Stephen Jay Gould's final essay

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Dec 16 07:23:42 MST 2000

[Concluding paragraphs of Stephen Jay Gould's final essay in the magazine
Natural History. The series began 27 years ago.]

Papa Joe's later story mirrors the tale of several million poor immigrants
to a great land that did not welcome them with open arms (despite Lady
Liberty's famous words) but also did not foreclose the possibility of
success if they could prevail by their own wits and unrelenting hard work.
And who could, or should, have asked for more in those times? Papa Joe
received no further schooling in America, save what experience provided and
internal drive secured. As a young man, he went west for a time, working in
the steel mills of Pittsburgh and on a ranch somewhere in the Midwest (not,
as I later found out, as the cowboy of my dreams but as an accountant in
the front office). His mother, Leni, died young (my mother, Eleanor, bears
her name in remembrance), as my second book of his legacy testifies. Papa
Joe ended up, along with so many Jewish immigrants, in the garment district
of New York City, where, after severing his middle finger in an accident as
a cloth cutter, he eventually figured out how to parlay his remarkable,
albeit entirely untrained, artistic talents into a better job that provided
eventual access to middle-class life (and afforded much titillation to his
grandchildren)—as a designer of brassieres and corsets.

He met Irene, also a garment worker, when he lived as a boarder at the home
of Irene's aunt—for she had emigrated alone in 1910 at age fourteen, under
her aunt's sponsorship, after a falling-out with her father. What else can
one say for the objective record (and what richness and depth could one not
expose, at least in principle and for all people, at the subjective level
of human life, passion, and pure perseverance)? Grammy and Papa Joe married
young, and their only early portrait together radiates both hope and
uncertainty. They raised three sons and a daughter; my mother alone
survives. Two of their children finished college.

Somehow I always knew, although no one ever pressured me directly, that the
third generation, with me as the first member thereof, would fulfill the
deferred dream of a century, obtain an advanced education, and enter
professional life. (My grandmother spoke Hungarian, Yiddish, German, and
English but could only write her adopted language phonetically. I will
never forget her embarrassment when I inadvertently read a shopping list
she had written and realized that she could not spell. I also remember her
joy when, invoking her infallible memory and recalling some old information
acquired in her study for citizenship, she won $10 on a Yiddish radio quiz
for correctly identifying William Howard Taft as our fattest president.) I
can say goodbye to this particular forum because I know that I will never
run out of unkept promises or miles to walk. I loved Grammy and Papa Joe
separately. Divorce, however legal and religiously acceptable, did not
represent an option in their world. Unlike Hal and Nettie Huxley, I'm not
at all sure they would have done it again. But they stuck together and
prevailed, at least in peace, respect, and toleration, perhaps even in
fondness. Had they not done so, I would not be here—and for this particular
twig of evolutionary continuity, I could not be more profoundly grateful,
in the most immediate of all conceivable ways. I also loved them fiercely,
and I reveled in the absolute certainly of their unconditional blessing and
unvarying support (not always deserved, of course, for I really did throw
that rock at Harvey, even though Grammy slammed our front door on Harvey's
father, after delivering a volley of Yiddish curses amidst proclamations
that her Stevele would never do such a thing, while knowing perfectly well
that I surely could).

The tree of all life and the genealogy of each family share the same
topology and the same secret of success in blending two apparently
contradictory themes of continuity without a single hair's breadth of
breakage, and change without even a moment's loss of a potential that need
not be exploited in all episodes but must remain forever at the ready.
These properties may seem minimal, even derisory, in a universe of such
stunning complexity (whatever its inexplicable eternity or infinity). But
this very complexity exalts pure staying power (and the lability that
facilitates such continuity). Showy statues of Ozymandias quickly become
lifeless legs in the desert; bacteria have scuttled around all the slings
and arrows of outrageous fortune for 3.5 billion years and counting.

I believe in the grandeur of this view of life, the continuity of family
lines, and the poignancy of our stories—of Nettie Heathorn, grown old as
Granmoo and passing Tasso's torch two generations after her initial
lighting; of Papa Joe's ungrammatical landing as a stranger in a strange
land, and my prayer that, in some sense, he might see my work as a worthy
continuation, also two generations later, of a hope that he fulfilled in a
different way during his own lifetime. I suspect we feel the poignancy in
such continuity because we know that our small realization of an unstated
family promise somehow mirrors the larger way of all life and, by this
affirmation of totality, becomes "right" in a sense too deep for either
words or tears. I can therefore say goodbye to this particular forum
because I know that I will never run out of unkept promises or miles to
walk and that I may even continue to sprinkle the journey remaining before
sleep with a new idea or two. This view of life continues, flowing ever
forward, while the current patriarch of one tiny and insignificant twig
pauses to honor the twig's centennial in a new land by commemorating the
first recorded words of a fourteen-year-old forebear.

Dear Papa Joe, I have been faithful to your dream of persistence and
attentive to a hope that the increments of each worthy generation may
buttress the continuity of evolution. You could write those wondrous words
right at the beginning of your journey, amidst all the joy and terror of
inception. I dared not repeat them until I could fulfill my own childhood
dream—something that once seemed so mysteriously beyond any hope of
realization to an insecure little boy in a garden apartment in Queens—to
become a scientist and to make, by my own effort, even the tiniest addition
to human knowledge of evolution and the history of life. But now, with my
300, so fortuitously coincident with the world's new 1,000 and your own
100, perhaps I have finally won the right to restate your noble words and
to tell you that their inspiration still lights my journey: I have landed.
But I also can't help wondering what comes next!

Full essay at:

Louis Proyect
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