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Before hierarchy: the rise and fall of Stephen Jay Gould’s first macroevolutionary synthesis

  • Max W. DresowEmail author
Original Paper

Abstract

Few of Stephen Jay Gould’s accomplishments in evolutionary biology have received more attention than his hierarchical theory of evolution, which postulates a causal discontinuity between micro- and macroevolutionary events. But Gould’s hierarchical theory was his second attempt to supply a theoretical framework for macroevolutionary studies—and one he did not inaugurate until the mid-1970s. In this paper, I examine Gould’s first attempt: a proposed fusion of theoretical morphology, multivariate biometry and the experimental study of adaptation in fossils. This early “macroevolutionary synthesis” was predicated on the notion that parallelism and convergence dominate the history of higher taxa, and moreover, that they can be explained in terms of adaptation leading to mechanical improvement. In this paper, I explore the origins and contents of Gould’s first macroevolutionary synthesis, as well as the reasons for its downfall. In addition, I consider how various developments during the mid-1970s led Gould to identify hierarchy and constraint as the leading themes of macroevolutionary studies—and adaptation as a macroevolutionary red herring.

Keywords

Stephen Jay Gould Paleontology Macroevolution Adaptation Progress 

Notes

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Alan Love, Emilie Snell-Rood, Mark Borrello, Ruth Shaw and Staffan Müller-Wille for their keen editorial insights during the writing process. Dr. Love read the manuscript several times and provided invaluable feedback on its organization and scope. In addition, I would like to thank Niles Eldredge, Roger D.K. Thomas and Richard Lewontin for their generous correspondence during various stages of this project. Last but not least, I owe a debt of gratitude to the participants of the 2015 MBL-ASU History of Biology Seminar (“Perspectives on Stephen Jay Gould”), and especially to the seminar organizers, John Beatty and David Sepkoski, for inviting me to participate.

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Minnesota Center for Philosophy of ScienceUniversity of MinnesotaMinneapolisUSA

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