Stephen Jay Gould : A Great Scientist-cum-Social Thinker

STEPHEN Jay 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 activist.


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.




Gould’s 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”.