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Stephen Jay Gould
Stephen Jay Gould Portrait
Photo from: University of Michigan Windows to the Universe

Perhaps more than any other contemporary American scientist Stephen Jay Gould has presented the modes, implications, benefits, and shortcomings of science to a literate public. As an inventive and productive scholar he has shaped and participated in crucial debates of the biological and geological sciences, particularly with regard to the theory of evolution, the interpretation of fossil evidence, and the meaning of diversity and change in biology. As the readership for his nearly twenty books and hundreds of essays, reviews, and articles has grown he has become one of the most popular and well-known writers and lecturers on scientific topics. He has distinguished himself by elaborating his critique of contemporary evolutionary theory via an eclectic range of discourse, deriving inspiration from his personal reflections across an astonishing array of historical and humanistic disciplines, popular culture, and sports.

Gould was born in New York City in 1941. When he was five years old he was taken to the American Museum of Natural History by his father, a court stenographer with an interest in natural history. Gould's interest in paleontology grew unabated through his childhood and teenage years, rivaling his intense passion for the New York Yankees. He completed his undergraduate education with a degree in geology from Antioch College in 1963 and returned to New York to earn a Ph.D. in paleontology from Columbia University in 1967. He has been Professor of Geology and Zoology at Harvard University, currently as the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Geology at Harvard University, Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology in the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, and adjunct member of the Department of the History of Science. He has established a reputation as one of Harvard's most visible and engaging instructors, offering courses in paleontology, biology, geology, and the history of science. Since 1996, he also has been Vincent Astor Visiting Research Professor of Biology at New York University and now divides his time between New York and Cambridge.

Gould's empirical field studies have concentrated on fossil mollusks and snails found in Bermuda. His first major monographic work, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977), treated the theory of recapitulation in evolutionary biology. His second, The Mismeasure of Man (1981), examined the history of ideas regarding biological determination of intelligence. These studies demonstrated Gould's ability to link both careful historical research and what he called "baroque excrescences and digressions" (Ontogeny and Phylogeny, p. 2) on all manner of subjects to his evolving criticism of the foundations and contemporary understanding of Darwinian evolutionary theory. In Mismeasure of Man he engaged head-on the historical genesis and broader implications of biological determinism by focusing on the question of the numerical ranking of human groups by measures of intelligence. Both books were well received, and The Mismeasure of Man received the National Book Critics' Circle Award for 1982, an indication of the expanding impact of Gould's writings.

In 1974, Gould began a monthly series of essays under the rubric "This View of Life" for Natural History, the magazine of the American Museum of Natural History. The series began as a column on topics such as "Size and Shape," "Sizing Up Human Intelligence," and the "Race Problem." By the completion of his second year as author of this series Gould established the series as a popular and wide-ranging source of insights on current and historical topics in natural history. The immense popularity of "This View of Life" alone justifies the frequent praise Gould has received for reviving the popular scientific essay which he has re-established as a critical, rather than purely didactic, genre of science writing. This form of discourse had reached its high-point in the 19th century, then suffered a continuous decline due to increased specialization and the rapid accumulation of knowledge in the natural sciences, as well as decreased professional reward for non-technical writing. Gould's streak of uninterrupted monthly contributions to Natural History alone has reached 280, spanning nearly 25 years. For many readers he has become the consummate scientific essayist.

While it might be tempting to view Gould's career as following a path from specialized technical studies to broader theoretical concerns and finally to popularization, this picture is misleading, if not false. As an undergraduate at Antioch he reaped the benefits of a curriculum that emphasized writing skills. Even in his earliest scientific publications, literary and historical references played a significant role. As early as 1965 he published an essay, "Is Uniformitarianism Necessary?" for the American Journal of Science (no. 263, 1965: 223-28) which set the stage for his empirical work, his later theoretical critique of adaptationism and uniformitarianism in neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory and geology, and his historical writings on 19th-century science. Gould's evolving historical critique of evolutionary theory emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s in a dozen or so book reviews on historical monographs, a contribution to the 13th International Congress of the History of Science (1971) on Friedrich Engels' ideas about human evolution, and also in articles in the American Journal of Science, Science, the Journal of the History of Biology, and other journals. The confluence of these diverse themes and genres established Gould's unique voice and led to the critical success and large readership for Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989), winner of the Science Book Prize for 1990, and for seven volumes of essays (most originally from his "This View of Life" series) published over a span of twenty years, especially The Panda's Thumb (1980), which won the 1981 American Book Award for Science, Bully for Brontosaurus (1991), and Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995).

Photo from: Albany magazine,
SUNY, Albany.

Gould's critique of central concepts of the Darwinian paradigm has been founded on the notion of "punctuated equilibria" and his assertion of the importance of historical contingency and other factors in evolution besides the mechanism of adaptation to the external environment. The theory of punctuated equilibria, which he first formulated with his colleague Niles Eldredge in 1972, states that the history of evolution is concentrated in relatively rapid events of speciation rather than taking place gradually as slow, continuous transformations of established lineages. Most species during most periods do not evolve radically, but rather fluctuate aimlessly and within bounds given by expected spreads of statistical variation. Gould considers the dramatic implications for this interpretation in the context of his historical critique of the gradualist model of evolution. In Gould's view, adherence to a belief in directed evolutionary progress expressed cultural and political biases of the 19th century. Charles Darwin in particular was unable to abandon these ideas despite apparent contradictions with his own theory of evolution and his agonizing intellectual struggle with gaps in the fossil record, gaps that could not be explained if evolution moves forward by the accretion of many small changes.

The theory of punctuated equilibria and its implication for Darwinian evolutionary theory have stimulated a series of debates since the mid-1970s. Gould has adopted positions opposed to an orthodoxy of Darwinian evolution based on the mechanisms of long-term adaptation and natural selection over relatively long periods of time. In Wonderful Life and Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin (1996) he considered a startling range of topics tied together by his view of "life's history and meaning" (Full House, p. 4). These themes included: his detailed account of the history, interpretation, and significance of the fossils discovered in 1909 by Charles Walcott, then secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, at the Burgess Shale site in British Columbia; his insights into the importance of statistical reasoning and the meaning of variation derived as a long-term survivor of abdominal mesothelioma, a rare, and at the time of his diagnosis in 1982, generally fatal form of cancer; and the decline of the .400 hitter in baseball as a lesson in the relationship between excellence and statistical variation. He ties these seemingly disparate subjects together with his passionate criticism of two cardinal notions of Western culture: the "parochial" image of biological evolution as a ladder leading from primitive to complex organisms, the scala naturae; and a confidence in the movement of history toward a present-day "Age of Man" characterized by human dominance and the evolution of intricate cognitive skills and consciousness.

Burgess Shale Panorama,
© 1988,

Gould's mission as a writer of accessible essays and books aimed at a broad literate public is not overtly pedagogic. In this sense he is not a spokesman for science or a teacher for the masses. Indeed, even his "popular" works are pitched at a relatively high level of reader, both in terms of their content (generally more critical than didactic) and the frequency of his references to an occasionally bewildering assortment of non-scientific sources, including classical literature, the Bible, history, sports, and popular culture. He rarely "dumbs down" topics to make them comprehensible in terms of ready metaphors or comparisons to more familiar material and he has criticized the use of these techniques in science exposition. His commitment to making serious discussions of scientific topics accessible to as large a public audience as possible is nonetheless formidable; in his eulogy of Carl Sagan for Science (Jan. 31, 1997: 599), Gould noted Sagan's "legendary service to science," including his ability to move "comfortably across the entire spectrum [of high and pop culture] while never compromising scientific content." These are clearly goals Gould has set for himself and he has sought to fulfill them in many ways besides publication. He has been a member of the advisory board to the PBS science show, NOVA, since 1980 and for the Children's TV Workshop from 1978 to 1981; he was also the subject of a NOVA profile ("Stephen Jay Gould: This View of Life") in 1984 and a multimedia CD-ROM, First Person: Stephen Jay Gould on Evolution (New York: Voyager, 1994).

Gould's high visibility, critical voice, and obvious enthusiasm for spirited debate have drawn him into scientific, cultural and political controversies. Three examples indicate the depth of his passion and the sharpness of his verbal sword. The first is his participation in the debate swirling around "creationist science." He has openly opposed legislation to require its teaching alongside Darwinian evolution and testified in several court cases concerned with this issue. In Gould's view this controversy culminated in the "successful completion of a sixty-year battle against creationism (since the Scopes Trial of 1925) in our resounding Supreme Court victory [Edwards v. Aguillard] of 1987" (Bully for Brontosaurus, p. 14). As America's most prominent evolutionist he continues to stand out as a lightning-rod for advocates of creationism, as evidenced by the many Internet bulletin boards offering discussion threads on this or related topics.

His unrelenting critique of Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve: The Reshaping of American Life by Difference in Intelligence (New York: Free Press, 1994) offers a second example. In 1996, he issued a new edition of The Mismeasure of Man. In the new introduction prepared for this edition Gould addressed the reception of his book since its original publication in 1981. He explained the issuing of a new edition in part as a response to the Bell Curve, which in his view represented and benefited from a "political swing" to the right in the United States. He added a lengthy epilogue consisting of several essays in direct rebuttal to The Bell Curve. In this rebuttal Gould returned to the theme of a "mismeasure of man" with his unyielding refutation of the validity of any single quantitative measure of intelligence as measuring "a real property in the head" (The Mismeasure of Man, p. 372). In one of these essays, his reprinted New Yorker review of The Bell Curve, Gould insisted that "the book is a manifesto of conservative ideology" and "I have never read anything so feeble, so unlikely, so almost grotesquely inadequate" as the argument in its final chapter.

These quotations register Gould's willingness to enter the ring swinging against his opponents. A third example of his enthusiasm for verbal battle is his open opposition to the advocates of strict neo-Darwinian theorists and evolutionary psychology. The melee among these "evolutionary pugilists," as Martin Brookes has labeled them (Brookes, "May the Best Man Win," New Scientist, April 11, 1998: 51), typifies Gould's fervent opposition to what he terms the "strict" adaptationist model for the evolution of human cognitive capacity. The debate itself is about nothing less than the capabilities and limits of the Darwinian evolutionary paradigm. Gould has stridently objected to its unbridled application as an overarching theory capable of completely explicating human nature or even leading to the denial and replacement of religion. His opponents on various fronts in this wide-ranging and ongoing debate include the linguist and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, the philosopher Daniel Dennett and the prominent English evolutionist Richard Dawkins. Their clashes in print have been summarized as a "feud for thought" by Andrew Brown in The Guardian who calls the dispute "a delight for lovers of scientific invective."

Gould's involvement in public and at times vituperative public debates has had little negative impact on either his popularity as a writer or his prominence in the American scientific community. He was one of the first winners of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation prize fellowship in 1981 and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He has served as president of the American Society of Naturalists, the Paleontological Society, and the Society for the Study of Evolution, and in 1998 became president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the nation's largest scientific organization. The news release issued by the AAAS cites his "numerous contributions to both scientific progress and the public understanding of science." In taking on this role, Gould accepted the challenge of making "people less scared of science so they won't see it as arcane, monolithic, and distant, but as something that is important to their lives."

By Henry Lowood

(c)1998, Stanford University

Stephen Jay Gould pages edited by Henry Lowood, Curator for History of Science and Technology Collections, and Curator for Germanic Collections, Stanford University,

Editor's Note: Special thanks for help with this project are due to Nathalie Auerbach for assistance with the bibliography, to Jim Kent for assistance with computer issues, to Heidi Beck for editorial assistance, and to Karl and Paul Lowood for many insights on dinosaurs.


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