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The John Marshall Law Review

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In 1972, paleontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould published a paper that challenged the conventional understanding of the nature and rate of biological evolution. Addressing the absence of support in the fossil record for the accepted model of species change, the scholars observed that significant genetic development within a single species did not appear to follow the kind of gradual path that Charles Darwin had postulated. Instead, they concluded that "the great majority of species appear with geological abruptness in the fossil record and then persist in stasis until their extinction." They observed that species evolution is much more often the product of dramatic quantum shifts over relatively short periods of time, than the kind of gradualism envisioned by Darwin. Eldredge and Gould referred to the evolutionary structure produced by this phenomenon as a "punctuated equilibrium"—long periods of relative stasis ("equilibrium") interrupted and re-defined ("punctuated") by rare but dramatic instances of evolutionary change. They referred to the relatively brief (in geological terms) periods where the normal stasis in species development is interrupted by dramatic species developments as "unresolvable geological moments." This theory, more fully developed in Gould's later work, was controversial from its inception, but nonetheless, has revolutionized the study of biological evolution, and remains a central topic of debate to this day.

In their synthesis of the public discourse concerning the punctuated equilibrium theory, editors Albert Somit and Steven Peterson argued that the model, "[b]y providing a different metaphor for explaining social phenomena . . . may assist us in better understanding human behavior in all of its manifestations." Aware of similar assessments of the efficacy of his theory, Gould did not "question the widespread invocation or the extensive utility of the metaphorical linkage," but confessed to being "more interested in exploring ways in which the theory might supply truly causal insights about other scales and styles of change."

One field outside the natural sciences where causal insights can be gleaned from the basic logic of the punctuated equilibrium theory is the study of administrative regulation. Specifically, the theory provides a compelling template for an analysis of the historical development of administrative and regulatory structures in the United States. Political scientists have already relied on the punctuated equilibrium model to explain the volatile pace of policy innovation, particularly in the environmental area, the nature of American constitutional development, and other aspects of political and governmental change. Some legal scholars have noted the apt analogies that can be drawn between Eldredge and Gould's theory and analysis of the evolution of regulatory regimes in the area of securities regulation and other fields.



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