Stephen Jay Gould: Poet of Evolution

Revolutionary Worker #1154, June 9, 2002, posted at

The world lost an outstanding scientist and teacher and one of the foremost public intellectuals of our time when Stephen Jay Gould died of cancer on May 20 at the age of 60.

Gould's accomplishments as a scientist spanned several fields. He made significant contributions to the development of the theory of evolution, the science of paleontology (study of fossils), and the history of science. His fresh and often provocative insights as well as his critical spirit helped to promote and encourage an atmosphere of healthy intellectual ferment and wrangling over a number of important scientific issues.

His influence reached far beyond Harvard University, where he taught for three decades, or the world of professional scientists. He made crucial contributions in the fight against the right-wing religious fundamentalists and their organized campaigns aimed at discrediting the science of evolution and preventing people from learning about it.

Gould staunchly defended the well-established facts of evolution and the basic principles of the theory of evolution. This theory explains that all life forms are the products of billions of years of evolution--from single-celled bacteria to the most advanced animals, including human beings--and that all species have descended from other species and share common ancestors. At the same time, Gould contributed to further extending and developing this important field of science.

As a foe of anti-scientific religious creationism, he rushed to Kansas in 1999 to oppose the banning of the teaching of evolution by the state board of education. "To teach biology without evolution is like teaching English without grammar," he said.

Gould also sharply exposed the corrupt and reactionary social policies as well as the fundamentally flawed science of those who have tried to spread lies and distortions to promote reactionary and racist views. He was a scientific opponent of genetic determinism--the attempt to reduce all human activity to the operation of our genes.

A Popularizer of Science

Gould was a skillful and influential popularizer of science. Effectively combining science and art, he wrote many entertaining essays and books that spread the understanding of important scientific facts, principles, and methods among a broad public. One of Gould's trademarks was illustrating and explaining scientific principles by drawing on a wide range of subject matter, from literature and architecture to popular movies and one of his lifelong passions, baseball. His infectious enthusiasm for his subject matter, his encyclopedic knowledge, and his engaging writing style drew an ever-expanding audience.

Richard Lewontin, one of Gould's closest friends and colleagues, said, "He was the best science writer for the public when it came to explaining evolution. Steve did not try to make it simple, he tried and succeeded in explaining the complications. He made readers appreciate how messy and variable life is.... Steve always told the truth in ways people could understand, and he did it better than anyone."

For 27 years, Gould wrote an article every month for Natural History magazine; his 300th and final essay for the magazine was published in the January 2001 issue. Whether he was writing about Cerion snails in the Caribbean (his specialty as a biologist), the rich fossil bed in the Canadian Rockies known as the Burgess Shale, or any of the wide array of scientific topics he tackled, Gould conveyed a sense of the wonderful diversity and complexity of life, the excitement of new discoveries and insights, and the complicated interactions between scientific work and broader social questions.

Many of his essays focused on the work of scientists of the past, in a form he called "mini intellectual biography." Gould's depictions brought alive these scientists and their ideas, explaining in a vivid way the historical, social, economic, and cultural context that the scientists worked in.

Contributing to Evolutionary Theory

In 1971, as a young professor at Harvard, Gould and his colleague Niles Eldredge published a landmark article on "speciation and punctuated equilibria." While placing themselves firmly within the tradition of Charles Darwin, the founder of the science of evolution, Gould and Eldredge proposed a modification of Darwin's view on the pace of evolutionary change and the development of new species. Darwin maintained that biological evolution developed slowly and gradually. Gould and Eldredge reexamined fossil data and came up with a new interpretation: evolution proceeds through long periods of relatively little change in species interrupted by short periods (in geological time) of relatively rapid change, "punctuated equilibrium."

Gould and Eldredge's theory of punctuated equilibrium touched off controversy in scientific circles. Some critics said that the theory departed from the fundamental principles of Darwinian evolution. But Gould and Eldredge made clear that the actual intent and content of their theory was not to overthrow Darwinism but to extend and develop it in light of new fossil evidence.

Gould applied a fearless, critical approach to his own work. For example, he later criticized shortcomings in the theory of punctuated equilibrium. With the help of other colleagues, Gould and Eldredge continued to modify and enrich their theory.

Over the next 30 years, Gould made many other important contributions to the development of evolutionary biology. Evolution is considered to be one of the best established facts in all of science. The proof and evidence are abundant. But like any scientific theory, Darwinism has had to be further developed in light of new discoveries and understanding.

Darwin could not have anticipated the full variety and complexity of issues that have arisen in evolutionary biology during the 120 years since his death. And Gould understood that evolutionary theory could not stand pat, like religious dogma, but itself had to evolve--and that only by grappling with new problems, new information, and new approaches could it remain a vital and truly scientific theory.

In early 2002, just a few months before his death, Gould published a major work, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. This is a summation of his life's work in evolutionary biology--a compilation of his theoretical views, arguments, and hypotheses in this field.

In the book, Gould explained where his ideas stand in relation to Darwin: "The one long argument of this book holds that a synthesis (still much in progress) has now sufficiently coagulated from this debate to designate our best current understanding of the structure of evolutionary theory as something rich and new, with a firmly retained basis in Darwinian logic.... Nothing of Darwin's central logic has faded or fully capsized, but his theory has been transformed, along his original lines, into something far different, far richer, and far more adequate to guide our understanding of nature."

Combatting Biodeterminism and the Misuse of Science

Gould had no patience for those who claimed to be "scientific" and "objective"--and then used faulty or dishonest pseudoscience to promote views that upheld social injustice. His book The Mismeasure of Man was a powerful refutation of such misuse of science. And in it he took apart the arguments of those who promoted biodeterminism--the idea that complex individual behavior and social and cultural phenomena are determined by biological factors--and who use this theory to justify inequality in society.

The book was originally published in 1981, as an answer to Arthur Jensen and others who claimed that there were innate and largely unchangeable differences in intelligence between groups, in particular between white and Black people. A revised and expanded edition was published in 1996, at a time when there was a renewed offensive by those pushing biodeterminist arguments about human intelligence and abilities, such as The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray.

In the introduction to the new edition of The Mismeasure of Man:"Resurgences of biological determinism correlate with episodes of political retrenchment, particularly with campaigns for reduced government spending on social programs, or at times of fear among ruling elites, when disadvantaged groups sow serious social unrest or even threaten to usurp power. What argument against social change could be more chillingly effective than the claim that established orders, with some groups on top and others at the bottom, exist as an accurate reflection of the innate and unchangeable intellectual capacities of people so ranked?"

Gould also talked about his own social and political views: "My original reason for writing The Mismeasure of Man mixed the personal with the professional. I confess, first of all, to strong feelings on this particular issue. I grew up in a family with a tradition of participation in campaigns for social justice, and I was active, as a student, in the civil rights movement at a time of great excitement and success in the early 1960s." Gould understood that scientists need to recognize and acknowledge social influences on their work--and that this will better enable scientists to approach their work in a more rigorous and all-sided way.


Gould's view of the natural world encompassed great richness and variety of life forms. He was opposed to simplistic, mechanical and reductionist approaches to science that attempt to describe the world in terms of a few narrowly defined factors. With respect to humans, his views were characterized by a refusal to underestimate people and by his hopefulness and compassion.

Gould held that evolutionary biology is a huge and important subject, and that understanding it is essential to understanding the world. But he insisted that this does not mean "biology is destiny." As he wrote in The Mismeasure of Man: "We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within." In Gould's view, humans have the ability to reshape themselves and society.

Stephen Jay Gould will be fondly remembered.

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