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on 16 November 2001
I found Kim Sterelny's review to be a very accurate yet understandable summary. I have read many books written by Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, so I already had a rough sketch of their contention. Sterelny's book was a great way to solidify the nature of Gould and Dawkins' scientific conflict and a great way to fill in the gaps.
I was particularly grateful by the Gould section. Dawkins has stated his views on evolution and Gould quite extensively, but I have been less exposed to Gould's original writings on punctuated equilibrium (probably because, as Sterelny noted, Gould has written about the subject mostly in essays and scientific papers). The Gould section in this book was a great clarification of punctuated equilibrium and other Gould theories.
I have not heard the opinions of the title subjects on this book, although I would very much like to. But for the moment, I found 'Dawkins vs. Gould' to be an objective, impartial and fair description of this well-known scientific clash.
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on 11 April 2008
I spent some time looking for a decent primer on evolutionary theory. I've not as yet found something which strikes the right balance between simplicity and depth, but in looking I came across this.

It really is an excellent little book. Gould vs Dawkins for beginners was never going to be easy because you have the challenge of explaining both their actual argument, and the theory behind their argument which is often quite complex. Sterelny manages this well, his explanations are comprehensible to someone who hasn't studied science since GCSE but not too patronising for someone who already grasps the ideas pretty well.

Explaining the differences between Dawkins and Gould is in itself a difficult task because at the end of the day they're pretty slim. But after I'd read the book I felt like I'd picked up a fair understanding of not only what those differences are (or were) but also how they fit into the wider picture of Dawkin and Gould's approaches to science.

Definitely a must for anyone who wants to know a little more about the theory of evolution.
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VINE VOICEon 12 October 2012
In this book Kim Sterelny sets out to explain the conflict between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould that broke out in the New York Review of Books. First there is a general introduction and then the key features of each of their views are presented in the next sections. There are good clear accounts of the most important differences and the evidence from both sides. Where it is clear that the differences are not as big as they once were the author shows that they are not perhaps as conflicting in their views as some consider.

Gould's main problem is with sociobiology and how this is used to argue for morality and evolutionary psychology in what he feels is a reckless way. What is strange is that the author as a philosophy professor does not spend more time on this aspect and spends more on the science, which while clearly explained at this level needs a much deeper examination to find the actual differences. Gould's view is like those who oppose some of the extremes of science. We can do it (make the atomic bomb for example) but should we? Socio-biology might be true, but isn't it a dangerous genie and can't it be warped into eugenics?

All in all it is a good read and worth reading for anyone who wants to know what all the fuss is about.

One thing I do wish is that people would stop treating Dawkins as a great authority and leading figure on the modern theory of evolution. In the academic literature he is not and as E.O. Wilson has recently said he is a populariser of science and not a scientist. Scientists publish peer reviewed papers, science populists publish (non-peer reviewed) books. Gould however was an accomplished academic paleontologist. If you really want to know the "modern synthesis" read J.B.S. Haldane, R.A. Fisher and Sewall Wright or Julian Huxley.
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HALL OF FAMEon 17 October 2005
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]
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on 25 November 2008
Given that it covers a particularly vitriolic skirmish between two huge, polarising and consistently outspoken opposing generals in the Science Wars, Kim Sterelny had on his hands a fascinating topic. He quite easily could have crammed this brief volume full of the proverbial sizzling gypsies - gory details of the academic handbags which were exchanged in full view of an admiring dilettante public - but inexplicably, he chose not to. Instead, the fieriest debate is reduced to its desiccated intellectual premises and is presented worthily and dryly. This is, no doubt, second nature to a professional scientist like Sterelny, but it displays a lack of worldliness for an aspiring popular author; a worldliness, ironically enough, possessed in oodles by both of his subjects.

Unlike your usual zoologist (though granted, I don't know that many), Richard Dawkins invites extremes of adoration or vitriol from just about anyone who's heard of him (and, given his gift for self publicity, that's most people); The late Steve Gould was (on this side of the ditch at any rate) of less general reknown but equally susceptible, in the right circles, to excitable opinion.

Dawkins the zoologist is a crusading atheist - irony intended - and devoted son of the enlightenment; Gould the paleontologist was possessor of a more open-minded view on woolly artsy pursuits like religion, literature and architecture, allowing them to bleed into his professional scientific opinion in a way that horrified the purist in Dawkins. Also, apparently, Gould was a Marxist. Battle lines accordingly drawn.

Now, to his (professional, if not authorial) credit, Sterelny abstains from addressing Gould's politics, and instead succinctly and patiently outlines the camps' respective differences in evolutionary theory - differences which are relatively subtle to non specialists, truth be told - but (no doubt being a good scientific chap - clean fight, fair play and all that) refrains from descending into the real particulars of the debate, in particular referring only in passing to a petulant and protracted exchange in the New York review of books following publication of Daniel Dennett's Dawkinsesque Darwin's Dangerous Idea. (How about that for a bit of alliteration, by the way).

Such noble prurience is a mistake, in this reviewer's opinion, for it neuters a book which, had it been rendered breathlessly enough, could have been a rip-snorter.

If it were me I would have extracted much of the debate in full and provided some journalistic context around how it came about, and certainly extracted some of the peachier exchanges. For example, how about this one:

"[Dennett's] limited and superficial book reads like a caricature of a caricature--for if Richard Dawkins has trivialized Darwin's richness by adhering to the strictest form of adaptationist argument in a maximally reductionist mode, then Dennett, as Dawkins's publicist, manages to convert an already vitiated and improbable account into an even more simplistic and uncompromising doctrine. If history, as often noted, replays grandeurs as farces, and if T.H. Huxley truly acted as "Darwin's bulldog," then it is hard to resist thinking of Dennett, in this book, as "Dawkins's lapdog."

Cracking stuff - but it finds no place in Sterelny's volume, and I had to look it up online (it, and the whole vituperative article from which it came, is reproduced at the New York Review of Books' website.)

Sterelny's main problem seems to be that he is such a frightfully good egg he can't bring himself to dramatise proceedings, which are screaming out for it, at all. He confesses an intellectual kinmship with Dawkins but then is so scrupulously fair to Gould in his assessment of their competing arguments that it is hard to comprehend what he even sees in Dawkins' view.

That might be my bias: while much taken by Dawkins' and Dennett's books when I first read them, I have found more resonance in Gould's humanist, pragmatic view the more I've read of it (and the older I've got), so (as a point of disclosure) I come out on the other side of the argument to Sterelny. That's not my problem with his book; however, quite the opposite: it's the very bloodlessness of it.

Olly Buxton
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on 4 September 2014
An okay book which really shows what nonsense is written by Dawkins especially.
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on 18 May 2001
A fascinating account on how two scientists fought for the prize of universal acceptance.
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