Unofficial SJG Archive

The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive

Unofficial SJG Archive

Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution (excerpt)

by Richard Fortey

hen S. J. Gould explained an early version of the explosion theory in Wonderful Life, he described the various animals and laid out the conclusions he drew from them. He attributed, with some generosity, much of the novelty of the interpretation of Cambrian events to Simon Conway Morris; "as for so much of this book, I owe this example to the suggestion and previous probing of Simon Conway Morris" (p. 293) was a typical endorsement. The redescription of the Burgess Shale fossils was a team effort overseen by Harry Whittington. Different beasts were studied by Conway Morris, Derek Briggs, David Bruton and Chris Hughes. I had recently gained my first employment as a trilobite specialist when the "Burgess boys" were ensconced in their offices in the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge, where they spent all day, every day, feverishly preparing and photographing and discussing their marvellous animals. I was a fascinated bystander who participated in the conversations and speculations as they happened. I pored with Derek Briggs over fossils of the arthropods Sanctacaris or Canadaspis on their quotidian wooden trays, containing slabs of black shale which looked so ordinary yet carried on their surfaces such extraordinary objects. From the outset, I was interested in how the newly interpreted animals would cast light on the affinities of trilobites. Curiously, I do not remember hearing the word "explosion" once in those early days. [...]

Nearly ten years after Wonderful Life appeared another book made an even more explosive sally into this arena. This time it was written by the star of the original Cambridge enfants terribles—and the hero of Gould's Cambrian Weltanschauung—Simon Conway Morris. In the ten years or so since Steve Gould transcribed the significance of the Burgess Shale for the world (at least, his view of what was then understood in Cambridge), Simon had had plenty of opportunity for second thoughts. His revised view now is apparently like that I sketched earlier: a rather defused "explosion."

Simon both accepted the need for an earlier history of animals and rightly pointed out the ways in which the Cambrian remained a distinctive period, when shells appeared, genuinely rapidly, alongside good fossil faunas of animals that lacked them. There was nothing very incendiary here. I would say that Simon had come around to seeing the Cambrian faunas in their context at a crucial phase in the genealogy of life. The explosions were reserved instead for Stephen J. Gould. I have never encountered such spleen in a book by a professional; I was taken aback. Gould doesn't write, says the author, he produces "perorations." He lacks originality, while laying claim to it. This little passage from The Crucible of Creation (1998) will give something of the flavour:

"Again and again Gould has been seen to charge into battle . . . strangely immune to seemingly lethal lunges . . . Gould announces to awestruck onlookers that our present understanding of evolutionary processes is dangerously deficient. . . We look beyond the exponent of doom and there standing in the sunlight is the edifice of evolutionary theory, little changed."

This is a rather gassy way of saying that Gould is a mountebank. It is one of humankind's less attractive foibles that success breeds envy, and since there is probably no one in biological science to rival Steve Gould in worldly and critical success—at least among the literati—it is not surprising that some of his rivals for the spotlight focus their attention upon him. It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to have differences of scientific opinion—in fact, it is an essential ingredient of progress. But what surprised me here was the unwonted explosiveness, the bilious ballistics.

The detail of the attempt to cast Gould in a poor light extended into the depths of footnotes. Gould (and R. C. Lewontin) wrote a famous paper in 1979 with the rather overblown title "The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme." But it addressed an important point about whether all structures found in Nature had to have a purpose. In one of his virulent footnotes Simon Conway Morris takes Gould to task for architectural inaccuracy—apparently the structures in San Marco should not be called "spandrels" at all! Tsk, tsk—as if such a terminological pinprick could puncture all the inflations of the paper. Such hypercritical zeal has to well up from a deep source. Why should Simon wish to bite the hand that once fed him?

If you look at those little silvery fossils in their neat trays it is hard to believe that they can be the origin of such dispute; nor should trilobites and their allies take responsibility for any verbal bombardments. Conway Morris and Gould subsequently slugged it out in the pages of the magazine Natural History. I do not subscribe to the cynic's view that such disputes are part of the "hype" to increase book sales—such antipathy cannot be faked. I was reminded of a ballad by Bret Harte ("The Society upon the Stanislaus"), describing a nineteenth-century fracas in a scientific society over—what else?—fossil bones:

    Now, I hold it is not decent for a scientific gent
    To say another is an ass—at least, to all intent;
    Nor should the individual who happens to be meant
    Reply by heaving rocks at him to any great extent...
    In less time than I write it, every member did engage
    In a warfare with the remnants of a palaeozoic age;
    And the way they heaved those fossils in their anger was a sin,
    Till the skull of an old mammoth caved the head of Thompson in.

I could only diagnose the cause of Simon's ire as being the very praise that Gould once heaped upon him. To return to Richard Dawkins's story, this is like the young professor stamping hard on the foot of the older professor. Wonderful Life was such a global success. There, preserved in the aspic of a print that could never be unprinted, was the Conway Morris of "oh fuck! not another new phylum!"—the Conway Morris of the early 1980s. The nineties version disowned the ideas of the earlier one, and quite right, too: scientists are supposed to move with the times. But what was lacking was any acknowledgement that the earlier version had existed at all. It was an extraordinary revision of history in favour of the present. So the root cause of Simon's explosion was not envy of Gould, but resentment of the hold he had on the past.

The casual reader of The Crucible of Creation, unaware of the history, would never gather that the author's views had once been close to (if not actually shared with) Gould's. Some of those, like Richard Dawkins, who have responded positively to Conway Morris's criticisms of Gould also seem to have been poorly versed in the history of the "explosive" opinions. Opponents of Gould in other arenas, they have used the book as a stick to beat "the sage of Cambridge (Mass.)," operating on the principle: "my enemy's enemy is my friend."

[ Richard Fortey, Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution. London: Harper Collins, 2000, pp. 130, 142-145. ]

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