The Structure of Evolutionary Theory Essay - Critical Essays

Stephen Jay Gould

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory is a bold attempt to clarify the history of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and demonstrate its scientific continuity since it was first published in 1859. Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist at Harvard University, argues that Darwin’s three central principles survive as the foundation for evolutionary investigation: the agency of organisms, which constitute the focus of natural selection; the efficacy of natural selection in producing novel, survival-enhancing traits in organisms; and the great scope of natural selection through the ages as it fostered the diversity of life.

Scientists and religionists have assailed these principles almost continuously since the theory debuted. Moreover, discoveries, such as the inheritance factors of Gregor Mendel and the decoding of the genome, have forced modifications in the theory--so much so that some historians contend that Darwin’s ideas are now moribund. Gould vigorously disagrees. He painstakingly traces Darwin’s original argument, those of his opponents, and the incorporation of new scientific data and ideas to show that the core principles remain operative, albeit in significantly modified form. Among those modifications Gould espouses two that are controversial. First, evolution is not just a slow accumulation through vast time, as Darwin believed, but also occurs in rapid bursts following ecological catastrophes (for example, Chicxulub asteroid impact 65 millions years ago). Second, evolution acts not only on individual organisms, but also on entire species, among other levels of organization, in a hierarchical array of natural selection.

The first chapter of the book is a bramble of dense scientific jargon, parenthetic qualifications, and labyrinthine sentences as Gould explains why he wrote the book and summarizes his argument. Once free of this introduction, however, the reader discovers a vast (1,200 pages) intellectual vista on Darwin’s theory, engagingly written, energetic, and boundlessly informative.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 98 (December 15, 2001): 682.

The Chronicle of Higher Education 48 (March 15, 2002): A14.

Library Journal 127 (February 15, 2002): 174.

The Nation 274 (June 10, 2002): 29.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (March 17, 2002): 11.

Publishers Weekly 249 (February 11, 2002): 178.

Scientific American 286 (June, 2002): 103.

The Times Literary Supplement, May 17, 2002, p. 11.

U.S. News & World Report 132 (June 3, 2002): 15.