Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp 189–212 | Cite as

Dollo on Dollo's law: Irreversibility and the status of evolutionary laws

  • Stephen Jay Gould


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  1. 1.
    Othenio Abel, “Die Festgabe der ‘Palaeobiologica,’” Palaeobiologica, 1 (1928), 1–8.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    1912, p. 117. A chronological bibliography of Dollo's work on irreversibility is presented at the close of this article. Citations herein are by date and refer to these works.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    1922, p. 219.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    1922, p. 223.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    1912, p. 140.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Paleontologists today refer to this phenomenon as “mosaic evolution.”Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    1895, p. 88.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Letter to Tilly Edinger, November 26, 1927. It is often mentioned in subsequent letters.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    1903, pp. 25–26.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Such a belief is usually associated with various shades of vitalism, but this was certainly not the case with Dollo. Lamarck was accused of vitalism for his belief in the sentiment intérieur, but the existence of such fluxes and flows was central to his view of the physical world and carried no implication of a special status for life. Likewise, Dollo believed that phyletic life cycle was as natural an idea as individual life cycle. As a convinced mechanist, Dollo was a foe of vitalism in any of its forms. Never could any internal force work to produce or even to preserve an inadaptive configuration. An “old” species dies because it cannot evolve the required adaptation to a changing environment.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    1893, p. 165.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    1905a, p. 131.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    1909a, p. 386.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Ibid., p. 387.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    To emphasize this point, Dollo often and proudly cited his demonstration (1895) that the gephyrocercal tail of modern lungfishes is a secondary adaptation to benthic life and not a sign of primitive status. At that time, many paleontologists wanted to view living lungfish as survivors of a primitive stock that had given rise to terrestrial vertebrates.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
  17. 17.
    Ibid., p. 443.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    1903, p. 32.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    1895, p. 88.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    1922, p. 218.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    1907, p. 12.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    It is a testable statement only if “good faith” is maintained in interpreting the qualifying term “complex.” This term gives the statement an “open texture” that allows an unscrupulous supporter to exclude any event from its domain by claiming that the event was not sufficiently complex. See Friedrich Waismann, “Verifiability,” in A. Flew (ed.), Language and Logic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1951). Flew claims that we lose interest in such a hypothesis because it has suffered “death by a thousand qualifications” (A. Flew, New Essays in Philosophical Theology [London SCM Press], pp. 96–97). With a reasonable limit upon the term “complex”, Dollo's statement is testable; if “complex” is used to exclude any possible counterinstance, the statement becomes unfalsifiable.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    1912, pp. 108–109.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    1922, p. 224, for example.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    See 1905b, p. 442.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Osborn referred to irreversibility as the “law of alternate adaptation.” H. F. Osborn, The Origin and Evolution of Life (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1917).Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Pleiotropy, and Gregor Mendel for that matter, were unknown when Dollo formulated his views.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Branislav Petronievics, “Sur la loi de l'évolution irréversible,” Sci. Prog., 13 (1918), 406–419; O. H. Schindewolf, Grundfragen der Paläontologie (Stuttgart: Schweizbart, 1950), p. 209.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    1913, p. 59.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    1900, p. 14; 1903, p. 32.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    1922, p. 215.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    1895, p. 122.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    It is, of course, well known that simple structures with a simple genetic base can be reconstituted when lost. See Bjorn Kurtén, “Return of a lost structure in the evolution of the felid dentition,” Soc. Scient. Fenn. Comment. Biol., 26 (1963), 3–11; G. Hemmingsmoen, “Zig-zag evolution.” Norsk Geol. Tids., 44 (1964), 341–352.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    1909b, p. 430; 1909a, p. 410.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    1907, p. 7.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Charles Depéret, Les Transformations du monde animal (Paris: Ernest Flammarion, 1919), pp. 243, 246.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    L. Cuénot, L'Evolution biologique, (Paris: Masson, 1951), pp. 49–51, 537.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    K. Beurlen, Die stammesgeschichtlichen Grundlagen der Abstammungslehre (Jena: Gustav Fischer, 1937), p. 42.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    1905a, p. 130.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    W. H. Easton, Invertebrate Paleontology (New York: Harper, 1960), p. 42.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    1912, p. 106, and 1922, p. 216.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    J. R. Beerbower, Search for the Past (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1960), p. 156; Kurt Ehrenberg, Paläozoologie (Vienna: Springer, 1960), p. 22.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    The correct interpretation so far.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Francis Nopcsa, “Reversible and irreversible evolution; a study based on reptiles,” Proc. Zool. Soc. London, (1923), 1058. The same point has been made, with different examples in: G. J. Fejérvary, “Quelques observations sur la loi de Dollo et l'épistréphogénèse en consideration spéciale de la loi biogénétique de Haeckel,” Bull. Soc. Vaud. Sci. Nat., 53 (1920), 343–372; P. P. Sushkin, “Notes on the pre-Jurassic tetrapods from the U.S.S.R.,” Trav. Inst. Paléozool. Acad. Sci. U.S.S.R. Leningrad, 5, (1936), 43–91; and, more recently by: M. A. Shishkin, “Morphogenetic factors and the irreversibility of evolution,” Paleont. J., 3 (1968), 293–299.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    1922, p. 216.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    1901, p. 20.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Letter of November 17, 1928. Dollo had enormous respect for Haeckel despite his doubts about recapitulation. He wrote to Tilly Edinger (letter of June 30, 1928): “I do not want you to compare me with Haeckel! ... We exchanged publications, but I never had a personal relationship with him. Nevertheless, a curious thing, he was interested in me and in my work. Abel went to see him several times and, each time, he asked: “How is Dollo? What is Dollo doing?’ ”Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    E. Stromer, Lehrbuch der Paläozoologie, vol. 2, Wirbeltiere (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1912), p. 288; W. B. Scott, A History of Land Mammals in the Western Hemisphere, (New York: Macmillan, 1929), p. 656; Bernhard Rensch, Evolution Above the Species Level (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 124.Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    1907, p. 7.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Rensch, in Evolution, cites several standard examples.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    Othenio Abel, Paläobiologie und Stammesgeschichte (Jena: Gustav Fischer, 1929).Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    Letter to Tilly Edinger, November 21, 1926.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    Rensch, Evolution, p. 124; Walter Zimmermann, “Methoden der Phylogenetik,” in G. Heberer (ed.) Die Evolution der Organismen (Stuttgart: Gustav Fischer, 1954), pp. 25–102.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    Lehrbuch, p. 285; G. A. Boulenger, “L'Évolution est-elle réversible? considerations au sujet de certains poissons,” Compt. Rend. Acad. Sci., 168, (1919), 41–44.Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    Adolf Remane, “Die Geschichte der Tiere,” in G. Heberer (ed.) Die Evolution der Organismen (Stuttgart: Gustav Fischer, 1954), p. 419.Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    Karl Diener, Paläontologie und Abstammungslehre (Leipzig: Samml. Goschen, 1910); Othenio Abel, Grundzüge der Palaeobiologie der Wirbeltiere (Stuttgart: Schweizbart, 1912), and Paläobiologie; for example, in: W. K. Gregory, “On the meaning and limits of irreversibility in evolution,” Am. Nat., 70, (1936), 517–528; G. S. Carter, Animal Evolution: A Study of Recent Views and Its Causes (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1951).Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    G. G. Simpson, The Major Features of Evolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953), p. 310; Dollo, 1909a, p. 397.Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    A. M. Davies, An Introduction to Paleontology (London: Thomas Murby, 1947); R. C. Moore, C. G. Lalicker, and A. G. Fischer, Invertebrate Fossils (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1952).Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    O. Schindewolf, Paläontologie; H. F. Blum, Time's Arrow and Evolution (Harper Torchbacks, 1962), p. 200; H. J. Muller, “Reversibility in evolution considered from the standpoint of genetics,” Biol. Rev., 14 (1939), 27; G. G. Simpson, Evolution, and This View of Life (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964).Google Scholar
  60. 60.
    W. K. Gregory, “Basic patents in nature,” Science, 78 (1933), 561–566.Google Scholar
  61. 61.
    The argument leveled against Dollo's law by Nopcsa and Fejérvary (note 44) was based on a denial of this premise. They claimed that complex reversions could be produced by the reasonably simple mechanism of acceleration followed by paedomorphosis. In this sense, their argument is potentially the strongest of any leveled against Dollo's law, but it failed because nature doesn't work in the way they imagined. Yet even if it did, we could still preserve Dollo's law by claiming that such reversions were not really complex and that only reversions with complex causes should be covered by the law. This is what I mean in stating that almost any empirical challenge against the law can be refuted.Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    G. G. Simpson, This View of Life, and quote of H. Blum introducing this section.Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    This View of Life, p. 186.Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    Ibid., p. 122. Nagel makes a similar distinction between nomothetic and ideographic properties (Ernest Nagel, “The logic of historical analysis,” in H. Feigl and M. Brodbeck [eds.], Readings in the Philosophy of Science [New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1953], pp. 688–700).Google Scholar
  65. 65.
    R. A. Watson, “Is geology different? A critical discussion of The Fabric of Geology,” Phil. Sci., 33, (1966), 172–185; Raymond Siever, “Science: observational, experimental, historical,” Am. Scientist, 56, (1968), 70–77.Google Scholar
  66. 66.
    1913, p. 59.Google Scholar
  67. 67.
    I thank Ernst Mayr, Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Everett Mendelsohn, History of Science Department, Harvard University, and Carl Putz, Philosophy Department, De Pauw University for their careful and extensive criticism of the manuscript. A. S. Romer kindly lent me the correspondence of Dollo and Tilly Edinger and regaled me with the bits of human interest that substitute a living man for the abstract ideas gleaned from his published work.Google Scholar
  68. 68.
    Such a volume was never published.Google Scholar

Short Bibliography of Dollo's Work on Irreversibility

  1. 69.
    “Les Lois de l'évolution,” Bull. Soc. belge Géol. Pal. Hydr., 7 (1893), 164–166.Google Scholar
  2. 70.
    “Sur la phylogénie des dipneustes,” Bull. Soc. belge Géol. Pal. Hydr., 9 (1895), 79–128.Google Scholar
  3. 71.
    Dollo “Macrurus Lecointei, poisson abyssal nouveau, recueilli par l'expédition antarctique belge,” Bull. Acad. r. Belg. Cl. Sc., (1900), 383–401.Google Scholar
  4. 72.
    “Sur l'origine de la tortue luth (Dermochelys coriacea),” Bull. Soc. r. Sci. médic. nai. Bruxelles, 59 (1901), 17–40.Google Scholar
  5. 73.
    Dollo “Eochelone brabantica, Tortue marine nouvelle du Bruxellien (Eocène moyen) de la Belgique,” Bull. Acad. r. Belg. Cl. Sci., (1903), 792–801.Google Scholar
  6. 74.
    “Un nouvel opercule tympanique de Plioplatecarpus, Mosasaurien plongeur,” Bull. Soc. belge Géol. Pal. Hydr., 19 (1905a), 125–131.Google Scholar
  7. 75.
    “Les Dinosauriens adaptés à la vie quadrupède secondaire,” Bull. Soc. belge Géol. Pal. Hydr., 19 (1905b), 441–448.Google Scholar
  8. 76.
    “Les Ptyctodontes sont des arthrodères,” Bull. Soc. belge Géol. Pal. Hydr., 21 (1907), 97–108.Google Scholar
  9. 77.
    “La Paléontologie éthologique,” Bull. Soc. belge Géol. Pal. Hydr., 23 (1909a), 377–421.Google Scholar
  10. 78.
    “Les Poissons voiliers,” Zool. Jahrb., 27 (1909b), 419–438.Google Scholar
  11. 79.
    “Les Céphalopodes adaptés à la vie nectique secondaires et à la vie benthique tertiare,” Zool. Jahrb. Suppl., 15 (1912), 105–140.Google Scholar
  12. 80.
    Podocnemius congolensis, tortue fluviatile nouvelle du Montien (Paléocène inférieur) du Congo et l'évolution des cheloniens fluviatiles,” Ann. Mus. Congo belge, Géol. Pal. Miner., serie 3, Bas et Moyen Congo, 1 (1913), 47–65.Google Scholar
  13. 81.
    Dollo “Les Céphalopodes déroulés et l'irreversibilité de l'évolution,” Bijdragen tot de Dierkunde, (1922), 215–227.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© President and Fellows of Harvard College 1970

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephen Jay Gould
    • 1
  1. 1.Museum of Comparative ZoologyHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA

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