By Richard York and Brett Clark
The renowned paleontologist and evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould struggled throughout his career to come to terms with the nature of history and to understand the interplay of general laws and historical particulars, the respective importance of necessity and contingency.1 He developed a sophisticated and nuanced position that recognized both the importance of general laws and the role of contingency, arguing that, although natural laws limit the pathways that can be taken, the particular pathway—one of the many available—that is actually taken depends on numerous contingent events. Thus the world could not have been just any way, but many worlds are possible, of which we live in just one.
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Richard York is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oregon and co-editor of the Sage journal Organization & Environment. Brett Clark is an assistant professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. This essay is an adapted chapter from their book The Science and Humanism of Stephen Jay Gould (Monthly Review Press, 2011).