Shortly after my wife and I were married in the summer of 2006, but before our apartment was lined with overstocked bookshelves, we used to make at least one weekly stop at the local public library. While she browsed a wide array of sections, I invariably scaled the back staircase to the science section on the second floor. The question was not whether I wanted to read a science book, but which one.
One of the first I picked up was Stephen Jay Gould’s essay collection The Lying Stones of Marrakech. Rightly or wrongly, I recognized him as the voice of evolutionary science, a topic that had gained my rapt attention, and so it seemed as good a place to start my evolution education as any.
I was enthralled by Gould’s writing from the first page. The history of human attempts to understand nature, in particular, revealed a view of science that was far more engaging than anything my high school teachers had tried to cram into my skull. Gould’s writing not only fed my curiosity about evolution, but sparked a new interest in the history of science, and it suddenly became important to read whatever original sources I could find for myself. Shortly after I returned the book to the library, I ordered a copy of The lying stones of Dr. Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer, in addition to checking out Gould’s Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms from the library.
I owe a lot to Gould. Not only have his explanations of the evolution influenced my own understanding of the subject, but his approach to history and prose have shaped my own interests and writing style. For one reason or another, though, not everyone is a fan of Gould, and I have sometimes heard my peers lament that they wish there was one single book they could read to understand Gould and be done with him.
Personally, I think this view is rather shortsighted, if not stupid. If you want to understand the work of a particular scientist, especially if their ideas are controversial, why intentionally limit yourself to just one book? I personally don’t care much for the writing and some arguments of Richard Dawkins, but that makes it all the more important for me to read a variety of his work to understand what he’s trying to get at. It would be idiotic for me to base any criticisms of Dawkins entirely upon The Selfish Gene, and it is the same with any other scientist with contentious views.
If you really do not have the time or patience to dive into Gould’s work, however, there is hardly a better “primer” on Gould than the recently-published Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections of His View of Life. This is not a biography (even though one is due out soon), but rather a collection of papers and essays on different aspects of Gould’s work by friends and colleagues. From his work on the snail Cerion to his lack of appreciation for ecology, the book traces the development of many of Gould’s “big ideas” in various facets of his career.
Gould was an unusual scientist, indeed. He closed the gap between popular essays (in which he sometimes presented scientific arguments or information for the first time) and technical reviews (which were more like the essays of naturalists of centuries past than modern reviews). As several of the contributors to the volume point out, though, it was this style that attracted criticism. In terms of species sorting (or selection), Gould seemed to come up with the hypothesis but did not carefully and quantitatively lay out how it might work like other forms of selection. His intellectual opponents wanted something short, simple, and to the point; the sort of thing that would have been uncharacteristic of Gould! Indeed, Gould left details supporting his notions to be supplied by others, and in the case of species sorting, there is still much work left to be done.
There are a few aspects of Gould’s career that I wished received greater attention in the book, as well. First is his opposition to sociobiology/evolutionary psychology, which is mentioned but not examined in detail. The second is why Gould seems to have said little (if anything) about intelligent design. It seems that Gould saw creationism as a primarily American phenomenon that was held by a minority of fundamentalists, and after the 1981 legal victory of scientists over creationists in Arkansas, he seems to have thought that creationism was on the retreat. Given that ID as we now know it was on the rise in the 1990’s (i.e. Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box was published in 1996), I have always found it strange that Gould did not have much to say about it. (Perhaps I have missed something.) Third, a detailed analysis of Gould’s thoughts on “hopeful monsters” and saltations would have been useful, particularly given the persistent confusion between saltation, punctuated equilibria, and Gould’s interest in development. Finally, I would have liked to see the debate between Gould and E.O. Wilson on the relationship of science and the humanities analyzed (see Gould’s The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox and Wilson’s Consilience for their respective views).
The problem with Gould’s legacy is that some of his ideas, like punctuated equilibrium, have been integrated into evolutionary theory and receive little special comment. (It is either treated as something that has been known all along, or, like in Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True, speciation is said to proceeded both in gradual and punctuated patterns with no mention of the recent debate about this.) Other ideas, like species sorting, are tantalizing but require more evidence than is presently available to confirm. This presents a few scenarios about how Gould’s involvement with species sorting might be remembered. If Gould is wrong, this idea will be mainly of interest to historians of science. If he is right, then his contribution to this area of research might be forgotten, misinterpreted, or (hopefully) properly attributed when or if that vindication comes.
The fact that his magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, is a ponderous and nearly unreadable tome does not help matters. His refusal to let an editor touch the product of his 20+ years of effort provides an unobstructed view of Gould, but there is more to take in than is possible for many (if not most) readers. Indeed, the sheer volume of his writing and the public debates he was engaged in might make it easy for scientists and authors to present a textbook cardboard version of Gould, which would be most unfitting given how often he railed against this problem!
Gould’s scientific ideas will stand or fall by their own merits as we continue to interrogate nature, but the influence of his writing on me has stretched beyond the minutiae of evolutionary theory. His work has stirred me to look more deeply into history, be more critical of cherished stories, and even to pick up the pen myself. If it were not for Gould, I find it doubtful that I would be striving to become a science writer, and I always find inspiration by reading his reflections on natural history.