Eldredge on Evolution and Extinction

(This column was first published in the October 23, 2000 Buffalo News.)

Among the best of the wonderful offerings here on the Niagara Frontier -- which include musical and dramatic performances; science, art and history collections; amateur and professional sports; great parks and scenery -- are a wide range of talks by speakers of the very highest quality. Remarkably, many of these lectures are free or of minimal cost. (You could, for example, attend a dozen of the Center for Inquiry's superb presentations for the price of a single hockey ticket, more for a screaming rock star.) Unfortunately, notice of these appearances is often relegated to the campus publications of local colleges or a few isolated posters.

Consider just one example. Niles Eldredge will be here this weekend. As this year's Buffalo Museum of Science's Distinguished Lecturer, he will give two presentations in the museum auditorium, "The Sixth Extinction" at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and "What Drives Evolution?" at the same time Saturday evening.

Here are two opportunities to meet in person one of the world's foremost biologists. And, talk about cheap dates, these lectures -- and the receptions that follow -- are free.

But wait a minute. Who is this guy?

Indeed, most non-specialists will not have heard of Niles Eldredge. On the other hand you may know about Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard professor who also spoke here recently. Although Gould is most often credited, he and Eldredge are co-founders of one of the central theories of how evolution works. Their widely accepted hypothesis is called punctuated equilibria. (Don't be put off by that terminology. It simply means that evolutionary change takes place in fits and starts separated by long periods of stability.)

Dr. Eldredge is curator of invertebrate paleontology (the study of fossil animals without backbones like trilobites) at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Recently he led development of that museum's exhibition on biodiversity entitled "Life in the Balance," the first "issues" demonstration in the history of that museum. He also wrote a book about this concern with the same title. Eldredge has published many scientific papers, but he has also produced -- at the rate of almost a one a year -- a series of books explaining not only evolution but also how our biological resources are threatened. In "Life in the Balance," for example, he provides an only partial list of the species we have lost since 1600 -- it takes six pages of fine print.

Here is what a few people have said about this speaker. "Nobody in our generation has done more to advance our understanding of the evolutionary process...." "Niles Eldredge knows how to make science exciting." "Eldredge illuminates how science works...." His "style is lively...." And about biodiversity: he "tells us why the Earth is on he verge of an ecological crisis and why humans may go the way of the dinosaurs." Clearly Eldredge is not only well qualified but also a fine communicator.

An odd twist is sometimes given to this speaker's position on evolution. Punctuated equilibrium, well defended in Eldredge's book "Reinventing Darwin," is not the only theory of how evolution works. David Dawkins, in "The Selfish Gene" and other works, presents a contrasting view. This debate has led creationists like Philip Johnson and Duane Gish to stretch these intramural arguments into their claim that evolution itself is wrong. They fail to note that all of these and most other biologists support evolution, few seeing any contradiction with their religious beliefs.

Eldredge's visit provides another opportunity to extend your intellectual horizons. I can think of few better ways to spend two evenings this coming weekend.--Gerry Rising