How theories in evolution evolve | Interview with Dr. Niles Eldredge

We met with Curator of the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Invertebrates and Invertebrate Paleontology, Dr. Niles Eldredge, to discuss climate change, environmental law, the decline of creationism, and so much more. Enjoy!

How theories in evolution evolve | Interview with Dr. Niles Eldredge
"What I think us humans have done to the Earth after stepping out, inventing agriculture, sort of abandoning our original niche or niches in the normal ecosystem, our populations exploded and we are sort of like a cancer. I know that the people popularly, I just generally say we're like the cancer on the planet. Well, we kind of are behaving like a tumor."” – Dr. Niles Eldredge

Notable biologist Dr. Niles Eldredge discusses the history of the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium, his work with Stephen Jay Gould, climate change, environmental law, and the decline of creationism. Curator of the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Invertebrates, and later, Invertebrate Paleontology, Dr. Eldredge talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

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Interview with Biologist, Dr. Niles Eldredge

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:30Punctuated equilibrium and trilobites

Jed Macosko: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and AcademicInfluence.com. And today on our show, we have Dr. Niles Eldredge, a big hero of mine, and I’m excited to find out more about you. It’s good to have you here today, Niles.

Niles Eldredge: Hey, it’s wonderful to be here. And saying that you’re from Wake Forest reminds me that I did teach there for, I think, a two week stint.

Jed: Yeah, oh, that’s good.

Niles: Yeah, yeah.

Jed: It was before my time, but I did hear you were there.

Niles: Yes, absolutely before your time. [chuckle]

Jed: Anyway, well, I am fascinated by your entire career, but the thing that I’m most curious about right this moment is:

When did you first meet Stephen Jay Gould. And how was that? How did you guys start working together on punctuated equilibrium?

Niles: I met Steve in the fall of 1963. I had decided, I’d spent the summer down in Brazil doing a, it was really an amazing program in anthropology, and I was studying the fishing economy of a little village in northeast Brazil.

I was down there with some other students and some faculty, so it was… Everything was cool, but it was an eye-opening experience, and I was 19, I turned 20 down there, so I was pretty young.

Got back and I had already taken a geology course, already had been fascinated in fossils. And where the fishermen parked their boats in Brazil was in a safe cove formed by what they called a reef.

It wasn’t a true reef, it was a formation of sandstone that had been eroded out, making them a nice little safe harbor, but it had loaded, it was loaded with fossils.

So I spent a lot of my time prying fossils, they were very young fossils, down there. Anyway, I was totally hooked by that time.

Coming back, I found it embarrassing to ask people personal questions in Brazil about their lives in a language that I got fairly good at, but not all that great. So I was a little bit more uncomfortable doing that, but meanwhile, I was digging fossils out of their reef down there, and thinking that maybe I was gonna go into paleontology.

So I started taking geology and anthropology courses in Schermerhorn Hall. The two departments were in the same building, it said, “Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee,” which was inscribed over the front door of the building. It was built in 1899. I just recently had an occasion to look up. So that’s from Job in the Bible, “Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee.”

So I was hanging out over there and I became aware of a number of students who had just shown up as graduate students in the paleontology program. In fact, yeah, I was enrolled in the paleontology course, the one course in paleontology. So that’s, I was really, I was there for an official academic reason, and started bumping into these guys.

So one of them was Steve Gould; the other was Bud Rollins. Both of them became sort of older brother figures to me, but they were very nice and very affable, and so forth, and they let me tag along. I went on a long field trip with them in the spring of ’64, and a whole bunch of other students. So I was actually sort of one of the gang, even though I was two years younger and still an undergraduate.

Jed: And so how did you and Steve come up with the punctuated equilibrium theory together?

It sounded like, from what you said in your last interview, that this was based on two summers of research in Eastern United States and looking at trilobites.

Niles: Right.

Jed: So was he part of that research project, or you just talked to…

Niles: No, that was my work. I decided to work on trilobites and tried to really look at patterns of evolution that were going there.

Steve was doing a similar project on Pleistocene, much younger land snails from Bermuda. And anyway, so we kept in touch, but actually, I published a paper in 1971 that had the gist of the punctuated equilibria idea.

And then meanwhile, Steve had gotten… He had gone to Harvard in 1967, I think, he’d left very… ’Cause he was two years ahead of me. I graduated in ’69. Yeah, so he got out in 67, he went up to Harvard, took an opening up there, which was great, and he, of course, did great things up there.

But he got an invitation to take part in a, I think a really, a dynamic idea, a great idea for a book, which was multi-authored, trying to inject more conceptual working, thinking into paleontology, rather than what was taken to be the, it’s complex. But the description of what’s actually there in the fossil record takes a lot of work and a lot of intelligence, but more interpretive work. What does it all mean? What does it tell us about? Things like evolution, but things like paleontology, all sorts of different sort of topics that were under-addressed, basically, by that time in the early 1970s.

So Steve had wanted to do a paper on morphology and further it, but that topic had already been taken. So the only one that he thought would be still attractive was on speciation, and I had already sent him a copy of my paper to Evolution, which was published in that journal in 1971, as I said.

And he said, “I can’t think of anything else to say about this, except for what you have in the paper. So do you wanna write that with me, and we’ll see what else we can do?” Which we did, we expanded on that original paper and he…

So I wrote the guts of that, and then he wrote some stuff at the end on implications. I wrote some stuff at the end on implications. And he wrote a good introduction and he thematically integrated the whole thing. But yeah, the basis of the idea came out of my work on the trilobites that I got my PhD on.

Jed: Yeah, that’s fascinating. I didn’t know that, that it was starting from what you had done with your wife and your younger brother out in…

Niles: Yes. [laughter]

Jed: Really fun.

Niles: Out in the great American Midwest. It was just incredible. Listening to the music, drinking the local beer, which was whatever, and it was what it was. But we immersed ourselves and it was recognizable.

A friend of mine who’s an anthropologist, early on, but he hadn’t done it yet, pointed out McDonald’s was really interesting as a homogenization of American culture because the architecture is the same wherever you go.

You walk in, you know what the menu is, you know where to go. If you’re just gonna use the rest rooms, you know where they are and you know that by and large, you can just go in and use the restrooms and nobody will… But that kind of a thing. We got to see that first-hand.

Jed: Yeah. It’s amazing.

Niles: I hadn’t done much traveling prior to that, except for I had gone to Brazil, but that’s out of the box really. That was something completely different, as the Monty Python people would have put it.

[laughter]

Niles: But going to Ohio, not so much. Different ways of serving hot dogs and so on, but similar enough to feel comfortable.

Jed: Yeah. That must have been great. What an idyllic way to spend two summers. So yeah, I didn’t realize that that’s how the punctuated equilibrium came to be.

And of course, working with Steve must have been really helpful in popularizing the idea. If it hadn’t been for Steve, the idea may have just sat in that 1971 paper and not gone very far.

Niles: Well, without Steve, yes, it would have sat in the ’71 paper. I shudder to think what might have happened had he not come along and said, “Let’s write this paper.”

He insisted for years that he was not trying to popularize punctuated equilibria but, of course, through dint of his writings in Natural History magazine, particularly, it got further, much further, greater notice that it would have.

But it actually, it first it excited attention within our own profession in this second paper, more so I think than the original. I published that in a journal called Evolution, which is mostly read by geneticists and not paleontologists.

We published in a book called Models in Paleobiology. The book was not widely disseminated, but I guess people Xeroxed. That we had the Xerox machine was, I think, already invented by 1972. It came on shortly thereafter, though.

So we didn’t have any PDFs, so we couldn’t just put them online or anything like that. But dissemination is important. And the book did not sell too many copies, but it got rather widely… The paper still did get rather widely known and the book itself got fairly widely known.

09:36The Creationists trial

Jed: Amazing.

And do you think that it was some of the reaction that Steve got to punctuated equilibrium that made him, for example, want to join the fray in the Creationists trial that he was involved in in the late ’80s?

Niles: Yeah. Yeah. We both were. I was…

Jed: So you were involved in that trial?

I didn’t know. Okay.

Niles: Yeah. Well, here we go. This is typical of my relationship with Steve. We remained friends to the end, and occasionally wrote together and so on and so forth, and went hiking. All this kind of stuff.

But I was asked by the ACLU to guide their preparations for the trial down in Arkansas. And this is funny, just another thing crossed my mind, I’ll tell you what it is. You’re taking me into places that I don’t normally talk about.

Then they brought Steve in. And anyway, there was a meeting up at Tufts University, and I was on line at the lunch in the cafeteria, and somebody was also involved in this trying to integrate a case, and get expert witnesses and so off altogether, and I was still officially going to be the expert witness.

And a guy behind me said, “Hi. Who are you? What do you do?” And stuff like that. And we were just chatting on line in the cafeteria and he said, “Are you familiar with the evolutionary ideas of Stephen Jay Gould?” And as I told the reporter for Newsweek who wrote this up in a big cover story about Steve, I guess just a year later, I said, “I felt like punching the guy in the mouth.”

And that was just an honest answer I told to the reporter. He published that in that paper, on the article on Steve in Newsweek magazine. Next time I saw Steve was at a meeting in Cincinnati at a Geological Society of America. And he yelled at me from all the way down the hall, “So why didn’t you?”

[laughter]

And I said, “So why didn’t I what?” He said, “Punch him in the mouth.” [chuckle] I said, “Well, I was just talking, sorry about that.” But yeah, there was always this sort of tension there about that.

But anyway, Steve was much more… He said to me, “Why don’t you be the senior author of the paper? I’ll give the talk in Washington at the GSA meeting, because you’re nervous when you… You tend to get nervous when you give talks.” Which was certainly true, still is, for that matter.

But Steve loved to give talks. So that’s how that came to be. That’s why I became the senior author of the paper. But anyway, yes, the original pattern, the original idea was in the ’71 paper.

12:40Arkansas trial

Jed: Yeah. And so you were about to talk about the Arkansas trial, and how Steve roped you into that.

So what happened there?

Niles: Well, actually, he bumped me off that. He was put in. That’s the point of my saying about the speaking. He was a better public speaker, he was more confident, and so I thought he was the better choice.

So I was hired by the AAAS, I think it was the AAAS. There was a number in the early ’80s, a number of popular science magazines had sprung up, not many of them have survived, but discover… A number of these things.

And so I think I was doing Science ’81, ’82, it kept changing its name. I think it was AAAS early shot at doing a popular, more popular science journals. And so I was their reporter, so I had press credentials to cover that. So I was down there and witnessed the whole thing.

Jed: So you were down there, and so you got to report on your friend, Steve, and his performance at the Arkansas trial.

Niles: I did. [chuckle]

Jed: That must have been a lot of fun.

Niles: It really was a lot of fun. So my first book at creationism was published in, what? ’82, The Monkey Business.

Jed: Interesting, and did you get…

Niles: Yeah, so I was in it from the get-go.

Jed: Did you get to interact with Michael Ruse? He was down there at that trial.

Niles: Yeah, I know Mike, yes.

Jed: Good.

Niles: We’re… More as crossing swords than anything else, but…

14:08Creationism and the second generation of environmentalism

Jed: So after that whole dust-up in the ’80s, what did you do subsequently with respect to creationism or just with your career? That was certainly some of the highlights of your 1980s, was that interaction and the writing that you did. But then, what happened after that?

Niles: Yeah. Well, I did two… I was out of museums. So I did two public-facing sorts of things. One of them was creationism. The other one was the beginnings of, I would say, the second generation of environmentalism and worries about mass extinctions and so forth, which I got into in the late 1980s, and I’ve written, I guess, five books on the environment. I’m writing another one even as we speak, called Gaiacide or Inadvertent Gaiacide.

So I’m still very much interested in that. But I was doing my regular paleontology research, and I was looking at evolution. At first, we were looking at higher levels of evolution, species selection and so forth, which I think justly could be seen as coming out as an implication of the original punctuated equilibrium paper.

"…I got very interested in the relationship between ecology, which is matter, energy, transfer processes on the one side; and evolution, which is the fate of transmitted genetic information from generations to generations and how those things fit together."” – Dr. Niles Eldredge

But I got very interested in the relationship between ecology, which is matter, energy, transfer processes on the one side; and evolution, which is the fate of transmitted genetic information from generations to generations and how those things fit together. And I’m still puzzling that out.

I wrote a paper around this year, actually, it came out, with a cancer biologist that’s showing that cancer, in many ways, is a parallel system to… Tumor growth is really… He says tumor growth can be seen an evolutionary process.

"…I could see that what I think us humans have done to the Earth after stepping out, inventing agriculture, sort of abandoning our original niche or niches in the normal ecosystem, our populations exploded and we are sort of like a cancer."” – Dr. Niles Eldredge

And once I finally understood what he was talking about, then I could see that what I think us humans have done to the Earth after stepping out, inventing agriculture, sort of abandoning our original niche or niches in the normal ecosystem, our populations exploded and we are sort of like a cancer.

I know that the people popularly, I just generally say we’re like the cancer on the planet. Well, we kind of are behaving like a tumor growth, out of control population growth. So there’s somatic evolution, cancer being an example of that. So yeah, so keep going with the ideas, yeah. [chuckle]

16:33What do we do?

Jed: So what do you wanna pass on to your children and grandchildren and the next generations about what we should do about this?

Niles: Okay, what should we do about it? I just wrote a letter this morning to a high school senior in Arizona, and that’s what she said. “I read,” she said, “I read your 1995 book called Life in the Balance,” then I told her… And she said, “I loved every word of it, and I can’t stop thinking about it, but now, it’s… I wonder what you’re thinking now because seeing things seemed to have gotten so much worse than they were when you were writing this and doing that exhibit in the mid-1990s.” Actually, it was 1998 when the exhibit opened and the book came out.

"…things are a lot worse, and it's sort of a regular thing for old people to say the world's going to hell anyway, but now, it seems like everybody can agree that things are much worse than they were in the 1990"” – Dr. Niles Eldredge

And I said, “You’re right,” this is what I said this morning: “You’re right, things are a lot worse, and it’s sort of a regular thing for old people to say the world’s going to hell anyway, but now, it seems like everybody can agree that things are much worse than they were in the 1990… ”

You know that climate change, I don’t think even the climate scientists, they saw it coming, and then certainly discussing it in the 1990s, but they didn’t, had no idea it was gonna get so bad so quickly. I certainly didn’t, but I’m not even a climate scientist. I don’t even think the climate people could see this accelerating to the extent that it really has.

"We're living in an era where facts don't seem to matter as much as they used to, to us, so it's all the more important to reinforce our academic endeavors in science, in particular. And I'm concerned about the fate of education, in general, but also our high quality research that we do in the United States."” – Dr. Niles Eldredge

You know what I ended up saying? I said the science, of course, is important. We’re living in an era where facts don’t seem to matter as much as they used to, to us, so it’s all the more important to reinforce our academic endeavors in science, in particular. And I’m concerned about the fate of education, in general, but also our high quality research that we do in the United States.

I took a different tack, though. I said if I were going to do this, a thought experiment, but if I were going to do this all over again, I don’t know as I’d become a scientist.

I think we know an awful lot about, for example, climate change and what we’re doing to modify the Earth and driving so many species… We can see the scope, if not all the details, of the problems.

Would I keep working on that, or would I become a lawyer and work as an environmental lawyer, like somebody… I’m really impressed with the sort of the back channel of the… The digital, the… What’s the word for that? MSNBC and CNN, those channels with all these lawyers on them all the time. They’re so smart, and they really know how to get to the nitty-gritty.

And down in Arkansas, I met my first wife. And I was having dinner with him and I said, “How did you learn the philosophy of science so much?” ’Cause he told me, had just come, flown to Arkansas from LA where he was arguing between two movie studios, he was on the legal team of one of two movie studios, then he’s stopping off and discussing philosophy of science on the stand, or leading, leading the testimony of a professional philosopher discussing the philosophy of science.

And that dinner, he was really eloquent on the philosophy of science. I had a hard time keeping up with him and matching him rhetorically. And he was on his way back home to New York, to start getting involved with a lawsuit in the state of New York and a power company.

"I said, what is the common thing that allows you to skip from these three different arenas that he was talking about. He said, well, silly, it's the law. The law is the common denominator. I never forgot that."” – Dr. Niles Eldredge

I said, what is the common thing that allows you to skip from these three different arenas that he was talking about. He said, well, silly, it’s the law. The law is the common denominator. I never forgot that.

And now I’m thinking, we know an awful lot about what we’re doing to the planet. We know the perils of overpopulation, we see all of the stuff that certainly climate change coming from, we have to cut the emissions. And so the outlines of what the problem is, are pretty clear.

What we need, and she had this, raised this possibility, the student who wrote me this letter, that I was trying to answer. Do we need to go beyond the individual, individual people getting alarmed and trying to pitch in and do something and become more policy and systemic oriented with these issues?

And the answer is, yes, it’s high time. It’s obviously, we quit the Paris Accords, we should not have done that. And we’ve got to redouble our efforts, rejoin the Paris Accords, but actually, resume a leadership role.

So I see these professionals, and particularly I’m drawn to lawyers, I told your daughter that I had thought originally about being a lawyer, I think I said, when she was interviewing me, and I was joking around, I said, the guy with the most money in the neighborhood was a lawyer.

But that that idea about maybe I would now go back, and knowing what I know now, which is a possible thought experiment, I would maybe pursue a career in law and work for an environmental institution, a foundation or something like that, or the United States government, and try to help that way.

Jed: What an interesting way of ending our interview today, to think back on that very first thought you had going off to college, maybe I should be a lawyer, and encouraging, perhaps, people in the next generation to take up law, take up environmental law and see if we can’t help some way preserve this beautiful planet that you got to criss cross in your lifetime, especially the those two summers as an undergraduate.

Niles: I have to say no regrets. I don’t regret what I actually did. It’s not always fun, but I think it’s been terribly, it’s been very interesting.

22:32Sign off

Jed: And just as a plea to the next generation to take this up as a cause and to institute policies that will help preserve this amazing world we live in.

Well, thank you so much, Dr. Eldredge, for taking some time with us again today and we really appreciate you sharing your thoughts.

Niles: My pleasure.