Stephen Jay Gould interview

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Dec 21 11:34:24 MST 1999

NY Times, December 21, 1999



It was a sunny afternoon in SoHo and the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould
-- president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science,
the Vincent Astor visiting research professor of biology at New York
University and the Alexander Agassiz professor of geology at Harvard -- was
sitting around his loft, ruminating about the pleasures of finally living
in Manhattan.

Dr. Gould, 58, has spent much of his life circling Manhattan. He grew up in
1950's Queens in a working-class family, in a time when Manhattan was the
ever-distant "city." In 1967, Dr. Gould got his Harvard appointment, which
meant, of course, living in Cambridge and being one of the few Yankees fans
in all of Harvard Yard.

Four years ago, Dr. Gould, who was divorced, married a sculptor and art
historian, Rhonda Roland Shearer of Manhattan, now 45, and together, they
set up housekeeping in SoHo, in a vast urban spread filled with Tiffany
lamps, good art and first-edition scientific tomes.

In his 19 books and in essays for Natural History magazine, Dr. Gould has
become perhaps the most eloquent and best-known proponent of the view that
evolution and natural selection are responsible for the origin and
diversity of species. But earlier this month he came under criticism in The
New Yorker, which suggested that his emphasis on chance in the evolutionary
process had unwittingly aided the cause of creationism. Dr. Gould declined
to respond to the New Yorker article, by the journalist Robert Wright,
saying that he did not believe that such personal attacks merited a
response and that his work spoke for itself.

The Harvard paleontologist did, however, speak about other aspects of the
ongoing political struggle between creationists and evolutionists.

Q. What was your reaction, when you first read that the Kansas Board of
Education was going to make the teaching of evolution optional in biology

A. That the citizens of Kansas would be profoundly embarrassed by the
stupidity of the ruling and that they would vote that school board out of
office the next year. The Kansas School Board's decision is absurd on the
face of it.

It's like saying, "We're going to continue to teach English, but you don't
have to teach grammar anymore."

But the creationists can't do what they want to do because of the history
of Supreme Court decisions. They are very restricted in terms of a legally
defendable stand. This is probably the only thing they can do.

The only reason it happened is that nobody votes in a school board
elections anymore. Thus, determined minorities can take over. It took this
fundamentalist group three election cycles to take over in Kansas. They
only have a one-vote majority, 6-4. Four are up for election next year.

The bigger dangers aren't these legal maneuvers. It's the thousands of
teachers who are less than optimally courageous, as most humans are, who
are probably teaching less evolution because they don't want trouble. You
can't even measure that.

Q. Is creationism a uniquely American phenomenon?

A. That's not hard to see. It just doesn't happen any place else in the
Western world.

Europeans just don't get why we have it. There are two things that European
intellectuals don't understand about Americans, I find. One was Bill and
Monica, or, our obsession with it. The second is how you can possibly have
an anti-evolution movement in a modern scientific country.

Q. There is a recent trend in the social sciences to go to neo-Darwinist
explanations of social problems: a kind of mutant resurgence of the Social
Darwinism of the late 19th century. Why has this happened now?

A. This is a conservative age and I think, it's tempting for conservatives
to argue, "Why are you calling for change or equalization when what we have
now reflects the natural state of human nature?"

Also, I think, we sometimes make a misuse today of Darwin in terms of
trying assuage our disappointments with some of our worst traits.

That is, if we don't like our aggressivity or our sexism, we might try to
fob it off with: "Oh, well, we're made that way. We can't help it."

Q. What about the appeal of neo-Darwinism to people who like their traits?
The biological explanation "it's a gene" has, for instance, become very
popular with gay rights advocates?

A. Oh yeah. This is an age that largely, wrongly, think, favors genetic
explanations. So it's going to spread everywhere.

But I think that's a two-headed argument.

Because if you put your eggs in that basket, then suppose it turns out that
you're wrong? You don't want to base a defense for a defendable bit of our
diversity upon its putative biological nature.

I'd rather take the point of view that it has nothing to do with the
biology. It's an ethical issue.

Q. As someone who publishes in both scientific and popular media, what's
your take on the quality of academic writing?

A. Compared to what? I don't think academic writing ever was wonderful.
However, science used to be much less specialized.

There wasn't much technical terminology, and then, most academics are not
trained in writing. And there is, I guess, what is probably worse than ever
before, the growing professional jargon.

And I think it arises more out of fear than arrogance. Most young scholars
slip into this jargon because they are afraid that, if they don't, their
mentors or the people who promote them won't think they are serious.

I can't believe that anyone would WANT to write that way.

Q. Do you think your colleagues sometimes resent you because you have,
horror of all horrors, penned a few best sellers?

A. Oh, sure.

Anyone who has success in writing for the general public is envied. Goethe
died in 1832.

As you know, Goethe was very active in science. In fact, he did some very
good scientific work in plant morphology and mineralogy. But he was quite
bitter at the way in which many scientists refused to grant him a hearing
because he was a poet and therefore, they felt, he couldn't be serious.
This is not entirely a new phenomenon.

Q. Do you write easily?

A. I don't know what writer's block is.

Q. What does writing do for you?

A. It's the best way to organize thoughts and to try and put things in as
perfect and as elegant a way you can. A lot of scientists hate writing.
Most scientists love being in the lab and doing the work and when the work
is done, they are finished.

Writing is a chore. It's something they have to do to get the work out.
They do it with resentment. But conceptually to them, it is not part of the
creative process. I don't look at it that way at all. When I get the
results, I can't wait to write them up. That's the synthesis. It's the
exploration of the consequences and the meaning.

Q. Since your marriage to Rhonda Roland Shearer, you have been living half
time in New York and half in Cambridge. To what extent has this new life
left you feeling split?

A. The big frustration is waiting for this decent train service between
Boston and New York to start.

But I like living in New York, though I don't feel that I ever left. I grew
up in Fresh Meadows, went to Jamaica High School.

Q. You didn't go to Bronx High School of Science?

A. It was too far. I got on a bus and subway and it took me two hours to
get there, and I thought, "I'm not going to spend four hours a day for the
next three years on the subway." So I went to Jamaica High School. You
know, New York had a great public school system once and it will again, I
trust. I feel I got a great education at Jamaica High. And P.S. 26 before
that. I'm nothing but an old city kid at heart.

Q. Your recent book, "Questioning the Millennium," was, among other things,
a lengthy investigation of Year 2000 issues. Tell us, are you and Rhonda
secreting bottles of water and cords of firewood for fear of what will
happen when the clocks change?

A. No, there's been a lot of attention to Y2K and a lot of testing. I don't
expect any. As a matter of fact, I will be singing in a concert of Haydn's
"Creation" in Boston on New Year's Day.

I'm going to have to get from here to there for rehearsal. I will drive up
there, though.

I don't think anything significant is going to happen. In so far that there
are some worries on a global scale, the things I would worry about are
places that are really cold, like northern Russia, where there could be an
interruption of the electricity and heating and things like that.

The funniest thing you can say about it all is that in the year 1000,
insofar as people were aware of the millennium, their fears were grander.
They feared the apocalyptic revelations of Revelations. They really thought
that Jesus would come again, that Satan would be bound and the world, as we
know it, would end. I think it's so amusing that in a secular age the main
fear that people have is caused by a technical glitch caused by a computer
misreading a date because of poor anticipation by some programmers 30 years

Louis Proyect

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