Re: Stephen Jay Gould and Progress

Damien Broderick (
Thu, 09 Jan 1997 11:14:08 +1000

At 08:14 PM 1/7/97 -0800, Robin wrote:
>I read this part of his book, and it made perfect sense to me. We can
>explain progress by the boundary/initial condition without needing any
>local progressive tendency. It is similar to explaining the second
>law of thermodynamics via initial conditions, rather than to a time
>asymetric local law of physics.

Indeed. When G. Boyajian and T. Lutz examined the fractal twistiness of
ammonite sutures, often said to show increased elaboration with time, they
found no historical bias toward complexity - and, what's more, no
correlation between complexity and species longevity. The argument seems
solid. It has little bearing, of course, on purely cultural change, which
is why the Spike will be the product of memes - the `Lamarckian' units of
human minds and passions - rather than the raw contest of genes.

Stuart Kauffman, who represents the alternative point of view, insists that
self-organisation is a hallmark of life in our universe. For Kauffman, in
AT HOME IN THE UNIVERSE, `the emerging sciences of complexity begin to
suggest that the order is not accidental, that vast veins of spontaneous
order lie at hand.' If Gould insists that re-playing the tape of evolution
from the start would not produce us humans, Kauffman can readily agree,
while holding out for a different but related claim. `The particular
branchings of life... might differ, but the patterns of the branching... are
likely to be lawful.' And his conclusion sounds like the sort of mystical
assurance Gould loathes: `I am heartened by a view of evolution as a
marriage of spontaneous order and natural selection. I am heartened by the
possibility that organisms are not contraptions piled on contraptions all
the way down, but expressions of a deeper order inherent in all life.'
Nowhere in AT HOME or THE ORIGINS OF ORDER does Stu K. cite McShea's studies
suggesting that the contrary is the case. Funny, that.

Damien Broderick