Remembering Stephen Jay Gould

 sickle_s.gif (30476 bytes) People’s Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of
India (Marxist)


No. 23

June 16,2002

Stephen Jay Gould
: A Great


Amit Sen Gupta

Gould, paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, science writer, a refreshing social thinker
and one of the last surviving polymaths of our age passed away in May this year. Gould
leaves behind a controversial body of work that has its fair share of critics and diehard
admirers. Always a larger than life character, he leaves a legacy that cannot be ignored.
Born in a Jewish family of third generation immigrants from Eastern Europe, he grew up in
a lower middle class suburb in New York City. He trained as a paleontologist, specialising
in the study of fossil remains of snails and used his early training to put together a
refreshingly different view of human evolution.


It is difficult
to predict how best posterity will remember Gould. His theory on evolution stands out as a
signal contribution to evolutionary biology. So does his work, in debunking the myth of IQ
tests and the supposed superiority of white anglo-saxon males, which he enunciated in his
book “The Mismeasure of Man”. He was also a science writer par excellence, and
for a quarter of a century he wrote a monthly column in the magazine Natural History,
which concluded only with the publication of the 300th at the start of what he
regarded as the turn of the true millennium, in January 2001. Such was the popularity of
these columns that they were anthologised into no fewer than nine books. Gould will also
be remembered for the role he played in opposing the introduction of the Creationist
Theory of evolution (i.e. the biblical theory that God created the universe in seven days)
in school text books in the United States. But probably above all, Gould will be
remembered as a leading example of a vanishing breed – a scientist who was also a social

A glimpse of the
man that he was, can be had from the things that he considered beautiful—the theories
of Karl Marx; choral music; church architecture; and, first, last, and always, baseball!
He acknowledged later in life the deep influence that his Marxist father had on his
beliefs. Though Gould never called himself a Marxist, many of his critics
“accused” him of being one! In fact Gould was always viewed with suspicion by
the Conservative establishment in the United States. His radicalism surfaced first as a
young professor in Harvard. Lacking a permanent tenure or a bankable reputation, he sided
with students who opposed the Vietnam War, when most chose to look the other way.


signal contribution to the theory of evolution came in 1972, when he and Niles Eldredge
published their theory of punctuated equilibrium. Although Gould has become closely
identified with the theory of punctuated equilibrium, it actually originated with
paleontologist Niles Eldredge and was developed by them jointly. Eldredge’s detailed
studies of fossil records showed that there were “bursts” of speciation (i.e.
when new species are formed) interspersed with long periods of stability. At the time
Darwin published his theory of evolution in “The Origin of Species”, almost a
century earlier, fossil record were too sketchy and incompletely known. But vast
accumulations of paleontological evidence over the last century do not support
Darwin’s case for a steady, gradual evolution. The theory of punctuated equilibrium,
thus, while retaining the core of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, refined it further on
the basis of new evidence.

By the 1980s,
“Punctuationalism” had become widely adopted and was proving to be a fruitful
hypothesis for generating new insights and research. Although Darwin remained one of
Gould’s lifelong heroes, whose achievements he celebrated in such books as Ever Since
Darwin (1977) and The Panda’s Thumb (1980), he nevertheless eschewed blind adherence
to all that Darwin, or his later adherents, had hypothesised.

To the dismay of
more conservative colleagues he contested many popular notions that had been spawned by
Darwin’s theory of evolution. One such notion was that there is a grand design in
evolution, which has ultimately led to the evolution of man – supremely adapted to survive
in his environment. This notion, also termed “biological progressivism” was
closely held by “social Darwinists”. They used the above theory of
evolution to justify racism, imperialism, and a laissez-faire indifference to poverty. The
logic behind social Darwinism was that suffering, even death, of the weak at the hands of
the strong is an example of “survival of the fittest.” And as “survival of
the fittest” is part of the “grand design” of evolution, it is inevitable
and need not be fought. Gould was a bitter critic of the concept of there being any
“grand design” behind evolution. Instead he posited that much of evolution takes
place because of accidents of nature.
He saw the evolution of man as the result of
a combination of fortuitous circumstances, which most likely would not be duplicated if
evolution were to start all over again. He wrote: “Humans are not the end result of
predictable evolutionary progress, but rather a fortuitous cosmic afterthought, a tiny
little twig on the enormously arborescent bush of life, which if replanted from seed,
would almost surely not grow this twig again.”

Gould also
contested another popular notion about evolution – that all features that we see in a
species are a result of adaptation to the environment. He showed that it is necessary to
distinguishing incidental features from adaptive ones. He coauthored with Richard Lewontin
a paper inspired by the “spandrels” of certain medieval cathedrals. Spandrels
are geometric architectural features decorated with impressive religious paintings. While
art historians had analyzed their distinctive aesthetics, most had forgotten the
spandrel’s humble origin as an unavoidable engineering consequences of stress
distribution—a structural byproduct of constructing that kind of dome. Using this
analogy Gould pointed out that the human chin, often cited as “advanced” in
comparisons with “lower” primates, holds no special correlation with higher
intelligence. It is, like the spandrels, an incidental result of stress and growth factors
in the human jawbone.

In Gould’s
view, adherence to a belief in directed evolutionary progress expressed cultural and
political biases of the 19th century. This was also the time when Capitalism
and its ideology were ascendant and the notion of “survival of the fittest”
could be tailored to justify Capitalist exploitation. Gould felt that Charles Darwin was
unable to abandon these ideas despite apparent contradictions with his own theory of
evolution and his agonizing intellectual struggle with gaps in the fossil record.


Another major
contribution that Gould made was towards debunking the pseudo-scientific myths that were
used to justify racism. His book “The Mismeasure of Man” (published in
1981) challenged the historical ranking of people by so-called levels of intelligence. The
book caricatured methods used by scientists – by measuring skulls, brains, heredity, and
even the tattooing on criminals—with the primary goal of declaring that western and
northern Europeans had higher IQs than Eastern and Southern Europeans and people of color
had much lower IQs. In 1996 Gould published a revised edition of the book, primarily as a
response to a book published in 1994 titled “The Bell Curve” authored by
right-wing political activist Charles Murray and Harvard psychology professor Richard
Herrnstein. The book claimed that black people have lower and more fixed IQs than white
people. Gould exposed “The Bell Curve” as devoid of serious facts or new
arguments. Gould said the book was “a manifesto of conservative ideology” He
further wrote that the book, was designed to facilitate “reduction or elimination of
welfare, ending of affirmative action in schools and workplaces, cessation of Head Start
and other forms of preschool education, cutting of programs for slowest learners, and
application of funds to the gifted.”

It may be
mentioned that the views presented in “The Bell Curve” had already started
manifesting itself by the 1990s in the US. Gould wrote that it was no accident that
“The Bell Curve” was published precisely when Newt Gingrich rose to power in
Congress, “with a new age of social meanness unprecedented in my lifetime.”


Many people
commented about Gould that he spent a large part of his life battling two Cs – Creationism
and Cancer. The Creationist controversy was raked up in Kansas in the eighties, when the
state government made the teaching of Creationism mandatory in schools in the state. Gould
led the national furore against the move and was one of the key figures responsible for
the decision being overturned in Court. His response to Cancer was equally feisty. Around
the same time he was diagnosed to be suffering from a rare cancer – mesothilioma of the
intestine. Gould reacted in typical fashion – by writing an essay titled “The Median
is not the Message”. In the essay he described discovering that the median survival
time after diagnosis was a mere eight months. Rather than giving up hope, he wrote that he
used his knowledge of statistics to translate an apparent death sentence into the hopeful
realisation that half of those in whom the disease was diagnosed survived longer than
eight months, perhaps much longer, giving him the strength to fight on. Fight on he did,
for twenty more years, till he succumbed to cancer of the lungs.

He left behind
his last great work – a 1500 page summation of his work on evolutionary theory. Gould
dedicated this book, titled “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory” to Eldredge
and their colleague Elizabeth Vrba. The book’s dedication reads, in part: “May
we always be the Three Musketeers / Prevailing with panache”.

gohome.gif (364 bytes)