Stephen Jay Gould

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Nov 6 08:16:34 MST 2002

Stephen Jay Gould—
What Does it Mean to Be a Radical?
by Richard C. Lewontin and Richard Levins

Early this year, Stephen Gould developed lung cancer, which spread so
quickly that there was no hope of survival. He died on May 20, 2002, at
the age of sixty. Twenty years ago, he had escaped death from
mesothelioma, induced, we all supposed, by some exposure to asbestos.
Although his cure was complete, he never lost the consciousness of his
mortality and gave the impression, at least to his friends, of an almost
cheerful acceptance of the inevitable. Having survived one cancer that
was probably the consequence of an environmental poison, he succumbed to

The public intellectual and political life of Steve Gould was
extraordinary, if not unique. First, he was an evolutionary biologist
and historian of science whose intellectual work had a major impact on
our views of the process of evolution. Second, he was, by far, the most
widely known and influential expositor of science who has ever written
for a lay public. Third, he was a consistent political activist in
support of socialism and in opposition to all forms of colonialism and
oppression. The figure he most closely resembled in these respects was
the British biologist of the 1930’s, J. B. S. Haldane, a founder of the
modern genetical theory of evolution, a wonderful essayist on science
for the general public, and an idiosyncratic Marxist and columnist for
the Daily Worker who finally split with the Communist Party over its
demand that scientific claims follow Party doctrine.

What characterizes Steve Gould’s work is its consistent radicalism. The
word radical has come to be synonymous with extreme in everyday usage:
Monthly Review is a radical journal to the readers of the Progressive;
Steve Gould underwent radical surgery when tumors were removed from his
brain; and a radical is someone who is out in left (or right) field. But
a brief excursion into the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us that the
root of the word radical is, in fact, radix, the Latin word for root. To
be radical is to consider things from their very root, to go back to
square one, to try to reconstitute one’s actions and ideas by building
them from first principles. The impulse to be radical is the impulse to
ask, “How do I know that?” and, “Why am I following this course rather
than another?” Steve Gould had that radical impulse and he followed it
where it counted.


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