Stephen Jay Gould Introduction - Essay


Stephen Jay Gould 1941-2002-

American nonfiction writer and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Gould's career through 2001.

Gould, an educator and evolutionary biologist, is well-known and respected for his nonfiction works in which he explains complex scientific theories in a manner that is accessible to the layman. Trained as a paleontologist and geologist, Gould is noted for his ability to make his esoteric topics entertaining without compromising their integrity. His essay collections include Ever since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History (1977) and The Flamingo's Smile: Reflections in Natural History (1985), and his full-length works include The Mismeasure of Man (1981), Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (1987), and Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (1999). Gould has been praised by critics for providing a valuable link between the worlds of science and literature.

Biographical Information

Gould was born in New York City, the son of Leonard, a court reporter, and Eleanor, an artist. In 1963 Gould completed his undergraduate studies at Antioch College and earned a Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1967. He started his career as an educator at Antioch College in 1966 as an instructor in geology. In 1967 Gould began teaching at Harvard University, eventually holding positions as a professor of geology, the curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology. In 1974 Gould began writing a monthly column for Natural History magazine. Gould also served on the advisory boards for the Children's Television Workshop and Nova magazine, and stayed actively involved in court battles regarding the teaching of evolution in public schools. Throughout his career, Gould received a wide variety of awards and accolades, including the American Book Award for The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (1980), the National Book Critics' Circle Award for The Mismeasure of Man, the Phi Beta Kappa Book Award in science for Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History (1983), a National Book Critics' Circle Award nomination for Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle, and the Rhone-Poulenc Prize for Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989). Gould died on May 20, 2002, succumbing to lung cancer.

Major Works

A majority of Gould's essay collections are comprised of commentary written for his monthly column, “This View of Life,” in Natural History magazine. Gould's signature approach in his essays is to illustrate scientific principles using engaging, often bizarre, examples drawn from nature. Ever since Darwin examines how humans, with their intellectual predispositions, manipulate science for their own ends. Gould contends that those who find biological determinism compelling do so not because of the prevalence of irrefutable evidence but because of an often racist agenda. The work stresses how the use of analogies has helped scientific knowledge advance and has contributed to the development of theories in successive areas of scholarship such as criminal anthropology, eugenics, psychoanalysis, sociology, and biology. The title essay of the collection The Panda's Thumb discusses evolutionary changes and argues that the opposable digit found on pandas is not actually a thumb, but instead is an enlarged wristbone that enables the panda to strip leaves from bamboo shoots. In Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes, Gould presents an evolutionary theory that he developed with paleontologist Niles Eldredge known as “punctuated equilibrium,” which holds that evolution does not occur in steady incremental stages, but rather in rapidly sweeping leaps of change initiated in small segments of a population. Punctuated equilibrium directly challenges the view of stage evolution held by gradualists, and Gould maintains that homo sapiens are no longer in the process of biological evolution. The Flamingo's Smile explores a number of themes such as the origins of appendages, myths about certain creatures, intelligence testing, and science in the service of ideology. In 1987 Gould published An Urchin in the Storm: Essays about Books and Ideas, a collection of Gould's reviews of books about evolution, most of which originally appeared in The New York Review of Books. Bully for Brontosaurus (1991) and Eight Little Piggies (1993) both address a major recurring motif in Gould's work—misunderstood evolutionary history—while displaying his trademark metaphors and extrapolations.

The opening section of Gould's first book-length work, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977), addresses a fundamental question in evolutionary biology. In the mid-1800s, Ernst Haeckel posited that “ontogeny,” or an individual's life history, parallels “phylogeny,” or the history of that individual's species. Nineteenth-century embryologists in general believed that an organism's physical development progressed through the same stages that the organism's entire species did during its long evolution. Gould traces how the arguments surrounding the validity of “ontogeny” and “philogeny” have changed since Haeckel's original observations. Mismeasure of Man exhaustively reanalyzes the raw data that researchers have used over the last 150 years to develop the core principles of biological determinism. In so doing, Gould exposes what he sees as two key erroneous findings: the belief that brain size differs according to race and sex, and the belief that intelligence can be quantified through methods such as craniometry or mental testing. In a highly critical assessment of scientific “objectivity” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Gould systematically debunks myths about the relationship between IQ and heredity, and questions whether intelligence can or should be measured. Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle presents a discussion of “deep time,” or geological time, and seeks to reevaluate the theories of scientists Villian Thomas Burnet, James Hutton, and Charles Lyell. Using an arrow as his metaphor—whereby “time's arrow” corresponds to sequential events and “time's cycle” corresponds to repeating patterns of events—Gould demonstrates how humans tend to perceive time and notes that most humans subscribe to the sequential or linear concept of time. Wonderful Life, a book-length study of Charles Walcott's 1909 Burgess Shale discovery, uses the film It's a Wonderful Life as an extended metaphor for evolution. Gould argues that Walcott miscategorized the hugely diverse animal fossil record found preserved in the shale, wrongly assuming that the creatures must be the predecessors of modern animal life. Because the shale was formed from a sudden landslide, Gould argues that the event supports the idea that random events factor heavily in evolution. Reminiscent of Mismeasure of Man, Wonderful Life further posits that scientists must remain more receptive to creative approaches to data. Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin (1996) places the work of population geneticists against the work of paleontologists, who have studied fossil records and have traced the various stages of human evolution. Gould uses the slump in American baseball batting averages to illustrate how competitive systems can change over time. Gould asserts that baseball players have nearly reached a point where they cannot “improve” anymore and he parallels this development to the record of biological evolution. Rocks of Ages, based on one of Gould's earlier essays, seeks to eradicate the idea that religion and science—along with their tools, methodologies, and belief systems—can or should exist within each other's intellectual territories. Positing the NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) principle, Gould maintains that the realms of science and religion necessarily and rightly occupy different areas of scholarship.

Critical Reception

Gould has been applauded by critics for consistently upholding his high standards of accessibility and scientific integrity throughout his career. Many critics have maintained that a large part of Gould's appeal lies in his ability to elicit in his readers his own enthusiasm for his subjects. He has garnered acclaim not only for his insights and inventive means of communicating intricate, detailed theories, but also for the sheer quality of his prose. However, commentators have noted that Gould often approaches science with his own political and personal biases. Some reviewers have argued that Gould continually downplays religious views of scientific events and does not accurately or adequately present opposing viewpoints. Critics familiar with evolution and the theories of Charles Darwin have commented that Gould's “punctuated equilibrium” theory does not differ significantly from what Darwin himself wrote and observed. Rocks of Ages has met with particular criticism, with some reviewers faulting the work for its loose arguments and weak research. Other critics have complained that Gould's works can be difficult to read because his personality has such an overwhelming presence in his books, arguing that his immodesty can border on conceit. Commentators have also faulted Gould for relying too heavily on his use of extended metaphors. Despite these criticisms, most critics have conceded that Gould's prodigious scientific knowledge and accomplished prose style has made him one of the most important science writers in contemporary literature.