Patricide in the Repeated Assassination of George Gaylord Simpson

George Gaylord Simpson, 1956 (courtesy American Philosophical Society Library).
George Gaylord Simpson, 1956 (courtesy American Philosophical Society Library).

George Gaylord Simpson was the undisputed American heavy-weight in macro-evolutionary theory prior to paleobiology’s disciplinary formation in the 1970s. Memory of Simpson’s intellectual influence on this next generation of thinkers is tied intimately to aggressive and bitter disputes regarding originality. In the process, Simpson’s macro-evolutionary views were attacked in volleys of empirical and theoretical criticism. His views also were attacked on historical and philosophical grounds, as his replacements struggled to distinguish new from old. These attacks took on an intensity well beyond the norm for contentiousness theoretical disputes. These events are best understood as ritual patricide. The fight with Simpson functioned as a unifying force in the frantic discipline building underway in macro-evolutionary studies during the 1970s.

This blog is related to a talk I delivered on ritual patricide in 2005 and a paper I wrote: Cain, Joe. 2009. Ritual Patricide: Why Stephen Jay Gould Assassinated George Gaylord Simpson. In David Sepkoski and Michael Ruse (eds.). The Paleobiological Revolution: Essays on the Growth of Modern Paleontology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), pp. 346-363. This also is available through De Gruyter.


The launch and rise of punctuated equilibrium in evolutionary studies has been expertly studied by Ruse (1996) and Sepkoski (2009; 2005), among others. By all accounts, this discipline building was fast-paced, fractious, and contested. It involved internal jockeying and prioritization as much as it involved external struggles for definition and autonomy.

This paper examines connections drawn by discipline builders to their predecessors. Specifically, it focuses on the relationship between two focal points, Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) and George Gaylord Simpson (1902-1984). In 1950, Simpson was hailed as paleontology’s principal innovator in macro-evolutionary theory. Over the 1970s and 1980s, however, Gould led a campaign to systematically deny Simpson any relevance to contemporary developments. This paper examines the rhetorical devices used in that campaign and considers the social function of patricide in the founding rhetoric of new disciplines.

Expressed relations between generations are much studied in sociology and anthropology.[1] Everywhere, generations – itself a label that is part of the fluid negotiation of identities – are crisscrossed by assertions of continuity and break. In the broadest sociological frame, these assertions are functional. They’re constructed with purpose and given agency so they may contribute to disciplinary and intellectual ends. In scientific circles, look no farther than the pater familias, Charles Darwin, and the attribution “Darwinian”. It’s hard to find a case were paternity is more cherished, or more contested.

I argue the legacy Gould attributed to Simpson was a tactical construction. Whatever the actual intellectual and social connections might have been, Gould’s rhetorical constructions positioned Simpson in particular, purposeful ways. In short, Gould put Simpson to work. The work accomplished in this case changed over time. I argue, it evolved into a form of patricide, with Gould crafting accounts of the past that eventually made Simpson obsolete. Others around Gould joined in this work. There soon evolved a ritual form of this patricide, creating a routine ceremonial act out of asserting Simpson’s irrelevance.

George Gaylord Simpson

Simpson dominated paleontology’s contribution to evolutionary studies in mid-20thC American biology.[2] Specializing in the study of mammals, his interests were Mandarin, with extensive publications in systematics, biogeography, evolution, and morphology . The widest frame to view Simpson involves the notion of “paleo-zoology,” which he contrasted with “neo-zoology”. For Simpson, the goal of paleo-zoologists was to understand ancient organisms in all the ways his colleagues understood the organisms living around us today. Added to this, Simpson argued, paleo-zoologists could use geology’s panoramic vision to follow patterns and processes over scales simply inaccessible to those who only studied currently living organisms. Simpson sometimes referred to this broad research program as “four-dimensional” or “temporal” biology. It was pan-disciplinary in scope. Simpson never abandoned this vision for a fully synthetic biology (Simpson 1983; Cain 1992).

Starting in the late 1930s, Simpson began to produce a series of innovative theoretical works as part of temporal biology. These included attempts to introduce population-level studies into paleontology (Simpson 1937), the deployment of confidence tests for hypothesis testing (Simpson 1937; Simpson and Roe 1939), new classification schemes (Simpson 1945), and an attempt to balance transformation and migration in evolutionary narratives (Simpson 1939, 1940). At the same time, Simpson followed the increasing attention cytologists, geneticists, and field naturalists were devoting to the causes of speciation and to the particularly knotty problems related to classification of supra- and super-specific taxa (e.g., Simpson 1937). As he learned more about technical and theoretical developments in these areas, Simpson saw avenues for new intellectual alliances. Working largely from published literature, he excitedly foraged and consumed, then put these new resources to work. Simpson’s efforts found their widest audience in 1944, when Columbia University Press published Tempo and Mode in Evolution (Simpson 1944) as part of its Columbia Biological Series (Cain 2001). Written between 1938-1942, this book shows Simpson bubbling over with ideas for how his four-dimensional biology might move evolutionary studies forward.

Tempo and Mode made Simpson a star. Among other virtues, it used paleontology, genetics and ecology in a joint attack on some longstanding evolutionary problems. It also showed how similar joint attacks elsewhere not only could identify new evolutionary processes but also extend the range of application for familiar explanations. Tempo and Mode was read by the growing number of researchers interested in speciation and underlying evolutionary mechanisms. (No surprise, as Simpson aimed this book squarely at them.) Though particular factions in that group stressed different messages from Tempo and Mode, all agreed Simpson (1944) deserved standing among other ‘synthetic’ innovations of the 1930s and 1940s (Cain 2003).

Though Simpson later added to, expanded, and altered the vision he presented in Tempo and Mode, there’s no doubt this book formed part of the legacy he and his colleagues wanted to pass on to future generations. Together with other texts in the Columbia Biological Series, Tempo and Mode became essential reading in graduate training. It served as a benchmark for measuring innovation in new research. It also served as a trading zone (Galison 1999) in which cross-disciplinary and multi-national discussion about evolutionary theory and paleontology took place. In such trading, it didn’t matter if one was an advocate and critic of Simpson (1944). Like it or loathe it, still, everyone was expected to know it.[3]

Simpson and the launch of punctuated equilibrium

In the 1970s expansion of macroevolution, views on Simpson’s legacy came to serve as a positional shorthand.[4] This is especially true with early advocates of punctuated equilibrium (PE). Compare the famous “launch” paper, Eldredge and Gould (1972), with its successor, Gould (1977), the review paper that claimed victory and converted PE into a coherent research program.[5] These papers invoke Simpson for significantly different purposes.

In 1972, Eldredge and Gould’s basic narrative is revolution and radical departure, akin to Kuhn and paradigm shifts. The dominant paradigm, they suggested, was “phyletic gradualism”. This had whole populations slowly transforming over time such that one species smoothly grades into its successor. Slow, continuous, and steady. As an explanation for macro-evolution, Eldredge and Gould argued, this paradigm relied on “species extrapolation”: whatever explains evolution within species also explains evolution between species and between all larger taxonomic units. For them, PE offered a radical alternative. Most species changed rather little over most of their evolutionary history, they argued. Occasionally, this stasis was punctuated, which occurred when small, peripheral populations became isolated and then rapidly changed, normally as a result of random processes such as genetic drift.

In this 1972 formulation, Simpson is a minor footnote. He’s one of a group who crafted the old, extrapolationist paradigm. His major books are cited (Simpson 1953, 1944), but nothing substantive is said about them. The overall narrative thrust is “us versus them”. On one side are the orthodox, theory-laden, extrapolating gradualists, Simpson included. On the other side are open-minded discoverers of the evolution’s true story, reluctantly forced into a fight.

Gould and Eldredge (1977) present a rather different construction for Simpson’s value. Instead of rhetoric grounded in paradigm shifts, this paper’s narrative is “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Simpson, they wrote, towered over the subject of macro-evolution. His innovations and wisdom helped the next generation see just a little bit farther than their predecessors. Gould and Eldredge (1977) claimed their 1972 paper presented merely a “modest proposal,” offered in an effort to “clarify and emphasize” pre-existing ideas. “For all the hubbub it engendered,” they suggest, “the model of punctuated equilibria is scarcely a revolutionary proposal.” (Gould and Eldredge 1977: 117)

Between 1972 and 1977 Gould and Eldredge were sharply criticized not only for the substance of their views but also for their style of argument and claims of radical revolution. One frequent complaint against PE was the dichotomy of “gradualism versus stasis” was nothing but a straw man. Another complaint focused on their claims for novelty and innovation. In one way or another, critics said, what was interesting about PE had been said many times before, notably by Simpson.

The “shoulders of a giant” language, I argue, was meant as a peace offering. But it was unsuccessful, satisfying neither PE’s opponents nor proponents. On one hand, it gave too much away. Many macro-evolutionists of the 1970s tied their identity closely to values of rebel chic: anti-establishment, paradigm breaking, and radical. For them, it just wasn’t good enough to present a “modest proposal” about continuity, follow in someone else’s footsteps, or stand on someone else’s shoulders. That denied the very sense of innovation and break with the past some proponents sought in the first place.

Gould and Eldredge’s (1977) concession didn’t calm PE’s opposition, either. From this perspective, the 1977 version of events still failed to concede sufficiently to precedent and predecessor. It just seemed too easy to spot Simpson’s concepts in PE and too easy to see the basic intuitions of macro-evolution as something handed down from past generations.[6] From this perspective, the Gould and Eldredge’s concession seemed nothing but smug, disingenuous, and patronizing.

Gould quickly recognized the failure of their second strategy. He quickly adopted a third rhetorical device, negation, which he embedded in a narrative about the “hardening” of the evolutionary synthesis.

‘Hardening’ as a rhetorical device

Gould was a master of the written word, and his historical works were among his most popular texts. Occasionally Gould selected topics simply for the story told. Much more frequently, however, his topics had tactic value, smartly chosen to accomplish work in a particular moment and cause. He deployed history to expose bias and fraud, to explain the persistence of bad ideas, and to celebrate the work of right-thinking people who struggled against dominant paradigms. For instance, Gould’s first historical book, Ontogeny and Phylogeny, attacked adaptationism and trumpeted the approach to developmental biology he advocated against genetic reductionism (compare Gould 1977; Gould and Lewontin 1979). Time’s Arrow Time’s Cycle attacked uniformitarianism (Gould 1987). Wonderful Life traced a century of research into the Burgess Shale fossils so Gould could further attack ideas of progress and extrapolation, then trumpet alternatives such as chance and contingency (Gould 1989). Regardless of their value as historical scholarship, these works also functioned within Gould’s multi-faceted defense of his views – history combining with empirical data, theoretical models, and political advocacy.

In the late 1970s, Gould began to focus his historical energies on evolutionary studies in the generation preceding him.[7] He wrote a great deal about the so-called “architects” of the evolutionary synthesis – Theodosius Dobzhansky, Sewall Wright, Ernst Mayr, Julian Huxley, and, of course, Simpson. Gould promoted his views at conferences, in his growing number of public lectures, in the forwards he wrote for other people’s books, and in the pages of Natural History. Working with Eldredge, he also organized facsimile editions of “classic” texts from the period, giving themselves the job of writing the historical introductions – telling readers how best to read and appreciate these great books.[8]

In this work, Gould produced a third interpretation regarding Simpson’s value. Simply put, it’s a clever form of negation, embedded in a thesis about how the evolutionary synthesis “hardened” into an ideology.

In brief, the hardening thesis constructs a “before, during and after” sequence for the evolutionary synthesis. Before, in the 1930s, was a period of pluralism, tolerance, and diverse thinking about evolutionary mechanisms. It’s a Homeric golden age in which discussion was robust and free. After, in the 1950s, attitudes hardened like arteries. Diversity has been killed by Hegemony, and the only game in town was adaptation – that “Panglossian paradigm” (as Gould and Lewontin (1979) called it) with its stale focus on natural selection and its bias towards gradual evolutionary change. In between the 30s and 50s, a hardening took place that transformed the “before” into the “after”. Gould left this middle period largely in a black box, never quite explaining who drove it or why it happened.

Key to Gould’s historical analysis of Simpson in the hardening period is Simpson’s theory of “quantum evolution”. Gould noted it was one of Simpson’s “big” ideas: “once his delight and greatest pride” (Gould 1980: 167). Simpson was trying to explain the origin of major taxonomic units and periods of rapid change. He invoked Sewall Wright’s shifting balance theory in which genetic drift has a major impact on small, partially isolated populations. Drift shifts these groups off adaptive peaks and into non-adaptive valleys. In Simpson’s thinking, natural selection quickly challenges these groups to scurry up new evolutionary terrain such that, in the blink of a geologist’s eye, the quantum of morphological difference is traversed.

That’s Simpson’s view in 1944. Over the next decade, Gould argued, Simpson lost his excitement for genetic drift and abandoned his bright new idea in favor of knee-jerk extrapolation. This left natural selection to steer all of life’s evolutionary change. By the mid 1950s, Gould wrote, Simpson’s worldview was entirely taken over by this paradigm: automatically invoked and never questioned. Adaptationism has hardened George Simpson, and along with him, the rest of evolutionary biology.

It’s fair to say in 2007 that Gould’s “hardening” thesis has been quite successful, becoming conventional wisdom in synthesis historiography. Only a few historians have examined it critically (compare Gerson 1998;  and Shanahan 2004: 133). Some of Simpson’s scientific colleagues rose to his defense on this point.[9] Simpson himself rejected the suggestion of a “hardening”[10]. (For an example of Simpson’s views circa 1980, see Appendix 1.) Either way, the hardening thesis remains manipulative and tactically valuable. It’s another example of Gould putting history to work. If PE was going to have any claim to novelty, Gould needed some way to negate Simpson.

The “hardening” thesis does precisely this. As a rhetorical device, it diffuses two related pressures. Its “before-during-after” construction allows praise for the so-called architects of synthesis in the 1930s and 1940s, Simpson included. At the same time, it marginalizes their relevance to contemporary debates by separating the peaks of innovation (the 1930s and the 1970s) by an valley of rot (the 1950s and 1960s). At best, Simpson and the synthesis have had their day. But they’re showing their age and now desperately need renovation. At worst, the old boys simply have lost the plot, and their dogmatic control of the discipline is now smothering innovation. Note the combination of deference and replacement. Clever.


The “hardening” thesis gave Gould a way to negate Simpson. By marginalizing him, Gould was marginalizing a key problem for PE’s claims of novelty and replacement. Curiously, after the “hardening” thesis was forwarded, Gould’s commentaries about Simpson grew increasingly hostile. Taken together, these combine into a rather sharp set of criticisms. Overall, they form an attack on four fronts (Table 1). During the same time, correspondence between Gould and Simpson show their relationship had completely broken down.

The last of these four fronts is worth noting with a few examples. Simpson died in 1984. Gould’s obituary for Simpson, in Evolution, certainly is full of praise (Gould 1985). For instance, Gould calls Simpson the “most important paleontologist since Georges Cuvier.” (p. 229) Although Gould claims he didn’t “wish to dwell” on it, as he closes his obituary, he didn’t resist adding some scathing remarks. Simpson, Gould explained, was not an easy man to like. A man who feared for his legacy and who had to be treated gently because he “…took offense easily, placing the worst possible interpretation on any event that displeased him.” (p. 232)[11]

Gould’s anger with Simpson seemed to intensify with time (e.g., Gould 1988). Ten years after Simpson’s death, that anger was red hot. One of Simpson’s daughters found an unpublished book manuscript of her father’s she wanted in circulation (Burns 1996). Gould agreed to write an afterward. He let loose. “I don’t want to sound like a two-bit Freudian quack,” Gould exclaimed, but Simpson was lonely, dissatisfied, craved recognition, and was incapable of satisfaction. He “wallowed in a miasma of doubt and anger, always fearing that future generations would ignore him and that all his work would ultimately go for naught.” (Gould 1996)

Character assassination is common enough. Patricide is more than a single attack on character. In the context of using history to construct heritage, patricide is a systematic attempt to disconnect – to construct not relevance but irrelevance. It involves crafting narratives in which breaks override continuity and in which the past is not simply a foreign country but a place with no connections whatsoever. While Gould’s hardening thesis offers a form of negation, his later representations of Simpson combined to form a exhaustive form of denial. This used every scientific, historical, and personal tool in Gould’s formidable arsenal to dethrone Simpson – to dethrone someone his own training had told him to count as a founding father. This is more than negation. It’s patricide.

Ritual patricide

Patricide is one thing. Ritual patricide is quite another. The notion of ritual helps explain the breadth and the persistence of Gould’s attacks on Simpson. He wasn’t simply angry with Simpson. This isn’t simply a case of intellectual rejection combined with a mere dislike for the guy. And, Gould didn’t simply strike out at Simpson once, or twice. He was persistent and systematic, often going well out of his way and carrying on long after the fight needed to be waged. It’s hard to find a person Gould demonized more fervently. Even creationists got off lighter.[12]

Using the notion of ritual as ceremonial routine undertaken in the context of a common life, Gould’s repeated attacks on Simpson can be understood not as a function of need or vengeance but as a signal. It’s an outward manifestation with crucial inner meaning. Twenty years ago, Laporte (1983: 410) suggested efforts to undermine Simpson were part of a bonding process for advocates of PE. The act of attack defined affiliation. Gould’s persistent attacks on Simpson, then, signaled this bond. As Gould was one of the undisputed leaders in PE circles, the ritualized nature of these attacks served a ceremonial function. Ironically, Gould (1982) suggested similar ideas about bonding rituals when he wrote about heretics in science. He claimed attacks on unorthodox thinkers, such as the geneticist Richard Goldschmidt, serves as a glue for social groups.[13]

A ritualized form of patricide also explains attacks on Simpson by other PE advocates. The best example is Eldredge. His early scholarship on Simpson offers close exegesis combined with honest disagreement (Eldredge 1985; 1985). Later writing seems to go out of its way to negate Simpson, mainly through repeating the claim that Tempo and Mode offered nothing more than consistency argument to relate paleontology with population genetics and the new speciation theory. Sometimes swipes are made that seem merely ad hominen (consider, e.g., Eldredge 1995: 25-26; 1999: 8, 12, 109, 133-140). I interpret such later writings are acts of ritual patricide.

Patricide is only one kind of ritual. The 1999 Osiris volume on commemorative practices illustrates others, following the view of some anthropologists that we should connect repeated actions to rituals, and rituals to social functions (Abir-Am and Elliott 1999). A key idea in the Osiris volume is demarcation and boundary work. Rituals serve to separate. They also serve to remove ambiguities in alliance and to license certain forms of identity. Patricide and ritual patricide add two more pieces to this larger repertoire of strategies for managing social connections over time.


Simpson’s value to PE evolved in five steps. In 1972 he simply plays for the other side. In 1977, he’s the giant on whose shoulders PE stands. Thereafter, Gould uses the “hardening” thesis to simultaneously praise and exclude. In Gould’s later writings, exclusion grows into patricide, and that patricide evolves into a ritual when others follow the same behaviour uncritically. Apparently, it’s important we’re regularly reminded that Simpson was the old guard: stuck in a harmful paradigm and disconnected from the excitement of new developments. Gould could have represented Simpson’s legacy in myriad ways; he chose negation and patricide.


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Eldredge, Niles, and Stephen Jay Gould. 1972. Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism. In Models in Paleobiology, edited by T. J. M. Schopf. San Francisco: Freeman, Cooper and Company.

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Gerson, Elihu. 1998. The American System of Research: Evolutionary Biology, 1890-1950, Department of Sociology, University of Chicago, Chicago.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1977. Ontogeny and Phylogeny. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1980. G.G. Simpson, Paleontology, and the Modern Synthesis. In The Evolutionary Synthesis, edited by E. Mayr and W. Provine. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1982. Introduction. In Genetics and the Origin of Species [facsimile of 1937 (first) edition], edited by T. Dobzhansky. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1982. The Uses of Heresy: An Introduction of Richard Goldschmidt’s The Material Basis of Evolution. In The Material Basis of Evolution [facsimile], edited by R. Goldschmidt. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1985. Recording marvels: the life and work of George Gaylord Simpson. Evolution 39 (1):229-232.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1987. Time’s Arrow Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1988. To Him, Fossils Said the Darnedest Things. The New York Times Book Review, 14 February 1988, 13-14.

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Gould, Stephen Jay. 1996. The truth of fiction: an exegesis of G. G. Simpson’s dinosaur fantasy. In The dechronization of Sam Magruder: a novel by George Gaylord Simpson, edited by J. Simpson Burns. New York: St Martin’s Press.

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Hsia, R. Po-chia. 1992. Trent, 1475 : Stories of a Ritual Murder. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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Laporte, Léo. 2000. George Gaylord Simpson: Paleontologist and Evolutionist. New York: Columbia University Press.

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Table 1. Summary of themes used in Stephen Jay Gould’s attacks on George Gaylord Simpson

  1. Simpson’s science was wrong
    1. his paleontology and systematics have been re-interpreted
    2. he denied the importance of drift and other stochastic processes
    3. he looked in the wrong place for evolution’s key events
    4. he ignored the importance of hierarchy and cascading systems
    5. he missed ‘species selection’
  2. Simpson’s science was biased and theory-driven
    1. he was a Panglossian pan-selectionist and a knee-jerk adaptationist
    2. he assumed extrapolation and reduction could carry the explanatory load
  3. Gould used structural exclusion to remove Simpson from relevance to today’s problems, via
    1. the hardening thesis
    2. suggesting Simpson ultimately left the job of synthesis undone
    3. suggesting Simpson denied paleontology’s virtue and independence by ceding authority to other disciplines, e.g., via extrapolation
  4. Gould attacked Simpson’s character, representing him as
    1. hostile, aggressive, mean-spirited
    2. insecure, pedantic, undermining
    3. dogmatic, intolerant, unpredictable
    4. a racist

Appendix 1: Simpson’s 1980 view on PE

On 18 July 1980, John Bucher (Discover magazine) wrote to Simpson with a request. “Discover is doing a story about recent developments in evolutionary theory, particularly the rise of the macroevolution school.” He asked Simpson to respond to several questions:

“1. How important is Eldredge and Gould’s theory?

  1. Does it constitute a challenge to the primacy of natural selection?
  2. Does it constitute a challenge to the modern synthesis?
  3. Do you think they are correct in stating
    a. that evolution proceeds by fits and starts,
    b. that natural selection is not the factor which accounts for the appearance of new species?
  4. What does Eldredge and Gould’s theory mean for the overall picture of evolution?”

On 22 July 1980, Simpson replied in the response below:

… I cannot reply adequately and in full for the same reasons that I have not written a full critique of the views of Eldredge and Gould: to do so would take more time than I can afford to take from teaching, work on three books on other subjects, and research, and such critiques are appearing from other sources.

I think that the views expressed by Eldredge and Gould constitute a potentially important contribution to the growing complex of evolutionary theory that has been called (by me and others) the synthetic theory. On this basis, I appreciate and welcome their views. They are enthusiasts, and they consequently and understandably do tend to overstate both the novelty and the generality of their ideas. In broader and somewhat calmer consideration their main point had long ago been stated in other words as a part of the synthetic theory. The idea that their views approach a general theory of evolution that contradicts and replaces the synthetic theory as of the 1970s and 1980 is not justified in my opinion.

What they call ‘punctuation’ involves the origin of new species and eventually of higher taxa by changes that are either instantaneous, that is, occurring between one generation and the next, or occur at rapid rates of evolution, followed by either slower rates or no further change (‘stasis’). In more general terms it was already stated by Darwin in 1859 that rates of evolution demonstrable from the fossil record vary greatly and may be essentially zero or static or may be relatively very rapid. In Tempo and Mode in Evolution (1944) I showed, without claiming particular originality, that although most rates fall into a more or less normal distribution, some are very slow or for long periods nil and others are exceptionally rapid, resulting in seemingly abrupt evolutionary changes in the populations involved. I called the latter ‘quantum evolution.’ In Major Features of Evolution (1953) p. 389, I further generalized this concept:

‘Quantum evolution may lead to a new group at any taxonomic level. It is probably that species, either genetic or phyletic, often arise in this way.’  [p. 389]

I believe that quantum evolution is essentially the same as the ‘punctuation’ of Eldredge and Gould. In Macroevolution(1979) Steven M. Stanley, who inclines toward the general model of Eldredge and Gould, considers that quantum speciation, which he ascribes to me, is the same as the punctuation of Eldredge and Gould. The difference is that Eldredge and Gould, although not always quite clear on this point, evidently believe that all speciation is quantum speciation. Stanley, incidentally, does not go along with them in that respect.

Eldredge and Gould attack their concept of the synthetic theory – a straw man, as their concept of it is really not that of syntheticists in general – as being ‘gradualistic’. This is an ill-defined term. They seem to mean just the idea that successive speciation within a single lineage takes place certainly more slowly or more probably not at all. That it usually is slower than quantum speciation is just what I have said since 1944 (or more exactly 1942). Stanley agrees with me, although he does so without clearly indicating that this disagrees with Eldredge and Gould. Successive speciation, or the origin or what are called chronospecies, certainly does occur and may rarely even involve quantum evolution. In this respect the model of Eldredge and Gould is misleading. They also are misleading in the implication that dichotomous speciation by quantum ‘punctuation,’ does not involve phyletic or lineage continuity. All evolution necessarily and obviously involves  a continuity of successive generations of populations. It has long been a part of the synthetic theory that quantum speciation usually involves relatively small populations, often but not necessarily marginal parts of a larger parental specific population. It is possible, but highly improbable and hence rare and hardly provable, that the quantum change may occur through a single individual or pair. Even in such a case there would be phyletic continuity.

I think I have answered your questions:

1: What is the importance of Eldredge and Gould’s views? (As those views are neither wholly new nor a complete ‘theory’ I do not call them a new theory.) They are important adjuncts but not replacements. 3: Is it a challenge to the synthetic theory? ‘Challenge’ yes on their part, not seen so by me. 4a: Does evolution proceed by ‘fits and starts.’ It may be said to, but that colloquial expression is likely to be misunderstood. 5: What do Eldredge and Gould’s views mean for the overall picture of evolution? They fit in well enough, but may distort it not because of what they include but because of what they omit or try to erase or paint over.

On your other questions:

2: Do those views constitute a challenge to the ‘primacy of natural selection’? Eldredge and Gould have not to my knowledge denied that natural selection really occurs. They do tend to downrate and at times to ignore it. They do not clearly face the obvious fact that all organisms not becoming extinct are adapted to their ways of life and ecologies and that this cannot rationally be due solely to although it may include, chance. Positive natural selection is the only demonstrable factor in evolution that is nonchance and usually in the direction of adaptation. Negative natural selection is the obvious general cause of extinction. Eldredge and Gould have not faced these facts. That natural selection is not the only factor or even necessarily the prime factor in all of evolution was already seen, although less clearly, by Darwin and is a generally accepted aspect of the synthetic theory.

4b: Are Eldredge and Gould correct in stating that natural selection is not the factor which accounts for the appearance of new species? I do not know of anyone who has ever believed that natural selection alone accounts for the appearance of new species, although perhaps some late 19th century Neodarwinist did. I think, and I believe most syntheticists think, that other factors are necessarily involved when an ancestral species divides into two or more descendant species but that this process is also usually influenced to some extent by natural selection. I believe that natural selection often dominates evolution of successive chronospecies in one nondividing lineage, and this is widely accepted. Still, it is not quite an orthodox dogma of synthetic theory, which indeed has no orthodox dogmas. If Eldredge and Gould really said that natural selection is not a factor in the evolution of species (I do not believe they ever have said that), then, no, they are certainly not correct.

It is another point and perhaps not especially relevant here, that natural selection also occurs as between different species and not only within species. This was also know to Darwin but not emphasized by him. Some present evolutionists (notably Stanley) do strongly emphasize or indeed, I think, overemphasize it, but this has little real bearing on the questions you raise.

You may quote this letter is you wish to, but if you quote only parts of it I want to see a copy for approval before publication.[14]


[1] Note the explicit distinction between “actual” and “expressed” relations. The latter are found in language, actions, and artefacts. They are fluid associations that can be changed easily over time. For an introduction to the sociology of generations and cohorts, see Ryder (1965), Wyatt (1993: 2-5) and Turner (1999: 246-261).

[2] The best overviews of Simpson’s biography are Simpson (1976; 1978), Whittington (1986), and Laporte (2000; 1983).

[3] Simpson, himself, came to loathe the strong connection biologists made between his career and Tempo and Mode. He often complained of being a homo unius libri – a “one book man” – and sometimes wondered if others ever bothered to read his later work. Long lists of revised work became common in his writing. His frustration was especially strong when people much later linked Simpson only to views he expressed in Simpson (1944). Whether or not he expressed a view in 1944 was one matter, Simpson complained. But so fixed a focus on 1944 forced him to appear as he was in 1944 and prevented him from presenting views based on more recent or more considered material. In short, it forced him to seem old and out-of-date. Why, he wondered, were his revised views given such lesser weight? (For instance, note the title “Forty Year Later” to the 1984 facsimile (Simpson 1984); also see Simpson to Boucot, 24 Dec 1979, Simpson Papers, series 1, folder “Boucot, Arthur”.) As for Darwin’s Origin of Species (1st edition, 1859; 6th edition, 1872), decisions by others to focus on particular versions of ideas can be tactical choices with strategic consequences.

[4] Simpson’s own views on PE are variously expressed. Though he frequently turned down requests to speak on the subject, in reply to correspondence he often set out his views (e.g., see Appendix 1; compare correspondence in Simpson Papers, series 1, folder “Coyne, Jerry”). He also actively encouraged opposition to PE (e.g., Simpson Papers, series 1, folder “Corning, Peter A.”). Simpson made brief mention of PE in autobiographical statements (Simpson 1976; 1978: 269). In 1980 he spoke on the subject(see lecture notes, Simpson Papers, APS Library, series 5, folder “Punctuated Equilibrium”). These notes are close to Simpson (1983: 171-176).

[5] By 1977, other programs within paleobiology and macro-evolutionary studies had expanded, too. Gould and Eldredge were working to position themselves as central players in that expanding program.

[6] Gould’s final comments on the question of originality are given in Gould (2002: 1014-1017).

[7] Gould’s first specific incentive to focus on the synthesis period came from Gould’s participation in the “evolutionary synthesis” conferences organized by Ernst Mayr (Mayr and Provine 1980). Simpson did not attend, and paleontologists of his generation were represented only by EC Olson. Gould presented a paper, and certainly contributed to the discussions, as transcripts for the sessions indicate (Gould 1980). Simpson was extremely agitated with Mayr and Gould about this conference, as his correspondence with Mayr indicates (also see Simpson to Verne Grant, 26 May 1981, Simpson Papers, series 1, folder “Grant, Verne #4”). Transcripts of the conference discussions and related correspondence were deposited in the American Philosophical Society Library.

[8] Gould and Eldredge planned to reprint the first edition of Dobzhansky’s (1937) Genetics and the Origin of Species, Mayr’s (1942) Systematics and the Origin of Species, and Simpson (1944) as a series titled “Columbia Classics in Evolution”. Reprints of the first two appeared, with their introductions serving as “critical evaluations” (Gould 1982; Eldredge 1982). Later Mayr privately circulated a response and later published on the matter (Mayr 1999). While discussing these forwards with Simpson, Mayr also joked “maybe it will comfort you to know that you are not the only one to be tarred and feathered by the smart Alec’s of the AMNH!” (Mayr to Simpson, 12 December 1982, Simpson Papers, series 1, folder “Mayr, Ernst #4”) Eldredge wrote an introduction for the reprint of Tempo and Mode in this series, but Simpson exercised his contractual right to refuse the request to reprint (for an explanation, see Simpson to Gould, 26 July 1980, Simpson Papers, series 1, folder “Gould, Stephen Jay”). Simpson (1984, esp. xxii-xxvi) secured a reprint of his own, complete with his own introduction. Later, Eldredge (1985) published his introduction in another form. (See Simpson Papers, series 1, folder “Raeburn” and folder “Mayr, Ernst #4” for related correspondence.)

[9] Verne Grant examined changes to the concept of “quantum evolution” since 1944 both in print (Grant 1985) and in correspondence with Simpson (Simpson Papers, series 1, folder “Grant, Verne #1), concluding “quantum evolution is the obvious forerunner of punctuated equilibrium” (Grant to Simpson, 28 November 1980).

[10] He frequently pointed to differences in his views over the 1940s and 1950s, frustrated with the fixation on his 1944 book (e.g., Simpson to Levinson, 15 March 1984, Simpson Papers, series 1, folder “Levinson, Jerrery S.”).

[11] Compare Gould’s (1985) obituary with others, e.g., Olson (1986; 1991) or Whittington (1986).

[12] Of course, ritualized killing is not limited to literary forms, see Hsia (1992; 1988) and Forgie (1979).

[13] Pope (2005) proposed ritual patricide to explain certain phenomena in American environmentalism.

[14] This correspondence is preserved in Simpson Papers, APS Library, series 1, folder “Bucher, John”. Minor typographical errors in the original have been corrected here.