Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 Niles Eldredge
Niles Eldredge "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.

As a Columbia undergraduate, Eldredge studied Latin at first, but switched to anthropology after meeting a female anthropology major. She later became his wife. He also began working at the American Museum of Natural History, where he remained and is now senior curator of invertebrate paleontology. After graduating summa cum laude, he enrolled in the doctoral program at Columbia, continuing his research at the Museum. During this time, he and Gould made the discoveries that led to the publication of their paper on punctuated equilibrium years later.

Photo credit: D. Finnin/C. Chesek/AMNH


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