Kim Sterelny's overview of the Stephen Gould - Richard Dawkins conflicting views of evolution is a masterful summation. Setting himself an immense task, he addresses the material published by the two evolutionists, assessing evidence, logic and interpretation. To Sterelny's lasting credit, personality is almost entirely omitted in this account. A brief education background note [Dawkins studied under Tinbergen, Gould's mentor was George Gaylord Simpson] and Sterelny moves quickly to the essence of the debate. His presentation makes this a fine introduction to the issues involved.
Debate is a gentle word to apply to some of the acrimonious exchanges the pair engaged in either directly or through proxies. The opening shot was Gould's scornful review of Daniel C. Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" in which Dennett challenged Gould and Eldredge's notion of punctuated equilibrium as setting the pace of evolution. The clash brought to light more fundamental differences in outlook - gene-centred evolution or a multi-level interacting set of forces. As Sterelny ultimately points out, the two are subject to merging into a broader synthesis. Dawkins has made that point frequently, as Sterelny notes, but that reality failed to find fertile ground on this side of the Atlantic.
Gene-centred evolution results in the creation of adaptations through mutations. Whether these adaptations are successful over time is the story of evolution. Gould found many ways to challenge this theme, chiefly because it would apply equally to human evolution, something Gould always found abhorrent. Gould's argument went deeper than human evolution. He advanced "contingency" and mass extinctions of whatever cause, as more viable mechanisms than what he labelled "gene centrism". Sterelny presents both positions with admirable clarity and laudable equilibrium. It would be churlish to criticise Sterelny's temperate treatment of Gould's notions. Dawkins and Dennett have already performed the task sufficiently, although Sterelny skirts Dennett's examination.
The loss of Gould to cancer has not quelled the debate, thus proving it wasn't simply a clash of personalities. A Gould "camp", with adherents on both sides of the Atlantic, maintains the heated dispute. Lewontin and Kamin in America and the Rose cabal in the UK still launch verbal missiles at the Dawkins target. Sterelny keeps his focus tight in this book, not being diverted to these disputants. In performing this feat, Sterelny might be criticised for failing to note why the debate is worth notice by a wider audience. He certainly hasn't written this for the academic community, although many in other disciplines might benefit from his insights and brisk narrative. Sterelny's position as a philosopher located in New Zealand is sufficient example to show how far the debate has reached. Its very universality might have prompted him to reflect on its impact on social questions. Even so, his effort is highly commendable and deserves the widest possible readership. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]