Stephen J. Gould

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Gould, Stephen Jay (10 September 1941 - 20 May 2002)

Paleontologist and author Stephen J. Gould was born and grew up in New York City. He graduated from Antioch College with a degree in geology in 1963 and earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1967. The evolutionary biologist, who was a professor of geology and zoology at Harvard. Among honors received was being called "Scientist of the Year" (Discovery, 1981), being named Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology in 1982, and being cartoonized by "The Simpsons" TV show.

Gould once explained in a Life article (December 1988),

  • “We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a "higher answer" - but none exists.”

His Books

His ideas on evolution are found in Ever Since Darwin (1977); The Mismeasure of Man (1982), which won the National Book Critics' Circle Award; Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin (1996); and Dinosaur in a Haystack, Reflections in Natural History (1996).

Eight Little Piggies, Reflections in Natural History (1992) is his sixth in a series of essay collections drawn from “a 208 monthly essay streak” in Natural History - these included Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History (1980); The Panda's Thumb (1981), which won the 1981 American Book Award for Science; Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes (1983), and Wonderful Life (1990). His last book, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, was a 1,433-page opus which he began when he was first diagnosed with cancer in 1982.

Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (1999) makes the point that science and religion do not need to be in conflict. However, “many crucial problems in our complex lives find better resolution under the opposite strategy of principles and respectful separation.” Using the Principle of NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria), he shows that creationism is "a distinctively American violation of NOMA," that it is "political and specific, not religious at all." His point was controversial, because it seemed to grant religion default authority over ethical questions.

E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins have rejected his NOMA thesis. So has Peter B. Denison, who summarized Gould’s thesis as being simply “that there should be no controversy between science and religion.” But “Gould wants to give religion authority over values and morals. Certainly secular philosophers also have much to say on those issues. . . . Gould would be almost right if we can truly separate true religion from superstition and the supernatural. Humanist religions like Ethical Culture can live quite happily with science, no matter how materialistic it is. But even then, when Humanists consider ethical problems they should be willing to use scientific methods of thinking.”

At an Arkansas creationism trial, Gould and six other expert witnesses showed, he said, that “‘creation science’ is nothing but a smoke screen, a meaningless and oxymoronic phrase invented as sheep’s clothing for the old wolf of Genesis literalism, already identified in the Epperson case as a partisan theological doctrine, not a scientific concept at all- and clearly in violation of First Amendment guarantees.”

Punctuated Equiibrium

In 1972, with Niles Eldredge, Gould proposed an evolutionary theory, of “punctured equilibrium,” which has been described by one source as

  • stating that many species may evolve relatively quickly, rather than through a continuous slow accretion of tiny species variations, then persist virtually unchanged for perhaps millions of years. The "missing links" in evolutionary development sought since the time of Charles Darwin may thus not exist, the two hold. Elaboration of these concepts has led to extensive scientific debate.

The work was dubbed "evolution by jerks" by some, but it postulated long periods of evolutionary stability interrupted by spurts of evolutionary change. He was nicknamed "the bulldog of evolutionary biology" for his commitment to popularizing the understanding of evolution. His field of research was invertebrate paleontology specializing in land snails.

George Gaylord Simpson's 1944 Tempo and Mode in Evolution described the differences between Charles Darwin's usual characterization of evolution's being marked by a "slowness and smoothness of rate," which suggested an "insensibly graded series." But the Origin of Species is not a scientific work appearing in a contemporary scientific journal. Rather, it is a nineteenth-century document that contains some contradictions within and between successive versions. A refutation of the Lamarckian theory of jumps, it was pointed out by Simpson that evolutionary change was not a staircase nor a ramp but more like a road winding up and down hills.

Reviewing Gould's Punctuated Equilibrium in The New York Review of Books (14 February 2008), evolutionary biologist and geneticist Richard Lewontin described Gould's main claim to professional fame as distinct from his prominence as a public intellectual:

  • While acknowledging what he characterized as his fellow scientists' legitimate disagreements with the theory, he devotes the last pages of Punctuated Equilibrium to a discussion of what he regards as purely personal sources of criticism:
Given the vehemence of many deprecations, combined with a weakness or absence of logical or scientific content, I must conclude that the primary motivating factor lies in simple jealousy. . . .
  • What he calls "the most unkindest cut of all" is the dismissive characterization of the theory as "trivial" by two of his fellow public intellectuals, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, who, after all, have no particular claim to evolutionary expertise. Whether Dawkins is right that punctuated equilibrium is a "minor wrinkle on the surface of neo-Darwinian theory" depends, of course, on the distance from which it is viewed. From outer space even the Himalayas will appear as a minor wrinkle on the surface of the earth.

Lewontin concludes,

  • At his premature death after the recurrence of a cancer we all thought had long ago been extirpated, Steve Gould was a success. He had the public renown he craved, a professional stature in his field that was out of the ordinary, and a very long list of honors, medals, degrees, and elections. What was most extraordinary about him, however, was the unresisting ease with which he faced his own imminent extinction. Perhaps, in the end, he was satisfied.

Survival of the Luckiest

In a 1993 speech at Columbia University, Gould contended that evolution is really like a big lottery. Natural history, he held, is not inspired by any survival of the fittest, as so many Darwinians hold, but by the survival of the luckiest. He debunked the view that the ascent of humans began with single cell organisms, then moved through slimy fish and reptiles and from hunched hairy beasts to homo sapiens in some progressive and orderly fashion. Rather, he said, evolution is a risky, messy business in which mass extinction can wipe out a highly species and spare other species. “You can be the most beautiful fish that ever swam,” he says. “You can be perfectly equipped to survive. Then, one day the pond you live in dries up, and that’s it, you die, no matter how fit you are.”

As proof, in Wonderful Life (1989), he cites an inland sea that covered Western Canada some 570 million years ago in the rocks of what has been called the Burgess Shale. In that sea were creatures which have no existing relatives today, none that fit into existing classes, none whatsoever. “Why did some of the Burgess Shale species perish, while others lived to pass on their lineage to today’s life forms?” He answers, “Nothing about many of the forms that didn’t make it suggests that they were not fit for survival. In fact, many of those that died off were beautiful, elegant, highly successful life forms, challenging the long-held notion that from early life forms, such as those found in the Burgess Shale, we could tell which species would emerge later on.” Therefore, he concludes, evolution is random, not progressive. Survival is just the luck of the draw.

In Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown (1998), the title tell it all. He describes how the concept of the millennium sifted from some future thousand-year period of righteousness to a specific period in time based on an arbitrary calendar by a sixth-century monk Dionysius Exiguus, referred to by some as Denny the Runt because of his size. He even tells how “millennial” has two n’s but “millenarian” has only one. And he delights in telling that the earth completes its circuit in just over eleven minutes less than 365 days and a quarter, resulting in the calendar’s needing to make up for the mathematical difference. “What hath God wrought?” he asks, sarcastically.


John Maynard Smith, E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and others have disagreed with Gould, and their disagreements have filled articles and books.


The son of a court stenographer and an artist, Gould when five was fascinated by the "Hall of Dinosaurs" in the American Museum of Natural History, particularly by Tyrannosaurus rex. It was the start of his interest in the sciences, one which culminated in his becoming a respected scholar in his field, tropical snails, and one of the most entertaining contemporary writers of popular science.

Although his parents were nominally Jewish, he did not formally practice organized religion and called himself an agnostic. What he did enjoy, however, was singing religious hymns with a choral group. Gould was a Humanist Laureate in the Council for Secular Humanism's International Academy of Humanism and appeared at freethought and humanist events.

In July 1982 he learned he had abdominal mesothelioma, a situation which could mean he had only eight months to live. Researching everything he could find, he wrote how statistics are not final - he lived nearly twenty years longer.

For the cancerous problem, he used marijuana to alleviate the nausea that it caused, and this led to his fight to make the illegal drug legal if used for medical purposes.

He died at the age of 60 from a metastatic adenocarcinoma of the lung, a form of lung cancer that had spread to his brain. It was not at all connected with the abdominal mesothelioma he previously had had but had recovered from.

At the end, according to Jill Krementz's photo journal (New York Social Diary, June 2, 2002), he died in his New York City Soho loft, in a bed set up in the library and surrounded by his wife Rhonda, his mother Eleanor, and his books.

The Memorial Service for Stephen Jay Gould

The following, by Warren Allen Smith, was rejected by Skeptic because of its final paragraph. Published in its entirety, however, by the "Bertrand Russell Society Newsletter" in 2002, it is the only known description of the memorial service by a journalist.

Stephen Jay Gould’s memorial was memorable for its wit, humor, and appreciation of his having so successfully popularized paleontology and evolutionary biology.
On 30 May 2002, the New York City Fire Department’s Color Guard and Pipes and Drums commenced the memorial by performing outside New York University’s Vanderbilt Hall. Then to the slow beat of a single snare drum, Mrs. Rhonda Gould along with members and friends of the Gould family marched solemnly into the auditorium. Several hundred had already assembled, filling the room to capacity.
The first to speak was Philip Furmanski, chairman of New York University’s Biology Department. He recalled how the two had co-taught biology, how Gould had been a cherished colleague with profound feelings of the responsibilities a scientist has both to his science and to the public. But he was not just Bahamian Cerion snails, fossils, and the punctuated equilibrium theory. Gould, he said shifting his tone, also loved W. C. Fields, Mae West, and the Yankees baseball team. Toward the end of his life, suffering from the mesothelioma that would kill him, Gould valiantly had wanted to live long enough to finish two books he still had in him. Regretfully, this was not to be.
Niles Eldredge, of the American Museum of Natural History and author of The Triumph of Evolution and the Failure of Creationism, explained some of Dr. Gould’s basic and admittedly controversial views. The two had suggested that evolutionary change does not involve a steady process of slow change but, rather, fossil records show it came in fits and starts. During millions of years, for example, species changed little or not at all. But intermittently species did change, and new forms appeared in the fossil record, punctuating the rapid change while a steady equilibrium continued in nature, leading to their theory’s being called punctuated equilibrium. Gould, he said, was “arguably the most famous scientist of our time” and his passing “will leave a void that nobody can fill.” One paleontologist Gould did not agree with, said Eldredge to everyone’s amusement, was the paleontologist and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Richard Burger, a childhood chum, told tales of their riding the “F” train together, Gould easily memorizing all the subway stops. At Jamaica High School, in the city’s Borough of Queens, Gould had sung folksongs with the school’s leftists and, a sign of his genius, had declared joyfully that all reasonable people had to be atheists, not believers. Later in life, Gould had a habit of carrying twenty-seven or so pens in his shirt pocket, Burger noted, adding with a smile that probably eighteen of them were bone dry.
Gould’s step-son, London Shearer Allen, related what an inspiring mentor his step-father had been and how as a teenager he had been encouraged to study reptiles, had even been taken on a memorable trip to Costa Rica’s jungles to study flora and fauna. Mourners were amused when he reported that his step-father had been a great help and an ideal person to proofread some of his student research papers at NYU.
Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and friend, called Gould a polymath, humanizing him by saying he loved humor, parties, Gilbert and Sullivan, baseball, but, above all, dinosaurs.
One of Stephen’s two sons, Ethan Gould, said he and his father bonded with their interest in baseball. “I promised Dad I would read one of his books,” he said, admitting that he was not the academic genius his father was. “I never did read one of his books. But I will now,” he added to everyone’s amusement.
Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer, sent a message that was read, one in which he detailed his own appreciation for Gould’s many scientific findings.
Two selections were then sung by The Boston Cecilia, “Funeral Sentences for the Funeral of Queen Mary” by Henry Purcell, and “The Blue Bird” by Charles Villiers Stanford. Over the years, Gould had enjoyed singing with the group, and the memorial ended with the two songs, following which the single snare drummer led Mrs. Gould and the immediate family out of the auditorium.
“Why,” the musical group’s conductor was asked by the only reporter present, “was the Purcell music with its theistic overtones chosen? Why not something like Haydn’s ‘Creation,’ which Gould once told reporter Alexander Star has a text right out of the heart of the Enlightenment, one praising reason, knowledge, and liberal values.” Well, replied Barbara Bruns, the family had agreed to the two selections, one secular and one religious, and Dr. Gould himself had sung the Purcell selection with the group in the past. “But he was a naturalist, a non-believer!” she was told. The musical conductor had no further explanation but was informed that, for many who had assembled, the equilibrium of the memorial could be said to have been punctured - rather than punctuated - by the choice of that one religious work.

{CA; CE; E; “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” Skeptical Inquirer, July-August 1999; Peter Denison, Newsletter of the Humanist Association of Massachusetts, January 2000}. See “Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism,” The New York Review of Books, 27 June 1997, which delineates his differences with Daniel Dennett. Also see the entry for paleontology, in which a basic Gould theory is questioned.)