Presidential Lecture Series
spacer spacer Stephen Jay Gould


Stephen Jay Gould

Gould Portrait
From: Skeptic Magazine
Excerpts have been taken from Gould's writings on the following subjects:

  1. Evolutionary Biology Today
  2. The Meaning of the Burgess Shale Fossil Record
  3. Science and History
  4. Creationism
  5. Science and Religion
  6. Life's History
  7. Popular Science
  8. Statistics and His Own Brush with Cancer
  9. Baseball and Biology
  10. "Happy Thoughts on a Sunny Day in New York City"

1) Evolutionary Biology Today

"Evolutionary biology has been severely hampered by a speculative style of argument that records anatomy and ecology and then tries to construct historical or adaptive explanations for why this bone looked like that or why this creature lived here. These speculations have been charitably called "scenarios"; they are often more contemptuously, and rightly, labeled "stories" (or "just-so stories" if they rely on the fallacious assumption that everything exists for a purpose). Scientists know that these tales are stories; unfortunately, they are presented in the professional literature where they are taken too seriously and literally. Then they become "facts" and enter the popular literature, often in such socially dubious form as the ancestral killer ape who absolves us from responsibility for our current nastiness, or as the "innate" male dominance that justifies cultural sexism as the mark of nature."

From: "Introduction" to Björn Kurtén, Dance of the Tiger: A Novel of the Ice Age. N.Y.: Random House, 1980. Pp. xvii-xviii. (c)1980, Random House, Inc.

"The Modern Synthesis began in the 1930s as an attempt to show that known genetic forces, acting in concert with selection, could produce evolutionary change at all scales, without any appeal to special "vital" forces or to particular causes that only operate in major change or over long periods of time. The synthesis, as Provine has usefully emphasized in dubbing it a "constriction," did eliminate a range of nonuniformitarian and speculative mechanisms, but within its domain of the genetic here and now in modern populations, it was decidedly and resolutely pluralistic, particularly in its eagerness to embrace both adaptive and nonadaptive change as products of known genetic forces. I have argued that the major trend within the synthesis from its inception in the 1930s to the Darwinian centennial of 1959 and beyond was a "hardening" of this initial pluralism by restriction and coalescence about the position that natural selection regulates nearly all changes and that adaptation reigns supreme in evolutionary differences, even at the lowest level of geographic races [...] Random forces were pushed to a periphery of absolute unimportance."

From: "The Ontogeny of Sewall Wright and the Phylogeny of Evolution" (Essay review of William B. Provine, Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology) Isis 79 (1988): 277. (c)1988, Isis.

"Darwin's principle of natural selection leads to the prediction that the proper way to analyze any evolutionary trend or evolutionary development is to see the new features as adaptive to environments. And that's a perfectly good principle. The problem is that there are many evolutionary biologists who view everything that happens in evolution­every feature, every behavior­as directly evolved for adaptive benefit. And that just doesn't work."

From: "Stephen Jay Gould" (Interview by Michael Krasny). Mother Jones (Jan.-Feb. 1997): 60-63. (c)1997, Mother Jones.

On evolution and Darwin's revolution in thought. In a 45 second video clip, Gould makes a distinction between the acceptance of Darwin's establishment of the fact of evolution and an acceptance of Darwin's model for evolution.

From: Stephen Jay Gould, Darwin's Revolution in Thought: An Illustrated Lecture for the Classroom. Northampton, Mass.: Into the Classroom Video, 1995. Produced and directed by Robert DiNozzi. ©1995, Into the Classroom Video.

2) The Meaning of the Burgess Shale Fossil Record

Burgess Shale
Illustration by Charles Knight, National Geographic, 1940.

"The reason you study history is that it is easy to get a fix on the social embeddedness of ideas that are no longer current. The only thing you can know with respect to your own view is that you can engage in a lot of vigilance and scrutiny so that you can try to identify your own biases. You hope that a consciousness of social embeddedness makes you more sensitive. So, yes, of course the interpretations of the Burgess Shale are in part conditioned by what's happening in society. But there is also a basic factual issue. I think that the description of the anatomy of these organisms can be done with objectivity. It is how we interpret these animals, and what we say they mean for the history of life that is obviously subject to biased ways of thinking. But I do think there is a certain factuality about the anatomy of Burgess animals that has truly been discovered."

From: "Evolution, Extinction and the Movies" (Interview with Gould by Daniel S. Levy), Time (May 14, 1990): 19. (c)1990, Time.

3) Science and History

"History includes too much chaos, or extremely sensitive dependence on minute and unmeasurable differences in initial conditions, leading to massively divergent outcomes based on tiny and unknowable disparities in starting points. And history includes too much contingency, or shaping of present results by long chains of unpredictable antecedent states, rather than immediate determination by timeless laws of nature.

Homo Sapiens did not appear on the earth, just a geologic second ago, because evolutionary theory predicts such an outcome based on themes of progress and increasing neural complexity. Humans arose, rather, as a fortuitous and contingent outcome of thousands of linked events, any one of which could have occurred differently and sent history on an alternative pathway that would not have led to consciousness."

From: "The Evolution of Life on Earth," Scientific American (Oct. 1994): 85-86. (c)1994, Scientific American.

"Legal Systems are human inventions, based on a history of human thought and practice. Consequently, the law gives decisive weight to the history of its own development­hence the rule of precedent in deciding cases. Scientists work in an opposite way: we search continually for new signals from nature to invalidate the history of past argument. (As a sometime historian of science, I wish that scientists, like lawyers, would pay more attention to, and have more reverence, for their pasts-but I understand why this is not likely to happen."

From: "Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge" (Review of Philip E. Johnston, Darwin on Trial), Scientific American (July 1992): 118. (c)1992, Scientific American.

"Twenty-five years after N. R. Hanson, T. S. Kuhn, and so many other historians and philosophers began to map out the intricate interpenetrations of fact and theory, and of science and society, the rationale for such a simplistic one-way flow from observation to theory has become entirely bankrupt. Science may differ from other intellectual activity in its focus upon the construction and operation of natural objects. But scientists are not robotic inducing machines that infer structures of explanation only from regularities observed in natural phenomena (assuming, as I doubt, that such a style of reasoning could ever achieve success in principle). Scientists are human beings, immersed in culture, and struggling with all the curious tools of inference that mind permits-from metaphor and analogy to all the flights of fruitful imagination that C. S. Pierce called `abduction.' Prevailing culture is not always the enemy identified by whiggish history­in this case the theological restrictions on time that led early geologists to miracle-mongering in the catastrophist mode. Culture can potentiate as well as constrain­as in Darwin's translation of Adam Smith's laissez-faire economic models into biology as the theory of natural selection. In any case, objective minds to not exist outside culture, so we must make the best of our ineluctable embedding."

From: Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987. Pp. 6-7. (c)1987, President and Fellows of Harvard College.


Responding to the question, "Is the battle with the creationists over?"

"It will never formally end as long as there are millions of them out there with lots of money. I think the important point is that with the Supreme Court victory Edwards v. Aguillard, we destroyed the strategy that has been their focal point since the 1920s, namely, the attempt to force legislatively the mandated teaching of this oxymoronic creation science of theirs in the classroom."

From: "Evolution, Extinction and the Movies" (Interview with Gould by Daniel S. Levy), Time (May 14, 1990): 19. (c)1990, Time.

5) Science and Religion

"A lot of people think there's an intrinsic conflict between Christianity and evolution, but there isn't. Religion is about ethics and values, and science is about facts. You need both of them, but they don't interact very much."

From: Jeremy Manier, "Stephen Jay Gould Takes a New Swing at Explaining Evolution." Chicago Tribune (Dec. 2, 1996). (c)1996, Chicago Tribune.

"To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot adjudicate the issue of God's possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can't comment on it as scientists."

From: "Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge" (Review of Philip E. Johnston, Darwin on Trial), Scientific American (July 1992): 119. (c)1992, Scientific American.

6) Life's History

"The most outstanding feature of life's history is that through 3.5 billion years this has remained, really, a bacterial planet. Most creatures are what they've always been: They're bacteria and they rule the world. And we need to be nice to them."

From: "Stephen Jay Gould" (Interview by Michael Krasny). Mother Jones (Jan.-Feb. 1997): 60-63. (c)1997, Mother Jones.

"As the main claim of this book [Full House], I do not deny the phenomenon of increased complexity in life's history­but I subject this conclusion to two restrictions that undermine its traditional hegemony as evolution's defining feature. First, the phenomenon exists only in the pitifully limited and restricted sense of a few species extending the small right tail of a bell curve with an ever-constant mode at bacterial complexity­and not as a pervasive feature in the history of most lineages. Second, this restricted phenomenon arises as an incidental consequence [...] of causes that include no mechanism for progress or increasing complexity in their main actions."

From: Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. N.Y.: Harmony Books, 1996. P. 197. (c)1996, Stephen Jay Gould.

"The outstanding [misunderstanding of evolutionary theory] is clearly the equation of evolution with progress. People believe that evolution is a process that moves creatures toward greater complexity through time. This makes our very late appearance in the history of the Earth a sensible outcome. The word evolution means progress, but for Darwin, evolution is adaptation to changing local environments, which are randomly moving through time. There is no principle of general advance in that."

From: "Stephen Jay Gould." Boston Globe Magazine (Dec. 31, 1995). (c)1995, Boston Globe.

7) Popular Science

"As Saul despised David for receiving ten thousand cheers to his own mere thousand, we scientists often stigmatize, for the same reason of simple jealousy, the good work done by colleagues for our common benefit. Because we live in a Philistine nation filled with Goliaths, and because science feeds at a public trough, we all give lip service to the need for clear and supportive popular presentation of our work. Why then do we downgrade the professional reputation of colleagues who can convey the power and beauty of science to the hearts and minds of a fascinated, if generally uninformed, public?

This narrow-minded error--our own Philistinism--arises in part from our general ignorance of the long and honorable tradition of popular presentation of science, and our consequent mistake in equating popularization with trivialization, cheapening, or inaccuracy."

From: "Bright Star Among Billions," Science 275 (Jan. 31, 1997): 599. (c)1998, The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"I deeply deplore the equation of popular writing with pap and distortion for two main reasons. First, such a designation imposes a crushing professional burden on scientists (particularly young scientists without tenure) who might like to try their hand at this expansive style. Second, it denigrates the intelligence of millions of Americans eager for intellectual stimulation without patronization. If we writers assume a crushing mean of mediocrity and incomprehension, then not only do we have contempt for our neighbors, but we also extinguish the light of excellence. The "perceptive and intelligent" layperson is no myth. They exist in millions-a low percentage of Americans perhaps, but a high absolute number with influence beyond their proportion in the population."

From: Bully for Brontosaurus London: Hutchinson Radius, 1991. P. 12. (c)1991, Stephen Jay Gould.

"I have fiercely maintained one personal rule in all my so-called "popular" writing. (The word is admirable in its literal sense, but has been debased to mean simplified or adulterated for easy listening without effort in return.) I believe­as Galileo did when he wrote his two greatest works as dialogues in Italian rather than didactic treatises in Latin, as Thomas Henry Huxley did when he composed his masterful prose free from jargon, as Darwin did when he published all his books for general audiences­that we can still have a genre of scientific books suitable for and accessible alike to professionals and interested lay people. The concepts of science, in all their richness and ambiguity, can be presented without any compromise, without any simplification counting as distortion, in language accessible to all intelligent people."

From: Wonderful Life: the Burgess Shale and nature of history. N.Y.: Norton, 1989. P. 16. (c)1989, Stephen Jay Gould.

8) Statistics and His Own Brush with Cancer

"I then had the key insight that proved so life-affirming at such a crucial moment. I started to think about the variation and reasoned that the distribution of deaths must be strongly "right skewed" in statistical parlance-that is, asymmetrically extended around a chosen measure of central tendency, with a much wider spread to the right than to the left. After all, there just isn't much room between the absolute minimum value of zero (dropping dead at the moment of diagnosis) and the median value of eight months. Half the variation must be scrunched up into this left hand of the curve between the minimum and the median. But the right half may, in principle, extend out forever, or at least into extreme old age...

This insight gave me no guarantee of normal longevity, but at least I had obtained that most precious of all gifts at a crucial moment: the prospect of substantial time­to think, to plan, and to fight. I would not immediately have to follow Isaiah's injunction to King Hezekiah: "Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live." I had made a good statistical inference about the importance of variation and the limited utility of averages, and I had been able to confirm this suspicion with actual data. I had used knowledge and gained succor."

From: Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. N.Y.: Harmony Books, 1996. Pp. 49-50. (c)1996, Stephen Jay Gould.
A version of this chapter is available as "The Median Isn't the Message" on the CancerGuide Web site.

9) Baseball and Biology

"Probability does pervade the universe­and in this sense, the old chestnut about baseball imitating life really has validity. The Statistics of streaks and slumps, properly understood, do teach an important lesson about epistemology, and life in general. The history of a species, or any natural phenomenon that requires unbroken continuity in a world of trouble, works like a batting streak. All are games of a gambler playing with a limited stake against a house with infinite resources. The gambler must eventually go bust. His aim can only be to stick around as long as possible, to have some fun while he's at it, and, if he happens to be a moral agent as well, to worry about staying the course with honor.

[Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hitting streak in 1941] is the finest of legitimate legends, because it embodies the essence of the battle that truly defines our lives. DiMaggio activated the greatest and most unattainable dream of all humanity, the hope and chimera of all sages and shamans: he cheated death, at least for a while."

From "Streak of Streaks," New York Review of Books 35 (Aug. 18, 1988): 8-12. (c)1988, NYRB.

On Joe DiMaggio. In this 25 second video clip, Gould and his son are talking with DiMaggio, legendary baseball player. Gould reminisces about DiMaggio's talent.

From: Stephen Jay Gould: This View of Life. Paramas, N.J.: Time-Life Video, 1984. A co-production of WGBH and BBC-TV. ©1984, Time-Life Video.

10) "Happy Thoughts on a Sunny Day in New York City"

"I love pristine nature, but I am a humanist at heart, and I revel more in complex interactions between fellow members of Homo sapiens and the great external world. Now think of every stereotype you hold about New Yorkers. (They are untrue, of course, but culturally powerful as a recognized type or icon nonetheless.) New Yorkers are harried, self-centered, cynical, rushed, acquisitive, uncurious, uncommunicative, and downright nasty to all humans who cannot be wheedled or manipulated for material gain. Right? Of course, as all Americans know, even those who have never been east of the Mississippi! A solar eclipse must therefore rank as the last thing that could ever intrigue a real New Yorker. I mean, gimme a break mister. You want me to stop what I'm doing and look into the sky--at a partial and annular eclipse? Get lost--and screw in your own light bulb.

Yet, as Joshua once stopped the sun over Gibeon, New York City returned the compliment on May 10. In midtown Manhattan, in the middle of a busy working day, New York stopped to watch the sun. Let me not exaggerate. Many folks just went on about their business, as the human tide of midday swept down Seventh Avenue. But large knots of eclipse watchers also stood their ground on every street. What features in this less spectacular version of the general phenomenon--partial and annular, rather than total and completely covered--could have inspired the interest of New Yorkers? Consider two aspects of this remarkable event."

From: Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History. N.Y.: Harmony Books, 1995. (c)1995, Stephen Jay Gould.
Chapter 1 made available from the Chapter One site of the Washington Post online.


Top of Page || Home Page || Stanford University Libraries || Stanford University