The man I have in mind is Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), paleontologist, biologist, and man of letters. He was born five years after I was and died quite young (at 60), thus he is a contemporary but also a person I view as a real genius, a man of heart and extraordinary kindness toward others; a man with a sense of humor and great gifts as a writer.
I call him a modernist here because, reading several of his lesser known books, of which the best-known is undoubtedly The Panda’s Thumb, it occurred to me that my own use of labels, applied almost reflexively and therefore very carelessly, would apply to Gould as well, despite the very high order of his thought and achievements in general (not least his theory of punctuated equilibrium, developed with Niles Eldredge, which see below). Use of labels is dangerous; indeed Gould’s own writings richly illustrate that fact when, in very many of his essays, he points out how unfair the hasty labeling of people, now out of favor with science, turns out to be. He echoes Alexander Pope: “A little learning is a dang’rous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring…” Not always but far too often, my own learning is little and my drinking shallow. This is never the case with Gould.
As for those essays, Gould wrote 300 of them, on a monthly basis, for Natural History magazine between 1974 and 2001; he never missed a deadline. Many of these essays have been republished as books, of which The Panda’s Thumb is one; that book, I’m guessing, was his introduction to the wider public; it was my first contact with this noble modernist.
Yes. Labels. Classification is handy—especially when big and significant cosmological divides are discernible. Such is the divide between modernism and faith, the first anchored in a materialistic view, which is the evolutionary view, the second based on some kind of intuitive awareness of the transcending. When only shallow thought has been expended on these two contrasting views—and when one’s personal stance is very strong and firmly held, so much so that its truth appears self-evident—it is all too easy to dismiss those who have the opposite conviction. Thus I routinely dismiss the Modernist; and others, with equal carelessness, would dismiss me as a Fundamentalist.
Particularly in his last series of essays, e.g. The Lying Stones of Marrakech and I Have Landed, thus close to his own passing on, Gould’s humanism emerges very strongly and, in that process, what one might call the “higher ranges” of Modernism become visible. And to label that range in the same manner as one might label the works of Richard Dawkins (he of The God Delusion) becomes ridiculous.
No. What illuminates Gould work is the mind-bogglingly hard work of searching for the truth—and the love of the human. He was a truly noble member of the Modernist Fraternity.
Punctuated Equilibrium. Herewith the lead paragraph from Wikipedia’s article on this subject (link): “Punctuated equilibrium … is a theory in evolutionary biology which proposes that most species will exhibit little net evolutionary change for most of their geological history, remaining in an extended state called stasis. When significant evolutionary change occurs, the theory proposes that it is generally restricted to rare and rapid (on a geologic time scale) events of branching speciation called cladogenesis. Cladogenesis is the process by which a species splits into two distinct species, rather than one species gradually transforming into another.”
That word, cladogenesis? Well, klados is the Greek for “branch”; therefore “branch formation.” The word is contrasted with anagenesis, meaning that the entire population or phylum undergoes the change, with ana- meaning “up,” as in “positive,” change. Orthodox Darwinism sees change in “anagenetic” terms.