Stephen Jay Gould Biography


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...

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Goldberg, Mark F. “Joltin’ Joe and the Pursuit of Excellence.” Phi Delta Kappan 78 (January, 1997): 395-397. Discusses Gould’s views on education and contemporary American culture.

Milner, Richard, ed. The Encyclopedia of Evolution: Humanity’s Search for Its Origins. New York: Facts on File, 1990. An overview of evolutionary thought; covers Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium.

Palevitz, Barry A. “Love Him or Hate Him, Stephen Jay Gould Made a Difference.” The Scientist 16 (June 10, 2002): 12. An overview of Gould’s life and work.

Prothero, Donald R. “Punctuated Equilibrium at Twenty: A Paleontological Perspective.” Skeptic 1 (Fall, 1992): 38-47. An in-depth analysis of Gould’s ideas on speciation and natural selection.

Shermer, Michael. “Stephen Jay Gould: An Urchin in a Haystack.” Skeptic 4 (Spring, 1996): 86-90. Gould reflects on his work and answers his critics.