Stephen Jay Gould: An Appreciation

Stephen Jay Gould: An Appreciation

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Stephen Jay Gould is dead.  He died Monday morning of cancer.  In his life, he was many things: a Harvard professor, a baseball fanatic, an enthusiastic singer of oratorio, an outstanding evolutionist, and above all the greatest science writer of his generation.  Young people of all ages, in America and elsewhere, have grown up on Gould’s scintillating monthly essays, published without break for twenty-five years, in the magazine Natural History.  They have been charmed and intrigued and stimulated and excited.  The have themselves been turned to science, realizing that there is simply nothing more worthwhile than trying to puzzle out the mysteries of the creation around and within us, and that the true miracle of life is that grubby little primates like us humans can find out so much about the universe and its inhabitants.

Steve Gould was born in 1941, so he died just past 60.  This is far too young, but for twenty years he was living on borrowed time.  Just past the age of 40, Gould had fallen sick with a particularly virulent form of stomach cancer, and typical of everything he did in life he fought back and conquered.  I knew him quite well.  We had in 1981 been fellow witnesses for the ACLU in a successful fight in Arkansas to push back a Creationist law – a law insisting that the children of the state be taught Genesis taken literally alongside the truths that we are descended, by a slow natural process, ultimately from blobs, up through fish, reptiles and finally (our most recent ancestors) from ape-like creatures.  At the trial, Gould had been (to put matters politely) somewhat on the chubby side, and a year later he was but a wraith.  Yet his spirit was unchanged, and all he wanted to do was to argue and discuss and push the conversation forward.  He was uninterested in himself and his health except as an object of science.

But although Gould has gone too soon, he has gone with his life fulfilled. Earlier this month, he published the last and final collection of his essays.  The title I Have Landed was taken from the diary of his immigrant grandfather, as he arrived at Ellis Island.  Now, alas, the title refers also to Gould’s own fate.  Although, the word “alas” is surely misplaced.  Gould has truly landed, but what a flight!  For month in and month out, as he explored the mysteries of nature, he delighted us with poetry in prose.  Why is it that the zebra is striped, and should we think of it as a black animal with white stripes or a white animal with black stripes?  In how many different ways do animals get from A to B, and why is it that no one seems to have invented the wheel?  What did the eminent, nineteenth-century morphologist E. Ray Lankester get up to when he took his frequent but unreported trips to Paris?  How did the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin get mixed up in the Piltdown Hoax, and did he know more about the bogus ape-man than he should have done?  Why are there no 400 hitters today, and will the Red Sox ever again win the World Series?

Even more important than his essays, in March Gould published his magnum opus: The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.  Mixing history with science, science with literature, literature with religion, and much more, for over 1400 pages Gould explained the theory for which he is rightly known as a scientist – “punctuated equilibrium,” the belief that the course of fossil history is not smooth and regular but jerky and contingent and unpredictable.  The jury is still out on whether his ideas will prove of truly lasting value, but this one can say.  No one, for the past thirty years, has been as successful as Stephen Jay Gould in making professional evolutionists rethink and reexamine their dearly held premises.  As often is the case, the gad-fly was not always welcomed but he was always respected.

I am proud to have known Steve Gould and to think that we were friends.  But I want to end my appreciation on another note.  For all his great achievements and successes, these were not the most important things in the life of Stephen Jay Gould.  More significant by far was the fact that he never put pen to paper – actually, he wrote everything on the same, old-fashioned, manual typewriter – without a burning moral concern.  His essays and books were always powered by a hatred of dishonesty and prejudice and hypocrisy.  Gould wrote eloquently against racism and sexism and every other vile “ism” in the book.  And more significant by far is what Gould represented and was able to achieve.  He was rightly proud that he came from a humble background.  His dad was a court reporter.  He was even more proud that he (although not a formal believer) came from a Jewish family that had come to the New World in search of a better life for themselves and their children.  Gould’s favourite line was the exclamation of an aged relative on hearing his intended profession was paleontology.  “And that’s a job for a nice Jewish boy?!”  That a nice Jewish boy was able to become a Harvard professor, the recipient of over a hundred honorary degrees, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and much more, tells us something good about the country to which his ancestors set sail.