Hall Center For The Humanities


Stephen Jay Gould
Earth & Planetary Sciences, Harvard University

"Questioning the Millennium: Why We Cannot Predict the Future"
Humanities Lecture Series

Wed., Oct. 6, 1999, 12:00am
Renowned Harvard scientist Stephen J. Gould offered a fascinating look into science's ability to predict the future, during his November appearance as part of the Center's Millennium Lecture Series [replaced the Humanities Lecture Series in 1999].

"Evolution is an elaborately unpredictable branching bush," Gould posited, and pointing to popular misconceptions about evolutionary biology, he laid out the basics of punctuated equilibrium theory, a theory he helped develop in his early career. Punctuated equilibrium theory posits that evolution is not a smoothly linear process always producing beneficial evolutionary advances.

"It's a sterotype of science that it can predict the future," said Gould. "The problem is that there are many evolutionary biologists who view everything that happens in evolution?every feature, every behavior?as directly evolved for adaptive benefit. And that just doesn't work. Whenever you build a structure for adaptive reasons, the structure is going to exhibit properties that have nothing to do with adaptation. They're just side consequences.... There is an irreducible contingency that allows explanations, but no predictions."

Gould's lecture played to a packed house at the University's Lied Center that saw several hundred people turned away for lack of seating. "It's not often you see people line up like that to see a lecture," commented Janet Crow, Hall Center Executive Director. One student was even overheard comparing the line of people waiting to get into the lecture to the opening day queue for Star Wars.

After receiving his doctorate from Columbia University in 1967, Gould quickly became one of the most lauded scientists of our times. The recipient of numerous honorary degrees spanning the specturm of fields from law to literature, he was also one of the first persons awarded the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, so-called "genius" grants. In 1982, his book The Mismeasure of Man, which criticized the scientific legitimacy of many of the methods used to measure IQ, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction. He sat on the NASA space exploration council, and has most recently been named the president of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. Gould's latest book, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, addresses these two pillars of history and how the antagonism so often ascribed to them need not exist.

During his visit to KU, Gould also led a colloquium: "Evolution and the Politics of Creationism."

October 6, 1999
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