The Stephen Jay Gould Story I Promised NTodd

(See the comments on the post below about speeding neutrinos for the origin of this post.)

The event described below happened perhaps two decades ago, but I can neither find my printed announcement of the lecture nor remember the exact date, or even the exact title of Stephen Jay Gould’s lecture at Rice University. Gould gave public lectures there several times in my memory, and probably was there many times I did not know about.

This particular lecture was titled something (vaguely remembered) like “The Fact of Evolution and the Theories of Darwin,” or something like that. The scene was the Grand Hall of the Rice Memorial Center (the student center). Gould was already controversial enough among both scientists (for his punctuated equilibrium theories) and nutjobs (for his very existence… no, for his regular defenses of theories of evolution) to assure a jam-packed hall. I am sure the following scene must have played out dozens of times at other universities where Gould lectured; it had a bit of the flavor of a set piece.

Gould concluded his talk to general applause, and opened the floor for questions. A couple of paleontologists asked questions I could not personally follow because my knowledge of the field comes only from the usual popular sources. Then a very young man stood up to ask his question:

As an opponent of evolution, I…

At this point, Gould interrupted him:

Excuse me sir, do you also oppose gravity?

The young man was dumbfounded by the question, and asked Gould to repeat it. He did so, and then, receiving no response, expanded. Gould continued (I am paraphrasing his argument; after all these years, I can’t possibly reproduce or even approximate his exact words; the passage below contains his message in my words):

Gravity is a fact: we feel it, and the evidence for it is all around us. Notable scientists including Newton and Einstein have propounded theories to describe formally the workings of gravity in a way that enables tests to validate and predictions to be made from the theory. But apart from any theory, gravity is an undeniable fact; it exists and works on everything we see.

Likewise, evolution is a fact, well established by observation of the fossil record, and like gravity, in need of a theory… a formal description, an “explanation” that comports with the observations and supplies a context for further research. Darwin provided the first credible such theory; many of us are working on alternative theories. But apart from any theory, evolution itself, descent with modification, is an observable fact.

(Not surprisingly, Gould’s reply was more compact than that. Unlike me, he was not verbose.)

The young man, unable to respond, simply sat down.

Rest assured: no minds were changed in the course of this incident. I am confident the young man’s faith was unshaken. But I’ll bet he thought twice before he again ventured to ask a loaded question of a brilliant scholar in a very public forum.

Or maybe not. Apparently, faith knows no bounds.


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  • NTodd Pritsky  On Tuesday October 18, 2011 at 10:09 am

    I am an opponent of gravity, actually. I would very much like to defeat it with a giant anti-graviton generator that will unwarp space and make all parts of the universe perfectly equal.

    Thanks for the story! It’s a good one, and will come in handy…

    • Steve  On Tuesday October 18, 2011 at 3:19 pm

      NTodd, like every old fart beyond a certain stage of decrepitude, I am an emphatic opponent of gravity… I struggle against it every single time I stand up, and especially when I walk. 🙂

  • MandT  On Tuesday October 18, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    I don’t know about you guys, but I learned about gravity the hard way: jumping out of trees as a boy in attempts to fly. These science posts are as enjoyable as the music ones Steve—always a -pleasure. I think I mentioned this article on anti-social Darwinism before, but in case you missed it—great reading. At The Nation, “The Group: On George Price.” peace, m

    • Steve  On Tuesday October 18, 2011 at 3:25 pm

      MandT, in my case it was falling from moving bicycles that taught me about gravity. But I did learn. And I still vividly remember my last fall from a moving bicycle; I was at an age plenty old enough to know better, but fall I did, with surprisingly little damage. Who knows what my life would have been like if I’d taken that spill at an early age! All those years without cycling… it would have been a tragedy! 🙂

      Science is great fun to read about, because the answers (if known) are handed to you on a platter. I am not a scientist, but I’ve had several jobs providing computer support to researchers of various kinds, and I have to tell you that science in practice can be tedious and frustrating, and you have to be good at swallowing disappointment and trying something else. That said, I’ve also been present for some genuine successes, and those must be very motivating for the scientists who bring them about!

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