The Structure of Evolutionary Theory

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The Structure of Evolutionary Theory
The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (first edition).jpg
Cover of the first edition
Author Stephen Jay Gould
Country United States
Language English
Subject Macroevolutionary theory
Publisher Belknap Press
Publication date
March 21, 2002
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 1,433
ISBN 0-674-00613-5
OCLC 47869352
576.8 21
LC Class QH366.2 .G663 2002
Preceded by The Lying Stones of Marrakech
Followed by I Have Landed

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002) is a technical book on macroevolutionary theory by Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, published only two months before his death. The volume is divided into two parts. The first is a historical study and exegesis of classical evolutionary thought, drawing extensively upon primary documents. The second is a constructive critique of contemporary Darwinian theory, and presents a case for a hierarchical interpretation of biological evolution based largely on the author's theory of punctuated equilibrium.

According to Gould, classical Darwinism encompasses three essential core commitments. These are: agency, efficacy, and scope. Agency is the unit upon which natural selection acts. For Charles Darwin, this fundamental unit was the organism. Efficacy encompasses the power of natural selection—over all other forces—in shaping evolution at ecological scales. (Auxiliary forces include sexual selection, as well as historical, structural, and developmental constraints.) Scope is the degree to which natural selection can be extrapolated to explain biological diversity at the macroevolutionary level, including the evolution of higher taxonomic groups.

Gould described these three propositions as the "tripod" of Darwinian central logic, each being so essential to the structure that if any branch were cut, it would either kill, revise, or superficially refurbish the whole structure (depending on the severity of the cut). According to Gould "substantial changes, introduced during the last half of the 20th century, have built a structure so expanded beyond the original Darwinian core, and so enlarged by new principles of macroevolutionary explanation, that the full exposition, while remaining within the domain of Darwinian logic, must be construed as basically different from the canonical theory of natural selection, rather than simply extended."

In the arena of agency, Gould explores the concept of "hierarchy" in the action of evolution (the idea that evolution may act on more than one unit simultaneously, as opposed to only acting upon individual organisms). In the arena of efficacy he explores the forces beside natural selection that have been considered in evolutionary theory. In the arena of scope he considers the relevance of natural selection to the larger scale patterns of life.


Part I of the book focuses on the early history of evolutionary thought (pre-1859). Chapter one introduces and outlines the Structure of Evolutionary Theory, with chapter two covering the structure of The Origin of Species, chapter three focusing on issues surrounding agency, chapters four and five covering efficacy, and chapters six and seven covering scope. Part II—comprising the bulk of the text—focuses on the modern discussion and debate (post-1959). Chapters eight and nine cover agency, while chapters ten and eleven cover efficacy, and twelve covers scope.

Sections of the book dealing with punctuated equilibrium, primarily chapter nine, have been posthumously reprinted as a separate volume by Belknap Harvard.


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