I can hardly add to the manifold praise and criticism of Gould available on the Internet. However, I would like to make two observations about Wonderful Life - besides the fact that it is a fun book and quite enlightening to a non-scientific person like myself.
First, he makes a common (but mistaken) assumption about how Christianity views man. He assumes we believe our meaning somehow comes from being at the center of the universe. Gould uses Mark Twain's image of the Eiffel Tower: If it represents the entire history of the cosmos, man's appearance equals the thin coat of paint on top. To say that the world exists for man is as ridiculous as saying the Eiffel Tower exists to support its last covering of paint. This kind of argument is known as reductio ad absurdum. However, the argument only works if someone actually thinks the whole show exists for man. But we do not know what the divine purpose is for distant galaxies or for dinosaurs or for Cambrian creatures - or for much of what is presently on this planet. The Bible - and traditional Christianity - underscores how tiny man is in relation to this immense landscape:
Man's significance does not come from being at the center, but because of God's condescencion, his act of lifting us up. The same Psalm says:
One indication of our uniqueness is that, of all animals, we alone can ask the kind of questions Gould raises in Wonderful Life. And likewise we are the only ones who seem much concerned about the fate of other animals. The fact that Gould can get exercised over the extinction of a snail species illustrates our inbuilt sense of responsibility ("dominion") concerning the creation entrusted to us.
A second observation touches Gould's central argument. He makes an elaborate point about what he calls "contingency," that life could have developed in a variety of plausible ways just as human history takes small turns which often have immense future consequences. But what is he really saying: that we are not part of an interlocking chain of cause and effect? Unfortunately, no. When pushed, it seems pretty clear he has not abandoned the Darwinian (naturalistic) view that all events are pre-determined. In talking about something being "contingent" he only seems to be saying we do not yet know what caused it, but that when science eventually figures it out, we will realize nothing which happened after the big bang is really "random" or "chance" in the true sense of those words. At least that is what I think he is saying. If not, I invite him to join the RCIA.
These two observations should not prevent a Christian from reading Gould. While we shouldn't make too much of any new scientific theory, still Gould can help us take less seriously some of the popular claims about evolution. He candidly discusses how the more recent scientific evidence calls Darwinism into question and, perhaps most embarrassingly, he explains how the current fossil record does not show the steady, gradual transformation of species which Darwin predicted. Just the opposite: an "explosion" of new life forms followed by what Gould calls a "decimation." Oddly we have less biological diversity today than a half billion years ago. Gould even went so far as to announce that neo-Darwinism is "effectively dead," but later hedged. For such bursts of frankness he has been savagely attacked by more traditional Darwinists like Richard Dawkins and his disciples. You can get a glimpse of that debate by going to the New York Review's website (type "Gould" in its search). They all claim to be Darwinists, hence the bitterness about who is really true to the master, but it is Gould who seems to have gone the furthest in his revisionism. He may well be the Gorbachev who will bring down a system of morality and education which has attained immense power by equating its naturalistic philosophy with "science." Of course, Gould like Gorbachev only meant to shore up a shaky structure. Nevertheless he has legitimized dissent from darwinian orthodoxy. That makes people like Dawkins very nervous.
*Gorbachev hoped to maintain Soviet communism by making seemingly minor concessions. Johnson argues that Gould is doing something similar by his revision of traditional Darwinism. See reviews of Johnson's Reason in the Balance and Darwin on Trial.
Homily mentioning Gould's Wonderful Life