Stephen Jay Gould, punctuationalism, and dialectics

In _The Panda's Thumb_ in the essay "Episodic Evolutionary Change," Gould sketches out the relation of his punctuationalism with dialectics. He writes:

"If gradualism is more a product of Western thought than a fact of nature, then we should consider alternate philosophies of change to enlarge our realm of constraining prejudices. In the Soviet Union, for example, for example, scientists are trained with a very different philosophy of change - the so-called dialectical laws, reformulated by Engels from Hegel's philosophy. The dialectical laws are explicitly punctuational. They speak, for example, of the "transformation of quantity into quality." This may sound like mumbo jumbo, but it suggests that change occurs in large leaps following a slow accumulation of stresses that a system resists until it reaches the breaking point. Heat water and it eventually boils. Oppress the workers more and more and bring on the revolution. Eldredge and I were fascinated to learn that many Russian paleontologists support a model very similar to our punctuated equilibria.

I emphatically do not assert the general "truth" of this philosophy of punctuational change. Any attempt to support the exclusive validity of such a grandiose notion would border on the nonsensical. Gradualism sometimes works well. (I often fly over the folded Appalachians and marvel at the striking parallel ridges left standing by gradual erosion of the softer rocks surrounding them). I make a simple plea for pluralism in guiding philosophies, and for the recognition of such philosophies, however hidden and unarticulated, constrain all our thought. The dialectical laws express an ideology quite openly; our Western preference for gradualism does the same more subtly.

Nonetheless, I will confess to a personal belief that a punctuational view may prove to map tempos of biological and geologic change more accurately and more often than any of its competitors - if only because complex systems in steady state are both common and highly resistant to change."

I think a careful reading of Gould's words will indicate that he views dialectics as a heuristic for generating hypotheses concerning the behavior of complex systems. Note that he considers what he calls the punctuational view to be a "constraining prejudice" - what Gerald Holton (about whom Gould has written favorably in the NY Review of Books) would call a 'themata.' Note also that Gould talks about expanding our range of "constraining prejudices" rather than dogmatically insisting upon the need to replace gradualism by punctuationalism. Gould recognizes that such views are not ultimately true or false but only more or less useful in helping us to formulate new testable hypotheses.

Also, BTW Gould' points also apply to the debates over reductionism in the natural and social sciences. Reductionism has been widely accepted in biology and other sciences not only because it has led to some remarkable successes (i.e. in biochemistry and moelcular biology) but also because it conforms to the tenets of bourgeois individualism which priveleges the individual over the whole, with the individual being regarded as more ontologically real than the whole. Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins have devoted considerable effort to exposing the ideological roots of this particular "constraining prejudice" in order to open people's mind to alternative "constraining prejudices" that may prove to be more fruitful in various areas of research.

Jim Farmelant