Today will be an orgy of remembrance of the events of ten years ago; even at 5 a.m. the television was full of the stuff. I have nothing to contribute to what’s already been said, so I just want to remember another anniversary that took place yesterday: what would have been the 70th birthday of Stephen Jay Gould, probably the most prominent evolutionary biologist of our time (September 10, 1941 – May 20, 2002). This came to mind because a brief piece on Gould was published yesterday as the “Freethought of the Day” by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. (It is, by the way, worth subscribing to these daily posts, which are both interesting and heartening.)
As I’ve written before, I have mixed thoughts about Gould: his contribution to the public understanding of evolution was an unalloyed good, while I found his scientific contributions mixed. I suppose that, with the exception of his monographs on snails, I’ve read everything the man ever wrote: all of his books, his scientific papers, and even his last behemoth of a book, The Structure of Evolutionary Thought. (That I found interesting for two reasons: he admitted that there was no convincing evidence for one of his big ideas, species selection, and there was a fascinating discussion of Darwin’s “principle of divergence”—Darwin’s idea on how species arise—which Gould felt was one of Darwin’s most important contributions.)
I knew Steve fairly well, for he was on my Ph.D. committee at Harvard. Like many, I found him voluble, opinionated, and often arrogant—but never boring. I crossed swords with him often about his theory of punctuated equilibrium, which, I thought, called needed attention to the patterns of stasis in the fossil record, but was completely wrongheaded as a theory of process, depending as it did on assumptions about population genetics which were already known to be wrong. I once organized a group of graduate students to meet with Gould on the issue, and in that talk he called me a “hidebound gradualist,” a monicker I’ll never forget—and which I wear with some pride. Although I think his ideas about the evolutionary process were misguided—at times, for instance, he seemed to hew close to the view that natural selection, compared to species selection, was not terribly important in molding the features and behaviors of organisms—there is no doubt that his efforts spurred a revival of paleobiology, one that continues to this day.
His popular books were superb, especially The Mismeasure of Man, though some of his analysis in that volume has been criticized. The man could write! Even when he tackled topics far removed from his field, he always had something interesting to say (his essays on the decline in size of the Hershey Bar and on the neoteny of Mickey Mouse over time were funny and informative, showing how he could draw connections between evolution and the quotidian events of our lives). But as he became more famous, his essays became more bloated, studded with baroque and distracting digressions that seemed only to demonstrate his erudition.
Gould had two other traits that I much admired. As a workaholic myself, I could only stand in awe of his diligence. His close colleague David Woodruff described it:
His brontosauran appetite for work is the envy and despair of his colleagues. “He calls me at 11 at night Massachusetts time,” says his frequent collaborator David S. Woodruff, a biologist at the University of California at San Diego, “and we talk until 11 my time. Steve starts getting creative at midnight, works until 2 or 3, then gets up at 6:30.” For relaxation from his disciplined, organized professional life, he lets himself go by singing baritone in the Boston Cecilia Society, a highly regarded amateur chorus. What time is left is jealously guarded for his family. He is close to his widowed mother, who runs a shop on Cape Cod where she sells driftwood sculptures of owls and a small stock of books, the collected works of Stephen Jay Gould. He has attempted to shield his wife, Deborah, and their two sons from the growing publicity attached to his name. A passage in his most recent book revealed that his older son, Jesse, 12, suffers from a learning disability. A friend speaks with awe of Gould spending several hours each night patiently reading and talking to his son, never despairing that he could overcome this problem, like he has so many others, by sheer will and effort.
And the way he dealt with his illness was nothing less than heroic, reminding me of Christopher Hitchens. At the age of 41, shortly after I left Harvard, Gould was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, which is almost invariably fatal. He underwent a debilitating round of chemotherapy, in which the drugs were continually infused into his abdomen—and yet he continued his regimen of work, not missing a single one of his monthly columns in Natural History. And he survived, living another 20 years. But in 2001 he developed another cancer in his chest, which spread to his brain and killed him soon thereafter—gone at the age of 60. Yet his teaching assistant told me that he continued to meet his classes at Harvard until the very end (he had moved to New York in the interim), even when he was so weak he could hardly stand. This was a man determined to live out his life as an evolutionary biologist to its bitterly premature close.
I wish he were still around, for it would be nice to know how his career would have developed. Toward the end he seemed to become soft on religion, publishing a book that I consider almost as misguided as punctuated equilibrium: Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (1999). There Gould espoused a harmony between science and faith (an idea he called “NOMA,” after “nonoverlapping magisteria”), arguing that the purview of science included all empirical statements about reality (neglecting the fact that religion makes plenty of such statements), and that the purview of religion was morality (neglecting the fact that morality has a long and honored secular history). He wrote off fundamentalism and creationism as simply improper forms of religion, also neglecting the fact that millions of his countrymen were religious in precisely those ways. It was even more galling because I knew full well that Gould was an atheist, and I saw this book as a softhearted attempt to pander to public approbation. If he didn’t water down his science for the public, why would he water down his atheism?
But let’s remember Gould today for his freethought, something that Annie Laurie Gaylor emphasizes in her tribute to him at the FFRF site. While he didn’t often talk about religion, when he did (except in Rocks of Ages), he portrayed it as a form of wish-thinking. Here’s a typical quote:
“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.”
— Stephen J. Gould, interview, Life (December 1988). Cited in Who’s Who in Hell edited by Warren Allen Smith.
What influence did Gould’s scientific work or popular writing have on you?