THE PARADOX OF THE
Punctuated Equilibrium and the
Nature of Revolutionary Science
Down went the owners—greedy men whom hope of gain allured:
Oh, dry the starting tear, for they were heavily insured.
—W. S. Gilbert, The ‘Bab’ Ballads, “Etiquette”
STEPHEN JAY GOULD CAN FIND meaning and metaphor in the most unusual of literary places, so perhaps we can consider this consoling advice of his favorite operatic authors in the light of ambitious proprietors of scientific ideas who have apparently been rejected, as later exonerated by the insurance of the truth. But how can we know today who will be villified or venerated tomorrow? As paranormalists are fond of saying (after citing such notable blunders as Lord Kelvin's paper “proving” that heavier-than-air craft could not fly), “they laughed at the Wright Brothers.” The standard rejoinder, made by skeptics for both levity and effect, is: “They alsolaughed at the Marx Brothers.”
The point is that specific historical references to wrongly rejected theories are not a general principle that applies to all cases of intellectual rebuff. Every instance of dismissal has its peculiar set of historical contingencies that led to that outcome. Historical abnegation does not automatically equal future vindication. For every Columbus, Copernicus, and Galileo who turned out to be right, there are a thousand Velikovskys (Worlds in Collision), von Danikens (ancient astronauts), and Newmans (perpetual motion machines) who turned out to be wrong.