"If you are passionately interested in something, it's not hard."
Niles Eldredge (1944– )
Columbia College 1965, PhD 1969
In three decades as a paleontologist, specializing in mid-Paleozoic phacopid trilobites, an ancient class of arthropods, Niles Eldredge has devoted his career to finding a better fit between evolutionary theory and the fossil record. That devotion started when he and Stephen Jay Gould, drawing on their research as Columbia doctoral students, challenged the gradualism of Darwinist evolutionary models in 1972 with a theory of punctuated equilibrium. Their theory held that evolutionary change occurs relatively rapidly in comparatively brief periods, separated by longer periods of evolutionary stability. The idea that evolution proceeds in fits and starts, as opposed to a slow, steady process occurring at a nearly constant rate, provoked debate among paleontologists and remains controversial today. Eldredge has also analyzed the relationship between global extinctions of the geologic past and the present-day biodiversity crisis, as well as the general relationship between extinction and evolution. He has also authored, co-authored or edited more than 20 books and articles. An amateur cornet player who possesses a collection of more than 500 of the instruments, Eldredge is now studying the comparative evolution of material cultural objects, using the same analytical tools he applied to the study of trilobites.