Monday, February 7, 2011

Stephen Jay Gould’s Critique of Progress

By Richard York and Brett Clark
Monthly Review
February, 2011

A question of central importance in the interpretation of patterns of evolution is whether history had to turn out the way it did. From before Charles Darwin’s time up to the present it has been commonly assumed that history, both human history and the history of life in general, unfolded in a somewhat deterministic manner, that the present was inevitable, either ordained in Heaven or, in the scientific view, mechanically produced by deterministic natural laws. This view contrasts with that of the historian: that the quirks, chance events, and particularities of each moment make history, and that the world could have been other than it is.

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.

Read more HERE.

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).

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