory that may emerge from processes occurring on the first tier. Thus, the second tier is dominated by processes independent of the first tier, such as those stemming from the characteristics of lineages that lead to different rates of speciation. The third tier of time is dominated by mass extinction events that are due to processes not reducible to the first or second tiers, such as the asteroid impact that led to the Cretaceous extinction.

Gould notes that these extinction events appear to operate with their own rules, and are thus independent of processes occurring in the other two tiers. At the same time, events, such as those causing mass extinctions, influence evolutionary processes and history.

The Dialectical Biologist

They are a source of creation as well, especially if the…view of external triggering is correct…. Destruction and creation are locked in a dialectic of interaction. The first tier includes evolutionary events of the ecological moment. However, despite long-standing assumptions to the contrary, no clear directional trajectory can be found in the history of life indicating some form of overall progress. The dilemma of the modern synthesis for paleobiology lay in its claim that all theory could be extrapolated from the first tier, thus converting macroevolution from a source of theory to a simple phenomenology….

But if the tiers of life create pattern by emergent rules not predictable from processes and activities at lower tiers, then paleobiology adds its special insights without contradicting principles for lower tiers. If anything like progress accumulates during normal times and punctuated equilibrium casts doubt even upon this proposition , the vector of advance may be derailed often and profoundly enough to undo any long term directionality.

The belief in progress is at the heart of the modern Western worldview, so it is not surprising that it finds its way into theories of natural history. Darwin developed his theory during what was perhaps the height of progressivist thinking, the Victorian era, and, ever since, his theory has been widely interpreted as suggesting that organisms improve over the course of evolutionary history. As discussed above, Darwin himself, although much more sophisticated and nuanced in his thinking than many of his subsequent acolytes, argued that there should be some degree of progress in evolution, at least with regard to adaptation to the local environment.

But he was skeptical of such claims in regard to historical progress, as indicated in his correspondence with U. Gould points out:. Progress is not merely a deep cultural bias of Western thought…it is also…the explicit expectation of all deterministic theories of evolutionary mechanism that have ever achieved any popularity, from Darwinian selection to Lamarckism to orthogenesis.

I do not, of course, mean progress as an unreversed, unilinear march up the chain of being; Darwin did away with this silly notion forever. But even Darwinism anticipates that an imperfect, irregular, but general ascent should emerge from all the backing and forthing inherent in a theory based on a principle of local adaption to changing circumstances.

Is not extinction, after all, a mark of failure? The trilobites—marine arthropods that flourished before their disappearance in the greatest of all mass extinctions, which ended the Permian period approximately million years ago—surely did not vanish due to inherent inferiority. After all, they had thrived for million years, longer than mammals have been around, and over one thousand times longer than Homo sapiens has trod upon the earth.

But their existence blinked out likely due to bad luck in an unpredictable, and still unexplained, global shake-up that took with it over 90 percent of all species then extant. In an article published in the New York Times Magazine, Wilson claimed, "the genetic bias is intense enough to cause a substantial division of labor even in the most free and egalitarian of future societies.

Thus, even with identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to play a disproportionate role in political life, business, and science. Gould and other members of Science for the People responded by rejecting these ideas as simply the latest version of a scientifically bankrupt biological determinism. In opposition to determinism, Gould emphasized the enormous flexibility of human behavior.

The central feature of our biological uniqueness also provides the major reason for doubting that our behaviors are directly coded by specific genes. That feature is, of course, our large brain…. Flexibility may well be the most important determinant of human consciousness….

Stephen Jay Gould

Violence, sexism, and general nastiness are biological since they represent one subset of a possible range of behaviors. But peacefulness, equality, and kindness are just as biological—and we may see their influence increase if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish. Gould continued the critique of biological determinism in his award-winning book, The Mismeasure of Man ,[20] one of the best arguments against scientific racism and the idea that intelligence is genetically fixed.

Fifteen years later, after Herrnstein and Charles Murray attempted to revive these ideas in The Bell Curve[21] in order to provide pseudo-scientific support for slashing social spending and ending affirmative action, Gould took them on again. He issued a revised and expanded edition of his book with new material showing how Herrnstein and Murray omitted facts and misused statistical methods to reach their racist conclusions. In one chapter, Gould concluded that the nineteenth-century physician Samuel George Morton—who claimed that, on average, whites have bigger brains than blacks—had unconsciously biased his measurements of skulls from around the world.

Was Gould himself guilty of the kind of bias of which he accused Morton? The Scientific American blogger John Horgan raises some important caveats about this critique:. Second, their analysis, far from being "straightforward," was highly technical and based on many judgment calls, as were those of Gould and Morton. The divergent results depend in part on whether to include or exclude certain skulls that could unduly skew estimates of brain sizes. Horgan also notes that one of the researchers, Ralph Holloway of Columbia University, "is obviously biased against Gould.

I had the feeling that his ideological stance was supreme. Maybe Gould was wrong that Morton misrepresented his data, but he was absolutely right that biological determinism was and continues to be a dangerous pseudoscientific ideology…. Biological determinism is a blight on science.

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It implies that the way things are is the way they must be. We have less choice in how we live our lives than we think we do. This position is wrong, both empirically and morally.


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If you doubt me on this point, read Mismeasure, which, even discounting the chapter on Morton, abounds in evidence of how science can become an instrument of malignant ideologies. In it, Engels correctly rejected the claim that "our evolution was propelled by an enlarging brain" brain enlargement began only after upright posture first freed the hands for manual work and offered a "perceptive analysis of the political role of science and of the social biases that must affect all thought.

This deep-seated bias explains why, despite the lack of evidence, most biologists until the s wrongly assumed brain development must have come first. But in placing science in its social context, Gould also like Engels was careful to reject the claim of relativists who abandon the idea of objective truth altogether.

Clearly biological determinism is alive and well. I have also noted a concomitant flowering of cognitive psychological science, a less physically instantiated cousin of the biological sciences in that the causes of behavior are still firmly rooted within the individual even if do not know the exact physical make-up of the individual. I wonder if anyone has examined the historical and social roots of this new science.