Professor Stephen Jay Gould, 1941 - 2002
Stephen Jay Gould was a professional scientist, an author of great renown and an apologist for a specific variant of evolutionary theory.
I had heard his name in many places, but, believing him to be a mere populariser of science, I had never read any of his work. I was wrong. Completely out of the ballpark.
My interest was kindled by TheLady, who mentioned at a noder meet that she knew little about science, but found his essays intriguing. I made a mental note and, a few weeks later, picked up a copy of his fifth book, Bully for Brontosaurus, at an airport bookstore.
Reading on the flight, I found a series of essays, each of which was profoundly well-researched with marvellous detail. Taken together, the pieces showed great mastery over a wide variety of subjects. Not least was a very clear and detailed understanding of the process of evolution.
After reading the first dozen or so chapters, it became clear that Gould had taken on two tremendously difficult tasks. His first, the ostensible aim, was to inform the public about science in general and evolution in particular. Beyond this, however, Gould has made the cardinal sin -- for a working scientist -- of telling the scientific establishment where they are going wrong.
It is rare to find a working scientist firing shots at the establishment. Even more so to find such shots appearing in a non peer-reviewed column, rather than a scholarly publication. And finally, I think it is unique to see such well-aimed shots, so thoroughly researched and hitting their targets with such deadly accuracy.
Gould is an author who will intrigue non-scientists and fascinate the scientists. Truly a rare combination.
His writing style is a little awkward. He tends to use longer words where perhaps a shorter one might do, and his sentence structures require a fair amount of concentration. However, the effort is rewarded with some insights into science that few other authors can offer.
Gould's speciality is evolutionary biology. This is the idea initially popularised by Darwin's On the Origin of Species and ever since decried by the creationists. The idea that organisms adapt to their environment by means of random mutations in their genetic makeup over generations.
Gould knows his subject. He knows it inside out, back to front, forwards and backwards. He knows the weaknesses in all the theories and he knows their strengths. He has seen all the evidence, read it, researched it and evaluated it. He knows the examples and the counter-examples. He has been through all the arguments more times and with more expert opponents than anyone on the planet. Using this formidable knowledge, he is prepared to have a go at creationists, Darwinists, primary school teachers , textbook authors and anyone else who ends up explaining evolutionary biology in an amateur way, or who glides over awkward facts or tries to obfuscate where the evidence contradicts their beloved beliefs.
He is just as merciless in his attacks as that other great anti-creationist, Richard Dawkins, but Gould does it with far more style and more grace.
His essays are researched in enormous depth. The detail he goes into makes it impossible for the educated amateur to doubt his case. As he describes the depth of his research, he leaves the reader impressed at his attention to detail and convinces us that all this effort is expended on our behalf, because we want to know the truth.
Just before going into any of the theory, here is an example of Gould’s approach. He is discussing the origins of the horse species, equus. Not only does he destroy the reader’s half-formed idea that evolution is a sequential process, starting with one proto-horse and progressing through to the modern horse, but he reveals to us the whole evolutionary tree, including the branches which have died out, those which evolved into something else and other aspects. The combined result of this is to show that the modern horse is far from the main line of evolution, but rather a small twig on the end of an obscure branch of the evolutionary bush. Most of the rest of the bush is already dead.
However, to leave it at that would be to write little more than dry theory. Gould goes further. In looking at all the modern texts, he notices that they all describe the size of the original proto-horse Eohippus with the same analogy: 'The size of a foxhound'. His mind emphatically does not remain in neutral when he reads this, as so many did before him. How big is a foxhound? Why choose a breed of dog that is relatively unfamiliar in modern society? Why that particular breed?
Gould follows these questions through, looking at all the textbooks he can find, going back to the early 1800s, and the first discovery of the Hyracotherium skeleton. He tells us who found the skeleton, why it was so-named, and then explains why a new name, Eohippus, was proposed. In other essays he has told us about the naming conventions, and why the formal name for Brontosaurus was changed to Apatosaurus. All this detail helps to convince the skeptic of the depth of his knowledge. Then he looks at the different textbooks from previous centuries and plots a graph of the number of mentions of each analogy against date of publication. Early on, the authors tended to use cat breeds as the best analogy, but then one author -- an English gentleman known for his love of fox-hunting -- uses the foxhound analogy and 150 years later, all authors talk about the same breed of dog when describing Eohippus.
In doing this, Gould has exposed the laziness of textbook authors. Each of them has used an identical analogy, copying from previous authors, ignoring their own ability to use critical thought. Simultaneously, he has given some fascinating insights into the habits of textbook authors and some snippets of historical fact and custom.
It is this kind of attention to detail, together with a spirit which refuses to take another person’s word for something, and the energy and ability to research the true origins of things, that make Gould such a fascinating read.
While Gould uses his determination and research skills in his professional life to analyse fossils and biological structures, he uses the same skills in his writing to inform the reader about the history of baseball and its culture among other things. Thus, the books do not comprise a string of essays purely on evolution and the various quirks of nature which biologists use to test the many alternative hypotheses. Instead, we get a rounded view of life with essays on subjects as diverse as the 'function' of the clitoris; forged fossils; winning streaks in baseball; the origin of the QWERTY key layout and many other subjects.
Nevertheless, the main thrust of this collection of essays and others is to explain the intricacies of evolutionary biology to the reader.
Gould does not like Darwinists. He thinks the fossil evidence does not point to gradual, steady evolutionary change. The fossil record, he maintains, shows periods of long stability in anatomy and body plans, interspersed with periods of rapid change where fossils of in-between species abound. Gould’s theory, punctuated equilibrium, was originally proposed by Professor Niles Eldredge, the Curator-in-Chief of the permanent exhibition 'Hall of Biodiversity' at the American Museum of Natural History and adjunct professor at the City University of New York. However, Gould and Eldredge together developed and promoted the idea and it has found increasing favour with biologists and other evolutionary scientists since Gould became its most prolific apologist.
Gould was born in New York City on September 10, 1941. He attended a local school and in 1963 won his first degree, in geology, from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. After that, he returned to New York, winning a doctorate in paleontology from Columbia University in New York City in 1967.
He immediately won a post at Harvard, and remained at Harvard for the rest of his academic career. At Harvard, his official work was researching fossilized land snails in the Bahamas, and he was almost certainly the world’s foremost authority in this subject.
Separately, in the 70s, and subsequently, Gould became a very active and vocal protestor, initially against the Vietnam war, but later in other areas, especially opposing racial prejudice. He was a powerful orator and frequent member of picket lines. His 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man became the intellectual foundation behind the movement for racial equality, and was in part a response to Edward O. Wilson's book, Sociobiology, which had become a focus for proponents of racist segregation who thought they read a scientific justification for racial inequality in its pages. The Mismeasure of Man focusses on the use of IQ to assess and categorise people, and attempts to divorce the use of IQ as a psychometric tool from the belief that IQ represents something real and distinct about individuals and populations.
At Harvard, he branched out into zoology, evolution, biology and the History of Science. He was appointed to a chair in geology and, in 1982, the prestigious post of Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology.
In 1972, Gould published his ideas on punctuated equilibrium, with his colleague, Niles Eldredge. This was against all current thinking in the academic world, but arose from his observations that fossils of ‘in-between’ species are extremely uncommon. That, combined with some serious kick-ass statistics, led Gould and Eldridge to conclude that it simply was not possible that evolution was a steady, gradual process. The alternative seemed much more likely: that evolution tends to happen in bursts with species evolving little or not at all in between the bursts of evolutionary activity. When environmental conditions are stable, there is relatively little need for species to adapt, he argued. When the world is changing rapidly, however, then evolutionary adaptations can offer significant benefits to individuals, and are these are preferentially passed on to the next generation.
Meanwhile, in 1974, he started writing a monthly column for the magazine, Natural History and this became his route to worldwide fame. The first column, Size and Shape. can be found here:
In 1981, at the age of 40, Gould was diagnosed with a rare, form of terminal cancer, known as abdominal mesothelioma. He was given 8 months to live. Immediately, Gould put his excellent research skills to work. In June 1985, he published a description of the illness in Discover magazine: "The literature couldn't have been more brutally clear. Mesothelioma is incurable." He wrote.
Gould’s views on cancer are clearly spelled out here. Anyone touched by despair or dread of the disease might do well to read it.
In 1982, possibly prompted by the illness, Time magazine put him on their cover, but it was not until 1997 that Gould got the ultimate mark of popular respect: a cameo on The Simpsons—and the election to president of the AAAS.
Gould continued writing a monthly column for Natural History until December 2000, when he wrote his final column, I Have Landed. Follow this link, click the "Archive" link in the left-hand column, and then scroll down to "December 2000". Click on the link and the text wil appear.
He continued work on his Magnum Opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, which was ultimately published in March, 2002, two months before he died of metastasized lung cancer, on May 20, 2002. Gould thought he would never get anywhere near finishing the book, but says that his positive attitude and sanguine character allowed him to live much longer than the median 8 months after diagnosis.
Partial list of works