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Gould’s replay revisited

[I]f you wish to understand patterns of long historical sequences, pray for randomness.

—Gould (1993, p. 397)

Abstract

This paper develops a critical response to John Beatty’s recent (2006) engagement with Stephen Jay Gould’s claim that evolutionary history is contingent. Beatty identifies two senses of contingency in Gould’s work: an unpredictability sense and a causal dependence sense. He denies that Gould associates contingency with stochastic phenomena, such as drift. In reply to Beatty, this paper develops two main claims. The first is an interpretive claim: Gould really thinks of contingency has having to do with stochastic effects at the level of macroevolution, and in particular with unbiased species sorting. This notion of contingency as macro-level stochasticity incorporates both the causal dependence and the unpredictability senses of contingency. The second claim is more substantive: Recent attempts by other scientists to put Gould’s claim to the test fail to engage with the hypothesis that species sorting sometimes resembles a lottery. Gould’s claim that random sorting is a significant macroevolutionary phenomenon remains an intriguing and largely untested live hypothesis about evolution.

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Acknowledgments

I’m grateful for the helpful feedback on this article from audiences at Florida State University, The University of New Hampshire, and the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Many people have helped me along the way, including Michael Baumgartner, Delphine Chapuis-Schmitz, Richard Dawid, Val Dusek, Mehmet Elgin, Simon Feldman, Rob Inkpen, Yoichi Ishida, Nick Jones, Andrew Margenot, John Norton, Michael Ruse, David Sepkoski, Ed Slowik, Kim Sterelny, and an anonymous referee for this journal. My early work on this project was supported by a fellowship from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Philosophy of Science.

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Correspondence to Derek D. Turner.

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Turner, D.D. Gould’s replay revisited. Biol Philos 26, 65–79 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-010-9228-0

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Keywords

  • Burgess shale
  • Chance
  • Contingency
  • Gould
  • History
  • Macroevolution