Remembering Stephen Jay Gould

by Ardea Skybreak

Revolutionary Worker #1156, June 23, 2002, posted at

Ardea Skybreak shared with the RW some thoughts on the recent passing of Stephen Jay Gould:

Stephen Jay Gould has died, and already I miss him terribly.

I never knew him personally, but I knew his work. He was a very good scientist and a great storyteller. And he also had a good heart, holding firm to the view that the vast majority of human beings are fundamentally good and kind. I personally enjoyed Gould a lot: I read many of his popular and professional books and articles and, while I didn't always agree with him on every single point, I did agree with a good deal of what he sought to emphasize methodologically and much of what he contributed to the ongoing process of deepening and extending evolutionary theory. More importantly, I always appreciated the way Gould stirred things up intellectually--always raising, and helping to sharpen up, big scientific and philosophical questions. Gould always made you think a lot--about all sorts of things, and often from the vantage point of some refreshingly new and unconventional angles.

People all around the world knew Gould from his many well-written natural history essays, collected in such popular books as Ever Since Darwin and The Panda's Thumb.These popular and accessible books were a terrific means for bringing science and an appreciation of nature to a broader public, but without talking down to people or resorting to oversimplifying important scientific concepts. And he certainly knew how to make it fun ! Gould was, and will forever remain, the little boy standing in the Great Hall of the American Museum of Natural History, staring up in wonder and gleeful amazement at the looming skeleton of an enormous dinosaur which had vanished from the earth millions of years earlier... That little boy never lost his sense of wonder: how lucky we are that he ended up inviting us to come along and explore with him the many fascinating and beautiful quirks and eccentricities of the natural world!

Another thing I always liked about Gould is that he paid a lot of attention to questions of scientific method , critiquing slipshod methodology in professional circles and helping people more broadly to better evaluate the terms of various scientific debates. He also taught many people to better recognize what is not even science at all: he made a point of exposing how people motivated by reactionary social agendas often pervert and distort scientific facts and methods in attempts to pass off as "scientific" what are in fact completely un -scientific beliefs that they are seeking to impose on society. Gould contributed a great deal, for instance, to exposing and denouncing the obscurantist charlatans of the anti-evolution Creationist movement (making sure to let everybody know that the fundamentals of the science of evolution are by now well established scientific facts ), and to thoroughly debunking theories of supposed racial superiority, as he did in his excellent book The Mismeasure of Man.

In my opinion, Gould had many of the characteristics of the best of the intellectuals, and I only wish we could have many more like him, in all the fields of science and art. He was a real wrangling kind of intellectual--stimulating passionate debates and tirelessly calling on fellow scientists to question old assumptions, dare to rethink possibly outdated conventional wisdom, and honestly grapple with occasionally uncomfortable new ways of looking at things. He spurred himself and many others to better define some key theoretical concepts, reaffirm some solid foundations of accumulated scientific understanding, and beyond that to more clearly identify what still needed to be further explored, deepened and extended.

This is not the place or time to discuss the many areas in which Gould creatively contributed to evolutionary theory, but those who are familiar with his work will likely remember such things as: his interesting discussions of neoteny; his critiques of "adaptationism"; his explorations of the role of historical constraints in channeling evolutionary change and the emergence of evolutionary novelty; his musings on evolutionary processes taking place at different levels of organization; his reflections on the relative directionality or lack of directionality of overall evolutionary change; and of course his proposal, with his colleague Niles Eldredge, of a punctuated equilibrium model for large-scale evolutionary change, which suggested that evolution may not always unfold at an evenly slow and gradual rate but may instead proceed through relatively long periods of relative stasis and stability, punctuated by intermittent bursts of more concentrated and relatively rapid (in geological terms) evolutionary branching and diversification.

Gould had his critics of course, including among some other very good scientists, who passionately debated points of theoretical disagreement with him while still managing to deeply appreciate him both personally and professionally. Others could be more petty. Somehow it always seems that--whenever someone develops into a major innovative and unconventional theoretical thinker and contributes a great deal to the overall process of advancing knowledge and understanding in their field--there will be some people who can find nothing better to do than to try to tear them down. They tend to pick on supposed personality flaws (Gould was accused by one critic of having a "nearly pathological" tendency to write at excessive lengths!), or they narrowly focus on one or a few points of theoretical disagreement and use these as excuses to airily disrespect and dismiss, in altogether too facile a fashion, an entire body of work. I have no patience for critics of that sort: it takes hard work to try to advance theoretical knowledge along genuinely new pathways, and this work is valuable and should be seen as such. Many are those who could opt for an easier, less risky and less unforgiving, road. Of course, healthy intellectual debate can--and often should--be fierce and passionate (and I suspect there is nothing Gould himself enjoyed more than a good old fashioned intellectual rumble!) but it should also be principled and constructive, as well as generally respectful of the hard work people have done.

So was Gould wrong some of the time? No doubt he was (is there anyone who isn't?). But he was also right a lot of the time and, most importantly, he left us a challenging body of innovative work to chew on, including his recently published The Structure of Evolutionary Thought--a 1,400 page magnum opus which took him 20 years to write and which he hoped would contribute to extending and refashioning the evolutionary synthesis.

It's a real shame Stephen Jay Gould won't be around for the next rounds. His work enriched us, and it deserves to be studied, debated and evaluated--seriously and in depth--for many years to come.

My heartfelt condolences to his family, his many close friends and colleagues, and all the many others who are greatly saddened by this loss.

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