"HOPEFUL MONSTERS" AND EVOLUTION: PUNCTUATED EQUILIBRIUM EXAMINED
Bert Thompson, Ph.D.
If the theory of evolution is a true account of the origin and
development of life on the Earth, it is obvious that the record of
gradual development of plants and animals to higher forms should be
embedded in the crust of the Earth in successive layers. This record
should then directly correspond to the evolutionary development of the
various species up to the present time. Dr. LeGros Clark, the famed
evolutionist, stated exactly that, in fact, when he noted:
That evolution actually did occur can only be scien-
tifically established by the discovery of the fossil-
ized remains of representative samples of those inter-
mediate types which have been postulated on the basis
of the indirect evidence. In other words, the really
crucial evidence for evolution must be provided by the
paleontologist whose business it is to study the evi-
dence of the fossil record (1955, p 7).
From the publication in 1859 of Darwin's `The Origin of Species' to
the present day, evolutionists have sought in vain for those ever-
elusive "missing links" which evolutionary theory demanded. Darwin
himself said in the `Origin' that "the number of intermediate and
transitional links between all living and extinct species must have
been inconceivably great" (1859, p 293). We were taught for years that
evolution proceeds as the result of the slow, gradual accumulation of
small changes in plants and animals, and that evidence for such change
would eventually be found in the fossil record. But the search has been
in vain. Where there should be transitional forms in "inconceivably
great" numbers, there is none. George G. Simpson of Harvard
recognized this fact as early as 1944 and wrote:
...continuous transitional sequences are not merely rare,
but are virtually absent...their absence is so nearly uni-
versal that it cannot, offhand, be imputed entirely to
chance, and does require some attempt at `special explana-
tion', as has long been felt by most paleontologists (1944,
p 105, emp. added).
In 1977, Stephen J. Gould of Harvard commented that "all
paleontologists know that the fossil record contains precious little in
the way of intermediate forms; transitions between major groups are
characteristically abrupt" (1977, p 24). David G. Kitts of the
University of Oklahoma also offered his assessment of the fossil
record. He observed:
Despite the bright promise that paleontology provides
a means of "seeing" evolution, it has presented some
nasty difficulties for evolutionists, the most notorious
of which is the presence of "gaps" in the fossil record.
Evolution requires intermediate forms between species and
paleontology does not provide them (1974, p 467).
Such statements as these could be multiplied many times over.
Darwin attempted to explain the lack of transitional forms by blaming
their absence on what he termed the "imperfection of the fossil
record." But, as Simpson (1944) and others have noted, it is no longer
possible to blame the absence of the transitional forms on the
imperfection or poverty of the fossil record. Geologist T.N. George of
England has stated that "there is no need to apologize any longer for
the poverty of the fossil record. In some ways it has become almost
unmanageably rich and discovery is outpacing integration" (1960, p 1).
The transitional forms are not there, as the evidence clearly
As early as 1944, Dr. Simpson noted that a "special explanation"
was needed. He was not the only one, or the first, to suggest such.
Earlier (in the 1930's) Europe's top paleontologist, O.H. Schindewolf,
had proposed just such a "special" explanation, and in 1940 was joined
in his proposal by geneticist Richard Goldschmidt of the University of
California at Berkeley. Goldschmidt was frustrated in his failure to
account for the development of many structures in higher organisms on
the basis of the alleged mechanisms of neo-Darwinian evolution alone.
He believed that the neo-Darwinian mechanism then in vogue (the
accumulation of mutations plus the influence of natural selection) was
restricted to small changes `within' species, and had little or nothing
to do with changes `between' species. Goldschmidt postulated that the
larger, more important changes which caused macroevolution were the
result of "systemic mutations." In 1940 he published his famous work,
`The Material Basis for Evolution', in which he explained his "hopeful
monster" concept. Here, in abbreviated form, is how he believed
systemic mutations worked. Goldschmidt suggested that it was not just
one or two mutations, but many mutations that affected the entire
"system" of the growing embryo. Somehow, said Goldschmidt, a "rate
gene" was affected. This "rate gene" in turn affected (increased) rates
of growth, rates of differentiation, rates of production of materials
that would eventually benefit certain physical or chemical development,
etc. If the systemic mutations occurred early in growth, a small change
of genetic instruction would result in large-scale change in what would
ultimately become the adult form. Yes, noted Goldschmidt, every now and
then a sheep was born with only two legs, or a calf was born with two
heads. Both were monstrosities that could not survive. But hopefully,
said Goldschmidt, if you found enough of them, all produced by systemic
mutations, you might get a "hopeful monster." He then called upon this
concept to bridge each of the gaps between all the major kinds of
organisms. If Goldschmidt could convince evolutionists to accept his
new theory, then they could explain why gaps in the fossil record
`ought' to exist.
Goldschmidt's evolutionary colleagues, however, were incredulous
upon hearing his suggestions. Theodosius Dobzhansky, the renowned
evolutionary geneticist of the Rockefeller University (and a
contemporary of Goldschmidt) released his fury at such a suggestion as
"hopeful monsters" through his pungent pen. He wrote:
Another theorist proposes that the marvelous gifts of
evolution to the living world came to birth through
sudden and drastic "systemic mutations," which created
"hopeful monsters" that were later polished down to the
final product by evolutionary selection. But these
theories amount only to giving more or less fancy names
to imaginary phenomena; no one has ever observed the
occurrence of a "systemic mutation" for instance (1957, p 131).
In fact, for more than forty years Goldschmidt and Schindewolf were
held in utter contempt, and their theories considered little more than
heresy. Evolutionists Stebbins and Ayala fairly well summed up the
matter when they wrote: "The specific solution postulated by
Goldschmidt, that is, the occurrence of systemic mutations, yielding
hopeful monsters, can be excluded in view of current genetic knowledge"
(1981, p 969). As valiant as their attempts were to elicit change among
their colleagues, the efforts of men like Goldschmidt and Schindewolf
were doomed. No one was ready to opt for "hopeful monsters."
Surprisingly, however, Goldschmidt's scheme has now been salvaged
from the relic heaps of the past. In 1972, Stephen J. Gould and Niles
Eldredge proposed the concept of "punctuated equilibrium" (1972, pp 82-
115). The essence of this theory is that during evolutionary periods,
individual species change very little. Speciation occurs only when
long periods of little change ("equilibrium") are "punctuated" by
abrupt events, at which time a descendant species arises from the
ancestral stock. This scenario may have involved intermediate steps,
say its proponents, but each stage involved only organisms so unfit to
survive that ultimately they left no fossil remains, and therefore we
find no transitional forms in the record of the rocks.
Shortly after the Gould/Eldredge punctuated equilibrium theory was
published, it attracted supporters in the evolutionary camp. Only one
year after its publication, punctuated equilibrium drew strong support
from Derek Ager, past-president of the British Geological Association.
He wrote: "I am now coming more and more to the opinion that most
evolution proceeds by sudden short steps or `quanta' and I was pleased
to see the same views recently expressed by S.J. Gould in America"
(1973, emp. in orig.). Dr. Ager gave his own description of how he
viewed the geological history of the Earth: "In other words, the
history of any one part of the earth, like the life of a soldier,
consists of long periods of boredom and short periods of terror" (1973,
p 100). Steven Stanley, paleontologist of Johns Hopkins University,
wrote in 1979 that "the known fossil record fails to document a single
example of phyletic evolution accomplishing a major morphologic
transition and hence offers no evidence that the gradualistic model can
be valid" (1979, p 39). Two years later, Dr. Stanley would pen the book
that would become a sort of "layman's guide to punctuated equilibrium,"
`The New Evolutionary Timetable: Fossils, Genes, and the Origin of
Probably the two most important events affecting the ultimate
acceptance of punctuated equilibrium centered around the publication of
an article in 1977 by Dr. Gould, and a major conference on
macroevolution held in Chicago in 1980. The effect of neither of these
events can be overestimated. In the June/July, 1977 issue of `Natural
History', Dr. Gould penned an article entitled, "The Return of Hopeful
Monsters," in which he linked punctuated equilibrium with the
Goldschmidt postulate of almost four decades earlier. Gould reminded
his readers that "the fossil record with its abrupt transitions offers
no support for gradual change...," and then proposed that
"macroevolution proceeds by the rare success of these hopeful monsters,
not by continuous small changes within populations." He stated:
As a Darwinian, I wish to defend Goldschmidt's postulate
that macroevolution is not simply microevolution extra-
polated and that major structural transitions can occur
rapidly without a smooth series of intermediate stages....
I do, however, predict that during the next decade Gold-
schmidt will be largely vindicated in the world of evolu-
tionary biology (1977, pp 24,22).
Little did anyone understand at the time that Goldschmidt's
"vindication" was being prophesied by the very man who would attempt to
vindicate him. Dr. Gould himself has spoken eloquently to the point
that there are two important factors from the fossil record that
brought about the hypothesis of punctuated equilibrium.
The history of most fossil species includes two features
particularly inconsistent with gradualism: 1. Stasis. Most
species exhibit no directional change during their tenure
on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking much
the same as when they disappear; morphological change is
usually limited and directionless. 2. Sudden appearance.
In any local area, a species does not arise gradually by
the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all
at once and "fully formed" (1980, p 1 82).
Dr. Gould, in a later article, carefully emphasized that of these
two factors, by far the most important is `stasis' (1982, pp 83-104).
In fact, he even went so far as to say that "the potential validation
of punctuated equilibrium will rely primarily upon the documentation of
stasis" (1982, p 86).
What response(s) should be made to the concept of punctuated
equilibrium? There is little doubt that it is becoming the most
widespread attempt to describe, at face value, the evidence of the
fossil record. While it has met with some resistance from the "old-
guard" evolutionists who still cling doggedly to neo-Darwinism, it is
growing stronger every day as the mainstream explanation of how
evolution works. The following observations, therefore, are in order.
(1) Evolutionists have so strongly promoted gradualism by
saturating their course outlines, textbooks, and audio-visuals with it,
that to admit to an abandonment of it is nothing less than a candid
admission of error. Students will no doubt question why a theory which
has been around since the late 1930's has been kept wrapped in secrecy
until the majority of the "experts" finally accepted it. If it was
right, why has it been kept so hidden?
(2) If evolution-related materials are now changed to include the
punctuated equilibrium concept, it amounts to nothing less than a tacit
admission that creationists have been right all along in stating that
there is no fossil evidence supporting the theory that all life is
connected to a common ancestor. Michael Denton, himself an
evolutionist, has commented on that very point in his classic work,
`Evolution: A Theory in Crisis'. He first notes that it would require
nothing short of "miracles" to bridge the discontinuities in the fossil
record, and then adds that "the punctuational model of Eldredge and
Gould has been widely publicized but, ironically, while the theory was
developed specifically to account for the absence of transitional v
arieties between species, its major effect seems to have been to draw
wide<->spread attention to the gaps in the fossil record" (1986, p
194). Evidence for punctuated equilibrium is identical to the evidence
for creation, namely, the abrupt appearance of all major categories of
organisms, with nothing connecting them directly to any other groups.
Alan Hayward also addresses these important points. He suggests that:
The controversy is likely to go on for a long time, since
both sides have at least one short suit. Orthodox Darwin-
ism offers a plausible biological explanation for what
might have happened, but is in conflict with the evidence
of geology. And the alternative theory accepts the geol-
gical record, but cannot explain how species could arise
so suddenly. To the outside observer it seems that both
these versions of Darwinism are on shaky ground (1985, p 19).
(3) When Dr. Hayward mentions, concerning punctuated equilibrium,
that it "cannot explain how species could arise so suddenly," he
provides us with a kernel of truth that should be explored further. If
the main thrust of punctuated equilibrium is to explain how species
"arise suddenly," why then, does he state that it cannot do exactly
that? The answer lies in an examination of the genetic basis of
punctuated equilibrium. Hayward notes that:
...mutations do not appear to bring progressive changes.
Genes seem to be built so as to allow changes to occur
`within certain narrow limits', and to prevent those
limits from being crossed. To oversimplify a little:
mutations very easily produce new varieties within a
species, and might occasionally produce a new (though
similar) species, but---despite enormous efforts by
experimenters and breeders---mutations seem unable to
produce entirely new forms of life (1985, p 55, emp.
Punctuated equilibrium is ultimately dependent upon genetic
changes---changes derived from mutations. The exact mechanism which
accomplishes these genetic changes is still unknown. Even advocates of
punctuated equilibrium do not profess to know the exact genetic
mechanism. Dr. Gould himself, of all people, provides weighty testimony
on this subject. In a public speech at Hobart College on February 14,
1980 he went on record as stating, "A mutation doesn't produce major
new raw material. You don't make a new species by mutating the species
.... That's a common idea people have; that evolution is due to random
mutations. A mutation is not the cause of evolutionary change" (Gould,
1984, p 106).
We are being asked to believe that evolution occurred speedily as
the result of drastic genetic changes that produced rapid species
formation along with immediate morphologic divergence. Yet we are told
that the mechanisms for these changes are for the most part, "unknown."
What we `do' know is that (to use Dr. Gould's words) "a mutation is
not the cause of evolutionary change."
(4) Surely one of the points which bears on this entire issue is
Dr. Gould's insistence that species stasis is the single most
important feature of macroevolution. Doesn't this sound a bit odd? If
"stasis" means anything, it means staying the same. If evolution means
anything, it means change. We are discussing `macroevolution' (i.e.,
large and sudden changes). Yet we are being asked to believe that the
"most important feature of macroevolution" is `no change' (stasis).
Does it not seem that we are being asked to accept the following: the
most fundamental fact of the evolutionists' theory of change is that
everything stays the same?! Evolutionists have not missed this point.
In fact, they have now begun to write so as to convince us that
evolution really does not mean "change" at all. Instead, we are told:
Expectation colored perception to such an extent that
`the most obvious single fact about biological evolution
---nonchange---'has seldom, if ever, been incorporated
into anyone's scientific notions of how life actually
evolves. If ever there was a myth, it is that evolution
is a process of constant change (Eldredge and Tattersall,
1982, p 8, emp. in orig.).
Compare that statement to this now-famous and practically universal
definition of evolution from the pen of renowned evolutionist Sir
Evolution in the extended sense can be defined as a
directional and essentially irreversible process oc-
curring in time, which in its course gives rise to an
increase of variety and an increasingly high level of
organization in its products. Our present knowledge
indeed forces us to the view that the whole of reality
is evolution---a single process of self-transformation
(1955, p 278).
Which are we to believe? Do we accept that evolution is, in fact,
"an increasingly high level of organization" and a "process of self-
transformation" [`increasing the level of organization' and `engaging
in self-transformation' can most assuredly be called "change"]? Or, do
we accept Eldredge's "new" definition that evolution really means
"nonchange?" Interesting, isn't it, how the rules suddenly are being
rewritten in the middle of the game?
(5) There are other major problems with the concept of punctuated
equilibrium as well. Dr. Goldschmidt asked us to believe that such
hopeful monsters would be born, given enough time. That being the case,
the obvious question remains: `"with what would such a `monster'
mate?"' The probabilities of getting even `one' viable "monster" are so
ridiculous as to be almost laughable. But now we are being asked to
believe that the system produced `two' such "monsters" in the same
geographic region, during the same time span, with one being a male,
one being a female, and both being fertile. Then, of course, we are
being asked to believe that these two somehow found each other, mated,
and produced fertile offspring. This problem has not been overlooked by
evolutionists. Stanley discusses it in these words:
...there has recently been renewed expression of support
for the importance in macroevolution of what Goldschmidt
(1940) termed the hopeful monster.... At least in principle,
Goldschmidt accepted Schindewolf's extreme example of the
first bird hatching from a reptile egg. The problem with
Goldschmidt's radical concept is the low probability that a
totally monstrous form will find a mate and produce fertile
offspring (1979, p 159).
How does Stanley "solve" this problem? He simply allows for several
monsters to evolve within a single population, and avers that "evidence
is also mounting that quantum speciation events themselves may span
rather few generations. ...it is generally agreed that quantum
speciation takes place within very small populations---some would say
populations involving fewer than 10 individuals" (1979, p 145).
So there you have it! In a very small population you will have
macromutations present which produce not one, but two "monsters"---one
male, and one female---both of which "just happen" to undergo the same
transformation so that both are fertile and able to interbreed. The
renowned evolutionary anthropologist, Ernest Hooton, commented in 1937
on the very topics we are discussing. He observed:
Saltatory evolution by way of mutation is a very con-
venient way of bridging over gaps between animal forms....
Now I am afraid that many anthropologists (including myself)
have sinned against genetic science and are leaning upon a
broken reed when we depend upon mutations (1937, p 118).
One cannot help but wonder why, after more than fifty years of
additional study, evolutionists cannot see how correct Hooton was. Dr.
Grass‚ stated the matter best:
Today our duty is to destroy the myth of evolution,
considered as a simple, understood, and explained
phenomenon which keeps rapidly unfolding before us.
Biologists must be encouraged to think about the
weaknesses and extrapolations that theoreticians put
forward or lay down as established truths. The deceit
is sometimes unconscious, but not always, since some
people, owing to their sectarianism, purposely overlook
reality and refuse to acknowledge the inadequacies and
falsity of their beliefs (1977, p 8).
Ager, Derek (1973), `The Nature of the Stratigraphical Record' (New
York: John Wiley & Sons).
Clark, W. LeGros (1955), `Discover,' January.
Darwin, Charles (1859), `The Origin of Species' (London; reprinted New
York: Penguin Books, 1976).
Denton, Michael (1986), `Evolution: A Theory in Crisis' (New York:
Adler and Adler).
Dobzhansky, Theodosius (1957), in `Plant Life,' ed. Dennis Flannagan
(New York: Simon & Schuster).
Eldredge, Niles and Ian Tattersall (1982), `The Myths of Human
Evolution' (New York: Columbia University Press).
George, T.N. (1960), `Science Progress'.
Gould, S.J. (1977), "The Return of Hopeful Monsters," `Natural History'
(New York: American Museum of Natural History).
Gould, S.J. (1980), `The Panda's Thumb' (New York: Norton).
Gould, S.J. (1982), "The Meaning of Punctuated Equilibrium and Its Role
in Validating a Hierarchical Approach to Macroevolution," in
`Perspectives on Evolution,' ed. R. Milkman (Sunderland, MA:
Gould, S.J. (1984), Quoted in: `Darwin's Enigma,' Luther Sunderland
(San Diego: Master Books).
Gould, S.J. and N. Eldredge (1972), "Punctuated Equilibria: An
Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism," in `Models in Paleobiology,'
ed. T.J.M. Schopf (San Francisco: Freeman & Cooper).
Grass‚, Pierre-Paul (1977), `Evolution of Living Organisms' (New York:
Hayward, Alan (1985), `Creation or Evolution: The Facts and the
Fallacies' (London: Triangle Books).
Hooton, Ernest (1937), `Apes, Men and Morons' (New York: George Allen &
Huxley, Julian (1955), "Evolution and Genetics," in `What is Science?'
ed. J.R. Newman (New York: Simon & Schuster).
Kitts, David (1974), `Evolution,' September.
Simpson, George G. (1944), `Tempo and Mode in Evolution' (New York:
Columbia University Press).
Stanley, Steven (1979), `Macroevolution: Pattern and Process' (San
Stanley, Steven (1981), `The New Evolutionary Timetable: Fossils,
Genes, and the Origin of Species' (New York: Basic Books).
Stebbins, G. and F. Ayala (1981), `Science', 213:969.
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