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The Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 66-67 ( 21 January )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/gross.html

Book Review

Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest
by Kim Sterelny
Icon Books (UK)
Totem books (USA), 2001.

Reviewed by Paul R. Gross *, co-author of Higher Superstition and co-editor of The Flight from Science and Reason.

Philosopher Kim Sterelny has produced a timely account of the argument between evolutionists who emphasize the centrality of natural selection acting on genes and genetic systems (neo-Darwinism, extending "The New Synthesis" of the 1940s)―of which Richard Dawkins is often a spokesman―and its vocal and articulate opposition. Without denying a role for selection and genes, the latter insists that taking gene-level selection and adaptive explanations for diversity as sufficient is narrow reductionism―and badly wrong. New Synthesis Darwinism, they declare, needs to be significantly modified. The best known voice of the opposition is Stephen Jay Gould. No member of it is anything other than a Darwinian; but their arguments against "gradualism" and their attacks on adaptationism as Just So Stories are misunderstood, and cheerfully misquoted, by creationists as evidence that Darwinism is a house of cards―that a return to theism or even biblical literalism is now scientifically justified.

Increasing involvement of philosophers with evolutionary biology testifies to the emergence of the discipline to the center of public interest in science. Philosophers’ involvement is on the whole salutary. While they do not, and need not, avoid technical controversy (Daniel Dennett contributes to it, often brilliantly), some of them (not including any current creationist or anti-Darwinist) are neutral toward this conflict and can explain it well. Their neutrality, however, varies by style, sympathy, and intent. This is nicely exemplified in the contrast between Sterelny's book and a 1999 London Review of Books piece by Thomas Nagel, entitled "Why So Cross?" This reviews new books from Dawkins and Niles Eldredge, sometime co-author of Gould and a kindred spirit on speciation, "contingency," selection, and "punctuated equilibrium."

Reviewing Dawkins's Unweaving the Rainbow and Eldredge's The Pattern of Evolution, Nagel gives a useful account of the contents. But his interest is in the reasons for the acrimony, well represented in the two books. Thus having summarized the issues, Nagel takes a lofty position. He judges the conflict to be less than fundamental, and lays it at the door of an impulse of the antagonists to "defend purity." Dawkins is objecting, Nagel thinks, merely to occasional wooliness in Gould's rhetorical flights, which suggest to his large, lay readership that Darwinism is in deep trouble―when in fact it is not in any trouble at all. Dawkins, Nagel thinks, is protecting the purity of science from literary license. But Gould, too, he suggests, is protecting science - from the "Darwinian fundamentalism" of Dawkins, which he believes gives aid and comfort to political rightists and other bad people, "biological determinists"―the bêtes noires of all social progressives.

This is a superficial reading. The details of the science-content issues are very important and in some cases difficult. The conflict, therefore, is important, not only for the public perception of science, but for the substance of evolutionary biology. Kim Sterelny has highlighted the scientific issues (for example gene selection versus selection at higher levels; the significance of the Cambrian radiation and the distinction between "disparity" and diversity; the justification or lack of it for extrapolationism―macro-evolution as continuous with micro-; and most urgently, the soundness in principle of evolutionary analysis of behavior, including human). He has done this with exemplary even-handedness―although at heart he is probably on the Dawkins side―identifying strong and weak points on both sides. The result is a book that could educate intelligent lay readers―including most scientists who are not themselves in the discipline―to one of the great scientific issues of our time. This argument is also public in the broader sense that how the reading public, which includes policymakers, aligns on these issues has significant cultural and political implications.

Even the insightful Sterelny seems to me to have missed, however, a most obvious reason for the conflict, which he does recognize as bitterest wherever the Dawkins side attempts, or encourages, adaptationist thinking about human behavior. To me, the source of the fury against behavior as biologically influenced is pure politics. It is a passionate rejection of the idea that natural science can, and should, be employed in the effort to understand, not only the human biological past, but its social present and future. That is what the Dawkins side does. The Gould side has absorbed and made a critical principle of one of the few surviving Marxist rules: that (as Marx himself put it) society makes man's consciousness, not the reverse.


Dawkins, R. (1998). Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. London: Penguin.

Eldredge, N. (1999). The Pattern of Evolution. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman and Company.

Nagel, T. (1999). Why so cross? London Review of Books. 21(7).

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© Paul R. Gross. 

* Paul R. Gross joined the faculty of the University of Virginia in the fall of 1986, after serving nine years as President and Director of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Earlier faculty positions were held at New York University, Brown University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Rochester, where he chaired the Biology Department and served as the University Dean of Graduate Studies. Dr. Gross was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences of 1982. From 1986 through 1989 he served as Vice President and Provost of the University of Virginia, occupying the Robert C. Taylor Chair in the Department of Biology. He served as Director of the Center for Advanced Studies from 1989 to 1995, and Director of the Molecular Biology Institute and the Markey Center between 1990 and 1994. Dr. Gross retired from the University of Virginia and returned to Cape Cod in 1996. Now affiliated with Harvard University, he writes and lectures on science, society and culture.


Gross, P. R. (2002). Review of Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest by Kim Sterelny. Human Nature Review. 2: 66-67.

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