Saturday, December 31, 2011

Simpson story #3

One day in 1983, while I was over at the Simpsons’ doing the typing, I mentioned that the local PBS station in Tucson was about to start re-running the Richard Leakey series, “The Making of Mankind”. Anne Roe Simpson thought it would be lovely to watch over lunch, and George agreed, and so we toodled off from the library into the house and turned on the TV.

Anne made George his lunch (two martinis, every day for half a century) and sat down to knit some booties for their new great-grandchild.  The show begins; it’s the introduction to the series.  Richard Leakey comes on.  Anne mentions how they happened to be visiting Rusinga Island when his mother Mary found that Proconsul fossil.  Remember, G?  (She called him ”G”.  Nobody else did.)  GGS starts sucking down his lunch and zoning out.

Richard Leakey comes back on, announcing to the audience that there are some wonderful new ideas in evolutionary theory, and we’re going to hear about them from the amazing and wonderful Stephen Jay Gould.  Gould comes on and says, “Stasis... blah blah blah ... change ... blah blah blah ... punctuated equilibria”.  Simpson, who had only a minute earlier been fading fast, suddenly straightens up, as if detecting the subtle presence of another adult male Hamadryas baboon nearby.  From behind the Coke-bottle eyeglasses, his eyelids pop open, like Mister Magoo’s.

“The great man is about to speak,” said the graduate student in my head, “So listen carefully.”   Gould’s star had risen to the apex of evolutionary biology – I had been an avid reader of his Natural History columns since starting graduate school in the late 1970s.  And now I was going to hear what George Gaylord Simpson had to say about his work.

Simpson leaned forward.  The future faux historian in me froze the moment.  And Simpson said, “Boo!  Boo!  Boo!”   Even Anne joined in:  “Hiss!  Boo!”

And that is what I remember, for all time:  George Gaylord Simpson booing at Stephen Jay Gould on the fucking television set.


          Simpson felt as though Gould had been making his own reputation in part by putting him down.  In particular, he didn’t like Gould’s argument that Simpson “had it” in Tempo and Mode in Evolution (1944) but “lost it” in The Major Features of Evolution (1953).  He felt, to some extent rightly, besieged by the punctuated equilibriists, the cladists, and the vicariance biogeographers – all of whom were bouncing their new ideas off of Simpson’s – without being able to see that as a testament to the scope of his impact upon the field.  Once I suggested that one could make an analogy to Darwin’s first (1859) and last (1872) editions of The Origin of Species.  The first is the one that made a mark on the modern world, the one that caused the sensation by presenting a bold and convincing naturalistic explanation for adaptation and the taxonomic hierarchy, which had previously not had one.  The last edition is flabbier, because it incorporates rebuttals and side arguments that don’t really add much, over a century later.  So maybe the first one is the more important one to read, all things considered, and maybe the same holds for Gould’s point about the importance of Tempo and Mode in Evolution.

Frankly, I have no idea where I got the balls to say such a thing to Dr. Simpson.  I  can only guess that it must have been after lunch, so he was a bit mellow.  He just growled, “The sixth was the one that Darwin intended for posterity.”

Years later, though – Darwin’s own Victorian inbred sexist intentions be damned! - I recommend  the first to students.  That was the important one.

Gould's essay, though, pissed off Simpson so much that when Gould subsequently published a Natural History piece on how his three idols while growing up were his father, Joe DiMaggio, and George Gaylord Simpson, GGS wrote him a nasty letter that ended something like, “and I don’t want to be your idol any more, either!”  True to his word, when PBS did a profile of Gould a few years later, Gould looked straight into the camera and told the audience how his three idols while growing up had been his father, Joe DiMaggio, and ... Charles Darwin.

Gould SJ. 1981. G. G. Simpson, paleontology, and the modern synthesis. In: Mayr E, and Provine, W., editor. The Evolutionary Synthesis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. p 153-172.


Here’s something new, a book on applied evolution, based on a wonderful Darwin Bicentennial Symposium in Melbourne, back in ’09 (as Victoria was on fire, I recall). 

I’m essay #16, in between Douglas Futuyma and Michael Ruse, here to remind you what a lousy idea it was to try to apply evolution to human society a century ago.  Anthropologists are such killjoys, aren’t we?  


  1. I love this story -- it had me laughing so hard my spouse came in to see what the fuss was about; and then she laughed with me. Thanks, Jonathan! :-)