Stephen Jay Gould's view of life


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.

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Very well said. I wish I could add something of value to this, but you've summed up my thoughts on Gould brilliantly.

Some of Gould's ideas may well be bunk, but he was the first author whose writing allowed me to fully grok evolution, and for that he deserves my undying admiration. He's often the first author I'll suggest to creationists-on-the-verge, even if I do so with a few caveats.

Flaws and all, he's still a cherished figure in my book, and always will be.

How nice to find another fan of Stephen Jay Gould, and science books in general. I have read a lot of Gould, over the years, always enjoyed his essays in Natural History, and was devastated when he died. I, too, initially had reservations about Richard Dawkins' writing, and I never read "The Selfish Gene." I started with "A Devil's Chaplain," which is a collection of essays that I really warmed up to. Now I'm reading "Unweaving the Rainbow." I always thought that Dawkins and Gould were adversaries, but it turns out that they just disagreed over details about evolution -- Dawkins always expresses a lot of respect for Gould, and especially for his writing skills. I definitely agree that you should read the work of authors that seem to conflict with your favorite -- you may find that the conflict is hyped out of proportion. I also recommend you read "Creatures of Accident," by Wallace Arthur; "The Making of the Fittest," by Sean B. Carroll; and "The Canon," by Natalie Angier. These are real treats for anyone who likes to study evolutionary science, or just science in general. Enjoy.

By Judy King (not verified) on 30 Dec 2008 #permalink

I am only a science dilettante but I have loved Gould's books for years. He had a gift for bringing the story of evolution and science history to life and making it understandable to the public. I was so sorry when he died, it was a loss to humanity.

To me it does not matter whether his ideas hold true although I'm glad to hear that punctuated equilibrium has made it into the evolutionary mainstream. What is important is the discussion of ideas.

I have several of Gould's books(though by no means all I want.) He managed to make science accessible in a way few have (Carl Sagan comes to mind.) A subject I have heard bandied about in a few books is Gould's alleged Marxism (Haldane was reputed to be Marxist as well.) Oh well, anyone who has made the contributions Gould has can hold cheesy political views, and I'll read his books anyway!

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 30 Dec 2008 #permalink

one word: YAY!

Thanks for this. I always liked Gould as well, and he was one of my introductions to evolutionary biology. I love the way his ideas weave together, even when I disagree with some of his conclusions, and I do think that he had a lot of very good points.

Raymond Minton: to the best of my knowledge Gould was not a Marxist. I suspect that accusation stems from the fact that he admired the idealism of Marxism, but admiring the idealism of something -- or admiring some of the creative solutions for everyday life that it engenders -- is a far cry from thinking that something is a good political system. However, you should read The Mismeasure of Man -- not just as his treatise on intelligence testing, but because my recollection is that it contains a few analyses of human nature and politics as well.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 30 Dec 2008 #permalink

Gould's father was an active Marxist, and raised Gould as a Marxist. I recall (maybe faultily) Gould stating he was a Marxist. I have read a good deal of Gould's writings, but quit reading him in later years. I thought his writing style became irritatingly prolix and dense; and that he began to treat subjects which I found trivial or uninteresting. I liked his "Panda's Thumb" collection of essays. I used it as a readings book in a general education biology course. It served quite well.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 30 Dec 2008 #permalink

I've only recently become a Gould fan; I'm about half way through reading "Wonderful Life" for the first time (I flicked through it a while back, admired the illustrations, then gave it back to the library), and really feel that his passion is rubbing off on me, even more so than usual when I read a scientific book. I even found myself thinking last night, while watching "The Day the Earth Stood Still" at the cinema, "I can't wait to get home and read more about Burgess Shale!"

After the next couple of books on my reading list, I will pick up "Lying Stones of Marrakesh". Thanks for the recommendation!

Whether Gould is right or wrong is not the point. Most hypotheses are wrong. Process in science comes from identifying wrong hypotheses and learning from why they are wrong. It takes a strong person to buck established views. Personally, I think punk eek may be an artifact of off-scene events, but...

On another personal level, I think much of the criticism of Gould is due to envy about his 'bully pulpit': "This view of Life", which kept Natural History magazine in the Black for decades. (He stopped writing; I stopped buying.)

Drop a few letters and 'Gould' = 'God'

Haldane was reputed to be Marxist as well.

Given that Haldane was a member of the Communist Party for many years, that's not surprising. Gould's take seems to have been a bit more sophisticated, believing that Marxism, sensu lato, offered many useful methodological insights without buying the whole package - not an unreasonable position.

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!

Unfitting maybe, but not really unfair. During his career, Gould gave as good as he got and he was not above occasionally creating cardboard versions of his opponents and/or their views.

It seems that Gould saw creationism as a primarily American phenomenon that was held by a minority of fundamentalists

That's a fair assessment. I haven't read much of what Gould's written about creationism, but I did meet him once, in 1999. It was an informal occasion where all kinds of topics were discussed. Islamic creationism was mentioned, and Gould was genuinely surprised to learn that widespread resistance to evolution in Muslim countries existed. The phenomenon of creationism, and particularly its non-Western incarnations, apparently did not interest Gould that much. Hence he probably did not see it as the serious threat that it is.

Lastly, to those who wonder about Gould's Marxism: read this.

In my opinion the largest threat for California are cataclysms and ecological catastrophes. Not important is how many money we have because one tragedy can us take all.

Brian, that was a very good post. I can empathize with most everything you said.

To Dartian. Just because Gould was embraced by the Marxists doesn't mean he was one. Here is what Gould's widow had to say about the matter:

"For the record, my late husband, Stephen Jay Gould, told me many times that he was an agnostic and not an 'atheist.' Eleanor, Steve's late mother, was an atheist. Another misconception and perhaps more surprising to some: Steve was not a communist. [sic] He carefully said he learned communism 'on his father's knee' -- not that he was a communist. Steve always felt badly that he disappointed his father by not becoming a Marxist. He, therefore, in honor of his father, gave the occasional lecture at communist locales, pro bono. He mentioned how his critical independence from his father was struck on the day he realized that communism was 'misguided' and he dared to argue the points with his father. After the fall of communism, Steve reflected that he was happy his father was 'not alive to see it.' Steve did not like pigeon holes. Critics attacked him with statements 'he is an atheist' or 'he is a red' or 'he is a communist.' Steve would never retort 'I am not a communist' or 'I am not an atheist.' Too evocative of the McCarthy era for his taste." (Dated March 21, 2007)

Maybe it just me, but this is by far one of the most tired and irrelevant red herrings I've come across.

I'm afraid I'm the one who opened up this can of worms in the first place, Miguel, but only because stories of Gould's politics had suddenly become a big topic in recent books. Yours is as close as I've come to a definitive statement on Gould's political and religious views, and I shall wonder (and write) no more about it!

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 17 Jan 2009 #permalink


A couple of things.

Firstly, I am not really that interested in Gould's politics, whatever they were, and I wasn't making any claims about them; I only provided a link pertinent to the subject at hand. (Whether some people find said link's content disagreeable is another matter.)

Secondly, if you are going to insinuate that other people spread misinformation about Stephen Jay Gould, you better get your own facts straight first:

He carefully said he learned communism 'on his father's knee' -- not that he was a communist.

Wrong! Gould said that he learned his Marxism, not his communism, 'at his daddy's knee'. Marxism and communism are not synonyms; all communists are Marxists, but not all Marxists are communists.

That difference may mean nothing to you, but for lots of other people it makes plenty of difference. And you can be sure that the difference was very clear to Gould. If he said that he was not a communist, he meant just that, but that really says nothing about whether he considered himself a Marxist or not.

Finally, I happen to fully agree that Gould is not to be intellectually pigeonholed - few sophisticated thinkers are. He was a very complex individual, and to what, if any, degree his Marxist upbringing influenced him need not, and should not, make any difference to our appreciation of him and his life's work.

Thanks Dartian for that SW obit link. There Gould is quoted, "I believe that a factual reality exists and that science, though often in an obtuse and erratic manner, can learn about it."

As a statement of belief, it is an extremely p-weak claim and shows how mildly he distancied himself from the radical relativism popular in his generation of leftists. Perhaps that would explain his sometimes obtuse and erratic writing: he himself wrote that he wished certain of his early books would disappear, while I OTOH liked his early, more adaptationist stuff (I read his essay collections pretty much in 'real time' from the mid-70's onward) but felt he was just getting more and more wishy-washy over the years even as his prose became more turgid.

He certainly resisted pigeonholing (that should be a word, but doesn't look like it) by refusing (if I may switch metaphors) to be pinned down on the content of his supposedly revolutionary interpretations of theory (I haven't read TSoET, correct me if I'm wrong). But look at Lewontin, Rose and others he worked with for most of his life, who were/are far less reticent and ambiguous about their politics and their relativism. I'd definitely recommend reading the 'Science for the People' polemics on Sociobiology to see where these guys were coming from: it might make you appreciate the clarity and consistency you get from Dawkins, if nothing else would.

By John Scanlon FCD (not verified) on 19 Jan 2009 #permalink

gosh, i cant believe you were a scientist that sounds awesome and you being all the jobs that you wanted for me an example that it seems that you succeeded your dreams on being what you wanted.