Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941 – May 20, 2002) was a prominent American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was also one of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science of his generation. Gould spent most of his career teaching at Harvard University and working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Gould's greatest contribution to science was his theory of punctuated equilibrium which he developed with Niles Eldredge in 1972. The theory proposes that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability, which is later punctuated by rare instances of branching evolution. The theory was contrasted against phyletic gradualism, the popular idea that evolutionary change is marked by a pattern of smooth and continuous change in the fossil record.
Most of Gould’s empirical research was based on the land snails Poecilozonites and Cerion. He also contributed to evolutionary developmental biology, and has received wide praise for his book Ontogeny and Phylogeny. In evolutionary theory, he opposed strict selectionism, sociobiology as applied to humans, and evolutionary psychology. He campaigned against creationism and proposed that science and religion should be considered two distinct fields, or "magisteria", whose authority does not overlap.
Many of Gould's Natural History 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.
Raised in a secular Jewish home, Gould did not formally practice religion and preferred to be called an agnostic. Politically, though he "had been brought up by a Marxist father", he has stated that his father's politics were "very different" from his own. According to Gould, the most influential political book he read was C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite, as well as the political writings of Noam Chomsky. Gould continued to be exposed to progressive viewpoints on the politicized campus of Antioch College in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, Gould joined a left-wing academic organization called "Science for the People." 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.
Gould was twice married. His first marriage was to artist Deborah Lee, whom he met while attending Antioch College. They were married on October 3, 1965. His second marriage was to sculptor Rhonda Roland Shearer in 1995. Gould has 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 peritoneal mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer affecting the abdominal lining and frequently found in people who have been exposed to asbestos. After a difficult two-year recovery, Gould published a column for Discover magazine, titled "The Median Isn't the Message", which discusses his reaction to discovering 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 statistical averages are just useful abstractions, and do not encompass the full range of variation. The median is the halfway point, which means that 50% of patients will die before 8 months, but the other half will live longer, potentially much longer. He then needed to find out where his personal characteristics placed him within this range. Considering the cancer was caught early, the fact he was young, optimistic, and had the best treatments available, Gould figured that he should be in the favorable half of the upper statistical range. After an experimental treatment of radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery, Gould made a full recovery, and his column became a source of comfort for many cancer patients.
Gould was also an advocate for medical marijuana. During this bout with cancer, he smoked the illegal drug to alleviate the nausea associated with his medical treatments. According to Gould, his use of marijuana had a "most important effect" on his eventual recovery. In 1998 he testified in the case of Jim Wakeford, a Canadian medical-marijuana user and activist.
His scientific essays for Natural History frequently refer to his nonscientific interests and pastimes. As a boy, he collected baseball cards and was a huge baseball fan throughout his life. As an adult he was fond of science fiction movies, but lamented that so many of them were bad, not just in their science, but in their storytelling. He sang in a madrigal choir and was a great aficionado of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. He collected rare books and old textbooks. He traveled often to Europe, usually mixing business with pleasure, and spoke French and German. He admired Renaissance architecture. When discussing the Judeo-Christian tradition, he usually referred to it simply as "Moses." He sometimes alluded ruefully to his tendency to put on weight.
Gould died on May 20, 2002 from a metastatic adenocarcinoma of the lung, a form of cancer which had spread to his brain. This cancer was unrelated to his abdominal cancer, 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 opposed sociobiology as applied to humans and its descendant evolutionary psychology. Criticizing a genetic explanation for human behaviors, Gould championed the vision of nearly all humans born with the capacity to assume almost any identity, as shaped by social rather than biological forces.
A spandrel is the space that exists between arches, as seen particularly in gothic churches. When visiting Venice, Gould noted that the spandrels of the San Marco cathedral, while quite beautiful, were not a space that was planned by the architect, but rather coincidentally resulted from what the architects deliberately designed—the arches. Gould and Lewontin thus defined "spandrels" in evolutionary biology to mean a feature of an organism that arises as a necessary side consequence of other features, but which is not built directly, piece by piece, as a result of being favored by natural selection. Examples include the "masculinized genitalia in female hyenas, exaptive use of an umbilicus as a brooding chamber by snails, the shoulder hump of the giant Irish deer, and several key features of human mentality.
In Voltaire's Candide, Dr. Pangloss is a clueless scholar who, despite the evidence, says that "all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds." Gould and Lewontin asserted that it is "Panglossian" for evolutionary biologists to view all biological traits as things that had been naturally selected for specifically. Gould and Lewontin argued that some traits were coincidental "spandrels." The relative frequency of spandrels, so defined, versus adaptive features in nature, remains a controversial topic in evolutionary biology.
A passionate advocate of evolutionary theory, Gould 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 fiercely opposed many aspects of sociobiology and its intellectual descendant evolutionary psychology. He devoted considerable time to fighting against creationism (and the related constructs Creation science and Intelligent design). Most notably, Gould provided expert testimony against the equal-time creationism law in McLean v. Arkansas. Gould later developed the term "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" (NOMA) to describe how, in his view, science and religion could not comment on each other's realm. Gould went on to develop this idea in some detail, particularly in the books Rocks of Ages (1999) and The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox (2003). In a 1982 essay for Natural History Gould wrote:
Gould also became a noted public face of science, often appearing on television. He once voiced a cartoon version of himself on the season nine Simpsons episode Lisa the Skeptic, in which Lisa finds a skeleton that many people think is that of an angel that predicts the end of the world, but ends up being part of a marketing ploy for a new mall. The show paid tribute to Gould after his death, dedicating the season 13 finale "Papa's Got a Brand New Badge" to his memory.
Gould was also featured prominently as a guest in Ken Burns' PBS documentary Baseball, PBS's Evolution series, CNN's Crossfire, NBC's The Today Show, and was a guest in all seven episodes of the Dutch '90s talkshow-series "Een Schitterend Ongeluk", or in English, "A Marvellous Accident." He was also on the Board of Advisers to the influential Children's Television Workshop television show, 3-2-1 Contact, where he made frequent guest appearances.
John Maynard Smith, an eminent British evolutionary biologist, was among Gould's strongest critics. Maynard Smith thought that Gould misjudged the vital role of adaptation in biology, and was also critical of Gould's acceptance of species selection as a major component of biological evolution. In a 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 "Stephen Gould is the best writer of popular science now active. . . . 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, and he argued for the importance of mechanisms other than natural selection, mechanisms which he believed had been sidelined by other researchers. As a result, many non-specialists sometimes inferred from his early writings that Darwinian explanations had been proven to be unscientific (which Gould never tried to imply). Along with many other researchers in the field, Gould's works were sometimes deliberately taken out of context by creationists as a "proof" that scientists no longer understood how organisms evolved. Gould himself corrected some of these misinterpretations and distortions of his writings in later works..
Gould also had a long-running public feud with E. O. Wilson and other evolutionary biologists over human sociobiology and its descendant evolutionary psychology, which Gould, Lewontin, and Maynard Smith opposed, but which Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Steven Pinker advocated. Gould and Dawkins also disagreed over the importance of gene selection in evolution. Dawkins argued that evolution is best understood as competition among genes (or replicators), while Gould advocated the importance of multi-level competition, including selection amongst genes, cell lineages, organisms, demes, species, and clades. Criticism of Gould can be found in chapter 9 of Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker and chapter 10 of 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 contended that sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists are often heavily influenced, perhaps unconsciously, by their own prejudices and interests. He wrote:
Gould's interpretation of the Cambrian Burgess Shale fossils in his book Wonderful Life emphasized the striking morphological disparity (or "weirdness") of the Burgess Shale fauna, and the role of chance in determining which members of this fauna survived and flourished. He used the Cambrian fauna as an example of the role of contingency in the broader pattern of evolution.
Gould's view was criticized by Simon Conway Morris in his 1998 book The Crucible Of Creation. Conway Morris stressed those members of the Cambrian fauna that resemble modern taxa. He also promoted convergent evolution as a mechanism producing similar forms to similar environmental circumstances, and argued in a subsequent book that the appearance of human-like animals is likely. Paleontologists Derek Briggs and Richard Fortey have also argued that much of the Cambrian fauna may be regarded as stem groups of living taxa, though this is still a subject of intense research and debate, and the relationship of many Cambrian taxa to modern phyla has not been established in the eyes of many palaeontologists.
Paleontologist Richard Fortey 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..
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 nineteenth century craniometry, as well as modern-day psychological testing, and claimed that they developed from an unfounded faith in biological determinism. It was reprinted in 1996 with the addition of a new foreword, plus a review and critique of The Bell Curve.
The Mismeasure of Man has generated perhaps the greatest controversy of all of Gould's books, and has received both widespread praise (by skeptics) and extensive criticism (by certain psychologists), including claims of misrepresentation by some scientists.
In his view, "Science and religion do not glower at each other...[but] 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."
Also in 1999, the National Academy of Sciences adopted a similar stance. Its publication Science and Creationism stated 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.
Richard Dawkins has criticized the NOMA principle on the grounds that religion does not, and cannot, steer clear of the material scientific matters that Gould considers outside religion's scope. Dawkins argues that "[a] universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. [...] Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims." These "existence claims" include miracles such as the Catholic Assumption of Mary: whether Mary's body decayed when she died or was physically lifted to Heaven is a material fact, and thus outside the moral magisterium to which NOMA would limit religion.