Love Him or Hate Him, Stephen Jay Gould Made a Difference

I never met Stephen Jay Gould, though I did attend a lecture he gave two years ago. Still, that hour explained many of the opinions I'd heard of him: love, hate, joy, envy, and respect. Like a lot of people who make a difference, Gould was a study in contrasts. You also had to wonder whether he ran according to a different clock than the rest of us. The campy cliché 24/7 didn't apply to Gould—he could not have fit so much in a 24-hour day and a 60-year life. Gould was first and forem

Barry Palevitz
Jun 9, 2002
I never met Stephen Jay Gould, though I did attend a lecture he gave two years ago. Still, that hour explained many of the opinions I'd heard of him: love, hate, joy, envy, and respect. Like a lot of people who make a difference, Gould was a study in contrasts. You also had to wonder whether he ran according to a different clock than the rest of us. The campy cliché 24/7 didn't apply to Gould—he could not have fit so much in a 24-hour day and a 60-year life.

Gould was first and foremost a scientist. His immediate research area, the evolution of land snails, might seem quaint to some, but his impact transcended those bounds. Most scientists, and others as well, knew him as a bold thinker and synthesizer unafraid to ruffle feathers, particularly with his Punctuated Equilibrium hypothesis. Together with Niles Eldredge of the American Museum of Natural History, Gould tried to explain why species suddenly change in the fossil record. The jumps were real rather than illusory, they argued, and not the product of poor preservation of intermediate forms. Searching for such forms was pointless because they don't exist. Instead, much of evolution is characterized by static periods in which organisms don't change, interspersed with rapid speciation events.

Published in 1972, the hypothesis pitted Gould against gradualists adhering to traditional Darwinian explanations. It may seem more like a molehill than a mountain now, but at the time debate over the idea was pretty heated. "It was shocking in '72," says evolutionary ecologist Massimo Pigliucci of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. "It sparked a lot of papers," and that's why "it was one of the most important papers of the 20th century," he concludes.

Whether change happens gradually or in fits depends on what you define as fast in geological terms. We now know that species can dramatically adapt to environmental changes in just a few years. Male guppies rapidly resume bright coloration for sexual display once predation pressure disappears and standing out is advantageous. By virtue of molecular genetics and developmental biology, we also know that one or a few mutations in major regulatory genes generate major changes in body form. It works in plants as well as animals—just one inactivated gene changes a bilaterally symmetrical flower into a radial one.

In a way, Gould prefaced such advances. You also see Gould's insight on evolution and development in his books, The Panda's Thumb and Ontogeny and Phylogeny. Pigliucci considers the latter Gould's "most important contribution. It was one of those books that changes a field." With Elizabeth Vrba, Gould coined the term exaptation to explain how evolution reuses parts and processes to invent new ones.

Like a lot of people who shake things up, Gould had his detractors, including evolutionary adaptationists and gradualists. Still, while "there are good reasons to question some of his contributions, several of my colleagues went overboard," admits Pigliucci.

Just last March, Gould summed up what he'd learned about evolution—and synthesized still more—in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Despite flaws, Gould's 1,433-page tome is "a magnificent summary of a quarter century of influential thinking and a major publishing event in evolutionary biology," concluded Mark Ridley in a New York Times review.

Science Popularizer

Gould had another, very public side. Along with Carl Sagan, he was one of the 20th century's leading spokespeople and popularizers of science. While Sagan often made The Johnny Carson Show his venue, Gould reached young people in cartoon form on The Simpsons. Over the course of 28 years, he authored 300 essays in Natural History, with assorted forays into Discover and elsewhere. Unlike Sagan, Gould made it into the National Academy of Sciences despite his public persona. "I was inspired by his popular writings," says Pigliucci, who does his own share of communicating with the public about evolution. "How many scientists bother to do that stuff?"

Gould had many strengths as a writer, but what garnered so many fans was his impeccable prose and incredible mix of metaphor, baseball, art, and literature. In a forthcoming analysis of Gould's 300 Natural History essays in the journal Social Studies of Science, Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine, documented 53 mentions of the Bible, 21 of Gilbert and Sullivan (a Gould favorite), 19 of Shakespeare, and eight of Alexander Pope. He also found 16 Latin phrases, nine in French, six in German, and one in Italian. Adds Shermer, "73% contain a significant historical element." It's no surprise that Gould was as much a favorite on the humanities side of American campuses as in science labs.

Gould's writing was anthologized for freshmen English courses, notes Hugh Ruppersburg, professor of English and associate dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Georgia in Athens. "His essays ... were excellent examples of nonfiction prose." Ruppersburg thinks Gould was better than science writers who aren't professional scientists. "There was something about the way he expressed concepts that made it clear he learned them himself," he says.

One of the people who anthologized Gould's work is Penn State English professor John Selzer. "He was a very gifted individual, cosmopolitan in his allusions and metaphors—a lot of fun to read," he says. Selzer picked Spandrels of San Marco, coauthored by Gould and Harvard colleague Richard Lewontin, as a prime example. Another reason Selzer thinks Gould was a hit in the humanities was his "strong argumentative edge and a real sense of voice" in taking sides on issues such as sociobiology.

Opinions are split, however, on how good a writer Gould really was, at least later in life. Pigliucci won't argue about Gould's early work, but thinks his writing style became "baroque." There were so many metaphors and diversions, it was hard to follow where he was going. At one point in Gould's Rocks of Ages, which elaborated on his nonoverlapping magisteria argument for distinguishing science and religion, I almost screamed, "No!" after reading what seemed like the hundredth use of the word exegesis.

From my point of view, Gould was at his best in explaining the history, philosophy, and methods of science to a public that, despite his best efforts, is still woefully ignorant of the subjects. "Half the book was history," marvels Pigliucci of Ontogeny and Phylogeny. "Scientists have a stupid tendency to ignore history," he says, but not Gould. Maybe his training in paleontology made history an obvious tool. Opines Shermer, "As a historian and philosopher of science, Gould was intensely interested in the interaction between individual scientists and their cultures."

Creationism Wars

Perhaps nowhere save human cloning does science conflict with culture as does evolution with fundamentalist religion. Gould "was a public scientist," says Barbara Forrest, a historian at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond who studies creationism. Forrest appreciated Gould's willingness to stand up for evolution in public school science curricula. Unlike many of his evolutionist colleagues, Gould thought the battle worth fighting. He even testified in the famous McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education case. Federal judge William Overton in part used Gould's testimony in 1982 to outlaw equal time for so-called scientific creationism in Arkansas schools. It wasn't easy for Gould, whose words and ideas were often misrepresented by creationists. "He was prone to comments that can easily be extracted from text and taken to mean exactly the opposite of what he meant," says Elizabeth Craig of Kansas Citizens for Science.

When creationism mutated into its latest incarnation, 'intelligent design theory,' about 10 years ago, Gould again pitched in, for example, with his book Rocks of Ages and a Time magazine commentary on the Kansas School Board decision to remove evolution from state science standards. Michigan State University philosopher Robert Pennock used two of Gould's essays in a recent, mammoth point-counterpoint analysis of intelligent design. Says Forrest, "A person as important in science as he was thought it worthwhile to get involved. He lent his reputation to get the attention of the media. He did what I wish more scientists would do."

Pugnacious, or Obnoxious?

Gould was a fascinating, complex character who had weaknesses as well as strengths, including a reputation for arrogance. Many scientists still resent the rough treatment Gould and Lewontin gave soft-spoken biologist E.O. Wilson, father of the sociobiology field, back in the 1970s. The word around Harvard Yard, at least among some students, was that Gould was arrogant. Still, his classes filled. In a touching letter to the New York Times on May 22, a student in Gould's history of life class paid tribute, calling Gould's teaching: "a tour de force that Harvard students may not see the likes of any time soon."

My Two Cents

Will Rogers once said of an American president, "He puts his pants on one leg at a time," meaning he's only human. The question is, do we hold Gould's personal failings so important that they distort the sum of his life in science and society? The answer is no. When all is said and done, Gould made a big difference. With the death of Carl Sagan in 1996, and now Stephen Jay Gould, science is much the poorer, given that so many of its practitioners shy away from making their work accessible to the public.

On the bright side, for the first time, more than 50% of Americans agree that humans evolved from simpler animals, according to a recent National Science Board survey. We still have great science popularizers, such as E.O. Wilson and Jared Diamond. And more have come out of the ivory closet, witness testimony and articles about biotechnology and cloning. Still, we'll miss YOU, Steve.

Barry A. Palevitz ( is a contributing editor.