Friday, December 19, 2008

Steve Jones (and I) on Stephen Jay Gould

I guess I have to confess that the course of my life would not have been the same without Stephen Jay Gould. My lifelong interest in Darwin and evolution was sparked by his book "Ever Since Darwin". But,  like many others, I have an ambivalent relationship to his life and work. This week in Nature, Steve Jones has written a balanced and nuanced appraisal of Gould while reviewing a new book Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on his view of life. Steve Jones's review is well worth a look and I am looking forward to getting my hands on the book too.

My own book, The Rough Guide to Evolution, (which is due to be published on 2nd January, but is apparently available from on December 22nd) contains numerous pen portraits of evolutionary scientists. Here is what I wrote about Gould:

Stephen Jay Gould – Darwin’s essayist
Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002) was an American palaeontologist who eloquently wrote essay after essay, interweaving Darwin and evolution with the details of history, baseball and light opera. For over twenty years he reigned supreme as America’s foremost spokesman for evolution and defender of his hero, Darwin. His status as the people’s palaeontologist even earned him a cameo role in The Simpsons!

A New Yorker by birth, upbringing and sporting affiliation, Gould spent almost all his working life at Harvard, as professor of geology and curator at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. His 1977 book Ontology and Phylogeny prefigured the evo-devo movement. That same year, he published a collection of essays, Ever Since Darwin, the first of over a dozen volumes that thrilled and informed readers for the next quarter century. In his 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man, Gould fearlessly defended human equality. Throughout his life, he attacked biological determinism, particularly in sociobiology and its offshoot evolutionary psychology. In the courtroom, he fought against the teaching of creationism in American schools.

Gould courted controversy at every turn. His punctuated equilibrium theory stirred up things in palaeontology. Gould’s opposition to adaptationism – the idea that every feature of an organism has to have an explanation in natural selection – led to him being misquoted by creationists and derided by his “ultra-Darwinist” critics. Gould’s belief that Cambrian fossils proved that life’s history depended on luck and was non-repeatable – popularized in his bestselling book, Wonderful Life (1989) – brought him into dispute with fossil expert Simon Conway Morris. And Gould’s attempt to categorize religion and science as two separate fields of human experience, as “non-overlapping magisteria” has been seen as excusing religion from intellectual scrutiny.

In 1982 Gould was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a usually fatal form of cancer. After two years of aggressive treatment, sweetened by non-recreational use of cannabis, he recovered to write a magazine article, “The Median isn’t the Message”. Here he highlighted the perils of hasty conclusions when faced with the statistics of cancer survival, giving hope to many subsequent cancer sufferers. He died twenty years later from an entirely different kind of cancer, surrounded by books in an attic room in an apartment in his beloved Manhattan. He lived just long enough to see his 1400-page magnum opus The Structure of Evolutionary Thought published. Creative in his controversy, Gould’s legacy is perhaps best summarized by the title of a paper written by two fellow palaeontologists shortly after his death: “Wonderful Strife”!

1 comment:

Danny Boy said...

You could say that I am passionate about SJ Gould, just as some people are passionate about Dawkins. I started out ambivalent, even negative, since I had read Dawkins first. But the more I read, the more it seems that the neatness of Neodarwinism is too simplistic, and Gouldian pluralism looks closer to the truth.