Stephen Jay Gould

The American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (born 1941) was awarded the Schuchert Award for 1975 by the Paleontological Society for his work in evolutionary theory. He was also the author of several books popularizing current scientific issues.

Stephen Jay Gould was born on September 10, 1941, in New York City, the son of Leonard and Eleanor (Rosenberg) Gould. His father was a court reporter and amateur naturalist. Leonard Gould was a self taught man and a Marxist who took his son to the American Museum of Natural History when the boy was five years old. It was here that the young Gould saw his first dinosaur, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and decided that he was going to devote his life to the study of geologic periods. Gould's his mother was an artist. After a summer at the University of Colorado, Gould received his education at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, graduating with an A.B. in 1963. He then moved on to graduate school in evolutionary biology and paleontology at Columbia University, where he remained for two years. He married Deborah Lee, an artist, on October 3, 1965, then left to take a job in 1966 at Antioch College as professor of geology. The following year he moved on to Harvard to take an assistant professorship, and in that same year he finished his doctoral work, completing his degree program from Columbia. In 1971 he was promoted to associate professor, and in 1973 to full professor of geology. He also became curator of invertebrate paleontology at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. At Harvard he expanded his study of land snails to the West Indies and other parts of the world.

Gould was one of the founders of the punctuated equilibrium school of evolution. The gradualism promoted by Charles Darwin and propounded in the neo-Darwinian synthesis of the 1930s stressed gradual modification of organic structures over long periods of geologic time. Gould argued that evolution proceeds quite rapidly at crucial points, with speciation occurring almost instantaneously. This could be due to quite sudden genetic mutations—his favorite example is the panda's "thumb," a modification of the wrist bone allowing the panda to strip leaves from bamboo shoots. Such a transformation must have occurred all at once, he reasoned, or it would not have been preserved by natural selection, having no useful function in a rudimentary stage. This process would account for the lack of transitional forms throughout the fossil record, a problem Darwin lamented but expected to be resolved by future paleontologists.

In addition to his work as a serious professional paleontologist, Gould spent much time trying to make science accessible to lay readers as well as scholars As a popular writer and amateur historian of science, Gould concentrated upon the cultural "embeddedness" of science, seeing it as a creative human endeavor neither abstracted from society nor objectively pursuing un-interpreted data. Such embeddedness means that the science of a particular period shares the assumptions and prejudices of that period. This is as characteristic of modern science as it was of the science of antiquity—Arthur Jensen, who argued for the genetic inferiority of Blacks, for instance, is probably not more, and possibly much less, objective than Aristotle. Both tend to biologize human nature and intelligence. In his book The Mismeasure of Man, for which he won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Essays and Criticism in 1982, Gould features an explanation of the misuse of intelligence testing to assign value to human beings and to promote cultural prejudice. Although he concedes that human intelligence has a specific location in the brain and that it can be measured by a standard number score, he argues that any efforts to label groups as possessing inherently inferior or superior intelligence based upon these measurements represent a misuse of scientific data and a violation of the scientific process.

In 1981 Gould served as an expert witness at a trial in Little Rock Arkansas that challenged a state law mandating the teaching of creation science in tandem with evolution. Gould's testimony argued that the theories of creationism are belied by all available scientific evidence and therefore do not deserve scientific status. Due to this testimony, Creationism was recognized as a religion and not a science. During that same year, Gould was awarded a prose fellows award from the MacArthur Foundation.

In July of 1982 Gould was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a particularly deadly form of cancer. He recovered from his illness and the treatment, but found that he had to continue his work with a new sense of urgency. He further explored the misuse of standardized testing to label social groups rather than study the effects of social factors on intelligence.

Both of Gould's careers gave evidence of a firm commitment to the liberatory elements in science. He borrowed legitimately upon his earned prestige in biology to argue against one of its central paradigms—biological determinism—and he used his literary skills to popularize the debate, exposing the dangers inherent in all biologizations of human abilities. Gould received critical recognition for his work in both areas. In 1975 he was given the Schuchert Award by the Paleontological Society for his original work in evolutionary theory. For his book The Panda's Thumb, he received two awards: the Notable Book citation from the American Library Association in 1980 and the American Book Award in Science for 1981. Likewise, he received two awards for his other major work, The Mismeasure of Man: the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction in 1981 and the American Book Award nomination in science for 1982. Gould was also a National Science Foundation grantee. He was a member of several scientific societies—American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Society of Naturalists, Paleontological Society, Society for the Study of Evolution, Society of Systematic Zoology, and Sigma Xi. As the author of more than 200 evolutionary essays collect in eight volumes Gould was a publishing phenomenon, with topics ranging from evolution, to his successful battle with cancer, Edgar Allan Poe, shells, and why there are no. 400 hitters in baseball to name a few. Eminently readable, Gould explains complex ideas in simple understandable language that bridges the gap between scholars and lay persons alike. It is this that gives his work durability and credibility.

Gould resided in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife and two children, Jesse and Ethan. He was an accomplished baritone with an undying love for Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, sang in the Boston Cecilia Society. In The Flaming's Smile he wrote "I could not dent the richness in a hundred lifetimes, but I simply must have a look at a few more of those pretty pebbles."

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Further Reading on Stephen Jay Gould

There is little biographical information on Stephen Jay Gould, though Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, vol. 10, provides a brief but intelligent sketch.

All of his popular works are worth reading. These are, chronologically: Even Since Darwin (1977); Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977); The Panda's Thumb (1980); contributor, Ernst Mayr, editor, The Evolutionary Synthesis (1980); A View of Life (1981); The Mismeasure of Man (1981); and Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes (1983).