Stephen J. Gould was probably the most iconic figure in late 20th-century evolutionary biology. Although he is often associated with paleobiology (an association he courted), his personal research was in population biology and the evolution of gastropods. He had a brilliant literary style and wrote numerous popular books. It is probably those books, and the magazine articles from which they were derived, that introduced most of us to his ideas. Many of these ideas seemed revolutionary, but a careful reading of Gould's published works shows that he rarely took them to their most radical extremes. Now two of Gould's closest collaborators and friends, Elisabeth Vrba and Niles Eldredge, have gathered together a set of 14 papers that provide more detailed scientific insight into Gould's ideas and the directions in which they carry evolutionary thought.
If there is a central theme running through Macroevolution: Diversity, Disparity, Contingency, it is probably exaptation, the idea that evolution may recruit preexisting adaptations for new and unexpected processes. It is pursued at the level of the genome by Jürgen Brosius, whose article “Disparity, Adaptation, Exaptation, Bookkeeping, and Contingency at the Genome Level” introduces the reader to the transformation of an originally RNA-dominated world into one with DNA-driven evolution. He claims that this was accomplished through a process of retroposition (enzymatic conversion of RNA into DNA), which created what Brosius terms “retronuons.” He claims that retronuons produce potential exaptations and may be major agents of genomic change.
Kenneth J. McNamara and Michael L. McKinney explore another possible contributor to macroevolution: heterochrony. They even make a stab at an explanation for the difference between the hands of birds, which have digits II, III, and IV, and those of their putative dinosaurian ancestors, which clearly retain digits I, II, and III. Judging from McNamara and McKinney's contribution, differential development might make morphology so plastic that morphological homology would be difficult to establish.
My favorite contribution to the discussion on exaptation, however, is by a famous invertebrate paleontologist, Adolf Seilacher, who wrote a delightful little essay on exaptation and the evolution of barnacles that infest the skin of whales. He originally intended to write the paper jointly with Gould, but it was put off too long, and Seilacher's regret is expressed in a poignant letter to Steve's ghost at the end of the article. Another essay borrows part of its title (“Tempo and Mode”) from George Gaylord Simpson, though it's doubtful that Simpson would really have approved of the approach taken by Kevin J. Peterson, Mark A. McPeek, and David A. D. Evans to external and internal evolutionary “triggers.” In much the same vein, Hugh Patterson looks at directional selection in “The Competitive Darwin,” and Michael J. Donoghue takes up macro-evolutionary processes in the evolution of plants. The latter author has some very interesting insights into the role of convergence in understanding evolutionary theory.
Gould's book Wonderful Life is reprised in an article by Derek Briggs and Richard Fortey, “Wonderful Strife,” which also features the Cambrian diversity explosion. In this article they correct some of the mistakes made in Gould's book and discuss the real meaning of the Cambrian community revolution. The article by Bruce Lieberman and Vrba on species selection was another high point for me, as the authors delve into the somewhat controversial fields of macroevolution and group selection. Lieberman continues with Eldredge and a host of other authors in a related article, “The Dynamics of Evolutionary Stasis.” Vrba addresses mass turnover and hetero-chronic events, while David Jablonski looks at mass extinction and macro-evolution. It seems to me that the term “macroevolution” is a concept that doesn't translate well, and it varies in meaning from one author to another.
It is worth noting that, while Gould flirted with many radical ideas—including saltatory evolution, the neutral theory of evolution, group selection, and the reversal of the biodiversity increase expectation—a careful reading of his published works reveals him to be, in the end, a little more conservative and closer to Darwin or Simpson than are the articles in this book.
Lynn Margulis, Michael Dolan, and Jessica Whiteside explore the origin of the cellular nucleus in terms of Darwinian “imperfections and oddities.” Daniel McShea looks at the evolution of complexity without natural selection. Stephen Hubbell discusses Gould's influential neutral theory of biodiversity. And in McShea's article, a kind of internal evolutionary drive, “the internal variance principle,” is proposed.
Gould's mind ran the full spectrum of evolutionary theory, and this volume manages to address many of the subjects that we identify with him. It is worth noting that, while Gould flirted with many radical ideas—including saltatory evolution, the neutral theory of evolution, group selection, and the reversal of the biodiversity increase expectation—a careful reading of his published works reveals him to be, in the end, a little more conservative and closer to Darwin or Simpson than are the articles in this book. This is perhaps the greatest strength of the volume. It allows us to get an insight into what many suggestions and inferences found in Gould's work might look like if extended to their full potential. I congratulate the editors on their choice of authors and can only speculate that if Gould's spirit should choose to answer Seilacher's letter, it would be to say, Well done!