Stephen Jay Gould, a Man for All Seasons


Steve Gould, among the nation’s most prolific and likely its most popular science writer, died of cancer on May 21. He was 60 years old. With the publication of his magnum opus last year, the 1433-page “Structure of Evolutionary Theory,” he left to his colleagues and to others who marvel at the nature of scientific endeavor a body of work that sets the standard for brilliance of exposition, historical scope, and imagination.

The book was the product of Gould’s decades-long effort to lay down in detail the evolution of evolutionary theory. Gould’s critical contribution to this endeavor is, of course, included.

Charles Darwin, the father of modern evolutionary theory, died 59 years before Gould’s birth. But Darwin was undoubtedly Gould’s standard of excellence, as evidenced by his years of recounting and assessing Darwin’s personal predilections and scientific life and times.

Gould never separated the personal and inseparable social factors that helped to mold the scientist’s viewpoint. In Darwin’s case, for example, Gould explained in detail how for many years Darwin consciously declined to publish his theory of natural selection as the cornerstone for his evolutionary theory due to his concern over offending the religious prejudices that dominated his era.

Gould authored some 20 books, most of them best sellers. They were largely compilations selected from the 300 essays he published without a miss, monthly, over a period of some 25 years in Natural History magazine. One thousand scientific papers, many associated with his life’s work on the evolution of mollusks, rounded out his contribution to scientific inquiry.

Gould took pride in making the “dull” science of paleontology fascinating to people the world over. “Steve did not try to make it simple,” said Richard Lewontin, a professor of biology and zoology at Harvard University, where Gould was a professor of zoology and geology for 35 years. “He tried and succeeded in explaining the complications. He made readers appreciate how messy and variable life is.”

“Objectivity,” said Gould in a statement that aptly summarizes his approach to controversy, “cannot be equated with mental blankness; rather, objectivity resides in recognizing your preferences and then subjecting them to especially harsh scrutiny-and also in a willingness to revise or abandon your theories when the tests fail (as they usually do).” Gould took as much pleasure in unearthing the flaws in his opponent’s positions as he did in admitting his own.

Approaching any subject from a materialist and historical standpoint, Gould always managed to find something of merit in the most ridiculous of arguments. He taught a generation of lay thinkers and sophisticates in his own field that ideas, no matter how obscure or flawed, cannot be separated from the prevailing social and political context that generated them.

Baseball and opera

Steve Gould was a lifelong friend, from our years together at Jamaica High School in Queens, New York, where he graduated with a 94 average and participated in the school’s choir, to our five years at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where we often scheduled competing lectures.

Steve held forth on “The Sex Life of the Clam,” as I, also a biology major, countered with “The Theory of Cuban Revolution.” Steve, in his late teens already an inventive thinker, often drew almost a quarter of Antioch’s 700 students to his fun-filled and well-prepared lectures-while my efforts to win the same group to the ideas of Fidel and Che or to other radical subjects of the day attracted far less.

Steve’s lectures, as with his writing throughout his life, were crammed with offbeat references to everything from his beloved baseball and his fascination with Gilbert and Sullivan’s witty and sarcastic operas to analyses of long-rejected concepts of racial inferiority.

He drew great pleasure in taking dramatically far out positions on issues of seemingly little import. He was a devout Yankee fan at a time when all self-respecting New York kids whose parents hailed from radical traditions championed the Brooklyn Dodgers, where Jackie Robinson was the first to break baseball’s color line.

As he participated in Antioch’s choir he would hold forth that no worthwhile classical music was produced after J.S. Bach. Of course, Steve knew that he was out on a limb, but if you took him on, you had to expect some method to his playful excess. Steve knew the difference between humorous over-stated conviction and engagement in serious debates over critical issues in his chosen profession.

Moreover, he was fascinated with the complex works of more modern composers like Wagner, whose four-hour operas he immersed himself in even during the last weeks of his life-when he participated in the Boston Cecilia, a choral orchestral group that had held his loyalty for 30 years.

Our parents hailed from a generation of working-class and sometimes persecuted New York Jews who were strongly influenced by the Stalinized Communist Party. Mistakenly, they saw the CP as embodying a fundamental challenge to the capitalist status quo of war, prejudice, and exploitation. As best they could, they instilled in both of us a value system that rejected reaction in all its manifestations.

Our parents often maneuvered to “broaden” our horizons and experiences. Steve was sent to my house to pick up on the various seasonal sports that preoccupied many kids of that era. A chubby and somewhat awkward 14-year-old, he gleefully joined my more agile friends and brother on the neighborhood streets to learn the fundamentals of touch football and stickball.

In turn, I visited Steve’s house, where we marveled at memorizing the names of his extensive shell and mineral collection, meticulously organized and displayed on a large bookshelf in his very modest “housing project” living room entrance hall.

Punctuated equilibrium

Gould’s central contribution to modern evolutionary thinking was his theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” a still controversial idea with rapidly increasing adherents, that earned him the label “neo-Darwinist.”

Darwin’s theory of evolution is premised on the concept of gradualism. His careful observations of very small differences within species was coupled with his understanding that all species produce far more offspring than can possibly survive. As Steve used to remind us in college, “a 12-inch species of Virginia oyster produces 250,000 eggs per year, but, on average, one survives to maturity.”

Over long periods of time, Darwin concluded, nature generally “selects” to survive-from among all offspring produced by a species-those minute characteristic differences that are best suited to the particular environment. This continuous and gradual selection process, over millions of years and longer, results in the formation of new species. This is the essence of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the operative principle of species evolution.

Darwin’s latter-day critics, especially those whose ideas emanated not from scientific principle but from faith-based or religious notions, often challenged his thesis based on the time factor. They argued that the slowness of the pace of Darwin’s selection process, even given the millions or billions of years over which it operated, could not account for the vast number of species that exist on the planet.

Darwin’s theory, while fundamentally correct, was given a boost with the discovery that sudden and more dramatic changes in members of individual species could be observed in a relatively short period of time. The discovery of these sudden changes, mutations, collapsed the time period necessary for the development of new species.

Gould’s punctuated equilibrium advanced the debate further. In 1972, when he and his lifelong colleague, Niles Eldridge, published their work, “Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism,” they argued that the fossil record failed to demonstrate Darwin’s gradualism. Instead, it recorded long periods, in the millions of years and longer, of “stasis,” or stability, punctuated by “rapid” evolutionary bursts, perhaps over thousands of years, a virtual blink of an eye in geological time.

The positive mutations that most scientists previously believed to be the precursors to new species (some 99 percent of mutations are lethal), Gould argued, would most likely be “washed out” or “blended” in the larger population and lost. They were not in and of themselves critical to the emergence of new species.

But when a small portion of a species group became suddenly isolated due to geographic factors that separated it from the rest of the population, mutations stood a better chance of persisting. The gradual accumulation of new mutations in this isolated population eventually led to the formation of new species.

Punctuated equilibrium has found increasing support in the scientific community. It is predicated on the occurrence of sudden cataclysmic changes in the earth’s surface and environment resulting from meteor or asteroid bombardment, volcanic action, or other such factors that permanently separate a smaller portion of a species population from its main group.

David Jablonski, chair of the committee on evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago, noted that there is “an impressive array of examples in the fossil record, from snails to horses” that verifies Gould’s theory.

Jablonski reports on the work of a scientist who analyzed the evolutionary “trees” of 34 different types of scallops. He found only one that displayed gradual evolution over time. “The remaining 33,” says Jablonski, “stayed pretty much the same from generation to generation. Another scientist found gradualism in only eight of 88 lineages of trilobites.”

Gould’s opponents, as with Darwin himself, respond that the incompleteness of the fossil record best explains the absence of intermediate species, not punctuated equilibrium. The debate is far from resolved, with Gould himself modifying his contribution in light of new discoveries in the fossil record.

Intelligent life in the universe?

Gould also broke new ground when he postulated that mutations were not limited to single gene or minor aberration. He postulated that under certain circumstances a simultaneous series of mutations could rapidly produce an entirely new feature in an existing species. Again, however, the likelihood that such a major and qualitative change would be passed on depended more on its relative isolation in a subgroup than on the intrinsic merits of the change in form.

Gould was among the most vehement critics of the search for the evolutionary basis of human behavior, the so-called science of sociobiology. The fundamental character of human beings, he argued with passion, can best be explained by social environment as opposed to our genetic constitution. Social characteristics are the product of social environment. We are not inherently anything-good or evil, greedy or generous.

Steve Gould was an expert witness in the modern day rerun of the Scopes evolution trial in Tennessee more than a decade ago when his court testimony successfully served to relegate the “creationist” version of the origin of life to a faith-based belief having nothing to do with scientific inquiry. He lectured in apartheid South Africa, debunking theories of racial superiority in the face of a regime whose power was publicly premised on that assumption.

Gould liked nothing more than to apply the scientific principles that had become an integral part of his being to topical questions of the day. He joined his astronomer friend Carl Sagan in disputing the proposition that intelligent life exists anywhere in the universe.

He rejected the notion that evolution had a direction or purpose, or that life proceeds necessarily from lower to higher forms. “Human brains and bodies did not evolve along a direct and inevitable ladder, but by a circuitous and tortuous route, and fortunately suited to later needs,” he noted.

Gould continued: “The improbabilities of history proclaim that all species are unique and unrepeatable in detail. Evolutionary theory, as a science of history, does deny the specific argument for humanoids on other worlds.”

Despite his skepticism, however, Gould, like Sagan, supported modest funding for the SETI project (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). “I must justify the attempt at such a long shot,” he said, “by stating that a positive result would be the most cataclysmic event in our entire intellectual history. Curiosity impels, and makes us human, Might it compel others as well?”

Steve was not unacquainted with the “long shot.” Indeed, when his doctors told him some 20 years ago that his chances of surviving mesothelioma, a deadly cancer of the outer lining of the lungs, was less than 10 percent, he was undaunted. He found a new meaning to the term statistics and indeed found a method of attacking his illness.

This involved the direct application onto his lungs of the necessary chemotherapy drugs, allowing for the utilization of a dosage strength far in excess of what can be tolerated with normal intravenous therapy. Steve beat the statistical odds and exclaimed with the characteristic sarcasm and biting humor of a staunch atheist, “Not yet, Lord, not yet!”

Gould and political activism

Not long after Socialist Action was formed, almost 20 years ago, I called Steve to learn more about the flawed science behind Ronald Reagan’s proposed Star Wars project. As expected, he was entirely skeptical and ready with a stream of answers to technical questions as to the feasibility of developing any system to “protect” the U.S. from even one of the 30,000 nuclear-tipped missiles that the former USSR then possessed.

The discussion was the occasion for renewing a friendship that distance had put on the back burner for several years. Steve astonished me by offering Socialist Action newspaper the right to reprint anything he had written. While we never had occasion to accept his proposal, I remain to this day amazed at his generosity.

And generous he was. His lecture fees were often applied as grants to promising students who had sought his assistance to continue their studies.

Gould was no stranger to Marxism but essentially remained aloof from any active participation in socialist or any other political organizations. He was for a while a more than occasional lecturer at the New York Marxist School’s Brecht Forum, where his scientific wizardry fascinated a generation who saw in his materialist methodology a broader tool for investigation of society more generally-and indeed for changing it.

Gould did not shy away from citing with enthusiasm and agreement the work of Marx’s cothinker, Friedrich Engels, whose essay, “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man,” was considered by Gould as seminal in rejecting the “idealistic” and “Western” prejudice regarding the primacy of the brain in human evolution. (See “Ever Since Darwin,” W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1977.)

In the same work, Gould cites Marx and Engels in regard to their recognition of Darwin’s employment of the materialist method: “The most ardent materialists of the nineteenth century, Marx and Engels, were quick to recognize what Darwin had accomplished and to exploit its radical content. In 1869 Marx wrote to Engels about Darwin’s ‘Origin,’ ‘Although it is developed in the crude English style, this is the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view.'”

Gould continues: “Marx later offered to dedicate volume 2 of ‘Das Capital’ to Darwin, but Darwin gently declined, stating that he did not want to imply approval of a work he had not read.”

My last contact with Steve Gould was a few years ago when he readily agreed to put his name to and help finance a full-page New York Times advertisement demanding justice and a new trial for the innocent U.S. political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal.

He was an ardent opponent of the evils created by capitalism and employed his pen and wit to ridicule social injustice wherever he saw it. But he was not a joiner.

I always guessed that Steve, like so many brilliant intellectuals in the academic world, understood, perhaps unconsciously, that had he committed himself to the social/political equivalent of his scientific approach to change, that is to revolutionary Marxism, the doors that he pried open in the scientific world with such difficulty would not be so amenable to movement.

Indeed, he has stated: “Scientists have power by virtue of the respect commanded by the discipline. We may therefore be sorely tempted to misuse that power in furthering a personal prejudice or social goal-why not provide that extra oomph by extending the umbrella of science over a personal preference in ethics or politics? But we cannot, lest we lose the very respect that tempted us in the first place” (“Bully for Brontosaurus,” pp. 429-430).

It is nevertheless evident that Gould was a serious practitioner of dialectical materialism, the method of inquiry and science of change applicable to both the natural and social world. Although like most scientists of his generation, Steve largely limited his dialectical inquiry to the realm of science, he championed its application elsewhere.

In a remarkable tribute that concludes his “Ever Since Darwin” chapter on Engels’s contribution to an understanding of the evolution of the human species, Gould affirms: “If we took Engels’s message to heart and recognized our belief in the superiority of pure research for what it is-namely social prejudice-then we might forge among scientists the union between theory and practice that a world teetering dangerously near the brink so desperately needs.”

Gould justly saw himself as a front-line fighter against the status quo everywhere. He aptly dedicated his seminal work to his colleagues, Niles Eldridge and Elizabeth Vrba: “May we always be the Three Musketeers / Prevailing with panache.”

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