Krugman on Gould and Maynard Smith


Jason Collins


December 14, 2012

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).