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Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941 - May 20, 2002) was a New York-born American paleontologist, an evolutionary biologist and historian of science. He was the most influential and widely-read writer of research-based popular science of his generation. Born Jewish, he did not formally practice any organized religion.

Gould was raised in a socialist home without becoming a socialist himself. He spoke out against cultural oppression in all its forms, especially pseudoscience in the service of racism.

He served as a member of the faculty at Harvard University beginning in 1967. Toward the end of his life he served as the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at that university.

With Niles Eldredge he proposed in 1972 the theory of punctuated equilibrium, wherein evolutionary change occurs relatively rapidly in comparatively brief periods of environmental stress, separated by longer periods of evolutionary stability. According to Gould, this overthrew a key tenet of neo-Darwinism; according to most evolutionary biologists, his theory was an important insight but merely modified neo-Darwinism in a way fully compatible with what had been known before.


Writings on cancer

When Gould was diagnosed with an abdominal mesothelioma in July 1982, a disease with an 8 month median survival time, he wrote a column, "The Median Is Not the Message", for Natural History in which he discussed the what little meaning such statistics held. The column (linked below) has been a source of comfort for many cancer patients. Gould lived for almost twenty years after his diagnosis and eventually died of another type of cancer, a metastatic adenocarcinoma of the lung.

Gould as known to the general public

Gould became widely known through his popular science essays in Natural History magazine and a number of books, including his essays collected in The Panda's Thumb, The Flamingo's Smile etc, and extended studies like Wonderful Life and others.

Gould was an emphatic advocate of evolution and wrote prolifically on the subject, conveying an awareness of contemporary evolutionary theory to a wide audience. A recurring theme in his writings is the history and development of evolutionary (and pre-evolutionary) thinking. His early research involved the study of the fossil record of snails (detailed in another of his essays). He was also a baseball fanatic and made frequent references to the sport (including an entire essay) and a very wide range of other topics.

Although a neo-Darwinist, his inclinations were less gradualist and reductionist than most neo-Darwinists, and he opposed sociobiology. He spent much of his time fighting against pseudoscience and creationism. Gould used the term Non Overlapping Magisteria (NOMa) to describe how, in his view, science and religion could not comment on each other's realm.


Gould was considered by some to be one of the preeminent theoreticians in his field. However, most evolutionary biologists disagreed with the way that Gould presented his views; they feel that Gould gave the public, as well as scientists in other fields, a very distorted picture of evolutionary theory. Few evolutionary biologists question his motives, insight, or his new ideas. However, many hold that his claims about overthrowing standard views of neo-Darwinism were exaggerated to the point of falsehood, and that his claims of replacing adaptation as a key component of natural selection were erroneous.

Biologist John Maynard Smith wrote that Gould "is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory"; another biologist, Ernst Mayr, wrote of Gould, and those who agree with him, that they "quite conspicuously misrepresent the views of evolutionary biology's leading spokesmen."

John Tooby and Leda Cosmides wrote that "although Gould characterizes his critics as "anonymous" and "a tiny coterie," nearly every major evolutionary biologist of our era has weighed in in a vain attempt to correct the tangle of confusions that the higher profile Gould has inundated the intellectual world with. The point is not that Gould is the object of some criticism -- so properly are we all -- it is that his reputation as a credible and balanced authority about evolutionary biology is non-existent among those who are in a professional position to know.".

It is important, however, to recognize that these quotes are all from biologists who had butted heads with Gould at some point or another. Few evolutionary biologists without a stake in sociobiology or evolutionary psychology were anywhere near as critical of Gould as one would be lead to believe from the above quotes. Evolutionary biology, even more than in most fields of science, is filled with strong personalities who often develop personal antipathies which lead them to criticize each other at a personal level.

One reason that such strong antipathies arose was that Gould presented his ideas as a revolutionary new way of understanding evolution that relegated adaptationism to a much less important position. As such, many non-specialists became convinced due to his early writings that neo-Darwinism has been proven to be wrong (which Gould never wanted to imply); worse, his works were sometimes used out of context as a "proof" that scientists no longer understood how organisms evolved, therefore giving Protestant creationists ammunition in their battle against evolution (the Vatican admitted for its part, towards the end of XXth century, that evolutionary theory as described by Darwin was "more than an hypothese"). Gould himself refuted some of these misinterpretations and distortions of his teachings in later works.

Gould had a long-running feud with Richard Dawkins and other evolutionary biologists over sociobiology and its descendant evolutionary psychology, which Gould opposed but Dawkins, Dennett, Pinker and others strongly advocated, and over the importance of gene selection in evolution: Dawkins argued that all evolution is ultimately caused by gene competition, while Gould advocated the importance of higher level competition including, controversially, species selection. Many evolutionary biologists believe that Gould misunderstood Dawkins' claims, and that he ended up refuting a point of view that Dawkins had not held. Strong criticism of Gould can be found particularly in Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker and Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea; Dennett's criticism has tended to be harsher while Dawkins actually praises Gould in evolutionary topics other than those of contention. Gould, Lewontin and other opponents of evolutionary psychology are accused by Pinker (2002 ) of being "radical scientists", whose stance on human nature is influenced by politics rather than science.

Gould, together with Richard Lewontin in an influential 1979 paper, popularized the use of the architectural word "spandrel" in an evolutionary context, using it to mean a feature of an organism that exists as a necessary consequence of other features and is not actually selected for. The relative frequency of spandrels, so defined, versus adaptive features in nature, remains a controversial topic in evolutionary biology.

In the 1980s he published The Hottentot Venus calling for the return of the remains of Saartje Baartman to be returned from Paris to her native South Africa. Baartman's remains were returned to her land of birth, the Gamtoos Valley on 3 May 2002, shortly before Gould's own death.

Also shortly before his death, Gould published a long treatise recapitulating his version of modern evolutionary theory, written primarily for the technical audience of evolutionary biologists: The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2002), ISBN 0-674-00613-5.

Other topics

Gould is the author of The Mismeasure of Man, a study of the history of psychometrics as a form of scientific racism; the most recent edition includes a refutation of the arguments of The Bell Curve.


  • Mayr, E, Toward a new philosophy of biology, 1988 Harvard University Press, pp. 534 - 535
  • Gould, S.J., and Richard Lewontin, "The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossion paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme", Proc R Soc Lond B 205, pp. 581-598, (1979)
  • Gould, S.J. (1987) The limits of adaptation: Is language a spandrel of the human brain? Paper presented to the Cognitive Science Seminar, Centre for Cognitive Science, MIT.
  • Pinker, S., 2002. The Blank Slate , Penguin. Ch. 6: "Political Scientists".
  • Tooby, J. and L. Cosmides , Letter to the Editor of The New York Review of Books on Stephen Jay Gould's Darwinian Fundamentalism (June 12, 1997) and Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism (June 26, 1997)

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about:
Stephen Jay Gould

Last updated: 11-03-2004 05:16:19