Stephen Jay Gould

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Sep 23 07:14:23 MDT 2002

The New Yorker, Sept. 23, 2002


How a paleontologist sought to revolutionize evolution.

In the mid-forties, on the fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural 
History, there stood the remains of a tyrannosaurus. Towering above hordes 
of awestruck kids, this pile of bones inspired two of the best-known 
careers in twentieth-century science—that of a writer and that of a 
researcher. The most impressive thing about these careers, though, was that 
they were both pursued by the same person: Stephen Jay Gould.

Gould, who died this May at sixty, always dated his conversion to 
paleontology to his encounter with the dinosaur at age five. If this event 
marked the psychological genesis of his dual careers, their public début 
followed three decades later, in 1977, when he published two books, one 
popular, "Ever Since Darwin," and the other technical, "Ontogeny and 
Phylogeny." Though both received good notices, it was, more than anything, 
their simultaneity that turned heads. Scientists do not as a rule burst 
upon the popular and the professional scenes at the same moment. (Far more 
often, as dotage approaches, a scientist will try to leverage a lifetime of 
scientific achievement into popular success.) The Times, in a rave review, 
made much of Gould's double début, and he was off and running.

Gould came to real fame through his writings on evolution for Natural 
History. For a quarter century, he produced three hundred monthly columns, 
he proudly observed, "without a single interruption for cancer, hell, high 
water, or the World Series." These and other pieces were bundled into ten 
books, among them many best-sellers. And, like Carl Sagan before him, Gould 
even went on to assume a place in the pop landscape, appearing everywhere 
from the cover of Newsweek to "The Simpsons." At the same time, Gould, who 
spent most of his career at Harvard, achieved extraordinary professional 
distinction. He was awarded a MacArthur "genius" prize, elected to the 
National Academy of Sciences, and made president of the American 
Association for the Advancement of Science.

Then, with odd symmetry, Gould ended his career as he began it. With the 
release, this year, of "I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural 
History" (Harmony; $25.95), he brought his monthly essays to a planned 
close. And with the release, at the same time, of his magnum opus, "The 
Structure of Evolutionary Theory" (Belknap; $39.95), on which he toiled for 
some twenty years, he summarized a lifetime of thinking on evolution.

Gould was a modern master of the scientific essay, the inheritor of a 
tradition shaped by the likes of T. H. Huxley, J. B. S. Haldane, and Martin 
Gardner. True to form, the essays in "I Have Landed" delight in the 
unlikely intersection of science with you-name-it—the Alamo, the Red Sox, 
Nabokov, the mourners at Marx's funeral. In one piece, Gould brings 
together Darwin's reluctance to utter the word "evolution" and the 
reopening of the Hayden Planetarium, in 2000, to launch a marvellously 
lucid explanation of the difference between biological and stellar 
evolution. "When astronomers talk about the evolution of a star, they 
clearly do not invoke a . . . theory like Darwin's," he writes. "Stars do 
not change through time because mama and papa stars generate broods of 
varying daughter stars."

Yet Gould was perhaps at his best when on the attack. He warred 
relentlessly against what he viewed as bad science. His chief enemy was 
genetic determinism, the view that it's all in the genes. He battled this 
cant on two fronts. The first was sociobiology and its stepchild 
evolutionary psychology, and their often soaring speculations on the 
evolutionary basis of human culture. Gould charged the champions of these 
creeds with both a vulgar hereditarianism (they were given to saying things 
like "Consider a gene for gathering behavior in women"—even when no such 
gene has ever been found) and an addiction to untestable Just So stories 
("Gathering behavior is favorable because . . ."). He went on to argue that 
all such "adaptationist" tales ignore the possibility that some features of 
animals and plants are simply by-products of how organisms are built, not 
the direct, designed products of natural selection. Such features, as Gould 
and his Harvard colleague Richard Lewontin famously put it, are like 
spandrels in church architecture—the triangular spaces that appear 
automatically between arches. Speculation about the "purpose" of these 
unplanned spaces is both futile and foolish. Likewise for speculation about 
the purpose of, say, the color of blood: as Lewontin and others have 
pointed out, blood looks red when it carries oxygen, but surely it's the 
oxygen that natural selection cares about, not the red.

The other front in Gould's war was the I.Q. industry. A large and 
apparently sophisticated literature claimed that I.Q. measured a single 
real thing called intelligence, and that this thing showed profound genetic 
differences across races. Over the years, these conclusions were invoked to 
justify a number of racist policies, including the Johnson-Reed Actof 1924, 
which ultimately barred entry to millions of Jews attempting to flee prewar 
Europe. In work that culminated in "The Mismeasure of Man," Gould levelled 
city blocks of this literature, exposing its appalling intellectual 
shoddiness. His book enjoyed enormous popular success and earned him a 
National Book Critics Circle Award. This was terrific stuff, and it's too 
bad we won't have more of it.


Louis Proyect

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