Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941 – May 20, 2002) was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation. He spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and writing for Natural History, a publication of the American Museum of Natural History.
Early in his career, Gould developed with Niles Eldredge the theory of punctuated equilibrium, in which evolutionary change occurs relatively rapidly in comparison to much longer periods of evolutionary stability (stasis). According to Gould, punctuated equilibrium revised a key pillar of neo-Darwinism, that evolutionary change is "slow, steady, gradual and continuous." Initially confronting significant opposition, the theory became accepted as part of evolutionary theory. Some evolutionary biologists have argued that while the theory was an important insight, in reality it merely modified neo-Darwinism in a manner that was fully compatible with what had been known before.
An ardent advocate of evolutionary theory who wrote in opposition to creationism and intelligent design, Gould also critiqued the "Darwinian fundamentalist" view that natural selection is the sole cause of the features of organisms. This critique plus his advocacy of the theory of punctuated equilibrium provided fodder for those opposing natural selection as the primary causal agent of macroevolutionary change.
Gould received many accolades for his scholarly work and popular expositions of natural history; he was also criticized by some in the biological community who felt his public presentations were, in various respects, out of step with mainstream evolutionary theory or even misrepresenting their work.
Gould was a key participant in the circle of intellectuals at Harvard University that maintained a consistent political activism supporting socialism and opposing what they perceived as oppression and colonialism. A strong critic of all aspects of biological determinism, Gould opposed sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and race-based studies of intelligence. Consistent with his materialism, he was a critic of the “progressivist bias” and common religious view that evolutionary history advances through time toward human beings as the highest life form.
Gould was born and raised in Queens, New York. His father, Leonard, was a court stenographer and his mother, Eleanor, an artist. When Gould was five years old, his father took him to the "Hall of Dinosaurs" in the American Museum of Natural History, where he first saw Tyrannosaurus rex. "I had no idea there were such things—I was awestruck," Gould once recalled (Green 1986). He later claimed that it was in that moment that he decided he would become a paleontologist.
Raised in a nominally Jewish home, Gould did not formally practice organized religion and preferred to be called an agnostic. His mother was an atheist and his father a Marxist, but Gould is quoted as saying that his own political views were different from those of his father. Throughout his career and writings, Gould spoke out against what he perceived as cultural oppression in all its forms, especially "pseudoscience" in the service of racism and sexism. In the early 1970s, Gould joined a group called "Science for the People," an anti-capitalist organization that emerged from the antiwar movement.
Gould was twice married; to Deborah Lee in 1965, which ended in divorce, and to artist Rhonda Roland Shearer in 1995. Gould had two children, Jesse and Ethan, by his first marriage, and two stepchildren, Jade and London.
In July 1982, Gould was diagnosed with abdominal mesothelioma. He later published a column in Discover magazine, titled "The Median Isn't the Message," in which he discusses his discovery that mesothelioma patients had only a median lifespan of eight months after diagnosis. He then describes the research he uncovered behind this number, and his relief upon the realization that statistics are not destiny. After his diagnosis and receiving an experimental treatment, Gould continued to live for nearly twenty years. His column became a source of comfort for many cancer patients.
It was during his bout with abdominal mesothelioma that Gould became a user of marijuana to alleviate the nausea associated with his cancer treatments. Although Gould maintained, "I am something of a Puritan" with respect to any substances that would alter or dull his mental state—not drinking alcohol or using drugs in a recreational sense—he attributed value to the medicinal use of marijuana in helping him to face the painful side effects of his treatment and keep a more positive attitude (Grinspoon 1993). Ultimately, he recognized an important role to the maintenance of spirit through adversity, and that use of marijuana had an important effect on this aspect of his treatments, though he disliked the mental blurring.
Stephen Jay Gould died May 20, 2002, from a metastatic adenocarcinoma of the lung (a form of lung cancer, which had spread to his brain). This cancer was completely unrelated to his abdominal mesothelioma, from which he had fully recovered almost twenty years earlier. He died in his home "in a bed set up in the library of his Soho loft, surrounded by his wife Rhonda, his mother Eleanor, and the many books he loved" (Krementz 2002).
Gould began his higher education at Antioch College, a Liberal arts college in Ohio, graduating with a degree in geology in 1963. He spent a brief period of this time studying at the University of Leeds, England. After completing his graduate work at Columbia University in 1967 under the guidance of Norman Newell, he was immediately hired by Harvard University, where he worked until the end of his life (1967-2002). In 1973, Harvard promoted him to Professor of Geology and Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the institution's Museum of Comparative Zoology, and in 1982 was awarded the title of Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology. In 1983, Gould was awarded fellowship into the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), where he later served as president (2000). He also served as president of the Paleontological Society (1985-1986) and the Society for the Study of Evolution (1990-1991). In 1989, Gould was elected into the body of the National Academy of Sciences.
In addition to his work on punctuated equilibrium and evolutionary developmental biology, Gould had championed biological constraints and other non-selectionist forces in evolution. Together with Richard Lewontin, he co-authored an influential 1979 paper critiquing the overuse of adaptation in biology (Gould and Lewontin 1979). Their paper introduced the architectural word "spandrel" in an evolutionary context, using it to mean a feature of an organism that exists as a necessary consequence of other features and not built directly, piece by piece, by natural selection. The relative frequency of spandrels, so defined, versus adaptive features in nature, remains a controversial topic in evolutionary biology.
Shortly before his death, Gould published a long treatise recapitulating his version of modern evolutionary theory, written primarily for the technical audience of evolutionary biologists: The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.
Gould became widely known through his popular science essays in Natural History magazine and his best-selling books on evolution. Many of his magazine essays were reprinted in collected volumes, such as Ever Since Darwin and The Panda's Thumb, while his popular treatises included books such as The Mismeasure of Man, Wonderful Life, and Full House.
Gould was a passionate advocate of evolutionary theory and wrote prolifically on the subject, trying to communicate his understanding of contemporary evolutionary theories to a wide audience. A recurring theme in his writings is the history and development of evolutionary, and pre-evolutionary thought, as well as paleontology or paleobiology (Shermer 2002). Ronald Numbers called him one of the two most influential historians of science of the twentieth century, along with Thomas Kuhn (Shermer 2002). He was also an enthusiastic baseball fan and made frequent references to the sport in his essays, including enough essays to publish a posthumous anthology Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville.
Although a proud Darwinist, his emphasis was toward less gradualism, and toward more punctuational change, than most other neo-Darwinists. He also opposed many aspects of sociobiology and its intellectual descendant evolutionary psychology.
Gould devoted much time to arguing against creationism (and the related constructs Creation Science and Intelligent Design). It was not a reactionary position—Gould even supervised a graduate student who was a creationist and presented a sympathetic portrayal of the religious position in his recounting of the history of the Scopes trial. Gould provided expert testimony against the equal-time creationism law in McLean v. Arkansas. Gould used the term "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" (NOMA) to describe how, in his view, science and religion could not comment on each other's realm. Gould went on to develop this idea in some detail, particularly in the books Rocks of Ages (1999) and The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox (2003). In a 1982 essay for Natural History, Gould wrote:
Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians, students of the humanities, indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science. The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner (Gould 1982).
Gould's inability to recognize moral messages in nature is fully consistent with his basic materialistic philosophy, which assumes that the only mode of meaningful interaction with nature is through the "data of science." He seems to have viewed the natural world through the exclusive frame of a marvelous intellect, unable to appreciate the human emotional and intuitive capacities for deriving from nature vast inspiration, solace, and even instruction in harmonious dynamics such as are codified in Taoism.
Gould was considered by many people to be one of the pre-eminent theoreticians in his field. His work and promotion of punctuated equilibrium, originally controversial, became a mainstay of evolutionary theory. Indeed, Gould (2002) claimed that the acceptance of this theory went through the three stages recognized by Louis Agassiz: "First, people say it isn't true, then that it is against religion, and, in the third stage, that it has long been known." The theory of punctuated equilibrium was first denied as true, then "vociferously dismissed as contrary to religion—that is, as apostate anti-Darwinian nonsense," and then accepted, but then as a trivial wrinkle on neo-Darwinism (Gould 2002; Gould and Eldredge 1986).
Although widely praised by scientists and laymen alike, Gould is not without his detractors. His criticism of the modern evolutionary synthesis (neo-Darwinism), and its extrapolation of natural selection on the microevolutionary level to macroevolutionary events, confronted, and still confronts, orthodox Darwinian positions. A good number of evolutionary biologists have disagreed with the way in which Gould publicly presented his views. John Maynard Smith, for example, thought that Gould trivialized the role of adaptation, and overestimated the possible role of mutations in effecting large evolutionary changes (Maynard Smith 1981a, 1981b). In a review of Daniel Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Maynard Smith wrote about Gould "…giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory" (Maynard Smith 1995). But Maynard Smith has not been consistently negative, writing in a review of The Panda's Thumb that often "he infuriates me, but I hope he will go right on writing essays like these" (Maynard Smith 1981b). Maynard Smith was also among those who had earlier welcomed Gould's reinvigoration of evolutionary paleontology (Maynard Smith 1984).
One reason for such criticism is that Gould, although a strong evolutionist, offers a perspective that appears to be a revolutionary way of understanding evolution, which relegates natural selection to a less important position than the orthodox view. Indeed, Gould criticizes a "Darwinian fundamentalism" that holds that "natural selection regulates everything of any importance in evolution" (Gould 1997a, 1997b). Even Darwin, Gould contends, criticized those who contended that natural selection caused all evolutionary change. As such, Gould's writings have been used in the criticism of evolutionary theory, including by creationists (Wright 1999; Gould 2002). However, Gould remained a strong believer in both evolution by common descent and in natural selection as a primary causal agent of evolution, although he viewed natural selection not only as acting on the level of the individual, but also as being hierarchical and acting at levels beyond the individual as well (species, etc.). He also asserted that factors other than natural selection may play a major role in macroevolutionary changes.
In a way, Gould's work does provide support for those who accept evolution by common descent but oppose natural selection as the causal agent of macroevolutionary change. By itself, punctuated equilibrium does not address the question of a mechanism. Rather, it points out two consistent features of the fossil record. First, that species tend to remain the same from their first appearance in the fossil record until they disappear. And, second, that the events of speciation are concentrated within relatively short periods of time—perhaps hundreds or thousands of years in duration—compared to the entire geological history of the species. Such a change could be brought about by natural selection, or by another process, including by creation by a supreme being. In addition, Gould's criticism of a Darwinian fundamentalism regarding natural selection can be used as support for those holding a view that other factors may be involved on the macroevolutionary level. However, in many cases young earth creationists (who, despite overwhelming evidence, see the earth as only thousands of years old) misappropriated Gould's work to support their view that even the theory of evolution by common descent—the pattern of evolution—is false. This concerned Gould, who offered in his work strong support, and many evidences for evolution.
Gould also had a long-running feud with E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and other evolutionary biologists over sociobiology and its descendant evolutionary psychology, which Gould strongly opposed, but others strongly advocated. Gould and Dawkins also disagreed over the importance of gene selection in evolution. Dawkins argued that all evolution is ultimately caused by gene competition, while Gould advocated the importance of higher-level selection, including, but certainly not limited to, species selection. Strong criticism of Gould can be found in Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker and Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Dennett's criticism has tended to be harsher, while Dawkins praises Gould in evolutionary topics other than those of contention. The American experimental psychologist and popular writer Steven Pinker accuses Gould, Richard Lewontin, and other opponents of evolutionary psychology of being "radical scientists," whose stance on human nature is influenced by politics rather than science (Pinker 2002). Gould countered that sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists are often heavily influenced, perhaps unconsciously, by their own prejudices and interests (Gould 1997b).
Gould's interpretation of the Cambrian Burgess Shale fossils in his book Wonderful Life was criticized by Simon Conway Morris, one of the key researchers on the Burgess Shale, in his 1998 book, The Crucible Of Creation. Gould and Conway Morris debated the issue in a piece titled "Showdown on the Burgess Shale" (Conway Morris and Gould 1998). Gould had emphasized the "weirdness" of the Burgess Shale fauna, and the role of unpredictable, contingent phenomena in determining which members of this fauna survived and flourished. Conway Morris stressed the phylogenetic linkages between the Burgess Shale forms and modern taxa, particularly, the importance of convergent evolution in producing general predictable responses to similar environmental circumstances. Paleontologist Richard Fortey has noted that prior to the release of Wonderful Life, Conway Morris shared many of Gould's sentiments and views. It was only after publication of Wonderful Life that Conway Morris revised his interpretation and adopted a more deterministic stance towards the history of life (Fortey 1998).
As the author of The Mismeasure of Man (1981), a history and inquiry of psychometrics and intelligence testing, Gould investigated many of the techniques of nineteenth-century craniometry, as well as modern-day psychological testing. Gould concluded they developed unnecessarily from an unfounded faith in biological determinism. The Mismeasure of Man generated considerable controversy, and has been subject to both widespread praise (by skeptics) and extensive criticism (by psychologists)—including claims by some scientists that Gould had misrepresented their work (Jensen 1982).
Awards include a National Book Award for The Panda’s Thumb, a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Mismeasure of Man, the Phi Beta Kappa Book Award for Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, and a Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Wonderful Life. Forty-four honorary degrees and 66 major fellowships, medals, and awards bear witness to his accomplishments in both the sciences and humanities: Member of the National Academy of Sciences; President and Fellow of AAAS; MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ Fellowship (in the first group of awardees); Fellow of the Linnean Society of London; Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; Fellow of the European Union of Geosciences; Associate of the Mus´eum National D’Histoire Naturelle Paris; the Schuchert Award for excellence in paleontological research; Scientist of the Year from Discover magazine; the Silver Medal from the Zoological Society of London; the Gold Medal for Service to Zoology from the Linnean Society of London; the Britannica Award and Gold Medal for dissemination of public knowledge, Public Service Award from the Geological Society of America; Anthropology in Media Award from the American Anthropological Association; Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers; and Distinguished Scientist Award from UCLA.
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