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Stephen Jay Gould

paleontologist, writer of popular science books

Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould was born in New York City on September 10, 1941, the son of Leonard Gould, a court stenographer, and Eleanor Gould, an artist and entrepreneur, and raised in Bayside, Queens. He first became interested in dinosaurs at the age of five, when a saw a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton at the Museum of Natural History, and was reading about evolution by the age of eleven. As a youngster, Gould also enjoyed playing stickball in the street, and poker at home, a game that stimulated his interest in the laws of probability. He was also a lifelong music lover, and as a teenager was a member of New York's All-City High School Chorus. But his thoughts continually returned to the dinosaurs in the museum. When he learned that there was a field of study called paleontology, and that an adult could have a career seeking the fossils of extinct animals, he knew what he wanted to be.

Gould attended P.S. 26 and Jamaica High School in New York City, received his Bachelor's degree from Antioch College in 1963, and was awarded a Ph.D. in paleontology from Columbia University in 1967. He joined the faculty of Harvard University after earning his degree, and was made a full professor at that institution in 1973; he remained at Harvard for the rest of his life.

While still at Antioch, Gould served as a student intern on an expedition with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. While docked in Bermuda, he collected a number of fossil land snails. Returning to Antioch with his finds, he discovered that a geology professor had left the university his own large collection of snail specimens he had collected in Bermuda decades earlier. With so many specimens from one location to examine, Gould decided to make them the topic of his senior thesis.

In 1972, Gould and fellow paleontologist Niles Eldredge presented their theory of Punctuated Equilibruym, in which they proposed that the creation of new species through evolutionary change occurs in rather rapid bursts over periods as short as thousands of years, which are then followed by long periods of stability during which organisms undergo little (if any) further change. Gould used the "panda's thumb," a modification of the wrist bone that allows pandas to strip leaves from bamboo shoots, as a perfect proof of the theory. According to he and Eldredge, such an adaptation must have occurred all at once, or it would not have been preserved by natural selection since it had no useful function in a basic stage. And, such a process would account for the lack of transitional forms throughout the fossil record. Gould and Eldredge's theory has been controversial since it was first proposed, as it directly contradicts the more commonly held theory that evolutionary changes take place in stages over millions of years and that "missing links" represent nothing more than a lack of fossil preservation.

Gould also emphasized the role of chance in the history of life, and argued against the tendency to read the evolutionary record as a story of progress toward some identifiable end. Many characteristics of living things, he noted, arose as by-products of natural selection, not as specific adaptations to environmental circumstances. This placed him in conflict with a school of thought known as selectionism, in which almost all traits are regarded as the result of specific environmental pressures. In 1979, he and Dr. Richard Lewontin wrote a paper that explained the theory using an architectural known as a spandrel. Spandrels, the spaces above an arch, exist as a necessary outcome of building with arches. In the same way, they argued, some features of organisms exist simply as the result of how an organism develops or is built. Thus researchers, they warned, should refrain from assuming that every feature exists for some adaptive purpose.

Through his popular books and frequent television appearances, Gould came to be seen as the public face of evolutionary theory. This eventually drew fire from others in the field, who felt that he represented his own views as those of a larger consensus. His colleagues were quick to support him, however, when he used his public profile to defend the teaching of evolution in public schools when it came under attack from religious fundamentalists. In 1981, Gould served as an expert witness at a trial in Little Rock, Arkansas, which challenged a state law ordering the teaching of creation science as well as evolution. Gould argued that the theories of creationism are contradicted by all available scientific evidence and therefore should not be considered scientific. Due to this testimony, creationism was recognized as a religion and not a science.

In addition to his research on land snails and work in support of his evolutionary theories, Gould spent much time trying to make science understandable to untrained readers as well as to scholars. He wrote his first essay for the popular science magazine Natural History in 1974, and went on to produce an essay for 300 consecutive issues. Over the years a total of eight volumes of collected essays were published in book form, including Ever Since Darwin (1977), The Panda's Thumb (1980), Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes (1983), The Flamingo's Smile (1985), and Bully for Brontosaurus (1991). He also authored a great number of pure scholarly works, including Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977), The Mismeasure of Man (1981), Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (1987), Wonderful Life (1989), Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (1999), and The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002).

In 1982, Gould was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, an abdominal cancer often linked to asbestos exposure. He was told the median life expectancy for this diagnosis was eight months, but with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, he recovered completely and lived for another 20 years. He died in New York City on May 20, 2002, of a form of lung cancer completely unrelated to his previous cancer.

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This page was last updated on 12/27/2018.