Stephen Jay Gould

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Evolution and reproduction; Writers and critics

Stephen Jay Gould ( September 10, 1941 – May 20, 2002) was an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, historian of science, and professor. He was an influential and widely read writer of popular science of his generation; commentators called him "America's unofficial evolutionist laureate." Gould spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Personal life

Gould was born and raised in the Queens borough of New York City, New York. His father Leonard was a court stenographer, and his mother Eleanor was an artist. When Gould was five years old, his father took him to the Hall of Dinosaurs in the American Museum of Natural History, where he first met Tyrannosaurus rex. "I had no idea there were such things—I was awestruck," Gould once recalled. In that moment he decided to become a paleontologist.

Raised in a nominally Jewish home, Gould did not formally practice organized religion and preferred to be called an agnostic. Politically, though he "had been brought up by a Marxist father," he is quoted as saying that his father's politics were "very different" from his own. Throughout his career and writings he spoke out against cultural oppression in all its forms, especially what he saw as pseudoscience in the service of racism and sexism. In the early 1970s Gould joined a group called " Science for the People," which was a left-wing organization that emerged from the antiwar movement.

Gould was twice married. His first marriage, to Deborah Lee in 1965 ended in divorce. His second marriage was to artist Rhonda Roland Shearer in 1995. Gould had two children, Jesse and Ethan, by his first marriage, and two stepchildren, Jade and London, by his second.

In July 1982 Gould was diagnosed with abdominal mesothelioma, an often terminal form of cancer affecting the abdominal lining (which is sometimes caused by asbestos exposure). After a difficult recovery, Gould published a column for Discover magazine, titled "The Median Isn't the Message," in which he discusses his discovery that mesothelioma patients had a median lifespan of only eight months after diagnosis. He then describes the true significance behind this number, and his relief upon realizing that statistics are just useful abstractions, not destiny. After an experimental treatment of radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery, Gould lived for another twenty years, and his column became a source of comfort for many cancer patients.

Gould was also an advocate for medical marijuana. During his bout with abdominal mesothelioma, he smoked the illegal drug to alleviate the nausea associated with his cancer treatments. According to Gould, his use of marijuana had the "most important effect" on his eventual recovery. In 1998 he testified in the case of Jim Wakeford, a Canadian medical-marijuana user and activist.

Stephen Jay Gould died on May 20, 2002 from a metastatic adenocarcinoma of the lung (a form of lung cancer, which had spread to his brain). This cancer was unrelated to his abdominal mesothelioma, from which he had fully recovered twenty years earlier. He died in his home "in a bed set up in the library of his Soho loft, surrounded by his wife Rhonda, his mother Eleanor, and the many books he loved."

Gould as a scientist

Gould began his higher education at Antioch College, a distinguished liberal arts school in Ohio, graduating with a degree in geology in 1963. During this time he also studied abroad at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. After completing his graduate work at Columbia University in 1967 under the guidance of Norman Newell, he was immediately hired by Harvard University where he worked until the end of his life ( 1967- 2002). In 1973 Harvard promoted him to Professor of Geology and Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the institution's Museum of Comparative Zoology, and in 1982 he was awarded the title of Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology. In 1983 he was awarded fellowship into the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where he later served as president ( 1999- 2001). The AAAS news release cited his "numerous contributions to both scientific progress and the public understanding of science." He also served as president of the Paleontological Society ( 1985- 1986) and the Society for the Study of Evolution ( 1990- 1991). In 1989 Gould was elected into the body of the National Academy of Sciences. He was also Vincent Astor Visiting Research Professor of Biology at New York University from 1996- 2002.

Most of Gould's empirical research was on land snails. His early work was on the Bermudian genus Poecilozonites, while his later work concentrated on the West Indian genus Cerion.

Early in his career Gould developed with Niles Eldredge the theory of punctuated equilibrium, where evolutionary change occurs relatively rapidly to comparatively longer periods of evolutionary stability. According to Gould, punctuated equilibrium revised a key pillar "in the central logic of Darwinian theory." Some evolutionary biologists have argued that while punctuated equilibrium was "of great interest to biology," it merely modified neo-Darwinism in a manner which was fully compatible with what had been known before. Others however emphasized its theoretical novelty, and argued that evolutionary stasis had been "unexpected by most evolutionary biologists" and "had a major impact on paleontology and evolutionary biology."

In addition to his work on punctuated equilibrium and evolutionary developmental biology, Gould championed biological constraints and other non-selectionist forces in evolution. With Richard Lewontin he wrote an influential 1979 paper critical of the overuse of adaptation in biology. Their paper introduced the evolutionary concept spandrel, borrowed from the architectural term " spandrel". Gould and Lewontin used it to mean a feature of an organism that exists as a necessary consequence of other features and not built directly, piece by piece, by natural selection. The relative frequency of spandrels, so defined, versus adaptive features in nature, remains a controversial topic in evolutionary biology.

Gould is also one of the most highly cited scientists in the field of evolutionary theory. His 1979 "spandrels" paper has been cited more than 1,600 times. In Palaeobiology—the flagship journal of his own speciality—only Charles Darwin and G.G. Simpson have been cited more often. Gould was also a considerably respected historian of science. Historian Ronald Numbers has been quoted as saying: "I can't say much about Gould's strengths as a scientist, but for a long time I've regarded him as the second most influential historian of science (next to Thomas Kuhn)."

Shortly before his death, Gould published a long treatise recapitulating his version of modern evolutionary theory, written primarily for the technical audience of evolutionary biologists: The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002).

Gould as a public figure

Gould became widely known through his popular science essays in Natural History magazine and his best-selling books on evolution. Many of his essays were reprinted in collected volumes, such as Ever Since Darwin and The Panda's Thumb, while his popular treatises included books such as The Mismeasure of Man, Wonderful Life and Full House.

Gould was a passionate advocate of evolutionary theory and wrote prolifically on the subject, trying to communicate his understanding of contemporary evolutionary biology to a wide audience. A recurring theme in his writings is the history and development of evolutionary, and pre-evolutionary, thought. He was also an enthusiastic baseball fan and made frequent references to the sport in his essays.

Although a proud Darwinist, his emphasis was less gradualist and reductionist than most neo-Darwinists. He also opposed many aspects of sociobiology and its intellectual descendant evolutionary psychology. He spent much of his time fighting against creationism (and the related constructs Creation Science and Intelligent Design) and other forms of pseudoscience. Most notably, Gould provided expert testimony against the equal-time creationism law in McLean v. Arkansas. Gould used the term "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" (NOMA) to describe how, in his view, science and religion could not comment on each other's realm.. Gould had become a noted public face of science, and often appeared on television. He once voiced a cartoon version of himself on an episode of The Simpsons, a widely popular animated television program. The Simpsons also paid tribute to him after his death. In an episode entitled Papa's Got a Brand New Badge, at the beginning of the credits, the message "Dedicated to the memory of Stephen Jay Gould" appears with a picture from the episode he was in. In addition, he is one of several luminaries who are heroes of the climax of the science fiction novel Ancient Shores.

Gould was also featured prominently as a guest in Ken Burns' PBS documentary, Baseball.

He was on the Board of Advisors to the influencial Children's Television Workshop television show, 3-2-1 Contact.


Gould received many accolades for his scholarly work and popular expositions of natural history, but was criticized by some in the biological community who felt his public presentations were, in various respects, out of step with mainstream evolutionary theory. The public debates between those that agreed with Gould and those that criticized him have been so quarrelsome that they have been dubbed "The Darwin Wars" by several commentators.

The eminent John Maynard Smith was among Gould's strongest critics. Maynard Smith thought that Gould trivialized the role of adaptation, and criticised Gould's periodic invocation of large scale mutations. In a recent review of Daniel Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Maynard Smith wrote that Gould "is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory." But Maynard Smith has not been consistently negative, writing in a review of The Panda's Thumb that often "he infuriates me, but I hope he will go right on writing essays like these." Maynard Smith was also among those who welcomed Gould's reinvigoration of evolutionary paleontology.

One reason for such criticism was that Gould appeared to be presenting his ideas as a revolutionary way of understanding evolution, which relegated natural selection to a much less important position. As a result, many non-specialists inferred from his early writings that Darwinian explanations had been proven to be unscientific (which Gould never wanted to imply). His works were sometimes used out of context as a "proof" that scientists no longer understood how organisms evolved, giving creationists ammunition in their battle against evolutionary theory.Gould himself corrected some of these misinterpretations and distortions of his writings in later works..

Gould also had a long-running feud with E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins and other evolutionary biologists over sociobiology and its descendant evolutionary psychology, which Gould strongly opposed but Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker and others strongly advocated. Gould and Dawkins also disagreed over the importance of gene selection in evolution: Dawkins argued that all evolution is ultimately caused by gene competition, while Gould advocated the importance of higher-level competition including, but certainly not limited to, species selection. Strong criticism of Gould can be found in Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker and Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Dennett's criticism has tended to be harsher, while Dawkins praises Gould in evolutionary topics other than those of contention. Pinker accuses Gould, Lewontin and other opponents of evolutionary psychology of being "radical scientists," whose stance on human nature is influenced by politics rather than science. Gould countered that sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists are often heavily influenced, perhaps unconsciously, by their own prejudices and interests..

Gould's interpretation of the Cambrian Burgess Shale fossils in his book Wonderful Life was criticized by Simon Conway Morris in his 1998 book The Crucible Of Creation. Gould had emphasized the "weirdness" of the Burgess Shale fauna, and the role of unpredictable, contingent phenomena in determining which members of this fauna survived and flourished. Conway Morris stressed the phylogenetic linkages between the Burgess Shale forms and modern taxa, particularly, the importance of convergent evolution in producing general predictable responses to similar environmental circumstances. Paleontologist Richard Fortey has noted that prior to the release of Wonderful Life, Conway Morris shared many of Gould's sentiments and views. It was only after publication of Wonderful Life that Conway Morris revised his interpretation and adopted a more progressive stance towards the history of life.

Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA)

In his book Rocks of Ages Gould put forward what he described as "a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution to ... the supposed conflict between science and religion" He defines the term magisterium as "a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution" and the NOMA principle is "the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty)."

In his view, "Science and religion do not glower at each other ... [they] interdigitate in patterns of complex fingering, and at every fractal scale of self-similarity" . He suggests, with examples, that "NOMA enjoys strong and fully explicit support, even from the primary cultural stereotypes of hard-line traditionalism" and that it is "a sound position of general consensus, established by long struggle among people of goodwill in both magisteria"

A similar position has been adopted by the National Academy of Sciences. Its publication Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences, Second Edition (1999) states that "Scientists, like many others, are touched with awe at the order and complexity of nature. Indeed, many scientists are deeply religious. But science and religion occupy two separate realms of human experience. Demanding that they be combined detracts from the glory of each." This was subsequently signed by then-President Bruce Alberts.

Richard Dawkins though, in his book The God Delusion, is critical of Gould’s concept of non-overlapping magisteria as Dawkins argues that the concept cannot be used to defend theologians from criticism. Dawkins presents that "the God Hypothesis", which he defines as "there exists a super-human, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us" is a scientific hypothesis about the universe and one that should be treated with as much scepticism as any other theory.

Mismeasure of Man

Stephen Jay Gould was also the author of The Mismeasure of Man ( 1981), a history and skeptical inquiry of psychometrics and intelligence testing. Gould investigated many of the techniques of nineteenth century craniometry, as well as modern-day psychological testing—and claimed they developed unnecessarily from an unfounded faith in biological determinism. The Mismeasure of Man has generated perhaps the most controversy of all Gould's books, and has been subject to widespread praise (by skeptics) and extensive criticism (by psychologists)—including claims by some scientists that Gould had misrepresented their work.


  • For technical audiences
    • Ontogeny and Phylogeny ( Harvard University Press, 1977), ISBN 0-674-63940-5
    • The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Harvard University Press, 2002), ISBN 0-674-00613-5
  • For general audiences
    • The Mismeasure of Man ( W.W. Norton, 1981; revised 1996), ISBN 0-393-03972-2
    • Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (Harvard University Press, 1987), ISBN 0-674-89198-8
    • Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (W.W. Norton, 1989), ISBN 0-393-02705-8
    • Full House: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin (Harmony Books, 1996), ISBN 0-517-70394-7 (Released outside North America as Life's Grandeur: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin (Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1996), ISBN 0-09-989360-6)
    • Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown (Harmony, 1997); also published in a substantially extended second edition (Harmony, 1999), ISBN 0-609-60541-0
    • Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life ( Ballantine Books, 1999), ISBN 0-345-43009-3
    • The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities (Harmony, 2003), ISBN 0-609-60140-7
  • Collected essays from Natural History magazine
    • Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History (Norton, 1977), ISBN 0-393-06425-5
    • The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (Norton, 1980), ISBN 0-393-01380-4
    • Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History (Norton, 1983), ISBN 0-393-01716-8
    • The Flamingo's Smile (Norton, 1985), ISBN 0-393-02228-5
    • Bully for Brontosaurus (Norton, 1991), ISBN 0-393-02961-1
    • Eight Little Piggies (Norton, 1994), ISBN 0-393-03416-X
    • Dinosaur in a Haystack (Harmony, 1995), ISBN 0-517-70393-9
    • Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (Harmony, 1998), ISBN 0-609-60141-5
    • The Lying Stones of Marrakech: Penultimate Reflections in Natural History (Harmony, 2000), ISBN 0-609-60142-3
    • I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History (Harmony, 2001), ISBN 0-609-60143-1
  • Other essay collections
    • An Urchin in the Storm (Norton, 1987), ISBN 0-393-02492-X
    • Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball (Norton, 2003), ISBN 0-393-05755-0
    • Paul McGarr, ed., The Richness of Life: A Stephen Jay Gould Reader ( Jonathan Cape, 2006), ISBN 0-224-07607-8

End material

Retrieved from ""