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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index G > Stephen Jay Gould Quotes > Evolution

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Stephen Jay Gould
(10 Sep 1941 - 20 May 2002)

American palaeontologist, evolutionary biologist, science historian and author who was a frequent and popular speaker on the sciences. His published work includes both scholarly study and many prize-winning popular collections of essays.


Stephen Jay Gould Quotes on Evolution (48 quotes)

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A complete theory of evolution must acknowledge a balance between ‘external’ forces of environment imposing selection for local adaptation and ‘internal’ forces representing constraints of inheritance and development. Vavilov placed too much emphasis on internal constraints and downgraded the power of selection. But Western Darwinians have erred equally in practically ignoring (while acknowledging in theory) the limits placed on selection by structure and development–what Vavilov and the older biologists would have called ‘laws of form.’
— Stephen Jay Gould
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A very sincere and serious freshman student came to my office with a question that had clearly been troubling him deeply. He said to me, ‘I am a devout Christian and have never had any reason to doubt evolution, an idea that seems both exciting and well documented. But my roommate, a proselytizing evangelical, has been insisting with enormous vigor that I cannot be both a real Christian and an evolutionist. So tell me, can a person believe both in God and in evolution?’ Again, I gulped hard, did my intellectual duty, a nd reassured him that evolution was both true and entirely compatible with Christian belief –a position that I hold sincerely, but still an odd situation for a Jewish agnostic.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Although species may be discrete, they have no immutable essence. Variation is the raw material of evolutionary change. It represents the fundamental reality of nature, not an accident about a created norm. Variation is primary; essences are illusory. Species must be defined as ranges of irreducible variation.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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An old paleontological in joke proclaims that mammalian evolution is a tale told by teeth mating to produce slightly altered descendant teeth.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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And yet I think that the Full House model does teach us to treasure variety for its own sake–for tough reasons of evolutionary theory and nature’s ontology, and not from a lamentable failure of thought that accepts all beliefs on the absurd rationale that disagreement must imply disrespect. Excellence is a range of differences, not a spot. Each location on the range can be occupied by an excellent or an inadequate representative– and we must struggle for excellence at each of these varied locations. In a society driven, of ten unconsciously, to impose a uniform mediocrity upon a former richness of excellence–where McDonald’s drives out the local diner, and the mega-Stop & Shop eliminates the corner Mom and Pop–an understanding and defense of full ranges as natural reality might help to stem the tide and preserve the rich raw material of any evolving system: variation itself.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Asian Homo erectus died without issue and does not enter our immediate ancestry (for we evolved from African populations); Neanderthal people were collateral cousins, perhaps already living in Europe while we emerged in Africa... In other words, we are an improbable and fragile entity, fortunately successful after precarious beginnings as a small population in Africa, not the predictable end result of a global tendency. We are a thing, an item of history, not an embodiment of general principles.
— Stephen Jay Gould
Wonderful Life (1989), 319.
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Before Kuhn, most scientists followed the place-a-stone-in-the-bright-temple-of-knowledge tradition, and would have told you that they hoped, above all, to lay many of the bricks, perhaps even the keystone, of truth’s temple. Now most scientists of vision hope to foment revolution. We are, therefore, awash in revolutions, most self-proclaimed.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Biological evolution is a system of constant divergence without subsequent joining of branches. Lineages, once distinct, are separate forever. In human history, transmission across lineages is, perhaps, the major source of cultural change. Europeans learned about corn and potatoes from Native Americans and gave them smallpox in return.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Each worldview was a cultural product, but evolution is true and separate creation is not ... Worldviews are social constructions, and they channel the search for facts. But facts are found and knowledge progresses, however fitfully. Fact and theory are intertwined, and all great scientists understand the interaction.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Evolution has encountered no intellectual trouble; no new arguments have been offered. Creationism is a home-grown phenomenon of American sociocultural history—a splinter movement … who believe that every word in the Bible must be literally true, whatever such a claim might mean.
— Stephen Jay Gould
Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History (1998), 270.
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Evolution is a theory of organic change, but it does not imply, as many people assume, that ceaseless flux is the irreducible state of nature and that structure is but a temporary incarnation of the moment. Change is more often a rapid transition between stable states than a continuous transformation at slow and steady rates. We live in a world of structure and legitimate distinction. Species are the units of nature’s morphology.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Evolution is an obstacle course not a freeway; the correct analogue for long-term success is a distant punt receiver evading legions of would-be tacklers in an oddly zigzagged path toward a goal, not a horse thundering down the flat.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Evolution is the conviction that organisms developed their current forms by an extended history of continual transformation, and that ties of genealogy bind all living things into one nexus. Panselectionism is a denial of history, for perfection covers the tracks of time. A perfect wing may have evolved to its current state, but it may have been created just as we find it. We simply cannot tell if perfection be our only evidence. As Darwin himself understood so well, the primary proofs of evolution are oddities and imperfections that must record pathways of historical descent–the panda’s thumb and the flamingo’s smile of my book titles (chosen to illustrate this paramount principle of history).
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Evolutionists sometimes take as haughty an attitude toward the next level up the conventional ladder of disciplines: the human sciences. They decry the supposed atheoretical particularism of their anthropological colleagues and argue that all would be well if only the students of humanity regarded their subject as yet another animal and therefore yielded explanatory control to evolutionary biologists.
— Stephen Jay Gould
From book review, 'The Ghost of Protagoras', The New York Review of Books (22 Jan 1981), 27, No. 21 & 22. Collected in An Urchin in the Storm: Essays about Books and Ideas (1987, 2010), 64. The article reviewed two books: John Tyler Bonner, The Evolution of Culture and Peter J. Wilson, The Promising Primate.
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History employs evolution to structure biological events in time.
— Stephen Jay Gould
The Flamingo's Smile (1987), 18.
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Humans arose, rather, as a fortuitous and contingent outcome of thousands of linked events, any one of which could have occurred differently and sent history on an alternative pathway that would not have led to consciousness.
— Stephen Jay Gould
'The Evolution of Life on Earth' Scientific American (Oct 1994) reprinted in The Scientific American Book of the Cosmos (2000), 274.
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I am not insensible to natural beauty, but my emotional joys center on the improbable yet sometimes wondrous works of that tiny and accidental evolutionary twig called Homo sapiens. And I find, among these works, nothing more noble than the history of our struggle to understand nature—a majestic entity of such vast spatial and temporal scope that she cannot care much for a little mammalian afterthought with a curious evolutionary invention, even if that invention has, for the first time in so me four billion years of life on earth, produced recursion as a creature reflects back upon its own production and evolution. Thus, I love nature primarily for the puzzles and intellectual delights that she offers to the first organ capable of such curious contemplation.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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I am not unmindful of the journalist’s quip that yesterday’s paper wraps today’s garbage. I am also not unmindful of the outrages visited upon our forests to publish redundant and incoherent collections of essays; for, like Dr. Seuss’ Lorax, I like to think that I speak for the trees. Beyond vanity, my only excuses for a collection of these essays lie in the observation that many people like (and as many people despise) them, and that they seem to cohere about a common theme–Darwin’s evolutionary perspective as an antidote to our cosmic arrogance.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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I am not, personally, a believer or a religious man in any sense of institutional commitment or practice. But I have a great respect for religion, and the subject has always fascinated me, beyond almost all others (with a few exceptions, like evolution and paleontology).
— Stephen Jay Gould
Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History (1998), 281.
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I am willing to believe that my unobtainable sixty seconds within a sponge or a flatworm might not reveal any mental acuity that I would care to ca ll consciousness. But I am also confident ... that vultures and sloths, as close evolutionary relatives with the same basic set of organs, lie on our side of any meaningful (and necessarily fuzzy) border–and that we are therefore not mistaken when we look them in the eye and see a glimmer of emotional and conceptual affinity.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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I like to summarize what I regard as the pedestal-smashing messages of Darwin’s revolution in the following statement, which might be chanted several times a day, like a Hare Krishna mantra, to encourage penetration into the soul: Humans are not the end result of predictable evolutionary progress, but rather a fortuitous cosmic afterthought, a tiny little twig on the enormously arborescent bush of life, which, if replanted from seed, would almost surely not grow this twig again, or perhaps any twig with any property that we would care to call consciousness.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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I want to argue that the ‘sudden’ appearance of species in the fossil record and our failure to note subsequent evolutionary change within them is the proper prediction of evolutionary theory as we understand it ... Evolutionary ‘sequences’ are not rungs on a ladder, but our retrospective reconstruction of a circuitous path running like a labyrinth, branch to branch, from the base of the bush to a lineage now surviving at its top.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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I would trade all the advantages of humanity to be a fly on the wall when Franklin and Jefferson discussed liberty, Lenin and Trotsky revolution, Newton and Halley the shape of the universe, or when Darwin entertained Huxley and Lyell at Down.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Iconography becomes even more revealing when processes or concepts, rather than objects, must be depicted–for the constraint of a definite ‘thing’ cedes directly to the imagination. How can we draw ‘evolution’ or ‘social organization,’ not to mention the more mundane ‘digestion’ or ‘self-interest,’ without portraying more of a mental structure than a physical reality? If we wish to trace the history of ideas, iconography becomes a candid camera trained upon the scholar’s mind.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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If one small and odd lineage of fishes had not evolved fins capable of bearing weight on land (though evolved for different reasons in lakes and seas,) terrestrial vertebrates would never have arisen. If a large extraterrestrial object—the ultimate random bolt from the blue—had not triggered the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, mammals would still be small creatures, confined to the nooks and crannies of a dinosaur's world, and incapable of evolving the larger size that brains big enough for self-consciousness require. If a small and tenuous population of protohumans had not survived a hundred slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (and potential extinction) on the savannas of Africa, then Homo sapiens would never have emerged to spread throughout the globe. We are glorious accidents of an unpredictable process with no drive to complexity, not the expected results of evolutionary principles that yearn to produce a creature capable of understanding the mode of its own necessary construction.
— Stephen Jay Gould
Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin (1996), 216.
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In science “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.
— Stephen Jay Gould
'Evolution as Fact and Theory', in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History (1983), 255.
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Included in this ‘almost nothing,’ as a kind of geological afterthought of the last few million years, is the first development of self-conscious intelligence on this planet–an odd and unpredictable invention of a little twig on the mammalian evolutionary bush. Any definition of this uniqueness, embedded as it is in our possession of language, must involve our ability to frame the world as stories and to transmit these tales to others. If our propensity to grasps nature as story has distorted our perceptions, I shall accept this limit of mentality upon knowledge, for we receive in trade both the joys of literature and the core of our being.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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It is so hard for an evolutionary biologist to write about extinction caused by human stupidity ... Let me then float an unconventional plea, the inverse of the usual argument ... The extinction of Partula is unfair to Partula. That is the conventional argument, and I do not challenge its primacy. But we need a humanistic ecology as well, both for the practical reason that people will always touch people more than snails do or can, and for the moral reason that humans are legitimately the measure of all ethical questions–for these are our issues, not nature’s.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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No serious student of human behavior denies the potent influence of evolved biology upon our cultural lives. Our struggle is to figure out how biology affects us, not whether it does.
— Stephen Jay Gould
In An Urchin in the Storm: Essays about Books and Ideas (1988, 2010), 152.
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Siphonophores do not convey the message–a favorite theme of unthinking romanticism–that nature is but one gigantic whole, all its parts intimately connected and interacting in some higher, ineffable harmony. Nature revels in boundaries and distinctions; we inhabit a universe of structure. But since our universe of structure has evolved historically, it must present us with fuzzy boundaries, where one kind of thing grades into another.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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So why fret and care that the actual version of the destined deed was done by an upper class English gentleman who had circumnavigated the globe as a vigorous youth, lost his dearest daughter and his waning faith at the same time, wrote the greatest treatise ever composed on the taxonomy of barnacles, and eventually grew a white beard, lived as a country squire just south of London, and never again traveled far enough even to cross the English Channel? We care for the same reason that we love okapis, delight in the fossil evidence of trilobites, and mourn the passage of the dodo. We care because the broad events that had to happen, happened to happen in a certain particular way. And something unspeakably holy –I don’t know how else to say this–underlies our discovery and confirmation of the actual details that made our world and also, in realms of contingency, assured the minutiae of its construction in the manner we know, and not in any one of a trillion other ways, nearly all of which would not have included the evolution of a scribe to record the beauty, the cruelty, the fascination, and the mystery.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Sociobiology is not just any statement that biology, genetics, and evolutionary theory have something to do with human behavior. Sociobiology is a specific theory about the nature of genetic and evolutionary input into human behavior. It rests upon the view that natural selection is a virtually omnipotent architect, constructing organisms part by part as best solutions to problems of life in local environments. It fragments organisms into “traits,” explains their existence as a set of best solutions, and argues that each trait is a product of natural selection operating “for” the form or behavior in question. Applied to humans, it must view specific behaviors (not just general potentials) as adaptations built by natural selection and rooted in genetic determinants, for natural selection is a theory of genetic change. Thus, we are presented with unproved and unprovable speculations about the adaptive and genetic basis of specific human behaviors: why some (or all) people are aggressive, xenophobic, religious, acquisitive, or homosexual.
— Stephen Jay Gould
In Hen's Teeth and Horses Toes (1983, 2010), 242-243.
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Taxonomy is often regarded as the dullest of subjects, fit only for mindless ordering and sometimes denigrated within science as mere “stamp collecting” (a designation that this former philatelist deeply resents). If systems of classification were neutral hat racks for hanging the facts of the world, this disdain might be justified. But classifications both reflect and direct our thinking. The way we order represents the way we think. Historical changes in classification are the fossilized indicators of conceptual revolutions.
— Stephen Jay Gould
In Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History (1983, 2010), 72
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The effects of general change in literature are most tellingly recorded not in alteration of the best products, but in the transformation of the most ordinary workaday books; for when potboilers adopt the new style, then the revolution is complete.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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The equation of evolution with progress represents our strongest cultural impediment to a proper understanding of this greatest biological revolution in the history of human thought.
— Stephen Jay Gould
Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History (1998), 173.
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The history of life is more adequately represented by a picture of 'punctuated equilibria' than by the notion of phyletic gradualism. The history of evolution is not one of stately unfolding, but a story of homeostatic equilibria, disturbed only 'rarely' (i.e. rather often in the fullness of time) by rapid and episodic events of speciation.
— Stephen Jay Gould
'Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism', in Thomas J. M. Schopf (ed.), Models in Paleobiology (1972), 84.
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The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm.
Co-authored with American biologist, R. C. Lewontin (1929- )
— Stephen Jay Gould
In 'The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptionist Programme', Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1979, 205, 581-98.
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The vigorous branching of life’s tree, and not the accumulating valor of mythical marches to progress, lies behind the persistence and expansion of organic diversity in our tough and constantly stressful world. And if we do not grasp the fundamental nature of branching as the key to life’s passage across the geological stage, we will never understand evolution aright.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Theories rarely arise as patient inferences forced by accumulated facts. Theories are mental constructs potentiated by complex external prods (including, in idealized cases, a commanding push from empirical reality) . But the prods often in clude dreams, quirks, and errors–just as we may obtain crucial bursts of energy from foodstuffs or pharmaceuticals of no objective or enduring value. Great truth can emerge from small error. Evolution is thrilling, liberating, and correct. And Macrauchenia is a litoptern.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Throughout his last half-dozen books, for example, Arthur Koestler has been conducting a campaign against his own misunderstanding of Darwinism. He hopes to find some ordering force, constraining evolution to certain directions and overriding the influence of natural selection ... Darwinism is not the theory of capricious change that Koestler imagines. Random variation may be the raw material of change, but natural selection builds good design by rejecting most variants while accepting and accumulating the few that improve adaptation to local environments.
— Stephen Jay Gould
In The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (1990, 2010), 38.
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Truly grand and powerful theories … do not and cannot rest upon single observations. Evolution is an inference from thousands of independent sources, the only conceptual structure that can make unified sense of all this disparate information. The failure of a particular claim usually records a local error, not the bankruptcy of a central theory … If I mistakenly identify your father’s brother as your own dad, you don’t become genealogically rootless and created de novo. You still have a father; we just haven’t located him properly.
— Stephen Jay Gould
Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History (1998), 155.
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Very little comes easily to our poor, benighted species (the first creature, after all, to experiment with the novel evolutionary inventions of self-conscious philosophy and art). Even the most ‘obvious,’ ‘accurate,’ and ‘natural’ style of thinking or drawing must be regulated by history and won by struggle. Solutions must therefore arise within a social context and record the complex interactions of mind and environment that define the possibility of human improvement.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Wallace’s error on human intellect arose from the in adequacy of his rigid selectionism, not from a failure to apply it. And his argument repays our study today, since its flaw persists as the weak link in many of the most ‘modern’ evolutionary speculations of our current literature. For Wallace’s rigid selectionism is much closer than Darwin’s pluralism to the attitude embodied in our favored theory today, which, ironically in this context, goes by the name of ‘Neo-Darwinism.’
— Stephen Jay Gould
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We are the accidental result of an unplanned process … the fragile result of an enormous concatenation of improbabilities, not the predictable product of any definite process.
— Stephen Jay Gould
'Extemporaneous Comments of Evolutionary Hopes and Realities'. In Charles L. Hamrum (Ed.), Darwin's Legacy, Nobel Conference XVIII (1983), 101-102. Quoted in Holmes Rolston, Genes, Genesis, and God (1999), 17-18.
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We do not inhabit a perfected world where natural selection ruthlessly scrutinizes all organic structures and then molds them for optimal utility. Organisms inherit a body form and a style of embryonic development; these impose constraint s upon future change and adaptation. In many cases, evolutionary pathways reflect inherited patterns more than current environmental demands. These inheritances constrain, but they also provide opportunity. A potentially minor genetic change ... entails a host of complex, nonadaptive consequences ... What ‘play’ would evolution have if each structure were built for a restricted purpose and could be used for nothing else? How could humans learn to write if our brain had not evolved for hunting, social cohesion, or whatever, and could not transcend the adaptive boundaries of its original purpose?
— Stephen Jay Gould
…...
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We often think, naïvely, that missing data are the primary impediments to intellectual progress–just find the right facts and all problems will dissipate. But barriers are often deeper and more abstract in thought. We must have access to the right metaphor, not only to the requisite information. Revolutionary thinkers are not, primarily, gatherers of fact s, but weavers of new intellectual structures.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away while scientists debate rival theories for explaining them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air pending the outcome. And human beings evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered … Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us for a style of argument that they themselves favor).
— Stephen Jay Gould
'Evolution as Fact and Theory', in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History (1983), 254-255.
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Words change their meanings, just as organism s evolve. We would impose an enormous burden on our economy if we insisted on payment in cattle every time we identified a bonus as a pecuniary advantage (from the Latin pecus, or cattle, a verbal fossil from a former commercial reality).
— Stephen Jay Gould
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See also:
  • 10 Sep - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Gould's birth.
  • Stephen Jay Gould - context of quote Mary Anning - Medium image (500 x 350 px)
  • Stephen Jay Gould - context of quote Mary Anning - Large image (800 x 600 px)
  • Stephen Jay Gould - context of quote Honorable errors…not…failures in science - Medium image (500 x 350 px)
  • Stephen Jay Gould - context of quote Honorable errors…not…failures in science - Large image (800 x 600 px)
  • Stephen Jay Gould - context of quote The status of Galileo - Medium image (500 x 350 px)
  • Stephen Jay Gould - context of quote The status of Galileo - Large image (800 x 600 px)
  • Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on His View of Life, by Patricia Kelley, Robert Ross and Warren D. Allmon (ed.). - book suggestion.
  • Booklist for Stephen Jay Gould.

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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