Stephen Jay Gould

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Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould (September 10, 1941May 20, 2002) was a New York-born American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science. He was the most influential and widely read writer of popular science of his generation. Born Jewish, he did not formally practice any organized religion, and though he was raised in a socialist home he did not become an active socialist himself. He spoke out against what he saw as cultural oppression in all its forms, especially alleged pseudoscience in the service of racism.

He served as a member of the faculty at Harvard beginning in 1967, after obtaining his PhD at Columbia. Toward the end of his life he served as the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at that university. He helped Niles Eldredge develop the theory of punctuated equilibrium 1972, 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, the theory was an important insight but merely modified neo-Darwinism in a way fully compatible with what had been known before. He was married twice and had two children.


Gould as a public figure

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

Gould was an emphatic advocate of evolutionary theory and wrote prolifically on the subject, trying to communicate his understanding 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 one of his essays). He was also an enthusiastic baseball fan and made frequent references to the sport (including an entire essay) and a very wide range of other topics.

Although a neo-Darwinist, his emphasis was less gradualist and reductionist than most neo-Darwinists, and he opposed sociobiology. He spent much of his time fighting against creationism and what he regarded as other forms of pseudoscience. 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 as a biologist

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 1985 he published an essay called The Hottentot Venus in his book The Flamingo's Smile which discussed the history of Saartje Baartman, a Khoisan woman from South Africa who was exhibited in Paris and London because of her steatopygia. She remained in Europe from 1810 to her death in 1815 and was known as The Hottentot Venus.

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.


Gould was considered by many outsiders to be one of the pre-eminent 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 to have overthrown 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 tried 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 quarreled with Gould at some point. Few evolutionary biologists without a stake in sociobiology or evolutionary psychology were as critical of Gould. 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 personally.

One reason for such strong antipathies 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, giving Protestant creationists ammunition in their battle against evolutionary theory. Gould himself corrected 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 attacking 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. In turn, Gould claims that evolutionary theorists are heavily influenced by their beliefs and interests (Gould 1992).

Gould was also the author of The Mismeasure of Man, a study of the history of psychometrics and intelligence testing as a form of scientific racism; the most recent edition includes an attempted refutation of the arguments of The Bell Curve. The arguments advanced in The Mismeasure of Man have been heavily criticized by some psychometricians, such as Arthur R. Jensen (who is himself heavily criticized in the book), and Gould has been accused of ignoring more recent evidence in favor of significant differences in average intelligence between different races.

Personal life

Gould was diagnosed with an abdominal mesothelioma in July 1982. He later published a column in Natural History titled "The Median Isn't the Message", in which he discusses his discovery that mesothelioma patients had a median lifespan of eight months after diagnosis. He then describes the research he uncovered behind this number, and his relief upon the realization that statistics are not prophecy. After his diagnosis, Gould continued to live for nearly twenty years, until his death from another unrelated type of cancer; a metastatic adenocarcinoma of the lung. The column itself (linked below) has been a source of comfort for many cancer patients.

Gould once appeared as himself on an episode of the animated television program, The Simpsons.

Members of Gould's family are suing two radiologists at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute over what they claim was a botched reading of a radiograph that might have diagnosed Gould's fatal lung cancer early enough in the disease's progression for it to be successfully treated.



  • 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.
  • Template:Journal reference issue
  • 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)
  • Template:Journal reference

External links


es:Stephen Jay Gould fr:Stephen Jay Gould he:סטיבן ג'יי גולד ja:スティーヴン・ジェイ・グールド nl:Stephen Jay Gould pl:Stephen Jay Gould pt:Stephen Jay Gould sv:Stephen Jay Gould


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