Goodbye to Stephen Jay Gould

The popular vision of scientists as wise, well read, erudite, Renaissance men is largely a throw back to the nineteenth century, at least as portrayed in the movies. The truth is that most scientists have narrow fields of expertise. Many scientific disciplines are so academically demanding and time consuming, scientists generally have time for little else than the study of their fields. The scientist with a deep knowledge and appreciation of history and literature is rare. Rarer still is a scientist who can speak and write eloquently for the lay audience about topics as disparate as the Flamingo’s Smile, Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, or Crossing Over Where Art and Science Meet. Harvard paleontologist Stephan Jay Gould, who recently succumbed to a rare cancer, was just such a scientist.

Although his primary expertise was in West Indian snails, Gould became an important voice in many national debates. Gould was blessed with the dual gifts of raising the level of the discussion and of reducing the temperature of discourse. The 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man proved to be an important cautionary tail. In the book, Gould warned of the inherent difficulty and aborted efforts in classifying human intelligence with a single numerical measure, the so-called Intelligence Quotient, IQ. There is still considerable controversy about measures of intelligence and the final chapter has not yet been written. In 1994, when Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray, published The Bell Curve suggesting correlations between race and measures of intelligence, Gould was a voice of calm and studied critique. However, Gould’s most important contribution in this debate was to explain how even well-meaning and honest scientists can inadvertently bend interpretation of the data to fit preconceived notions and prejudices. It is not that science cannot be neutral; it is just that scientists must be vigilant to maintain objectivity.

Gould had his flaws. His politics were left of center and worst yet he was a life-long New York Yankees fan. Yet, these could be overlooked in light of his persistent honesty in pursuit of the truth.

Gould has always been something of an agnostic with respect to religion, but has never carried an anti-religious chip on his shoulder like other scientists in the manner of Carl Sagan. Indeed, later in life in his book, Rock of Ages, Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, Gould seemed to reach a permanent accommodation with religion arguing that religion and science address different human needs and realms. Gould asserted the Principle of NOMA, Non-Overlapping Magisteria. Specifically:

“[the] magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the universe is made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.”

Nonetheless, Gould’s field is evolutionary biology and it is here that he has been most vocal. He was one of the first to recognize that biological evolution may not proceed at a slow regular pace, but proceed in fits and spurts as species respond to dramatic changes in the environment in a process known as “punctuated equilibrium.” For example, after an asteroid impact, species may quickly change until a new equilibrium is reached.

Recently, Gould has argued that biological evolution is not directed and evolution does not necessarily imply progress. Evolution is popularly portrayed as a progression from simplicity to complexity, culminating in humans. If you measure evolutionary success by ubiquity, Gould argues, bacteria are the evolutionary success story, not humans. Humans are a recent evolutionary development, whereas bacteria have existed for hundreds of millions of years and will likely outlast humans. There is no inherent reason why humans were an inevitable development. A few environmental changes here or there, fewer or more asteroid impacts, and humans would not exist now.

To some, Gould’s argument diminishes the dignity of humans by portraying them as mere evolutionary accidents. If, indeed, the emergence of an intelligence conscious enough to consider its place in the universe is a rare random event that would seem to make its development even more precious. If, in the enormous universe, conscious intelligence is not inevitable, if four billion years of development on Earth does not guarantee a sentient and self-aware species, it seems like an awful waste of time and space.

If humans are an unlikely accident, then any single human is far rarer. Given the 23 genes donated by each parent, over 8 million genetically different children could result from any set of parents. In one such accident in 1941, Stephen Jay Gould was born and we have all been the better for this rare conjunction of genetic material. We are all diminished by the all too early loss of his voice.

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