Krugman on Gould and Maynard Smith

I’ve posted before about Paul Krugman’s dislike of the work of Stephen Jay Gould, but I have come across another old essay in which Krugman weighs in on the question of Gould’s role in communicating evolutionary biology. Krugman argues that Gould was attractive to readers because he made no attempt to explain the mathematical logic of evolutionary theory. Krugman writes:

Ask a working biologist who is the greatest living evolutionary thinker, and he or she will probably answer John Maynard Smith (with nods to George Williams and William Hamilton). Maynard Smith not only has a name that should have made him an economist; he writes and thinks like an economist, representing evolutionary issues with stylized mathematical models that are sometimes confronted with data, sometimes simulated on the computer, but always serve as the true structure informing the verbal argument. A textbook like his Evolutionary Genetics (1989) feels remarkably comfortable for an academic economist: the style is familiar, and even a good bit of the content looks like things economists do too. But ask intellectuals in general for a great evolutionary thinker and they will surely name Stephen Jay Gould — who receives one brief, dismissive reference in Maynard Smith (1989). …

What does Gould have that Maynard Smith does not? He is a more accessible writer — but evolutionary theory is, to a far greater extent than economics, blessed with excellent popularizers: writers like Dawkins (1989) or Ridley (1993), who provide beautifully written expositions of what researchers have learned. (Writers like Gould or Reich are not, in the proper sense, popularizers: a popularizer reports on the work of a community of scholars, whereas these writers argue for their own, heterodox points of view). No, what makes Gould so popular with intellectuals is not merely the quality of his writing but the fact that, unlike Dawkins or Ridley, he is not trying to explain the essentially mathematical logic of modern evolutionary theory. It’s not just that there are no equations or simulations in his books; he doesn’t even think in terms of the mathematical models that inform the work of writers like Dawkins. That is what makes his work so appealing. The problem, of course, is that evolutionary theory — the real thing — is based on mathematical models; indeed, increasingly it is based on computer simulation. And so the very aversion to mathematics that makes Gould so appealing to his audience means that his books, while they may seem to his readers to contain deep ideas, seem to people who actually know the field to be mere literary confections with little serious intellectual content, and much of that simply wrong. In particular, readers whose ideas of evolution are formed by reading Gould’s work get no sense of the power and reach of the theory of natural selection — if anything, they come away with a sense that modern thought has shown that theory to be inadequate.

Krugman’s larger question in the essay is why the concept of comparative advantage is so hard to communicate. One reason is that comparative advantage, like evolutionary theory, has at its base a mathematical model. The whole essay is worth the read (as is most Krugman from that era).

9 comments

  1. Another less contemporary example: I think it’s safe to say that every well-educated person has heard of Charles Darwin, and I suspect a fair percentage of them have actually read at least part of The Origin of Species or are at least familiar with its arguments in some detail (e.g., from articles like that of Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker). I’ve heard it said that the next most significant work in the history of evolutionary theory is R.A. Fisher’s The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. I’d be surprised if more than a small fraction of well-educated people have even heard of Fisher, much less are familiar with the book. I can’t help but attribute this mainly to the mathematical character of the work compared to The Origin of Species.

      1. Yes, that’s why I didn’t cast this as a simple case of A is to B as C is to D.

        I do find the contrast between Darwin and Fisher interesting though: Darwin was writing like a lawyer, someone who had a good case with some holes in it and a skeptical jury, and so put a lot of effort into laying out the evidence as clearly as possible. Fisher was writing more like a mathematician, who dives right into the proofs and assumes you have the background and intelligence to follow along.

    1. In my courses I teach that the real origin of evolutionary biology was the Fisher 1918 paper on correlation between relatives. Darwin was a wonderful wordsmith but at the end just a wordsmith.

  2. R.A. Fisher had the advantage of a long-running scientific conversation with J.B.S. Haldane and Sewall Wright that led to the elaboration of population genetics — a triumph of mathematical modeling. Alas, most contemporary biologists were such poor mathematicians that Fisher’s work (and that of Haldane and Sewall) was impenetrable to them. Ernst Mayr called this work “beanbag genetics” in 1959 and didn’t recant for decades. But before we dismiss Darwin with the same haughtiness, we should recall that Fisher and his contemporaries had Mendelian genetics to drive their mathematical models. Darwin did not. To say that Darwin was just a wordsmith is to ignore the profound insights that his prose wrought.

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