Stephen Jay Gould

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Stephen Jay Gould (gewld) stands among the best-known and most widely read scientific essayists of all time. His entertaining writing established him as the twentieth century’s foremost interpreter of evolution for nonscientists, while his revisions of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection engendered debate among scientists.

Born to second-generation Jewish immigrant parents, Gould grew up in Queens, New York. His fascination with paleontology began at age five, when he first saw a Tyrannosaurus skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History. Gould attended public school in New York, where his classmates nicknamed him “Fossil Face” because of his passion for dinosaurs. He was an equally passionate fan of the New York Yankees, and both evolution and baseball were to remain lifelong preoccupations.

Gould earned his A.B. in geology at Antioch College in 1963; he married fellow student Deborah Lee in 1965. The couple had two sons, Ethan and Jesse, and later divorced. Gould completed his Ph.D. in paleontology at Columbia University in 1967, where he became expert on the fossil land snails of Bermuda. Immediately upon completion of his doctorate, he joined the faculty at Harvard University as assistant professor of geology and assistant curator at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. He achieved associate status in 1971 and became full professor and curator in 1973. In 1982 he was named Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard. Following his marriage to sculptor Rhonda Shearer, he was named Vincent Astor Visiting Research Professor of Biology at New York University (NYU) in 1996. He divided his time between Harvard and NYU until his death in 2002.

His best-known contribution to science was the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which he developed with Niles Eldredge of the American Museum of Natural History in New York and published in 1972. Until then, most biologists had described evolution as a gradual and steady process. The fossil record lacked large numbers of transitional forms between species, many evolutionists thought, not because intermediates never existed but because they were poorly preserved. Eldredge and Gould took the fossil record at face value and proposed that evolution of species occurs in fits and starts. Brief periods of radical change follow long periods of stasis. Gradual adaptations to local environments occur in large, stable populations, the theory states, but the emergence of new species is comparatively rapid, in geological terms, on the order of a few hundred or a few thousand years. Such contingencies as a major climate change or the impact of an asteroid played, Gould said, a far greater role in evolution than most scientists had previously believed. Gould’s most ambitious scientific work, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, synthesizes his life’s work on evolution. It was twenty years in the writing and totals more than fourteen hundred pages.

While many evolutionary biologists accepted Gould’s theories, his radical ideas often sparked controversy among academics, and he frequently crossed swords with other scientists. For example, the English zoologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene (1976), called punctuated equilibrium a “minor wrinkle on Darwinism, of no great theoretical significance . . . vastly oversold.” Dawkins wrote that the gene is the object of natural selection and that the individual organism is simply the gene’s way of transmitting itself into the future, unaltered. Gould opposed Dawkins, arguing that bodies, not genes, survive or die, reproduce or leave no offspring. When Dawkins and others attacked what they perceived as Gould’s lack of objectivity, Gould countered in Ever Since Darwin: “Science is no inexorable march to truth, mediated by the collection of objective information. . . . Scientists, as ordinary human beings, unconsciously...

(This entire section contains 1415 words.)

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reflect in their theories the social and political constraints of their times.”

In 1974, Gould began writing essays for Natural History, the magazine of the American Museum of Natural History, under the title “This View of Life.” The column quickly became popular and established Gould as the public face of evolution. He wrote three hundred essays for the magazine, ending in January, 2001, with a retrospective on his family history and a tribute to the persistence of life on earth for more than 3.5 billion years. He compiled a large number of his Natural History essays into ten best-selling books: the first Ever Since Darwin and the last I Have Landed.

In 1982, he was diagnosed with abdominal mesothelioma, a rare and incurable form of cancer. Gould wrote about the disease, rejecting on statistical grounds the eight-month survival time his doctors predicted. He treated the cancer aggressively with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and experimental treatments, continuing to write despite their debilitating effects. His cancer went into apparent remission, and he lived another twenty years before succumbing to an unrelated form of cancer.

A master of analogy and metaphor, Gould drew parallels that delighted, amazed, and expanded the vision of nonscientist readers. He usually introduced his ruminations with some obscure fact from nature. He then linked that fact to a wide range of anecdotes from history, art, architecture, and even sports. From this collection of seemingly disparate facts, he would eventually derive a general principle (his unique brand) of philosophical truth. For example, in Dinosaur in a Haystack, Gould used the silence of the king’s daughter in William Shakespeare’s King Lear (c. 1605-1606) to elucidate the value of negative results in scientific research.

A recurring theme for Gould was the major consequences that could arise later from unpredictable events occurring at some past time. What if the South had won the Civil War? Gould was fond of asking. Would not most things be different socially and politically today? Similarly, humans exist in the present, Gould said, because of the chance survival of an obscure, swimming animal with a notochord (the precursor of the backbone) into the Cambrian period, some 530 million years ago. Gould rejected the notion that evolution necessarily leads to better or more complex organisms, culminating in humans as the ideal. “Homo sapiens is but a tiny, late-arising twig on life’s enormously arborescent bush—a small bud that would almost surely not appear a second time if we could replant the bush from seed and let it grow again,” he wrote in Scientific American.

Gould was active on social issues, attributing his liberal politics, in part, to his family history. His maternal grandfather immigrated from Hungary in 1911 and became a garment worker in New York City to support his family. His father achieved middle-class status as a court reporter and was an avowed Marxist. “I learned my [Karl] Marx at my father’s knee,” Gould said. He lent his expertise and reputation to causes that pitted science against what he perceived as social injustice. He deplored intelligence testing and labeled as racism the use of test scores to stratify people into fixed social or economic classes. In the second edition of his book The Mismeasure of Man (1996), Gould strongly rebutted the assertions of authors Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray in their book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994). Gould asserted they had made serious errors in both data and interpretation.

He battled the “creationist science” or “intelligent design” advocates who favored the insertion of religious accounts of creation into science classrooms. He wrote an influential article for Time magazine opposing the 1999 action of the Kansas School Board in removing evolution from the state’s standards for science teaching. (The board reversed its ruling in 2001.) Gould testified in several court cases that pitted creationists against science educators, and he wrote Rock of Ages to clarify what he saw as the distinction between faith and science. Science can teach humans about their physical characteristics and history, he declared, but only religion and philosophy can answer questions of purpose, morality, or ethics.

Gould received many honors in academia and in public life. The Panda’s Thumb won the American Book Award for Science in 1981. Wonderful Life won the Science Book Prize in 1990 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1991. The Mismeasure of Man won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1982. He won the MacArthur Foundation prize fellowship in 1981 and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1989. He served as president of the American Society of Naturalists, the Paleontological Society, and the Society for the Study of Evolution. In 1998, he became president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest scientific organization in the United States. In 2000, the Library of Congress named Gould one of the United States’ eighty “Living Legends”: people who embody the “quintessentially American ideal of individual creativity, conviction, dedication, and exuberance.”


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